In a recent article in the 4th R the Westar magazine, Lloyd Geering wrote about the decline of God since the end of the Nineteenth century when Friedrich Nietzche discerned that “God is dead and we humans have killed him”. This is not to say that the idea of God was destined to suffer an instant death from then on but rather to herald the fact that the idea of God was and has been changing forever. Lloyd suggests that the thought-world that humans participate in is always fluid and moving. Some have been preserving they suppose something they call tradition, traditional values and things to maintain but others have been moving on from the very idea of God convinced that the concept of God has become obsolete and it is no longer convincing to speak of ‘the living God’.

While in our language today we often hear the words “Oh my God” and read the letters “OMG” the concept behind them has completely changed. This is as Lloyd suggests indicative of the fact that the “God” concept has been retired from daily speech. A brief journey the concept of God has been on might be ‘Wind or Breath” in a ‘Spiritual’ world where breath was evidence of the spiritual world that surrounded everything, thru the birth of gods, imagined to identify and explain natural phenomena, much the same as we use  electron, neutron and quark today.

The key difference is that the God concept moved to include the idea that the forces of nature attributed to those gods transcended human power and control thus introducing the idea that humans in order to survive needed to obey and respect these gods. Each tribe or ethnic group had their own names for these gods and what areas they looked after such as fertility, birth, death, war, peace, love and so on. This concept of God being adaptable stayed around for a long time and we still name our days of the week after them.

We remember here also that the ancients explained natural phenomena through the medium of stories about the gods which we now call myths or stories. The telling of stories was the way of expressing knowledge, much like we now call philosophy and science. At the core of these stories was the idea that one could talk about these gods by anthropomorphic means, in other words these gods were given human attributes and behaviour while being immortal, most of them in charge and to be feared. Humanity was at mercy of the unseen powers of most of the gods.

The other phenomena we should heed before entering our text today is the arrival of the idea of Monotheism. Between about 1000 and 400BCE Israel’s prophets urged their people to abandon all gods except Yahweh, very likely a storm god. Polytheism becomes henotheism (choosing one of many) then along comes the biblical prophets and this message becomes embedded in the Moses story and between 567 and 540 BCE monotheism is settled in. The Jews from exile in a polytheism world escape to a monotheism world (The Holy Land) in the Genesis story.

As Lloyd reminds us the first chapter of Genesis marks the crossing of a very significant threshold in the evolution of human culture. The assertion that at the beginning of time it was God who created everything introduced a powerful cultural invention that remained unquestioned until about 500BCE.

In regard to our text for today the above is a crucial background to the interpretation of what is being said and proposed by the text. In terms of the assumptions of God that lie beneath the text the understanding of those being spoken to and the message the text is conveying. Who or what is the God Jesus would be talking about? What is the message he wants to convey?

On this last question scholars suggest that one of the most important things Jesus wants to say is that there needs to be a change in the way we think about the kingdom or realm or social, political and economic environment that exists.

Our text for today is what is known as the parable of the sower and taking all of the above into account we see that the parable is about this creator God, creating the kingdom or realm:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’

A translation:  

On that day, Jesus went out of the house (and) was sitting alongside the sea, and great crowds were gathered together to him so that he entered into a ship to sit down and all the people stood upon the shore.  And he spoke much to them in parables, saying, “Behold!  The sowing one went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some indeed fell beside the way, and the birds came to eat them.  But others fell upon stony places where they were not having much soil, and immediately they sprung up because they did not have depth of soil.  But when the sun rose, they were scorched and, because they did not have a root, they were withered.  But others fell among the thorns, and the thorns climbed up and choked them.  But others fell upon the good earth, and they were giving fruit, some indeed a hundredfold, but some sixty, but some thirty.  The one having ears, let that one hear.”

It has been suggested that the parable of the sower is the touchstone of all the parables.  That it has primacy of place is in all three synoptics.  Even the gnostic Gospel of Thomas includes the parable of the sower. 

In Matthew, the parable of the sower is the first of a string of parables that follow one after another in chapter 13.  The parable of the sower sets the stage for all the parables that follow.

The lection begins with Jesus leaving the house.  He “goes out” to the sea just as the sower would soon “go out” to sow.  This would apparently be his own house, and the same one where he had just refused entrance to his own relatives (12: 46-48). 

At the sea, “great crowds” flock around Jesus.  The word is sunago, and means that the people “gathered together” around Jesus.  He is at the center of the people.  This is not surprising.  Jesus had significant support in the region of the Sea of Galilee.  The people loved Jesus and thrilled to his message.  He is presented as a “man of the people.” 

Then, he gets into a boat.  The stated reason is that Jesus needs a place to sit.  He needs to sit in order to assume the posture of a teacher.  This gives Jesus a bit of distance from the crowd which continues to stand on the beach.  Matthew has moved Jesus from being “man of the people” to being “authoritative teacher.” 

This is seen to be a deft piece of political theater.  Jesus is sitting in a fishing boat, which is, quite literally, on the sea.  In a sense, Jesus is speaking to and for all the people who try to make a living from the Sea of Galilee.  (It’s not for nothing that fishermen were some of Jesus’ first supporters.)  

Jesus may have had a home at Capernaum, perhaps the most important harbour city on the entire Sea of Galilee, which also made it an important communications center for the region.  He also traveled to many other towns and villages that lie on the sea, including Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, his frequent companion.

In the intervening verses, 10-17, Jesus tells the disciples that they get to hear “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” but others do not.  Jesus says that he speaks in parables, but no one understands. 

This suggests that, far from being easy to understand, the parables are so contrarian that they are difficult to hear.  The reason Jesus so often encouraged people with ears to hear is because what he was saying was so counter-intuitive, so formed by an alternative paradigm, that people were having a hard time comprehending what he was saying.  

In verse 18, Jesus calls the story “the parable of the sower.”  Suggests that this is a parable about the God they hold dear, and about the kingdom they put their faith in.  It’s the parable of the sower, and it is a kingdom of complexity with not one but four kinds of soil.  It’s about the relationship between the sower and the soils, the God-human relationship, in other words the Kingdom, realm, interconnection, interdependence that needs reimagining. It is not about a powerful creator God in charge of evil, dominated, powerless people.

To conclude this exploration today we remember that it was not until a number of Christian theologians in the 1960s acknowledged the truth of Nietzsche’s announcement and declared that the concept of God had become so obsolete that it was no longer convincing to speak of ‘the living God’ as a being who created and ruled over the universe. As J Macquarrie reminded us in the 1980s, whatever life God had formerly enjoyed in the thought world of believers has been slowly ebbing away in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, The sower is no longer the God scattering seeds like a creator but rather we are the sowers and the kingdom, realm we are part of is diverse, complex and like the universe as we understand it today, a realm of unexpected serendipity. That is, until we come to accept that it is like avatar within multiple universes and unlimited dimensions. Or as I think Lloyd is suggesting, the doctrine of the incarnation takes on emerging concepts, that we will understand the parable for us today. And as Roy W Hoover says in the same magazine as Lloyd’s article – “A modern faith requires a modern conceptuality and language that can make clear to us in what respects our religious situation is discontinuous with our religious past”. Or as Gordon Kaufmann has said: “ Our inherited symbolism no longer fits the overall cast of life as it is lived, understood, and experienced in today’s world. So, it must change, and change in decisive ways, if it is not to die out.”. It has been my personal claim  that this is the challenge the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa faces if it wishes to remain alive. The issue the church needs to avoid is getting caught up in the battle between incremental and catastrophic because the change is already underway, the church’s task is to articulate the thought world it lives in. To listen for the God concept of today and to incarnate it through language and experience.  Amen.

The Fourth R Volume 33 Number 3 May-June 2020 ‘The Life of God from Conception to Death in the human Though-World. Westar Institute Farmington MN

Romans 7:15–25

Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30

Someone once wrote that, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” And others have suggested things that resonate with me. They have suggested that failure is a prerequisite of invention, which requires risk taking. Failure provides insights that aren’t normally gained from success. This is interesting in that it elevates failure from that purely negative realm to one of ambiguity, inclusivity and questions the dualistic simplicity of good verses bad. Failure can be both when one sees it in the macro or big picture.

It’s one thing for leaders within institutions and systems to address failure at the abstract level of corporate policies and these days hear of systemic failure, often as an answer to the fact that no one knows why so it has to be a systemic something. But it is quite another to acknowledge failure at the personal level. For most employees, personal failure is an enormous threat that portends embarrassment, shame, and even the loss of one’s job. Worst of all, the stigma of failure breeds fear and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and accelerate the very thing one fears.

The quote I began with suggests that failure-tolerant peoples move beyond simplistic definitions of success and failure, where the former is always positive and the latter is always negative. Maybe there is such a thing as “successful failure.” Good leaders keep things in perspective. When one speaks with Rugby coaches, they say that they “didn’t get consumed by losses and didn’t get overwhelmed by successes.” Failure-tolerant leaders empathize with employees by sharing their own failures and by accepting the mistakes of others. Sometimes the others cant’s admit theirs and this slows the process somewhat. Finally, the failure-tolerant replaces a corporate culture of fierce competition with a culture of collaboration. We might call this humility as the transforming agent and togetherness or unity as the movement forward.

This all sounds a bit logical or ‘liberal’ and ‘new age’ and it asks what a “failure-tolerant Christian” might look like. After all, some of the most significant people in God’s story of redemption experienced extraordinary failures. Moses killed, David became an adulterer, Jesus died a criminal, Peter denied even knowing Jesus, while Paul described himself as the “chief among sinners” for trying to destroy the developing church.

In this week’s epistle, Paul describes a fierce struggle in his deeply divided self. He does things that he hates, and fails to do the good. He experiences covetous desires and sinful passions of every sort. Rather than doing the good he desires to do he commits the evil he detests. With exasperation he describes a “war” within himself that makes him a “prisoner,” and confesses, “I do not understand what I do” (Romans 7:15, 23). Paul’s struggle is so intense that some interpreters think that he’s describing his pre-conversion life rather than a Christian experience.

So; what does one do with this inner struggle that seems to be there for many of us? It seems that more people are asking these sort of questions today and that is manifest as the increased interest in the inner self. People are doing Yoga, going on retreats, taking up Tai Chi, doing meditation, exploring Buddhism and following Indian Guru’s in search of enlightenment. In the end much of this is the search for a workable spirituality.

I found a reflection on one such a journey that might be of interest in regard to our topic of failure tolerance. I will call him John as a way of relating this story.

John started reading the fourth century monastics who fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. Before he read the desert mothers and fathers, he had thought of them as Christian super-heroes. After he had read them, he realized that he couldn’t have been more wrong.

He admired the desert dwellers because they were practitioners of healing, not abstract theoreticians. They sought personal transformation, not theological information. Although the desert monastics might seem a little strange today, John saw that we misunderstand them if we construe their asceticism as a spirituality of superficial techniques.

John admired the desert monastics most of all for their profound humanity. They modeled what was called a “spirituality of imperfection” in which one is not ashamed or embarrassed to acknowledge and embrace one’s brokenness, wounds, darkness, and inner demons. For them, intense struggle is a necessary component of Christian maturity.

The desert mothers and fathers tell stories that illuminate Paul’s interior struggle. With remarkable candor, brutal realism, unqualified empathy, and wry humor, they describe how they experienced in the vast nothingness of the Egyptian desert a cacophony of voices in the interior geography of the heart. They sought wholeness but discovered brokenness. In the famous words of St Anthony the Great (251–356) considered as the father of monasticism, they concluded that we should “expect trials until your last breath.” Their reports from the front lines of spiritual battle reveal a disarming transparency about human failure and frailty.

