Mark: a Gospel full of questions (Mark 4; Pentecost 4B)

The short story provided by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 4:35–41) is just seven verses long, but it contains four potent questions.

Jesus and his disciples find themselves in a boat that was sinking into the lake. This upheaval has been caused by a “great windstorm” (4:37). Jesus, however, is asleep. The ensuing dialogue is instructive. During this dialogue, the four questions are posed.

First, the disciples wake Jesus and ask him, somewhat accusingly, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Having been woken up, Jesus commands the storm to be still (4:39), but then he poses two short and incisive questions, in return, to the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40).

The episode ends with yet another question. The disciples, “filled with great awe” at what had happened, mused to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). And that’s where the story ends.

Four questions. Four different requests to consider. That’s how the incident progresses. And through those questions, that’s how we think more about Jesus.

It is questions that are in focus, today, in considering this passage, and indeed, this Gospel—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Indeed, many interpreters argue that Mark’s Gospel can best be characterised by the central question of Jesus: “who do you say that I am?” (8:29). The identity of Jesus is, indeed, central to this Gospel (as it is, also, in the other canonical Gospels).

A passage earlier in the Gospel, Mark 1:21–28, contains another confronting question, which a demon-possessed man asked of Jesus in the early stages of his public ministry: “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24). Now this is a question worth pondering.

In Mark’s Gospel as a whole, there are (according to the NRSV) no less than 118 questions. Since there are 668 verses in total in Mark’s Gospel, this means that the reader (or hearer) of this Gospel is confronted with a question, on average, every 5.66 verses! (Why not try reading a couple of chapters through, looking out especially for the questions?)

Some of these questions are simple conversational enquiries—the kind of questions that we ask one another every day. “should we go there? should I do this? do you have any? can I get you something?” and so on. Some questions are genuine requests for information, and reflect people who really want to learn from Jesus—“what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17), or “which commandment is the first of all?” (12:28), or “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). Jesus, good teacher that he is, responds with information and insight; he takes the opportunity to convert the question into a step forward in the life of discipleship.

Indeed, Jesus himself follows the rabbinic practice of teaching by questioning—he often poses a question which leads the disciples, or the crowd, into further discussion and debate (see, for instance, 3:33; 4:30; 10:3; 10:51). It is interesting to note that this is often how Jesus uses scripture; he does not simply quote it, but he says, “have you not read that…?” or, “do you not known the scripture which says…?”. (Look at 11:17; 12:10; and 12:26.) This style invites conversation and leads to deepened understanding. Scripture is not being used to squash debate, but to open up insights about God. Now that is an insight worth recalling and preserving in our current context!

As Mark tells his story, some people pose questions to Jesus which are quite sharp—and may be designed to create controversy or to challenge the authority of Jesus. For instance: “why does this fellow speak in this way? it is blasphemy! who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7); “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16); “why do your disciples do not fast?” (2:18); “by what authority are you doing these things?” (11:28); “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (12:14). Jesus did not shy away from the challenge to his honour and authority that such questions posed. According to Mark, he was a public debater of the first order.

Indeed, Jesus poses pointed questions of his own for his disciples and the crowds who follow him. Think about the provocations and challenges in these phrases of Jesus: “why are you afraid? have you still no faith?” (4:40); “do you also fail to understand?” (7:18); “do you still not perceive or understand? are your hearts hardened? do you have eyes, and fail to see? do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (8:17–18); “you faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? how much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19). There is certainly no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in this Gospel!!

The teachings of Jesus are demanding: to his disciples, he asks, “for what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (9:36); or, with eyes fixed towards the cross, he prods them further: “are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (10:38). For their part, the disciples are not afraid to confront their leader when required, as we have seen: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Discipleship means entering into the rough-and-tumble of these difficult questions.

Theologically, perhaps the most challenging question in the Gospel is when Jesus quotes the Psalmist: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Is this an expression of the deepest despair of a human being who feels alienated, abandoned, utterly alone? Mark gives a great gift to followers of Jesus in all generations, when he takes us to the heart of the struggle which Jesus faced on the cross. This question shows us the human dimension of Jesus, as he was confronted by the starkness of life and death.

Of course, the identity of Jesus remains the central motif of this Gospel. It is the focus of the very first verse (“Jesus, Messiah, Son of God”, 1:1) and is reiterated in a variety of ways in statements made at crucial moments in the story (see 1:11; 8:29; 9:7; 10:45; 14:62; 15:39). But it also forms a recurring question, asked by many characters throughout the story.

We can’t read Mark’s Gospel without being confronted, again and again, by this question, in whatever guise it comes:  “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24, from a possessed man); “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41, from the disciples); “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:6, from the Gadarene demoniac); “where did this man get all this? what is this wisdom that has been given to him?” (6:2, from his extended family in Nazareth).

