It’s been two months under restrictions—what will our future look like? (2)

It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. How will hope be found, in what lies ahead?

I took the opportunity after one month, to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/)

Now my mind is thinking about what the future might look like. People are struggling with number of matters. These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church.

As we consider these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the second in a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this. The first was focussed on “where” people are wanting to be in that future time.

This post reflects on the “when” of our hopes for the future. How often have you heard someone refer, longingly, to “the way things used to be”? How often have you heard people lament that they would really like things to be “just like they used to be”?

This is a refrain in society—let’s get back to when life was simpler, people were friendlier, choices were easier. It is also a refrain in the church—let’s get back to when buildings were filled on Sundays, Friday night youth groups were thriving, Sunday Schools were overflowing. Ah, the good old days …

It is still a struggle for some people to try to move beyond this yearning for the past. When they try to imagine what it will be like when we get back to meeting in person, such people simply have in mind that things will be “just like they used to be”. The natural human urge is for us to move out of a time of upheaval, right back into the comfort zone of what is familiar, what is predictable, what has been the comforting routine of “life as usual”.

That is no less the case in the present period of COVID-19 restrictions. Back to church worship on a Sunday morning, seeking the much-loved group of friends once again, sitting in the usual spot, singing the favourite hymns, sharing the chit-chat over morning tea—church as usual, just if nothing had happened!

We can’t, of course, go back to the old familiar patterns. COVID-19 has ensured that this will be the case. We will need to clean and disinfect buildings regularly, maintain contact lists of all people attending any event, ensure that all physical touch elements in worship are modified, and, for the moment, ensure that there is adherence to social distancing and the limits on numbers in the building. And we would be well-advised not to sing when we gather for worship, for that is a high risk activity. Things will be different.

“Behold, I am about to do a new thing”, the prophet of old long ago declared to the people of Israel (Isa 43:19). To the people of Israel who had been decades in exile in Babylon, the word of the Lord spoke of hope and promise, of a new initiative, stepping out in a new way. The people journey back across the wilderness, heading back to the land where their ancestors had lived for centuries.

Without the “new thing” of the Lord, the people of Israel would have remained in exile and, presumably, have diminished in their distinctiveness, threatening the existence of the people of God as a nation called to be “a holy priesthood”. Finding the “new thing” that is happening in our own time is important.

See further at https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

So the question for us could well be: what is the “new thing” that God is doing, that the Spirit is calling to us to take part in, as public society begins to reactivate, as church begins to regather, in the weeks ahead?

I have read a number of pointers about how about society will need to be structured differently after the current restrictions have been eased and then lifted. In what I have read, there are a number of things that point directly at how things will need to change when we gather as a church.

One commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Social gatherings should be avoided if a lot of people are close to each other, sing, talk a lot, or commingle. Indoor, confined areas are much worse than outdoors activities.” (See Tomas Pueyo, “Coronavirus: Prevent Seeding and Spreading”, https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-prevent-seeding-and-spreading-e84ed405e37d)

Both of those factors place church gatherings, worship services, morning teas, and other group gatherings, into the high risk category. They are usually indoors, inviting people into close personal contact with others. And singing—we always sing when we gather, for grace, for praise, for communion, for benedictions. All high risk.

The same commentator, Tomas Pueyo, has noted that “Time matters. A short time is probably ok. Hours probably not.” That might please some people, if we apply it to church—short is better, no more long droning sermons!

But short worship services will be hard to monitor—even a short time for worship sees many people on site for quite some time, first while setting up, then in social mingling afterwards (and even the occasional “car park conversations” that prolong the time together even more!).

How we gather, what we do when we gather, cannot simply be stepping back into what we used to do. We are entering a time when things must be different. How will we engage with that challenge? How will we ensure that we don’t just step back into the past and settle into the well-worn routines? What will church look like, for us, in the future? That is the challenging question that sits before us, now, as we consider our future as the church in post-COVID times.

Thanks again to Elizabeth for the conversations that have shaped these ideas as we talk about future hopes for the church.