As John reviewed (360-435) Institutes and Conferences, he found a sampling of their self-diagnosis as “lethargy, sleeplessness, dark dreams, impulsive urges, self-justification, seething emotions, sexual fantasies, pious pretense that masked as virtue, self-deception, clerical ambition and the desire to dominate, crushing despair, confusion, wild mood swings, flattery, and the dreaded “noonday demon” of acedia, Here it seemed was a ‘wearied or anxious heart” that suggests close parallels to clinical depression.

And it got worse. They seemed to admit that “there are [also] many things that lie hidden in the conscience which are known and manifest to God, even though they may be unknown and obscure to them. John read of many questions arising such as “why does a monk who joyfully renounced great wealth later succumb to intense possessiveness over a tiny pen knife, needle, or book? Why did monks give each other the “silent treatment.” What provoked a brother’s anger at a dull stylus? Or why is it “that superfluous thoughts insinuate themselves into us so subtly and hiddenly when we do not even want them, and indeed do not even know of them, and to find that it is very difficult not only to cast them out but even to understand them and to catch hold of them?” Where, in other words, was the off-switch for a psyche in overdrive?

John seems to be onto something here about the power of failure in its effect on the human psyche or at least our inability to dislodge ourselves from its potential. Maybe we give failure too much importance or too much authority. I offer you this poem below as an example of this inner juxtaposition of failure and success in the task of loving another. I hope you might see the inner struggle with failure and success and the need for it in the successful encounter.

To Love You

To even perceive that you are there to be loved by me

Is to reduce you to the object of my affection

To trap you in a moment of objectivity that cannot be

To suppose that you are there for my affliction

Is to perceive that it is possible to remove you from the free

And hold you as the other as if you were dead.

To see my love as a condition of truth…

caught in the condition of objectivity.

is to see my relation to the ‘other’ becoming a trial aloof

and the real in relation to you as other risks becoming senility

alluding and encompassing before I have it proofed

It does not await my notarized ability.

When it comes to my theology of love

I am the bravest of hearts,

to concede the contingency and revisability of your responding dove

my real lies open to the dream of what is to come in parts

the one I have to deal with is neither here nor above

and being in love with the real is never a past.

If love is for me the precarious,

what is more precarious than the cosmic dice game

of which you and I are the outcome various

what is more precarious than the cosmic flame

when love is never for me the nefarious

contemporary cosmologist’s terrain

What is more a matter of pure chance or pure contingency,

almost of perhaps or serendipity,

than the fact that I can love with agency

I serve at the pleasure of cosmic elements and validity,

hanging on by a risk of flagrancy,

my love mere prayer dependent upon, yet free of pity.

My love is for you as the ‘other’ is not anybody for anything,

which is how deconstruction defined a literal grace

my love is the purist of gifts, gratuity beyond and description offering,

 and pure grace is the transport of love apace

my love, freely and astronomically proffering

from a heart of almost cosmic scope here in this place.

To Love You

And when we read of Paul, we see that a failure tolerant approach is a positive response to changes. Paul and the desert monastics encourage us to embrace our struggles and failures rather than to suppress or deny them. The acceptance of failure and its welcoming can be difficult when our communities don’t allow us to fail in the first place, or if they do, the price of failure is condemnation rather than consolation. Just looking at the recent changes at St David’s Khyber Pass Rd Grafton Auckland and the Presbytery Commission’s agreement with many of us that closure is a helpful option, we can see that failure here is required in the sense of a long history of a congregation in order that something new and more in tune with the needs of the day is required. The decline in membership has been going on for some 60 years and one could say in denial of the church’s organisational failure. Closure as failure is in this instance life giving, even if there is never the same sort of gathered congregation to replace it. One wonders if the attempt to start a new congregation on the premises is not another denial of failure. All this sounds defeatist does it not? But if one takes seriously the search for spirituality that exists in our society then what is being done in the name of church is failing and maybe the time has come for a change the church will struggle to make.

And while this might sound more like a last-ditch justification for failure; maybe it is not? Why? Because Christians are famous for throwing failures under the bus. Paul, writing from his own experience, reminds us that we all carry the gospel treasure in fragile vessels, and that none of us is worthy of or adequate to the task (2 Corinthians 2:16, 4:7). James says that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2).

And so, Paul asks: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). The gospel for this week points us to Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, from I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:25–30).

In other words; why don’t you learn from Jesus. He was gentle in the face of violence, resolute about what he knew in the face of institutional and systemic success and tolerant of failure because he knew it held more. Here Paul is placing failure-tolerance as a gateway to a durable, long lasting and richer success. Not one of us are worthy so follow the Way of Jesus who has turned death and failure into success, not as a denial of or an escape from death but as a Way to live it.

George Herbert (1593–1633)

Affliction (IV)

Broken in pieces all asunder,

Lord, hunt me not,

A thing forgot,

Once a poor creature, now a wonder,

A wonder tortur’d in the space

Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,

Wounding my heart

With scatter’d smart,

As wat’ring pots give flowers their lives.

Nothing their fury can control,

While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife,

Quitting their place

Unto my face:

Nothing performs the task of life:

The elements are let loose to fight,

And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God! let not their plot

Kill them and me,

And also thee,

Who art my life: dissolve the knot,

As the sun scatters by his light

All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers, which work for grief,

Enter thy pay,

And day by day

Labour thy praise, and my relief;

With care and courage building me,

Till I reach heav’n, and much more, thee.

For those of you who might like to see what today’s spirituality might look like or hint at, below is a video you might find interesting in relation to a contemporary search for human spirituality. And we are left with the question; ‘where is the church?’ Still denying failure? Amen.

Look Again for The Sprig of Hope

Gen 22: 1-14, Ps 13, Rom 6: 12-23, Mt 10: 40-42

Since the beginning of history humanity has been trying to prove whether or not God exists and one has to wonder if the questions being used are the wrong ones or being asked in the wrong way. What if as John D Caputo proposes God does not exist but rather insists. In other words, God as a single being called the creator doesn’t work because we get trapped in a question for which there is no answer or at least one that is always in search of an answer in a world where answers are absolutes and final outcomes. What if the very act of insistence or the process of insisting is in fact God. Over the last few years, I have tried to explore this and have postulated like Gordon Kaufmann that we might see God as the Serendipitous Creativity or the empowering force that is seen in the evolution of all things. In recent times I have suggested that we might join the dynamics of language and see this Serendipitous Creativity as ‘Almost’ and that there is something that is not quite yet something, that the something is always in motion, on the way to, has potential for, thus that the something we call God is more like a motion, a movement, dynamic, and fluid, or simply, ‘always living’. I don’t see these two ‘names’ for God as exclusive in that Serendipitous Creativity suggests the randomness of perpetual evolution, the ever-changing nature of things as transformation, and the living as motion, developing, becoming, unfolding, new, unexpected and unforeseen. This God seems to sustain belief in the face of the 21st century scientific thinking and maintain the personal responsibility and unknown of what being human means and it maintains the question of what the purpose of being human might be as well. Whether or not we are one universe among many, a species on a trajectory of multiple civilizations or individuals living in our global sociological culture God as ‘Almost suggests there is still hope when human beings have compassion for each other and live life as if God or the I am is love. The primary questions become more like why is it that as a species we are living longer than ever before, and what is the species trying to achieve?

But what does all this have to do with our texts for today? Well maybe it suggests that metaphor is closer to unveiling truth than fact and maybe it suggests we should look closer at the metaphor of the text than try to match the literal text with historical record (of which we have very little) and trust the metaphor to speak to us.

But let us be careful when accepting the metaphor without critique.  Looking at our texts today we see that the controlling metaphor of Genesis 22: 1-15 appears to be child sacrifice and yet maybe this could be in question because it might rather be the abhorrence of it. The controlling metaphor of Romans 6:12-23 is slavery and it might rather be the abhorrence of it and an historic social critique is required, and the controlling metaphor of Matthew 10: 40-42 is welcoming in order to be righteous and it might rather be a cry for ‘unconditional love’. Psalm 13s inclusion as a prayer for God to be revealed in action to rescue the psalmist in distress even when God’s face is hidden, might be a cry to see differently as the psalmist still affirms “I put my trust in your mercy”; that trust is fulfilled with the appearance of “saving help,” whereupon the psalm can end with a burst of praise, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly.” The trajectory of the psalm parallels Abraham’s experience in the Genesis passage, from the perplexity of his dilemma to the final affirmation that the Lord will provide.

Like all biblical text our Genesis text presents us with more questions than it answers. We have questions about its origin, its context, its meaning and its content, but what we can very likely agree is that it is most likely to be a legend or myth that has the purpose of passing on the story because of its importance to those who might come later. The Sacrifice of Isaac narrated in Genesis 22:1-14 probably originated as an etiological legend. An etiological legend is one where the story is told to explain something by giving a cause or reason for it, often in historical or mythical terms. In this case the story explains why the People of Israel do not practice child sacrifice.

It is believed that Sacrifice of children was known throughout the Ancient Near East, and it has been documented in many different religious texts, histories, and archeological finds. It is referred to several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, though there is today considerable scholarly debate as to its actual practice by Israelites, either as worship of other gods or as worship of YHWH.

Heath D. Dewrell says simply, “There is a general consensus that child sacrifice did indeed take place in ancient Israel, although there is little agreement on the extent to which the practice occurred. However it is clearly the stance of the scriptures themselves that child sacrifice, and specifically the sacrifice of the firstborn, is not to be practiced in God’s name, even if some subgroups among the people were reputed to have resorted to it at one time or another.

Representative of this claim is the commandment in Exodus 34:19-20, that states: “All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.” The basic position that the firstborn belongs to God, adjusted with a statute to redeem that firstborn son with a lamb, is given narrative background, as it were, in this near-sacrifice story. 

All of the above is well and good for a scholarly understanding of the text. But when the text is simply read on its own, as presented in the lectionary, and is given without preamble or footnote as a live performance before a listening congregation, it is not the prevention of child sacrifice that we hear. What we today notice first and foremost is the horror of child sacrifice. What kind of a God could demand such a thing? What kind of a father could even contemplate granting such a demand? How could anyone with a conscience consent to worship a God who would put a believer to such an abhorrent “test”? 

So, is there a way to reconcile the two perspectives? Some commentators might argue that reconciliation is not the point, that any attempt to reconcile would simply paper over the deep flaws of the original text, and that a contemporary preacher would do best to look at this story and simply say “God is not like that” and move on. That is an option that I suggest is addressed by an understanding of God as ‘Almost’ and Serendipitous Creativity. The issue is not the existence of slavery but rather what is true because of the serendipitous creative nature of an ‘Almost’ yet ‘becoming’, God.

This thinking is akin to process theology that is valuable in making the attempt, at least, to move from contradiction to contrast, to find a larger set of prehensions or points of view that will hold together the apparent opposites of scholarly explanation and moral outrage. We are outraged by the beginning of the story, which poses the entire episode as a “test,” as if it were some sort of evaluative exercise posed by a disconnected and uncaring God to determine whether a believing follower is willing to abase himself enough. What if we were to focus on the end of the story, when Abraham finds a way out of his dilemma because God has allowed him to see something he did not see before? 

