The Unfolding Interconnectedness of Life

Today in the progressive religious world, that St David’s has become part of; in the last few years, this weekend is Evolution Weekend. It began I think in the United States as congregations saw the need to claim a place for evolution in a Christian world that was being overcome by a fundamentalist movement in education and in theory. A weekend where congregations made a claim for evolution as opposed to Creationism based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Many thought that there was little need for such a movement in that such literal Creationism would soon be exposed as fantasy but amazingly it still exists for those locked in a literal approach to the bible despite the fact that it no longer makes sense in a world that has moved on.

For many outside the church even this topic is a waste of time and energy because for them the argument between science and faith seems to no longer exist, and as my Grandson has often said of the church’s wrestling with this sort of debate, “I have a very simple view of religion all you have to do is follow the golden rule; – do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ And when Karl Barth that well known theologian was faced with that same response he said; ‘I have a very simple view of astronomy – twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.’ They were and are right are they not. The science and faith argument is a strange one difficult to rationalize and one wonders why bother because what we know that has been provided by science and what we knew then now cannot be reconciled. L Charles Birch former Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney, in 2008 said and I think he was right “Such simplistic concepts are caricatures of science and religion” In many ways, the battle between religion and science, and specifically between evolution and various forms of creationism, that is being waged [in the USA] today while being more outdated is also more rancorous than it was 150 years ago.  And, although some of those on the creationist side are incredibly vocal, from a religious perspective they are clearly out of the mainstream” (Zimmerman 2010:11)

So, to celebrate this, I want to talk very personally about God. First of all, lets go to an extract of an article by Rex Hunt entitled … It’s Natural!  A ‘Forgotten Alternative’ for Progressive Spirituality. No matter how beautiful some may consider it, a supernatural worldview, and the practices that reinforce it, anaesthetizes us to things we need to do if we are to create sustainability for our planet, our children, and their children. To use Gretta Vosper’s words: “Stripped of a divine plan, we progressives are challenged to be active participants who can mould the world around us rather than simply passive recipients who engage, now and again, in acts of devotion with the hope of altering the course of events.”

So, where to start personally?  Well… Some options…. start by taking a three-year-old child, (maybe your grandson or grand-daughter) for a walk along some wet-lands track. Do not plan to be in a hurry. Every twig. Every coloured stone. Every duck. Every small grasshopper or lizard to cross your path will be an occasion for closer ‘looking’ and excitement. Such is the enchantment of a three-year-old for the natural world.

Start with your own life. With the fifty trillion cells of your body that are converting energy to make protein right now so you can read/hear these words. Or… with the awareness that the body you are carrying around now won’t be the body you’ll be carrying around one, three five years from now. It will have completely rebuilt itself from the inside out.

Allow yourself to be shaped by this creativity. This wonder. Webs of culture, life, and cosmos, resulting in unending successions of ever-evolving levels of living forms.  Each day lifts its head from the dew-strung grasses and offers new hope, new possibilities, extra chances.  Because every moment is pregnant with possibility. The miracle of each moment awaits our sensual wonder. Hosannah! Not in the highest, but right here. Right now. This. Horizontal transcendence. Nature embedded in humanity. Humanity embedded in nature.

There is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of super-naturalist traditions.

The very first sentence in L Charles Birch’s book is that: “The concept of God’s operations in the universe as a series of fitful interventions from a supernatural sphere overlaying the natural is quite unacceptable to science” (Birch 1965:7). While the third sentence said:
“On the other hand, the traditional thinking of science, sometimes called mechanism, is quite unreconcilable with any reasoned Christian position” (Birch 1965:7). He was right and it was the church’s inability to question its dependence upon super-naturalism that got in the way. The result has been a fragmentation of thinking in regard to the relationship between science and religion, three major views exist: One; the ‘conflict’ view – that science and religion are inherently, and perpetually, in opposition; Two; the ‘contrast’ view – that science and religion are different because they ask different questions; and Three: the ‘integration’ view – that science and religion can be integrated into a self-consistent worldview.

Unfortunately, what emanates from many pulpits even today is more likely to represent the ‘conflict’ view than the ‘integration’ view. The science faith debate gets swallowed up in the dualisms of secular and sacred, evil world and belief in God to name but two. This is perhaps why Evolution weekend is important. Not just in an ecological sense where man made climate change is the topic of the day, but also in a theological sense where the topic of God is also under siege.

‘G-o-d’ is a symbol or word known and used by nearly everyone who speaks the English language. But it is also a word which has many uses and meanings attached to it. The Macquarie Dictionary for one defines the word as: “the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe” (Macquarie Dictionary 1981:763).

We know that this way of speaking theologically is called ‘classical theism’. This ‘God’ is supernatural, interventionist, and nearly always couched in male anthropological (or human-like) language and images. And for many even some of us in this room perhaps, this is still the way to think when we hear the word ‘God’. But for those of us who have chosen to walk the ‘progressive’ path, this way of thinking doesn’t work anymore.

As I have said before; over the years my thinking has and continues, to change.
Firstly: I have come to think of God as the creative process or ‘serendipitous creativity’,
rather than a being who creates, and Secondly; I have tried, in the main, to us non-personal metaphors rather than personal ones.

The thoughts of many others have interacted with my own thinking, including those positively influenced by the work of Charles Darwin and his 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species.

In that book Darwin suggested that the world/universe was:

1; unfinished and continuing;

2: involved chance events and struggle, and

3: natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint”

Put another way: Both Peters and Kaufman have said the world/universe is cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004).

Or yet another way: “In the beginning was serendipitous creativity and the serendipitous creativity was with God, and the serendipitous creativity was God.  All things came into being through the mystery of serendipitous creativity; apart from serendipitous creativity nothing would have come into being. (Kaufman 2004: ix adapted).

The issue is that today, we have mentally constructed another universe. Both in science and in religion/theology. In science, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the earth’s age is approximately 4.5 billion years.  While the universe – that whole “complex, interrelated and interacting… matter-energy in space-time… of which humans are an integral part…” (Gillette 2006:1), is approximately 14 billion years old.

And “if we put our fourteen-billion-year universe on a clock of one hour,
humanity appears in only the last few seconds” (Peters 2002:127).

So, ‘modern’ science is saying and has been saying, again and again: the universe must be regarded as a whole; it is of intrinsic value, and each part, galaxy,
organism, individual atom, participates in that intrinsic value as each part or web, participates in this wonderful web of life. Each part, rather than one species or organism
separating itself out as more important than the rest.

As John Shuck has said: “This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read” (JShuck). I can recommend a good book to read on this and one is Lloyd Geering’s book, From the Big Bang to God. Our Awe-inspiring Journey of Evolution. He says in that book that “… the future of the human race remains an open question. On the one hand we must take full account of the perilous crises already facing us; like black clouds on the horizon, they indicate an imminent period of storms that could lead to catastrophic outcomes. It does seem unlikely that humans worldwide will be able to muster the willpower and the unity of action to avoid them altogether.

“On the other hand, we can draw hope from the Great Story of how we came to be here at all. It is a truly awe—inspiring universe that has brought us forth and, at least on this planet, has come to consciousness in us, displaying the human inventiveness, creativity and entrepreneurial skills that have helped to make us the creatures we are. And this potential may lead us to as—yet—unimaginable heights.

“If our descendants survive and evolve to reach an even more exalted state of being than ours, they will have arrived at what our forebears long aimed for when in their traditions (Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim or Christian) they hoped, respectively, to enter Nirvana, the Promised Land, the unity of all nations, or the Kingdom of God.”

