Archive for December, 2021

God Lives and Comes to Expression in Us.

Shepherds, angels, wise men, virgins giving birth to sons of god… How do we hear these stories?
Stories from a different world to the one we live in. It’s not often we run into shepherds, angels, kings (or many wise men!) in our daily lives. And if we do, they don’t seem to live in the same world. Many of us de know or knew people who farmed sheep – indeed, many New Zealanders have family links to a sheep farm somewhere in their historical circle.

But how many of us know shepherds who actually live in their paddocks with the flock. Doesn’t mean there weren’t or aren’t any but most of us just don’t run into them in our daily rounds to the supermarket or the local watering hole. Even if we might believe in angels there is a vast number of beliefs about what they are and how one might recognize them. The certainty is that I don’t think I have met very many, except in the romantic sense perhaps! But angels bounding about to and fro, in and out of heaven, proclaiming things in lights, is and has not been part of my experience.

I haven’t met any kings either. Shepherds, angels, wise men, virgins giving birth to sons of god…
These are characters from an age long past. I was reminded in a Westar Article just recently of the understanding at the time of Jesus and before about the universe, it being a three tiered one with the firmament firmly flat and in the middle of two tiers of waters below and waters above. and the subsequent shift to an understanding of the firmament being the sky but still three tiered. We haven’t lived in their world for a long time.  If ever. Yet we repeat these stories year after year.

What does it mean, if anything, today? How do we hear these stories? In contrast to Matthew and Luke, who are the storytellers charming us at Christmas with Lectionary stories about angels and shepherds and wise men and virgin births, John plays the theologian. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word was made flesh and lived among us…” Well, theologian John certainly is as he seeks to articulate his God-expressions. But, I’m not sure I am ready to be confronted with this heavy theological treatise! The trouble is that neither do I want to just piously nod a slumbering holiday approval, for John’s words bristle with possibilities that need to be appreciated. They are an approach to what an incarnate God might be.

 The first of these is what we would now call a radical, postmodern approach in that the God of John the theologian has us repeatedly encounter a multi-moving, acting God. A ‘verb’ rather than a ‘noun’ is the way it is often described. God is a doing word as opposed to a naming one. The Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly to asks: “Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun?  Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all?  …The anthropomorphic symbols for God may be intended to convey personality, but they fail to convey that God is Be-ing.” Here I would suggest again my word ‘Almost’ is about belonging rather than be-ing a being. Indeed, the new church season we are about to move into next week, called Epiphany, unveils and celebrates the dynamic, present-ness of this lively, innovative God, in everyday life. Not a presence but a present-ness, or as old philosophy might have said, a horse-ness as opposed to a horse.

The second thing is that Theologian John uses dynamic and relational words and images. And in general terms so too does the whole of the biblical tradition: bringing, gathering, consoling, leading, understanding, granting, scattering, choosing, forgiving.

In these multiple actions, God is always ‘acting’, and in all these many ways, creation is always the subject of God’s great demonstrations of affection. But I think we get a bit stuck when we hear the English translation, ‘word’. In English, ‘word’ is usually given the meaning of sounds or its representation in letters put together for oral or written communication. Printed word. Radio word. But the Hebrew for ‘word’ is ‘dabhar’ which means divine creative energy. The word that gave birth. Those of you who are right-brain thinkers will probably have already resonated with this and made a connection. For the Hebrew ‘dabhar’ is about the creative, the imaginative, the heart, the feeling.

The third thing is that this divine creative energy is more than just a concept. The Season of Epiphany also reminds us that the ‘word’ is made flesh. It lives among us.  Moves within and among all things. Inspiring us to think and sing and dance with integrity and historical and intellectual honesty. As Lily Tomlin reminds us in her play Search for intelligent life in the universe… We need to be aware of the goose-bump experiences of life. We need to practice ‘awe-robics’.

The great challenge of Christmas is that it is the season when we celebrate God-with-us. Traditionally this is called ‘incarnation’. But ‘incarnation’ is more than just ‘Christmas’. Most of us can sense this Creative God-with-us Present-ness in the immensity of our evolving universe, in the incredible display of evolving life-forms on this planet. Most of us can sense this evolving, living, life force, this energy, this present-ness in the evolving society and in our psyche and thus in our daily living as a human being. All our collected human wisdom, using that word as the goal of human intellectual evolution, is a visible expression of this God-with-us Present-ness, active for millions of years in human development, active in all places, at all times, in individuals and cultures, seeking expression in the positive betterment of humanity.

