The Paraclete as a “replacement Jesus” and the Doctrine of the Trinity (John 16; Trinity Sunday, Year C)

This coming Sunday is designated as Trinity Sunday. It’s an unusual occurrence, for two reasons. First, it’s the only time in the Christian calendar that a Sunday is named for a doctrine, rather than for a biblical story. And second, it is unusual in that it presents problems for the shapers of the lectionary, since (in my view) the Doctrine of the Trinity is not actually proclaimed in the biblical texts.

Yes, there are passages that canvass some aspects of the Doctrine—how the Son relates to the Father, what is the essential character of God, how the Spirit was experienced and understood, and how Son and Spirit might relate. But there is no biblical passage which articulates the full scope of the Doctrine of the Trinity: God is three, God is one, Father, Son, and Spirit, consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run (as it were).

That’s quite understandable, since the full expression of this Doctrine took a number of centuries to develop, after the period in which the texts of the New Testament were written. If the latest NT text comes from the end of the first century, the earliest form of the Doctrine of the Trinity is found in the Apostles’ Creed, adopted by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, and a more fulsome and complex form is to be found in the Nicene Creed, adopted by the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE.

So we should not expect the lectionary to provide any texts which set out the Doctrine of the Trinity. What we do find, however, is that certain texts are offered, in which some, or all, of the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—are in view.

In fact, two texts name all three persons in a quasi-formulaic way: the benediction at the close of 2 Corinthians 13, and final words of Jesus in Matthew 28. Indeed, these two passages are set for Trinity Sunday in the first of the three years of the lectionary, Year A. Associated with these two passages is a text that expounds something of the nature of one of these persons, God the Creator, in Genesis 1.

In Year B, two texts are offered which focus somewhat on the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit: Romans 8, where Paul wrestles with the role of the Sprit, and John 3, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, which includes reference to the Spirit. The Hebrew Scripture offering in Year C draws from the wonderful depiction of Wisdom in Proverbs 8; while the epistle in Year C, from Romans 5, appears to be included because it manages to refer to each of the three person of the Trinity within the space of five verses.

The Gospel offered in Year C (the current year) is just a short section (John 16:12–15) from the last chapter in the lengthy “farewell discourses” of Jesus (chs. 14–16), which John reports as being given to the disciples at the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers (from 13:1 onwards). It contains the fourth of four brief references in these “farewell discourses” to the Spirit, identified as “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), the parakletos (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) and “the Holy Spirit” (14:26).

These passages are considered to provide some biblical material for the Doctrine of the Trinity relating specifically to the third person, the Holy Spirit. In particular, I am interested in how the Spirit is defined in relation to the other two persons of the Trinity.

There are three ways in which the Spirit is defined in relation to Jesus. First, the Spirit is identified as a parakletos—a word with multiple translation options. It could mean one who advocates for, one who provides counsel, one who offers help, or one who gives comfort.

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

Whatever option we take in translating this word, it is striking that Jesus says that the main role of the Spirit (at least as we encounter the explanation in this gospel) is to be “another parakletos” (14:16). The implication is that Jesus himself has been a parakletos—an implication that is confirmed when we read the statement in 1 John, that “we have a parakletos with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2).

This first statement about the Spirit thus places the Spirit in the position that Jesus had whilst living in human form amongst the people of Israel. The Spirit is the present manifestation of the role that Jesus of Nazareth had all those centuries ago. The Spirit is, in effect, a “replacement Jesus”.

Indeed, this is strengthened by the affirmation that this figure will “abide with you … and be in you”, precisely the same terminology used of Jesus in the earlier parable of the vine (“abide in me and I abide in you”, 15:4) and in the final prayer that Jesus prays before his arrest (“may [they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”, 17:22–23]). The reality of the presence of the Spirit is the same as the reality of the presence of Jesus when he was with the disciples.

This idea is confirmed by the second statement about the parakletos, who is the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), the one “whom I will send to you from the Father” (15:26). Indeed, Jesus makes it clear that “if I do not go away, the parakletos will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). This seems to suggest that the Spirit is unable to take up the role assigned to it until Jesus has departed from his followers—the Spirit is a “replacement Jesus”.

Indeed, at an earlier point in the narrative, on “the last day of the festival, the great day” (7:37; the festival referred to was Booths, 7:2), Jesus was speaking about the Spirit, and portraying the “rivers of living water” that the Spirit would give, as something still to come. The narrator informs us that he was speaking “about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7:37–39).