When we ask the questions of theology, we might see that the ‘naturalistic’ strand of theology shaped by former Harvard Divinity School theologian, Gordon Kaufman, presents God as a non-personal ‘serendipitous creativity’ “manifest throughout the cosmos instead of as a kind of cosmic person.  We humans are deeply embedded in, and basically sustained by, this creative activity in and through the web of life on planet Earth (Kaufman 2004:58).

Here Kaufman clearly names the problem with traditional religious language and thinking.
Likewise his alternative thinking and language embraces both our scientific knowledge and the reality beyond the symbols of biblical faith.

A growing number of people around the world, religious and scientifically minded,
and conscious of this ‘web within a web of life’, are recognising that our modern life-style is:  harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns. They are saying that the earth is under assault!  Indeed that “we are killing our very life support system in a manner unprecedented in human history.  And yet, most of us go about our daily lives more or less blissfully indifferent to the devastation” (Hill 2008:10).

Here is a strong argument for progressive religious thought that calls each and every one of us to ‘dance with’, to live in harmony with, our world. And progressive religious/Christian thought names that creativity which indwells and sustains all life forms… galaxy
organism individual atom… ‘G-o-d’ or ‘the sacred’ or ‘serendipitous creativity’.

Meanwhile, Karl Peters, retired professor of philosophy and religion, has a couple of interesting and detailed comments. They are a bit technical and a little wordy, so I invite your careful listening.

To the question: ‘How old are we?’ Peters says: “phenomenally, a few decades; culturally, a few centuries or millennia; biologically, millions of years; cosmically, about 15 billion years” (Peters 1992:412).

To the additional question: ‘How long will we continue?’ he adds: “phenomenally, a few more decades or less; culturally, maybe a few more centuries; biologically, millions of years or, if we do not destroy ourselves first, perhaps until our sun dies five (5) billion years from now; cosmically, until the universe ends, which may be never…” (Peters 1992:412).

Peters answers are a kind of cosmic recipe for the functioning of all things. And reminds us that nature is in us as much as we are nature. “We are webs of reality, woven out of the threads of culture, biology, and cosmos…  As webs of reality each of us is a manifestation of a larger part of the universe as a whole…  We contain in us… after many cosmic, biological, and cultural transformations, the radiation that was present at the origin of the universe” (Peters 1992:412).

For Peters and for progressives, the evolutionary epic is a religious world view. Science and faith are about the same thing.  All of this and more, is why, on Evolution Sunday/Weekend, we are bound to talk about God.


Salt, Light, Church

Posted: February 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 5: 13-20

Salt, Light, Church

Over the last few years when the focus has been on a declining church in terms of numbers and size there has been much debate and discussion in some circles as to what the role of the church is. Is it the last-ditch stand on behalf of the Gospel? Is it the time for renewal of the old or is it time for renewal in a new world where Christianity no longer hold the majority in terms of membership? What is the church in a universal sense and what is its role? And at another level, what is the ‘church’ in the local expression called a congregation.

It has to be said that our church, the PCANZ always seems to be in the middle of one of those discussions. The obvious is the seemingly perpetual discussions about restructuring. And it has to be said that some people feel all this restructuring talk will enable the PCANZ to be better at reflecting the kingdom/realm/empire of which Jesus spoke about.  What do you think?

One suggestion is that decline has more to do with dwindling resources, an outdated theology, and the rate of change in the world. And it seems to make sense. But if we digress a little, we can say that if everything changes, then change too must change. For instance, each generation finds itself further removed from its predecessor. The gap between children and their parents is always a little wider than it had been for parents and their parents (Friedman 2009:10). The same can be said for ‘church’.

Given that this change has been going on for years and this seems logical what has guided us during this time of continuing change, what has guided us in our understanding of ‘church’? And our theology? But how will this looking back help us? It is always tempting to look back.  Many do, to the so-called ‘good old days’! But as historical beings the truth is that we are not just nourished by our past. We actually live in the present, and it is a new and novel present, Gordon Kaufmann says it is “qualitatively different from any of our human pasts” (Kaufman 2006:106).

And we need to be careful here because the novel, the new is always vulnerable as are all things that are serendipitous and created. We need to be careful because it will also be tempting to do nothing, lest we upset someone or their pet likes or dislikes, or power structures. In fact what we do when we set out to change structures and to develop new strategies for going forward we actually set up a formidable resistance that takes out focus away from the new and eats up resources and energies for change that if any only a few small and seriously altered attempts are left.

I am now going to suggest that all of this sort of focus is bereft of a wholeness and in the most part inappropriate.  Having said that I need to do what I am not keen on doing and that is to make a suggestion as an answer. I can’t claim it as my answer because it has been suggested by many before and I think it has not been taken up because it too has suffered in the face of Western culture and its, concentration on the left hemisphere of the human brain. So, if Kaufmann is right; what will shape our new present which is qualitatively different from our past?

Perhaps today’s stories, which hint at common everyday life in first century Palestine, and as told by the storyteller we call Matthew, can be a guide, or at least offer a couple of suggestions or signposts towards the task.

First of all, we might think about the images of the ‘church’ as light or salt. These images have been eagerly grabbed hold of by many church leaders, and the interesting thing is that they seem to be in sharp contrast to much of our modern mega-church or mission thinking. These sayings appear to uncover something of the indirect and hidden nature of the church. That is, they reveal a way in which the life of a faith community should seek to express itself.  Rather than calling attention to itself, a church or congregation or a ‘follower of Jesus’, is most effective when it/they are not noticed (Reid 2001:61).

Likewise, they also make it clear ‘church’ cannot exist alongside of, or in separation from, the community that surrounds and feeds us as human beings but is that in contrast to

Being the salt and light, in other words being not noticed as individual or as a faith community or as church?

Some years ago, retired Melbourne theologian and educationalist, Denham Grierson,
published a book called, A People on The Way. It was a study of ‘congregation, mission and in his case Australian culture’. It became a book used by many as a study guide. In it, Grierson picked up the three biblical images of light, salt and yeast and said they provide “a theological foundation for a local congregation as it seeks to define its mission”.

He then went on: “That mission is best understood as a continuing persisting presence…  Much of the witness of the local congregation (will be) of the kind that is hidden within the fabric of community”.

A continuing persisting presence…  Hidden, you might say, like salt? Just enough salt that we can say ‘this steak is juicy and tender and full of flavour’. Too much salt and we spit it out and complain. Not enough and after a while it becomes bland and all we have is the texture and the fibre. The key is that the salt is not detectable if it is doing its job. Its effects are.

Grierson, also being a storyteller, digs into his local history and tells a ‘salt’ story. “During the post war years in the 1940s in Australia a small but determined Catholic woman heard of the sickness of aged neighbours in small houses in her street. South Melbourne, the suburb where she lived, was hard hit by strikes and unemployment. Many people were sick because of poor nutrition, and unable to act because of advanced age. So, Mary Kehoe mobilized some of her friends and they cooked meals for those who were ill. The problem arose as to how to carry the meals to those in need?

A solution was found in the use of an old pram. And the meals were loaded into the pram,
and pushed up the street to the houses of the unwell and needy, and to a canteen two houses from Mary Kehoe’s place. Her efforts to involve the local council had resulted in the provision of two huts to act as a relief centre.

Meals cooked at her house were wheeled to the canteen where many gathered for emergency help. Thus began ‘Meals on Wheels’, which today it is so much a part of our social service environment that its beginnings are lost and forgotten. It gives hope and support to hundreds of people, who without it, would not survive. A continuing persisting presence, hidden, like salt.

