Archive for August, 2021

Drawing Exclusive Circles…

Posted: August 25, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 7:1-8

Drawing Exclusive Circles…

The problem an authentic progressive Christianity seeks to address is what I call an applied theology or a relevant incarnational theology and what is commonly the strongest criticism of Christians, that of being hypocrites. Not doing as we say.

Twenty-five or so years ago no one had heard the term ‘Progressive Christianity? It used to be expressed as ‘liberal’ terminology so fuzzy and ‘anything goes’ it was for many almost meaningless. Then along came ‘The Centre of Progressive Christianity in the United States and an organization was born. Churches around the world began to identify themselves as ‘Progressive’ St David’s Khyber Pass Rd in Auckland was one of maybe three in Auckland who signed up to the movement and subsequently became part of the ‘Common Dreams Conference group based In Australia. Throughout New Zealand small groups of people still watch video series ‘Living the Questions’ produced by the Centre, and Marcus Borg’s book ‘Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time’ is still hailed as an entry book to read.

Rex Hunt quotes the following story the German theologian, Ernst Kasemann. wrote in his book from 1969 Jesus means freedom. It begins; The scene is a parish in Amsterdam, Holland, where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore, the keep the Sabbath holy. The place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened on Sunday if the inhabitants were to survive. The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish and set them to do the necessary work, if that meant profaning the Sabbath? Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction in order to honour the Sabbath? He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, and he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide. The discussion went as one might suppose: We live to carry out God’s will.  God… can always perform a miracle with the wind and the waves. Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death. The pastor tried one last argument: Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment and declare the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath? Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: I have always been troubled, pastor, by something that I have never ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it.  I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus was a bit of a liberal.

Having completed a long and complicated tour through some of the sermon-stories of John, this morning the lectionary returns to the stories of the earlier storyteller we call Mark. And this particular story, with all its different layers and subsequent interpretations,
raises this important question: How do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’?

The vehicle our storyteller Mark uses, is a supposed encounter between Jesus, some pharisees, and his own disciples, over the entrenched purity laws and the traditions which encased them. Even though many scholars now agree such a debate, if it happened at all, probably took place among branches of early Christianity itself – between Christian what did it look like? Jews and Christian Gentiles – long after Jesus’ death. Through the tradition of purity laws and the symbolic action of ritual washing, Mark appears to show a liberal or progressive Jesus, claiming such Torah provisions and associated inherited traditions, must be set aside. A liberalization perhaps? The question we are left with is Why? Why the liberalization and what was the growing conservatism that Jesus and Mark were referring to?

As for Mark it’s possibly that he knows such inherited religious traditions always need to be critiqued. Maybe this debate is not about health issues or hygiene – and must be re-imagined and rethought in new situations. Maybe Mark knows that such inherited religious traditions can create enormous ‘power’ tensions between those who seek to include, and those who seek to exclude. And as such, maybe, just maybe, Mark captures Jesus’ priorities, correctly. Maybe even some so-called ‘biblical injunctions’ should be disregarded because they can pollute the human heart and destroy social relationships. Maybe Biblical traditions should never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring! Mark in focusing on attitudes of the heart and resultant behaviour, Mark invites his hearers and his readers to begin reimagining and rethinking.

Let me just backtrack a little and ask just how much we actually know about the historical Jesus? Can we identify, with any probability, which of the teachings and deeds attributed to Jesus are based on accurate memories of him and which are the embellishments or inventions of the preachers and storytellers among his earliest followers? And what I think is more important. How can we discern the ‘vision’ or foundational insights that inspired and informed his individual teachings and actions? And then having caught a glimpse of that vision how can that vision rooted in the particular time and place of Jesus still speak to us today? And this is even more difficult in that it is too easy to get caught up in squabbles over ‘truth’ and ‘real’ and not focus on what the vision was that has taken millions of followers on the path till today and what it is that that vision says to us here now and today?

Perhaps we might start by acknowledging that we cannot know as much as we would want about the historical Jesus but we can be clear that we have quite a bit of data none-the-less. Then we might acknowledge that we can identify with appropriate nuance, his authentic sayings and deeds. Roy Hoover and Robert Millar in a recent article in “The Fourth R” magazine suggest that profiles of Jesus can and have been discerned that will be sufficient to sustain a valuable historical Jesus of faith.

