Easter 7A, 2017 John 17:1-11

Imagination And The Womb of God…

Here we are at the end of the Season of Easter. After some 50 days, following an agenda primarily set by the storyteller Matthew, even though the majority of gospel stories have been told by the theologian/storyteller we call John, we have run out of Easter type stories, and not only that we have run slap-bang into a one-day Season, called Ascension Sunday. Ascension Sunday is a season which uses lots of ‘up there’ mythical language “as naively as any passage in the New Testament” to quote 1960s ‘Honest to God’ John Robinson (Robinson 1967:76). So what are we now to make of the Ascension story in 2017?

Well! I thought we might explore what mythical language might offer us in an age when perception is truth, life is probability and purpose is creative imagining. And I want to start with the Gospel of Mary that we have been touching into the last few weeks As you will know the gospel of Mary is what is known as gnostic literature, it is about knowing and until recently not considered as worthy of being in the canon. At the core of this is the idea that every spiritual teaching sounds a call from above. But, as the present text announces and demonstrates, the central aim of the teaching of Jesus is to sensitize us to the above that calls to us from within ourselves. Gnostic literature invite 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, 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 new agie. 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 personalization 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. This interior relationship between self and Spirit, we are told, is made possible through the inner cultivation of a specific quality of conscious attention and intelligence that in this tradition is referred to by the Greek term nous, or higher mind. It 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. 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 of metaphysical poverty is identical to our own.

As Jean-Yves Leloup shows us, this is the love that is spoken of in the words of Jesus, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” It is a love that cannot be commanded, but that we are obliged to recognize as the defining attribute of our essential Self.

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.

Applying this thinking to our John text we have to acknowledge with Bruce Epperly that there is every possibility that some of those who first heard or read the story of Jesus being ‘raised in glory’ (like one of the ancient Greek heroes) 70 -90 years after the life of Jesus, could have actually believed he ascended to a literal heaven and would return from God’s throne ‘someplace up there’ at the end of time  (Epperly P&F Web site 2005).

That is how they could have made sense of their world. But that is not how we understand our world and that invites us to see the Ascension story as a bit of a test case of our ability to cope with strange language, and primitive cosmology. As Rex Hunt says, “The challenge for us is to find new ways and new phrases of contemporary significance beyond the traditional literal images of ancient knowledge for the telling of both the Jesus stories and the God story. It also says that story and poetry and imagination and image are important in this journey.

In light of the ‘otherworldly’ interpretations many congregations will hear today, we need to be quite clear that the heart of this particular Jesus story is not about some pre-scientific form of space travel… Neither is it about a past moment in time, nor about some possible future event, usually called the Second Coming. It is a story about our calling as Christians to heal and transform the world. This world. To live faithfully in this life on the journey that Jesus chartered. Likewise, when we are engaged in our God-talk it too needs to go beyond our traditional literal images.

Two people who have attempted this are Shirley Murray and Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan. Both are contemporary composers whose work invites us to imagine God or the sacred, differently, and to experience faith with some different accents.

We know of some of Shirley’s creativity as we have sung a number of here contemporary hymns in our services. But Richard’s work is likely to be new to many of us, and it is one of his songs, “Ground And Source Of All That Is“, that I want to focus on today. I want to read three verses of the song that I think invites us to imagine.

The first verse invites us to see that there is a possible big picture and it proposes a shape to all things interconnected and offers a meta-narrative to approach. The second verse invites us to see that this picture is not about sameness, or a bland oneness but rather one that is rich in its diversity and one that explores the mystery of beauty. The third verse invites us to see that while human life has some constants to it these constants are about the nature of life within this big picture.

Ground and source of all that is, one that anchors all our roots, Being of all ways and forms, deepest home and final truth. We live and move in you We live and move in you…

Lover of ten thousand names, holy presence all have known, Beauty ever welcoming, Mystery to stir the soul.  We live and move in you We live and move in you…

Nature by whose laws we live, author of our DNA, All compelling call to life, drawing one and all the same. We live and move in you We live and move in you… 

We might also be reminded of the creative work of Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and theologian. Her continuing invitation like the Gospel of Mary to us all is to consider the feminine image of God. Not in some cheap Hallmark Mother’s Day card theology, but addressing God in relational ways. In one of her many reflections she offers this:

The God of history, The God of the Bible. is One who carries us in Her arms after carrying us in Her womb, breastfeeds us, nurtures us, teaches us how to walk, teaches us how to soar upward just as the eagle teaches its young to stretch their wings and fly, makes fruitful, brings to birth, clothes the lilies of the field, clothes Eve and Adam with garments newmade, clothes you and me with skin and flesh and a whole new level of meaning with the putting on of Christ… (Winter 1987:20).

These are different ways of thinking theologically and imagining God? Yet they do not contain everything new, because the feminine image of God, has been around for generations; it was just successfully buried by church patriarchy as ‘pagan’. When we think theologically about the biblical stories of the Ascension as we are required to do, we see that this means more than just interpreting our given orthodox biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means as Sallie McFague has said, about being willing to think differently now than in the past!  And let’s not be naïve here, this can and very likely will be dangerous stuff. Jesus proclaimed good news yet this was in the main, rejected. Not because it was good, or bad, but because it was new!

So this day, as the season which celebrates new or changed life comes to a close, maybe we could imagine the ‘womb’ of God birthing us to be wonderful, creative, and caring human beings… As Jacob Needleman, from the Department of Philosophy, San Francisco State University, says; it is in the 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 of metaphysical poverty is identical to our own. Or as Rex hunt says; We are born in the image of the One who has borne us. Pilgrims along the way – on a not-so-easy journey which Jesus first chartered.

Notes: Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Book, 1967. Winter, M. T. Woman Prayer Woman Song. Resources for Ritual. Oak Park. Meyer Stone, 1987.

Leloup, Jean-Yves. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene Inner Traditions/Bear & Company.



Easter 6A, 2017 John 14:15-21

God Lives A Wonderful Expression In Us. 

Last week are claimed that the words ‘I am the Way the Truth and the Life’ were put into the mouth of Jesus by the storyteller John, and the interpretation I offered, I am sure was challenging to some of you. The claim was counter -cultural in the extreme in that those words have for many years been at the core of transmitting Christianity as the only true faith and that while other faiths were clearly of value they missed the boat considerably. For years we have been brought up on an exclusive Christianity. Even our interfaith dialogue has not been able to break completely free of the exclusivity. Of course this has its roots in a literal understanding of the scriptures, and doctrines and creeds have been piled on to confirm and build on that view. With a claim of certainty the gospel has been delivered with a level of almost arrogance and at the expense of other faith’s validity.

