Archive for April, 2022

John 21: 1-19

‘Ambiguity Is the Dawning’ 

The story we have heard this morning is a story full of images and possibilities and there is a reasonable debate among scholars that this particular section of the book we call Gospel of John, is a later addition to the original collection. That somebody else added this section as a kind of epilogue. So it comes very late in our religious tradition and has lent itself to a whole series of speculative conclusions. Traditionally, the interpretations given to this section are often about the power and majesty of ‘Christ’ after the resurrection. And a call to discipleship – especially Peter’s leadership.

One traditional way of approaching this passage was to begin with the lake itself, the place where they were fishing. Lakes, in both fairy tales and sacred legends, are strange and symbolic places.  Because they are often deep and hold secrets that can’t be discerned from the surface, they are the residences of mystery. “In Jungian psychology, they often represent the unconscious, the realm of our dreams and fantasies. “There is something dreamlike about this scene…  Halfway between night and day, with the first hint of dawn spreading pencil-like along the horizon.  Patches of mist and fog rising from the water.  The gentle noise of waves slapping against the boat or dripping from the nets.  The deep sighs of the fishermen, whose muscles ache from the toil of the fruitless night. “And then the… stranger, standing on the shore and (calling) to them through the mist, telling them they will catch something if they will lower their nets on the other side of the boat…” (Killinger 1992, 30 Good Minutes web site).

John O’Donohue, the Irish theologian and poet, describes a morning experience like this: He writes: “Light is incredibly generous, but also gentle.  When you attend to the way dawn comes, you learn how light can coax the dark.  The first fingers of light appear on the horizon; ever so deftly and gradually, they pull the mantle of darkness away from the world.  Quietly, before you, is the mystery of a new dawn, the new day” (O’Donohue 1997:21.).

It is this idea of light from dark, hope from despair and good from bad that I want to play with again this morning. Dawn and dawning is about the arrival of light or the awareness of something new, or the possible from the impossible. Some time back I suggested that our purpose as human beings was to individuate God and Gods was to individuate us, in other words our task is to make real, to create and thus to co-create. At the root of this argument is the idea that the one-ness at the centre of it all is the intimate relationship we as humans have with God and God has with us, or as I now prefer to say the point at which we acknowledge God does not exist without us and that we do not exist without the insistence new name God. Today I want to have a go at something I have been struggling with in this intimacy with God. What are the differences if any and why do they exist?

One of the most interesting discussions going on today is the intersection of religion, politics, and culture and the subject can also be said to have the deepest and most wide-ranging impact on the world today. I want to explore again one of these conversations that are going on as a means of finding some clarity for myself and hopefully for you.    

Richard Kearney, is a Catholic Philosopher who wrote Anatheism: Returning to God After God takes a view that it is possible to retain a God after the loss of traditional theism (God as Supernatural or metaphysical being) and beyond the idea of atheism or there is no God or God is dead approach. He argues I think for a new kind of theism freed from the metaphysical God yet with many of the qualities of a theistic God. Catherine Keller the other member of this conversation was professor of constructive theology at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. She was a process theologian with wide-ranging theoretical interests, encompassing feminist theology, ecotheology, and poststructuralist and postcolonial theory.

I want to draw again on a conversation these two had about Richard’s book and specifically their discussion around the integration of disciplines; specifically Science and faith. Keller, in her highly original and influential theological works has sought to develop the relational potential of a theology of becoming. Her books reconfigure ancient symbols of divinity for the sake of a planetary conviviality—a life together, across vast webs of difference. Her book, Cloud of the Impossible (2014), explored the relation of mystical unknowing, material indeterminacy, and ontological interdependence. Keller’s work is claimed to be exemplary in combining theology and science. She apparently used the findings of quantum physics to move theology from a modernist, static view of the universe to one in which all things are interconnected. In this approach, science allows theology to speak once again with integrity about a mysterious cosmos, a world of relation, interdependence, or the “entanglement” of all things. Keller shares with Kearney a deeply sacramental view of life, an embodiment of God in the material that Keller finds in quantum physics and Kearney in sacramental poetics. Although they agree on most issues, Kearney challenges Keller to clarify her panentheism, for if God is in all things, and if nothing is outside of God, does not God then become responsible for evil?