What can be said is that Jesus did not think that the world would come to a catastrophic end in his lifetime and be succeeded by a new age brought into being by divine intervention, nor did he say that he had come into the world to give his life as a ransom for many. This is a foundational change for many of us today because One: it asks, if an apocalyptic hope or an eschatological expectation was not part of Jesus’ ordering vision and not the view that furnished coherence to his teaching and guided his course of action, what was? And if it was not his aim to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, what was he trying to do?  This claims that his ordering vision, his driving motivation, his aim in life, has to be based on what we do believe we know about him as the ‘authentic words of Jesus” and they appear to be from the work done of ‘The Five Gospels” in 1993. That work asked the questions” What can we discern in the aphorisms and parables and is there a unifying theme that holds them together? Is there a coherent point of view that characterised Jesus’s teaching as a whole and guided his course of action?

The second question was that if there is such a thing as an ordering vision or characteristic, and coherent point of view, what was he trying to do? Roy Hoover suggests that Jesus’ ordering vision is most clearly expressed in two clusters of authentic sayings` preserved by Matthew’s Gospel as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Hoover suggests that these two clusters of text hold the vision of Israel’s religious ideal. He suggests that the Essenes specifically through the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, the Pharisees, and John the Baptist, all embraced what they regarded as Israel’s religious ideal as the remedy for the wrongs that plagued religion and society for Israel in their time. Each had a particular and characteristic view of the Temple establishment in Jerusalem that was consistent with their vision of Israel’s religious ideal. Jesus; teaching and activity can be seen as his own version of such a quest and carried with it his own view of Jerusalem’s Temple.

Hoover also suggests that Jesus’ aim was to persuade all who could hear him to embrace his vision and to accept the challenge to actualize this ideal, to live this vision. He believed that by actualizing this ideal among themselves and by proclaiming it as good news about the reign of God, they could change the life of their whole society from the way it was to the way it ought to be. If that were done, what was wrong in his country would be righted and its people would come to know the good life in their own experience. Is this not a relevant vision for us today, for our whole world as it faces the questions of the very survival of the planet and our civilization? Why is it that few people see that Jesus vision can be theirs today?

Maybe the questions we face today are “How do we address issues which, if not addressed, will destroy us?  And how do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’? As Mark is saying.

Maybe we could heed Edwin Markham’s simple religious poem:

He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win;

We drew a circle that took him/her in!

Maybe we can discern Jesus’ vision in the two blocks of text from Matthew’s Sermon of the Mount.

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil, when someone slaps you on the right cheek turn the other as well. When someone want to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to one who begs from you. And don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you.

Love your enemies and pray for your persecution. You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens. God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? So be ‘perfect’ just as your heavenly Father is ‘perfect’. Matthew 5: 39 – 48

No one can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account. That’s why I tell you: Don’t fret about your life – what you’re going to eat and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there? Take a look at the birds of the sky; they don’t plant or harvest, or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re worth more than they, aren’t you? Can any of you add one hour to life by fretting about it? Why worry about clothes? Notice how the wild lilies grow; they don’t slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t God care for you even more, you also who trust God. Matthew 6: 24-30

In the commentary on these passages Robert Funk notes that the three aphorisms in Matthew 5: 39 – 41 forms ‘an exceedingly tight series’ and that they seem never to have circulated as individual sayings. “These cleverly worded aphorisms provide essential clues to what Jesus really said. Funk suggests that these passages convey to us a sense of Jesus; ordering vision, in other words that view of things that furnished his teaching with its coherence and guided his course of action.He also says that these two clusters could bridge the distance between the authentic Jesus traditions in the gospels and the historical figure about whom they were written. They take us as close as we can every be to the voice of the Jesus of history. In these clusters of sayings Jesus urges his hearers to have a total trust in the generosity and care of the Father in Heaven and to be single minded in their commitment to do God’s Will by imitating the divine generosity. To do this is to live under God’s reign. Here we have the centrality of the message as the manifestation of the kingdom of God in Jesus life and work and we have the claim that it is through love that it shall be manifest. Have faith means to trust the divine process and as Spong suggests Love wastefully is the means of revealing the reign of God already come. Jesus’ vision seems to be saying that there is a vision of life under God’s reign that invites the hearer to abandon the accepted, ingrained habits of dealing with life on the basis of self-defense and self -interest. See things a new way, imagine and act out a way of life that trusts God’s care absolutely and imitates God’s justice unconditionally. Scary, life changing stuff as it is radical challenge to the economic, social religious and political norms of the day yet it was understood by those who caught his vision of God’s reign. Are we not in this time of planetary change, social, economic and political turmoil not in need of such a vision?

