Archive for January, 2020

Nurtured and Enlivened

Posted: January 8, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 3:13-17

Nurtured and Enlivened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debie Thomas: debie.thomas1@gmail.com

rexae74@gmail.com

 

 Towards a Theology of Incarnation’

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

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

Crossan’s story….

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

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

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

John’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rexae74@gmail.com