But what I said last week was not what some of you have read or heard others say before. What I hoped was that you might have begun to view a world where the Christian Way was just another approach to the questions about what it means to be human and what our purpose might be. For those of you who were not here last week I should perhaps recap just a little. The starting point was to ask how we could make sense of the claim: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’. I suggested by using Rex Hunts recollection that traditionally, these words have often been used, and come across, as exceedingly exclusive. As if Jesus, in the guise of a benevolent but first century ‘Terminator’, is making an ambit claim against other religions. I know that when wanting to share one’s faith one has to seem enthusiastic and the difficulty is in being enthusiastic without being exclusive of other points of view. But I think I want to say that there is a Way of claiming the Jesus Way as worth exploring without saying that anything else if wrong.

I claimed last week that Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership but rather. He is the path-way into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship… It is looking ahead to the possible rather than getting hung up on identity. I also suggested last week that the introduction of the Gospel of Mary brought the feminine argument into sharper relief, restoring a balance so to speak and enabling relational thinking to contribute to logical thinking. Or as I suggested into the mystery of our common existence.

I also suggested that Jesus is the truth about that common existence. Not in the sense of some unchallengeable doctrinal fact but rather in the sense of uncovering what is hidden, and bringing to light another dimension of human existence. Jesus is the truth in the sense that he encourages the possibility of an alternative path. Jesus is the truth about what it means to be human.

I suggested that Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other. Here is the core of relationship. It is found in the mysterious interaction that is what motivates us for life. All the struggles and challenges we know as our lives make sense when we discover that others have been there, others are there and others will be there. Jesus is the life because we recognize it as a life we know and experience in relationship with each other and with our God.

So the challenge for those of us who live comfortably with the title ‘progressive’, (and that’s not everyone who call themselves progressive) is not the existence of other faiths claims. For the most part, most of us happily embrace religious pluralism and spiritual diversity. The challenge, it seems is our surrendering of the Christian story to exclusive cults and preaching gurus, to fundamentalists and members of the ‘religious right’, and to the new neo-conservative evangelicals.

But all of that was last week so we had better get on to this week before time runs out.

I want to suggest that this week gospel is a natural sequel to last week even though some consider it complicated. It is John’s prelude to Pentecost –  and it is a bit complicated but it is about the continuing presentness of God. I want to try now to briefly suggest that this text is about that which my title suggests. God’s expression in us. Firstly I want to say that an entry point is the differences between the religion of Jesus, and the religion about Jesus.

The religion of Jesus is found in the echoes of the sayings he spoke and the stories he told, not as law, but about how to live, how to treat one another, how to re-imagine the world. His healing actions were not about supernatural manipulations of nature, they were healings in the truest sense, that of enabling people to live the fullest of lives that they could. They were about freeing the mind to see possibilities rather than restrictions. His teaching was about seeing the ordinary everyday life in anew light. About seeing the possibility of peace in a culture of military aggression.

The religion about Jesus has often been the religion of literalism and fundamentalism. And when it has, it is believing a certain story about an interventionist God, with the promise that if you do believe, you’ll be saved some day after you die. The religion about Jesus was dependent upon unquestioning loyalty to an idea and that idea was that humanity was totally dependent upon supernatural means. There was no point is seeking a true peace because it was beyond one’s control.

This means that the religion of Jesus is not a ‘supernatural’ story.  It is about how one can be made more whole, here and now, and how one can help make the world more whole, here and now. From our very best guesses (thanks to the work of amateur sleuths and scholarly critics), we can say the message of the religion of Jesus was one of liberation and empowerment and compassion. Of providing new or different pathways to experiencing and serving God in daily life, this life.

And from all we have puzzled over and learned, we can also say the message from the religion about Jesus was one too often aimed at frightening or controlling people, hating gays or assertive women, or supporting a war against people somewhere.

We could say that the religion about Jesus emphasizes the ‘noun’. While the religion of Jesus emphasizes the ‘verb’. Someone said that the religion about Jesus is ‘Easter’.  The religion of Jesus is ‘eastering’. “It’s about the miracle of new life coming from old, life out of death, right here and now.  Nothing supernatural, even though it feels so magical when it happens…  Life is about honouring that spirit of life that comes and goes as it likes, but when it comes our way it can make all the difference between feeling dead and feeling alive…” (Davidson Loehr UUAustin Web site, 2008). 

The story we heard this morning from John, I want to suggest, was more about ‘eastering’ than ‘easter’. They are not about bigger miracles or stricter commandments or watertight creeds. They are about a dynamic, creative, evolving ‘presentness’ in our midst. True, they are conditioned and shaped by the language of their day: flat earth, sin causes sickness, Their God may have seemed all powerful and yet distant, but so are our stories conditioned and shaped by the language and imagination of our day.

So, why should it not be that we can claim: that God is ‘not far from each one of us.’ Present and active everywhere on earth… – in the slow development of human cultures and societies, – in the growth of knowledge, – in the constant search for meaning as women and men tell stories and sharing their connectedness, and in the urging of us to love graciously and generously, to break down barriers between people, and to put an end to religious elitism and religious wars.

Why can’t the Jesus Way be an imagining of a better and more creative and vulnerable humanity. And a rejoicing in the knowledge that God lives and comes to wonderful expression – in us. And speaking of a vulnerable humanity I am reminded of Paul’s weakness of God and of John D Caputo’s weak God as the authentic God because the almighty all powerful God doesn’t seem to have it right yet.

And just to finish with a bit of a challenge. What if the Jesus Way is to reimagine the world, to honour the mind, in other words; to grasp the liberty of human thought, to live the questions, and to express the joy or gratuity of life in the midst of it all; in other words; to explore the adventure of humanity. The truth that is Jesus is the invitation to be a work of art which is to challenge, be playful and creative, to be a parable perhaps and thus the life Jesus is not spent looking for answers but rather but rather one spent asking how in the moments of fleeting life and changing history, human experience   van hold value. The challenge of looking at life this way is to see that giving meaning to experience is an interpretive act. No piece of art and no poem is understood if viewed simply as fact. I am the Way is an interpretation, I am the Truth is an expression and I am the life is an experience like no other. It is as Gordon Nicholson says when I ask him how he is, “Full of Joy” Amen.


‘The Jesus Shape?’

Posted: May 9, 2017 in Uncategorized

Easter 5A, 2017 John 14:1-14

‘The Jesus Shape?’

Rex Hunt tells of an experience he had when he was a student at Melbourne University in the mid to late 1960s. He was having lunch at a table in the student union café when a member of EU (Evangelical Union), a religious group on campus, came up to him and said ‘Do you believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?’ He was a very intense, but earnest fellow student. Rex was a bit dumbstruck and didn’t quite know how to answer him. He remembers smiling politely, folding his meat and salad sandwich in its waxed lunch wrap, and getting up to leave. ‘He’s the way!  The only way to salvation!  Get on board before it’s too late!’ insisted the fellow student and Rex left the cafeteria, angry, embarrassed and frustrated. The desperation of the student’s certainty both frightened and angered Rex. Years later Rex said the sureness of conviction, and the exclusivity of it, still made him feel uncomfortable.