What is distinctive in the Judeo-Christian world is that John the theologian makes the incredible claim that the one called Jesus of Nazareth can be discerned in this Present-ness. At this time of the year, and as progressive Christians, we rejoice in the birth of Jesus. In him we see the fullness of human possibility: to make God visible in our lives. In him we have seen this Present-ness come to expression in human form. In him life makes sense. And we rejoice that this same Jesus led people to discover the sacred in the ordinary: in the crowd, in the lowly, in everyday life, in human yearnings to be better people, and in being neighbour to one another. But unlike some traditional Christian thinking the work of God-with-us, of incarnation, is not over. The divine, the sacred, the present-ness we understand as God continues to be embodied today, as we live in God and God lives and comes to wonderful expression in us, and our world. This story is about the incarnate, present-ness, the dynamic human expression of God-ness.

As theologian Karl Peters suggestively says: “The divine is continually present churning up the waters of life.  If we are in tune with… the Word that signifies the hidden structures of life’s possibilities, we will discover… new ways of acting, thinking, and feeling.  These will add to the richness of our lives in a continuing evolving world” (Peters 2002:59). This if is huge also in that it entails the human mind, the human choice, the human possibility, the incarnate incarnation so to speak.

So, Christmas in a progressive sense is to celebrate the gift of our full humanity, and network together for a more loving communion with that which we name Serendipitous Creating or God, as verb, and to take time to celebrate that this is a living dynamic embodiment that comes about in our be-ing, with each other. Amen.

Peters, K. E. “Confessions of a practicing naturalistic theist” in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 40, 3, 701-720, 2005.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. PN: Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 2002.

A Real Christmas Story, ‘Almost’, an Infatuation with the Possible.

The end of a Christian year, or the beginning of a new one or the whole story in one event? Most of us struggle with the idea that belief is an acceptance of and a need to defend some sort of fixed un-challengeable truth, a once and for all matter upon which to stand, but what if belief is just one part of a dichotomy?  What if belief is one half of that which is belief and unbelief and that without one, we do not have the other? What happens to truth then? If the Christmas story is not about how God became Jesus or how Jesus became God but rather about how human beings create God, are as the story goes how human beings are made in the image of God. I apologize for dumping such a huge topic on the reader but I do think we need to do our theology if we are to understand Christmas. For me theology signifies a passion in which everything is at stake, and so is always challenging, always radical as the logos of a passion, the logos of a desire for God, the logos of a prayer. The desire for God—that I think is the root of the trouble all theologians bring upon themselves. They take God, the name of God, what is happening in the name of God, as their subject matter. Theology I suggest is with or without religion or what ordinarily passes for theology is important because the name of God is too important to leave in the hands of the special interest groups. I think as I hope my memoir illustrates; I own up to a theological desire and a “desiring theology,” which is undeniably a desire for God, for something astir in the name of God, a desire for something I know not what, for which I pray night and day. I think I am praying for an event that is the ‘Almost’ that the naming points tom but cannot deliver. It is not enough to say I believe; I am a follower of Jesus, I am a Christian; one has to live it, one has to think it in to existence, one has to understand the so-called kingdom of God as a Way of living, a Way or being more fully human. I think Jung called this the individuation of God and of humankind. I might say it as doing one’s theology is living it as a dynamic creative event that is our participation in the cosmic evolutionary process or event in a way that is the uncontrollable, unconditional dynamic event that is God. The ‘I am in Hebrew, The Messianic Christ in Greek.

Like Jack Caputo I too think that this God, divine/human event is not found in the recent traditional almighty, omnipotent, omnipresent, God nor is the nature influenced pantheistic approach but is hinted at in the panentheistic one. By that I mean God is not everything but closer in understanding to being God is in everything. Here again we have what I think is the need for one to do their theology as its task is to release what is happening in that name, to set it free, to give it its own head, and thereby to head off the forces that would prevent the event. The way I think we might approach this task is theology and the event, a theology of the event, and a prayer for the event of theology. Obviously, then, everything turns on explaining what we mean by an “event” and how it is related to a name. However, I want to suggest that at the core of the event we name God is its Uncontainability and thus its vulnerability and what is termed its unconditional love. In Christmas terms the serendipitous fragile, unpredictable vulnerable and thus weakness of human creation as the image of God’s serendipitous fragile, unpredictable and thus weak existence. If we do nor create the name God the event of God will not exist but it will insist, the human desire of God will not be on the path to individuation or completion. The ‘Almost’ will remain as that which might be and not that which is about to be.