Once he is in Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the same question from the High Priest: “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61); and from the Roman governor: “are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2). So, the key question remains for us: “who do people say that I am?” (8:27, asked by Jesus)—a question which he immediately sharpens into “who do you say that I am?” (8:28).

This year, as we meditate on Mark’s Gospel in our personal devotions, as we hear it read in worship, as we prepare sermons to preach from it, or however it is that we encounter it—may the questions it poses strengthen our discipleship, expand our understanding and deepen our faith.

A new creation: the promise articulated by Paul (2 Cor 5; Pentecost 6B)

This Sunday, the epistle reading comes from 2 Corinthians. As indicated last week, this is actually Paul’s fourth letter to the believers in Corinth, even though we label it as 2 Corinthians (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/05/we-do-not-lose-hope-2-corinthians-pentecost-3b-6b/)

The passage offered by the lectionary contains one of Paul’s best-loved and well-known sayings: “so whoever is in Christ, is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). In this blog, I want to set that verse in its context within the flow of the letter.

The first section of 2 Corinthians (1:1–7:16) is really a letter in its own right. In this letter, Paul offers the believers in Corinth consolation through a message of hope. Instead of a thanksgiving section, this letter opens with a traditional Jewish-style blessing, in which God is praised for being “the God of all consolation” (1:3). In the five verses of this blessing, the terms “consolation” or “console” appear ten times, whilst “suffering” and “affliction” combined appear seven times.

The same terms cluster towards the end of this section of 2 Corinthians: in 7:2–16, we find “consolation” or “console” seven times (including twice in 7:13), “affliction” twice, and the term “grief” is also used seven times. The orientation of the letter is very clear; Paul’s hope for the Corinthians is that they might attain consolation (1:3–7; 7:2–4).

At the start of the letter, then, Paul has provided a strong identification between himself and the Corinthians; rather than calling the Corinthians to imitate him (as in 1 Corinthians), in this letter Paul wishes to empathise with them in order to strengthen their sense of identity with him. He affirms that “the one who raised the Lord Jesus…will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake” (4:14–15) and concludes, “you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together” (7:3). 

The central similarity between his situation and that of the Corinthians is that they suffer, like he suffers (1:6). And this suffering, in turn, he relates to the passion of Christ (1:5; 4:10–12). So the theological insights which Paul offers in this section of the letter emerge out of the tension, struggle, and difficulty of his own situation, as well as his awareness of the pain being experienced by the Corinthians. (This has always been the way that good theology is developed—thrashing out the issues in honest, robust debate ensures that the heart of God is unveiled in the process.)

A tense interpersonal encounter is then noted, which Paul characterises as a “painful visit” (2:1) which appears to lie behind this letter. He writes, not to intensify this pain (2:3–4), but to test the obedience of the Corinthians (2:9). However, he advances his argument always with reference to his own actions in relation to the Corinthians.

Fundamental to his argument throughout this section of the letter is Paul’s attempt to validate his activity as a “minister of a new covenant” (3:6). He describes his activity as being a “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18), which is characterised by numerous afflictions and sufferings (4:7–10; 6:4–10) in order to bring consolation and hope to others. This is the process by which the signs of the “new creation” (5:17) emerge.

Paul also argues that his own life demonstrates how God has been able to work through suffering to bring hope (4:7–12). The afflictions and persecutions which Paul has experienced manifest the death of Jesus in his (Paul’s) own body, “so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (4:11). What Paul writes both emerges out of his personal experience, and is consistent with his developed self-understanding as an apostle, called by God, commissioned to serve.

In the course of presenting his self-validation (“are we beginning to commend ourselves again?”, 3:1), Paul launches into a somewhat tortured criticism of his Jewish heritage (3:1–4:15). Can it be that the judaising opponents of chapters 10–13 are already somewhat active in Corinth? As he does in Gal 3:1–5:1, when he wishes to engage seriously with a so-called judaising point of view, he undertakes his own interpretation of Hebrew scripture texts in order to support his more inclusive viewpoint.

Referring to the biblical account of Exodus 34, Paul infers that the letters written on “tablets of stone” (the Law) lead to a “ministry of death” (3:7). He depicts Moses as having undertaken a “ministry of condemnation” (3:9) and declares that he was veiled in order to keep God’s glory from the people of Israel (3:13). Of that people, he says “their minds were hardened” (3:14), “to this very day…that same veil lies over their minds” (3:15), and “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (4:3).