See also https://millennialpastor.ca/2020/05/24/there-is-no-going-back-to-normal-or-the-glory-days-this-is-the-beginning/

and my series of blogs on life during COVID-19:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/pastoral-letter-to-the-canberra-region-presbytery-of-the-uniting-church-in-australia-31-march-2020/

It’s been two months under restrictions—what will our future look like? (1)

It’s now been two months since we moved into a period when restrictions on social gatherings came into force because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The full set of restrictions that were put into place are beginning to be eased, with more changes still to come. Governments across the country are making announcements, indicating timetables, looking with hope to the future.

As restrictions are gradually eased, people are starting to grapple with what that will look like. Some are anxious about moving too rapidly to lift current restrictions. Some are hopeful that we can start meeting again in person very, very soon. And some are angry about the intrusion of governments into our lives, the measures in place seen as unwarranted restrictions on our freedoms.

I took the opportunity after one month, to step back and assess: what have we learnt, during this intense and most unusual period of time? (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/)

I want now to offer some reflections from my own perspective on what the future might look like. I am aware of a number of matters which remain a struggle for people, and I offer these thoughts with particular reference to the struggles that people in my church (the Uniting Church in Australia) are dealing with.

These matters have been the subject of conversations in my household over recent weeks, as Elizabeth and I think about what the future might hold, and how we need to prepare for it, both personally, and as a church. From within these struggles, I want to look beyond, to what a hope-filled, missionally-engaged future might await us. So this is the first of a series of posts in which I muse about a series of issues that emerge as we think about this.

First, lets think about Sundays. It is still a struggle for many people to imagine anything other than “Sunday morning” when they speak about “church”. The dominance of the Sunday morning worship service, in the minds of so many people, is abundantly clear. Ministers have known this forever—how many times have we heard the half-joking, half-serious comment, “well, you really only work for one hour on one day each week, don’t you?” Grrrrr!

Church, of course, is far more than Sunday morning worship. And people do make the connection from “church” as worship, to visiting hospitals, running a youth group, feeding the hungry, lobbying the local member, providing shelter to homeless people, or doing the shopping for the shut-in down the street. These are seen great things to do—but for many, they are viewed as a kind of optional extra beyond the Sunday morning worship gathering.

Somehow, over the centuries of history that the church has existed, the Sunday morning worship gathering has come to be seen as the very heart, the essential centre, of being church. The importance of gathering to worship has taken over all other elements in being church. In our own time, the dominance of the Sunday morning worship gathering is clear.

We talk about “going to church”—meaning worship in the church building. We ask, “what time is church?”—meaning the time for Sunday worship. We say, “see you in church”—often meaning next Sunday morning. Sunday morning worship has taken over our sense of what it means to be church.

In this view, “church” is really all about hymns and prayers, sermons and morning teas, rosters, and rosters, and more rosters! So the Sunday gathering has become an end in itself. Many people look to Sunday worship in the church building as the time and place for them to carry out their Christian duty. Church has been completely conflated to worship.

A fuller understanding of worship is required. Worship should not be the END. Worship should not be what is always in view, when we think about “church”. Worship should actually be a MEANS to fostering a sense of missional activity in which we share the good news of Jesus in order to build up the body of Christ. The end, from this perspective, is not the time of worship. The end is missional engagement in the world. One of the means to strengthen that end (and only one, amongst a number of things) is worship, as a gathered community.

We need to struggle some more with the implications of this way of seeing things. “Church” is much more than Sunday morning. But so much frenetic activity over the past two months, when gathering in person has not been possible, has been devoted to ensuring that, even if we can’t meet together in person, there is still some “church” happening on Sunday morning—online, on Facebook, on YouTube, on ZOOM. Because, you know, “church” means “worship”.

Let’s struggle to live beyond this blinkered and limited view. Let’s work to foster a strong sense of “church” being a seven-day-a-week enterprise. Let’s talk much more about being disciples, following the risky way of Jesus, and let’s be more active in the world amidst all the diversity of humanity that we encounter. Let’s talk much less about being members, settled into a comfortable club, and let’s not be bound by the traditional customs and practices of our own little clique.