It has been suggested that I am a socialist, politically at heart, and I was a bit challenged by that in that I don’t personally want to be labelled as either socialist or capitalist or any other sort of ist. Like Kearney I too would challenge the downplaying of human freedom and the uncompromising impervious nature of traditional approaches to divine love. I too have questions about the existence of actual evil acts, such as torture and rape, and find difficulty is assigning those to God. Its helpful here to remember that Kearney’s point is that evil is a deprivation of the good and Keller’s insists that “God has no boundaries outside of which begins the world, or even hell.” I prefer John D Caputo’s approach That claims that evil is irreparably ruined time, without the possibility of compensation and an excess of any event that is a disintegrating destabilisation and a diminished recontextualization. Wordy but if you follow it through evil is still not dependent upon a traditional interventionist God and rather within the insistence of a freely insistent Saredness.

Keller sees anatheism as operating on three main axis, each a kind of chiasmic or overlapping and inclusive interchange. First and most obviously, it oscillates between theism and atheism; second, it forms a crossover between Christianity and non-Christianity which includes, the Abrahamic faiths as well as Buddhism and Hinduism and thirdly it is that inclusive crossover between ethics and politics.

Kearney asks Keller the core question of darkness and light. He suggests that Keller invokes oxymora like “luminous darkness” in order to express the inextricable link between the knowable and the unknowable, the opaque and the diaphanous. And Kearney wonders how this particular chiasmus touches the question of the “dark side” of God. Is the dark side of the cloud always part of God? Is it always divine? Or is there a certain dark capacity for evil, which should not be included in the divine? But left outside or aside? In short, darkness as evil: what do we do with that?         

Keller responds by suggesting that there is a distinction between the dark as menace and destruction and the dark that frightens us because of our insecurity, fear, and vulnerability in the face of mystery and enigma. Kearney confirms that the evil he is concerned with is the evil act of Torture, holocaust, and rape.         

Keller suggests that the discussion on discernment that asks how we tell the difference between the stranger as, one, malicious psychopath and, the, unknowable other who is to be respected and hosted touches on this issue. She argues that as a process theologian it is almost a dogmatic assumption for her that God is not what makes what happens happen, but that it is we creatures who are actualizing the possible. Again seen in Caputo’s None existence but rather insistence. For Keller the evil in the world is not something that God is testing or teaching us with—willing or wanting or even “letting” happen. For here God does not stop evil nor for higher paternal reasons permits it. Evil, such as we know it, is a human activity. And here it gets a bit tricky. For Keller evil is a sort of available actualization. The possibility of evil may be understood, perhaps, as divinely inscribed—as a sort of pre-awareness of the unpredictable diversity and inevitale conflicts between creatures. An evolving world invites greater and greater ranges of complexity, and so, at the same time, of capacity for good—or evil. Therefor God may, rightly so, in Keller’s eyes, get the rap for our capacity for evil—not for any particular horror, but for the fact that there is evil in the world. She argues that if evil is not possible, then love is not possible either, except as performed by marionettes. In Keller’s world for the individual the darkness is of opacity, not evil; of an infinity of all things, indeed of each creature as a created god. But it must also remain in some sense ethically ambiguous because of the relationship with the collective, systemic level. In my view Caputo’s view authenticates the dualistic need for evil to authenticate love and vice versa but removes the need for God to be involved.         

Kearney in approaching this issue suggests that if God is love, and if “God is all he is able to be,” then surely this means: all that God is able to be is love, not non-love in other words, evil. Surely to be non-love would be precisely what God is not, what God is incapable of being. So if there is evil in the world it is our doing, something we do as creatures with freedom and choice. In this sense, Kearney is with the Augustinian view that evil is privatio boni, and that the Good is Love. Evil is not a possibility of God but only of humans. Evil is both a human possibility or actuality, but never a divine possibility or actuality.         