But and there is a big but in here. Be careful not to make do with a singular focus on social justice, – doing good works look for the hyperbole that exposes the literal and look out for the tactical answer. The idea of the reign of God is more than a ploy to bring about social and cultural change, it is more than a strategy to modify the economic system, it is more than a new way of being church or religious, it is also an ideal to realize. It is always to come, always an ‘Almost’ but not yet. It is not about supporting the destitute the discarded by society it is about banishing self-interest, about a real generosity of soul, of meeting the other in in a fullness, it is a Way of living.

And when we come to the loving one’s enemies it is the indiscriminate generosity of that which we call God that confronts us. There is no prayer for or appeal to the immanent end of history and the creation of a new age by divine intervention as grounds for showing one’s enemies unusually generous considerations. Only God’s generosity is in play here and that is through the sun rising each day.

God’s behaviour is perfect according to Matthew, Compassionate according to Like. The key here is that God’s behaviour cannot be improved upon. It is the ideal. In Jesus’ vision it is always the call to do the right thing, always to imitate and trust in God’s goodness. Love your enemies. Not in terms of having affection for but rather an unconditional good will, that is revealed as the Way of Jesus. How one reveals their love of humankind, how one manifests friendship in a reciprocal way. The love one seeks to emulate is unilateral, grounded in an unlimited goodness far beyond the mutuality of the likeminded this love of God is a generosity that transcends all differences between people and peoples.

To sum up for now is to say that we have little historical evidence but we have enough to be able to share in Jesus’s vision for humanity, the planet and be relevant in the evolutionary progressive world that reflects the divine agency and purpose. The unfinished nature of our profiles of Jesus reflects the potential not the problem and the unfinished character of Jesus’ work in effect invites anyone so inclined to ‘complete; what he began as one’s own work. Again, I suggest an incarnational theology. Amen.

Notes: and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. Thwer
Kasemann, E. Jesus Means Freedom. London. SCM, 1969.
White, L. 1967.  “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”.
McFague, S. Super, Natural Christians. How We Should Love Nature. Kindle edition, 2000.

The Quest for Spiritual Life.

Posted: August 17, 2021 in Uncategorized

The Quest for Spiritual Life.

Last week we looked briefly at communion, community and things common as the bread of life and this week we continue the theme by looking a little more closely at that which we call Spirituality. This week I suspect those of us with some Celtic in our heritage will enjoy the meandering.


It is said that in the Celtic spiritual tradition, pilgrims often draw a circle around themselves
before embarking on a journey. Initially standing still, the pilgrim points her finger outward, and then rotates in a clockwise direction until she completes the circle. Noy wanting to evaluate this I wonder if most of us do this in some ritual form of preparation for leaving home, some sort of list of things to do before we leave. We don’t think of it as a spiritual exercise but maybe it is?

Again, in the Celtic tradition what is called a circling a prayer is often said and Bruce Epperly offers the following as a contemporary circling prayer;

God protect me on this journey.
Surround me, whether I walk, drive, or fly.
Fill my heart and mind with surprising possibilities.
Remind me that I am always in the circle of your love.
Remind me this day, O Holy Adventure, 
that your inspiration guides me in every situation.
Open my eyes to your presence in each meal,
as I turn on my computer,
as I start my car.
Awaken me to possibility and wonder.
Energize me to love and embrace all I meet.  (Epperly 2005:80)

This practice of faith, the ‘caim’ or ‘encircling’, reminds the traveler that God surrounds him wherever he goes. “While we recognize that life is filled with risks and that faith cannot protect us from every threat, We also recognize that God is present as a force for wholeness and reconciliation in every situation” (Epperly 2005:80).