But back to the weakness that is our God. Like others I want to caution the reliance upon classical theology and philosophy that gives us the fundamental structure of the objective being, and makes exclusive claim to interpretation as being of a weak thought. It relies on method as attaining certitude and dismisses weakness as wishy washy, open ended and heralds black and white, absolute or relativist, or my way is right frame of mind and belittles serendipitous, perception and flexible insight as unhelpful. What of ambiguity, uncertainty, wholistic thinking, insightful complexity the unexpected and the unconditional are more important or at least as important. What if a weak God is more akin the humanity and vice versa? What if the miraculous birth of a human child in the baby Jesus with all its precipitous existence as a human child is the message of the image of a God? As the cartoon goes: How does a benevolent God allow his Son to die so that the rest of us sinners can live, and why the heck did he have to die to save God’s creation in the first place? The only explanation has to be that this that which we call God is weak like us in the first place and the story is about that weakness as where we find this thing, we call the realm of this God. Again; maybe this weakness is the ‘Almost-ness’ the unconditional eternal divinity that is the desire or the insistence that is human life.

This idea of a weak God is a big task to grasp in itself but its strength of argument is in its un-containability. Names contain events and give them a kind of temporary shelter by housing them within a relatively stable nominal unity. Events, on the other hand, are uncontainable, and they make names restless with promise and the future, with memory and the past, with the result that names contain what they cannot contain. Names belong to natural languages and are historically constituted or constructed, whereas events are a little unnatural, eerie, ghostly thing that haunt names and see to it that they never rest in peace. Maybe that’s why names can never give all there is to know about something or someone. They are events and as such are never containable by a name. An event is distinguished from a simple occurrence by reason of its polyvalence, complexity, and undecidability, by its endless name-ability by other names equally eventful. Names are endlessly translatable, whereas events are what names are trying to translate, not in the sense of an inner semantic essence to be transferred, but in the sense of carrying (ferre) themselves toward (trans) the event, like runners.

Another way of thinking about this weakness I am on about it the horrible results of the world as it tries to deal with the extremes in thinking. The extremes in their objectivism create an either/or dilemma and resolution invariably is seen as a reluctant compromise or a destructive win by the more powerful on the other. What that, reveals are that the so-called absolutes that win have an identifiable pedigree, that is that they are always conditioned constructions trying to pass themselves off as have been dropped form the sky as divine righteousness. They must be right because they won is born out of the fear of weakness and relativism whereas evidence shows that the worst violence ensues, not from hermeneutics, but rather from resisting hermeneutics or when someone confuses themselves with God which weak thought would discourage on the grounds that it is a very dangerous illusion. When one thinks one has a handle of God, God disappears. One might say that the Easter story is the reminder that the high and mighty God dies on the human cross of violence and the Christmas story is the reminder that the sense of freedom, equality, incarnate the divine life in the birth of a human child born into the world tent, in the world, in the depths of ethical and political life, where the world is busy making the name of God come true in the event of life. And here is the hard one. This world this so-called secular world is the realization of the kingdom of God. The secular is not the obliteration of the kingdom but rather the theology of the age.

In simple terms I can justify this position for theology by saying that Jesus in his time did his theology, in his temple experience he serves as a model for growing up and growing in wisdom. One overseas colleague puts it like this: “On the verge of adulthood, Jesus retreats to the temple for theological reflection and questioning…  (His) three days in the temple were a pivotal point in his spiritual evolution.  Jesus grew in spiritual stature by claiming his faith tradition faithfully and then extending its experiential and theological boundaries to new horizons” (BEpperly. P&F Lectionary web site, 2006).

So, the Christmas story invites us in our imaginations for a moment. The child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably… And to do so the biblical storytellers tell us very little other than implying that Jesus managed to complete the complex, intricate, mostly mysterious process of growing up. From being a helpless baby, he progressed to adulthood, where he was capable of holding down a job, making and keeping friends, theorizing about the origins of things, separating fancy from fact, getting angry without having to hurt others, caring for others without needing to possess them (Purdy 1993). In him both nature and nurture did their necessary work. “The child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably…”

And Jesus discovered that a fool and his money are soon parted, the love of money is the root of many evils, you cannot tell a book by its cover. He learned that power corrupts, that an army marches on its stomach, and if you would teach a hungry man, first you had better feed him (Purdy 1993). He learned that sin and sickness are not necessarily the two sides of the same coin, that the devil can quote scripture, and a smile sometimes is a mask for hate. Through all this “The child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably…”

Our storyteller Luke is very sketchy on the detail. Indeed, we have only the barest of fragments or outline. We have to fill in that outline with what we know about childhood. Because the only childhood truly accessible to us is our own. To live life to the full to love wastefully. To be all that we can be… paraphrasing Bishop Jack Spong, can be challenging and risky business. Yet we are reminded by British theologian and (another) retired bishop, John Tinsley, when he wrote in one of his pastoral letters more than 20 years ago: “A lot of our endeavour (as church) has gone into taking the risk out of faith… We try to create a hideout for faith where we can be unperturbed” (Tinsley 1990:438-39).  Ny implication we can say that our congregations can become hideouts for some of us. They can enable us to forget that we always live on the edge of something new. That is the risk and the weakness that is our strength. That’s the risk of a misconception of power as might, control, certainty. It disallows the serendipitous, the ambiguous, the unexpected, the surprising and ultimately the unconditional nature of love. To live on the edge of something new is the Christmas story. How we meet that ‘risk’ or that ‘new’ is an important interpretation of the Christmas story.