Keller concedes that while she understands the dilemma she still cannot help allowing for some ambiguity in God. For her Evil is not a possibility for God, but even the kindest of Gods can’t miss the possibility of evil entangled in advance in the good. The possibility, for example, that one’s affection will lead to disastrous consequences, or the possibility that followers of Jesus will launch crusades and inquisitions. God is the possibility of love that lures more love.

But this can engender anxiety, too, for as Whitehead’s “Eros of the universe”—a universe where “life feeds on life”—it takes the risks of creativity. Or provokes them. It is also the God of the nonhuman universe, where predation and suffering run through the fabric of biology. Which is not to say that suffering is God’s will for any creature, human or inhuman. But there is nonetheless an element of risk, insofar as divinity signifies the very complicatio of our complicated universe, which includes both the deeply nurturing and the deeply painful.

The greater our decision-making capacity—and our chance to wreak havoc—the greater also the potential for embodying. There is, in the process picture says Keller that erotic side of love: divine desire calling forth all kinds of possible’s. And then there is the agapeic love, which picks up the pieces, so to speak.

Kearney agrees that Eros is as central to the divine posse as agape. But he would not want to put Eros on the side of evil—even the risk of evil—if that is said to be an intrinsic dimension of the divine. Which does not mean he wants dualism, He does not want God as transcendent Good out there in some pure metaphysical realm of light with us humans here in some fallen world of darkness. Kearney agrees with Keller’s radical challenge of this whole transcendence versus immanence dichotomy, and he speaks frequently in Anatheism of transcendence in immanence, God in the world. He would want to complicate any kind of metaphysical dualism between divine light and human darkness by saying that the divine–human chiasmus is both in the cosmos (as “chaosmos”) and in each one of us creatures. The coincidence of opposites is in every relationship.

And here he rejoins Keller’s bracing notion of distributive difference—God is everywhere and in all things. Or, as Gerald Manley Hopkins puts it, “Christ plays in ten thousand places … To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Kearney believes like Keller that the divine is potentially incarnate in all things, explicating, implicating, complicating, duplicating, multiplicating all over the place, in everyone and everything. But, in saying this, Kearney would still want to hold that the divine that dwells in the human, finite, immanent world is nonetheless always love and not non-love. Otherwise, there is no difference at all.

So, while Kearney agrees that every creature is an ambivalent mix of human and divine, he still wants to endorse the hermeneutic task of disambiguating certain situations into (a) love that brings life and (b) non-love that brings cruelty, violence, and destruction. Kearney suggests that Pain, death, and suffering are a very different matter, which can have both good and evil potentials. In other words, he cannot accept that what he calls God, is both good and evil, love and non-love. God, for him, is always good—both actually and potentially. And so, while he agrees totally with Keller’s deconstructive push against the tyranny of certainty be it epistemological certainty or moral certainty and acknowledges the ambivalence of all relations, he still wants to retain the capacity of “discerning between spirits,” of being able to distinguish between loving) and non-loving in a dramatic test case like the holocaust.         

While this topic can go on for much longer I want to round it off today by saying that the question of evil is and always will be ambiguous because that is its nature. And I leave you with a comment about hospitality from Richard Kearney. He says that when we open the door we cannot make a distinction between a psychopath and a messiah who might enter. Much as we would like it to be otherwise, it is often an incredibly difficult call.

There is a story of Dorothy Day saying that when she opened the door to someone at midnight in one of her downtown hospitality houses, she was often unsure whether it was Jesus or Jack the Ripper asking to get in. Or both! So is the ambiguity of such things. If it means God, as Absolute Other, is potentially in all things, he agrees. But if it means that God is actually in all things (including torture and rape), and that there is no difference at all between the divine other (as bringer of life and love) and any kind of other (as torturer, rapist, etcetera), he gives pause. All “others” are not the same.