Today’s biblical stories, I think are opportunities for us to explore what we mean by personhood and divinity and thus are about spirituality. A Spirituality that is the experience of living in the moment of human interactions that are bristling with virtues and values..

The Psalms as reconstructed by Francis Macnab, and from the gospel sermon-story by a bloke we call John, we continue to reflect on God’s present-ness in the world, and in our lives. Francis Macnab, theologian and psychologist, in his presentation of Psalm 84, that we read as our contemporary reading today attempts to get into the mind and the experience of the writer
to see if he can discover or reasonable assume “what was bothering this philosopher of life, and what let him to say what he said” (Macnab 2006:ix).

Steven Prasinos; I think puts this another way when looking through the lens of psychology sees religious experience as a reality that is part of consciousness. We embody this reality as ‘subjective energy field’ that exists within us and around us. A living, unseen, subjective field that flows and vibrates, And within that subjective dimension is meaning, or significance, what matters, what motivates, and emerges into an experiential field. We are ceaselessly operating within meaning structures or as I might put it a serendipitous creativity. John in his theme of living bread explores this also.

What Macnab says he discovered is this. He says;: “I found [the writer] was emphatically and repetitively proclaiming a fairly revolutionary view of the world, creation, his beliefs about God, humanity, the human spirit and human potential. Again and again I found his psychology had long pre-empted our current psychological explorations and research on happiness, optimism, the positive human emotions, and the sense of awe and wonder” (Macnab 2006:ix).

Listen again to some of how Macnab tells Psalm 84:

O God, from my place in the working world,
and in the wide wilderness of life,
I long for that sure sense of knowing what it is all about.

I yearn for that experience of joy
to come to my whole body and soul.

I look for your presence as a pathway to life’s fullness (Macnab 2006).

He goes on to say: Though we are often wounded and hurt in this fractured world,
we discover that this world also has its source of healing. We are all enriched and our hearts are made stronger as we tap into that power that flows into us. The very sight of a spring of water
arouses our anticipation of being refreshed and renewed. From all our external involvements,
we hear the call of our inner spirits(Macnab 2006).

And then in the words of his tradition he says: God – you stand in front of us when we fear the future. In our dark times you bring the sun to shine again. Out of our troubles you point us
to the pathway of our best bliss. And as we receive: we are rich indeed!(Macnab 2006).

It seems to me that what the Psalmist is suggesting, is that we are to experience the divine centre in yourselves. In our bodies. In our actions. In our everyday lives.

As a progressive Christian I want to agree with that. but it’s a bit of a different situation when we come to John’s sermon-story. We’ve been wrestling with his concepts on and off for several weeks now. We’ve struggled with the language and the images.

The problem is that now, as a progressive Christian, I want to challenge John, and reject his apparent denial of the ‘flesh’ or ‘body’ as useless. Somehow I am not comfortable with this rejection of what is after all  a wonderfully created creature. Somehow I think we can do better than this.

I like a growing number of people want to support process theologian Bruce Epperly’s comments when he says: “we need to redeem such passages for our time and place.  We can affirm that the spirit gives life, but the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’, it is also ‘embodied’ and ‘incarnational’ (Epperly/P&F web site-06).

Sure, John’s position has a long history. Some of it, as we have heard, dating back to the early Christian communities, whose theology seemed to prevent them “from seeing Jesus as a God-infused human being and convincing them rather to perceive him as a divine visitor who came from heaven” (Spong 2005:61).

And some of it as recent as the early 18th century when one, Charles Wesley, “penned his popular ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ which portrayed Jesus as not human at all, but one ‘veiled in flesh’…” (Spong 2005:61).

Wesley’s world and John’s world is dualistic. Our world is not. Or at least not as much. I touched on this last week also with my concerns about a fixation on dualisms. Life is not just black and white, right and wrong. So perhaps a richer understanding comes with the mystics from the past,
as well as from process theology in the present. Maybe God is in all things and all things are in God, rather than God being a supernatural miracle worker in the sky who can come (or doesn’t come) to our aid in times of need.

As a progressive Christian I want to own the former Epperly comment rather than the latter as a simple entry to a more comprehensive and complex way into the subject of the existence of God.  God in all things and all things in God. seems to me to be a more authentic approach.