Biblical scholar Barbara Reid puts Matthew’s ‘salt’ story in some sort of context “…the uses of salt in the ancient world included: seasoning, preservation, purification, and judgment…” She goes on: “In saying to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ Jesus could have meant that they perform any and all of these functions: that they draw out the liveliness and flavour of God’s love in the world; they are a sign of God’s eternal fidelity; they bring to judgment all that is opposed to God’s basiliea” (Reid 2001:48).

Then this important comment: “The task of Christians in every age is to discern what it means in a new context to be faithful to the words and deeds of Jesus.  Just as Christians of the last century determined that abolition of slavery was being most faithful to the gospel, even though Jesus’ teachings presumed the institution of slavery. Today we face the challenge of eliminating all sorts of discrimination such as that within sexism and systems of domination, political and economic empire and let’s reflect that these too are woven into the fabric of the Gospels” If everything changes, then change must change too.

I can remember helping a congregation to shape both a Vision Statement and a Statement on Evangelism. As to the latter we agreed our response would be characterized or shaped by: One: listening to the community first rather than talking about what it needs; Two; letting what we hear and feel and sense genuinely shape our gospel response; and Three; letting our response be original and creative. The model of evangelism was to be a continuing persisting presence, hidden if you like, like salt. And amid change that too is changing.

If we are to face a ‘church’ which is continually discussing change and restructuring and if we are to face this changing situation with integrity and purpose, then how we become ‘church’ in the community, will be more important than how we are structured within a set of Regulations or a Constitution. How to be a continuing persisting presence…is the question, and I want to make another suggestion here. I want to suggest that we might think about becoming skeptical mystics and apply that understanding to the task.

The truth is that we are in uncharted territory in terms of global population growth and ecosystem stress. We are currently living in heightened conflict with almost everything. Our environment, our political and organizational structures and with each other. We do not learn from our past because we have been gathering in communities with social conflict for at least 25000 years and we have even seen throughout cultural and lasting traditions that practices like fostering gratitude, holding detachments and understanding one’s opponent are ways of expanding one’s perspective and foster innovative solutions. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot resolve a problem with the same thinking we used to create it.

Matthew Fox suggests that we need to act as mystic warriors but I prefer to suggest that when implementing change, we act with mystic intent. In explaining what I mean I think that mystics listen to the greater whole. They empty themselves so that they can be a channel. They are the ultimate skeptic, the endless questioner, the one that seems unafraid of the questions and is somehow wise. They tap into the vastness of the Universe and recognise the endless possibility available through the divine spark within their hearts. They share forth immense love and compassion that arises out of a deep listening. They never rest in any knowing but instead bathe in a sea of uncertainty. As Meister Eckhart once said, ‘I pray to God to rid me of God”.

People who engage in life with mystic intent are people who pay attention to the here and now. Acting with intent, mystics are not passive peace makers. They are strong in their weakness, sure in their compassion and love. As Margaret Wheatley noted; A leader is anyone who wishes to help at this time, and leadership is intentional work. Being mystic with intent is about being both salt and light, in other words being one who knows they are unique in all the universe and the same time as being nothing but dust. Without them the world is but a place of persistent conflict. With them despair is overcome by joy and peace is possible. Change has meaning and purpose. With mystic intent at work the liturgical words of returning to the earth dust to dust become, alive in the cosmos, stardust to stardust and the wise mystic knows which to say from moment to moment knowing both are equally true. Amen.

Friedman, E. H. What are You Going to Do with Your Life? Unpublished Writing and Diaries. New York. Seabury Books, 2009.
Grierson, D. A People on The Way. Congregation, Mission and Australian Culture. Melbourne. JBCE, 1991.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minniapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.

Matthew Fox. Skylar Wilson, Jennifer Berrit Listug; Order of the Sacred Earth Monkfish Book Publishing Company Rhinebeck, New York.


‘Imagination and the Word’

Posted: January 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Imagination and the Word’

Carl Sagan wrote: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

And inviting us to explore what this imagination might feel like he wrote that: There is a wide, yawning black infinity. In every direction, the extension is endless; the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce.

I want to have a go; first of all to see if I can move imagination from the sphere of the temporary or the fanciful, or of the somehow untrue, and I want to do this by claiming that imagination is something we cannot live without, or in face be human without.

Some time back now I suggested that much of what is known as gnostic literature, is about ‘knowing’, and until recently not considered as worthy of being in the canon. At the core of this rejection, of the idea of knowing, is the suggestion that every spiritual teaching sounds a call from above or outside. And that the central aim of the teaching of Jesus is to sensitize us to the above that calls to us. Whereas Gnostic literature invites us to consider that the immensity of Christianity takes its interior meaning as a sign of an immensity within the self of every human being. As a path of inner awakening, as a path of deep self-knowledge (in other words, gnosis), it invites and supports the inner struggle to attend, to “hear and obey” one’s own Self, God in oneself. As Jean-Yves Leloup suggests, this is the intimate meaning of Anthropos: to be fully human oneself, is the incarnation of God. This is an unknown teaching in recent Christian teaching — not in the philosophical or theological sense, nor in the sense that it has never been said before, but in the sense that our ordinary thoughts and feelings can never really penetrate it. It seems too complex and emotional and too new-age-like. And it is unknown in the sense that we live our lives on the surface of ourselves, not knowing the one thing about our own being that it is necessary for us to know and that would bring us every good we could seriously wish for. The fitness industry says get fit and find it, the business industry says plan for it and know it, the personalisation says believe in yourself and know it as success. But in the end, we are speaking of an unknown part of ourselves, which is at the same time the essential part of ourselves: the Teacher within, our genuine identity. The way — and it is surely the way that is offered by all the spiritual traditions of the world— it is the practice, and the community supporting the practice, that opens a relationship between our everyday sense of self and the Self, or Spirit. I would suggest here that imagination becomes part of this relationship between self and Spirit and between self and world. We are told, this is made possible through the inner cultivation of a specific quality of conscious attention and intelligence that in the gnostic tradition is referred to by the Greek term nous, or higher mind. The danger here is to retain the incarnation within the inner world rather than recognize that what it might be more than that. What it might be is the realm of intermediate attention and of mediating conscious forces in the cosmos that are mythologized as the angelic realms in the esoteric traditions of the world’s religions. A bit of a mouthful but it is in this miraculous yet lawful mediating contact between the higher and the lower within ourselves that the deeper, intimate experience of conscious love is given— a conscious love for our starved and confused self that is at the same time love for our neighbour whose inner condition is identical to our own. And I suggest it is the imagination that applies this consciousness to in the world. You will need to give some time to this suggestion I am making because it is in the arena of theory and speculation and it is after all my attempt to shift imagination into being a vital aspect of everyday human life, rather than something only some have more of than others..

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is that the more it shows us about the meaning of Christianity, the more the mystery deepens. This paradox is due, surely, to the fact that, like every truly spiritual communication, it speaks to us both on the surface and at deep unconscious levels at the same time. While at the intellectual level it points to the resolution of apparent contradictions that sometimes drive us away from belief in the objective existence of the Good, it at the same time opens the heart to a silent recognition of homecoming— the joy of what we knew without words all along, but had all but given up hope of finding.

No mystery is greater or more welcome than this— that above our minds, in the depths of silence, we may be given to know ourselves as Being and as created to serve the good both for God and our neighbour. All it needs is the vehicle of imagination.

So having perhaps added confusion and mystery I want to see if I can bring us back to the everyday.

John Shea wrote the following story to assist us to shape our expectations as we enter this space called imagination;

A woman went into a marketplace, looked around, and saw a sign that read: ‘God’s Fruit Stand.’ “Thank goodness.  It’s about time,” she said to herself.

She went inside and she said, “I would like a perfect banana, a perfect cantaloupe, a perfect peach and six perfect strawberries.” God, who was behind the counter, shrugged and said, “I’m sorry.  I sell only seeds” (Shea 1997:53).