Which is not to say that, in theological terms, he opposes the idea of universal salvation, going back to Origen. Even Himmler and Hitler may be saved—to take extreme examples—but only as complex agents, insofar as there may be some glint of light mixed up in their appalling darkness. Maybe. Difficult as it is to imagine. But he would never go so far as to say that their evil acts are part of some secret plan of salvation. Here he remains utterly opposed to theodicy of any kind. And  agrees, rather, with Arendt’s Augustinian option to separate the agent from the act. Namely, we can forgive agents (releasing them into the possibility of an alternative future, but we can never forgive their evil acts. So if, at the limit, he might admit that there is no human agent that is irredeemable, he would have to insist that there are certain irredeemable acts. Every act is not divine.         

Keller concedes Of course: But no act is simply divine. Divine action happens in synergy with the creativity of creatures. Every act might be an invitation to the divine, every relationship might invite us to love—as in the hard (almost impossible) imperative to love the enemy—but this does not mean we let the enemy kill our children. It might actually involve killing the enemy, because of deep apophatic entanglements and ambiguities in intensified encounters where we have both love and enmity; unless it passes over into indifference, which is another matter. Original sin means that to love is also to be mixed up in a chaos that involves hostility, pain, and darkness. We are all mixed up and mixed up in all. And at some time, the love of the enemy suggests that the infinite is here, as non fini, nonfinished redemption. There is always work to be done. So she thinks we too, can be quite Augustinian here and say God is the love that is there, but it can be deformed into hideousness by us—into a misguided love of power and possession. Loving the enemy requires some sense of the divine love being actually everywhere, albeit hideously actualized at times.         

What this suggests to me is that we need to be alert for the arrival of evil as it comes in many guises. It also says that even the best minds are engaged continually in interpretation; and that understanding and truth is a dynamic changing thing. It also says that ambiguity, serendipity, and mystery are of life as we know it.

The debatable story about the risen Jesus appearing to the hapless fishermen has him saying “Try your nets on the other side,” and their world changed. Amen.

Afraid of What?

Posted: April 19, 2022 in Uncategorized

Afraid of What?

The story says it is the evening of the first day of the week, Sunday, and the doors of the room are closed. Locked. Anxious and fearful disciples are shut tightly inside. The suspicious world which in this case is the very people Jesus is challenging within his own religious faith are shut out with the door shut tightly against them. Then, all of a sudden, defying locked doors and locked hearts, a dead faith is re-created. A dead hope is born again. We are left with the question; what were they afraid of? Was it being caught by the religious authorities’ as dissidents, as rebels against the faith? As people of political threat? Or was it because they were afraid of being left without any faith, having chosen to walk the Jesus Way and now being faced with having to explain a faith they were still novices of.

Were they afraid of death as a life without certainty? Without their leader? Perhaps they are afraid of having to feel about like a blind man trying to find a certain faith that runs deeper than any doctrinal belief when they know deep down that such a faith is impossible to find. There is no room for doubt in this search otherwise it becomes pointless. Certainty says that if you can’t find it there is something wrong and someone must be getting it wrong. Doubt says that there must be another way of looking at this. It is less about being wrong and more about being unaware of other possibilities. Doubt says there is another truth here. Doubt says that we stand in the truth when we stand exposed to something else, open to what we cannot see coming, putting ourselves in question and making ready for something for which we cannot be ready. Sounds a bit like being afraid of life to me as life is like that. We never know what is around the corner, and we can never fully anticipate what it is that is coming. Ife is serendipitous, unexpected and ‘Almost”. It may not exist but it seems to insist. It is not yet but it surely will.

This week we continue to journey into the season of Easter. And all we have of what is called the ‘resurrection’, are the stories. There is no logical, scientific proof of a ‘bodily’ resurrection yet there is an insistence that it is embodied. There is no videotape of an empty tomb. No seismograph of an Easter earthquake. Just the stories. Faith or trust in the future is not to be an avoidance of reality, it is rather the response to it, engagement with it and a living of it that is required, the embodiment of it if you will. While Jesus’ death mattered to all those early storytellers, his life mattered more. So they spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And to be embraced by life, not scared of it. Today’s biblical story from John, probably written towards the end of the 1st century, and certainly well after both Mark and Matthew, but maybe not Luke’s second book, Acts (the ‘date’ debate continues), presents us with a post-resurrection ‘appearance’ of Jesus.