Why” Because it is equally important for me is, that experience this creativity we name ‘God’,
routinely, quietly, mysteriously, and moving through life, our life. not as being but as essence insistence and purpose. This way in “is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests Bruce Epperly again, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being” (Epperly/P&F Web site-2005).

And I want to remember that well into the twentieth century many people thought that the air was filled with spirits of the dead, angels, and demons. Most Christians though of the Spirit as a Ghost and it was only with the biblical translations that change it to the Holy Spirit rather than Holy Ghost that people began to shift.

Yes, we can affirm with John and Paul that the ‘spirit gives life’ It inspires personal creativity and transformation. It lures us to support the well-being of others. It challenges us to look beyond our own interests to an integration of our well-being and the well-being of the planet (Epperly, P&F web site 2006)


The big challenge of today is the understanding of Spirit in a Covid rent world. W can accept that God is Spirit that humans are Spirit but the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’. It is also ‘embodied’, even in the rough and tumble of our everyday world. The issue is that such an understanding is in the biblical stories but it is usually found in the less read pages of sacred text!

Bishop John Shelby Spong, has some wonderful words in one of his books, ‘The Sins of Scripture’ that might be helpful. He writes: “I experience God as the source of life calling me to live fully and thus to respect life in every form as embodying the holy. I experience God as the source of love calling me to love wastefully all that God has made, including the earth with its plants and animals. I experience God… as… calling me to be all that I can be and to affirm the sacred being of all that is” (Spong 2005:66).

Then the chapter concludes with these words: “We have looked upward for a God above the sky for centuries, but we now know that this infinite universe is empty of supernatural invasive deities.  We need to shift our vision to look within – at life, at love, at being” (Spong 2005: 66).

May it be so with us in all our living. Amen.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Bruce G. Epperly, & Paul S. Nancarrow. 2005.  Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World. Claremont. P&F Press.
Macnab, F. 2006.  A Fine Wind is Blowing. Psalms of the Bible in Words That Blow You Away. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Spong, J. S. 2005. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. New York HarperSanFrancisco.

‘Communion in a Fast-Food World’

“Once upon a time, somewhere far back in ancient human history
– so far back that personal survival was the only concern –
a defining event must have taken place.
Someone didn’t eat what he found when he found it,
but decided to take it back to the cave to share with others.
There must have been a first time.
A first act of community – call it communion –
in the most elemental form” (Fulghum 1995:79).

I haven’t read Robert Fulghum’s writings but Rex Hunt of whom I quote often has high regard for his writing and today’s story comes from Rex’s musings on Fuighum and Brazillian Rubem Alves writing along with a bit of my thinking.

In another story Fulghum’s writes, “When my first son was in kindergarten, I was a parent volunteer who visited the school once a week to teach folk songs to the children.
Singing came between rest-time and snack-time. Regularly I was invited to stay after singing
and join the class for milk and scones. I gladly stayed. Not because I was particularly hungry, but because I enjoyed watching the children carry out this ordinary task with such extraordinary care.

Two children set the table with serviettes and cups. Two others arranged the chairs. Others went to the refrigerator for cartons of milk, while two more fetched the scones from the kitchen
and arranged them neatly on plates. One child was responsible for placing something in the middle of the table to talk about during the snack – a sort of ‘show and tell’. For half the class, their job for the day was being good ‘guests’. The other half were the ‘hosts. Each ‘host’ took a scone off the plate, broke it in half, and gave it to a ‘guest’ before eating the other half. During this snack-time, they discussed the ‘show and tell’ object in the centre of the table. After the scones and milk were consumed, the children who had played ‘guests’ for the day cleaned up and put away everything, before they went out to play. It was a high-point of my week.  For me, it was communion.

Fulghum then goes on to add some comments… He says: The sacraments are often defined by the church as ‘outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace’. Scones and milk with those children became a sacrament for me. Grace, was clearly present. It was a ritual reminder that civilization depends on sharing resources in a just and humane fashion. It’s strange how things come back in that this story reminded me of my dissertation when finishing my degree in Theology. I was sent a copy on my retirement from the church library. I think it was my copy that I had left in St David’s when I retired.