For whatever reason, whether by direct command from God or because it was a pervasive cultural practice in his environment, Abraham feels he must acknowledge God as the source of life by returning his firstborn to that source. This is not easy or unemotional for him. The narrative does not describe Abraham’s emotional state directly, there are no adjectives marking Abraham as “sad” or “angry” or “resigned”; but the story is told with deep pathos. There is a lack of overt emotion suggesting an almost depressive condition, and bitter irony when Abraham says “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” knowing that Isaac is precisely what God has provided.

This is not something Abraham wants to do, yet it is something Abraham must do. He is trapped in that dilemma, unable to find a way out and unable to allow himself to feel his own distress — until God stays his hand, affirms the totality of Abraham’s commitment, and opens Abraham’s eyes to see the ram caught in the thicket nearby. God provides for Abraham a new possibility, a way to honour God as the source of life both by returning life to God and by protecting and nurturing the life of the son given him by God. By receiving and actualizing this new possibility in his own occasion of action, Abraham learns yet more deeply that “the Lord will provide,” in this and in all situations. 

Part of our present difficulty with this passage is our inheritance from Enlightenment thinking that God must be at least as rational as we are, at least as moral as we would try to be. Since we would find it wrong or repugnant to test or be tested by another human being in this way, we would not want to believe that God would act in this way. If we see God as Serendipitous Creativity and as ‘Almost’ we don’t need to make the correlation and therefor ask that question.

The ancient author(s) of this story however, had no such compunction; to them it was axiomatic that God’s ways are mysterious, that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord,” and that often we cannot know what God is doing until the thing is done and the meaning can be revealed in retrospect. If we can, for an interpretive moment, ‘Almost’ allows us to set aside our desire for God to be like us because God is manifest in our response to God’s insistence or calling us, and we can move beyond our outrage at the notion of divine testing, what could we see in this passage of the promise of a God who reveals ways we can take ourselves out of the painful dilemmas in which we find ourselves?

If we are caught in a dilemma between honouring life by practicing social distancing in a time of pandemic, and honouring life by restoring economic activity and meaningful work to people who need to support themselves — then what new possibility might we be able to see an ‘Almost’ God offer? If we experience dilemma between doing what seems socially correct and accepted, and a deep commitment that there are better ways to honour life than current custom — then what new possibility might we be able to see our God offer? In what way might we be able to look at the seemingly impossible choices of our own moment and yet trust that “the Lord will provide”? 

The controlling metaphor of Romans 6:12-23 is slavery, and that presents a considerable challenge to preaching on the text today. While it is certainly true that “slavery” in the Hellenistic culture for which Paul wrote was very different, it is inevitable that a contemporary congregation will hear the word as reflecting racially based subjugation of entire peoples, and the continuing injustices and inequities suffered by communities of colour as a consequence of the history of enslavement in their nation. Becoming “slaves of righteousness,” even if it is admitted to be a concessional “speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations,” is not an acceptable way today to speak of the liberating work of God. 

So, perhaps we can get past the repugnant metaphor as well as avoid the sanitization of slavery by moving to the more genuine meaning by remembering that “slavery” in Hellenistic society was often a matter of being bound to a particular household. In functional terms, what Paul is attempting to describe here is leaving one sort of household or system of interpersonal relations, in order to join another. The Roman converts at one time belonged to a system of social interactions defined by sin, by patterns of distorted relationships characterized by taking and manipulating and greed. The Roman motto of Victory before peace comes to mind here. Such patterns are codified in the law; the purpose of the law, and as Paul has previously argued, the task is to condemn such patterns; and by drawing attention to them, the law paradoxically gives these patterns more power. Some people suggest that NZ Presbyterianism is too legally oriented with the Book of Order being used as a book of law for everything rather than a book of process..

Grace, on the other hand, frees one from the burdensome awareness of the law, and gives the believer the opportunity to join another household, to participate in a system of relationships in the society of the church. It almost seems a waste of time talking about church these days in that it has little respect today and it is no longer a system characterized by receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude. It’s about financial sustainability and economic viability of communities of maximum mass. As participants in this new social system, believers can “present your members,” their concrete bodily actions, “to God as instruments of righteousness,” that is, as enactments of divine ideals for right-relationship in genuinely mutual well-being. Because you do it like us you are righteous. Entering into a co-creative relationship with God and neighbours in the social system of faith, has believers engage a process of “sanctification,” in which believers’ enactments of divine aims in concrete moments give God more to work with, as it were, in offering even greater aims in succeeding moments. However for Paul sanctification is not simply a personal accomplishment, won by the believer’s own effort, but it is “the free gift” of grace that comes from God’s ever-widening offering of new possibilities, extending the individual life into “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  For an insistent and ‘Almost’ God this would be seen the manifestation of love as revealed in service to for and with or in solidarity with the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

Frederick Buechner suggested an image of discipleship that always came to his mind in connection with our text from Matthew. The image is of a magnet with paper clips. Holding this image in mind as one reads the text such as “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus is saying be like the paper clip taken up into my magnetic field, so that you also become magnetic and can pick up a second clip, which then also becomes magnetic, and so on. In this sense the disciples not the magnet but rather the participants in Jesus’ field of force, insofar as they re-enact in themselves Jesus’ own pattern of receiving and offering; and Jesus participates in the divine field of force, in that Jesus re-enacts in his human life the pattern of receiving and offering. Anyone who receives the disciples on their preaching mission, anyone who receives the disciples’ preaching and healing and offers in turn their own heart to the Good News, participates in the disciples’ field of force, which is also Jesus’, which traditionally is seen as also God’s. The “reward” of participation in divine life always begins in “welcome,” in receiving openly and honestly and with a genuine appreciation of the other’s gifts and needs and identity.

God does not accept a person because of anything that person has done to “earn” or “deserve” God’s love, but only because a person is open to welcome God’s love. For that reason, one “receives a prophet’s reward” not for achieving the rank of prophet, in other words being better than the last, but for welcoming a prophet and participating in the proclamation. One “receives the reward of the righteous” not for scoring righteousness points, but for welcoming a righteous person and participating in right-relationship. And the first step of discipleship and its promise of participation in Jesus’ Way of life is as simple as welcoming a disciple and giving them a cup of cold water, a simple gesture of hospitality and refreshment, in basic compassion for the “little ones.” This kind of “welcome” represents a receiving of divine ideals of right-relationship, and an offering of personal action to embody those ideals — and in an ‘Almost and Serendipitous Creativity world, that welcoming process is an inaugural and foundational participation in the pattern of life exemplified through disciples from Jesus through God. Such fully-lived life is the disciple’s “reward.”. 

The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason, it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham. When he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb no distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised. Therefor Abraham’s faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Amen.

Pentecost 3A. 2020
Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19          Matthew 7:21-29

The Authority of the Historical Jesus ‘The Sprig of Hope’

Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19

These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, ”Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh–birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth–so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So, Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families. 

Matthew 7:21-29

Concerning Self-Deception

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Hearers and Doers

‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

The story of Noah could be seen as a story of civilizations undergoing their extinction and renewal.

A paraphrase of the story might be simply a good man selected by God to bridge the extinction and provide continuity while God cleans out the old to provide a clean basis for the next civilization. It is ironic that the ancient legend about Noah survives in our age mainly as a children’s story. Maybe as a child you might even have had a Noah’s ark made of wood with a roof that came off so that you could take the animals out and put them in again, and yet if you stop to look at it at all, this is really as dark a tale as there is in the Bible, which is full of dark tales. It is a tale of God’s terrible despair over the human race and his decision to visit them with a great flood that would destroy them all except for this one old man, Noah, and his family. One wonders why we give it to children to read? Is it because we older folk don’t want to read it because it is too close to home?

The idea that the world might be in trouble because of us is not an easy one to deal with and it will take a long process to put it right so let’s give it to those who have more time. The trouble is that it may become just a fairy tale which is more difficult to take seriously, and it might encourage black jokes about disease and death so that we can laugh instead of weep at them; just the way we translate murder and lust into sixth-rate television melodramas, which is to reduce them to a size that anybody can cope with; just the way we take the nightmares of our age, the sinister, brutal forces that dwell in the human heart threatening always to overwhelm us and present them as the Addams family or monster dolls, which we give, again, to children.

Gulliver’s Travels is too bitter about humankind, so we make it into an animated cartoon; Moby Dick is too bitter about God, so we make it into an adventure story for boys; Noah’s ark is too something-or-other else, so it becomes a toy with a roof that comes off so you can take the little animals out.

This is one way of dealing with the harsher realities of our existence, and since the alternative is, by facing them head on, to risk adding more to our burden of anxiety than we are able to bear, it may not be such a bad way at that. But for all our stratagems, the legends, the myths persist among us, and even in the guise of fairy tales for the young they continue to embody truths or intuitions that in the long run it is perhaps more dangerous to evade than to confront.

So, what, then, are the truths embodied in this tale of Noah and his ark? Let us start with the story itself more particularly let us start with the moment when God first spoke to Noah, more particularly let us start with Noah’s face at that moment when God first spoke to him. 

When somebody speaks to us, we turn our face to look in the direction the voice comes from; but if the voice comes from no direction at all, if the voice comes from within and comes wordlessly, and more powerfully for being wordless, then in a sense we stop looking at anything at all. Our eyes become unseeing, and if someone were to pass a hand in front of them, we would hardly notice the hand. If we can be said to be looking at anything then, we are probably looking at, without really seeing, something of no importance whatever, like the branch of a tree stirring in the wind or the frayed cuff of our shirt where our arm rests on the windowsill. Our face goes vacant because for the moment we have vacated it and are living somewhere beneath our face, wherever it is that the voice comes from. So, it was maybe with Noah’s face when he heard the words that he heard, or when he heard what he heard translated clumsily into words: that the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, filled with violence and pain and unlove—that the earth was doomed.

Maybe the story’s challenge is for us to examine our face when we hear that the sixth extinction is upon us, or the world is in a political, social mess, or unless we do something drastic, world shattering and world -wide we might disappear as a species. Do those wealthy folks who are building bunkers in Queenstown know something? Are they accepting that all is going to end and they want to be tomorrows Noah? Have they suddenly decided their children’s talk was more than a fairy tale after all?

It was presumably nothing that Noah had not known already, nothing that any of us who have ever lived on this earth with our eyes open have not known. But because it came upon him sudden and strong, he had to face it more squarely than people usually do, and it rose up in him like a pain in his own belly. And then maybe, like Kierkegaard’s Abraham, Noah asked whether it was God who was speaking or only the pain in his belly; whether it was a vision of the glory of the world as it first emerged from the hand of the Creator that led him to the knowledge of how far the world had fallen, or whether it was just his pathetic human longing for a glory that had never been and would never be. If that was his question, perhaps a flicker of bewilderment passed across his vacant face—the lines between his eyes deepening, his mouth going loose, a little stupid. A penny for your thoughts, old Noah.

But then came the crux of the thing because the voice that was either God’s voice or an undigested matzoh ball shifted from the indicative of doom to the imperative of command and it told him that, although the world was doomed, he, Noah, had a commission to perform that would have much to do with the saving of the world.

“Make yourself a cause if the voice proceeded not from the mystery of the human belly but from the mystery and depth of life itself, then Noah had to obey, and Noah knew it. And out of common humanity this is the point to shift our gaze from his face, because things are happening there that no stranger should be allowed to see, and to look instead at his feet, because when we have to decide which way we are going to bet our entire lives, it is very often our feet that finally tell the tale.