Certainly, scripture contains an encouragement to meet regularly for worship (Heb 10:25), and there are passages that provide specific guidelines and instructions relating to worship in various places (1 Cor 11, 1 Cor 12-14, Col 3:16, Eph 5:18-20). But worship is not all that there is to being church.

Paul uses the language of worship when he writes to the Romans, appealing to them “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). The letter continues with a string of exhortations, injunctions, and instructions, which point very clearly to the view that “spiritual worship” entails living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way, not simply focussed on the worship gathering. That outward orientation is something that we could do well to hold to. Church is more than just Sunday worship.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/11/when-we-come-together-2-values-and-principles-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/01/pastoral-letter-to-the-canberra-region-presbytery-of-the-uniting-church-in-australia-31-march-2020/

When we come together (2) … values and principles in the midst of a pandemic

In this blog post, I am reflecting on our values and principles, as we consider the possibility of Gathering-Together, after a time of Gathering-Apart during the COVID-19 restrictions. These thoughts follow on from my earlier biblical and theological considerations in https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

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Last week, the Prime Minister indicated that, because of the good response across society to observe the restrictions on social gatherings and the limitations on moving around, there is now a plan for a three-stage move away from the current restrictions, towards a society where more mobility and more interaction in person will be possible.

This has, unsurprisingly, raised expectations amongst Congregations, that various activities might recommence. These activities include small groups, business meetings, hall rentals by local business or community groups, and, of course, Sunday worship.

In response to the statement by the Prime Minister, leaders of the 14 Presbyteries in my Synod met on Monday with the Synod leadership team. As a result, this leadership group has issued a clear statement, strongly recommending that we should not be meeting in person for services of worship or face to face meeting in our churches. You can read this at https://nswact.uca.org.au/media/8680/covid19-information-guide-gathering-12-may-2020v2.pdf

In the weeks to come, as the stages of easing restrictions come into play, there will undoubtedly be conversations about “can we meet together again, now?”. We will need to be prepared for such conversations.

In making decisions about these matters, we need to be sure that we are not simply rushed along with the excitement and anticipation that life will soon be “back to normal”. Life will return, step-by-step, to a situation that will be more like “normal” than the last few weeks have been. However, it is abundantly clear that life will not, indeed, be “back to normal”, as many are anticipating.

Life will change. Life will be different. Gathering-together, after a period of gathering-apart, will necessarily be different. Familiar customs and practices will not be able to be followed unthinkingly. Beloved institutions that have long been part of the Sunday worship rituals will need to be radically altered, or, indeed, put aside entirely.

There are a number of practical matters to be considered in relation to each activity that could re-commence with in-person gatherings. In my mind, these practical matters include:

* room size and spatial distancing (how do we ensure good monitoring of numbers of people in the building, and behaviours of people whilst in the building?)

* maintaining an accurate list of contacts (this is required, now, no matter what size of gathering, to facilitate tracing in the case of an infection, so—someone will need to take responsibility for this; people will need to be asked if they agree to having their contact details recorded; and will refusal to give permission mean access to the activity on the property will be refused?)

* ensuring non-contact in every activity (greetings at the door as people arrive for worship, shaking hands or hugging during the passing of the peace, the handshaking-line at the end of worship, the passing of the offering plate, the passing of the trays with individual communion glasses, and other elements—these will all need to be dropped)

* ensuring scrupulous adherence to thorough disinfecting procedures (the building must be thoroughly disinfected to be prepared before every use, and thoroughly disinfected at the end of every use—an activity that will take some time, each time the building is used)

* ensuring scrupulous adherence to strict food handling procedures (we need to adhere to commercial-standard protocols, and ensure that every volunteer understands exactly what they can and can’t do—and perhaps we should consider whether serving tea/coffee/nibbles after worship is to be banned?)