This, of course, is directly contradicted by the many references in Hebrew Scripture to the activity of the Spirit in Israel (Gen 1:1–2; Job 33:4; Ps 104:30; Isa 42:5, 44:3, 48:16, 59:21, 61:1, 63:11–14; Num 11:16–17; Deut 34:9; 1 Sam 10:6, 19:23–24; Ezek 37:1; Joel 2:28–29). Nevertheless, the definitive arrangement of things that is held to quite firmly in the book of signs, is that the Spirit comes only after Jesus has returned to the Father.

The language of sending is used frequently in the fourth Gospel, in describing the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Father is regularly described as the one who sent the Son (3:34; 4:34; 5:23, 30; 6:29, 39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28–29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; etc). In the final prayer of Jesus, the Father is “him who sent me” (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). Amongst the final words of the risen Jesus, we hear Jesus say again, “as the Father has sent me” (20:21).

So, when Jesus refers to the parakletos as the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), he is reinforcing the notion that the Spirit is the “replacement Jesus”. This is further strengthened by the affirmation that the parakletos will “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). The language of teaching also recalls a key function of Jesus, who “went up into the temple and began to teach” (7:14), who “sat down and began to teach” the people in the temple (8:2), who characterises his ministry as “I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together” (18:20).

Further, Jesus describes the role of the parakletos as “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:15). Jesus has already declared that “my teaching is not mine but his who sent me” (7:16) and “the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me” (14:24); now he passes that divinely-given material on to the parakletos, clearly stating that “he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14–15). The teaching function that the parakletos performs is to replicate the teaching role that Jesus has already enacted.

The content of the teaching provided by the parakletos is also evocative of the teaching that Jesus has provided. The parakletos will teach “about sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8, expanded in 16:9–11). In relation to sin, what Jesus does as “the lamb of God” is to “take away the sin of the world” (1:29); he provides freedom from the slavery of sin (8:34–36), and the final commission that he gives his disciples (who are sent just as he has been sent) is to decree that they have the authority of grant forgiveness of sins (20:23).

Likewise, in relation to judgement, Jesus has stated, “as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (5:30), and again, “even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me” (8:16)—although later, Jesus asserts that “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge” (12:47–48).

Thus, as the parakletos teaches about sin, and about judgement, the teachings of Jesus on these matters are repeated. (On the matter of righteousness—apart from a single reference to God as “righteous Father”, 17:25—this Gospel is silent.) Again, we see that the parakletos is a “replacement Jesus”.

Finally, the distinctive term used in this Gospel to describe the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, also reinforces this way of viewing the relationship between the Son and the Spirit. The Johannine Jesus is “the Word became flesh” who “lived among us … full of grace and truth” (1:14). It is through Jesus Christ that “grace and truth came” (1:17). Jesus describes himself to the leaders in Jerusalem as “a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God” (8:40), and to the Roman Governor, Pilate, he declares, “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (18:37).

So Jesus tells his followers that “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31–32), and even affirms unreservedly that “I am the truth” (14:6). Again, the language applied to the Spirit links in with key terminology that describes Jesus and his role. The Spirit of truth now teaches “the truth that will make you free”, that the one who is the truth had taught.

Finally, it is noteworthy that nowhere in the book of signs is there any direct statement about the relationship between Father and Sprit. Although Jesus states that “God is spirit” (4:24), the relationship is always, apparently, mediated through the Son: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the parakletos; the Son teaches what the Father provides, the parakletos continues the teaching of Jesus; the Father incarnates the Word “in truth”, the Son teaches and is “the truth”, so the Spirit is named as “the Spirit of truth”.

In summary, the relationship between Son and Spirit reads to me as a quite hierarchical style of relationship—not at all a relationship of equals who abide in each other, who are of the same nature and share the same substance with one another, who exist co-eternally and inherit co-equally. Indeed, in the relationship between Father and Spirit/Parakletos, there is no direct link, as there is in the classic Doctrine of the Trinity; all is mediated through the Son, as we have seen. The fourth Gospel offers a different, distinctive—we might even say, unorthodox—theology of Father, Son, and Spirit/Parakletos.

The Trinity is a complex idea, a doctrine with many subsets and dimensions and component parts. Although there are passages in scripture which many say point to this doctrine, nevertheless gaining a full understanding of this doctrine really means entering into the world of metaphysics, philosophy, and linguistics of a later age.

