Archive for November, 2021

Luke 3:1-6

The Always, Almost Present-ness of Serendipitous Creativity God

We have begun the advent season and arrive at week two, that of the theme of ‘Peace’. We have participated in the lighting of an Advent candle. The second Advent candle.
The ‘peace’ candle. And in the spirit of ‘Advent’ we are, once again, invited to ‘keep awake!’… or ‘stay alert!’ Ears tuned. Eyes open. Why? Because the God we seek is not that obvious, not that in your face, not that clear. It is as if that God is ‘perhaps’, or ‘almost; here but not quite clear or here but not quite yet. What advent seems to be saying is ‘stay alert’ so that you might together rediscover the God-given “incognito” (John Bell) moments in our ordinary daily living.

This is the heart of the Progressive, down-to-earth theme that continues today as the challenge to our reflection. This morning’s gospel story is built around a bloke we call John. He is only introduced today. And in the lectionary a fuller development is the subject of the story. But we already know that story from all the tradition which has been built up around him. We combine everything we know or remember about John, whenever we hear his name mentioned. Some give him the nickname: ‘dipper’ in recognition of his practice. We think of him and his way-out dress and alternative diet. We assume his particular call for change in universal to faith as we do his call for repentance. Tradition seems to suggest that this assumption became synonymous with the message of Jesus despite his alternative approach to fear and his claims for a peace without violence. We remember John’s gruesome end but pass it by as not significant as message about his theology or his approach to faith.

One commentator, John Meier, describes ‘dipper’ John as one of two historical figures who stands at either end of Jesus’ life, like bookends. The other is Pontius Pilate. Both only as support for claims made of Jesus rather than harbingers of important utterings and views. And none of that is what interests the storyteller we call Luke right now. What interests Luke is setting the scene, appropriately. And it’s a political setting to boot! Its more akin to Pilate than John in that sense. All those characters named in the Gospel reading this morning, are ‘reported’ to be people of power, both political and religious. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and his brother Philip
Lysanias, Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas. As to whether they all belong to the same historical time frame, is debatable. But for Luke they are representative. Representative of the use, but more often, the abuse, of power. And here is the alternative challenge that Jesus brings upon the political scene. For Roman imperialism, the ruling over people was achieved through the deeds and the mantra of, ‘war, then victory, then peace’. This time in Roman history, the time of John and Jesus and Pontius Pilate, was the time of Pax Romana the time considered by Rome as the time of peace. The so-called positive effects of the Pax Romana (“the time of Roman peace”), which lasted from around 27 BC until AD 180? Were essentially about Roman control and influence when slavery was abolished, the Colosseum was built, and the empire expanded. A time also when Christianity was banned, the society became classless, and the Colosseum was built. Jewish historian Philo however paints a dark picture of Pontius Pilate: ‘a ruthless despot, by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh… of spiteful disposition and an exceeding wrathful man… the bribes, the acts of violence, the outrages, the cases of spiteful treatment, the constant murders without trial, the ceaseless and most grievous brutality’.

And out of this repressive situation comes a voice of protest.  The voice of John. And he begins to offer the people “who lived under the shadow of Rome and under the burden of Herodian control and taxation a new way to end the pain and uncertainty that plagued their daily lives” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:34).

In the public mind, John was a major religious figure in the time of Jesus and we know that Jesus was moved by John’s approach and offered something more and alternative. So, what does Luke’s initial story of John invite us to remember: It invites us to consider that something new is needed. We like Jesus need to think outside the square. Go beyond the understandings, the answers, we have been given or have acquired. And that’s where all this fits into the general lectionary theme of Advent. We are encouraged to discover the God-given “incognito” moments in our ordinary living, especially in those moments which push the boundaries.

Or, to put it another way. Preparing for the coming of God’s realm means washing and evaluating the lenses through which we read the Bible or understand God or church or neighbour, as well as the transformation of life, individually, politically, and as a society, here and now. The challenges of climate change, Covid 19, economic theories, sociological assumptions all need our attention.

We can see past the exclusiveness of sex when we read From Mother Teresa’s  ‘Longing for God’: When she says: ‘We all long for heaven where God is, but we have it in our power to be in heaven with Him at this very moment. ‘But being happy with Him now means Loving as He loves,
Helping as He helps, Giving as He gives, Serving as He serves, Rescuing as He rescues, Being with Him twenty-four hours, Touching Him in his distressing disguise’ (Harvey 1996:214.).