There are Noah’s feet—dusty, a little slew-footed, Toonerville trolley of vessels, clouted from side to side by the waves and staggering like a drunk. It was not much, God knows, but it was enough, and it stayed afloat, and granted that it was noisy as hell and stank to heaven, creatures took comfort from each other’s creatureliness, and the wolf lay down with the lamb, and the lion ate straw like the ox, and life lived on in the ark while all around there was only chaos and death.

Then finally, after many days, the little sprig of hope in this message of extinction and destruction. Noah sent forth a dove from the ark to see if the waters had subsided from the earth, and that evening she returned, and lo-and-behold, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf once again, for the last time, the place to look, I think, is Noah’s face. The dove stands there with her delicate, scarlet feet on the calluses of his upturned palm. His cheek just touches her breast so that he can feel the tiny panic of her heart. His eyes are closed, the lashes watery wet. Only what he weeps with now, the old clown, is no longer anguish, but wild and irrepressible hope. That is not the end of the story in Genesis, but maybe that is the end of it for most of us—just a little sprig of hope held up against the end of the world.

All these old tales are about us, of course, and I suppose that is why we can never altogether forget them; that is why, even if we do not read them anymore ourselves, we give them to children to read so that they will never be entirely lost, because if they were, part of the truth about us would be lost too. The truth, for instance, that, left to ourselves, as a race we are doomed—what else can we conclude? —doomed if only by our own insatiable lust for doom. Despair and destruction and death are the ancient enemies, and yet we are always so helplessly drawn to them that it is as if we are more than half in love with our enemies.

Even our noblest impulses and purest dreams get all tangled up with them just as in many conflicts, in the name of human dignity and freedom, the bombs are falling on both the just and the unjust and we recoil at the horror of little children with their faces burned off, except that somehow that is the way the world has always been and is, with nightmare and noble dream all tangled up together. That is the way we are doomed—doomed to be what we are, doomed to seek our own doom. And the turbulent waters of chaos and nightmare are always threatening to burst forth and flood the earth.

We hardly need the tale of Noah to tell us that. The Newspapers tell daily, and our own hearts tell us well too, because chaos and nightmare have their little days there also. But the tale of Noah tells other truths as well.

It tells about the ark, for one, which somehow managed to ride out the storm. God knows the ark is not much—if anybody knows it is not much, God knows—and the old joke seems true that if it were not for the storm without, you could never stand the stench within. But the ark was enough, is enough. Because the ark is wherever human beings come together as human beings in such a way that the differences between them stop being barriers—the way if people say, of someone they both love, all the differences of age between them, all the real and imagined differences of colour, of wealth, of education, no longer divide them but become for each a source of strength and delight, and although they may go right on looking at each other as very odd fish indeed, it becomes an oddness to gladden the heart, and there is no shyness anymore, no awkwardness or fear of each other. Sometimes even in a church service we can look into each other’s faces and see that, beneath the differences, we are all of us outward bound on a voyage for parts unknown.

The ark is wherever people come together because this is a stormy world where nothing stays put for long among the crazy waves as last week’s sermon invited us to celebrate the temporary and where at the end of every voyage there is a burial at sea. The ark is where, just because it is such a world, we really need each other and know very well that we do. The ark is wherever human beings come together because in their heart of hearts all of them—white and black, believer and unbeliever, hippie and square—dream the same dream, which is a dream of peace—peace between the nations, between the races, between the brothers—and thus ultimately a dream of love. Love not as an excuse for the mushy and innocuous, but love as a summons to battle against all that is unlovely and unloving in the world. The ark, in other words, is where we have each other and where we have hope.

And finally let’s remember when it seems too hard that Noah looked like a fool in his faith, but he saved the world from drowning. The story of the sprig of hope in the complexity of a world seemingly on the path of self-destruction invites us, to remember the man named Yeshua  who also looked like a fool spread-eagled up there, cross-eyed with pain, who gives the world a sprig of hope wherever we meet and touch in something like love, it is because he also is there, brother of us all that we too can build our arks with love and ride out the storm with courage and know that the little sprig of green in the dove’s mouth betokens a reality beyond the storm more precious than the likes of us can imagine. Amen.

Celebrating the Temporary, with Imagination

• Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear…
• Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…
• Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…

Taken literally those words seem to contradict everything we know about good health, after all one does have to take seriously what one eats, drinks and wears otherwise one will probably become unwell at some point. And birds do seem to carry seeds around and propagate many species of plants etc and lastly while it is beneficial to take time out to connect with nature and its beauty, sitting watching flowers grow works only for a while and life is more than time out.

I think that the problem might be about the literal approach to this. Sure, it is the literal descriptions that invite us to engage with the text but it seems we are to then put pictures and shapes and colours to the words so that we can explore the meaning. I think this has something to do with the need for imagination, not the naming of the colours but the putting them together into a story form to provide a deeper and richer meaning. We need to imagine what it could look like to hear the story in our minds eye.

It is said that 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 Wilder. Way back in the 1960s and early 70s, Wilder claimed that Jesus’ speech had the character, not of instruction and ideas, but of compelling imagination (Wilder 1971). He claimed Christianity is a religion of imagination and the oral word. And behind the particular gospel stories and images lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.

He suggested that Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers broke into the world of speech and writing of their time, with a novel and powerful utterance. So far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery, ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’. Of course, he must have known how to write but it is that he preferred conversation and speaking as a way of communicating. In a society growing  from an oral culture conversation would have been the common choice. In secular terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, oblivious of any concern for transcription or written record. Less romantically we can say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is a crucial point in determining the culture of the time as writing things down has about it a sense of permanence. It presupposes continuity and a future. But the spoken word is temporary. The words are gone as they are spoken. Recording devices did not exists for Jesus. As Wilder said: “Jesus was a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1971:13).

Now tradition has it, that one of the most important pieces of ‘Jesus voice’ is the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’, and the bits and pieces of sayings that the author of Matthew’s gospel puts after this collection, such as today’s sayings:

• Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear…
• Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…
• Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…

Generally speaking, most biblical scholars now-a-days believe there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount. In reality, they say, it was the editorial work of the author of Matthew’s gospel, to place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general, and as another great teacher like Moses, in particular. However, many of those same scholars reckon that the particular everyday sayings which follow in the next chapter, and make up today’s Lectionary sayings, indicate every possibility that we have before us “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus” (Funk & Hoover 1993:152).

Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz wrote a book titled The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In in 2019 which reflects the most recent advances in biblical scholarship, seeking to present an understanding of the Bible, God, and Jesus that people can believe in with integrity.

He reminds us as if we needed reminding that in recent decades, the traditional church has experienced significant decline.  He wrote the book because he was concerned about how the Bible, God, and Jesus are presented in the local church.  The book notes that when we read the Bible in a non-literal way, the rich stories and messages of the Bible begin to open up to us in meaningful and personally transformative ways.  The book affirms how viewing the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God is simply inadequate to our modern experience.

As an expression of progressive Christianity, the book emphasizes a number of things:

  • We are to not take the Bible literally; rather, read in light of its historical context and mostly as metaphorical narrative.
  • Free God from the bonds of supernatural theism.
  • View Jesus not as divine but as fully human.

He provides the reader with a modern view of the Bible, God, and Jesus that is believable while, at the same time, providing integrity to our beliefs. It also raises the questions surrounding the debate in the time of the Council of Nicea and the claims of Arius we spoke about last week.

So, if we stay with this scholarly suggestion for a moment, we find that the biblical stories frequently have Jesus drawing his figures of speech from the everyday world around him. “The need for food calls the birds to mind, the need for clothing the lilies…” (Funk & Hoover 1993:153).

Plus… as the 1950s Scottish theologian William Barclay helpfully said, Jesus was not advocating a thoughtless, improvident attitude to life, “but was warning against a care-worn, worried, fearful way of living each day” (Millar 2000:175). Beware of a mindless acceptance of the status quo and the insidiousness of negativity and a life driven by fear.

That’s why many of us today claim Jesus was a secular sage (Hunt 2007:6). He made no theological statements. Neither did he set out to establish a new religion. He belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism.

That said, the particular sayings from our reading do have a particular focus:

  • They are addressed to people who are preoccupied with day-to-day existence, rather than with the broader political situation;
  • They challenge common attitudes towards life, and

and

  • They are exaggerations.

And they do fit with some other sayings also attributed to Jesus.

In another but similar context. Theologian Arthur Dewey says of Jesus’ sayings that they:

  • The sayings dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality,
  • The sayings admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegals/immigrants— the common theme is those who are different whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’, In our western world and increasingly around the world we see this alienation being manifest as racism rising its ugly head.
  • The sayings challenge us all to reshape our social categories, especially those of others, formed by our fears and rumors and innuendo.

And when we examine the implications of these sayings and this vision. Arthur Dewey again offers this suggestion: He asks “can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine your response but also to offer your oppressor a chance for a more humane reply” (Dewey 2002:80).

What seems important about all these sayings is, they make it possible for us to see the world,
the everyday world in which we live, not only as it is, but also as it can be. They offer us the chance to re-imagine. To move us to new places. To turn us into new people. And to lure a response from us that will want to do away with that which oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, and imprisons others.

About five years back Emilie Townes, Professor of African American Religion and Theology, at Yale Divinity School, made a presentation to the ‘Voices of Sophia’ conference of Presbyterian women in the USA… Her oral presentation was shaped around a theme: What will we do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are?

She didn’t offer a highly academic speech. Neither did she suggest she was talking about what makes any of us, perfect. What she did say was: “I’m talking about what we call in Christian situational ethics, the everydayness of moral acts… It’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action” (Townes 006.  www.voicesofsophia.org)

Using ordinary rather than so-called ‘holy’ language, reminiscent of the one we call Jesus, Townes lists her everyday moral acts which her listeners, and now us, and we are invited to identify with:

  • the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk, to hear what they are saying;
  • the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh us through prayer or meditation;
  • the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths;
  • the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives;
  • the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or writing or thinking;
  • the everydayness of sharing a meal;
  • the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment
  • the everydayness of joy and laughter;
  • the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere, or at least point them in the right direction and walk with them;
  • the everydayness of blending head and heart;
  • the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right.

It is in this everydayness, Townes says, that we are formed. Boundaries and differences are irrelevant. And in the everydayness of the Jesus imagination: love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance.

As a person born in the 1940s I have to admit to being shaped by the exciting 60s theology when peace movements and alternative movements clashed with a post war suspicion of anything new.. The different seemed off the edge and reckless and sometimes weird. There is however a very important learning that has prepared me for post-modernist thinking and in part it is reflected in a book by Clyde Reid. He wrote a book called Celebrate the Temporary. And it was and is significant because its message continues to interrupt and challenge the mundane and the comfortable and the anxious in our lives.

Reid says:

Celebrate the temporary Don’t wait until tomorrow, live today.- Celebrate the simple things: – enjoy the butterfly,- embrace the snow,- run with the ocean,- delight in the trees or a single lonely flower – Go barefoot in the wet grass – Don’t wait until all the problems are solved or all the bills are paid You will wait forever – Eternity will come and go and you will still be waiting – Live in the now with all its problems and its agonies with its joy and its pain – There is joy and beauty today –  It is temporary – Here now and gone – So celebrate it while you can – Celebrate the temporary  (Reid 1972).