All of this is beyond the capacity of the lectionary to provide, nor can it be done in a relatively brief reflection time within a Sunday worship service—and it runs the risk of charging away from the world of ideas in which the biblical texts were written, and opening up the danger of imposing later ideas, anachronistically, onto those texts.

The little passage from the Gospel of John that we encounter in the lectionary this coming Sunday actually points us in quite another direction!

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See also

Scriptural resonances in Revelation 21–22 (Easter 6C)

The section of Revelation provided by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (21:10, 22–22:5) is the final vision from a long sequences of visions, in which the writer, carried “in the spirit” to “a great, high mountain”, sees “the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (22:10).

The top of a mountain is significant in biblical narratives; we only need to remember Moses atop Mount Sinai, receiving the commandments from God (Exod 19:1–25) and viewing the promised land, which he would not himself enter (Deut 34:1–4); and Jesus on the mountain in Galilee, teaching his disciples (Matt 5:1–7:28), being transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Matt 17:1–8), and giving his last instructions to his followers before departing from them (Matt 18:16–20).

Visions in Scripture

There are many accounts of visions being seen by people on earth, as God reveals guidance to them; noteworthy are the visions of Abraham (Gen 18:1–16), Moses (Exod 3:1–6), Balaam and his donkey (Num 22:22–35), Joshua (Josh 5:13–15), Eli (1 Sam 3:2–18), and the visions of various prophets (Isa 6:1–13; Ezek 2:1–10; Ezek 40:1–44:31; Dan 7:1–14; Dan 8:1–14; Amos 7:1–9; Amos 8:1–14; Zech chapters 1–6).

In early chapters of the Gospels, visions experienced by key figures shape the course of the story—Zechariah (Luke 1:8–20), Mary (Luke 1:26–38), shepherds (Luke 2:8–14), and Joseph (Matt 1:19–21; 2:13; 2:19–20). Paul experienced “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor 12:1–7a); according Luke’s account of the journey he took towards Damascus, it was the visions to both Ananias and to Paul himself (Acts 9:10–12) that brought Paul into the community of believers, in a life-transforming moment.

However, the most notable vision is surely that experienced by Peter, in Joppa: “he saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’” (Acts 10:11–13). This vision not only changes Peter’s understanding of things; it sets forth the rationale for the fundamental nature of the movement founded by Jesus, as an inclusive community of Jews and Gentiles.

Visions in Revelation 19–22

The vision that the author of Revelation sees is part of an extended sequence of visions which are introduced by the same phrase that is used in Acts: “then I saw heaven opened” (19:11; cf. Acts 10:11). God’s opening of the heavens is recognised by the psalmist (Ps 78:23) as the means by which manna was provided in the wilderness; and perhaps this resonance is picked up in the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, when Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10 and parallels). God tears open the heavens to bless and to commission.

More pertinent, however, is the statement by Isaiah, in an oracle describing incredible devastation wrought in divine judgement over Israel, when “the earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled … the earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth [for] the earth lies polluted under its inhabitants” (Isa 24:3–4). The prophet declares that “the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble; the earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken” Isa 24:18–19). This is a fearsome rending apart of the heavens!

So, too, in Revelation, where the opening of the heavens (19:1) reveals a series of seven visions. There is a vision of an intense, violent battle (19:11–21), a vision of the binding of a dragon and “the first resurrection” (20:1–6), and two visions of judgement (20:7–10, 11–15); followed by a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1–8), a vision of “the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (21:9–27), and then the final vision of “the river of the water of life, flowing … through the middle of the street of the city” (22:1–5).

Scriptural resonances in the visions of Revelation 19–22

In the initial vision of a cataclysmic battle, “the beast and the kings of the earth”, along with their armies, are confronted by a fiery, blood-soaked rider on a white horse, with “the armies of heaven” (19:11–16). The description of this particular figure, as is so often the case on this book, draws from biblical imagery (eyes like a flame of fire, sharp sword, rod of iron, treading the winepress). Indeed, each of the visions that follow are themselves thoroughly shaped by biblical language and imagery. As the author looks forward, he draws heavily on the traditions and stories of his own faith, as expressed in the scrolls of Hebrew Scriptures with which he is intimately familiar.

An angel steps forward to issue the call to battle—yet his call is an invitation to “the great supper of God” (19:17). The image of a supper had been utilised by the prophet Isaiah, who saw the final gathering of the nations in terms of a lavish feast (Isa 25:6–10; see also 55:1–5). This time, however, the supper is a feast for cannibals—turning the imagery upside-down, in a manner reminiscent of a grisly oracle uttered by Ezekiel (Ezek 39:17–20).