Although as religious progressives we do not expect a literal return of Jesus, it is essential to our progressive spirituality that we do expect “continual intimate encounters with (Serendipitous Creativity) God in our personal, social, and political lives” (RPregeant/P&F web site 2006).

So both the liturgical function and spirituality of Advent is to focus on this aspect of life, the always-to-be-expected present-ness of Creativity – ‘God’ in our ordinary living or as I would put it the God that is the “Almost” of our reality. The serendipitous, almost but not yet the sure and potential, the doubt birthed certainty, the finite within the infinity. The “I Am’ of the Hebrew and the hear and the yet to come of the NT Kingdom. And in the flowering Kowhai, the blossoming Pohutukawa.
In the ‘creaking of the tree branches rubbing together in the hot Summer wind. In the scientific imagination of Cosmologists and the single soul looking up at the night sky. “The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful it appears.  It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realise that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we’re here. 

Here is the certain hope, and the peace that passes all understanding we seek. We have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever did. We know more than Jesus ever did but I think he knew that we could. That is such an exciting possibility, both for our understanding Of Jesus ad ourselves and it would be such a shame to blow it and end our life not having understood what there is to understand”.

In the birth of one’s first child. In those moments when we choose to live together loving and caring for each other (the Christmas metaphor). Once again, we encounter the Serendipitous Creativity – ‘God’ acting in us and in others, who receive our actions. In the loving, helping, giving, and serving we create the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.

Horsley, R. A. & N. A. Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Harvey, A. (ed). The Essential Mystics. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

Doug Lendrum with David W. Williams & Emma McGeorge :Almost: A Otherwise

The Nature of Hope! Relentless, Dynamic and Human.

Each of our readings for today speak of the theme for today. That of hope, Jeremiah gives us a picture of what assurance looks like in the midst of chaos. There is a sense of relentlessness about Hope that is comforting, encouraging and real. Our Contemporary reading gives us a philosophical entry point to the place of suffering in human life and thus a hope beyond the present. There is a timelessness about this hope and it is a living dynamic hope, always ready to respond to need. And our Luke reading calls us to see the world from a different perspective. In the mundane and the ordinary we can find a sense of hope that is sure and steadfast. The significance of the nature of Christian hope is thus a certain hope and not just a wishful one. The evidence is in what it means to be human

Israel was in a unique position during the time of Jeremiah. Assyria was probably at its hight of military and political power and they were situated directly to the North of the Hebrew Nation. To their west and south, they had their ancient enemies of Egypt as their neighbors. As you can imagine, tensions were mounting with every passing day. They could be overrun by Assyrian hoards as they sought to advance their empire or torn apart by an Egyptian skirmish in their efforts to establish a military blockade against the Assyrian threat. This present reality caused the Hebrew kings to lose long-term vision and give way to frantic tunnel vision. 

In this midst of this mounting national panic, Jeremiah prophesied to King Josiah, warning him not to side with Egypt. He rebuked false prophets during Johoiakin’s reign, warning that a failure to obey God would bring the nation of Israel to ruin. He urged King Zedekiah not to go to war against the Babylonians. In the end, no one heeded Jeremiah’s warnings. By the time Jeremiah was around 35 years old and a mature prophet, Assyria was finally defeated by a coalition of peoples including the Babylonians. Things did not go according to the franticly made plan. The coalition of war did not usher in a peaceful time for Judah. Everyone in the northern kingdom was exiled to Egypt, including Jeremiah. 

In the midst of this painful reality, Jeremiah speaks of The Lord’s declaration of fulfilling the gracious promises made towards Judah and Israel. Given Israel’s present turmoil, this would have been as utterly unbelievable as it was utterly needed to be heard. Good prophets always hold out a vision for people to cling to, even when its meaning is not yet able to be grasped. In the midst of leaders allowing present threats to the way things currently are to cause them to lose sight of God’s faithful promises, Jeremiah proclaims both warnings and assurance, in order that God’s people might be alert, maintain clear vision and allow God’s sure and ultimate promise of redemption to keep all things in holy perspective. 

This is a perfect stage for Advent to begin its production among us. We currently live in a society that is tossed about between barbaric acts of violence, hate filled rhetoric, and fear mongering. We are deep in a response to Covid 19 with restrictive practices as a result of a belief that regulation and mass control with manage the situation. The team of 5 million has become the disparate groups that need controlling if we are all to benefit. Once again in our history those that protest suffer the label of disrupter and noisy ones. The cause is swallowed up by judgement based on their noise. Unfortunately, this is not new for our society. We can think back in our recent history when the western world at least responded to the events of September 11th, 2001 with similar fear and panic. It was assumed that war could be declared against murders rather than justice being pursued by different, more diplomatic means. What resulted was war against a nation of people who were suffering just as much under the tyranny of the murders on whom the response sought vengeance. What was the outcome? To be cynical and yet pretty accurate it only lead to more death, more violence, a worse problem then there was to begin with, and continuing war for many. 