One of the first contemporary biblical theologians to recognise the importance of imagination and story in the tradition of the Christian faith was American, Amos N Wilder.

Way back in the 1960s he said this: “Jesus’ speech had the character not of instruction and ideas but of compelling imagination, of spell, of mythical shock and transformation” (Wilder 1964/71:84).

Wilder identified that it is through imagination and story that God ‘speaks’. That Christianity is a religion of imagination and the word. And behind the particular gospel stories and images lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.

Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers broke into the world of speech and writing of their time, with a novel and powerful utterance… Not a word of instruction and ideas.
But a word of compelling imagination.

So far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery, the storyteller says ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’.

In poetic terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, “oblivious of any concern for transcription” (Wilder 1964/71:13) or written record.

Jesus was: “a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1964/71:13).

Less romantically we can say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is argued I think by the Jesus Seminar who in its quest for the historical Jesus is now in search of his voice print. Writing things down has about it the risk of over emphasis on a sense of permanence while at the same time helpfully presupposing continuity and a future.

One risk of this is that the spoken word is temporary. The words are gone as they are spoken. What we call the ‘gospel’ arose out of a radical break, when old customs and continuities were undermined. And for storyteller Matthew that ‘radical break’ is contained
in the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’.

Most biblical scholars now days believe there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount. In reality, they say, it was the work of the author of Matthew’s gospel,
(at least from Chapter 3 onwards… to the first two chapters were written by someone else…) place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general, and as another Moses, in particular.

Jesus, like Moses, goes up to the mountain and sits as he speaks, demonstrating his authority, like that of Moses, as a teacher. The question often asked about the Beatitudes and other teachings on the mount is, what did they mean for Jesus’ followers in the age after his death? And what do they mean for us in the present age? If the Beatitudes are seen as new laws given by Jesus or as defining the in and the out, even defining difference then one set of propositions follow. However, if the Beatitudes are the gospel, the good news, then they can be seen differently. They can be sees as a gift – a re-imagining. A gift to expand the limits of word. A re-imagining that invites our response in favour of those who are adversely affected by the goings-on, of the ‘empire’. A response that will want to do away with that which oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, and or imprisons others.

I don’t know about you but for me, I favour the later. The Beatitudes are not a new set of laws, but following the metaphor of the opening story, seeds are offered as a gift of Creativity God. God does not offer perfection – or perfect fruit. God offers the seeds and invites and lures us to plant them… And then constantly care for them as they become complete. Imagination enables us to see the more, to picture hope, it encourages us to engage in a life that is a blip in cosmic timing and yet a hugely valuable lifetime of purpose and meaning. In our openness to this God or the sacred, we become a constant unfolding, a never-ceasing development. Life is a journey.

So, when going to our text for today we might ask; Why should we favour this view of the beatitudes as gift?  Well! Maybe because it is both realistic and hopeful in the same breath. It recognizes limit, incompleteness and failure. And yet it refuses to absolutize these states.  There is always the lure forward. The seed may or may not become completed that is the risk of creation and evolution. As gift it enables us to rise above or work through, in other words to re-imagine a wonderful bountiful world. The Beatitudes remind us that our Serendipitous Creativity God – is doing something new and unexpected in our midst and we can ill afford to ignore it. Change is life and life refuses to be embalmed alive!

And another joy of this serendipitous, creative and unexpected life is agelessness, and thus timeless. We can be 25 or 85 or 65… we always have the possibility of striking out on a new path. Why? Because we are a seed burgeoning toward a ripeness never achieved but always in the process of achieving. We are one with the divine serendipitous creativity that we might name “Almost”. We are a product of ‘Almost’s’ fruit stand, becoming, in this moment and in every moment to come. Amen.’

‘Affirm Human Dignity in the Face of the Indifferent’

Rex Hunt tells a mythical story from the Middle Ages about a young woman who was expelled from heaven. As she left, she was told that if she would bring back the gift that is most valued by God, she would be welcomed back. She brought back many gifts: drops of blood from a dying patriot; some coins a destitute widow had given to the poor; dust from the shoes of a missionary labouring in a remote wasteland. But she was turned back repeatedly. One day she saw a small boy playing by a town fountain. A man rode up on horseback and dismounted to take a drink. The man saw the child and suddenly remembered his boyhood innocence. Then, looking in the fountain and seeing the reflection of his hardened face, he realised what he had done with his life. And tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks. The young woman took one of these tears back to heaven and was received with joy and love.

To change her status from expulsion, rejection and casting out she had to discern what God valued most and to bring such a gift back to God to regain membership or access to heaven. In a word used widely in the church she was expected to repent and earn grace. For many folk, this call to ‘repent’ is one of the foundational phrases of the church. Yet surprisingly it is very infrequently heard on the lips of Jesus, and usually put there by the storytellers themselves. When Matthew has Jesus using it, it is not a call to any person in particular, but the context of a general invitation to others, such as those named this morning: Peter, James, John and Andrew, are to become wandering and homeless companions, cutting family ties, and relying on the support of local sympathizers.  It seems that repentance here means to join the struggle, to join the movement that will change the world, to answer the call as an invitation which would also bring them into relationship with the likes of Herod Antipas and the political powers of this world (Sarah Dylan Breuer, 2005). No promise of a good outcome here, just an opportunity to wrestle with the world.

And surprisingly, when it is not used as an invitation, it is most often directed towards the religious people of Jesus’ day. Those who worried about other people’s so-called sins, they needed to repent – not the sinners. Likewise, the conversion experience of Paul was not to turn away from a life of so-called ‘sin’ to living a life of everlasting moral purity. It was to stop persecuting others in the name of God and religion. So, the call to ‘repent’ is a call to live life in all its fullness.

This is a key problem for us today because we have inherited a faith that seems driven by fear of being wrong, fear of being vulnerable, fear of being doubtful. And it is because we fail to hear this alternative way of understanding repentance that we  and fail to communicate this call to live life in all its fullness to others. The truth is that the world hears the word ‘repent’ and assumes we are saying: “Become religious like us…” Become good like us when if anything it should be heard as the opposite of this:  “Be accepting of others…”

As I think about this I wonder if this is not one of the reasons I am wary of being called a “Christian” these days. (I prefer ‘Follower of Jesus’, or ‘walker of the Jesus Way) not just because it seems to have been captured by the conservative fundamentalist wing of the church but because I see the Bible being miss used and doctrines being used to denigrate others.

We are on dangerous ground when we do that. Especially with the Bible. Because many modern assumptions about the Bible are just incorrect:

  • the Bible did not encourage slavish conformity; it keeps reminding us to interpret for ourselves, It offers us alternative pathways of thinking and discernment.
  • the Bible has been suspicious of orthodoxy since the time of the prophets; why else would it include challenges to people’s central practices and religious assumptions
  • the modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimize policies and rulings
    is out of key with its interpretive tradition. One can’t categorically say that this or that is the answer and encourage an interpretive approach to the text itself. It is someone else’s legitimate, heartfelt story and thus it cannot demand a truth that transcends thousands of years.

Tomorrow most of us will be celebrating Auckland Anniversary Day. It is interesting to ask why we do this? Is it just to find something to celebrate? Is it really about the anniversary of the establishment of a Colony or is it about the beginning of a province called Auckland? Or is it just a day to celebrate Auckland’s wonderful weather with one of the largest one-day regatta in the world. Or is it just a day off. It seems to be a celebration of mixed blessings, really.