Sadly, Pope Benedict raised the issue again when in 2000 he issued the papal statement, Dominus Jesus, which “set off alarm bells in most other Christian communities, as well as giving offence to the adherents of every other religion on the face of the planet” (Jenks/FFF web site). His paper claimed a unicity and salvific universality that was wedded to a literal and outdated theological interpretation of scripture rather than unfold the text for today’s world. It is no longer acceptable to claim such universalistic domination for Jesus.

This brings us to our text for today from John and demands of us the asking of the question as to whether or not this heavy ‘salvation’ stuff is what the storyteller John was on about with today’s gospel story? And while the John story seems to have been set within the context of a debate over differences, that key thing is that that debate seems to have been between those who were Jewish followers of the Galilean and those who were Jewish followers of Jewish orthodoxy. The debate was between Jews who viewed matters differently and not between Jews and non-Jews.  The other thing to remember is that these differences were in no way small. They were perhaps profoundly different yet also held within what it meant to be a Jew. Here we acknowledge that it is the story’s modern usage that seems to have taken these differences to extremes in terms of identity and philosophical views. So, its these extremes we might explore just a little.

From all that we read about Jesus we can come to the not too original conclusion that during his life time, Jesus/Yeshua resisted questions about his personal identity. We read that when he was pressed, he deflected those questions toward the central motif of his teaching… namely that: the compassionate God is already present, and that the demands of following his way were clearly of a radical nature and ‘counter cultural in terms of human living. However, it is also true that for many years when the words ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’… have been used, they have made Jesus sound like some sort of heavenly bouncer, whose task was to keep people away from God. Not unlike the result of the fervent student in the café. The reality is that use of those words has made it harder for those without faith, those with not enough faith, and those who express their faith differently. When for any reason, they have been unable to agree to that claim they have been excluded. Of course, this is not an attitude exclusive to Christianity as religious authorities and groups of every age and creed have often exercised their religion in two ways: One as a weapon against others, and two as a way of protecting God from others. History seems full of such ‘weapon’ stories and events: The Crusades. The Inquisition. Sudan. Middle East.  Indonesia.  Northern Ireland, just to name the obvious.

And the gospel stories are littered with ‘protecting’ stories: People who brought their children to Jesus, Women who touched, ate with, and who pleaded with Jesus. Someone once said that, ‘ethnic cleansing’ is just a more extreme form of this same motivation. So, what do we do with these words: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’?

Well! Let’s not beat around the bush! Scholars tell us that it is highly probable that Jesus never made this claim at all, that the words were put into his mouth by the storyteller John! So, to hear them, we need to hear them differently. They are John’s way of making a point about the identity of Jesus for sure but for us they are not about identity. We come after the orthodoxy has settle in and so they are a challenge to culture as opposed to the identity of Jesus. Remember the reading from Mary’s Gospel. They give us a different approach that suggests we might read these words in terms of relationship with the God rather than describing a content of dogma to be believed, or about the identity of Jesus. These words can be an invitation to us to be on the journey which Jesus chartered.

Here we might see that Jesus, as sage, provides a way of passage from one place to another in our understanding. That becoming and exploring and doubting, is a path forward rather than a condemning of or belting each other over the head. I want to go to Mary’s gospel and suggest she has a better handle on this.

I think she is saying that Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership. He is rather, the pathway into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship. He is a way… into the mystery of our common existence. As Mary’s Jesus says; “Peace be with you! “Bear my peace within yourselves! Beware that no one lead you astray saying, ‘Look over here!’  or ‘Look over there!’ For the Child of Humanity is within you! Follow it! “Those who seek it will find it. Go then and proclaim the good news of the realm.

I think she is saying that Jesus is the truth about that common existence. He uncovers what is hidden, and brings to light the last dimension of human existence. Mary’s Jesus says; “Do not lay down any rules beyond what I determined for you, nor give a law like the lawgiver, lest you be confined by it.” In other words, be compassionate, keep loving each other. When he had said this, he departed. But they were pained. They wept greatly saying, “How shall we go to the nations and proclaim the good news of the Child of Humanity? “If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?” Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, and said to her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be pained, nor doubt, for all his grace will be with you and shelter you. “But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us Humans.” When Mary said this, she turned their heart to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Saviour.

Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other. Being the way the truth and the life was about Jesus being the Good News Event that challenged our way of engaging change; through compassion for, rather than victory over, and through peace making that made no sense in a violent culture. John Shea gave a good summary when he said: “Jesus of Nazareth was the triggering centre of an event which restructured the God-self-neighbour relationship.  This event was not only healing and transforming but mysterious and overwhelming’ (Shea 1978:118).

The words ‘I am the way, the truth the life…’  are not about the identity of Jesus but rather about the way of being human and that is about being compassionate and open to another way and that is what life is all about. As Jesus challenged the dominate system of his day, so these words contend with the powers and principalities of our day. In this person, we see a concern for the marginalised and the vulnerable (which included both the poor and the wealthy), and a rejection of the belief that high-ranking people of power are the favoured ones of God. The good news then in this statement is, I am suggesting, not about Jesus, but about God and us in the spirit of Jesus.

Or as Bill Loader puts it in his comments on this story: “Trust that God is the way Jesus told us and demonstrated to us.  That means two things: we can trust in the God of compassion in which there’s a place for us, and we can know that the meaning of life is to share that compassion in the world – there’s a place for all!

But then this important suggestion: “We can join that compassion wherever we recognise its ‘Jesus shape’, acknowledging it as life and truth and the only way” (W Loader 2005/www site).

Notes: Shea, J. 1978.  Stories of God. An Unauthorized Biography. Chicago. The Thomas More Press.


Hunt R E http://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/

Bill loader wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au

A Mixed Legacy

Posted: May 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

Easter 4A, 2017 John 10:1-10

A Mixed Legacy

The ‘good shepherd’, as we have been taught for generations, beginning with Sunday school, is one of the so-called foundational metaphors for Jesus in Christian imagination. And words like ‘pastoral care’ and ‘pastor’, get their meaning from the image of Jesus as a kind and caring ‘shepherd’ or ‘leader’ of the flock. The truth is however that we make lots of assumptions about what we mean when we use the word pastoral. I was at a church meeting up north last week when they were planning some teaching workshops and someone suggested that they should do a workshop on ‘Pastoral care’ the broad assumption being that what the that person believed was pastoral care was universally understood but the next question was, “what sort of pastoral care would be taught? Was it listening skills because good listening is essential for pastoral care”. “Yes, it is, but it needs to change things in the community, after all its about justice and peace; it’s about changing the lives of people”. Pastoral care is about foodbanks, budget advice, support groups etc etc. Suddenly in that meeting the idea of a workshop on pastoral care lost its way, it would be left for the facilitator to decide what pastoral care was and what they thought the church needed.

Pastoral care would be left to the shepherd to decide what it was and what was needed and the question was did the image of shepherd and sheep have the same impact that it did for those who first engaged with it?