The question we might ask in the face of Covid as with any war. What if we kept the big picture in mind rather than give way to panic and fear? What if we responded with extreme forgiveness, making gifts for those affected by the heinous acts of violence? What if we responded in the spirit of forgiveness by sending aid to the destitute? What if we clothed their naked, worked to feed their hungry, and donated towards their education programs? What would hope look like?

Jeremiah it seems, beckons us in the midst of our chaos to stay alert, to not let panic and fear define our journey and our response to our present circumstances. He reminds us that hope is not a wish but a reality in our world. We are called to fix our eyes on the Jesus Way, a Way against all odds yet a way alongside the outcast, the struggling, the poor and disenfranchised. This seems to me to be the incarnational reality revealed to us. It is this realm that is our big picture upon which we remain secularly focused and moving towards. Advent calls us to this.

Our contemporary reading may sound gobbled gook to some because it attempts to talk about things in a dynamic non concrete way. It is perhaps a poor attempt to encourage hope in metaphorical form which is for our western world not easy to do in a world driven by an obsession with the left hemisphere approach to reality. Ian McGilchrist says that “Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphor. He also says that at first glance that might not sound too important – like it could be a nice thing if one were going to do a bit of literary critique. But that response he suggests is just a sign of the degree to which our world of discourse is dominated by left-hemisphere habits of mind. Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.” In our challenge to find hope in the reality of human living we need metaphor if we are to find it making sense. Hope is not found in a sensate, reasoned explanation alone.

To understand a certain hope in the midst of human struggle there needs to be a process whereby we return to the experiential world. The parts, once seen, are subsumed again in the whole, as the musician’s painful, conscious, fragmentation of the piece in practice is lost once again in the (now improved) performance. The part that has been under the spotlight is seen as part of a broader picture; what had to be conscious for a while becomes unconscious again; what needs to be implicit once again retires; the represented entity becomes once more present, and ‘lives’; and even language is given its final meaning by the right hemisphere’s holistic pragmatics. So what begins in the right hemisphere’s world is ‘sent’ to the left hemisphere’s world for processing, but must be ‘returned’ to the world of the right hemisphere where a new synthesis can be made.”
Hope that is based in goodness that is distorted and belittled by violence and separation and made hopeless needs to be reunited with reality for human treatment in acts of goodness. This is not to glorify or make sacred suffering but rather to acknowledge its humanness and to enable a certain hope to realize.

One of the markers of hopelessness is the too great an emphasis on the sound and feel of words as ‘things’ separate from their meaning, or alternatively on the meaning as something separate from the sound and feel of the words. This is why poetry and music are so important for human life. Too great a reliance on things destroys poetry and belittles metaphor. The stories and songs and poems of certain hope are part of what it means to be human.

One final note on this attempt to find the nature of hope is to say that in the twentieth century, despite the nature of the philosophic process, themes have emerged from philosophical debate which, unknowingly, corroborate the right hemisphere’s understanding of the world. These include: empathy and intersubjectivity as the ground of consciousness; the importance of an open, patient attention to the world, as opposed to a wilful, grasping attention; the implicit or hidden nature of truth; the emphasis on process rather than stasis, the journey being more important than the arrival; the primacy of perception; the importance of the body in constituting reality; an emphasis on uniqueness; the objectifying nature of vision; the irreducibility of all value to utility; and creativity as an unveiling (no-saying) process rather than a wilfully constructive process.”
A certain hope is found in living it in confidence of its reality.

This brings us to the Lukan readings. All three stories seem to suggest that this hope within hopeless human struggle is to be found in the very human life itself. It is about knowing oneself, knowing human potential and knowing human frailty and having a bigger perspective of its value and importance in the cosmic world. Neuroscience seems to suggest that human perception is at the heart of reality and this both placed huge responsibility on the human species but also places within human hands the very existence of everything and this for our purposes a certain hope. A hope that is more than wishful thinking, more than just an outcome, and more than a mystery.   is a certainty that is vital for human living and this the future of the planet.