* the question of singing (latest research shows this is a high risk activity, especially inside, so singing the old favourite hymns or the new choruses will equally be out of bounds for some time—some experts suggest 18 months to 2 years, until a vaccine is available)

* and—pardon the gritty reality here—toilets (everyone will need to be committed to flushing with the lid closed and washing hands thoroughly after each use; we know that flushing toilets spreads aerosols which contain faecal matter—so the question to consider might well be, should toilets not be available for use? or should someone be rostered to thoroughly disinfect the toilet area after each and every individual use?)

Alongside that, there is a set of questions that we perhaps could explore in a fruitful way—questions which consider how we make decisions, how we undertake discussions, and who we are considering in the process of these discussions and decisions. And, from my perspective, reflecting on relevant biblical passages that can inform the way that we operate, can be helpful and fruitful.

Ministry leaders will be catapulted into such discussions (if we have not, already, found ourselves there). So here are some key principles, along with some associated biblical passages that, in my thinking, shape our ethos and inform how we make responsible ethical decisions about regathering as church.

1. Gathering for worship is important, but safety of people is more important

We know that, across society, there are many people who are vulnerable, who needs our particular care, support, and attention. Whilst gathering-together for worship, prayer, discussion, fellowship, and conversation, is highly valued, our highest priority must be to act in a manner that ensures the lowest risk for people in society, that offers a safe place and safe manner for people to gather-together.

We have committed to being a Safe Place some years ago, and whilst we have applied that to matters such as the safety of children and young people, the physical arrangement in our buildings, and acceptance of diversity. Can we now apply that to the matter of community health and wellbeing?

The psalmist reflects, “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long” Psalm 12:5). In another psalm, we hear the prayer, “O Lord, let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever” (Psalm 40:11). We need to echo that sentiment and follow that commitment to safety as we gather together.

2. The weakest or most vulnerable is the test for any decision we make

The people who have high risk of infection are those who have the following vulnerabilities: an impaired immune system, one of a number of chronic medical conditions, age, and people with Aboriginal and Islander descent.

Paul writes to the believers in a number of his communities, exhorting those who are “stronger” to attend to “the weak”, with the fundamental principle that “orientation to the needs of the other” undergirds everything. That orientation should govern how we think about, and how we act in, the days ahead. Those who are most vulnerable in terms of age or health should be the litmus test for anything that we consider doing when we gather-together.

Our own personal needs (or desires), the hopes and wants (or desires) of a community of faith, need to have this first consideration governing all that they decide. As Paul writes:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Rom 14:13)

You can read more about this way of operating in Romans 14:1-15:13. This would form an excellent focus for a Bible Study to go alongside a Church Council discussion of what steps can be taken as we consider gathering-together once more.

3. Relationships with others are our first priority. Loving our neighbour takes priority over programs and activities

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

Relationships with other people are given priority in this passage, and in the teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels. That’s a fairly simple observation, but it is incredibly potent in the current situation. How do we ensure that we are “loving our neighbour” in what we decide and what we do together?

Jesus places this as the second “greatest commandment”, alongside the first, of loving God. We need to hold these two aspects in tension, and ensure that we do not focus solely on “loving God” (and doing that in the old, familiar ways, unthinkingly), but we hold together “loving our neighbour” with “loving God”, and that we prioritise these over “returning to business as usual”. If business as usual is just about ourselves as a group, then our higher priority needs to be about how we operate in relation to all those around us.

4. We have a commitment to the common good—the good of all people in society

Almost a decade ago, the Uniting Church adopted a snappy slogan which expressed our commitment to “the common good”. This has been a rallying cry at many gatherings where matters of social justice are being addressed and advocated for—refugees and asylum seekers, affordable housing, care for the creation and environmental policies, sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, for instance.

Now, in this challenging time, we need to apply that same commitment “to the common good” to the question of what the implications are when we gather-together, after a time of gathering-apart. We need to ensure that whatever steps we take do contribute to that common good, not simply to the benefit of the group gathering together—be that Congregation, Church Council, Fellowship Group, Bible Study Group, our informal lunch gathering at the church.