Like many other experiences of colonization part of the settling was to also win the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity. However, like many other experiences instead of it being a “search for a feeling of re-connection to a healthy kind of wholeness” (Loehr 2000:2), Religion was seen as a “useful package of warnings and admonitions that supplemented the control of the people justification for the prison cell, chains, lash, the gallows, or the rewards and remissions for good conduct”  (Blainey 1987:429).

Hence Christianity was in the main rejected by the people and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years. This has led some historians to conclude that like Australia, Christianity in New Zealand has always been rather a casual affair. It has been claimed that despite popular assertion by the church here the nation at best was only ever superficially Christianized.

And one of the things New Zealanders are particularly averse to, are “religious” people: those who pray over you, quote the Bible at you, and talk about God, as if they had access to God’s personal diaries! Generally speaking, the majority of New Zealanders have little interest whatsoever in becoming religious like that. Not I said religious like that. The interest in things spiritual is not included in that statement. If we as the church have only as our goal, the making of others “religious” like we have traditionally then it is no wonder people are simply not interested. It is no wonder that mainstream is in decline., and dare I say it despite the examples of revival of form so is the rest of the Christendom based model of church.

And quite frankly I don’t blame them at all. I don’t like being told what to do let alone what to think. It seems we have lost the point. We don’t like what under-girded the celebration of a colony and we opt for a boat race instead. We have missed the point, because we haven’t been brave enough to ask the hard questions of ourselves. We prefer to repent and thus pass it away rather than take responsibility for each other. What is a nation if it is not the people who love each other?

So, the call to repent then is not to say we are not measuring up to the standards ‘others’ or ‘God’ expects of us. It is a call to be accepting of other people, in their faith or their lack of faith., and it can be an Islamic faith or a Christian Faith or any faith at all. If it is not about loving relationship it is already lost.

The call to repent is not to write people off because they do not profess the faith in our particular terms, or live the same sort of life we try to do.

The call to repent is a call to respect all people. For there is in fact much goodness in all sorts of people. In religious and non-religious people. In Christians and Jews and Muslims. And those of all sorts of faith.

In a Review of a book by the radical English theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt he said: “Religion [is] a way of affirming the value of human life, from the first breath to the very last.  It is up to us to give it that value: to affirm human dignity in the face of the indifferent universe”.

Listening to his comment in light of what we have been thinking this morning ‘Repent’ is not the call of the church to the world. It is not about telling the world even a better way because that is already to remain aloof from seeing the worth and the beauty in all.

A different approach seems to be offered in a Michael Leunig prayer which was written for the commencement of 2008. Like Rex Hunt I want to share it. It is called “We shall be careful”:

We pray for the fragile ecology
of the heart and the mind.
The sense of meaning
So finely assembled and balanced and so
easily overturned.  The careful, ongoing
construction of LOVE.

As painful and exhausting as the struggle for truth
and as easily abandoned.

Hard fought and won
are the shifting sands of this sacred ground,
this ecology.

Easy to desecrate and difficult to defend,
this vulnerable joy, this exposed faith,
this precious order.  This sanity.

We shall be careful.
With others and with ourselves.

Blainey, G. 1987. “Sydney 1877” in (ed) D. J. Mulvaney, J. P. White. Australians. To 1788.Australia. The most godless place under heaven  NSW: Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates.
Breward, I. 1988. . VIC: Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books.
Loehr, Davidson. 2000. “Salvation by character. How UU’s can find the religious center” in Journal of Liberal Religion 1The shape of belief. Christianity in Australia today, 2, 1-14 (PDF file).
Wilson, B. 1982. “The church in a secular society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan. (ed) . NSW:  Homebush. Lancer Books.
Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. Sarah Dylan Breuer. 2005


Nurtured and Enlivened

Posted: January 8, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 3:13-17

Nurtured and Enlivened

Here we are again at the first Sunday after Epiphany and at the edge of the river Jordan with Jesus and John, During the past week of so some of us have undertaken the post-Christmas ritual of disassembling the Christmas tree and the putting away the cards and decorations for another year. The fairy lights and decorated wreaths have been packed away and Jesus wants to be baptized, but John is reluctant to agree: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”  But Jesus insists, receives John’s baptism of repentance, and experiences a moment of divine revelation as he comes up out of the water.

The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek, “epiphaneia,” meaning “appearing” or “revealing.”  During this brief liturgical season between Christmas and Lent, we’re invited to leave miraculous births and angel choirs behind, and seek the love, majesty, and power of God in seemingly mundane things.  Rivers.  Voices.  Doves.  Clouds.  Holy hands covering ours, lowering us into the water of repentance and new life.  In the Gospel stories we read during this season, God parts the curtain for brief, shimmering moments, allowing us to look beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and catch glimpses of the extraordinary.  Which is perhaps another way of describing the sacrament of baptism, one of the thin places where the “extraordinary” of God’s grace blesses the ordinary water we stand in.

About now the home cupboards and the hideaways under beds have once again received their annual ‘gifts’ and will not be invaded for another 11 months, or at least till a birthday or an anniversary gives reason for their extraction. It’s back to reality time! Time to get back into the public demands of commuting and work and all that. So, in the spirit of this so-called ‘return to reality’ we might ask a couple of questions. How do we prepare to step out into the public spotlight? And how do we act once we are out in the public view?

Parties, media releases and performances are the usual ways folk are introduced into public view. But something doesn’t seem adequate about this approach. Rex Hunt raises this question and called to mind an article he read in a 1970s copy of On the Move – a magazine produced by the then Joint Board of Christian Education – and written by former Victorian, Doug Mackenzie.

The query was; how can we in the church expand our rituals, our celebrations, to include those important special stages of life – such as applying for a first job, or leaving home to go to university, or heading off overseas for 12 months? Another way is to ask what does the season of epiphany have to say to this getting back to reality or this nurturing and enlivening of entry engagement in the world beyond the celebrations? Or what rituals can we, the church, encourage, invent, celebrate, as those among us step out into the public spotlight in these ‘first time’ public events?

We are left with the conclusion that we really haven’t seen the necessity of doing that yet.
Perhaps it is caught up in the ‘too hard’ basket. Or got lost in the so-called ‘sacred/secular’ debate. On the other hand the church has been reasonably successful in acknowledging how one is introduced into public ministry. In mine and others cases, for instance, the ritual was ordination. The baptism of Jesus, as told by the storyteller Matthew, is the church’s traditional ritual story of the ‘coming out’ of Jesus into the public spotlight, or as we might say stepping into reality. And while Jesus may have been reticent to claim titles for himself, others, such as Matthew, were quick to do so. For Matthew, this ‘coming out’ or ‘stepping into’ is of the one who will “establish justice upon the earth”.. through tenderness and vulnerability rather than force.

New Testament scholars now tell us the baptism of Jesus has distinctive characteristics in Matthew’s story. For instance, only Matthew:  includes a conversation between John the baptizer and Jesus. Only Matthew recounts John’s resistance to the baptism request;
Only Matthew stresses the public character of the baptism – the ‘voice’ addresses everyone. And we know that the baptism of Jesus was a very controversial subject. John was not the first to baptize people. Jews baptised ‘outsiders’ into their faith, but did not baptize other Jews. Jesus was a Jew.

William Barclay picks up this point in his commentary on Matthew: “No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism…” (Barclay 1956:52-53).

We also remember here that Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in the Synoptic Gospels, and not as ‘historical reports’ but as Christian accounts of an existing practice within the Christian community. A community that was clearly uneasy with the idea of John the Dipper baptizing Jesus, and we note here that the John baptism was not a Christian baptism! It is also important to note that grounding the Sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament as some are wont to do, is a tricky business.  There is no consistent New Testament view of Baptism so that understanding should be abandoned.  Even when we examine the genuine Pauline letters it is impossible to determine the origin of Christian baptism These were all important issues for members of the early Jesus Movement communities. Especially the debate around the different style and theology of Jesus and his cousin John, the baptizer!