This is difficult language; it is strikingly different from the way that he speaks of his hopes and prayers for Israel in Rom 9:1–11:32, a passage which culminates with the assertion that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) and the declaration that God will be “merciful to all” (Rom 11:32). Had he perhaps been more afflicted in his sufferings than he wanted to admit?

The vehemence of his language in 2 Cor 3–4 sits oddly in his overarching purpose, to bring consolation and hope to the Corinthians. The subtle interplay of suffering and hope which he poses in much of this letter appear to have deserted him at this point; the rhetorical structure of this part of the argument juxtaposition of two apparently opposed entities. So tablets of stone are contrasted with tablets of human hearts; while the letter kills, the Spirit gives life. Moses’ ministry of death and condemnation is contrasted with the ministry of the Spirit and of justification; the veil which lies over the minds of his people can now be removed.

Most strikingly, Paul juxtaposes these two acts: “whenever Moses is read” there is a veiling of understanding; “when one turns to the Lord” (3:15), there is an unveiling. The central problem in this argument is that Paul, a Jew, is contrasting Moses with the Lord, since the widespread Jewish understanding would have been that the Lord (that is, Yahweh) would be present and revealed when the Law of Moses was read. The polemical intention is thus clear.

We can see this rhetorical structure in 1 Cor 1–2 and 1 Cor 15; it was a technique familiar to Paul from his Pharisaic training. Here, the rhetorical structure of contrasting entities appears to be made for the ultimate purpose of drawing a clear distinction between the freedom which he asserts comes through the Spirit (3:17), and the condemnation and death which is a result of the Law of Moses. Can it be that Paul’s rhetorical purpose has led him far from his initial Pharisaic understanding of scripture? Certainly, this scriptural interpretation shows no nuances in the manner that Paul elsewhere conveys.

Within a few verses, he has recaptured his fundamental theological intention, which is to relate present afflictions to the promise of resurrection hope (4:7–12; see also 4:17–18; 5:4; 5:14–15). This hope is most clearly seen in “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6), and is to be lived out by the followers of Jesus through their offering of the ministry of reconciliation (5:16–21). It is this promise, this hope, which is fully manifest in “the new creation” in which “the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (5:17).

Although Paul concludes his argument in this letter with an even longer list of his tribulations as a “servant of God” (6:4–10), some additional emotive pleas to the Corinthians (6:11–13; 7:2–4) and a recapitulation of the basic theme of consolation (7:5–16), he finally closes this letter on a note of joy (7:13) and confidence: “I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you” (7:16). In Corinth, he believes, there are those who have become that “new creation” in Christ.

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The above blog was adapted from my contribution to Witness the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, a Festschrift in honour of Dean Drayton (edited by Christopher C. Walker; Mediacom, SA, 2014), pages 112-122).

“We do not lose hope” (2 Corinthians; Pentecost 3B—6B)

At the moment, the lectionary is offering us selections from the second of two letters included in the New Testament, written from Paul to the believers in Corinth. This week, we have an excerpt that affirms, “we do not lose hope” (2 Cor 4:16), and encourages the Corinthians, “we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor 5:1). Next week, we encounter the affirmation, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).

These words are positive and affirming. Paul is in a good frame of mind about the Corinthians. He offers them phrases which build them up in faith, consistent with his words in his first letter to these believers about what should be done as a community (1 Cor 14:4, 12, 26; and see also Rom 15:2; 1 Thess 5:11).

Paul’s first letter indicates that he concentrated his mission in Corinth on Gentiles, non-Jews (1 Cor 12:2; 16:15–18), and it would seem that he had significant success there (see also Acts 18:1–18). He stayed in Corinth for some time, earning his own living and working with other people in the early Christian movement, such as Peter, Apollos, and the tentmakers, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, two of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius in a general expulsion a few years earlier.

Paul was successful in establishing a new Christian community in Corinth. This undoubtedly caused tension with the local synagogue, as Paul was preaching that Jesus was the Messiah, whom Jews were expecting to come (Acts 18:4). This success may have led to his being dragged before Gallio, the Roman proconsul, by the local Jews, charged with heresy.

Gallio dismissed the charge as a matter of concern to the Jews alone; it was not a matter for the Roman authorities to be involved with (Acts 18:12–17). Gallio was proconsul in Corinth in the years 50–51, so this provides the date for Paul’s visit there. Soon afterwards, Paul left Corinth, accompanied by Aquila and Pricilla, bound for Antioch, but on the way they stopped over in Ephesus (Acts 18:18–21).

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After Paul left Corinth, he remained in contact with the community of believers there, as the two letters of Paul to the Corinthians attest. He indicates that he wrote the first one whilst in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8). Yet in that letter, Paul refers to his “previous letter” to Corinth (1 Cor 5:9); so it seems that 1 Corinthians was probably the second of his letters to Corinth, and what we know as 2 Corinthians might actually be 3 Corinthians!