And much of the interpretation around this story by John has been to do with a bloke called Thomas—sometimes called ‘doubting’ Thomas. Here John says Thomas does not understand. But in the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas is the hero, while the other disciples “play the role of buffoons” (Scott 2010:195).

This suggests that we might take a break here and put aside the idea that Thomas is the example of what a follower of Jesus should be like, and that doubt is an unhelpful response especially if it is about not believing and we might remember that there is no word meaning ‘doubt’ in the story. And that ‘doubt’ is not the opposite of ‘belief’ and we might also remember that the ‘doubt’ translation panders to a much later tradition.

Val Webb in her book, In Defence of Doubt, writes: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith or belief.  The opposite of ‘faith’ is to be without the experience of ‘faith’; the opposite of ‘belief’ is ‘unbelief’… Doubts appear in religion… where there is a difference between what we are told to believe-taught as ‘truth’-and what we experience or intuit.  Doubts occur when the belief system does not line up with our experience” (Webb 1995:4). Brandon Scott suggests also that; “John’s sense is more ‘Be not faithless, but faithful’” (Scott 2010:196). So instead of swallowing all the traditional stuff about Easter, we need to try and understand the mind of the storyteller, John, and why only he tells this story.

First, John claims, that our understanding and experience of God- has been forever changed, “by the sheer force of Jesus’ being” (Wink 1994. Look Smart web site). Second, the experience called ‘resurrection’ did not happen in the temple or church, but in the world, away from religious authorities. And we remember that it was resurrection of all not the individual. Third, our storyteller seems to be making it fairly clear that faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a so-called ‘personal miracle’ (Jenks FFF web site, 2007). And fourth, something happened to the disciples. “What mattered was that his life continued through them, and through them his mission was advanced.  The disciples extended the domination-free order of God that Jesus had inaugurated” (Wink 1994).

In support of these four suggestions is the important witness and work of the ‘Q’ Collection. The ‘Q’ Collection (from the German ‘Quelle’ meaning ‘source’) is a very early collection of ‘sayings’ of Jesus, used in common by Matthew and Luke. Spong has questioned the existence of Q as a separate collection but what is important is that the collection does have certain things said to be important about being a follower of Jesus. “…the focus of these sayings was not on the person of Jesus or his life and destiny.  They were rather, engrossed with the social program that was called for by his teachings.  Again this brings in the collective resurrection, the systemic power and the power of empire-ism.

Thus their book or collection was not a gospel of the Christian kind, namely a narrative of the life of Jesus as the Christ.  Rather it was a gospel of Jesus’ sayings, a ‘sayings gospel’” (Mack 1993: 1). Or if you like: they lived with Jesus’ teachings ringing in their ears (Mack 1993:1) Then their ‘voice’ was lost.  This is crucial to grasp. That the focus of the Q sayings was not on Jesus as the Christ, but on his mission, his sayings, his doing. It was the church that made the mythical ‘Christ’, the second person of the Trinity, rather than Jesus’ teachings, and the message. This was largely an abandoning of the human Jesus. The gospel writers to a certain extent, but especially the early Church Councils, took the imperial garments of Caesar “and inadvertently, if not intentionally, slipped them over Jesus” (Galston 2012:14). So instead of a wandering peasant wisdom teacher who spoke street-language, what we have is the person and language of Caesar Augustus: Almighty Lord, Saviour of the World, Son of God, King. Christianity ended up with Jesus Caesar, and in need of a demotion!

Jesus’ death mattered to those early storytellers, that is true. But his life mattered more. So they spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And to be embraced by life, not scared of it. “The resurrection is not a fact to be believed”, suggests Walter Wink, “but an experience to be shared… [It] is not a contract for a time-share apartment in heaven.  It is the spirit of Jesus present in people who continue his struggle against domination in all its forms, here, now, on this good earth” (Wink 1994).