If a certain hope is possible then it has to be an experiential metaphor and thus about life and how to imagine it. I would suggest It has to be incarnational, God in us, the post easter Jesus and not just a confessional truth. It is not just about a supernatural belief and how to hold them if at all supernatural. If as tradition claims the covenant is a social bond that seeks to answer questions about our destiny as humanity and define the purposes of our community, then a certain hope is essential and must always engage in working against the idea that we cannot love our enemies nor bring hope to the hopeless with a certain hope, despite the experience of hopelessness and despair. When human beings love things change. When human beings bring certain hope, a hope is made real. The ‘son of man’ has come. It’s Christmas. Amen.

Did Pilate get it right?

Posted: November 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

Did Pilate get it right?

Today in the three-year lectionary is Christ the King Sunday or as many today say, the Reign of Christ Sunday or as it used to be known as the Feast of Christ the King, or the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, festival celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church in honour of Jesus Christ as lord over all creation. Essentially a magnification of the Feast of the Ascension, it was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It is not all that young in the liturgical history of the church having no real tradition alongside Lent and holy week and Advent which have been celebrated for more than 1000 years, Christ the King Sunday has only been a part o There is however something that has kept it alive in the lectionary and its coud be thatf the Liturgical calendar since the 1920s and it was added for sort of political reasons. In the fallout of World War One and amidst the Kaisers and Kings and Czars, it felt to the church that it was time to reassert that Czar Ferdinand or Kaiser Wilhelm isn’t king, Christ is king. So some 96 years ago this day was added to the church year. And it has to be said that the idea of “king” and “kingship” have been debated ever since which suggested some value. Its possible that two things keep it around. One is that we believe that God’s alternative reign or kingdom of God is what Jesus was on about, that as human beings potential is always hope-filled and renewal possible and two, that it has a political edge to it that enables us to acknowledge that in human engagement with all of life there is always the political. The challenge of ROC is to see that the politics of the day are involved in the traditional story as they will be in its interpretation for us today. The Reign of God will be culturally, socially politically relevant or it will fail to engage. So perhaps the idea of the kingship of Christ may have meant something in the political climate 90 years ago and now might like the quote at the beginning of this service be about celebrating Christ the CEO or the Mayor, or the prophetic protester Sunday.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

Then Pilate entered into the Praetorium again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the king of the Judeans?”  Jesus answered, “From yourself do you say this, or did others speak about me to you?”  Pilate answered, “I am not a Judean, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you over to me.  What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not out of this world.  If my kingdom were out of this world, my subordinates would be fighting so that I might not be delivered over to the Judeans.  But now is my kingdom not from hence.”  Then Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  Into this I have been born, and into this I came into the world, so that I might witness to the truth.”

Unlike the synoptics, the fourth gospel features longer stories with expanded dialog.  We have seen that with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, the man by the pool of Bethsaida, and others.  In chapter 18, it is Pilate’s turn.

Pilate is not identified by any particular title or rank.  Most likely, Pilate’s name was already well known among Christians and the author of the fourth gospel felt no particular need to go into specific identification.  (Pilate’s name appears in the Old Roman Creed, c. AD 200.) 

Pilate was lower nobility, of the equestrian rank.  Not long after Pilate, the title for someone of Pilate’s authority was procuratores Caesaris pro legato–a procurator of Caesar who operates pro legato, meaning that he has the power to command legionaires.  During the time of Pilate, however, his title appears to have been Prefect–praefectus Iudaeae

In verse 28, “they”–presumably representatives of the high priest–take Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters, the praetorion.  The word originally referred to the tent of the Roman praetor in a military camp.  Later, it was used to speak of the headquarters of Roman authority in subjugated territories. 

Pilate kept his permanent residence at Caeserea, not Jerusalem.  When he was present in Jerusalem, however, he most likely took over a former Herodian palace.  The exact location is not known.

When we begin to think about the differences Jesus is talking about or we look at Jesus’ kingdom compared with Rome’s:  Those who bring Jesus to Pilate can’t enter Pilate’s headquarters because of ritual defilement so Pilate goes outside to meet with them.  Pilate wants to know the accusation. 

“They” respond that they wouldn’t have bothered to bring Jesus to Pilate “if this man were not a criminal.”  Pilate suggests they go ahead and judge Jesus by Jewish law, but they reject this option because they are not allowed to impose the death penalty. The fear or what he is proposing seems to be very serious here. The Judean authorities want Jesus gone, and not without reason.  Jesus’ attacks on the Temple elite had been scathing.  One notes, however, that in all four gospels, Jesus was careful not to criticize the Romans directly.  His rare jibes at the Romans were oblique and indirect. 