But then, our letter of 2 Corinthians refers to a second visit which Paul made to Corinth—the “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1)—followed by another letter from Paul to the Corinthians—the “tearful letter” (2 Cor 2:4; 7:8). So what we know as 2 Corinthians was probably the fourth letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians!

Indeed, the integrity of 2 Corinthians as we know it has been questioned, and scholarly scrutiny of the form and contents of the letter even suggests that it may be a composite of two, three, or even four letters which were originally separate communications. So Paul’s fourth letter to Corinth, which we call 2 Corinthians, is comprised of a number of main sections, each of which has its own distinctive focus.

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In the first section of the letter (1:1–7:16), Paul writes to offer consolation and hope to his converts in Corinth. It is clear that members of the community have undergone some difficult times; Paul empathises with them, drawing on his own experiences, as a way of offering a message of hope to the believers in Corinth. The excerpts we heard in worship last Sunday (Pentecost 3), and will hear this Sunday (Pentecost 4), come from this part of the letter—warm, encouraging, affirming.

This first section contains a brief excursus (6:14–7:1), which is of a markedly different character—leading many scholars to the conclusion that Paul himself did not write these verses. (How they came to be included in the final letter, then, poses something of a mystery requiring more detailed attention than we can give it here.)

In a second main section (8:1–9:15), Paul addresses a very practical matter—the collection of money which he was making amongst the churches of Achaia and Macedonia, which he was planning to take to Jerusalem for the benefit of the believers there who had been experiencing difficulties. In this section, Paul focuses on the need for unity among the churches, both Gentile and Jewish, which lies at the heart of this enterprise. The lectionary selects one paragraph from this section for Pentecost 5.

In the third main section (10:1–13:13), Paul’s tone is markedly apologetic, as he writes in severe tones to defend himself in the face of criticisms which have been levelled against him in Corinth. Here, the issue is how to discern true and false teachers amongst the leadership active within the churches. That’s the section that provides one of the readings for Pentecost 6, which ends with Paul’s famous declaration, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

A page from Papyrus 46 (P46) with the text of 1 Cor 12:10–18

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As was the case in a number of churches where Paul was active, a group of traditional Jewish believers had become active and were persuading the Corinthians to adopt beliefs and practices different from those advocated by Paul. The task which Paul undertakes in these chapters is to validate his own authority over and against this other group, and encourage the Corinthians to remain faithful to the good news which he first brought to them.

Paul’s theology of the cross, clearly articulated in 1 Cor 1–4, provides the basis for the approach that he takes in 2 Cor 10–13. He emphasises his frailty (10:10) and reiterates the catalogue of sufferings that he has experienced (11:23–29; 12:10; cf. 6:4–10) but argues that this is the sign of his true calling as an apostle, for “power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).

So Paul asserts that his authority comes not from self-validation, but because he bears the Lord’s commendation (10:18), and his sufferings demonstrate that “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10), in accordance with the pattern established in the crucifixion of Jesus himself (13:3–4).

The beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one

This week, after the long haul of Lent–Easter–Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary resumes a weekly offering from the earliest, and shortest, account of the life of Jesus. We are offered Mark 3:20–35 as the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday.

We know this work as the Gospel according to Mark. The manuscript this text contains an opening verse which may well have served as the title for the work: the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one (Mark 1:1).

As we resume weekly excerpts from this Gospel, it is good to remember how this work came into being.

Jesus did not write an account of his life. In fact, we know of nothing enduring that he wrote. In the New Testament, we have four accounts which relate how Jesus called followers to travelled with him around Galilee, and then to Jerusalem, where they witnessed his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial of their leader.

Subsequently, they attested that he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them to commission them for their ongoing task. We have four of these accounts. They each have their own distinctive features.

The story of Jesus is told, first, in the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one, the shortest account. We know this, because of Church tradition, as the gospel according to Mark. This work, it is clear, forms the primary source for two subsequent accounts of Jesus: the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one (the gospel according to Matthew) and an orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us (the gospel according to Luke).

In this earliest written account of Jesus, we find stories told by Jesus, and stories told about Jesus, which had already been circulating in oral form for some decades. It is likely that some of these stories had already come together in short collections.

The distinctive contribution of this collated story was twofold. First, it places side-by-side a number of different traditions, or collections of stories, about Jesus. Second, these stories are arranged in a dramatic way, beginning with the stories about Jesus in his native area of Galilee, and culminating in the account of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem.