And let us remember that “the common good” is itself an important biblical marker:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal 6:10)

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)

5. We need to ensure the safety of vulnerable people in leadership (ministry leaders, both ordained and lay)

“So the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” (Num 11:16-17)

This story from the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrates that God was concerned to take care of the leadership of the people of Israel. The seventy Elders were he people. appointed to assist Moses in his growing role as a leader of the people in a stressful and challenging time (as they journey through the wilderness, seeking a way to the promised land). The story from of old has strong resonances with our current situation!

If we accept that God demonstrated concerns for the pressures on Moses, can we see that this provides an analogy for the way that we offer care for our leaders, especially those who are vulnerable themselves, or living in a household with another vulnerable person?

Pressures on ministry leaders (both those ordained, and those lay people who are providing local leadership) to lead their people in gatherings should not be countenanced, until such time as it is clear that all the required protocols can be, and are being, adhered to, and they are not in any position of extra vulnerability because of this. That requires careful discernment and wise leadership at the local level.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

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

“I am the way” (John 14): from elitist exclusivism to gracious friendship?

The reading this Sunday contains some very familiar, oft-quoted words attributed to Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a). And especially oft-quoted is the next sentence that follows, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b).

That second sentence is frequently used to interpret the first sentence, to give it a sense of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence. Especially amongst more conservative theological elements in the church, this sense of “only one way”, “no other way” is regularly advocated.

But is this the only way to understand “I am the way”? Let me put the verse into context, consider a number if factors, and suggest why we may need to seek other ways of understanding this declaration about “the way”.

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The first observation to make is that this statement draws on traditional Jewish terminology used by the people in the movement which Jesus initiated. “The Way” is a term which occurs in various chapters in the second volume of the orderly account, the book of Acts (9:2; 18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22). This, according to these references, was the earliest term used to describe these people. (The term which eventually came to dominate, “Christians”, is first referenced at Acts 11:26, and is less-used in Acts.)

Calling the early followers of Jesus “The Way” may owe its origins to scriptural usage in association with God’s activity. The term is used in this way in Psalms 5:8; 18:30; 25:9; 27:11; 37:34; 50:23; 67:2, and so on. We might also note the occurrence of the term in Isa 40:3-5, and observe that it is cited in a prominent position at Luke 3:4-6. The return from exile in Babylon is marked as a preparing of the way by the Lord, leading the exiled people back to their homeland.

The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17-18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6). This may reflect competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects. The Qumran group, of course, was strongly exclusivist (it kept strong boundaries around the membership of the community) and could also be seen as being somewhat elitist in its theological outlook (some documents reflect the worldview that can be crudely summarised as “we have the truth, everyone else is wrong”).

In subsequent usage (beyond the first century) this term, The Way, has come to be completely overshadowed by a term used less often by Luke, that of “Christian” or “messianist” (11:26; 26:28). The latter term initially referred to the fact that the followers of Jesus, from early on, claimed that he was the anointed one, the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ).

So by using the term “the Way”, Luke emphasises the thoroughly Jewish nature of those communities which declared Jesus to be Messiah.

*****

The second observation for understanding the verse in context is that it is one of a number of “I Am” statements that are placed on the lips of Jesus in the book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John. These sayings comprise a verb (“I am”) followed by a predicate (the entity which Jesus claims to be). The predicates in most of these sayings are drawn from traditional Jewish elements.

Jesus presents himself as “the vine” (John 15:1–11), drawing on a standard scriptural symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 6:9; Ezek 15:1–6; 17:5–10; 19:10–14).

Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18), evoking the imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4), and the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

When Jesus calls himself “the bread of heaven” (6:25–59), he is clearly evoking the scriptural account of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1–36; Num 11:1–35; Pss 78:23–25; 105:40). The discourse which develops from this saying includes explicit quotations of scripture, as well as midrashic discussions of its meaning.

Jesus, “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:1–5), evokes the story of the creation of light (Gen 1:3–5) and the light which the divine presence shone over Israel (Exod 13:21–22). The Psalmist uses the imagery of light to indicate obedience to God’s ways (Pss 27:1; 43:3; 56:13; 119:105, 130; etc.), and it is a common prophetic motif as well (Isa 2:5; 42:6; 49:6; Dan 2:20–22; Hos 6:5; Mic 7:8; Zech 14:7; cf. the reversal of the imagery at Jer 13:16; Amos 5:18–20).