What was significant was that on reading it again I am aware that for me Fulghum’s story was the same as my dissertation. The sacrament was in the ordinary, in the commonplace and in the very living of life. I argued that God is in the Garage, my previous job was as a motor mechanic and that what I was engaged in was holy work and that the elements I worked with were the elements of communion.

They were the common elements that conveyed the sacred. Somewhere between transubstantiation and symbol. The wheel cylinder was the bread, and the brake fluid was the wine as in their use they tended to the needs of the people in the vehicle. In their use as well as their state they activated the safety of the occupants and cared for them. They were the common cup and the sacrament. I know this was then as difficult a theology as it is now. I nearly didn’t get my licensing approved by my Presbytery because it was too radical, too unorthodox and it was only with the support of my professor and my colleagues that I am here today. But enough about me it is the theology of bread as John tries to talk about it that is our topic. We continue the theme of the bread of life in the lectionary.

Jesus often talked about, or is represented as talking about, food. And as he moved from place to place, the various storytellers declared he would seek rest in a house. Rumour has it once there he would make his way to the cooking space because there, he knew he could find food to transform his weariness into new energy and purpose. For it is the cooking space – the kitchen – which is the place of transformations.

As we touched on last week in the lectionary Rubem Alves. suggests that in the cooking space “Nothing is allowed to remain the same.  Things come in raw, as nature produced them.  And they go out different, according to the demands of pleasure.” (Alves 1990:79).

The raw must cease to exist for something different to appear. “The hard must be softened.  Smells and tastes which were dormant inside are forced to come out: cooking is a magic kiss which wakes up sleeping pleasures…  Everything is a new creature.  Everything is made anew.” (Alves 1990:79).

I want you to think about the possibility that Jesus might have been talking about fast food when he talked about food. Was he suggesting that fast food is a problem? Not just in its nutritional value but in its symbol of the sacred. Was it about Slow food rather than fast food?

And remember that the gospel storytellers often put words in the mouth of Jesus to have him speak about food and eating. About Bread and wine. Body and blood. And remember that Jesus was no literalist. Religious language was primarily metaphorical or poetic. In other words, Jesus spoke so words would be eaten. When bread and wine are eaten, they become body and blood. When body and blood are eaten, they become compassionate deeds. When compassionate deeds are eaten, they become as the Holy One in our neighbour. We are what we eat, suggests Rubem Alves. “One eats and one’s body is resurrected.” (Alves 1990:86).

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

I suggest that every time we handle the elements of our daily work and walk-through life we celebrate the incarnation, we celebrate the gift of grace and we enact the sacraments that remind us of the efficacy of grace in our living community. God in the Garage, God in the classroom, God in the kitchen, the garden etc. etc.

Traditionally, this morning’s gospel story from John has been given strong sacrament overtones. Holy Communion or Eucharist overtones, that is. If that is indeed the case then it very much reflects John’s community many years after the life of Jesus. Remember the other week when John is warning his community not to become too literalized. The total truth is not in just the literal but rather in the metaphorical, the symbolic and the de-concretized. Fulghum reminds us that when things were getting organised and rules, the dos and don’ts – are being put in place we need to be careful of literalism. He says; Whatever the sacrament of Holy Communion is, “it is an act that arises out of our humanity, not organized religion.” (Fulghum 1995: 82).

So maybe next time we partake in the celebration of holy communion or Eucharist, or Agape meal we might remember that it is our common and shared humanity that we celebrate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It is not something special in itself, or in its literalism but rather a ritual reminder that, as we share the bread and share the wine, civilization depends on the sharing of resources in a just and humane fashion. The metaphor, the poetic and the musical truth is the timeless and integrated reality.

To close, I want to remind you of two quotes that I think undergird the interpretation I am offering you today. The first is our quote for today from Gordon Kaufman where he writes “In interpreting the world, in all its diversity, grandeur, and richness, as the expression of serendipitous creativity at every point, we put into place the first building block of a conception of God for today”.

And the second is when he writes: “The real test of the validity and significance of a configuration of theological proposals is to be found in the success with which their methods and patterns of interpretation help mediate the meaning of Christian faith for the ongoing lives of persons and communities, non-Christian as we as Christian”. Bread as an act of community, bread as community, bread as community life? In the kitchen space, in the play room, in the workplace.