This work thus provides a much fuller ‘story of Jesus’ than any of the individual oral stories about him. Isolated incidents are placed within a larger context. Individual sayings and deeds of Jesus are grouped together with similar sayings or deeds. Episodes are linked together to form a coherent account of who Jesus was and what it meant to follow his way.

There are two main parts this account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and then telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16).

But this account of Jesus is more than just a compilation of existing stories. It is infused with vigour and intensity. The story moves from one incident to the next; yet the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. A sense of drama runs through the Gospel. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie script!

The conflict between Jesus and the authorities is hinted at in the claim that Jesus speaks blasphemy and then is revealed in full in the plot that is initiated; the shadow of destruction hangs over Jesus from the beginnings of his activity. The tension mounts, from the early days in Galilee, towards the events that will take place in Jerusalem. The people of his own town took offense at what he was preaching and even his closest disciples seemed unable to grasp what he was teaching them (see 8:21; 9:33; 10:35–40).

The popularity of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem was fleeting, even though he acquitted himself so well in arguments with the leaders in Jerusalem (11:27–12:40). His actions in the Temple forecourt were controversial and it is clear that this incident raised opposition to him to a high level. The final teachings he gave his disciples begin with a prediction of the destruction of the Temple before recounting the apocalyptic woes that are in store (13:3–37).

The plot hatched by the authorities led them to stir up the crowd to call for his death. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers, all knowledge of him was denied by another, and all abandoned him at his point of need. The tragic climax of Jesus’ death is a scene of utter abandonment: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Only some—a group of faithful women—watched from afar before they came to provide an honourable burial for the man who was condemned and dishonoured—but precisely there, a surprise awaits them.

Yet the account found in the beginning of the good news is still more than a dramatic account of a tragic death; for this work appears to be a kind of political manifesto, advocating the way of Jesus in a situation of deep tension and widespread conflict. The whole Gospel conveys the significance of Jesus and his message about the kingdom: “the time is near!” (1:15).

This story reveals the key fact that faithful discipleship will mean enduring suffering, as Jesus did. He writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up the cross (8:34). These were potent words in the Roman Empire; death by crucifixion was the fate in store for criminals, especially those engaged in any political activities which the Roman authorities perceived to be a threat to the peace of the Empire.

Jesus’ injunction to “take up your cross” was advice which was loaded with danger. Was he advocating resistance against an oppressive Roman rule? The story which is told in this Gospel addresses issues which were pressing on the lives of those who told it, read it, and heard it.

Almost all of this work, the beginning of the good news, appears in basically the same order, in the two following accounts—the orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us and the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one. (We know these works as the Gospel according to Luke, and the Gospel according to Matthew.)

Both of these accounts expand the story, incorporating additional material—some is found in both accounts, other stories are recounted in one or the other of the orderly account and the book of origins. So the contribution made by the beginning of the good news is significant, and enduring.

The missional opportunity of Trinity Sunday

The Sunday after Pentecost Sunday is identified as Trinity Sunday. It is the only festive Sunday in the church calendar which is based on a theological doctrine, rather than a biblical narrative.

Our church year is structured around happenings—events from the stories recorded in the Bible, events like the day of Pentecost (last Sunday), the resurrection of Jesus (Easter Sunday), the death of Jesus (Good Friday), the temptation of Jesus (first Sunday in Lent), the baptism of Jesus, and the birth of Jesus (Christmas).

Christmas and Easter, and the seasons of preparation leading up to them, are grounded in biblical stories. Epiphany, after Christmas, and and the long line of Sundays after Pentecost, offer a focus on a string of biblical narratives, drawn from the Gospels, the Letters, and Hebrew Scripture books.

Trinity Sunday is resolutely doctrinal, dogmatic, oriented towards the construct of a belief system rather than the story of a flowing narrative. It stands out as remarkably different from the overall flow of the seasons of the church year.

Certainly, the Trinity is an organising principle for our beliefs, and for how we talk about God–but it is not the only one.

There are various passages in scripture, for instance, where God is described in ways that are outside the categories of the “doctrine of the Trinity”. Scripture is a wonderfully diverse collection of documents, with a wonderfully wide range of images, titles, and ideas describing God. A “triune God” is one, but by no means the only, deduction to be drawn from scripture.

God is our creator, our helper, the one who redeems, the one who nurtures. God is imaged as a warrior, and as a nursing mother; as a caring shepherd, and a tower of strength. God is judge and God is victim, the Passover lamb and the advocate sent by the Son. There are many names of God, many images of God, in scripture. Father, Son, and Spirit, is just one way that God is envisaged.

So, whilst Trinity Sunday should be celebrated, each year, as an invitation to ponder the mysteries of the nature of God, there is more to be said. Rather than this Sunday being an invitation to step back into a past era and hold fast to rigid philosophical categories of another era, can we see the Trinity as an excellent example of the church’s contextual theology and missional engagement with the wider community?