Although it is not part of an “I am” statement, the references to the “living waters” which flow from Jesus (4:7–15; 7:37–39) are reminiscent of the water which were expected to flow from the eschatological temple (Ezek 47:1; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8), and, more directly, refer to the description of God used by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:13).

In addition, biblical scholars have noted that rabbinic symbolism has affinities with Johannine symbols; for example, the terms bread, light, water and wine are all used by the rabbis in connection with the Torah.

Thus, the distinctive set of Christological claims made for Jesus in the Gospel according to John are both thoroughly grounded in scriptural images and familiar from the ongoing traditions taught by the rabbis.

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A third observation is that the book of signs was written in a context of polarised disputation and growing hostilities. There was deepening conflict between the followers of Jesus, who acclaimed him as Messiah, and the scribes and Pharisees, teaching the traditions of the ancestors in the synagogues of the post-70 period.

After the destruction of the Temple in the Roman—Jewish War of 66-74CE, as there was no need for priests, the Pharisees became the dominant force in Judaism. Synagogues became key places for instruction in the Law, communal worship, and also community hospitality. Those claiming that the Messiah had come (as the followers of Jesus did) were problematic to the Pharisees. Tensions grew. Hostility broke out in some places.

There are three references to being expelled from the synagogue in the book of origins (John 9:22; 12:52; 16:2). These are widely understood to refer, not to the time of Jesus, but to the time when the Gospel came to take its final form—probably around the end of the first century—when the conflict between the synagogue authorities and the followers of Jesus had come to a head.

Biblical scholars have drawn on the insights of sociology in this regard. A group which acted in the way that the followers of Jesus were acting, is described as a sectarian community. Differentiating itself from the parent body by means of distinctive belief claims is typical of sectarian groups.

As it had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus.

Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community. This emerges over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. The messianists are confident about their faith. And they are certain about the absolute importance of following Jesus and believing in him. He is The Way.

Each of the “I am” sayings noted above is reported in this Gospel in this context of dispute and controversy. The sayings function as markers to differentiate Jesus from his Jewish contemporaries—and, by association, the followers of Jesus from their Jewish contemporaries.

Thus, when the Johannine Jesus expresses the claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, there is an obvious and (to first-century ears) very clear claim being made about how the community of Jesus’ followers saw themselves, in relation to other groups in Judaism of the day. Like others, they were making claims about their exclusivity as the faithful one, their elitist understanding of what fidelity to the Law meant—and about the singular and central place of Jesus in their faith.

This Gospel consistently sets out a clear claim for Jesus as a distinctive figure, set apart and set higher than other religious leaders. Those who follow him have “the truth”, and are very clear what exactly is “the way” to God. Following Jesus was seen as the way—the only way—to gain “life”, or access directly to God. This is a polemic claim in the context it was first made.

The community in which the Gospel of John was compiled and valued was functioning in precisely the way that sectarian communities operate, holding fast to their exclusivism and elitism.

******

How do we read such a text in our contemporary situation? We live in a world where retreating into a corner, keeping separate from other people, and treating anyone different from us with suspicion (if not outright hostility) is practised by some, but it really is an untenable and unhelpful way of living.

In the Uniting Church, our Basis of Union advocates that as we live our faith, we seek to be critically informed (as we enter into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry), ecumenically engaged (as we relate to our partners within the world-wide fellowship of churches), contextually relevant (through contact with contemporary thought), and missionally oriented (as we engage with contemporary societies) (see paragraph 11).

Engaging with contemporary societies and participating in them such that we better come to understand our own nature and mission, is a key commitment of this church. Multicultural societies, such as Australia, offer many opportunities for such engagement and learning. Seeking to understand the cultural practices and commitments of friends and neighbours in our midst, means that we will better understand who we are as Church: what it means to be in relationship with one another, to serve one another, to proclaim the living Word afresh.