The beast and his false prophet are thrown alive into a lake of burning sulphur, evoking the punishment visited upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24–25; Deut 29:23; 3 Macc 2:5; Luke 17:28–30). The armies of the kings of the earth are slain by the sword, and Satan is cast into a locked pit for one thousand years (19:17–20:6). This recalls an oracle delivered by Isaiah, in which he declared that God, in judgement, would imprison “the host of heaven and the kings of the earth” (Isa 24:21–22).

But for a thousand years? The Psalmist says that “a thousand years in [God’s] sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night” (Ps 90:4), and a late New Testament book affirms that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet 3:8); however, we should note that the period of one thousand years is nowhere associated with divine punishment elsewhere in biblical texts.

After the release of Satan, one further battle takes place, against “the nations … Gog and Magog” (20:8). The account in Revelation 20 is brief, but the distinctive names (Gog and Magog) evoke a reference to an older battle against invaders from the north, described by Ezekiel (Ezek 38:1–39:20). This decisive encounter effected the definitive punishment of God and paved the way for the promised restoration of Israel to the land (Ezek 39:21–29) and the vision of a restored temple (Ezek 40:1–46:24). The same pattern is followed in Revelation 20. After the battle against Gog and Magog, the devil is also cast into the lake of burning sulphur, all the dead are judged, and Death itself is destroyed (20:7–15).

This is followed by the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth, a place devoid of death, bathed in light, sustained by the water of life, a city dazzling with jewels and home to “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (21:1–22:5). The vision appears closely related to the final visions reported at the end of the book of Isaiah (Isa 65:17; 66:22–23).

The imagery used in these verses relates particularly to various sections of the book of Isaiah. The bride prepared for her husband (21:2) recalls the scene of Isa 61:10; the wiping away of tears (21:4) evokes the banishing of sorrow (Isa 35:10). The gift of water from the spring of life (21:6) is suggestive of the way that water functions as an image of life (Isa 35:6–7; 41:18), and the prominent place of the river of the water of life in the new Jerusalem (22:1–2) evokes Isaiah’s link between “the new thing” and “rivers in the desert” (Isa 43:18–21).

Likewise, the description of the spectacular beauty of the city and the careful itemizing of its measurements (21:10–21) imitates the section of Ezekiel where the Temple of his vision is carefully described and numerous measurements are provided (Ezek 40–42). What is noteworthy, of course, is the pointed declaration that “I saw no temple in the city” (21:22) and the insistence that the divine presence will provide more than enough light for the whole city (21:23– 25; 22:5).

Despite the author’s lengthy and intricate entwining with scriptural sources, in this final vision he points beyond the past, to a new form of the future. Yet still, he reaches back before the temple, to the times when the shining light signaled the divine presence (Exod 3:2; 13:21–22; Ps 78:14). In similar fashion, perhaps the prominence of the tree of life (22:2) is intended to supplant the many trees beside the river in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 47:12) and provide a reminder of the single tree in the creation story (Gen 2:9).

The closing scenes this provide assurance of God’s providential care of the people of Israel, and perhaps even of the whole earth. Indeed, the familiar patterns of this life, as we know it—night and day, light and dark, even life and death—will be transcended in this new order of reality. Written for a people in the midst of oppressive persecution, this glorious vision and triumphant conclusion provides assurance, reinforcing their faith with hope and certainty.

So it is no wonder, then, that the prayer of those who first heard these visions proclaimed to them, is simply: “Come” (22:17, 20). As we know, that coming was not, as was hoped for, “soon” (22:7, 12, 20). How we now apply these visionary words to our own times is the challenge that rests with us!

See https://johntsquires.com/2022/05/04/with-regard-to-revelation-and-rev-14/

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This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

Splitting a church, maintaining a prejudice: the sad case of the (un)United Methodist Church

A new church was formed this month. The so-called Global Methodist Church (GNC) was launched as a new denomination—in effect, a sectarian schismatic movement, splitting from the United Methodist Church (UMC)—on the basis of, you guessed it, sexuality.

The GMC has placed to the fore a belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, and clergy must adhere to this in their ministry. This has been a point of persistent debate, dissension, and division in the UMC for decades. Many efforts have been made to hold the different points of view together under the one umbrella of the UMC. That fragile union cracked with a decision last year, and now the moment has been seized by the breakaway group, acting unilaterally, to set up its own structures.