I want to suggest we might get a bit more of a handle on the value of protest about differences that we consider unjust or simply not Christian when we see that protest and apologetic preaching use homiletics (the art of preaching -the art of protest) as their vehicle to reach the public. You will note I am aligning protest with preaching and so calling it an art form too. I have spoken before about the Event as a living describable happening and I want to suggest that the call of God upon our lives, the call Jesus makes in his sayings is a homiletic event, an art form. It is a living unfolding evolving thing, it is an event where certain words are astir with events, are swollen with the possibility of the impossible, are restless with elemental powers, with immemorial powers that make it impossible to forget, with promissory powers that make it impossible to be content with what is present and that long to be brought forth, yearning to be born. These are the stimulants for imagination (that which is not quite there for the senses) it seems. Some of these words are words like “justice” and “democracy,” “gift” and “forgiveness,” “friendship” and “hospitality.”

The power of these words, or rather of the events that are astir in these words, is what “calls” us, solicits us, making our hearts restless like a pregnant deconstructive mother eager to deliver. The power of that call, we might say, is the first yes, a solicitous yes, the yes that calls for confirmation. We in turn confirm, respond, answer. That is the second yes. But let’s be careful here because with all this talk of the stirring of the event it is easy to become stirred with expectations of a controlling power, whereas an event is a more, wispy, and willowy thing, a whisper or a promise, a breath or a spirit, not a mundane force. The event is a stimulant of the imagination. An imagination that is crucial even more so today in this modern world of uncertainty, headless politics and unclear solutions. What might protest, challenge of the status quo, and clarity of thought look like?

How might the Call of Jesus and of God resonate not only with those who believe in God, but especially with those who aren’t quite sure what to make of God, or perhaps don’t believe in God at all?  John D Caputo suggests a few things that might be characteristics of a homiletic of call and response in today’s world, and I want to suggest that a protest is not a proclamation of metaphysical Truth, but rather a communal proclamation of prayer and praise for the advent of the wholly other—which is to say, for the event harboured in the name of God.

We might see here that a homiletic of the event doesn’t preach about God, as if God needs such, but instead preaches after God. Preaching after God can be understood in a variety of ways. At the very least, preaching after God heeds the implications of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God and offers viable possibilities for preaching in the aftermath of metaphysics, especially for progressives who, “don’t do the supernatural well.”

Instead of viewing the standard postmodern critique of metaphysics (which consists in recognizing our inability to ascertain and/or possess objective Truth) as a threat to homiletics, it is better viewed as a gift to homiletics. From another perspective, to preach after God is to be in pursuit of God, giving voice to a desire beyond desire, and a hope against hope, for the event that is harboured in the name of God (which is a God yet to be as distinguished from a supernatural God of Being or Presence), consisting of proclamations of prayer and praise for the advent of the wholly other.

It is a postmodern remix of a restless heart, which is always, relentlessly, with hopes and sighs too deep for words, with prayers and tears, after God—precisely because life is lived in the wake, in the aftermath, of the unconditional, unnamable, affirmative, infinite call that leaves us hoping, sighing and dreaming, holding on for dear life.

What part does imagination play in all this? Well! As the psalmist writes, “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing” (Psalm 34). Why? Because, in the words of Richard Kearney, “such desire is not some gaping emptiness or negation . . . but an affirmative ‘yes’ to the summons of a superabundant, impassioned God.” A homiletic of the event is eschatological in the sense that its hunger for God, its desire for God, suggests an “other” that is always “to come,” what eye has not seen and ear has not heard. In Kearney’s language, it can be understood as desire for the God who may be: “This desire beyond desire I call eschatological to the extent that it alludes to an alterity that already summons me yet is not yet, that is already present yet always absent (Philippians 2:12), A Serendipitous Creativity that seeks me is that which is yet still to come, An ‘Almost’ God perhaps?

To summarize then we might end by saying that with the loss of absolutes and the seemingly impossible complexity of life and inauthenticity of the un-ending opportunities and certainties, concreteness and fixed eternal truths, society seems lost, but the challenge I think is that they are lost only without imagination to provide alternatives, and find this hope and faith and trust in a valued place. We need to celebrate the temporary, and… remember the everydayness of the Jesus imagination and his sayings that spoke to people’s situations, his utterances that provided hope such as: love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance. Amen.

Notes:
Funk, R. W. & R. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan, 1993.
Hunt, R. A. E. 2007. “Progressive Christianity: New moves in Christian thinking and practice”. A presentation to Christian Jewish Dialogue ACT, 4 February 2007.
Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000.
Reid, C. Celebrate the Temporary. New York. Harper & Row, 1972.
Wilder, A. N. Early Christian Rhetoric. The Language of the Gospel. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1971.
Dewey, A. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan”, in R. W. Hoover (ed). Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

rexae74@gmail.com

Beyond Ecclesiastical Politics

In looking back over previous sermons on Trinity Sunday I noted that it has developed in some quarters as a Sunday when heresy, and even skepticism is raised as negative traits and proposed as against right belief, orthodoxy and even tradition.

This seems to be supported by Robert G Ingersoll who wrote that “Heresy is a cradle; orthodoxy, a coffin” Heresy and skepticism are healthy activities that have as their goal a truth that is workable, understandable and worthy of proclamation.

Like doubt, heresy and skepticism are important means toward an arguable reality and as Richard Holloway says “Truth is rarely simple and seldom obvious, which is why mature institutions recognise the importance of conflict and disagreement. It has to be noted that Christianity was born in conflict, and it has been characterised by conflict ever since. The Church’s obsession with heresy is witness to this fact”

The question we might ask is “Do I consider myself a heretic?”  The answer is I should. Why? Well! One reason might be to look at the history of the word. The ancient Greek word for ‘choice’ is the word we know as ‘heresy’. So, heretics are people of choice.

It was in the late second century or maybe a little earlier that a more negative or sinister interpretation began to be imposed as ‘heresy’. An idea of heresy in its negative sense gained real momentum in the writings of the first important Christian apologist, which is to say ‘defender’ of the faith.

This was Irenaeus (ca. 202 CE), a native of Asia Minor who became the bishop of what is now Lyons, France. He authored a book titled Against Heresies, a vigorous attack upon the perceived threat of Gnosticism to what he regarded as orthodoxy—that is, ‘right belief’.

Irenaeus’ book was so influential, it virtually defined heresy not only among his contemporary defenders of orthodoxy, but among Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant Christians well into modern times, including the 21st century! 

Thus, with the imposition of ‘orthodoxy’, all teachers, particularly those with original minds, were exposed to possible accusations of heresy. So, thanks in large part to Irenaeus, the term “heresy” has been a pejorative…A source of accusation, an indictable charge, and an occasion for censure or some other dire punishment, in many cases including torture and death.

We might ask; ‘What has all this to do with the Trinity? And the possible reason is that in the traditional Christian calendar, today is being celebrated as ‘Trinity Sunday’. Trinity Sunday – or as a version of the Athanasian Creed likes to put it: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible…”

The second reason is that it is also the doctrine around which most ’progressives’ have been charged with heresy. And just to take a little historical journey again. You may or may not be old enough to remember the turbulent 1960s and a couple of challenging heroes: Bishop John A. T. Robinson and German Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner. Both offered ‘heretical’ opinions on the Trinity. Robinson said during the Honest to God debates: “I was once asked a question after one of my talks: ’How would you teach a child the doctrine of the Trinity?’  It was one of the easiest questions I have ever received.  The answer was: ‘I wouldn’t’”. (Robinson 1967:86)

While Rahner, claimed that everyday devotional beliefs of most Catholics “would not change at all if there was no Trinity, so little does the doctrine engage their minds”.  (Freeman 2009:168)

I can remember starting a few sermons on the Trinity with the words that it was the Sunday most preachers would not preach on it out of respect for it. A way of avoiding its divisiveness perhaps?

One hesitates to list off the entire history of heresy but it might be worthwhile to note a few.

The first early heretic to note is Arius (256-336 CE) Alexandria Arius, a priest in the Church of Alexandria, Egypt, is perhaps the most famous (or infamous) heretic in Christian history. He lived at a time in which there was probably a general census among Christians that Jesus had been—and due to the resurrection, still was—divine in some sense, but his precise relationship as Son to the Father, much less to the Holy Spirit, had not yet been officially established.

Arius maintained the Son and the Father were not of the same being or substance (homo-ousios), but merely of similar being or substance (homi-ousios) —a verbal difference of one Greek letter. A “homoousian” in the fourth-century Arian controversy, was a person who held that God the Father and God the Son are of the same substance. Whereas a “homiousian” was a person who held that God the Father and God the Son are of like but not identical substance. Arius was considered as not of the so-called party line but his view gained great popularity throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and became so controversial that the Christian Emperor, Constantine, convened the first ecumenical council – the Council of Nicea – in 325 CE to settle the matter. 

It did, by imperial legislation, and against Arius and the emergent Arianism. He and his followers and their views were pronounced anathema, which by that time meant not only ‘insane and demented heretics’ but dangerous. Their books were burned. Their bishops sacked or murdered. Their churches suppressed by military conquest.

For all intents and purposes the Council of Nicea set the stage for an official Trinitarian doctrine: one Godhead, but three co-eternal and co-equal Persons, under one Name.

But the real tragedy of the imposition of the Nicean trinity and its aftermath lay in the elimination of discussion, not only of spiritual matters, but across the whole spectrum of human knowledge. In its place stood a decision of mind-boggling philosophical complexity “made more bitter and intense by ecclesiastical politics”.  (Freeman 2009:66)           

Because of or as a result of this complex conflict both the term ‘heresy’ and the concept it represents have been used relatively infrequently and mostly rhetorically over the last two centuries. Formal heresy trials have been infrequent and, more importantly, non-lethal. Infrequently yes, but not yet declared obsolete.

Closer to home was against Charles Strong (1844-1942)   An Australian the Rev Charles Strong came to Australia from Scotland and for some today, Strong is regarded as the first genuine theological progressive in Australia, with comparisons to John Shelby Spong. (Gardner 2006)

Ordained into the broad Church of Scotland in 1868, his success as a pastor, preacher, liberal theological teacher and social reformer led to his appointment as minister of Scots Church, Melbourne in 1875. For the next eight years Strong was never far away from controversy. He described his theology as “broad or liberal” which, he said, was “absolutely necessary to a minister of the gospel in order to the development of a healthy Christian life”. (Badger 1971:51)

Such a theology had several characteristics:

  • it was fluid, anti-authoritarian, “being bound by neither creed, church, dogma nor council” (Badger 1971:237)
  • thinks of God as an indwelling, energising Spirit
  • God was manifested in Humanity – Humanity was God’s ‘Son’
  • love and justice were always working together
  • it allied itself with science, and
  • it is based on human experience rather than an infallible book.  (Badger 1971:285)

Unable to resolve differences with the Presbyterian Church, and with the threat of a charge of heresy for promulgating and publishing heretical and unsound doctrine hanging over his head, Strong resigned, and immediately returned to Scotland. On his return to Australia in 1885, he assisted in founding the Australian Church – a free, non-sectarian, undogmatically-based religious fellowship.

And even closer to home 80 years later in the turbulent 1960s… Lloyd George Geering (1918 -) A New Zealander Born in New Zealand but having lived and taught in both Australia and New Zealand, Rev Professor Sir Lloyd Geering is best remembered for his high-profile 1967 heresy trial within the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. In several sermons preached and articles written between 1965 and 1967 Geering suggested why a new reformation in the church was overdue. “Is the Christian faith inextricably bound up with the world-view of ancient mankind, or can the substance of it be translated into the worldview of twentieth century mankind?”