John tells us a story of anxious and fearful disciples, shut tightly inside. The suspicious world is shut tightly outside. And we continue to wonder: Are Jesus’ followers afraid of death or terrified of life? We could argue that death is certain and thus without question or doubt whereas life is filled with ambiguity, serendipity and the unknowability. So, Whatever conclusion one might come to about Jesus, that conclusion must offer a possible Jesus and not an incredible one.

Rex Hunt suggests something to ponder about this. He says that (a) The resurrection stories, begun with the story of when the stone is removed from the tomb, are not complete until they are echoed and re-echoed in the lives of everyday people, today (Nancarrow. P&F web site, 2007).

Living in community is about practicing; practicing belonging, hospitality, respect, humility, conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004). Like truth living in community is not a state of being, it is a dynamic in which relatively stable structures are always de-stabilized by a series of shocks. Like truth, community is always becoming and it is becoming something that it will never achieve. Doubt maintains the dynamic and truth manages the transitions toward knowing more.

He also says (b) that the point of ‘wisdom’ is lifestyle, not veneration. Wisdom is a lifestyle consistent with a vision of the world, this world, as it could be in the present, rather than the future. “The trouble with resurrection”, writes Brandon Scott, “is that we have literalized it, narrowed and constricted it, turned it into a creedal belief and in the process have forfeited its great claim and hope” (Scott 2010:243).

Rex Hunt also suggests that the call for us is tocheck out things for ourselves. Make sure we interpret things correctly, and learn for ourselves. After all the study and all the talk such study usually invokes, we might ask ‘how might living in our contemporary situation be shaped?  Canadian David Galston’s comments are helpful here also. He says; “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 2012:53).

What does this credible, authentic Jesus Tradition look like? It looks like truthfulness in action. It is not about doctrine, creed and unassailable words. It is about Style, spirit and the implications of Jesus teaching. Truth is more about truthfulness than any fact, proposition and concreteness can attest to. Nietzsche said that truth is truth-telling, being true, being trustworthy and doing truth. We might say ‘walking the Jesus Way’ or following Jesus is about being aware of the destructive fiction that lurks in the name of truth. Nothing is certain thus the task of certainty is to hide the reality of what it means to be fully human. Truthfulness is the Jesus Way and it demands that we take life on its own terms in other words honour the wonderful rich and challenging mind, live the questions as though life depends on the next question and explore the adventure of humanity truthfully, accepting its limitations and its responsibilities and pushing the boundaries of its imagination, reveling in its lovemaking. Amen.


Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to See God: Prayer and Practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in R. W. Hoover. (ed). The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.

Galston, D. 2012. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press.

Mack, B. 1993. The Lost Gospel. The Book of Q and Christian Origins. New York: HarperCollins.

Scott, B. B. 2010. The Trouble with Resurrection. From Paul to the Fourth Gospel. Salem: Polebridge Perss.

Webb, V. 1995. In Defence of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St. Louis: Chalice Press.

Caputo John D Truth Philosophy in Transit Penguin Books

Resurrection and Healing

Posted: April 13, 2022 in Uncategorized

Luke 24:1-12

Resurrection and Healing

Easter Day – today – is regarded as the most important day in the liturgical life of the church. Theologically speaking, Christmas which in my view is more important, doesn’t hold a candle to Easter. “Easter Day is the day in which we celebrate the mystery of resurrection. Notice that.  I said ‘mystery’ of resurrection, not the ‘fact’ of resurrection” (JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog, 2007).

Three years ago I preached this sermon, of which this is a derivative and I recalled some reading of the world views of millennials and people of the future. I also suggested that we modern folks prefer facts. We as things like ‘did this happen? Did this not happen? What are the facts? But as the reading has pointed out, correctly I think, the problem with religious symbols such as resurrection is, they are not fact-friendly. This is not to say that facts are not important but rather that they do not always lead to understanding meaning. There seems to be a need for something more than literalism and facts when one is searching for meaning. Sadly also the church has let us down in that it has been caught up in the need to banish mystery and it has in many cases opted for supernaturalism as a means of explaining the mystery. But what if there is another way?