John Dominic Crossan also puts this in context for us: He says; “The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful” (Crossan 1991:232). Here we have a difference between Conservatives and progressives. We have been taught by conservatives and traditionalists that Jesus was born and led a ‘sinless’ life. Like us, but not one of us. So was Jesus just participating in a public relations exercise by setting a good public example?

Others have suggested that maybe Jesus did not see himself as beyond the need for repentance. He was content to be identified along with the tax collectors, the lowly, the outsider. Maybe he felt an acute need to share the baptism of repentance.

Bruce Prewer, retired Uniting Church minister, says: “Jesus was baptised along beside the common human herd, because he was one of us and saw himself as one of us.  He did not play the role of being a human being; he was one.  His dipping in the river was neither setting a good example nor a public relations exercise for the best of reasons…  If this leaves us in a doctrinal tangle about the so-called sinlessness of Jesus, too bad.  I would far prefer a tangle, a dilemma, a paradox, than compromise [his] essential humanity…”  (BPrewer Web site, 2005).

Much doctrinal ‘bothering’ has gone on over the years around this issue.  In Matthew’s era and in our era there have been differences of opinion. And no doubt all of you will have your own opinion on this issue as well. We can be pretty sure when Matthew told this story, he told it very sensitively and aware of the raging debates of his time. But we can also be inclined to take the view that the reason he told this story was not doctrinal, but to lure his hearers away from all those ‘tangles’ to the life of the man Jesus whos’ vision would enlarge their experiences of God.

Today, we are invited to recall the public ‘coming out’ of Jesus, or as I prefer, ‘the stepping into reality that was: Jesus’ baptism. And by association we are also being invited to recall our own baptism. For the refreshing waters of baptism enlivens, and nurtures us each new day. But more than that, it reminds us that we live in God and that Creativity God lives and comes to wonderful expression, in us. And surely that’s worth ‘coming out of sacred exclusion’ or stepping into reality and celebrating our enlivening.

Someone once wrote that on the day they were baptized, they had no felt sense that they were giving themselves over to something larger, older, wiser, and more capacious than their own one-on-one with Christianity.  Baptism, she thought, was all about her effort, her obedience, her responsibility.  So much depended on her!  There were so many ways she could mess up and she had no idea that her “personal decision to love God,” important though it is, pales in significance to God’s cosmic decision to love her — and the whole of humanity and creation along with her.  She didn’t know that God was ushering her into a Story — a huge, sprawling Story that began eons before she showed up in church with tiny fistfuls of belief.

In other words, she didn’t know the paradoxical power of coming out of or stepping into.  Of giving herself over to something deeper and more trustworthy than the shifting sands of her own opinions, creeds, and doctrines: an ancient cloud of witnesses.  A worldwide community of the faithful.  A liturgy that endures.  A created universe that whispers, laughs, and shouts God’s name from every nook and corner.

John Dominic Crossan reminds us again that, Jesus’s baptism story was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church, precisely because of this coming out of the sacred or stepping into reality.  Why would God’s Messiah place himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser like John the Baptist?  Why would God’s incarnate Son receive a baptism of repentance?  Repentance for what?  Wasn’t he perfect? Why on earth would he wade into the murky waters of the Jordan, aligning himself with the great unwashed who teemed into the wilderness, reeking of sin?  Worse, why did God the Father choose that sordid moment to part the clouds and call his Son beloved?  A moment well before all the miracles, the healings, the exorcisms, the resurrections?  A moment long before Jesus accomplished a thing worth praising?

Why, indeed?  And yet this is the baffling, humbling, awe-inspiring story we’ve inherited as Christ’s followers. Unbelievable though it may seem, Jesus’s first public act was an act of stepping into his humanity in the fullest, most embodied way.  “Let it be so,” he told John, echoing the radical consent of his mother, Mary, who raised him in the faith.   Let it be so at the hands of another, he decided, as he submitted to John the Baptizer, because what Jesus did and still does with the power of his story is to freely surrender it, share it, give it away.  Let it be so here, he said, in the Jordan River rich with sacred history.  The Jordan where once upon a time his forbears, the ancient Israelites, entered the land of Canaan.  The Jordan where the prophet Elijah ended his prophetic ministry, and his successor Elisha inaugurated his.  The Jordan which flowed under the same “opened” sky God first opened “in the beginning,” at the very dawn of Creation.

In other words, in this one moment, in this one act, Jesus stepped into the whole Story of God’s work on earth, and allowed that story to resonate, deepen, and find completion.

So.  What part of this story is hardest for us to take in?  That God appears by means so unimpressive, so familiar, we often miss him?  That Jesus enters joyfully into the full messiness of the human family?  That our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail too often to honour?  That as Christians we are called into radical solidarity, not radical separateness?  We have nothing to say that demands others listen, nothing to say that needs to be heard, nothing to demand for a better world. Rather, the message we live is that we are always and already God’s Beloved — not because we’ve done anything to earn it, but because God’s very nature, inclination, and desire is to love?

To embrace the biblical baptism story is to embrace the core truth that we are united, interdependent, connected, and one.  Our baptism is the challenge to sit with the staggering reality that we are deeply, deeply loved.  Can we bear to embrace these mind-bending truths without flinching away in self-consciousness, cynicism, suspicion, or shame?

We might well be coming to terms with the truths of our baptism; and we might keep doing so for as long as we live.  But we don’t need to have angst about belief as we used to; We believe and disbelieve a hundred times a day, and yet the efficacy of our baptism holds.  That is the point — we are held.  Not by our own profession of faith, but by the nurturing and enlivening power of the sacred that holds history, time, earth and sun and wind and sky, and holds you and me.  The sacred who parts the clouds, blesses the water, and calls us a beloved child.

Baptism — we might understand now — is all about coming out of the closeted safety of the old story and stepping into reality, and it is all about surrender to a vulnerability, all about finding the holy in the course of our ordinary, mundane lives within the family of God.  Which means we must choose Epiphany.  Choose it, and then practice it.  The challenge is always before all of us: look again.  Look harder.  See freshly.  Stand in the place that looks utterly ordinary, and regardless of how scared or jaded we might feel, cling to the possibility of a surprise that is God. Listen to the ordinary, and know that it is infused with divine mystery.  Epiphany is deep water — we can’t just dip our toes in it.  We must take a deep breath and plunge.  Why? Because baptism promises new life, but it always drowns before it resurrects.

And if all this is about the love of the one, we name God, what about Jesus? What reason for Christian hope, then?  What shall we hang onto in this uncertain season of light and shadow? Well! For me Jesus is still the centre of my faith and I cannot do without him. For me he is hope itself. He’s the one who shows that the barriers can be opened, and he’s the one who shows us the God we long for.  He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that will tell us who we are and in whose likeness whose we are. Here it is; Emmanuel! God with us!

And the nurturing nature of this God within claims that we are all God’s chosen and God’s children cannot do without God.  God’s own.  Even in the deepest, darkest water, we are always and ever the Beloved. Amen.

Barclay, W. The Gospel According to Matthew. Scotland. St Andrew’s Press, 1956.

(Hunt & Jenks. Wisdom & Imagination, Melbourne. Morning Star Publishing, 2014) ALSO Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2016.

Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.