This response is important in that it was politically deft. It recognises that throughout history most social reformers don’t get very far when they take on the most powerful aspect of the power structure, which, in this case, would be the Roman Army.  Astute reformers instead focus on the power structure’s weakest component, which, in this case, was the Temple elite, an elite already under suspicion and broadly held in low regard. 

My kingdom is not from this world,” says Jesus. And while that seems pretty obvious ir was at the same time, one of the most obscure statements from Jesus. Working for Jesus’ kingdom, praying for “thy kingdom come” is a rather difficult endeavour when it seems so far away from the reality that we know and in which we live. The kingdoms of our world could hardly be more opposite than the kingdom Jesus has in mind. So, what kind of kingdom does Jesus propose?

Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, kingdom language in John is rare, used only here (John 18:33-37) and in the conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:3-5). Interestingly, Jesus’ reference to kingdom in the Gospel of John comes up in dialogue with those who represent the kingdoms of Jesus’ present-day world. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus represents the kingdom of the Jews. As a Roman procurator, Pilate represents the Roman Empire. It seems that the kingdoms of the world as it was known back then are called into question by Jesus who is the Word made flesh loving the world (John 3:16).

One of the most significant issues for us today when approaching this text is to acknowledge that it is not sufficient when preaching on Christ the King Sunday simply to suggest that the negative aspects of today’s kingdoms are therefore made positive in Jesus’ kingdom. Or, to insist that we can name every bad feature in kingdoms of today and turn them around so as to describe adequately the goodness of God’s kingdom. The issue for us is that God’s kingdom is not opposite of our kingdoms, it rather has rather to be more than the opposite. It has to be politically, socially, and religiously more than the current.

Of course, part of the challenge in all of this is the penchant to limit kingdom to location. This is when the “reign of Christ” is a helpful corrective for this festival Sunday, not just for the sake how we talk about Jesus and the titles we give to Jesus, but for the sake of realizing that Jesus’ kingdom is a state of being, a way to live, a commitment to a particular way to view the world.

And in John, Jesus wants us to see that his kingdom is only about place if place indicates the profound and intimate “place” of relationship with God. Jesus’ kingdom is not about amassing additional amounts of control. Jesus’ kingdom is not about his ultimate rule over and above others. Jesus’ kingdom is about relationship. “My kingdom is not from this world” because it is from God. Pilate attempts to construe the boundaries of Jesus’ kingdom in terms of those perpetuated by the kingdom to which he is beholden. But Jesus’ kingdom is from God, just as Jesus is from God (John 1:1) and Jesus is God’s kingdom. The concept of kingdom is radically recalculated in the Gospel of John, from kingdoms that strain and sever relationships to a kingdom that puts relationship at its core. That’s a whole different perspective on kingdom. When kingdom is construed from the truth of relationship and not rule, from the truth of incarnation and not location, from the truth of love and not law, then Jesus as truth will ring true.

This is the truth that the kingdoms of this world cannot see. God’s truth. Jesus as truth. But it is the truth that we can see and that we are called to preach, that we have to preach, not only on Christ the King Sunday, but every Sunday. To love fiercely even in the face of fear (“In the face of fear I will love fiercely,” Jessica Ortner).

Pilate entered back into his headquarters and “called” Jesus inside.  For his part, Jesus expresses no worries about being ritually defiled by being in the praetorion. Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Judeans?”  (This question is the same in all four gospels–Mark 15:2, Matthew 27:11, and Luke 23:3–which would indicate a common tradition on at least this much of the passion account.)

“King” is a political title, and Pilate focuses on the political question.  Pilate had no interest in religion or theology.  He is a practical and matter-of-fact kind of person.  His objective is the maintenace of Roman law and Roman control.  It is clear from the entire conversation–18:33-19:16–that Pilate wants to free Jesus, or, at least, he would rather free Jesus than free the anti-Roman terrorist, Barabbas.

To Pilate’s question, Jesus responds with an impertinent retort that unmasks Pilate’s collusion with others:  “From yourself do you say this, or did others speak about me to you?”  Both of them well know that “others” have spoken to Pilate about him.

Pilate, thrown on the defensive, responds, “”I am not a Judean, am I?”  This, frankly, is not a particularly good riposte.  Just because he is not a Judean does not mean that he didn’t collude with Judeans. 

Yet, on another level, Pilate is a Judean.  In the fourth gospel, anyone aligned with the Temple establishment and its worldview is a Judean.  In doing the bidding of the Judean authorities, Pilate has become a Judean. 