Rev. Keith Boyette, chairman of the new denomination’s Transitional Leadership Council and until now a United Methodist minister in Virginia, complained that “some bishops are intentionally blocking churches from using certain processes for exiting the denomination”—a reference to the fact that the UMC’s Council of Bishops has twice delayed holding a General Conference that would enable a friendly parting of the church.

The COVID pandemic had been the reason for delaying the General Conference first set for 2020, and then for 2021; this year, the delay has been credited to the delays being experienced in the US of the processing of visa applications. The United Methodist Church currently claims 6.3 million members in the U.S. and 6.5 million overseas, so half the representatives would have been travelling into the US and would have needed visas.

Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who recently became the President of the UMC Council of Bishops, said that the continuing United Methodist Church was “not interested in continuing sexism, racism, homophobia, irrelevancy and decline … what we are interested in is a discovery of what God has in mind for us on the horizon as the next expression of who we are as United Methodists.”

I have taken this information from an article at https://www.columbian.com/news/2022/apr/30/united-methodist-church-split-official-as-of-today/. It’s important to note that the trigger words used here—sexism, racism, homophobia—are Bishop Bickerton’s words; I am simply quoting him.

Sadly, it seems to me that this is just another instance of people within a Christian church perpetuating actions that will impinge in negative ways on people in society—and, indeed, within the church. The discriminatory actions of the new schismatic denomination will have a negative impact on a small, but significant, minority group within society.

It’s simply a fact that the majority of the population identify as heterosexual (experiencing sexual attraction to people of the opposite gender) and cis-gender (the gender assigned to them at birth correlates with their sense of personal identity and gender). LGBTIQA+ people do not identify as either cis-gender, or as heterosexual, or as both. So whilst it is true that they are a minority in society, that should not affect the way that they are treated in society, and by churches.

However, the key plank in the formation of the GMC is a perpetuation of a discriminatory attitude towards same-gender attracted people who are seeking to be married in a service of Christian marriage. The GMC will not allow its ministers to marry such people. There are many denominations around the world who, sadly, share that attitude.

Up until 2018, my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia was one. All of this changed with a decision taken by the National Assembly in 2018, which meant that ministers now do have discretion to marry people of the same gender. That is part of a continuing trajectory within the Uniting Church, affirming and valuing the place of LGBTIQA+ people within the life of the church, and, indeed, within society.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/a-diversity-of-religious-beliefs-and-ethical-understandings/ and the various links included in that blogpost.

For the various affirmations that the Assembly has made that have led the church to this latest decision, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/20/seven-affirmations/

It’s my hope that we can continue along that trajectory, continue to marry people regardless of their gender identity, and hopefully in due course issue an Apology to LGBTIQA+ people for how the church has treated such people in past years.

See also

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For an exploration of the forces that worked for so long against this, and earlier, enlightened moves relating to sexuality within the UCA, see my series of posts that are linked below.

For my series of blogs on the failed strategy of conservatives in the Uniting Church over the decades, see

A new thing, springing forth (Isaiah 43; Lent 5C)

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:18–19).

These words are attributed to the prophet Isaiah, who lived in the southern kingdom of Judea eight centuries before Jesus, serving as a “court prophet” during times of abundance. Isaiah was active a time when the southern kingdom of Judah was flourishing. He became active in the last years of the reign of Uzziah, who, it was said, ruled as king for fifty-two years (788–736). He lived through the reigns of Jotham and Ahaz (16 years each), and died towards the end of the reign of Hezekiah, who himself enjoyed 29 years on the throne.

The year of Isaiah’s death is uncertain; he may well have been alive, still, when the Assyrian army of Sennacherib laid waste to the northern kingdom (722–721) and deported the northerners to clear the land. In such a context of stability, however, the promise that God would do “a new thing” sits somewhat uneasily in the situation we can reconstruct.

This is one reason why many scholars maintain that the section of the book of Isaiah where we find this passage (Isaiah 40–55) is set some centuries later, after the southern kingdom itself had been conquered by the Babylonians (587–586), and the people taken into exile in Babylon. This became the pivotal event in the history of Israel, the people as a whole—at least in terms of the stories that we have gathered in the scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah focus on Jerusalem and Judah (2:1; 3:1; 5:3; 11:12-16; 22:5-8, 20-25; 26:1) and Assyria (7:10–25; 8:1–10; 10:5–12; 14:24–27); 19:23–25; 20:1–6; 30:29–33). The final section of the book (chs. 36—39) is clearly the describing events of the 720s which led to the Assyrian invasion and conquest of the northern kingdom, Israel.