Debie Thomas:


 Towards a Theology of Incarnation’

“In the beginning was the performance; not the word alone,
not the deed alone, but both, each indelibly marked
with the other forever”
(John Crossan 1991:xi)

Today’s sermon is an attempt to look at the doctrine of incarnation by listening to two stories. Bothe are stories by a John. The first is John Dominic Crossan who is a leading, progressive, biblical scholar. Depending on one’s theological persuasion, some would say, ‘the best’! Others don’t or won’t even mention his name. In his 500+ page book on the ‘historical’ Jesus, published 25 years ago, (and usually referred to as ‘big Jesus’, because his second book on Jesus was a much slimmer publication, known as ‘little Jesus’) he weaves this story…

Crossan’s story….

“He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee.  He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution.  He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle.

He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.  They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession” (Crossan 1991:xi).

This Crossan story helps I hope to enter the texts for today especially the one from the Gospel we call the Gospel of John. For a lot of the time following modernity and In the circles of the liberals this gospel was left alone because it didn’t quite fit with modernity and the ascendency of reason in scholarly priorities. One might suggest that John’s Gospel was too mystical for liberal academics as it didn’t fit well with the historical critical method that was the popular method if approaching the scriptures. I with Marcus Borg might suggest that John’s Gospel was written in building Christendom as an empire of God, a post Easter Jesus at its core, the image of The Christ is birthed and the supernaturalism is created to met the differences between Hebrew world view and Roman and Greek world view. Today’s biblical storyteller, a bloke we also call John, has told his similar sounding, yet different, story:

John’s story

“He came in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.

“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13, NRSV).

I hope by now you have twigged that Both stories are interpretations, imaginative reconstructions, of the one we call Yeshua/Jesus and the past. One is mystic, perhaps even gnostic. The other, everyday, ordinary – even what we might call secular if we see that secular is opposed to Christian.

I have to admit that the bloke we might call biblical John, has never been my favourite but he is an interesting theological storyteller. In my youth he was the most quoted biblical writer and it was almost required that to be a Christian one had to quote from John’s Gospel to prove one’s faith. The most quoted phrases seemed to have come from John’s gospel. And it is from biblical John we hear some of the most memorable sayings attributed to, or about, Jesus:

  • God so love the world that he gave his only son…
  • In my Father’s house there are many mansions…
  • I am the Way and the Truth and the Life…

When we read John’s Gospel his audience seems to be mostly made up of Judeans influenced by a multicultural lifestyle shaped by Greek thinking. While his primary purpose in being a storyteller/theologian is to get this audience to think theologically on various God-events. Not having the scientific knowledge we have today, it does make cosmological sense to him and other biblical storytellers “to talk about God or messengers of God coming to Earth to speak to humans in dreams or special religious experiences.  This is the religiously significant universe constructed out of experience and the cultural thought patterns available… two thousand years ago” (Peters 2002:127).

However, unlike in John Crossan’s story, there is little to no ‘historical’ Jesus material in these writings. Instead, Jesus is nearly always presented as ‘divine’. Indeed, according to biblical John, Jesus himself “voices the fully developed Christian conviction about who he is” (Fortna 2002:223).

So that’s the first thing we need to remember when we hear or read biblical John.
It’s the stuff that orthodox or ‘correct’ belief, and the Nicene Creed, are all about.
It is about Jesus being divine!

The second thing we need to remember is, biblical John begins his reconstructed story of Jesus – or of the ‘Christ of faith’ – within the matrix of late first-century Judaism. This is important in context and influence on the thinking of the day. Remember here that the Gospel is thought to have been written between AD95 and AD 130. Depending upon how developed you might think the orthodoxy is you might choose as some recent scholars do that the later dates is more likely. But the key thing to remember is that the writer of John is writing about Jesus at least 95 years after his death and more likely. 130 years after.

John’s Jesus is a religious Jew within a culture dominated by the actions and power of the Roman Empire.

That power and action was military power: with the monopoly or control of force and violence; It was an economic power: with the monopoly or control of labour and production; It was political power with the monopoly or control of organisation and institution; It was also an ideological power with the monopoly or control of interpretation and meaning (Crossan 2007:12-15).

Two things stand out about John Dominic Crossan and they are that he is a good storyteller. He is also a person who deserves great respect for his intellectual honesty.

Crossan’s Jesus is very much ‘human’.  The subtitle of his ‘big Jesus’ book, for instance, is: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Crossan’s human or ‘historical’ Jesus is also more sage-like than priest-like. And certainly not theologian-like. A sage who spent much of his time among the farms and villages of Lower Galilee. A sage whose wisdom is embedded “in his seemingly innocuous observations on the everyday world” (Funk 2002:1).

One dictionary I looked up has a sage as a profoundly wise person and a priest as a person who performs religious ceremonies. This suggests there is a distinct difference and I think one of the key things here is that one might question belief and assumption and the other protect and project faith. The sage might have a worldview that involved experience and practice and not just theory, know a life-style and not just a mind-set.
A sage might hold “Not the word alone, not the deed alone, but both, each indelibly marked with the other forever” (Crossan 1991:xi). I don’t think the difference is about importance or status but rather about a more inclusive, all-encompassing and unifying approach.

I can recall parishes seeking to call ministers who were very good priests and sages at the same time and I am now of the thought that this is because of our institutional view of the church with Parishes, Presbyteries and General Assemblies with paid leadership that the institution expects to be priests and the people expect to be sages. Priests are easier to control by the institution because it is more measurable whereas wisdom is more difficult to evaluate and thus control.

But returning to the text and listening to biblical John’s story through the critical biblical thought of the scholar called John Dominic Crossan, we see that the influence of culture and time we need to shape a new/different ‘religious’ story. Different from the one generally available through the Bible and the Creeds, and which reflects the fact we are living in a scientific, pluralistic age.

The old cosmology of much of the biblical stories, spanning a 1000, years plus more,
and the traditional hymns and prayers shaped by those stories, and their sense of the ‘supernatural’ or ‘divine’, is now found wanting in the main. If you sense in my saying that a reaction the suggests we need to protect the gospel or the divine Jesus I suggest that that is a logical and human reaction. If something is important it needs to be protected but that does not say that it cannot be replaced because change is life giving. The death of the old has to take place if we are to experience life. Otherwise why are humans born and die? Why is eternal life so important?

The reality is that our new religious thinking/story must be credible in the light of scientific understandings. Some might say its too late for that. People are no longer religious because that gap has grown too large.

The trouble is that we need to feel at home in our expansive and changing universe.
Yes that means that most of us, apart from a few fundamentalist Christians accept that the proposal given us by scientific research and study that while we are created and nourished by our past, generally speaking, we actually live in the present, and therefore as Gordon Kaufmann wrote in 2006 we need to “come to terms with the major problems we now face if the human race is to survive into the future and flourish in that future” (Kaufman 2006:105).

It is true that today our world community is facing many crises:

  • environmental crises of pollution and climate change;
  • political crises often aided and abetted by terrorist groups;
  • economic crises of unemployment and burgeoning national deficits,
  • not to mention natural disasters…

But on the other hand there are also many positive breakthroughs:

  • breakthroughs in medical science and technology;
  • breakthroughs in new developments in political systems;
  • breakthroughs in exciting new insights as to how to live our lives (Peters 2002:130).

The new has always been seen as bad by some but it is regulated by its ability to affect the world and that is always and always has been within the control of people who care.

Thus, I along with many am firmly of the belief that the old religious story, shaped by the ‘divine’ Jesus, as conveyed by biblical John in the Fourth Gospel, has lost its appeal or authority to shape present-day human lives.

As some religious naturalists have pointed out, regularly, as old myths, religious stories, and other shared narratives of humankind “are increasingly viewed as intellectually implausible and morally irrelevant, they become less likely to fulfill their original purpose. And as I suggested last week its easier to paint ghost, and dragons that what’s real; the human race. The supernatural no longer seems – to give people answers and provide a sense of stability and peace in daily life” (Rue 1999).