In the fourth to sixth centuries of the Common Era, what better way to articulate the Gospel in that time, than to locate it within the intellectual context of the late Roman Empire, when Greek philosophical thinking was in a resurgence and neoPlatonic concepts provided the dominant framework for rigorous thinking?

Three persons, consubstantial, of the same nature, co-eternal, co-inheriting, all makes sense in terms of the philosophical context of the day. That was how they thought and wrote, so analysing and describing God in terms of ‘persons’, ‘substance’ and ‘essence’, was utilising the tools of the time.

Viewed contextually, then, in their own time within history, the affirmations about God as “triune” make good sense. I value the concept of the Trinity as a fine example of good, honest, contextual theology.

Trinity Sunday provides us with a new missional opportunity for our own context. The missional task that we face as we reflect on the Trinity, is to follow the example provided by the contextualised development of of doctrine by the church fathers.

So, this Trinity Sunday, I would hope we might be inspired to find ways, in the contemporary context, where we can talk about God and bear witness to our faith, using concepts that are understandable and ideas that are enlivening. (That’s certainly what I will be speaking about on Sunday.)

If we want to talk about the divine delight in deep relationships and God’s desire to relate fully to our world, then concepts of incarnation, God coming “down” to earth from his heavenly home far away, hypostatic equality, co-inherence and perichoresis, just won’t cut through in the contemporary era.

We need to move beyond this way of understanding God, from so many centuries ago, and begin to create our own language and our own ideas for bearing witness to what we know in God. All of those terms made sense, way back in the past. They don’t speak in the same way to people today. Merely repeating ancient speculation and debate will not suffice.

The Gospel is surely that God’s generous self-outpouring is evident in a range of actions which foster justice and in a variety of deeds which demonstrate compassion; in loving relationships and in living the values of the kingdom. We need to express this in a diversity of ways.

For that, we can be thankful, and affirm, that this is the God in whom we place our trust.

Why read, study, or preach from the Old Testament?

Over the last few months, Elizabeth and I have, once again, been teaching a course on “Exploring the Old Testament”. We have connected online each week with two cohorts of keen, active lay leaders in the church, drawn from across our own region in the ACT and southern NSW, as well as the southwestern region and some urban locations of NSW.

It has been a stimulating time. We have spent fourteen sessions with each group, investigating the various books of the Hebrew Scriptures, following the key themes, asking questions about the meaning of various passages, and pondering how we might preach on texts from these books within the worship of the Christian church.

The Old Testament has quite a chequered history in the church. In the early centuries of the church, there was a strong movement that advocated having nothing at all to do with any of the books in the Old Testament. This view was particularly prosecuted by Marcion of Sinope (a seaport on the southern coast of the Black Sea, northern Turkey), a teacher in the second century.

(For an introduction to the ideas and importance of Marcion, see https://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/marcion-forgotten-father-inventor-new-testament/)

Marcion even prepared a version of the New Testament in which he excised all the Jewish references. He removed three of the Gospels, retained a heavily-edited version of Luke, and created a compilation of Paul’s letters, focussing on the places where he attacked those in the early churches who advocated for the Jewish Law (the so-called “Judaisers”). Not only did his Bible have no Old Testament, but also no Jewish elements in the New Testament!

In more recent times, the Old Testament has been criticised as being irrelevant, containing a host of laws that come from an ancient and very different society, bearing no relevance to contemporary life. The God of the Old Testament is often criticised as being a thoroughly vengeful creature, who is quite different from the loving God we encounter in the New Testament, and thus not worthy to be part of Christian faith. That claim, I believe, is most unfair; there are expressions of God’s love in both testaments, just as there is violence and retribution portrayed in each testament.

Another criticism often voiced is that all of the cultic (worship) provisions set out in the Old Testament are totally irrelevant to worship in the Christian church; only the moral prescriptions (the Ten Commandments and other select laws) remain relevant. Inevitably, this involves a large amount of cherry-picking, to select those passages that reinforce an already-existing point of view. It’s not really a very fair way to operate.

Underlying these criticisms is, undoubtedly, a supercessionist attitude towards Jews and the sacred texts of Judaism. There are signs of this attitude developing throughout the Middle Ages, and it certainly was fostered by key figures in the Reformation. Supercessionism came to its fullest flowering in the blatant antisemitism found most starkly in the brutal policies implemented by the Nazi regime in the middle of the 20th century, leading to the genocide of 6 million Jews in the tragedy of the Holocaust (the Shoah).