He claimed the Bible was not literally inerrant, questioned the idea of a physical resurrection, and suggested humans had no ‘immortal soul’.

This can be considered not very revolutionary but a veritable storm erupted.  There was an immediate outbreak of calls for his resignation or at the very least, his dismissal.  So following hours of debate in presbyteries, congregations, and in national newspapers, the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, in heresy-hunting mode, in the full glare of television cameras and journalists, and having listened to both Geering and his detractors, declared that it found “no doctrinal error has been established, dismisses the charges, and declares the case closed.”

Geering had beaten the ‘heresy’ rap much to the disgust of those who brought forward the charge. One resigned and started his own church. The Catholic newspaper Zealander wrote: ‘Where does this leave the Presbyterian church now that it has sold Christianity down the River?’  (Geering 2006:164)

One of the most recent examples is another 50 years on in 2016, and in Canada… Gretta Vosper (1958 -) Canada. Rev Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada ordained minister and founding President of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, who, since 2001, has labeled herself a non-theist or atheist. And this so got up the nose of several of her Toronto Conference colleagues (a second time) —who concluded she was ‘unsuitable’ to be a minister— they petitioned the Assembly asking she be examined to determine if she should continue with the status of ‘minister’ in the church. After more than two years of arguments, meetings and newspaper articles, her ‘trial was set for June 2016.

The first of five questions to her were taken from the church’s ordination vows: ‘Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?’

Some edited comments from her very lengthy response follow.

“IF by “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”…you expressly mean the Trinitarian God, composed of three persons equal in essence, a being who presides over Earth from another realm, a supernatural one, from which it has the power to intervene in the natural world–capriciously or by design–by responding to our prayerful requests, or altering our minds and so, too, our actions…  no, I do not believe in that at all…”

“What I do believe… … has come to me through a heritage that is rich in church and in the religious denomination into which I was born and raised.  It is rooted in a family that, like many families, transmitted positive values to its children.  These same positive values have also been projected by humanity, alongside other, more dangerous values, to become the attributes of the transcendent, divine, supernatural beings we have called gods…”

“It does not follow, however, that supernatural beings provided the moral codes or values by which we choose to live…  And there are no moral codes that have been formed by the mind of a god.  Rather, there is a morality that we have created and that transcends our personal circumstances…”

Above is just a snippet and in the end, and after more than an estimated $500,000.00 in costs and thousands of words written and spoken, the church and Vosper came to an agreement where the charges were dropped.

That our energy is ancient and original, that our atoms are ancient and original, that our carbon-based chemical skeleton was a product of a grandmother sun’s alchemy, does not necessarily satisfy another aspect of our nature.

We are not only what we are, but who we are.  (Fleischman 2013:164) Many of us are still prepared to say we are religious or spiritual. But not satisfied with the theology we have inherited.

Many are looking for a religion/spirituality that is Earthy. This is how Lloyd Geering talks about such a ‘spirituality’. 

It includes:

  • An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe
  • An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet 
  • An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself 
  • The value to be found in life, in all of its diversity
  • An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears * Responsibility for the care of one another
  • Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.  (Geering 2009:200)

Geering calls such spirituality ‘secular mysticism’. Another, called it ‘mystical naturalism’.

And here’s the rub! such a spirituality of whatever name, is heretical!

One has to ask if it is not high time for those of us who value progressive thought and action to reclaim the many condemned as heretics in the past (and present), and to acknowledge them for what they really are: heroes of faith.

Under different circumstances, their free-thinking might well have enriched religion in their own day, as it may do so for us today, as we appreciate and celebrate what they modelled: “not only the positive role of the intellect, of doubt, of freedom of thought, and of differences of opinion about doctrines, theologies, creeds, and other components, but the specific questions they raised and wrestled [with] as well.  In their honour, we may want to embrace for ourselves the label “heretic” or at least ‘Skeptic’ and its root connotation of freedom of choice, especially in matters of belief, and to take up its banner, not in subversion of the faith, but in support of it.”  (Laughlin 2013:109)

Rex Hunt of whom I quote often, and of whom I am most grateful for the sermon above has chosen to call and celebrate this Sunday ‘All Heretics Day’.

Bibliography:

Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne: Abacada Press, 1971.

Fleischman, P. R.  Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant.  Amherst: Small Batch Books, 2013

Freeman, C. A.D. 381. Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. New York: The Overlook Press, 2009

Gardner, A. “What’s in a Name? Strong and Spong.” Part of the Strong Symposium, University of South Australia. The Charles Strong Memorial Trust, 2006

Geering, L. G. “The 1967 Heresy Trial – Forty Years On”.  In private circulation from the author, 2006

Wrestling With God: The Story of my Life. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2006

Coming Back to Earth: From gods, to God, to Gaia. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2009

Laughlin, P. A. “Heretics or Heroes? Reclaiming the Faith’s Free Thinkers” in R. A. E. Hunt & J. W. H. Smith. (ed) Why Weren’t We Told? A Handbook on ‘progressive’ Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2013

Muir, F. J.  Heretics’ Faith: Vocabulary for Religious Liberals. Annapolis: Muir/Self Published, 2001

Ingersoll, R. G. Heretics and Heresies. eBook. The Gutenberg Project, 2011/2013

Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London: Fontana Press, 1967.

Vosper, G. “Response to the Questions of Ordination.” June 2016. Direct from the author.

https://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/

Pentecost, What, is it?

Posted: May 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Pentecost, What, is it?

What ‘Pentecost’ is, is a script full of symbolism which just cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event may or may not lay behind this story. Wind and flames and a cacophony of languages! Flamboyant speech! Great drama! Some claim it as the birthday of the church!

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  As an opening sentence for us in the time of Covid-19, is a bit ironic. In a literal sense, many of us are still isolating to a degree. Or at least taking proximity caution which makes it not prudent for us to be “together in one place.”  Even as we begin to gather again it still feels difficult to contemplate togetherness — much less celebrate a great feast day like Pentecost — in this context. 

But in another sense, we are in one place.  We are in a place of vulnerability and grief remembering the loss of lives that have taken place and the lives still being lost around the world. We are in a sense together in our uncertainty.  Together in our loss.  Together in our hopes and fears.  Across all sorts of distances — geographical, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic — we are bound together as one people, one humanity, one planet, still facing a common threat that knows no borders.  Like the disciples in our Gospel reading for this week, we are huddled together behind locked doors, waiting for Jesus to come among us and say, “Peace be with you.”  Waiting for him to breathe on us.  Waiting for him to speak the words we need so desperately: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” 

Pentecost — from the Greek pentekostos, meaning “fiftieth,” was a Jewish festival celebrating the spring harvest, and the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai.  In the New Testament Pentecost story Luke tells, the Holy Spirit descended on 120 believers in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Jesus’s resurrection.  The Spirit empowered them to testify to God’s saving work, emboldened the apostle Peter to preach to a bewildered crowd of Jewish skeptics, and drew three thousand converts from around the known world in one day.  For many Christians, Pentecost marks the birthday of the Church.

In Numbers 11 we read that Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

The ideas behind the New Testament Pentecost have some traditional roots within Judaism. What is common is that the very different biblical stories of the first Pentecost experience, are told in the most expansive and descriptive ways imaginable. That told by the storyteller we traditionally call Luke, the accepted author of The Acts of the Apostles, is dramatic. A heavenly sound like that of a rushing wind. Descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame. Patterns of transformed speech allowing everyone to hear what was being said in all kinds of languages. A moment of conversion resulting in thousands of people being added to a tiny community of faith. That told by the storyteller we traditionally call John, is personal.

The Spirit of God brooding in the hearts and minds of people as it brooded over the face of waters in the story of creation. What storyteller Luke describes as happening over 50 days, storyteller John suggests it all happened on the same day! And we should not try to combine or debase them into some simple chronological event. Ever since the so-called first Pentecost, this day has been regarded as a significant moment in the life of the church, even though we know little about the movement becoming that which we know as church.

The story Luke describes is a fantastical one, full of details that challenge the imagination.  Tongues of fire.  Rushing wind.  Bold preaching.  Mass baptism.  But at its heart, the Pentecost story is not about spectacle and drama.  It’s about the socially driven desire for common community awareness transforming ordinary, imperfect, frightened people into a way of being.  It’s about the disruption and disorienting of humdrum ways of engaging the sacred, so that something new and holy can be born within and among us.  It’s about human agency awakening to another way of being and doing, carrying us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and our neighbour. Pentecost day is the potential we meet in any and every day.

Let’s for a moment, think back to our own Sunday School days. Some of us if not many of us will have had what we know as a Pentecost experience and along with that will have gone what we were taught about the Spirit of God. Some of us were taught that the emblem of the Spirit of God is the Dove. Indeed, the dove of peace. My own personal challenge to the use of this emblem was when I found the family crest to have a white dove with an olive branch in its beak on a green mound and that the family motto was La Paix (The Peace). Another was when the Uniting Church in Australia chose the descending whit dove as its emblem, believing that this new church was a Pentecost church. They also included the flames on the UCA emblem.

I did wonder if they were Canterbury fans as the colours are Red White and Black.

The significance of the Dove is quite strong in that many church bulletins covers also seem to think the dove is the right emblem or symbol for Pentecost…The “sweet heavenly dove” of the Holy Spirit is popular and after all, there is much to be said for the dove. Rumour has it, it was a dove bearing an olive branch that flew back to old Noah on his Ark, signaling the good news of dry land after the great flood.

The Spirit of God also descends “like a dove” upon Jesus at his baptism, according to Luke’s gospel story. Traditionally a nice white dove suggests innocence, purity and peace.

And in medieval times they used to release hundreds of them in the cathedrals on Pentecost day. It is also said that they discontinued that practice when the doves rained down on the congregation more than light and grace!

We see the dove as gentle, graceful, and seductive, but that, according to storyteller William Bausch, is its limitation. It’s too sweet and sentimental and, finally, wrong’ (Bausch 1998:474).

Recent legend has it the Irish had it right when it came to Pentecost emblems. It has been claimed (and disputed I might add) that in old Celtic traditions the Holy Spirit was not represented as a white dove – tame and pure – but by a wild goose. Geese are not controllable.  They make a lot of noise. And have a habit of biting those who try to contain them. Geese, fly faster in a flock than on their own. And they make excellent ‘guard dogs. Ian Bradley, former lecturer in practical theology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, might be historically accurate when he says he can’t find any evidence to substantiate such a tradition in Celtic folklore beyond the creative imagination of George Macleod of Iona fame…

However, if experience has anything to say it could be that the Spirit of God is like a ‘wild goose’ after all. It comes not in quiet conformity but demanding to be heard. Its song is not sweet to many. It drives people together, demanding they support and travel with one another. It shouts a truth many with power would rather not hear. And it often forces those on whom it rests to become noisy, passionate, and courageous people of the gospel.

As Patricia de Jong has suggested: “St Paul did not have the benefit of Hallmark Cards, which thinks doves are just like love-birds, billing and cooing come Valentine’s Day.  But St Paul knows for sure, that the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is love – not the love sold to us by Hollywood and the greetings card industry, but the love of God which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, binding an aggregate of different and unlikely people together, creating new community on new common ground in the Body of Christ”.  (de Jong/FCC Berkeley Web site, 2005)

Pentecost is the wild goose of the whistle blower, the meals-on-wheels provider, the hospital visitor, the protester, and those seeking welfare and education reform, and employment opportunities for all. Today in the throws of Covid-19 it is likely that Pentecost as wild goose is demanding a new way of being, a way of compassion, understanding and goodness.