By contrast, second section of the book of Isaiah has a primary concern for the power which had taken the people of Judah into exile—Babylon (43:14–21; 47:1–15; 48:14, 20–21). The prophet promises a return to Jerusalem (40:1–2), but it is identified as Zion (40:9; 41:27; 46:13; 49:14; 51:3, 11, 16; 52:1-2, 7-8).

There are many stories in Isa 1—39 relating to the personal life of the prophet, but no such personal connections in Isa 40—55. By contrast, a very direct historical reference, in a section referring to Cyrus, King of Persia (44:24–45:19), indicates a later setting. Cyrus ruled the Achaemenid Empire from 559 to 530 BCE and, after defeating the Babylonians in 539, issued a decree permitting the exiled Israelites to return to their homeland.

We have already reflected on one passage from this section of Isaiah (55:1–12, Lent 3), noting how it differs from the worldview and understanding of God from earlier periods in the life of Israel.

This passage thus comes from a time when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. It was not a happy time for many of the people of Israel. (Psalm 137 is the classic expression of this; note especially the anger expressed in verses 8–9.) The people of Israel yearned to return home (Jer 29:10–14; 30:1–31:26). They looked back on the past with longing eyes. They remembered their years in the land which God had given to them. Now, they were living among Babylonians—foreigners, conquerors.

Soon, they would leave behind these memories, and grasp hold of the future that God has for them. God would “send to Babylon and break down all the bars” (43:14). God, the prophet declares, is doing a new thing! (43:19).

And yet, that “new thing” is informed by the past. The people once travelled out of slavery in Egypt, into freedom in Canaan, leaving behind the Egyptian “chariot and horse, army and warrior”, stuck in the waters of the sea that suddenly swamped them—“extinguished, quenched like a wick” (43:17; cf. Exod 14:26–31, 15:4–12, 19, 21). In the time of the prophet, “the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation” as the people depart (43:14).

In like manner, now, the people will take the journey back home, pass through the desert, and return to their land. The one who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (43:16) during the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15), will now “make a way in the wilderness” (43:19) for the people to follow, leading them right back to the land from which they had been forcibly removed decades earlier (2 Kings 25:1–21; 2 Chron 35:15–21).

As they were sustained in that desert journey long ago, so God now will give “rivers in the desert” (43:19) which will provide “water in the wilderness … to give drink to my chosen people” (43:20) as they travel on that way. That caled for shouts of praise to God! (43:21).

The Exodus imagery was potent for Israel; not only was the story developed over centuries to provide a story of origins for Israel, but it was also co-opted into the prophecies predicting the return to the land, providing those oracles with greater strength and rigour. (And, of course, the story continued on into the feast of Passover, the annual celebrations which continue amongst Jews right through until the present day.)

The Exodus imagery also undergirds the Christian story. Jesus, declared by John the Baptist to be the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), affirmed by Paul as the new Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7), envisaged by the ageing prophet on Patmos to be the slaughtered lamb (Rev 5:6–14), is believed to enact a new Passover for his followers, according to the developing Christian tradition.

Just as the shedding of the blood smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites was their salvation (Exod 12:7, 13, 22–23), so the shedding of Christ’s blood is understood to effect salvation (Rom 5:8–10; 1 Pet 1:18–21). So the age-old imagery and symbolism is reworked by the early Christian writers, continuing the process seen in the words of the prophet speaking during the return from Exile (Isa 43:16–21).

See also

Patrick (and snakes) … and Gertrude (and cats) on 17 March

We have all heard of Patrick, a fifth century missionary and patron saint of Ireland, who is touted as being the cause for the lack of snakes on the island of Ireland. The legend is that the snakes that were on the island had all been banished by Patrick, chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. 😫 Shades of Jesus, the Gerasene demoniac, and the poor pigs, who took the legion of demons into the sea (Mark 5).

But what about Gertrude? She shares the same day—17 March—with Patrick; it is the feast day for both of them in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, for 17 March was the day that both Gertrude, as well as Patrick, was said to have died.

So, while all of Ireland and all of the Irish diaspora vigorously celebrates Patrick today (wearing green clothes, drinking lots of Guinness, with hair dyed green, walking in street parades and telling predictable jokes with incomprehensible accents), spare a thought for Gertrude of Nivelles, who shares her patronal festival with Patrick the Confessor.