“Growing in wisdom and stature calls us to take our faith seriously enough to study scripture, wrestle with traditional theological doctrines, explore new images of God, Christ, and salvation, and spend time in prayer, meditation, and service.  A growing faith is not accidental, but requires going to our own spiritual ‘temple’ regularly to listen, ask, and share. Even Jesus was unfinished and incomplete” (B Epperly. P&F Lectionary web site, 2006).

So here it is the first Sunday after Christmas reflecting on its meaning and seeing it as a reminder to greet the new horizons in this coming year and in our own particular situations,
to see the ‘Almost’ in anew light. To see the almost as an invitation to join in the event that it reveals, he opportunity to be infatuated with the possible” without which our congregational and personal life is just unthinkable. And then maybe it can be said of us all: These people… these congregations, grew into a mature adulthood, filled with wisdom, and God regarded them favourably…

Cox H. 1964.  On Not Leaving it to the Snake. New York. Macmillan
Purdy J C. 1993.  God with a Human Face. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox.
Tinsley J. 1990. Tell it slant. The Christian Gospel and its Communication. Bristol. Wyndham Hall Press.

Luke 1:39-45

‘The Need for Love in a Post Christian World’

At long last we have arrived at the end of Advent. The season of preparation where we have been invited to ‘stay awake’ to the unexpected present-ness of a Serendipitous Creativity that we call God in our ordinary living. I would add here that this awareness is not just about naming that which we call God but also about making authentic language about how we might perceive this that we call God and ultimately if we are to be true to our heritage that God is Love then Love needs to have a context that is authentic, embodied and not just an idea. I have a whole lot of questions in mind but we will not have time today to do more than allude to them. My hope is that we might leave today in the days before we celebrate the birth of the guy Jesus as being significant for humanity and thus culturally applicable and explainable in common language. A tall order but I think you will make sense of it even if at first it seems too complex.

There are some basic issues we need to be able to talk about what love is in our context. Love will need to be understood in today’s context if it is to have the worth we need it to. So despite the many ways of talking about our context Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their book War and Anti-War said “we are witnessing the sudden eruption of a new civilization on the planet, carrying with it a knowledge-intensive way of creating wealth that is trisecting and transforming the entire global system today. Everything in that system is now mutating, from its basic components … to the way we interrelate … to the speed of their interaction …. To the interests over which countries contend … to the kinds of wars that may result and which need to be prevented.?

The second thing we need to hold on to is what Moltmann wisely points out some years back. He says: “we cannot know whether modern society has any future and we must not know. If we knew that humanity is not going to survive we should not do anything more for our children but would say, ‘after us; the deluge;. If we knew that humanity is going to survive, we should not do anything either ….. Because we cannot know whether humanity is going to survive or not, we have to act today as if the future of the whole of humanity were dependent on us. This suggests we need to make a difference between the idea of accepting t retaining the idea that God, Religion and Spirituality don’t exist and an objective Creator that is in charge of everything. Jack Caputo helped me here when he introduced the idea of God that does not exist but rather insists and that only exists when we human beings make it exist. That idea appeals in that it addresses the idea that

 David Galston talks about as the Future of God being in Human hands.

Another comment Moltmann makes that speaks to this issue is as follows. I like it because it gives a clear place for love as a dynamic divine creativity that is anthropomorphically grounded. Moltmann says: “ the most exciting breakthoughs if the 21st Century will occur not because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human. Humanity will probably not be rescued by a deus ex machina either in the form of a literal Second Coming or by friendly spaceships. Though we will be guided by a revived spirituality, the answers will have to come from us. Apocalypse or Golden Age, The choice is ours” I like this because it suggests that the future in in the hands of human love, purely because is it always in the positive mode of human functions/ As that song goes, ‘Love Changes Everything’.

So when seeking the context we might hold in our minds when we think of love, what it is, what it does and how important it is in the future of human life. What is love in this world we find ourselves in? Why? Because without context love is destroyed because the data without context needs to return to the whole picture if it is to have human meaning beyond just idea.