On the other hand, I and others are also firmly of the belief that the thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness.

“In this understanding of Jesus,” suggests former Harvard theologian, the late Gordon Kaufman, “…no supernatural authority or extra-human power… is invoked to compel our attention… The important point to note is that if we decide to order our lives in terms of the [human] Jesus-model whether as churches and communities or as individuals, it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take – or fail to take – the steps to carry out that decision… Only in this way will we be living and acting with a proper openness to, as well as accountability for, not only the religious and cultural pluralism of today’s human existence but the human future as well” (Kaufman 2006:32-34).

This suggests that this year 2020; is going to be a watershed year in the life of progressive religion/Christianity! It will be a year confronted with pollution and climate change; political crises that empower terrorism, economic concerns with unemployment and burgeoning national deficits, and as the world works out a new system that enables a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, and how it deals with natural disasters that disrupt those systems and cost the lives of people on a planet under stress of production and distribution. It is also a year where much new and exciting is due to burst forth. The breakthroughs in medical science and technology; are mind boggling in their reach into the unknown artificial intelligence is on the brink of engagement that both frightens and excites us with its ability to transform lives. The ability of technology to make life so different is huge that it too is scary and exciting. There is also much being done in developing new political systems; The Wellbeing approach to policy development is filled with promise and at the sane time fraught with skepticism. It has to be said that with the pace of change 2020 is a watershed year like every year but specific in its content as new insights as to how to live our lives unfolded.

Today’s theme I think is to invite you to continue the ‘progressive’ journey, courageously.

Stories for both Johns ask us to remember that we are on that journey. And another story from the Jesus of the so-called ‘heretical’ text, The Gospel of Mary is reported to have said: ‘The child of true humanity exists within you’. Hopefully, that is inspiration enough for us to keep on asking the big questions. Amen.

Crossan, J. D. God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991/1993.
Fortuna R. T. “The Gospel of John and the Historical Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Holy Bible. NRSV. Nashville. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 2002.
Rue, L. Everybody’s Story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution. New York. State University of New York Press, 1999.

‘The Reason for the Season’

Posted: December 25, 2019 in Uncategorized

‘The Reason for the Season’

Once upon a time there was a famous painter. He lived at court part of the year, and alone in his hermitage the other part. He loved to paint, everything and anything. He painted for nobles and politicians, for farmers and army commanders and children and royalty, usually whatever they wanted or desired.

He had an uncanny ability to depict things so realistically, his drawings and paintings took your breath away. One day someone asked him: “What are the hardest things to draw and paint?” Unhesitatingly, he answered, “Horses, dogs, cats, insects, and most especially faces of the old and children.”

Those who were listening to the conversation were very surprised. Someone asked: “Well, what is the easiest?” His answer was, “Ghosts, monsters, and especially dragons.”

They were dumbfounded.  A voice piped up, “But why?”

The painter was serious and responded, “Think about it.  What do you see all the time? Common animals, birds, plants and people.  We’re used to them.  They are as familiar as our own hands, and any defect in the drawing is glaringly obvious.  We see it right away.

“Because no one really knows what ghosts and monsters and dragons really look like, I can paint them wildly, fantastically, grotesquely, even amusingly, and everyone is pleased. They have no definite shape. They are loose in our minds. “But people – they are so hard to paint truthfully.”

Here’s another story.

At Christmas, all the rules change. All of us have thought we knew what God looked like. We hear it when people talk following a tragic death of a loved one. We hear it in prayers, and church debates. When the Sallies did their outdoor preaching, we heard it on street corners. We can read it in pamphlets stuffed in our letter boxes by churches using todays media tools in search of people who think like them.

The God we hear of is often, as fantastical, whimsical, or without definite shape, as there are minds to imagine the sacred. At Christmas though, we are given sight of God and or the Sacred, and this God is different and when we dig under all the later trappings we find that this God looks like every mother’s child, every woman and every man ever born. Tradition ally we equate this familiarity with the Roman and Greek Gods who were men given the status and powers of a God. Their prowess be it military or intellect or wisdom was seen to be Godlike so they were therefor Gods. This was gradually rejected by Christianity as the need to differentiate between God’s and a God with greater distance between what was God and what was man became more acceptable and understandable. Today however I want to suggest that the decline in the Christian Church is the rejection of a God that is untouchable, too distant and too supernatural. Perhaps tom much like a ghost or a dragon. Too easy to paint and thus hang on the wall to look at when passing.

The great mystery we are grappling with now is that because God is so familiar, because God looks like every one of us, it is hard to tell who God is. The God who doesn’t deliver has become the God who is too much like us. We are no longer sure whether we are made in God’s image or God is made in ours and we are not sure how to respond to the dilemma. I suggest this might why we are so obsessed with church survival as opposed to expounding the message of Christmas. New rules have arrived and that’s the reason for the season. And to make it more complex these rules don’t just apply to a theological concern; they are about a way of living that flows out of that revelation of difference.

Sometimes discovering the God given moment in ordinary people and daily events can be difficult. The sayings such as ‘see Christ in the face of the poor” “be Christ to those in need” suggest that this unity of God and Human is possible yet they are easier to paint than live it seems

I wonder if the fact that many of us have been taught to expect God  in the spectacular, in the dramatic, in the supernatural might not be part of the dilemma.

If this is how we have been nurtured, then we have to admit, a Christmas which invites us to see an incognito God in the midst of ordinary people and daily events, might be more disturbing of our faith than comforting. When this unknown, unknowable, untouchable God is so intimately close the questions about the importance of belief, the corruptibility of God and the efficacy of humanity tend to emerge

It is here that I think we need to re-visit our understanding of incarnation. Freed from a constructed supernatural verses natural connection we might just move away from a simplistic Sunday school understanding and be able to engage in a more durable, actionable faith journey. This is, perhaps what is meant by incarnation. Perhaps this is God’s justice and peace. Maybe this is God’s presence among us, now.

Let’s come at this another way now.

American theologian Sallie McFague suggests that Christianity is “…the religion of the incarnation par excellence.  Its earliest and most persistent doctrines focus on embodiment”. Incarnation is embodiment. Australian David Tacey concludes, the new spirituality brewing within society at the moment, will “…truly be revealed as the mystery and silence at the heart of everything we do and feel.  God will not be proud, haughty or exalted but, rather, every-day, horizontal and earthly”.

While just for good measure… historian Clement Miles suggests: “The God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished.  Christmas is the festival of the natural body, of this world; it means the consecration of the ordinary things of life, affection and comradeship, eating and drinking and merry-making…”

And let’s not presume that this challenge to rethink the incarnation is anything new. More than 600 years ago, a male Catholic Christian mystic and theologian asked: “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1400 years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?”

The mystic was Meister Eckhart and he was certainly not a fundamentalist. His theology was a way of talking about lively realities. He was also talking metaphorical, not only about “son of God,” but also and startlingly about “give birth.”

His question is as sound and as solid as I could imagine, even these long centuries later. Because Eckhart’s query is about birthing new qualities into a waiting world that needs them. Not through some other source on its own, but also through us, in the place we each uniquely are.

I think this is both the promise and the provocative challenge of Christmas. So maybe this Christmas, amid the wrapping paper we are filling the rubbish bins with and the ham, chicken and turkey bones we are wrapping and discarding and the empty wine bottles we are recycling we might become sensitive to the opportunities in each present moment, when our God is in the midst of ordinary people and daily events.

Maybe then we might encourage the Loving God who acts in us, and the God in other people who receive our loving actions.

And the challenge might be to see that a God in us cannot but love the God in the other, and this is the reason for the season. Amen.