In the past, many of our traditional liturgies of ordination and induction have played with this image.  Up until a few years ago the use of the 23rd psalm in funerals maintained this image as one of value and it seemed a foregone conclusion that when stories about a mix that has sheep, shepherds and Jesus, in them, they would very readily appear in the Lectionary. Another perhaps influence on this is the fact that for much of NZ history sheep and shepherds have been a mainstay in our economics as a nation. Not so much today as dairy seems to have taken over much to the detriment of our water it seems. Of course, the image of shepherds in Jesus time is very different from the image in ours especially in their functions. Protection of the animals may be the same but from what and how is vastly different. I suspect that the image of sheep and shepherds is less often used today because of these cultural shifts even if the lectionary still persists to include it and today is a good example as today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call John reminds us.

John has Jesus describing a scenario concerning raising sheep in 1st century Palestine. After carefully defining the characteristics which make for a ‘good’ or honourable shepherd in a sometimes hostile world, John takes this scenario and has Jesus applying it to himself and his ministry. So began a new legacy or model of leadership or shepherding. Question? Is it time for a new model of leadership, in fact has a new model already arrived and what is it?

One of the sad things that history reminds us of is that we can get stuck with images like the pastoral one and fall behind in our engagement with life’s evolutionary reality. When pastoral settings become fenced, when shepherds work from behind the sheep instead of in front of them, when dogs are used, the model of leadership changes. I am also aware that in the church the environment, the culture changes all require new models of leadership.

On a world wide scale there have been changes that have shifted the ground upon which the images of leadership live and have meaning. One of these that I think is most influential is at a multicultural level where nationalism and ethnic differences have become integrated because of globalization and a seemingly shrinking world.

Research seems to suggest that in this new smaller world young people who follow the Jesus Way actually operate on a number of levels at the same time. They, unlike those of us who are trained in traditional western modes no longer hold sociological and theological boundaries between identities (‘I am a liberal or I am a conservative is no longer a valuable identification process of value’). For us such boundaries were impossible to compromise or reconcile because many of us in the church operated and still do, on Middle ages theological categories and this made it difficult to reflect on 21st century realities. The shepherd image is hard for the church to let go of or replace with a new one even though it can no longer be fully understood as a viable model of leadership as the world has moved on.

Another model of leadership in the church to look at with the shepherd and sheep image is the contradictions between the recent Catholic Popes. We first think back to the election of Cardinal Ratzinger some years back now when the world was watching as a new church ‘shepherd’ was being elected. A bunch of red capped cardinals was meeting in Rome, not for a leisurely chat about ‘what time the surf would be up!’ But who would be the next male Catholic ‘shepherd’. The next pope. And we contrast that with the more recent election of Pope Francis.

We look back on Pope Benedict, as the grand shepherd now better known as the former “doctrinal enforcer”. A conservative in the coercive mode who followed the very mixed legacy of John Paul ii, the deeply traditionalist Polish pope, and we ask what sort of Pope? What sort of leader was he? What sort of shepherd was he?

I need to be careful here not to be making personal judgements because the reality is that some of you have come to St David’s from many different traditions in your backgrounds and in your family connections. Many of us have Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic, links, just to mention a few… I want to be sensitive to both your nurturing experiences and possible continuing relationships, especially Roman Catholic relationships so what I have to say needs to be seen in no way criticism.

Some comments made by Catholic folk have suggested that under Pope Benedict that the use of Latin in the Mass was returning; that feminine images were being removed from the language of the liturgy; That conservative groups were visiting parishes to report on priests and parish councils who push beyond the boundaries. It was also suggested that the divide between ‘doctrine’ and ‘scholarship’ was widening; and that the social policies of previous popes which wounded women, have continued. All of this suggests that the model of shepherding was changing and the significance of the change was of no small consequence.

On the continuing divide between ‘doctrine’ and ‘scholarship’, the retired Swiss theologian Hans Kung was known to have commented: “Don’t be fooled by the crowds: millions have left the Church…  (The church’s) credibility will only be restored if the new pope decides to re-orient the Church in (the) spirit of Pope John XX111 and the reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council”  (Kung. Online Catholics).

In an effort to bolster his claims of being a theologian, Ratzinger published a book called: Jesus of Nazareth. From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.

The title suggested, there would be at least a second volume to follow but while having a print run of over a million copies, the book has not received acclaim from biblical and ‘historical Jesus’ scholars, despite its title. One such scholar, Gerd Ludemann, has written a detailed chapter-by-chapter, critical response, titled: Eyes That See Not. The Pope looks at Jesus. While too detailed to treat here in full, a comment from his Epilogue is that Ratzinger both labels and describes his work inaccurately, if not deceptively.  The intent suggested by his title and announced in his preface, namely to discover by means of the gospels the historical Jesus, is in fact not carried out.  Moreover, far from addressing mere historical issues, the book is replete with doctrinally based arguments and personal meditations on his Lord.  Thus, the actual subject is not the Jesus of history, but rather the Christ of faith” according to Ludemann.

We had in Pope Benedict a model of grand shepherd and pastoral care that was intent on returning to absolutes, controlling thinking, and imposing order. What we have in Pope Francis is again another model of Grand shepherd. His focus is a future based on the present as opposed to the past and his focus appears to be on the practical application of theology. His model of leadership is exposed as more vulnerable politically yet claims a more traditional grand shepherd modern pastoral model as opposed to an ancient pastoral model.

Having touched on what could be deemed a recent legacy and the evolution of shepherding as a leadership model, noting here that evolution is not linear but rather chaotic, we return to our text for today by the storyteller whom we call John. We find here that John puts some additional words into the mouth of Jesus in his story: He has Jesus say; ‘I have come so they may have life and have it to the full.’ Other translations say: ‘…and have it abundantly.’ Perhaps we could say ‘wellness’ or ‘wholeness’. And in looking back at the models of shepherding and pastoral care it can be claimed that we can only have ‘abundant’ or ‘full’ life in a community of faithful and caring companions, who live by a vision of wholeness and justice for all and who embrace diversity and difference. Maybe the changes in our environment among the young is a sign of hope as they hold together that which even we have struggled with and which the two models of papacy have struggled with. How do we acknowledge that identity is important while being inclusive of a plurality of thought and idea. Maybe this is the resurrection message that we fail to see. When we say that ‘Jesus is alive in our midst’ what does it mean? Does it mean that gospel comes before culture or that culture comes before gospel or is it that both come together? Right now you might find yourself struggle to see how that might be but maybe that is because you have failed to change. Maybe living an abundant life is about seeing the vision Jesus offers of a new world into which we are invited a real way… a real invitation into a way of life we can see reflected in his own life” (Patterson 2007:80). And not one we have created.

Maybe the heritage Jesus leaves us is not about what happens after death, but what the knowledge of the words and deeds and the way he walked as Jesus, does for our lives…before death. Maybe the abundant life, the wholeness of life he talks about is not found in a theology of salvation but in a way of life, as we practice belonging, hospitality, respect, humility, and engage in conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)

The model of leadership, shepherding, pastoral caring needs to be open to and challenging of the context while showing it every respect as the product of its place and time so that abundant wellness will be our blessing, as we continue to go on the journey that Jesus chartered. Amen.