The world is just a pile of dissonant bits of information when it is not put into the context of the whole big picture. The why questions are not asked without this return of the data to the big picture. Essentially the primary question is who are we, what is the we as a human being, what is the self we talk about so easily? And the hard part about this is being able to step outside oneself because when we do we find that there is something missing. Without stepping outside of our selves and wrestling with the importance of the other then Love and non-love are the same, caught in the battle between good and bad rather than applied in the whole. Love does not deal with the dichotomy of the general and the particular, the in and the out. Dr Ian McGilchrist calls this rationalization important but it should not be the dominant position, rather it is the resistance that makes available the opposite. About now I sense we are departing our focus on the theme of Love and becoming enamored with the whole.

So, what is this thing we talk of as love? One approach is to say that Love might be the strengths and virtues of being human such as Creativity, Curiosity, Open-mindedness, Love of Learning, Perspective, Bravery, Persistence, Integrity, Vitality, Kindness, Social Intelligence, Citizenship, Fairness, Leadership, Forgiveness, Humility, Prudence, Self-control, Appreciation, Gratitude, Hope, Humour and Spirituality. Another way of putting all tis into a context is in the following story.

Greg Manning could see from the terrace of his apartment that the jet had struck near the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald where his wife worked as a senior vice president and partner. For  the next half hour he paced frantically, stopping only to pound the wall and cry out her name. He was certain that his vibrant and beautiful Lauren was dead, but he was wrong. That morning she had lingered saying goodbye to their 10-month-old son, Tyler, and as a result arrived at the World Trade Centre a few moments later than usual. She had just entered the lobby of tower one when a fireball descending through an elevator shaft propelled her back into the street, totslly engulfed in flames. A bond salesman who witnessed this raced over, put out the fire that was consuming her, and remained at her side until an ambulance arrived. At the hospital, her face swollen beyond recognition, she told Greg the pain was so excruciating she had been praying to die but then out of love fore him and Tyler made the decision to fight for her life. Within a few minutes she slipped into a drug-induced coma that would last many weeks. Her parents came immediately from their home in Georgia to alternate bedside and babysitting duties with Greg. During his hospital shafts, Greg ignored Lauren’s unconscious state, reading poetry to her and playing her favourite CDs, all the while reassuring her that she was loved, that he would take care of her, that everything would be ok. During his home shifts he took Tyler to birthday parties and play dates, read and sang to him, and documented his development on videotape for Lauren’s future viewing. Remarkably, he also found time each day to send e-mail updates on her condition to friends and family. Saving Lauren meant replacing more than 80% of her skin, often multiple times. Some f the grafts used synthetic or donor skin, and from the outset were considered temporary, whereas others that were hoped to be permanent simply did not take. To compound the horror, part of her left ear was destroyed, and several fingers of her left hand required partial amputation. Although Greg would sob in the arms of friends, he never wavered in his devotion to Lauren or hos confidence that she would pull through. Exactly 3 months after admission to the hospital Lauren saw her new, scarred face for the first time. The predictable shock and sadness were tempered by the fact that her husband had prepared her through repeated reminders that she always had been and always would be his soul mate, and in his eyes was a beautiful as ever. Six months after that terrifying morning against the slimmest of odds, Greg Manning took his wife home. Those closest to the case agree that Lauren survived through a combination of grit and Love. Again, Love Changes things.

Our Gospel stories for today might be seen to be talking about Love but in this case the love that is rooted in loving one’s enemies, the challenge of love.

Two pregnant women meet.  Cousins, tradition tells us later. Two named pregnant women, with speaking parts, meet. Mary. Elizabeth. Like all the other stories told by Luke, and this one is no different, the teller has a ‘theological’ reason for the story: The first is to confirm the miracle promised by the angel, and the second, to establish the superiority of Jesus to John even before they are born. Most scholars also agree Luke is not telling a realistic story. While the trip itself is the first of two unrealistic trips to be undertaken by Mary while she is pregnant. Causing one female scholar to suggest: these stories could only have been told by a male! Yet this fictional story of this meeting of the two women has shaped Christian imagination and inspired Christian art through the centuries. Artistically, their meeting is often depicted “with these two women in a wordless embrace, sharing, like all mothers-to-be, the mystery of new life within themselves, and with a sense of mutual awe over what God has done.” (JDonahue. America web site, 2006).

On the other hand, perhaps the most famous artistic Mary presentation is in the great Pieta, where Mary as mother, is cradling the broken body of her son. (A love not unlike that of our earlier story perhaps)  People who are oppressed and cannot speak out because they’ll be imprisoned, or shot, or retribution will be made against their families, say they understand this Mary.