It is not surprising, then, that as we gather to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of God at Pentecost, our biblical readings have nothing to do with the innocence and purity and peace, associated with the Spirit as dove. But on the contrary, “this Spirit is the living energy, the creative vitality that stirs the waves and whispers in the wind, that warms the sun and eroticizes the moon, that vibrates in the sounds of nature, begetting novelty in every realm of [the universe]”.  (O’Murchu 2005:96)

So, in this time of evolving Covid-19 let us make a bold claim. Let us claim that the spirit of Pentecost is alive in this place where we are. Let us then continue to embrace new and different ways of worshipping and thinking theologically, so that we might reflect the challenging and unique diversity of Serendipitous Creativity God in the world. Let us also celebrate the Spirit of play and wonder in this place as we celebrate together, care for one another, push old theological boundaries, and go about the life of this community.

And finally, let us continue to embrace the dreams and visions of the future which we believe makes this place both unique and important. We could rest in nostalgia and our past, especially our past. We could also approach the realities of planning for a new beginning, believing that Pentecost is something more than a so-called past event.

It is the story of God’s continuing present-ness experienced again and again. The amazing story of people coming to awareness through reflection on the life of Jesus that the same Spirit that moved in him moved in them.”  (Morwood 2003:84)

Remember also the place of ‘the plural’ in the stories. It is not ‘incarnate’ in just one person, but becoming incarnate in us as community. Pentecost is as people dream dreams and see a vision of justice and compassion in the world. Serendipitous Creativity God with us, Our God is present now, for us, Our God is in our humanity and our God is in us. We are Co-creators with Serendipitous Creativity God living, involving and engaging us in being on the Way toward being fully human.

‘Into the Arms and Womb of God, (Almost)’’

This last week has seen us run into a number of Lectionary events that should be mentioned today. For New Zealand Methodists we had and have Covenant Sunday or Aldersgate Sunday and for followers of the Three-year Lectionary it is Ascension Sunday. 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. Ascension Sunday for many is a one-day Season. A Season which uses a heap 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, for Three-year types we now ask what we are to make of the Ascension story in 2020?

Bruce Epperly reminds us 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, 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).

While these ideas may not be absolutely accurate as literalism is a later development Greek and Roman cosmology would suggest that this is how they usually made sense of their world. But that is not how we understand our world today. So, the Ascension story is a bit of a test case of our ability to cope with strange language, and primitive cosmology.

The challenge for us, it seems to me, 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.

We now question these so-called Western concepts of cosmology because story and poetry and imagination and image are believed to be as if not more important.

It is here that we begin our exploration of the text.

In light of the ‘otherworldly’ interpretations many of us will hear today we will begin by being quite clear that the heart of this particular Jesus story is not about some pre-scientific form of space travel… Nor is it about a past moment in time, or 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. Thisworld.
To live faithfully in this life on the journey that Jesus chartered. To follow the Way! Likewise, when we are engaged in our God-talk it too needs to go beyond our traditional literal images. It is here that my theology of ‘The Almost’ comes into play and offers a Way that recognizes a sort of purpose in all things including the cosmos yet resists the need to define that which should remain Mystery. It also recognizes that language, despite our utter dependence upon it, is never quite enough.

What follows is an attempt to talk about this Mystery in another way. John D Caputo, a Catholic Philosopher theologian I think provides a way of do this. He uses ‘perhaps as the alternative name of God that gives us a new less literal, more dynamic name for God He says that the name of God is the name of an insistent call or solicitation that is visited upon the world, and whether God comes to exist depends upon whether we resist or assist this insistence. The insistence of God means that God insists upon existing. If we say that God’s essence lies in God’s insistence, we mean that while metaphysics turns on the distinction between essence and existence, what Caputo is calling here a “poetics” of the “perhaps” and what I call a poetics and theology of ‘almost’ turns on the distinction between insistence and existence. God is an insistent claim or provocation, while the business of existence is up to us—existence here meaning response or responding, assuming responsibility to convert what is being called for in the name of God into a deed.

So, where metaphysics theorizes the distinction between of essence and existence, a poetics describes the “chiasm,” the “intertwining,” of God’s insistence with our existence. In a chiasm, each depends upon the other, neither one without the other. God needs us to be God, and we need God to be human. The insistence of God needs us for strength, even as we draw strength from God’s weakness. God’s insistence needs our existence to make any difference. Our existence needs God’s insistence in order to have a difference to make. God comes to exist in our response; our deeds constitute the “effects” the name of God has in the world. But we should be very careful not to attach any metaphysical baggage to such talk or confuse ourselves with God. A theology of the event is not supposed to end up in pantheism or reinventing “panentheism,” which is a fetching idea and very inviting, but in the end a bit too far-fetched, still more metaphysics.

Two other people who have attempted the task of new images and concepts 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 her contemporary hymns are often included in our liturgies. But Richard’s work is new to me as it might be to others. One of his songs, “Ground and Source of All That Is“, has these image based words (three verses only):

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… 
 

(Originally from Upper Room)

Another who offers creative work is Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and theologian. Her continuing invitation 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 offerings of ‘Miriam Therese Winter’ provide a different way of thinking theologically and imagining God but in reality, they not very new ways, because the feminine image of God, has been around for generations, and sadly was successfully buried by church patriarchy as ‘pagan’. So, thinking theologically, which the biblical stories of the Ascension requires us to do, means more than just interpreting our given orthodox biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past!  (Sallie McFague). But in the ‘orthodox’ world of certainty, belief and literalism this can be dangerous stuff. Rejection of ‘Good News’ in favour of control and single truth was and still is far too easy, not because it was or is good, or bad, but because it was and is new!

So here we are at a level two Covid-19 driven event, on the verge of what promises to be a new or changed life which after all, is the purpose of Easter Season and so, maybe we might imagine this time as the ‘womb’ of God birthing us to be wonderful, creative, and caring human beings… Born in the image of God the ‘Almost’; Living creative creatures born in doubt, uncertainty and in the vulnerability of human reality and yet always that which is yet to be always with potential and purpose. Pilgrims living the questions and exploring the adventure of being human, ‘on the Jesus Way’ The Way being an ‘Almost’ Way; a not-so-easy journey which Jesus first chartered. He gave his life to what it meant to be human in his time, on the front line of healing, exorcising and political and economic exclusion and ultimately death as in living life to the fullest.

Faith in God is as Caputo suggests; where God; the ‘Almost’ is not a safe harbour but rather a risky business. God is not a warranty for a well-run world, but the name of a promise, an unkept promise, (almost, a yet to be.) where every promise is also a risk, a flicker of hope on a suffering planet in a remote corner of the universe. We do not have to believe in the existence of God but rather in God’s insistence. We do not need to say God “exists,” but rather that God calls — God calls upon us, like an unwelcome interruption, a quiet but insistent solicitation. A theology of ‘Almost’ Amen

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

Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) . Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.

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God? That Which Comes to Expression in Us. Living?

I am aware that my sermon last week about the words put into the mouth of Jesus by the storyteller John: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’, and the interpretation I offered, may have been a bit technical and maybe even challenging to some of you. I am told that this phrase is often the subject of much debate in the pages of somechurch magazines.

If what I said, was a bit technical last week it was in perhaps the reliance on interpretation of language and not what some of you have read or heard others say before. And, it would be ok to say that this might have caught some of you unawares, but then it may have perhaps stimulated your imaginations.

For those of you who missed last week I wrote a little about how can we make sense of the claim: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’. 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. Or is some kind of heavenly bouncer, keeping people away from God. Especially those without faith. Those with not enough faith. And those who express their faith differently.

The sermon was an attempt to say that Jesus is not the ‘way’ in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership. He was and could be the path-way the ‘Way’ into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship… Into the mystery of our common existence. Jesus is the ‘Truth’ about that common existence. It is what makes sense given what we know about human life. Uncovering what is hidden, and bringing to light another dimension of human existence is the true living. Jesus is ‘Life’ because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other. The collective, interdependent reality of being human. The plural ‘you’. The non-isolated and living individual.

So, the challenge for those of us who live comfortably with the title ‘progressive’, and let’s face it, that is not everyone, is not the existence of other faiths claims. For the most part, most of us happily embrace religious pluralism and spiritual diversity, so long as we don’t have to explain it too deeply but the extreme of diversity is a distortion.

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. And that is not relivatism or surrendering to the moderate but rather acknowledging and celebrating the dynamic living evolving peace-based pathway. But that was last week.  What about this week?

Maybe I need to apologize beforehand because today’s gospel story – John’s prelude to Pentecost might be just as complicated as it is about the continuing present-ness of God.

One possible way into this story is to sense the differences between the religion of Jesus, and the religion about Jesus.

The religion of Jesus is without much text available to us and so it is found in the echoes of the sayings he spoke and the stories he told, not as law, but about how to live,  and by that I mean how to treat one another, how to re-imagine the world. Some might say living the golden rule ‘Do unto others etc.….’ is enough to understand the way Jesus lived, but his humanity suggests that there is more to it than that and it is this that we seek.

The religion about Jesus has often been the religion of literalism and fundamentalism. In this path we find ourselves leaping forward in the history of the Christian movement and the institutionalisation of Christianity and then its politicizing as the state religion. And when this path has been followed 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 of Jesus however, is not a ‘supernatural’ story.  It is a real and applicable story. It is about how you can be made more whole, here and now, as a human being, and how you 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. It was about seeing the alternative way of living, the other opportunity of life freed from cultural prisons and seeing the economic, social, religious and political options within human systems of life. The religion of Jesus was about 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 implanting and maintaining fear as a motivator and thus frightening or controlling people, hating those who are different, skeptics who asked questions about the ethics or the benefits to whom. Look out is you were a zealot of any kind or an assertive woman.

The religion about Jesus emphasizes the ‘noun’ and sanctifies belief as concrete and immovable whereas the religion of Jesus emphasizes the ‘verb’ and celebrates the dynamic, living, moving, evolutionary nature of life itself. As some have said: The religion about Jesus is ‘Easter’. The once only moment of new life and the religion of Jesus is ‘easter-ing’. Crucifixions are real and happen whenever we trap something in its context never allowing it to evolve and be interpretive. “It’s about the miracle of new life coming from old, life out of death, right here and now.  There is nothing supernatural about this understanding of the relationship with the divine 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 stories we heard this morning from Philip and from John, are more about ‘easter-ing’ than ‘easter’. They are not about bigger miracles or stricter commandments or watertight creeds. They are about a dynamic, creative, evolving ‘present-ness’ in our midst. The truth is that the stories are conditioned and shaped by the language of their day: the earth is flat for them, bad things that happen are coined as sin and sin causes sickness, God as all powerful and distant. The three- tier universe supports this because Nature is part of the mystery but so are our stories conditioned and shaped by the language and imagination of our day.

What we have in common with the so-called Luke’s version of Paul, is that we too can claim: God is ‘not far from each one of us.’ Our God is present and active everywhere on earth… As Progressives our God is closer to that which is human. The incarnation is more intimate than theirs perhaps, or humanity and divine are less objective and more subjective than they were. Things in common are found in the slow development of human cultures and societies, the growth of knowledge, and the constant search for meaning as women and men tell stories and share 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.