Notes: Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Ludemann, G. 2008.  Eyes That See Not. The Pope looks at Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Patterson, S. J. 2007.  “Killing Jesus” in (ed) R. J. Miller. The Future of the Christian Tradition. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press


Easter 3A, 2017 Luke 24:13-35

Food, and becoming what we eat!

The Road to Emmaus story is a wonderful story of invitation. It celebrates Easter. It requests participation.  It is in the best sense a faith legend. Bill Loader Uniting Church of Australia says that ‘whatever actual experience may lie behind the story, it is now an invitation.  It invites us to join the journey.” (Wm Loader Web site, 2005) He also suggests that the Road to Emmaus’ story is indeed a wonderful, original story by the storyteller we call Luke. He says it is a wonderful story of imagining, sharing, celebrating, and teaching. Especially ‘imagining’, because imagination never numbs us with description but coaxes us into a new situation.

As the story is told and the plot revealed we can find ourselves engaged in the questions and the possibilities of the story, as a different re-imagining of the world dawns. A point to note that this story is a ‘metaphorical story’; it is not ‘history remembered’, Marcus Borg nudges us and reminds us of this also.  (Borg 2001:44)

Having said that I want to introduce another idea that stretches this idea of what a metaphorical genre is and seeks to do.

Jacob Needleman, a philosopher at San Francisco State University, has studied the Gospel of Mary and his suggestion is that in both root and essence the teaching of Jesus is a vision and a Way that has been given to humankind from a source outside our known qualities of mind and sensibility. He suggests that the luminosity and mystery of what Jesus said and did two thousand years ago is a “shock from above” that changed the world and that continues to reverberate in the hopes of millions over the whole face of the earth. But he says, the inner and outer conditions of modern life are such that it has become nearly impossible for many of us to hear the spiritual traditions of the world. Needleman suggests that the Gospel of Mary, taken with the inspired commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup, can help toward making the teaching of Jesus once again alive— that is, ‘unknown’, I use the word ‘mystery’ here to link it with what I was claiming about mystery some weeks ago. The challenge is to use the word not in the negative sense, but in the great and fertile meaning of the word unknown or mystery. Every spiritual teaching sounds a call from above. But, the central aim of the teaching of Jesus is to sensitize us to the above that also calls to us from within ourselves. I am not happy with the reference to above here as I would rather use the word other. For me the word other breaks the link with old three tier universe thinking and I prefer that. The immensity of Christianity Needleman says; 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 (that is to say, 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, to be the incarnation of God. This is a challenging 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. We have too much culture perhaps. 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. 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— is the practice, and the community supporting the practice, that opens a relationship between our everyday sense of self and the Self, or Spirit.

This interior relationship between self and Spirit, we are told, is made possible through the inner cultivation of a specific quality of conscious attention and intelligence that in this tradition is referred to by the Greek term nous, or higher mind. One might suggest here that our motto, Honour the mind, live the questions and explore the adventure of humanity is another way of engaging with or illuminating this higher or other mode.

We know that it 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. It is in this miraculous yet lawful mediating contact between the higher and the lower or the inner and outer 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 of metaphysical poverty is identical to our own. As Jean-Yves Leloup shows us, this is the love that is spoken of in the words of Jesus, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” It is a love that cannot be commanded, but that we are obliged to recognize as the defining attribute of our essential Self.

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 the honouring of the mind points to the resolution of apparent contradictions that sometimes drive us away from belief in the objective existence of the Good, holding to the living of the questions and exploring humanity, 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. Here is the point of awareness, the aha! moment, the conversion experience. 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. In this context Luke has us thinking about that which happens for us when sharing a meal together. So having been off on that deep exploration of being human we return to the story.

As we begin to get into this story we can be assured that many informed scholars have speculated as to where Emmaus actually was. Four places seem to have been suggested. The first was Amwas, near Latrun – approx. 20 miles from Jerusalem; the second was Abu Ghosh – approx. 7.5 miles from Jerusalem; The third Qubelba – approx. 7 miles from Jerusalem, and the fourth Moza – which was approx. 4 miles from Jerusalem). We also might note that many have heard and interpreted this story and some commentators have sought to explain aspects of this story in terms of an ‘interventionist’ God. They say that on the road back home toward Emmaus, God intervened deliberately, and kept Cleopas (and his wife?) from ‘seeing’ Jesus, so that Jesus could explain the scriptures to them.

On the other hand, others see the work of a ‘supernaturalist’ God in this story. When Jesus suddenly appears spirit-like, and then later on, is suddenly whisked away. And when Jesus can no longer be ‘seen’ with eyes because he had gone from this world to the ‘Father’, this new world evades our senses.

Well, I’m not sure for all of you, but none of these attempts resonate with me. Especially the theology of those two suggestions. I would claim that those approaches become little more than brainteasers and kill off the story.

I would rather like to stay with the context a little longer so that I can appreciate its influence of the story and to that end I would now like to offer some comments which I hope might be helpful as well as imaginative.

All stories are very concrete.  They ‘live’ within a particular context. And I am not alone when I suggest this story’s context may have been some debates about how Gentile Jesus followers could sense the presentness of the Post-Easter Christ after the death of Jesus. We remember here that within the ancient Jewish mind time and space are subject to the transportation of the event. The Passover is not a re-enactment but rather a reliving of the actual event. History is always renewed. In Luke’s time there is a need to articulate how this might be explained in his time with the questions he faces.

Luke does this by telling a story about the most common and important community occasion these followers of Jesus had experienced. The experience is of a meal in community rather than an ‘out-of-this-world’ experience. So we can put away the miracle issues, the interventionist God ideas and the supernatural explanation. This is a meal story and a bonding story. Why? Because Luke is grounded enough to know we become what we eat!

From all that we are now discovering about early Christian culture, meals played an important role in both community life and in the Jesus movement tradition. Indeed, ‘Followers of the Jesus Way’ regularly ate together, even before they began to conduct worship services. And Jesus seems so closely associated with meals that one of the criticisms levelled against him, you will remember, was as a ‘glutton and drunkard’.  (Matt 11:19)

We can be pretty sure that Luke heard some of those stories, re-imagined them, as well as having shared in some of the meals. He knew the power of story so he tells a meal story at a crucial point in this local community’s history.

And if we continue to accept the findings of modern biblical scholarship, then we can affirm that: 1. Jesus regularly accepted invitations to attend meals, but as a guest rather than as a host, and, 2. Jesus used these occasions for re-imagining and ‘indirect’ teaching, rather than the so-called ‘whiteboard and text’ kind. When he engaged in teaching he did it by sharing pithy, deeply understood and common language sayings and parables born in and out of the culture.