While for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our society, Mary “an unwed mother in an extremely traditional society.” (MBrown. ‘Out in scripture’ web site, 2009). understands what it feels like to carry the awful burden of ‘otherness’. But unlike many LGBT people, however, tradition suggests Mary does not see her otherness as a reason for despair.
“She sees through the identification, this stigma, and recognizes that God is working through her otherness to transform the social structures that dominate the world.”  (MBrown. ‘Out in scripture’ web site, 2009). A courageous, protesting love as a love that battles exclusion perhaps.

Perhaps the most contemporary artistic rendering of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth occurs in Michele Zackheim’s 1985 art work called The Tent of Meeting.

It is a 400 square meter art work in the form of a Bedouin style tent whose canvas walls are  covered with historic imagery from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Describing this work, the late professor of Christianity and the Arts, Doug Adams, said: “An appropriate surprise appears at the top… where the hand of God appears above the pregnant figures of Mary and Elizabeth meeting. The surprise is that we see God’s left hand instead of God’s right hand.”  (DAdams. PSR web site, 2003).

Adams explained: “Michele Zackheim has presented God’s left hand to include and affirm what has often been excluded or viewed negatively.  Traditionally, God’s right hand has been featured in art but not God’s left hand.  In social as well as religious rituals and stories, the right hand has been associated with the clean or the saved while the left hand has been associated with the dirty or the damned.  Such associations have been based on social customs arising from use of the left hand to wipe ones rear end in the days before toilet paper…” (DAdams. PSR web site, 2003)

In another comment Adams indicates that the artist’s intention is to say God reverses all our assumptions. Love Changes Things. God includes those whom we often exclude. And then this short but telling comment: “We need to develop eyes to see the unexpected in Advent.” (DAdams, PSR web site, 2003). Yet it is not the artistic depictions which have grabbed me so much this year. What has stayed with us perhaps is the way our storyteller has chosen to play
with a whole series of parallels or contrasts. We don’t hear them all in the Mary and Elizabeth story. But they are there when you read great slabs of Luke’s story. Such as these contrasting emphases:

• the play between light and darkness,

• the supernatural with the ordinary,

• the role of women – and that spirituality is not men’s business alone,

• the plight of the powerless rather than the position of the powerful,

• Jesus and John,

• and between Caesar’s empire and God’s empire.

All of these things come full front-stage this year. In the drama of the unexpected present-ness of Serendipitous Creativity ‘G-o-d’ introduced by the storyteller, they have leading roles. So… today is Advent 4, the last day in the Season of Advent. The season of preparation where we have been invited to ‘stay awake’ to the unexpected present-ness of Creativity ‘G-o-d’, in the ordinary human business of living, and specifically in the living out of love. The human divine act of loving. Why?
Because human business is holy business. Frequently a messy business. But holy business none-the-less. (WLoader web site, 2009).

There is no indication in Luke’s story that Mary should be seen as less than human or more than human, less than woman or more than woman. What she is, is ‘blessed… among women’. And that’s the provocative challenge and the promise of Advent. Engage meaningfully in life.
Love wastefully. Be all that we can be. Because Advent and the sacred are rooted in our everyday experiences of love. Amen.

Being in the World Differently

Posted: December 6, 2021 in Uncategorized

One of the questions asked of John and Jesus is did Jesus of Nazareth share a similar vision
of the expected ‘kingdom of God’ with that of John the Baptiser? A response might be yes because Jesus was baptised by John or yes because Jesus was a follower of John at least for a while? Generally speaking, we might ask, what was John’s vision or worldview? And tradition has it, that it was a vision shaped by the themes of personal crisis, judgment, and renewal, coupled with the belief of an imminent divine intervention. Sound familiar? And isn’t this thinking which seems to be in line with the tradition of Israel’s prophets, such as Zechariah, Daniel, but especially Elijah?

On the other side of this debate are those who claim that Jesus’ worldview was significantly different in that his view concentrated not on the future, whether near or distant, but rather on “God’s present but collaborative kingdom” here and now. This is the view of some eminent post- modern Scholars such as Dominic Crossan. It is also a view I think is sound in that it explains for me why the Jesus message is in many ways timeless as opposed to John’s which had a short shelf life.

Opinion continues to be divided however and sometimes even heatedly divided! The ‘orthodox’ view, taught in theological colleges and from most pulpits, is that the apocalyptic or ‘end times’ Jesus is the real Jesus.  Period. I prefer to think like Rex Hunt and many others that the apocalyptic Jesus is not the real Jesus. This is a real change in thinking too because people like Albert Schweitzer and Bart Ehrman would disagree. The question we are left with is “who was John the Baptiser?

From all that we know and do not know, scholars suggest John was a highly visible and influential Jewish folk hero “whose charismatic reputation almost certainly preceded and overshadowed the public career of Jesus.”(Smith 2002:109). He seems to have spent most of his youth living in the desert wilderness, along the Jordan River. He offered baptism as a cleansing from sin in that river location, which, according to Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan, “baptism and message went together as the only way to obtain forgiveness of one’s sins before [God’s] fire storm came.”(Crossan 1991:235).