Pilate continues:  “Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you over to me.  What have you done?”  Note that Pilate does not say Jesus’ own religion has delivered him over, but that his own nation has.  Again, Pilate uses political words.  Also, he specifically identifies those who have “delivered over” Jesus.  They are the “chief priests,” the highest level of Temple, and Judean, authority.

Pilate asks what Jesus has done, but Jesus ignores this question and returns to idea of kingship.  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Indeed, it is not.  Jesus’ kingdom is not “of this world” of political calculation, accusation, and contending interests. 

This does not mean, however, that Jesus’ kingdom is only in heaven and has nothing to do with life on earth.  This new realm is incarnational, it is God’s on earth. The two kingdoms–“this world” and Jesus’–occupy the same temporal space.  One is not here while the other is off in the wild blue yonder.  They are both here.  The difference is one of attitude and worldview. 

Jesus makes this clear when he says, “If my kingdom were out of this world, my subordinates would be fighting so that I might not be delivered over to the Judeans.  But now is my kingdom not from hence.” 

“This world” kingdoms are about fighting and struggle (agonizomai).  Jesus’ kingdom is about the dignity and equality of all.

Jesus nuanced response is seemingly lost on Pilate.  Pilate retreats to what is, for him, the central question.  He asks, “Then you are a king?”  He reasons:  You speak of your kingdom, therefore you must be a king.  Jesus’ answer is the same as in all four gospels–su legeis, “you say.”  The fourth gospel adds:  “…that I am a king.”

Jesus continues:  “Into this I have been born, and into this I came into the world, so that I might witness to the truth.”  Note the distinction between being “born” and “coming into the world.”  The Greek gegennemai accents creation–to be brought into being.  In the theology of the fourth gospel, the Word became flesh, eternity entered time, the essential entered existence.  All that is subsumed in the meaning of “born.” 

Being born is one thing, but for what purpose?  Jesus “came into the world” so that he “might witness to the truth.”  That is his purpose and mission, a theme stated in John 1.  He will present light to darkness, identifying what really is, and comparing that truth with the way things appear to be in “this world.” Again, this kingdom or realm creation is incarnational, politically social and religiously transformational.

As a community of Jesus followers seeking to create, unfold and celebrate one’s faith, the boundaries of imagination can limit us more than anything. Thankfully, imagination also liberates us and carries us—by God’s grace—toward new realities.

This “prophetic imagination,” to use Hebrew Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s words, is critical to replacing the corporate media images of the way things supposedly are and will remain with visions of an emerging new world. The necessary “alternative consciousness,” writes Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic Imagination, is both “critical” and “energizing.”

So, while critiquing “wars and rumours of wars” (Mark 13:7) in a day when the minimum wage is as inadequate as it is, we are energized by the declarative statements of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi that “your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16), and of Jesus to the disciples that “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31, emphasis added).

The forms and styles introducing that alternative consciousness vary through these weeks, from the nurturing conversations of Naomi to the songs of Hannah and the psalmists. Jesus remains both critical (“beware of the scribes!”) and energizing (“the poor widow has put in more”). This is a time to consider our lineage; we are born of a people of faith, yet we are also birthing a world in God’s providential care. Every day. We are incarnational in intent and we are about to celebrate that as Christmas.


‘Terror Matched by Hope Beyond Description’

Today is the last week we will hear the gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark. The last, for three years, that is. This year I have preempted this a bit in that last week I spoke on the Reign of Christ Last week which is normally the pre-curser to Advent. Next week is the end of this liturgical Year B. Then after that we enter a new Church year and a new season – Advent. And the cycle begins all over again. There is a sense of sadness about this in that with this year, coming to the end of Year B, Mark – it feels a bit different.

I suspect like some other progressives that Mark’s stories are good down-to-earth stories which preserve the Jesus Movement’s memory of Jesus. They seem to be stories that are not only the earliest stories but also because there is less ‘layering’ onto these stories. That is, there seems to be more of an honest Jesus than a church Christ in these stories. And that has become an important difference for me. I think it was the Jesus Seminar scholars Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan who alerted me and several other theological discussions to the important difference between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. That is, when we take the stories about the post-Easter Christ as historical reporting about the pre-Easter Jesus, Borg pointed out: Jesus becomes an unreal human being, and we lose track of the utterly remarkable person he was.

Third, and this was another new experience which was to discover the Jewish structure of Mark’s stories. The liberating experience is to view these stories through Jewish eyes. Bishop John Shelby Spong some time back lectured on Mark, as a Midrash storyteller, telling the Jesus story based on the Hebrew scriptures and organised around the liturgical year of the Jews from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) to Passover. Spong claimed it was inevitable that the first members of the Jesus Movement, who were Jewish people, would: interpret Jesus, organize their memory, and shape their religious life based on their Jewish religious heritage, which was the only tradition they knew.