Gertrude lived in the seventh century in the nation we now call Belgium. Her father was a powerful Frankish nobleman in the court of the king, Dagobert I. It is said that, at the age of ten, Gertrude refused a marriage proposal from the son of a duke, “saying that she would have neither him nor any earthly spouse but Christ the Lord.”

When her father died a few years later, her mother Itta shaved her head into a monkish tonsure to deter would-be suitors from marrying into her wealthy family by force. Itta and Gertrude established a monastery at Nivelles and retired to a religious life. So here’s the first reason to admire Gertrude (and her other Itta): a monastery for females was one of the few options for females in antiquity to preserve their intellectual, economic and sexual autonomy.

It is said that Gertrude kept cats in the monastery to keep rats and mice under control — a wise and sensible move, so a second reason to like Gertrude.

There are some illuminated manuscripts, church fresco paintings and stained glass windows which depict Gertrude in a garden setting, surrounded by cats, rats and mice (often with a mouse running up her staff). However, there is no ancient written claim that is explicit about Gertrude and cats; it seems that this connection is a late 20th century invention! Nevertheless, we can roll with the newish evolution of the tradition, and honour Gertrude for her care of cats, can’t we?

Gertrude, and her feline friends, are important in my household. We have three cats, all ragdolls, all quite handsome, aged 14, 11, and 8; they are all well-fed and cared for, able to roam into any room of the house (but not outdoors, unless in the special enclosure). They are living the good life every day with their two full-time live-in servants; and every so often, they go on vacation to Curtin Cat Care to be spoiled 😁.

Gertrude’s mother Itta died in 650, so the 24-year-old Gertrude took on sole governance of the monastery, and was known for her hospitality to pilgrims. She died in 659 – worn out in her early thirties, says the Cambridge Medieval History, “because of too much abstinence and keeping of vigils”.

Mel Campbell reports that the story is told, that a visiting Irish monk, whose brother Gertrude had sheltered, predicted she would die on St Patrick’s Day, and that “blessed Bishop Patrick with the chosen angels of God … are prepared to receive her”. Begorrah, it was so!

Mel Campbell also writes, “On a day that has become unfortunately associated with public displays of boorish masculinity, wouldn’t it be nice to honour a saint whose domains of patronage have traditionally been belittled as feminised and domestic? Gertrude was an independent woman who refused to be treated as a chattel.”

And THAT, above all else (even above our feline friends!) is cause for remembering and honouring Gertrude of Nivelles.

I have taken much of the information about Gertrude from https://junkee.com/today-is-also-st-gertrudes-day-celebrate-the-patron-saint-of-cats/53228

There’s a page honouring her as a saint at https://catholicsaints.info/butlers-lives-of-the-saints-saint-gertrude-virgin-and-abbess-of-nivelle/

Challenged and transformed: with thanks for rainbow people, this Lent

The following reflection was written by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine, and shared with the Rainbow Christian Alliance at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 13 March 2022.

In many churches, including the Uniting Church, today is called the Second Sunday in Lent. Our church follows the calendar of seasons that is held by many churches around the world; instead of spring, summer, autumn, winter, we have Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

The season of Lent lasts for just six weeks, and it leads into the three day celebration of Easter. It’s called Lent, incidentally, not because it is tilted or skew-whiff, but because in the northern hemisphere, where such seasons were first given their names, the days are starting to lengthen (the name was Lencten in Old English).

In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Lent is a period of fasting. The day before, Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, was a day to use up all the fatty goods in the kitchen — eggs, flour, milk — so they were out of the way for Lent. The day is also known as Pancake Tuesday. In South America, in countries where Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion, Mardi Gras became a public festival, a day not only to feast, but a day for street parades, for big banquets to celebrate, with colourful costumes and extravagant public exhibitions of joy.

And that has surely been the inspiration for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, both in recent years with colourful and extravagant floats, and in the decades before, with lots of rainbow groups marching, and even in the early days of protest and attempting to “claim the streets” and “go public” about gays and lesbians and more.

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Immediately after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, comes Ash Wednesday — a solemn day of penitence; and the fasting continued right through Lent, until Easter Sunday. We don’t actually do full-on fasting in the Uniting Church, but in recent times it has become customary to decide to “give up something for Lent” — chocolate and alcohol being the most common, but also more significant things like not driving your car and catching public transport; or not eating meat. In this way, Lent becomes a time of challenge, as we try to remind ourselves each day of the importance of being faithful to God. We “give up” so that we can focus in more clearly on God, if you like.