Supercessionism (a form of replacement theology) claims that Christianity has replaced Judaism; that Jesus Christ has abolished the Law; that the new covenant of Jesus replaces the old covenant of Moses; and that the chosen people of God are no longer the Jews, but Christians. It is a view that is no longer accepted within Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism and all mainstream Protestant denominations—although many of the “people in the pew” still articulate points of view that are fuelled by supercessionist ideas.

My own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, made a clear denunciation of antisemitism and supercessionism in a Statement on Jews and Judaism, adopted by the National Assembly in 2009, which can be read at https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/2658-jews-and-judaism. (To explore a longer theological analysis of supercessionism, see https://www.thescribesportion.com/dangerous-heresy-replacement-theology/)

Yet, alongside this negative and destructive attitude within the church, there are a number of striking facts to observe. First, the 39 books of the Old Testament remain an integral part of the sacred scriptures of the church. They are still in our Bibles! (Indeed, there are additional books contained with the Roman Catholic Old Testament.)

Second, the Psalms, which are part of the Old Testament, hold a central and beloved place within within the communal worship life and the personal devotional life of Christians all around the world. Any thought of banishing these poems from our spiritual life would be anathema to millions upon millions of faithful people!

Third, the Revised Common Lectionary which is widely used amongst many denominations of the Christian church (Roman Catholic, Anglican, and many Protestant churches) explicitly provides two readings from the Old Testament alongside two readings from the New Testament, for use in communal worship. There is a Psalm for each Sunday, and another reading drawn from other parts of the Old Testament each Sunday. These texts are intended to nourish the religious life of the faithful as equally and as constructively as the Gospels and Epistles.

Fourth, when we read and reflect on the New Testament, it should be clear that every one of those 27 books is, in some way, dependent on the Old Testament. Jesus quotes many passages from Hebrew Scripture; his distillation of “the two greatest commandments” draws directly from scripture, as he urges his followers to “love God” (Deut 6:4–5) and to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18).

Paul infuses most of his letters with scriptural citations; his theological legacy, set out in his letter to the Romans, is based on a single scripture text (Hab 2:4b, quoted at Rom 1:16-17), and a plethora of scripture texts are cited during the argument advanced in Rom 9–11, for instance. We can’t pretend to understand the New Testament if we ignore and sideline the Old Testament.

Finally, we need to note that there are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. Take away any one of these key themes, and the New Testament would be impoverished, and our Christian faith would be less enriched. We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church!

I’ll offer further posts that provide more detailed consideration of these key themes. Suffice it to say, at the moment, that if we eliminate all concern for the Old Testament, we will have an impoverished understanding of the New Testament, a flawed perception of spiritual realities, and an inadequate expression of faithful discipleship as a follower of Jesus. That’s a big claim; I hope to substantiate it in the series of posts that follow.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/18/easter-in-christian-tradition-and-its-relation-to-jewish-tradition/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/21/textual-interplay-stories-of-jesus-in-mark-1-and-the-prophets-of-israel/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/16/a-final-parable-from-the-book-of-origins-on-sheep-and-goats-on-judgement-and-righteous-justice-matt-25/

For subsequent posts, see

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/25/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-1-people-covenant-law/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/26/reading-old-and-new-testaments-together-2-worship-and-justice/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/reading-the-old-testament-3-redemption-and-hope/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/27/how-should-we-read-the-old-testament-considering-genres/

What can love hope for? A review.

Bill Loader is widely-known, much-consulted, and greatly loved across the Uniting Church. He has had a fine career as a leading biblical scholar, teaching for decades at Murdoch University and publishing prolifically with prestigious international publishers.

This academic career has sat alongside an active involvement in the Uniting Church, preaching in local Congregations, teaching regular sessions with lay leaders, and forming ministers and deacons for their ministries. His website with its scholarly yet accessible discussions of lectionary texts (http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/home.html) attracts regular readership, not only from Uniting Church people, but from preachers right around the world

Out of this wealth of experience comes this slim but rich offering: ten succinct chapters (most only ten to twelve pages long) on topics of key theological import: the significance of Jesus, the good news for the poor, how to understand the cross, the place of other faiths, God’s wrath and God’s justice, the place of the Law, miracles and faith, God and love–and, of course, marriage and sexuality. All in 110 pages.

Each chapter ends with a focused “question for reflection”, to encourage ongoing consideration of the topic at hand. The book itself ends with a bonus afterword, setting out Bill’s personal journey “from fundamentalism to fundamentals”. The afterword concludes, “we all walk with some grit in our shoes in religious and cultural contexts where its awareness is possible even if, by and large, its removal is not” (p.130).