This day, as part of the ‘mystery’ of resurrection is the day we metaphorically celebrate life over death. This day we also celebrate the moments of life that make up the span of our lives. This day we celebrate changed possibilities. The serendipitous moments, the creative moments. And we give thanks for the Spirit of Life visible in Jesus, visible in each one of us, visible in people in all walks of life… As we celebrate, we also acknowledge that all we have, are the stories, shaped and reshaped and told orally, by people of faith from generation to generation. No logical, scientific proof of a ‘bodily’ resurrection. No videotape of an empty tomb. No seismograph of an Easter earthquake.  Just the stories. But significant stories of life, hope, promise and revelation.

The stories tell us that in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs. That in the midst of darkness, a light shines. That in the midst of death, life is breaking forth. That when all seems gone, hope springs eternal. We are convinced that, Jesus’ death mattered to all those early storytellers. But only because his life mattered more. So, they spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And to be embraced by life, not scared of it. This is the invitation to us all today. The ‘resurrection’ invitation today is similar: be embraced by life, not scared of it? Then there is this suggestion that talks about what this might look like. These stories have a touch of humour.

David Henson writes: “[Jesus] is no longer doing miracles for the masses. He’s no longer directly confronting the Powers that Be. He’s no longer teaching in synagogues, or leading a movement, or marching on Jerusalem. He’s just doing a few simple things, slowly: gardening, walking, eating, laundry, and cooking.

“The first thing he does is to fold up the shroud neatly and to take care with his linen grave clothes… And then, in the final verses of the final chapter in [John’s] gospel we realize that Jesus, for all his talk of feeding, for all his multiplication of loaves and fish, for all the times he feasted with sinners, tax collectors, and Pharisees, has apparently never cooked a meal of his own, at least not one worth remembering, until he’s resurrected. Do you think Mary Magdalene might have been there with him, in this patriarchal world he lived in? If she was perhaps that explains his resurrection?

“Meals feature so heavily throughout the gospels. Jesus presided over many feasts and meals. But he apparently didn’t take the time to cook them himself. He certainly took the time to criticize those like Martha who did spend so much time cooking, but we never see him actually cooking a meal in the gospels.

“But here, the last thing Jesus does on earth is cook a meal, his first recorded one, and then he commands Peter to feed his sheep. In the resurrection, it seems, Jesus institutes the sacrament of housework and everyday chores”.  ( Sounds a bit like fining the gospel in the everyday to me?

It is good to be reminded of these very human activities. Especially in the midst of so much super-natural stuff! So, says Rex Hunt, “let me offer some other suggestions (religious sounding perhaps) you might like to ponder sometime:”

• How do we care for each other interpersonally in ways which do not suffocate and oppress? Easter Day everyday perhaps?

• How is the well-being of our neighbour pursued in the complex problem of global hunger and international war? Easter Day everywhere perhaps?

• How are communities developed positively around respect and care for each person, rather than around a common enemy? Easter Day in everything perhaps?

• How are the systemic causes of non-love eliminated? All human issues to be viewed in the light of the resurrection stories… Easter Day as awareness provoking perhaps?

Bishop John Shelby Spong has offered a comment which is also worth pondering:

• Loving God… means that people do not treat the legitimacy of their own spiritual path as a sign that every other spiritual path is somehow illegitimate.

• Loving your neighbour… means treating all people – regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, nationality, ethnicity or economic class – as holy, as having been made in God’s image.

• Loving ourselves… means basing our lives on the faith that in Jesus as the Christ all things are made new and all people are loved by God (Spong Newsletter, 23/3/06).

All of the above has implications for us here in NZ with the horrific execution of people of faith in Christchurch. How do we be a Jesus follower in the light of what has taken place? And also with the recent horrific evil of warfare in the Ukraine. How do we as walkers of the Jesus Way respond?

To live with these questions and their implications coursing in our veins, is to live in the spirit of the sage we call Jesus, it is to embrace life, not be scared of it. Because ‘resurrection’ can and does happen every day!  Love says so, Love demands it, Love resources it.

Peter Rollins, author of The Orthodox Heretic, puts it another way. He has this to say about ‘the’ resurrection: “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ…  I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.  However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are.  I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed” (Rollins 2009).