Alves, R. A. The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. The Edward Cadbury Lectures.  Philadelphia. Trinity Press International, 1990
Fulghum, R. From Beginning to End. The Rituals of our Lives. Oxford. Ivy Books, 1995.

Gordon D Kaufman In Face of Mystery, A Constructive Theology Harvard Unity Press 1995

‘Exploring the Mysteries and Questions of Life.’


it’s the word of confidence to a 9-year-old
which one day leads to the winning goal in a World Cup match;

it’s the extra practice sessions after school,
going over word after word,

which bolsters a young girl at the Spelling Bee Nationals;

it’s the gentle touch of a mother
in the terror of a midnight thunderstorm
which leads a child into nursing;

in a world which idolizes success, greatness, biggie-sized achievements,
we are called to remind ourselves of those mustard seeds
planted deep within us
by so many over the years,
which help to shape us into the people we are meant to be,
© 2006 Thom M. Shuman (adapted)

They were complaining to one another about Jesus, because he had said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven. ‘Surely’ they said; this is Jesus the son of Joseph and Mary’, we know his father and mother so how can he now say: ‘I have come down from heaven?’ Jesus said in reply, ‘Stop complaining to one another. You cannot understand what I am saying unless your view of who and what your God is, is bigger. and in your last days you will understand.

‘It is written in the prophets: They will all be taught by God, and to hear the teaching of God, 
and learn from it, is to come to me. Not that anybody has ever seen God, except the one who comes from God. ‘I tell you most solemnly, everybody who trusts has eternal life. As the metaphor says; “I am the bread of life”.

Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert and they are dead, but this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat it and not die. The truth is in the metaphor “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

Jesus often talked about food. And gospel storytellers often put words in the mouth of Jesus
to have him speak about food and eating. Today’s difficult and complex gospel story is one of those occasions. Of having words put into the mouth of Jesus. It also continues the Lectionary sub theme commenced last week about food, or more specifically, about bread. Yes, a difficult and complex story for a couple of reasons, not least of which we are required to put it into words for ourselves. To interpret the metaphor and resist literalizing it.

First, we have to know a lot more about the Hebrew people and the stories which shaped their lives than we do or can ever know. – especially the claim about food called ‘manna’ in the desert to fully understand some of the references in this story we need to know more.

Second, aspects of this story by John, often considered the odd-man-out, contradicts similar stories by Matthew and Luke about Jesus’ family origins, and the early traditions of where he was born, for instance. So where does all this leave us! Well, that’s a complex question too big for the likes of a sermon. All we can do is make a brief speculative comment on this story.

We are on a visit to a village, probably not that far from his home town, when Jesus attempts to offer a new level of teaching -he talks about what is a re-imagined world. And to help his audience make this transition the storyteller John has him referring to a story from their own tradition. But problems arise. Jesus is no literalist.  His language is imaginative and poetic. Remember… mustard seeds become great plants. Water becomes wine. Five loaves and two fishes feed a multitude.

But like last week’s suggestion the hearers seem stuck in the literalist mode of understanding. They seem unable to hear the words behind the words. So, Jesus gets a kick in the pants for his efforts, as some decide his teaching isn’t orthodox or meaningful enough. They leave. It happens then as it still does today when literalism has become imbedded.

However, as Rex Hunt comments on this there are a few comments that invite a more intriguing situation… We might have the storyteller John contradicting, or in generous mood – not knowing the other earlier and different story traditions around Jesus. To do so, and guided by help from an overseas colleague, Jerald M Stinson, Rex makes these comments looking through the lens called the Gospel of Thomas.  We know that this Gospel didn’t make it into our biblical Canon tradition even though many scholars now reckon it is right up there, date wise, with the early writings of the ‘Q’ Community and the storyteller we call Mark. Increasingly we have also the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas and others being uncovered.

Discovered in 1945 in an ancient clay jar at the base of a cliff along the Nile River, by an Arab peasant, the Gospel of Thomas is probably the best known of all the Nag Hammadi texts. So, what is this Gospel?  It is less a story like the well know gospels because it is a collection of short, pithy sayings or proverbs, attributed to Jesus, half of which are not found in any other gospel, and especially not in John’s gospel. John’s Jesus specializes in long, rambling, and repetitious speeches.