Loader seeks to work with the irritants provided by this “grit” in a constructive and hope-filled way, to indicate how, in the midst of contentious discussions, people of faith are able to discern “what brings life and health”. In Chapter 5, whose title also provides the title of the book, he concludes that we ought “to be a just and caring society that is inclusive and to care for the world and its future inhabitants” (p.46).

It’s no surprise that the enduringly contentious issue of marriage and sexuality is addressed (in chapter 10, the longest chapter). Bill Loader has made many contributions to the long-running discussions of these matters–leading workshops and producing resources pitched at a popular level, undergirded especially by the academic research and writing undertaken during his five years as a professorial fellow with Australian Research Council funding.

This chapter makes clear the two key pillars of his well-considered views: one, that Paul reflects the common first century belief that “all people are heterosexual”, so anyone identifying as homosexual is “in an unnatural state of being as a result of sin” (p.111); and two, that in some circumstances “it is not appropriate, indeed it is irresponsible, to apply what Paul says” to contemporary situations (also p.111).

Thus, Loader affirms that “the Bible does not tell it all on these matters any more than it did on matters of women and divorce” (p.112). Such honesty about matters hermeneutical is to be commended. As is the case in each chapter, the reader is invited to give serious personal consideration to how biblical passages are to be brought into engagement with contemporary situations and considerations.

But the book is not just about marriage and sexuality. There is much more that is explored in its pages.

Chapter 5 (whose title, as we have noted, provides the title for the whole book) begins with a further observation about the process of interpretation: “There is a 2,000-year gap between believers in today’s twenty-first-century world and those of the first century”, such that “to engage the writings of the New Testament is to engage in a cross-cultural encounter with all the respect and opportunity for learning and enrichment which that entails” (p.35).

Starting with the fact that New Testament texts expect a return of Jesus within the lifetime of those then alive, the chapter canvasses the eschatological vision of the kingdom, various parables of Jesus, the function of the risen Jesus, and the resurrection body, leading to the conclusion that we, today, are to “reconfigure our approach to hope, retaining the central [first century] substance, but not their notions of timing and manner of its achievement” (p.45).

In this way, Loader models the task of the interpreter, be they preacher, Bible study leader, scholar, or individual disciple. Immersion into the culture, customs, languages, perspectives of the ancient texts is as important as thoughtful, reflective consideration of what is heard and seen in the text, in the light of contemporary understandings, insights, and perspectives. (Somewhat like what paragraphs 5 and 11 of the UCA Basis of Union affirms.)

There is much more to be said about this delightful book; but only one comment needs to be made here. This is a book worth buying, reading, studying (alone or with others), and engaging with wholeheartedly.

An Affirmation for Our Times

In recent weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary has offered passages from Acts which narrate the expansion of the early movement of followers of Jesus. The author of Acts provides a clear schematic account of how the good news spread out from the centre of the Jewish nation, Jerusalem, to the edges of Samaria and beyond (starting with a court official from Ethiopia), and into the widespread Gentile world (starting with a Roman soldier based in Caesarea).

In a couple of weeks, we will read the story of Pentecost, with Mews gathered in Jerusalem from many of the surrounding regions and nations. Encountering God in a dramatic new way, they return to their homes with good news bubbling over in joyful ways.

The Iona Community has a fine Affirmation which fits well within the context of these readings, reflecting God’s openness to the outsider, welcoming the diversity of humanity, affirming grace at work . Here it is:

Affirming the Global Church

We believe in God,

who befriended a wandering people,

calling them from slavery into freedom,

yet who in Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba,

Cyrus, Darius and many others,

called outsiders to be agents of God’s purpose.

We believe in Jesus,

who was revered by Persian sages,

sought and found asylum in Egypt,

preached the love of God to Syrians,

attracted Greeks to his cause,

found his first evangelist in a Samaritan,

saw incomparable faith in a Roman,

had his cross shouldered by a Libyan,

and ascended to his native land

that he might be present in all places.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

who at Pentecost proved

that heaven has no mother tongue;

who, in the baptism of an Ethiopian,

denied racism a foothold in faith;

and who, in the ancient and modern worlds,

founded churches in different cultures.

We believe that God is supremely known in Jesus,

yet we affirm that the love of God is beyond our understanding.

Therefore we celebrate

that God’s ways are not our ways,

that God knows whom God chooses,

and reserves the right to surpass all human expectation.

From A Wee Worship Book, 2015, from Wild Goose Publications (page 105)

On the Acts passages, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/04/27/edging-away-from-the-centre-easter-5-acts-8/

What happened after Philip met the Ethiopian? (Acts 8; Easter 5B)

Even to the Gentiles! (Acts 10; Easter 6B)

On creeds, see also https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/30/affirming-the-teachings-of-jesus/

Interpreting the creeds “in a later age”