“Words and food are made out of the same stuff”, writes Rubem Alves. “They are both born of the same mother: hunger.” (Alves 1990:77)

  1. O’Donohue says; For around a meal, food is shared not hoarded, friendships are made and relationships strengthened.  And “experimentation, adventure and innovation lure us toward new horizons.” O’Donohue 2003:146)

We can be pretty sure that the continued celebration of meals – early Christianity often called it ‘breaking of bread’ – was motivated primarily by the needs of community, rather than establishing or remembering the so-called ‘upper room’ meal event. So for us, this story is not a forerunner to, or about, Holy Communion. And it certainly has got nothing to do with any doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’! But on the other hand, because all religious language is metaphorical… When bread and wine and BBQs are eaten, they become body and blood. Our body and blood.

In the same vein when body and blood are eaten, they become compassionate deeds. Our compassionate deeds. And when compassionate deeds are eaten, they become as Christ in our neighbour.

“Since the beginning of time,” author Robert Fulghum writes, “people who trust one another, care for one another, and are deeply connected to one another have shared food as a sign of and a reaffirmation of their relationship…  Every time we hold hands and say a blessing before a meal, every time we lift a glass and say fine words to one another, every time we eat in peace and grace together, we have celebrated the covenants that bind us together.”  (Fulghum 1995:81-82)

Because the storyteller Luke knows we become what we eat his Easter stories are an invitation to share, to journey, and to celebrate. And as his Emmaus story particularly notes, “hospitality is the open door to creative transformation and an expanded vision of possibilities.”  (Bruce Epperly P&F web site, 2008) Amen.

Notes: Alves, R. 1990.  The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press. Borg, M. J. 2001.  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally.  New York. HarperSanFrancisco. Fulghum, R. 1995.  From Beginning to End. The Rituals of our Lives. Moorebank. Bantam Press. O’Donohue, J. 2003.  Divine Beauty. The Invisible Embrace. London. Transworld Publishers/Bantam Press.

Leloup, Jean-Yves. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene . Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.



Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Easter 2A, 2017 John 20:19-31


An Open Ended Future

“In dealing with people, Jesus did not condemn those who questioned or doubted. While Jesus was harsh with scribes and Pharisees who claimed to have all the answers in water-tight belief containers, he was always ready to encourage the genuine doubter” (Webb 1995: 15).

Allen Dixon asked me during the week what being progressive means and my first thought was about how we as progressives might proclaim our point of difference? What is it that distinguishes our approach to Christian life? My reply to Allen in the end was chapter and verse as to what I thought it meant acknowledging that there is not simple one phrase answer to that question. I have since attempted to find a response that contains what I think are key elements that are inclusive of a variety of ‘progressive expressions. It is that I think progressives attempt to rediscover a direct engagement between scripture and the whole human experience within the timeless conversation of tradition.  Human concerns and questions are recognized and addressed in the biblical texts which know the human condition thoroughly and, simultaneously, bear witness to the holy.   The progressive teacher/preacher hosts a “sacred conversation” between all past texts and the present occasion they are read and interpreted in public.

In simple terms the progressive does not ask whether or not God exists but rather acknowledges that that which we call Mystery is a given and the progressive task is to connect the human stories of old with the human experiences of today in search of understanding acknowledging that what we search for is always Mystery.

Applying this approach to our texts for today we find that even Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Then when the disciples heard her news they were huddled behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews.” Here we as followers of the Galilean, a northern Jew the disciples are in fear of the Judean Jews and we could say especially the Sadducees, the very Conservative and Empire collaborating Jews. Without fanfare, John writes simply, “Jesus came and stood among them….” We need to remember here that John is not deriding the faction that exists within the Jewish community but rather acknowledging the diversity of thinking that existed in Jesus time. Unfortunately over time and in defence of Christianity the Church has misinterpreted John making his story anti-Jewish. What is interesting is that some Jewish scholars now find John more pro-Jewish that even they thought.

The author of John then echoes the promise and invitation to “peace” made the last time they were all together, Jesus says: “Peace be among you.” He offers his body, in particular his hands and side, to his disciples with the words: “receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then John’s narrative abruptly jumps forward a week when the disciples are again “in the house.” And here we meet Thomas, who was absent the previous week, insisting that unless he sees and touches the wounds left by the nails in Jesus’ hands and can put his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side left by the spear, he will not believe. This point about believing would suggest a later time of writing for John in that the shift from practice as central to faith to belief as central is linked to the cultural shift that demands a more obvious identity for the Christ following movement. We noted recently this development from the sermon on the mount being about doing and the Nicaean Creed being about believing.

Jesus appears again with the same promise of “peace.” and invites Thomas to touch the wounds in his body and to “believe.”   Thomas blurts out: “My Lord and my God.” John’s narrative continues with two crucial sayings with great importance for the future. First, Jesus now offers a specific blessing for a particular group of people: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Secondly, John pointedly writes that Jesus “did many other signs” that he did not write about, but the ones he did write about “are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” and that this “believing” will bring you “life in his name.”

Having wrestled with the story retold some 2 centuries later than the event and tried to acknowledge the earlier context and the context of the author we return to the very familiar story of Thomas. The lectionary reminds of this story close after Easter almost every year and in its familiarity we sometimes fail to critique it thoroughly.

Because we tend to hear it nearly every year it becomes a difficult story to tell or preach on, and the reason for this is that we all tend to assume we know the story and jump ahead to ‘our’ endings and miss the story itself. There are also a couple of strange things about this Thomas story. Strange, in that the story is often entitled ‘doubting’ Thomas, in a negative way, and this happens even though we are told that there is no such word as ‘doubt’ in the Greek! It is strange also because it assumes that asking questions is the same as raising a white flag of surrender, and can be understood as evidence of faithlessness! We progressives know that asking questions about our faith is the only way of keeping it active, alive and above all relevant despite cultural influence. Asking questions is less about being unsure and losing one’s faith and more about seeking a viable, practical faith that lives into the future. It also says that an evangelical faith is not about proclaiming a belief as unassailable truth but rather about exhibiting a wondrous, peace-filled life that speaks to others.

It was the German/American theologian Paul Tillich who in his small, blue bound book, called Dynamics of Faith, claimed that authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation. And that questions were not a sign of faithlessness, but rather a willingness to take faith seriously. We progressives would say that our faith walk has to be one of intellectual integrity. Doubt is a prerequisite and parking one’s thinking brain at the door is not a faith journey. Others have followed Tillich’s lead, such as Val Webb in her excellent book of some years back: In Defence of Doubt.  An Invitation to Adventure. And as we have explored the progressive study resource called ‘Living the Questions.

Returning again to the story Rex Hunt commented on some things he hadn’t noticed in earlier years. One of these was that the storyteller we call John sets his interpreted story within a particular community which was experiencing debates on mission strategy, leadership issues, and discipleship. This raises the point that Thomas does not receive a blessing as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement? This is an unexpected realisation. The second thing Rex noted was that the storyteller John seems to be making it fairly clear that the faith which marks a true disciple relies on the witness of others rather than a personal experience of the Christ.  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

A true disciple is in the place where they can practice belonging, practice hospitality, practice respect, practice humility, practice conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004). Faith is a safe place in the company of others, and that place is a place where we can be shaped and reshaped by our questions and our search.