Or, put another way, this radical preacher from a conservative priestly family, was very upfront by claiming in both word and deed, the temple’s costly monopoly on the forgiveness trade had come to an end. Storytellers and poets, both modern and biblical, have always presented him in colourful terms. And it is poet and theologian John Shea who captures this ‘colour’ well in his poem

The Man Who Was a Lamp’:

“John expected an axe to the root of the tree

and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.

He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan

and a fire and along came a singing seed scatterer.

He welcomed wrathful verdicts,

then found a bridegroom on the bench.” 

(Shea 1993:177).

So, rests my view as it seems we are left with two different worldviews. One rooted in fear and the struggle to reject it and the other rooted in love and the certain hope in spite of and in and through the struggle. In today’s theme of Joy, the difference is the alternative that releases one from all the bondage of mind body and soul and provides the opportunity to celebrate life in all its fullness and to love wastefully.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent. Advent comes before the celebration we call Christmas.
Indeed, Advent has become “a month-long dress rehearsal for Christmas.” (Gomes 2007:214). In traditional Christian language, Christmas is about the birth of a baby we call Jesus/Yeshua.

As historian Clement Miles observed more than 50 years ago: “The God of Christmas is no fear of ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished…” (Miles 1912/76:157).

As such Christmas even as an incarnational metaphor is the most human, and easily the most popular festival of the year, involving nearly all the population. And the baby is the most loveable! But much of the thought that eventually shaped Christianity did not come from the human Jesus. It came from Greek thinking centred on a divine Christ as defined by the emperor and various church councils. With all that we know today we are challenged to understand the message

So, what happens when the human Jesus meets Christianity? According to many of those who call themselves ‘progressive’— and they don’t mince their words—there is a crisis!  In a world that thinks differently. This is the crisis and not one of an irrelevant message; but rather one of an old interpretation in our age. This so-called crisis has identified several barriers that prevent an honest understanding of Jesus.  Barriers such as: fear, ignorance, and an idealistic simplicity that is more of a prison itself. Even popular images of Jesus perpetuate this crisis. He was a middle eastern human being. The gospels as inerrant and infallible have gone the way of certainty, truth and the concrete. All these are now products of perception and still as true as they ever were but in a different form. Being ejected is a self-serving church and clergy. The creation of secularism has changed the form of spirituality to be rooted in the social collective consciousness and Spirituality is no longer acceptable as self-indulgence.

Rex Hunt suggests two brief suggestions of what might be signposts in the human Jesus/divine Christ collision which the worldview of ‘John’ and ‘Jesus’ highlights. The first signpost is credibility. In the face of the current world this could be also said to be the offering of an authentic Jesus. David Galston says that “whatever conclusion one might come to about Jesus, “it must be a possible Jesus and not an incredible one.” Jesus was human like anyone. He was a homeland Jew not a Christian. And he never rejected his Jewish roots.

So a possible Jesus “is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.” (Galston 2012). And says Galson, “there is still some unresolved issues associated with all this.  That’s for sure’. “It is never possible to reach absolute conclusions about antiquity because the sources are fragmentary, varied, and come from a world no modern person has or ever can visit.” (Galston 2012). However! We can still be certain that whatever happened was possible, not incredible. “This simple foundation is the honesty involved in the search for the historical Jesus” (Galston 2012).

The second signpost is methodology. That is, what makes the best sense of the available data.

And those of you who have been engaging in progressive Christianity discussions and seminars and conferences, will know we use various ’tools’ in our search for the historical or human Jesus.
Tools such as Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, and Rhetorical Criticism. Such tools enable us to realise, for instance, that the gospel writers were a few generations removed from the human Jesus. They already inhabited a different cultural setting and worldview and we know the influence of subjectivity, time and perception. So put simply, an honest progressive methodology is: “check out things for yourself, make sure you interpret things correctly, and learn for yourself.  Instead of jumping to conclusions about a subject or about other people, first ensure you are reading the situation correctly.” (Galston 2012).

The message John and Jesus give us today is the challenge of attuning oneself to the question of this human or historical Jesus and that means developing a mature, critical mind that no longer employs the methodology of believing “the biblical narratives literally—narratives that… were not intended ‘literally’ in the first place.” (Galston 2012).

In spite of the defensive fear driven conservationist thinking that hides behind a supernatural, non critical mindset the question we must engage with is how might living in our contemporary situation be shaped by the story of Jesus of Nazareth. And again, David Galston’s comments are helpful, here: “Once this credible ‘authentic Jesus tradition’ is identified, the point will be to carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity.” (Galston 2012).

Carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement…
Or as another has said: “…go on the journey that Jesus charted rather than to worship the journey of Jesus.” (Wink 2000:177).

Let’s return to John for a bit to tease out his similarities to Jesus in terms of his human-ness also.

From what we can make out the human John is not pretty. He is not always reassuring.
His is a voice of challenge and protest. Yet it does seem John offered 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).

His great invention if you like, was to introduce “a new, inexpensive, generally available, divinely authorized rite of baptism effective for the remissions of sins” (Crossan 1991:231).

I want to return to our theme for today again and to do this I want to offer an excerpt I read in an article by Lara Freidenfelds who in reading of Elizabeth, mother of John, suggested we need to bring back our understanding of quickening in the story of childbirth. She argues that it would clarify the original depth and meaning in Elizabeth’s story, levels of meaning that were shared among scripture readers and listeners until the past century or so. When Luke says that John the Baptist “leaped for joy,” in the womb he was not signifying simple happiness. He intended to signify the joy of life itself. The Catholic Church eventually decided that the significance of John’s leaping was that John was cleansed of original sin. But says ‘Freidenfelds’, the miracle described in the text as understood in its original context goes even deeper.

Another reason to bring back our understanding of quickening she says is that it reminds modern readers of an important insight that was a truism in earlier times: Pregnancies are precarious in their early months. Before the modern understanding of embryology, people appreciated quickening as a medically significant indication of a successful pregnancy, and as a spiritually significant indication that it was time to experience oneself as pregnant with a baby and to expect the birth of a child. Today, we have the technology to detect conceptions less than two weeks after they take place. But of those conceptions, about 30 percent miscarry, mostly in the early months of pregnancy. From the point of modern embryology, quickening may be arbitrary, but from the perspective of a person experiencing pregnancy, it can make sense to look to quickening, rather than a positive home pregnancy test, for reassurance that a baby is on the way. And then, at quickening, we can remember Elizabeth, and joyfully appreciate the miracle that is new life. This has to be the root of a Joy to the World does it not.

That might seem the end of the story too, but there is in the story of baptism linked to this Joy of Christmas. For baptism we only need water. Any water.  Anywhere.  But… we note that the nature of this joy is linked to a desert location and a baptism in the Jordan, precisely the Jordan, and this Jordan had overtones… of political subversion.  …Desert and Jordan, prophet and crowds, were always a volatile mix calling for immediate preventive strikes.” (Crossan 1991:235).

Although the historian Josephus would have us believe both John and Jesus were put to death by a ‘reluctant’ civil authority we take the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, seriously,  and ask how might we capture the spirit of both his particular interpretation of John and by comparison, his take on Jesus?

In the case of John’sthinking: It will require a truly creative change or transformation, in both our thinking as well as in our doing.  And to hearing his voice as one of hope rather than fear.

In the case of Jesus’ thinking: While he originally accepted and even defended John’s vision
“of awaiting the apocalyptic God… as a repentant sinner.” (Crossan 1991: 237)that vision was deemed inadequate.

The significant difference and what I term as the reason for the Way of Jesus is that for Jesus his thinking changed from waiting for the kingdom to being in the kingdom. His message was not about the future but rather about the present. The call is not to be in a different world, but being
in this world differently.

So, here it is; living out the implications of the Jesus vision in our own time, with our own creativity, is still before us. It is still our challenge despite 2 000 years. And in terms of the theme for today, that of Joy. This joy is found in this life, living this life and not in that which might come.

I am like many progressives firmly of the belief that the old-religion story, shaped by the ‘divine’ Jesus or Christ, has lost its appeal or authority to shape present-day human lives. And that the thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness.

One thing’s for sure. The world in these early years of the twenty-first century, requires that we think differently about the questions of what it means to be Christian, about what Christianity is, and who decides. If we decide to order our lives in terms of the human Jesus it will be wewho do the deciding, and we who take, or fail to take, the steps to carry out that decision. Not some supernatural authority or extra-human power. And in the theme of today the Joy of the world is found in the quickening of humankind because that is how we know what is true. Amen.

Crossan, J. D. The Greatest Prayer. Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. New York: HarperOne, 2010.
—————- The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn: CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for the New Millennium. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Kindle Edition. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012.
Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007.
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.
Miles, C. A. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. New York: Dover Publications, 1912/76..
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracles All Year Long. New York: Crossroads, 1993.
Smith, M. H. “Israel’s Prodigal Son. Reflections on Re-imagining Jesus” in Hoover, R. W. ed., Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Wink, W. “The Son of Man. The Stone that Builders rejected” in The Jesus Seminar (ed) The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.