On the other hand, but equally important, The Gospel of Thomas has no stories of Jesus’ life – especially no ‘passion’ stories. We ask ourselves; “Why should all this matter”? And we say to ourselves; Well, the Gospel of Thomas, along with other recent discoveries such as the Gospel of Mary of Magdala and the Gospel of Judas, “help us understand the differences between the Gnostic churches and churches tied to Paul.” (Jerry Stinson, First UCC  web site 2006).

They remind us that there were many different communities of Christian faith and they had as their resourcing tracts differing expressions of who the Jesus was and what his message was to a particular community. This is significant in that the Christianity of the time did not have one belief, it did not have one doctrine or creed or a single narrative upon which to base one’s faith journey. What Jesus was, was, the glue that held the visioning together. A bit like churches that have all walks in life as membership yet they all gather in a collective form that accepts all their different faith stories or reasons for being a follower of the Jesus Way but there is no single belief but rather there is a single trust in being on the journey together.

We now know, there was not just ‘one’ early version of Christianity, but many. And remember this was also the case before the word Christian was in common use. Even when the word Christian was used there was diverse beliefs and practices. And lets also remember that then acknowledgement of such reality is only now being taken seriously.

Jesus, for the so-called ‘Gnostics’, was a gifted teacher who opened up a different intuitive way of knowing, combining mind and heart. What we might call now a Left and right brain hemisphere approach to reaching an understanding of Jesus. For the Gospel of Thomas and his community, Jesus is simply called Jesus. Not messiah, nor Son of God. This Jesus responds to very concrete questions of life: what is the world like what are people like what is wisdom what will happen in the future.  (Jerry Stinson, First UCC web site 2006). A very human Jesus we might say.

And it was a world where ‘salvation’ had nothing to do with Jesus dying for the sins of the world.  Instead: “salvation meant understanding Jesus, knowing what he knew… understanding (his) words… as (they) sought wise, deep mystical and intuitive insights.” (Jerry Stinson, First UCC web site 2006) For these Gnostics this human Jesus was their guide as they attempted to make their way through the mysteries and questions of life. And let’s be very clear here. All of this, according to scholars, was significantly different to the theology of the bloke we call Paul.

In Paul’s churches:  God was totally other, and pictured in male images… Jesus was Lord and Son of God… Jesus’ death saved people from what became known as ‘original sin’… They had clergy, bishops and creeds, guarding the ‘true faith’.  Out of this grew the idea that one was called to defend the faith and we know where that leads.

In Thomas’ and in many other gnostic communities: There is divinity in each of us… Both male and female images of God were often used… Salvation was about enlightenment overcoming illusion… They didn’t have clergy.  And they pushed theological boundaries. So, what can we learn from the Gospel of Thomas’ sayings that can take us beyond John’s complex and rambling arguments?

Rex Hunt offers some suggestion we might use. First, the Thomas community centred around shared, mutual learning. And much as we might like to compartmentalize and control thinking, learning must be at the heart of our community life today. Where else in our society can we ask questions about the meaning of life? Where else can we relate the teachings of Jesus and the morality of our faith to the difficult issues of our day: War Terrorism Immigration Environmental degradation including the contemporary assault on fact and truth and things common.

Second, the Thomas community members were deeply committed. Commitment must also be at the heart of our community life today. That’s the price, or the responsibility one must engage in despite the call for more and different and choice.

It means getting involved rather than staying on the edges. Attending adult education classes. Signing petitions. Reaching out to others. Giving time and talent and financial support. Keep telling the stories and using the sayings enabling them to become common sense.

Third, the challenge of the Thomas community in general is to see and hear, today, the humanity of Jesus behind the many sayings and different images. To see him pointing to something the other gospels call the ‘realm of God’, where new possibilities and a re-imagined ‘this’ world, – a new bottom line, if you like – demands to be considered.

And to hear him inviting his committed followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond the many boundaries which “always prohibit, block, or deny access to a deeper humanity.” (Spong 2001: 131).

Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.