Greg Jenks from Faith-Futures Foundation, puts it another way: He says: “Faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a personal miracle that removes all opportunity for doubt.”  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

Rex acknowledges that he had not heard that before in this story. And then he suggests that the third thing he heard, is what some claim is the underlying theme running throughout the whole of John’s collection of stories: namely; that we experience the creative, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life, not as an, other-worldly, supernatural, experience but as an everyday routine experience. Bruce Epperly of Process & Faith notes it as often subtle, unpredictable and evasive. “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, he says: “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.”  (Epperly/P&F Web site, 2008)

These are wonderful images that transform faith from a ‘what if’ ‘tit for tat’ sort of contract into a shared, co-creative experience born out of the positive potential of questioning and thus out of doubt.

I have told this particular story before but I think it bears retelling.

During his 1990 Edward Cadbury Lecture given in the University of Birmingham, England, Brazilian Rubem Alves told a story of a boy who found the body of a dead man washed up on the edge of a seaside village. There is only one thing to do with the dead: they must be buried. In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial, so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral. As they did, the women began to talk and ponder about the dead stranger.

He was tall… and would have had to duck his head to enter their houses. His voice… was it like a whisper or like thunder. His hands… they were big. Did they play with children or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman’s body. The women laughed “and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection: a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead, returning… their bodies alive again”.  (Alves 1990: 23)

The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening, became jealous of the drowned man as they realised he had power which they did not have.

And they thought about the dreams they had never had…

Alves ends this part of the story by telling that they finally buried the dead man. But the village was never the same again.

This suggests that to know the reality of resurrection is to experience it. Not as some doctrine which involves belief in a supposedly empty tomb. Or an insistence on the literal historicity of the biblical stories.

Again Bruce Epperly says: “we all experience it by simply being alive, and going through all the normal, routine transformations of human growth and love and death”.   (Epperly, P&F Web site, 2008)

So, the good news of Easter, is not the so-called final scene as it is in fairy tales that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. Nor is it the horrific death at the hands of betrayal and evil but rather it is the beginning of an open-ended future. The faith moment, the wondrous infectious experience is the moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return, and our bodies – individually and as a church community – are alive again.


Notes: Alves, R. 1990.  The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press. Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to See God: Prayer and Practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press Webb, V. 1995.  In Defense of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St Louis. Chalice Press.

When We Get Past The Joke!

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

When We Get Past The Joke!

Palm Sunday 9.4.2017

Matthew 21: 1-4, 6-11

All three synoptic gospels contain the story of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, but only Matthew cites the passage in Zechariah 9:9 as providing the prophetic backdrop for the Triumphal Entry. Matthew’s rendering of the passage from Zechariah includes the parallelism reflected in the phrases “humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” This parallelism leads to the very strange picture in verse 7 of the disciples putting their clothes on both the donkey and its colt and Jesus riding on both. It may be that the author misunderstood the nature of Hebrew poetic parallelism, which repeats an idea in different words, giving “sense rhyme” rather than “auditory rhyme.” On the other hand, the author may have pushed his narration almost to the edge of common sense (he doesn’t explicitly say how Jesus rode the two animals) in order to emphasize the parallels between prophecy and fulfilment in the life of Jesus.

Another dualism in the message is of course the dueling processions: Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from the east. Bethphage is just to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives is just east of the Temple. Here again we have the connection with the tradition. The Mount of Olives was, in Israel’s Sacred Memory, the place from which an assault on Israel’s enemies was to begin (Zech 14: 2-4). We note also that the direction of approach is significant for at least two reasons: (1) Coming to the city from the Mount of Olives is a prophetic and eschatological image, and (2) there were two processions into Jerusalem during the time of passover; one–the procession of the Roman army–came from the west; the other–those with Jesus–came from the east. The Roman army was coming to maintain order during passover, a time when the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 to well over 200,000–both conservative estimates. Moreover, passover was a celebration of liberation from Pharoah in Egypt, and Rome was uneasy about the anti-imperial message of this association.

The Romans were headquartered at Caesarea Maritima, a city built by Herod the (so-called) Great to honour Caesar Augustus and make money for himself. Herod built monuments to Caesar at every opportunity. Caesar Augustus was Octavian, Julius Caesar’s nephew and adopted son. During the Roman civil war, Herod had been an ally of Octavian’s enemy, Mark Antony. Shifting his loyalty to Octavian after Antony’s defeat was a nifty piece of political footwork on Herod’s part, and may also have added to Herod’s ebullient enthusiasm for all things Octavian. He even named the harbour Sebastos, which is Greek for “Augustus.” Sebastos was one of the finest harbours in the world. It was constructed over a 12 year period (25-13 BC) and was state-of-the-art for its day, rivaling both Athens and Alexandria. It was used primarily for the export of agricultural products from the region–or, to put it another way, it provided an efficient harbour for the plunder of the region–and could also be used to supply the Roman Army in case of war with Parthia.

The procession of the Roman army from Caesarea Maritima to Jerusalem would have been an imposing sight–Legionnaires on horseback, Roman standards flying, the Roman eagle prominently displayed, the clank of armour, the creek of leather, the stomp of feet, and beating of drums. The procession was designed to be a display of Roman imperial power. The message here is that resistance is futile!

The counter-demonstration of Jesus came from the east, the opposite direction. Jesus comes to the city not in a powerful way, but in a ludicrously humble way, inciting not fear, as in the Roman procession, but cheering crowds who clear his way and hail his presence. We should not underestimate the significance of this picture. Sarcasm and irony are often the only mechanisms available for the oppressed to express themselves. The procession of Jesus creatively mocks the Roman procession.

G K Chesterton captures Palm Sunday from the perspective of the donkey that Jesus rode.

G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked And figs grew upon thorn, Some moment when the moon was blood Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry And ears like errant wings, The devil’s walking parody On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will; Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour; One far fierce hour and sweet: There was a shout about my ears, And palms before my feet.


Looking at the available texts we see that Mark has three predictions which are mirrored in Matthew (16:21-23, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), each with some Matthean additions. In the first prediction, Matthew adds to Mark a statement about the necessity of going to Jerusalem (16:21): “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem.” (Jesus doesn’t actually head south until 19:1.) In our text for Palm Sunday, he has arrived. But there is an important thing to note and it is that just before he makes his final approach to Jerusalem, Jesus sends two people into a nearby village. The two disciples are instructed to go into the village and, as soon as they get there, they “will find a donkey tied and a colt with her.” They are to take this donkey and colt. If anyone were to ask them about it, they are to give the “secret password” and say, “The Lord has need of them.” Here we have an indication that there is a network of Jesus supporters operating “under the radar.” Moreover, this network of Jesus supporters reaches even to a village just outside Jerusalem. The Galilee-based Jesus movement reaches even into Judea, even to the very gates of the city of Jerusalem itself!