I wrote a blog about this last year (after the tragic events in the Mosque in Christchurch), which you can read at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/04/friendship-in-the-presence-of-difference-a-gospel-call-in-a-world-of-intolerance-and-hatred/

The Uniting Church Assembly has advocated, “Friendship in the presence of difference is regarded as being a central Christian attitude and value. Engagement with those of other faiths is welcomed as a pathway on which we may rediscover the heart of the Christian way while also being enriched by wisdom others have to share.” (Adopted at the Thirteenth Assembly (2012), from a statement prepared by the Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths, entitled Friendship in the Presence of Difference: Christian Witness in Multifaith Australia.)

******

So: with this theological commitment to living with those different from us with an attitude of acceptance and friendship, a generous attitude of embracing diversity, an intention to hold to an informed faith, on the one hand; and a biblical text (John 14:6) that recounts how a deepened understanding of Jesus emerged through the process of antagonism, aggressive argumentation, and hostile actions—what do we need to do to hold these two together?

Should a text which originated in conflict, with the intention of carving out a space for a smaller group with a distinctive set of beliefs, still be interpreted in the same way as those first readers and hearers of the Gospel understood it?

Or do we allow the changed context in which we live, and the different perceptions that have developed in our time, to reshape our understanding, to recast our interpretation, to challenge long-held views and to invite fresh appreciations?

Is it the case that we MUST read this biblical text as requiring us to have an attitude of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence?

Or—is there another way to understand “I am the way”?

 

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

On the commitment to an informed faith in the Basis of Union, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liminal Space: waiting and not knowing. Holy Saturday Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other blogs for this Easter:

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

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

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

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

Sacrificial Death: to give his life. Good Friday Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gathering

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

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

Yet it began in celebration.

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

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

 

SEVEN CANDLES MAY BE LIT

 

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

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

Recalling the Passover Meal

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

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

THE FIRST CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

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

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

THE SECOND CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE THIRD CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

Recalling the Passover of the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

THE FOURTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SIXTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

Recalling the Final Supper

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

THE SEVENTH CANDLE MAY BE EXTINGUISHED

A period of silence is kept

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

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

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

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

 

Adapted from a service devised by John Squires in 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passing the peace, sharing the elements, greeting the minister

How do we pass the peace in a time when the COVID-19 virus (the corona virus) is spreading? What do we do to greet each other in worship (and, indeed, in everyday life) if shaking hands is not advised?

This was the topic of conversation at this week’s Canberra ministers lectionary conversation. We gave this some serious consideration to the question: how do we ensure the wellbeing (the good health) of the people in our community of faith?

One suggestion made is that, when it comes time to pass the peace, we face the other person, place our right hand over our own heart, and say, “peace be with you”. That avoids direct physical contact, but incorporates a direct visual interaction.

The other place where shaking hands is common, is at the end of the worship service, when people who are present file out (usually in an orderly manner) and shake hands with the worship leader who is dutifully standing at the exit door, waiting to greet each of them personally.

The best way to handle this would be to explain, during worship, that we will not be shaking hands during or after the service, and make the suggestion that people can interact in the way suggested: face each other, place our right hand over our own heart, and greet one another.

Modes of distributing the elements during communion need also to be considered; is it wise to hold to the use of a common cup? It is a wonderful symbol, but quite possibly is a significant health hazard in this time. A discussion of this matter with elders or church council would be a sensible way to proceed.

The use of hand sanitiser by the presiding person, prior to handling the elements, has been suggested for some time. Might it also be sensible to consider having sanitiser available to be used by others assisting in leading the service, and indeed by all as they arrive at worship? This is now the status quo in hospitals and medical centres, which provide a precedent for church gatherings.

This matter relates to the wellbeing of the communities we serve. How do we ensure that we keep a safe and healthy place for people to gather? I encourage you to consider these matters in the days ahead within the faith community or congregation where you currently gather for worship and fellowship.

For helpful information on COVID-19, see https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov#how-it-spreads