So there is already a connection between the season of Lent and rainbow people; because Lent starts immediately after Mardi Gras. And the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, now an institution in our annual public events; the extravagantly colourful celebrations of that event mark, if you like, the climax of joy as rainbow people celebrate that they are each made exactly as they are, and they can be happy about that.

We both enjoyed watching (on TV) the parade of organisations and people that were out and proud, out and loud, a week ago, walking unhindered around the SCG — a striking contrast to the first Mardi Gras, when police barricaded the road and people were arrested. It is truly wonderful to see that the rainbow colours can be flown in society, that people can acknowledge and declare who they are, and not be under threat of arrest.

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So in the cycle of seasons for Christians, after Mardi Gras comes Lent. And Lent is about giving up; or, at least, focussing intently on Jesus, the one in whom we see most clearly see God. How else might Lent relate to the experience of rainbow people?

There are a collection of stories that the church retells each year, in association with Lent. In preparation for Lent, the story is told of the day that Jesus was baptised: in the river Jordan, to the east of Jerusalem, fully submerged into the water by his crazy cousin John, baptising people as they repented of their sins.

John was crying out to the people who came to him, to repent; to change their way of being and living; to be transformed, completely, by being baptised. That’s what is meant by the single Greek word that John used, calling people to metanoia—to a complete transformation of who they are and how they love. Jesus came to that moment, willing to submit to that call, willing to experience metanoia in his own life.

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And yet for Jesus, this baptism became more than just the moment of call, or the moment of change; it was the moment when God publicly acknowledged him, when God declared, “this is my son, my beloved child; listen to him”. In that voice, booming from the clouds, a central affirmation is made: look at him, this is who he is; can you see that this is really who he is? And from that moment, Jesus began his mission of challenging people and transforming society.

The story of the baptism of Jesus tells us that, when God looks at us, God sees us exactly as we are; and we may well also hear God saying to use, and to those around us, “this is my child, my beloved one; I can see exactly who they are, and I am well pleased that this is who they are”. God sees me, a straight white male, and is well pleased; God sees a lesbian woman, and is equally well pleased; a trans man, and God is pleased; an intersex person, and is well pleased; an enbie, a gay, a pan sexual—God is just well pleased with each of us, as we are, and declares us to be beloved. And that means that we can get on with the kind of life that we each want to live, and are called to live.

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There’s another story about Jesus that is associated with Lent. It’s a story that, from our rather privileged, straight, perspective, sounds a great challenge to us. It’s a story about being changed; about being transformed. It’s a story that shows that being transformed means you are able to stand and challenge others to be transformed. It’s the story of when Jesus took his three closest friends to a mountain, and they had a shared experience of seeing Jesus standing between two of the greats of their people: Moses, to whom God had given the Law to govern the people of Israel, and Elijah, through whom God had established a long line of prophets in Israel.

The Gospel writers say that Jesus was transformed at that moment. But in this story, also, there is the indication that the friends of Jesus were transformed. That moment on the mountain was a challenge to each of them; the response that Peter wanted to make was seen to be inadequate. Jesus challenged him to respond differently. It was another moment when metanoia, complete transformation, took place. And these disciples did change; yes, it took some time, but these friends of Jesus ultimately became leaders amongst the followers of Jesus, and spearheaded the movement that became the church.

The change, the metanoia, that occurred within Peter, James, and John, spread widely. They faced the challenge head on, and responded with their own metanoia. That is mirrored, today, in changes that are taking place in society. As we watched the Mardi Gras last weekend, it soon became evident that this was no longer a side carnival, an event that was important to a minority group in society, and that’s all.

For the Mardi Gras—commercialised, mainstreamed, headlined and noticed—now reflects the way that society has been challenged—by you, by rainbow people—and how it has responded in metanoia, by being transformed. Banks, unions, police, sports teams, churches, golfing clubs, and more—all marched in the Mardi Gras, all affirming that there is a place in their ranks for rainbow people, no matter what letter an individual identifies with. And that reflects a very significant change in society, in which public acknowledgement and public discussion of gender and sexuality can take place.

Sure, there is still work to be done—much work to be done; many changes still to occur, deeper acceptance still to take place. But the changes are clear and evident; and it has been because those who themselves have been able to meet challenges by holding firm and calling for change, have then effected transformation, thoroughgoing change, in society. Rainbow people are changing our society. Last week’s Mardi Gras demonstrated that.

And for that, we are grateful, and say: thanks be to God.