 In hind sight it seems so logical and obvious that one wonders how one missed it but what it did was stimulated one’s curiosity as both a storyteller and a liturgist. It stood in contrast to the suggestion by Narrative theologians who argued that Mark’s stories are modelled on the parable of The Sower. We remember that story where some seeds fall on a hard pathway, some seeds fall on rocky ground, some seeds fall among thorns and are choked, some seed fall on good soil. Narrative theologians might say that as we journey through Mark we hear this story in the various and many other stories… The rich young man. The healing of a man with an unclean spirit. The widow and the coins. And many more. People heard, but only some responded. For some the words have fallen on a hard pathway, on rocky ground, among thorns. All through Mark, according to this theological vision of sown seed and productive and unproductive earth.

However, with progressive challenges to this and the discovery of the Jewishness of Jesus we have become more sensitive to the stories about outsiders and outcasts in Mark… And to Jesus as an outsider. Robert Funk, of Westar said: “Jesus apparently regarded himself as an outsider.  He was in exile from his hometown, from his friends and neighbours… he was a guest, a traveler, a stranger, an alien in most contexts. ” (Funk 2002:45-46).

Jesus appears to have ignored the social boundaries of his time. He embraces the beggars, the poor, the hungry.  He becomes known as a friend of toll collectors and prostitutes. All these, fall outside the boundaries of his society in the most radical manner.

Again, Funk was pivotal to this new awareness: He said: “The invisible domain of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, with women and unwanted children, with lepers and toll collectors, all considered under some circumstances to be the dregs of society.  They are outsiders and outcasts…  No wonder Jesus auditors were puzzled by his vision of… God’s domain – it contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out.” (Funk 2002:55)

So, what are we to make of this final story from Mark? Today’s story by the one we call Mark is a pretty scary story. Historically it probably refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple many years after the death of Jesus. Theologically it probably warns of those who offered the small Jesus Movement false hopes through dubious signs and wonders.

Either way there would be real human memories: the brutality of war, the rape and pillaging, the burning and torture, the killing and mutilation. The Jesus of Mark takes us into this world of terror and offers a vision of hope. A defiant hope. A hope centred on the vision of the domain of  God where inclusiveness is its rule. And a passionate concern for others fires imaginations and compassionate acts. Terror beyond description is being matched by hope beyond description, is the way William Loader describes it. Perhaps this is all we can say about this story. I trust it is enough. If it is, then we too can also be blessed.  Perhaps we can see its simple message as a challenge to look beyond all the doom and gloom and end times images we are being given by science, media, and society in this time of global crisis we seem to be living. May be the challenge is to look beyond and find the hope that comes with a new perspective.

It won’t be easy but if Mark’s Jesus has anything to say to us it is that the terror is matched by a hope beyond description. Amen.

Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Discovering the Possibilities…

Posted: November 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

Discovering the Possibilities…

This coming Sunday we celebrate in the church lectionary year a day which is supposed to be seen as the culmination of the whole year’s stories and sermons… We are of course invited to focus on the reign of Christ, or, as Christ the King, or in John Shuck’s words: Jesus the Nobody. Yet the so-called ‘real’ world is not listening.  Neither does it seem to care anymore. I was at an interesting meeting this week where a group of people from various social organizations and interested church people discussed how best to be church? How best to use a particular piece of plant and how to make an impact on bettering people lives as well as giving the church a sense of purpose and dare I use that word, ‘Mission’. We talked at length about what We are even asking thought the community needed and were challenged to ask whether or not the community wanted that. Maybe the Beatles were right. They (and other entertainers) are more popular than Christ! But even they have had to suffer the time passing and like that group of people this week we too have to say we don’t know what to do to serve the world. We are even asking. “What can religion do? And maybe that is a $64million question, isn’t it! (Where did that saying come from? I think its older that the 64million dollar man movie?)

The truth is that while we were wrestling with what to do in terms of mission and management of resource, we were exploring that big question. And we were not the first nor will we be the last. One major issue is the major shift in thinking that needs to take place if we are to succeed in turning this huge ocean liner of myth and practice onto another course. It is already true that many have tried over the last 100 years and it is also true that many have been resisted. And some of them have been replaced by new names and fellow explorers in contemporary thinking.