In this passage, Matthew, for the first time, directly associates Jesus as king. (The magi were looking for the “king of the Jews” in 2:3, but here the association is more explicit.) Jesus is treated as a royal figure throughout. He doesn’t get on the donkey. He is “sat” on it by others. Therefore, when Jesus’ secret followers in the nearby village hear that “the Lord needs them,” from Matthew’s perspective, that is enough to say.

We recall here that Jesus is to ride two animals and maybe at once: And this had happened so that it might be fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Speak to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden.” And the disciples went and did just as Jesus appointed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and they placed the garments upon them, and they sat him upon (them). Two animals have a significance to the story.

What Matthew has done here is insert the twelfth of fourteen “quotation formulas” from the Old Testament: “Speak to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden.” The quote appears to be a combination of Isaiah 62:11 (“speak to the daughter of Zion”) and Zechariah 9:9 (the rest). This (mostly) Zechariah text is the interpretive centre of the passage. And from that Zechariah text, Matthew leaves out the phrase “triumphant and victorious is he.” Jesus is obviously not going to be that kind of king, at least not yet. As Matthew recounts it, the quote accents the humility and meekness of Jesus.

In referring to both a donkey and a colt–“humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”–Zechariah was using a grammatical device known as “hendiadys,” which means expressing a single idea with two nouns. This parallelism is quite common in Hebrew poetry. For example: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path”. (Ps. 119: 105) The statement expresses one thought in two complementary ways.

At this point scholarly opinion is all over the place. Some say that Matthew flat misses the parallelism. Others say he knows about it but ignores it. In any case, Matthew does clearly refer to two animals, both a donkey and a colt.

Some have cited this as evidence that Matthew didn’t really understand the Hebrew language or the Hebrew people, but there is no evidence of this and it is reasonable sure that Matthew was Jewish, and knew full well about Hebrew poetry and the parallelism in Zechariah. He also knew full well that Mark, his source, clearly has only one animal involved in Jesus’ procession. Therefore, Matthew was deliberate in making the change to two animals–“and he sat on them” (epekathisen epano auton).

When he quotes from the Old Testament, Matthew like most Hebrew scholars feels free to tweak the texts he quotes in order to suit his purposes. This is not the style of a literalist. What we are left with is that Matthew quite obviously refers to two animals and everybody since has been scratching their head over why. Most likely, it was to underscore the fulfilment of the Zechariah text–not just one fulfilment, in other words, but a double one! Matthew knows full well that Jesus did not ride two animals at once and he doesn’t care. His point is not historical precision, but theological insight. His point is that “your king comes to you,” which is the fulfilment, in a complete and total way, of the prophetic Zechariah text.

Lets return to the entrance: We find a very great crowd spreading their garments in the way, and others were cutting down branches from the trees and were spreading them in the way. And the crowds, the ones going before him and the ones following, were crying out, saying, “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed (is) the one coming in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” And when he entered into Jerusalem, all the city was shaken, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Matthew anticipates the Hollywood “red carpet” by about two millennia. He shifts focus to the action of the crowds–“a very great crowd” spread both garments and branches onto Jesus’ path. In 2 Kings 9:13, strewing cloaks onto the path was a sign of royal homage. The crowd, by strewing cloaks onto his path, is treating Jesus as a royal and kingly figure, which is further underlined by their comparison of Jesus to the Great King David.

We notice here that Jesus was not welcomed by the people of Jerusalem. The noisy crowd is not composed of Jerusalem city dwellers, but rather “the ones going before him and the ones following.” Most likely, this refers to the disciples and those who joined the movement along the way to Jerusalem.

The composition of the crowd is suggested when Jesus actually enters into Jerusalem, Matthew says that “all the city was shaken.” Seio means moved, shaken to and fro, with the idea of shock or concussion. It’s the word for earthquake, and where we get our word “seismic.” An earthquake will also occur at the death of Jesus (27:54). The city shook with fear when Jesus was born (2:3)–Now, the place is roiled, shaken, and shocked when he enters as an adult.

Here we have a dialog between the city and the crowds. The city asks the question: “…all the city was shaken, saying, “Who is this?” The crowds answer that this is “the prophet Jesus.” In doing so, they are fulfilling the text of the prophet, Zechariah. They are telling “the daughter of Zion,” which is Jerusalem, who comes.


The crowds’ assessment is said to be lacking by many scholars because the crowds only identify Jesus as “prophet” and not as “king”–the assumption being that “king” is a higher title than “prophet.” Is a political title really higher than a Biblical and spiritual one? We have a question of Matthew here. Would that have been his point of view?

The crowds are also providing some cover for Jesus. The high regard in which the crowds hold Jesus, particularly as prophet, prevents the political authorities from arresting him in public (21: 46). Yet, we also know that this is also the city that kills the prophets (23:37), and we are under no illusions as to what will come next.

In summary then we have the entry linked to the tradition of the ancients, we have the use of Hebrew parallelisms to communicate the entry and Jesus to the tradition and we have the clear subversive political challenge of the mocking of Rome. And we have this set within the subversive network of Jesus followers.

The environment for this show is the other factor in the dramatic story about palm Sunday We need to remember that at the time Palestine was an occupied country.  It was ruled by the Romans. Nobody wanted them there. So Jerusalem was something like Paris during World War Two. People hated the Romans, despite the collaborators. And even the collaborators hated the Romans.

Jerusalem was a big city. There were at least 50,000 people lived in the city, and some people estimate it was a lot larger than that. At Passover each year, thousands more people would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The population would swell to four times its normal size… maybe more. Passover was so important, and so ingrained, that the Romans couldn’t stop it happening. It was easier to let it happen and try and manage things.

What is the resistance the Jesus movement was up against? Why would Rome want to stop the Passover? Well, let’s remember what it was about. It was about Israel being set free from Egypt. It was about God rescuing the chosen people from the overlords, and from Pharaoh, King of Egypt. We don’t have to be a genius to work out that at each Passover festival some firebrands would be suggesting that maybe a new Moses was going to arise, and with the help of God, set Israel free from the new overlords. This Passover, remember in Hebrew thinking is actually the revisiting of the stories from the past not just a symbolic remembrance. those wild preachers would say with some degree of certainty, God will set us free from the Romans.

The Romans would know the significance of this way of thinking even if not fully understanding it so, to make sure nothing got out of hand, the Romans would boost the Jerusalem garrison each Passover. The Romans had their base at a port called Caesarea, which was to the north west of Jerusalem. To avoid the mountains, they would march down the coast from Caesarea and then cross over into Jerusalem from the west.

Maybe you can begin to see what was happening. Each year at Passover, there was already a big procession into Jerusalem. What better challenge than to have an alternative and a sarcastic mocking of that tradition and its attending power assumptions. The two processions gave people a choice about which procession to follow, and highlights the fact that we too have a choice. In This case it is empire or people.

The authorities understood what Jesus was saying because he was dead in a week. The question is will we laugh at what he did, and just enjoy his street theatre, just treating it as one more episode of The Chaser, to be forgotten by next week. Or… even though there will be “Thursday nights” when we desert him, and fail him, are we going to see the message and follow him? Amen.