A progressive imagining may be for a more creative, compassionate, loving and vulnerable humanity. And rather than an attempt to control, extend and condition happiness and human achievement, we might embrace and rejoice in the knowledge that our God lives and comes to wonderful expression – in us, as us. Missing pieces we might have, vulnerable we might be, at the whim of serendipitous reality we might be and as ‘at risk’ that we are. In this might be a theology of illness that enables us to engage with the Covid-19 virus and take responsibility for our effect on the climate of our world and on its future as a planet where human life evolves. So, we might say, long may this species we know as human live, long live human living as we know it. If living can be a living of Jesus rather than about Jesus then so may it be! Amen.

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John 14:1- 7

‘It’s What he Didn’t Say That’s Important’

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

One of the most pervasive and misconstrued texts in John’s Gospel is the suggested reply Jesus makes to Thomas’s questions about Jesus’s future. “We don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?” And Jesus answers saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. The trouble is that it is almost certain that Jesus did not say that at all. It is on much scholastic work, agreed that the text is the author’s words seeking to argue that Jesus is ‘The Christ’.

One of the most horrible outcomes of this mis-construal is what we are seeing in the United States and in many places around the world today. Lack of tolerance with difference and the resurgence of racism, sexism, and an acceptance of belligerent bullying attitudes. Individualism gone mad perhaps.

Rev Hunt tells of what happened for him when he was a student at Melbourne Uni. In the mid to late 1960s. A member of EU (Evangelical Union), a religious group on campus, came up to his lunch table in the student union cafe of the university. ‘Do you believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?’ asked a very intense, but earnest fellow student. Rex was a bit dumbstruck and didn’t quite know how to answer him. So, he just smiled politely folded his meat and salad sandwich in its waxed lunch wrap, and got up to leave.

‘He’s the way!  The only way to salvation!  Get on board before it’s too late!’

Here we have an inkling of what the power of a misconstrued text is. When read as justification for exclusivity ‘I am” ‘‘The only one” “believe or else” it creates an environment of, belligerence and intolerance and the escalation of disagreement.

Rex left the cafeteria, angry, embarrassed and frustrated. The desperation of the guy’s certainty both frightened and angered Rex. Years later the sureness of conviction, and the exclusivity of it, still makes me him feel uncomfortable.

Returning to our text we have to consider what John has Jesus say is bad advice. John Kirwan the former all black in promoting an honest engagement with men’s depression suggests that the ‘harden up mate’ and the ‘toughen up get over it’ response is bad advice

In our therapy-infused culture, this is considered horrible advice.  Feelings should not be “held in,” but expressed openly.  The author of John must have missed that lecture.  He gives a message not unlike the one that John Kirwan rubbishes.

“Do not let your heart be troubled.”  John has Jesus urging his disciples to move beyond their anxiety and to “trust into God and trust into me.”  (The word is pisteuein, more properly translated as “trust” or “faith” rather than “believe.”  Also, the preposition is eis, which means “into,” not “in.”)  John has Jesus asking his disciples to put their “troubles” in the proper perspective and to see them in light of God’s power.  This is not a lot different from “smile and get over it.”  See your pain, or your troubles, disappear by believing in what I say about this guy Jesus.

Another concern about misconstrued text is the fact that in the English language, the word “you” serves as both the second person singular and the second person plural.  Most other languages, however, have a distinct word for the second person plural.  Most people don’t realize that the vast majority of all uses of the word “you” in the Greek New Testament are plural.  To put it another way, if we read these texts as being individually addressed to us, we are mistaken.  They were not addressed to individuals, but rather to a community. When John has Jesus say, “Do not let your (pl.) heart be troubled.”  The disciples, collectively, have a “troubled heart.”  In Johns gospel, Jesus himself had also been “troubled” on three occasions.  He was “troubled” at the reaction to his raising of Lazarus (11:33), the approach of the cross (12:26), and Judas’ betrayal (13:21).  Now, this emotion is ascribed also to the community itself. “In the house of my Father, they are many habitations.”  The word translated as “habitations” is monai.  In the popular imagination, this is often taken to mean that the Presbyterians will have a room–indeed, a mansion–and so will the Catholics and the Baptists. 

Monai actually means a temporary resting place for a traveler.  It was associated with caravans.  In those days, there would be a contingent of folk who would go ahead of the caravan to “prepare a place” so that when the caravan arrived there, the camp ground had been prepared, the water supply located, and food prepared.  The travelers in the caravan would have a place of comfort to spend the night.

So, Monai is less about getting some fancy room in the hereafter, in a house separate from the people you can’t stand, and more about welcome, hospitality, and community for people traveling on a journey. This sentence is reminiscent of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy 1:33 where he says that the Lord “goes before you in the way to choose a place.”  Just as Moses led the people into the Promised Land, so Jesus will lead his people to the place where he himself is going.  (“I come again and I will take you to myself so that, where I am, I and you might be.”)

Then we come to ‘The Way’:  “And you know the way–hodon–to the place where I am going.”  The concept of “the way” had been around awhile.  Moses had used the phrase “in the way” in the Deuteronomy passage.  Likewise, the Psalms refer to the Torah as “the way” (Ps 119: 29-34).  Moreover, according to the book of Acts, the Christian faith was first known as “the way.”  The word hodos, or “way,” is used over 100 times in the New Testament.  Its use here, however, is the only time it appears in the fourth gospel. 

Thomas is taken aback.  “We do not know the way,” he says.  When Jesus had announced, in chapter 11, that he was returning to the Jerusalem area, a place of danger, Thomas fatalistically declares that they might as well go with Jesus and “die with him” (11:16).  Thomas knew “the way” that led to death well enough, but not “the way” that leads to life.

Jesus spells it out.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Earlier in the fourth gospel, we were told that Jesus is truth (1:14), and “the resurrection and the life” (11:25).  Now, he is also “the way” itself. This is another ego eimi saying, which means that the most important words in this important sentence are the first two–“I am.”  Ego eimi is an emphatic way of saying YHWH, God’s own name, in the Greek language.  Lest anyone miss the point, the fourth gospel has Jesus also say, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

Thomas had asked, “How can we know the way?”  Here, the fourth gospel uses the word oida for “know.”  Oida is the kind of knowledge that you get from first-hand, physical experience.  It is the kind of knowledge that is objective and demonstrable. 

Jesus responds, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”  In this sentence, Jesus uses ginosko, which is the kind of knowledge one gets through intimate experience.  This is a kind of “mystical knowing.”  Thomas’s “knowing” is of the everyday variety.  Jesus’ “knowing” is the kind that comes “from above” (3:3).  This is consistent with an over-all theme of the fourth gospel, which is intimate relationship and mutual indwelling between Jesus and his followers. 

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

A translation of verses 8 through 14 is:  Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”  Jesus said to him, “I am with you a lengthy time and you do not know me, Philip?”  The one who has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not trust that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak from myself, but the Father abiding in me does his works.  Trust me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.  But if not, trust the works themselves.

“Truly, Truly, I say to you, the one trusting into me, the works which I am doing, that one will do also, and that one will do greater than these, for I am going to the Father.  And whatever you might ask in my name, that I will do so that the Father might be glorified in the Son.  Whatever you might ask in my name, I will do. Do you see how the exclusivity and thus the fostering of belligerence and authoritarianism, is overcome by the inclusiveness of the plural you and the sharing of tasks or the glorification of the Father in the Son. It is the togetherness that the Author of John loses in modern use of the text.

Taking this plural, you further we see the concern for community when Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough–arkei–for us.”  Philip had earlier worried that they would not have “enough” (arkousin) food to feed the large crowd (6:7).  In his only two utterances in the fourth gospel, Philip is portrayed as fussing that what they have is not enough.  The food had not been enough, and now Jesus is not quite enough either.

John has Jesus responding with, “I am with you through a lengthy time–chronos–and you do not know–ginosko–me, Philip?”  The word chronos refers to earthly, chronological time.  It is distinct from kairos, which is “special time”–the in-breaking of God.  In ordinary experience, in ordinary “time,” one cannot “know” Jesus in an intimate, mystical way.

Jesus tells them that his words are the same as the “Father’s works.”  Then, he tells them that if they cannot believe his words, they should turn to his works.  What’s more, they will do even greater works than Jesus! 

A question this raises is “What could they possibly do that would be “greater” than what Jesus has already done in the fourth gospel?”  Jesus has healed the sick and raised the dead.  What can they do to top that?  Well maybe one thing remains:  They have not yet established an on-going community centered in Jesus, which follows him, and does his works.

Jesus assures the disciples that, even though “the way” may be difficult, they can call on him and he will do “whatever you ask in my name.”  This is not, of course, a flinging about of Jesus’ name as some kind of magic talisman in order to get what a person wants.  That is mere egocentricity.  It asks in our name, but not that of Jesus. 

To ask in Jesus’ name, as Ray Brown has said, means to be in union with Jesus.  To ask in Jesus name is, as Paul put it, having the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2).  What would Jesus ask?  What would Jesus think?  Indeed, what would Jesus do?

In summary then, ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ is not about believing Jesus as the only one, and more about the need to be collectively motivated, and empowered.

The Way is not about right behaviour and more about a journey one takes as one trusts and the personalization is less about the individual and more about the relational communal reality of human life. And this makes the understanding of salvation, evangelization and exclusive identity very different indeed.

While the John story seems to have been set within the context of a debate over differences, that debate seems to have been between those who were Jewish followers of the Galilean (called ‘revisionists’), and those who were Jewish followers of Jewish orthodoxy.

They viewed matters differently.  Perhaps profoundly so. But the story’s modern usage seems to have taken these differences to extremes. From all that we can read we have to have come the conclusion that during his life time, Jesus/Yeshua resisted questions about his personal identity. When pressed, he deflected them toward the central motif of his teaching…

  • the present-ness of a compassionate God, and
  • the radical or ‘counter culture’ demands he made on human living.

But it is also true that when the words ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’… have been used, they often make Jesus sound like a heavenly bouncer, keeping people away from God.  Especially from those without faith, those with not enough faith, and those who express their faith differently.

Religious authorities and groups of every age and creed have often exercised their religion in two ways: – as a weapon against others, and – by protecting God from others.

History seems full of such ‘weapon’ stories and events: The Crusades.  The Inquisition.  Sudan. Middle East.  Indonesia.  Northern Ireland. And the gospel stories are littered with ‘protecting’ stories: People who brought their children to Jesus, but… Women who touched, ate with, plead with Jesus, but…

One has to ask if ‘ethnic cleansing’ is just a more extreme form of this same motivation.

So, what can 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 it is highly probable that Jesus never made this claim at all. The words were put into his mouth by the storyteller/mystic John! So, to hear them, we need to hear them differently. If these words can be read in terms of relationship with the God rather than describing a content of dogma to be believed, these words can be an invitation to us to be on the journey which Jesus chartered. We can be people of the Way!

The Jesus of the Way as sage, provides a way of passage from one place to another. Becoming and exploring and doubting, rather than condemning or belting us over the head.

So rather than bullying Jesus into what he is not.

• Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership. He is the pathway into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship. This is the way… into the mystery of our common existence.

• Jesus is the truth about that common existence. He uncovers what is hidden, and

brings to light the last dimension of human existence.

• Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other.

As storyteller John Shea puts it: “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).

It is in this context that the words of Jesus, as suggested by John, come. ‘I am the way, the truth the life…’  And as Jesus challenged the dominate system of his day, so these words contend with the powers and principalities of this day.

In this person, we see a concern for the marginalized 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, 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” (WLoader 2005/www site).

Notes:

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

rexae74@gmail.com