Just one of those who recently died, Bishop John Shelby Spong has said we need a new God-definition that resonates with the humanity of Jesus. “What I see is a new portrait of Jesus… I see him pointing to something he calls the realm (or kingdom) of God, where new possibilities demand to be considered…  I see him inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond those security boundaries that always prohibit, block, or deny our access to a deeper humanity” (Spong 2001:131).

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg observed: “Our preoccupation with believing is because many of the central teachings of Christianity have come into question in the modern world.  Thinking of the Christian life as being primarily about believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus is thus a modern mistake, with profound consequences” (Borg 1999:240).

On the other hand, David Tacey, an Australian university lecturer who provided courses on Spirituality, says; with the collapse of belief in the traditional image of God “we have to find God in a new place, and the most convincing place of all will be our own human hearts.” He continues with this suggestion: “This does not mean that God will be a merely personal experience, locked away in the closet of introspection, but rather the discovery of God in our interiority will be the basis for a new appreciation of God in the world” (Tacey 2003:193).

What is also significant here is that neither Spong, Borg or Tacey claim to have ‘the’ answer to my $64million dollar question. But they are a few of the torch lights seeking out a new pathway. Seeking, that is, as traditional church structures and those who control them, debate whether to even allow the search to continue. Little regard is given to the institutional survival energy that arises when one’s belief system is questioned and it is easier to build walls than to allow the gospel to speak of new possibilities.

Many who do raise questions face vitriol, discrimination and in many cases expulsion from their tradition. Rex Hunt tells the story where one family’s ‘seeking’ was seen as too much of a threat for a representative of conservative religion. The Ordained cleric informed them they are no longer welcome to receive communion because of their so-called ‘radical’ beliefs.  His theology was not able to embrace either their questioning or their vision. Instead, his God must be protected and defended by his possession of the infinite truth. And their continued nurturing as people ‘on the way’ must be retarded or denied. The challenge to this fundamentalism has to be said is a denial of the Reign of Christ! A reign dependent upon absolutes doesn’t look like the one Jesus was espousing. One where, inclusion, acceptance, loving one’s adversaries, non-violence etc. were virtues central to this new realm.

One of the hopeful things happening in this transitional movement of thinking is that it is becoming a bit clearer as to what celebrating the Reign of Christ is all about. Both at a social and religious level the values of this new realm are developing. Some of these came out in our collective discussion on how to be church and how to uses assets in the interests of this new realm. Things like recapturing and revitalizing in the common mind the idea of ‘the commons’, a place not dependent upon a monetarist system but rather on the vale of usage for and by people. A very high level of shared space, or efforts in common, or practical equity.

Rex also suggests some preliminary comments that are not about, accepting a number of basic required beliefs and sub-beliefs, as claimed by conservative and fundamentalist religion… otherwise God will punish you, or you could be kicked out of the church, or be ostracized if you stay. Neither is it about being ‘converted’ or becoming all ‘holy’. Nor is it about demanding the status quo be maintained so as to preserve the last remnants of an outmoded supernatural religion. Rather he suggests; it is about our need to continue to revise our appreciation of the role of religion in everyday life. And to continue to revise what we believe. To continue to revise what form ‘church’ will take to be a meaningful, helpful presence in people’s lives. This needs to be the Sunday sermon and we need to continue to revise what it means to be a congregation… Why isn’t this a vigorous gathering of people, demonstrating care and compassion, healing and justice, integrity and intellectual honesty. And not a group of people defending a story that no one wants or needs. One of the things that came up in our conversation was that the primary task of a group of Jesus following people was to provide hope and especially in the realm where young people will be making the decisions about the planet, the lifestyles the wellbeing and the nurturing of the future. Where is their hope in this time of transition and seemingly hopelessness in regard to the future of our planet and our species?

So, I guess I am suggesting that the celebration of the Reign of Christ is about recognising a credible Jesus and a credible religion and a credible church in this the early years of the 21st century. And like Rex I suggest that some of the words and images which may help shape this credibility, are:

Acceptance –                                       a marvelous non-judgmental humanitarian compassion.

Relationship –                                      an evolving new way of being.

Loving wastefully –                             being freed from hang-ups and hostilities that cripple and conflict our existence.

Spiritual presence or creativity –         discovering something new about ourselves, about life.

Behaving ethically –                            learning what is appropriate behaviour in our changing environments.

The task is to rediscover these possibilities on this day, when the Lectionary invites us to celebrate and reflect on the season of the Reign of Christ.

Borg, M. J. & N. T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus. Two Visions. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.
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.
Tacey, D. The Spirituality Revolution. The Emergence of Contemporary Spirituality. Pymble. HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.