According to Irish-born Rollins, you can believe all the things you want. You can even be as religious as the Pope (Francis i) or your favourite TV evangelist. But unless you can “cry for those who have no more tears left to shed”, the resurrection means little to nothing.  Amen.

Rollins, P. 2009.  The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. Orleans. Paraclete Press

Posted: April 4, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Which Procession?’

Our title is where Palm Sunday begins and ends. The hermeneutic concern or the message for us is clearly ‘which procession are we in?’ Is it one of empire or one of sacred realm? Is it blind faith in the faith of the systems of power and control or is it a n alternative approach? Which procession will we choose? The one of power, control, correctness, and certainty or one of humility, ambiguity, mystery and novel? One of rights and regulation or one of love and grace and inclusion? Is it blind acceptance of a system of adversarial reality or one of hopeful peace? Is it Roman theology that God favours the mighty or one where God is within the fragile, the weak and the poor? Which procession do we choose?

We perhaps need to acknowledge here that the conflict that brought about the crucifixion of Jesus was not a conflict between Jews, Christian Jews and other Jews, nor was it a conflict between Jesus and Judaism, Jesus was a devout Jew and this conflict was a conflict between Jesus and a dominant system that was in conflict with what the dream of God was and could be. It is an alternative social political and military governed world hidden behind the need to protect the populace from the minority by means of power over and control of. Jesus claimed that there was another way and it was so plausible that he was executed by those who would lose the most.

It takes place at the beginning of the most sacred week in the Jewish calendar, the week of Passover and it is the event of two processions, one peasant and one imperial, Both processions about the understanding of the kingdom of God but one a God of the poor, of compassion and love and one a kingdom of power over, control of and empire. These two processions do more than demonstrate the difference, they embody it. Last week I shared David Galston’s take on the war in Ukraine. His view is that Putin has erred in that he has been seduced by the power of empire and he wants to recreate it whereas the Ukraine is similar to the middle east and there is no historically justifyable nationhood. Its history has always been a melting pot of difference and never been a nation controllable by an empirical order.

Another significant thing to note is the place of Jerusalem in this conflict. It begins with the fact that on almost every occasion of a Jewish festival, Roman imperialism was present and participated, not out of reverence for Judaism but as a threat of imposition. Make trouble and we will crush you. We are in control here. Why was this important? Well it was important because Passover was a festival that Celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire. An anathema to those who depended upon empirical power.

The Roman garrison was permanently stationed overlooking the Jewish Temple and its courts and it was seen as a chore to be stationed there. He mission there was a no win situation because of its resistance to empire-ism. So much so that it was always a stationing that needed adding to at festival times. Pilate and the main cohorts were stationed at Caearea on the Sea, a far better stationing some sixty miles to the West. It was a new and splendid city and far more pleasant that Jerusalem which had become insular, provincial and partisan and often hostile. It was somewhat of a chore to go to Jerusalem and this inevitably led to the imperial nature being flaunted with a very visual panoply of power, cavalry with war horses, soldiers, armour, weapons along with banners and eagles mounted on poles glinting in the sun. One can imagine the sounds of leather, clinking of bridles and the beating of drums all in the face of people with dust swirling around their eyes some awed by the spectacle of power and others resentful of the assumed power. Many silenced by the show of power.

But let’s also be clear here. This was not only a display of imperial power. It was also a show of imperial theology. The emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome but the Son of God. This idea had begun in 31BCE, 0nly 60 years before this day with Augustus whose Father was the god Apollo and Augustus was the saviour, the one who had brought peace on earth. The continuance of this was that he was seen ascending into heaven to take his permanent place among the gods. His successors continued to bear divine titles including Tiberius who was emperor during Jesus time. Palm Sunday then is a political, military and theological confrontation of epic proportion for a small portion of the Roman Empire. However small it was in the scheme of world domination by Rome it was not only a time of rival social order but also a rival theology.

We note here that the gospels differ a bit. Mark tells it as a prearranged ‘counter-procession’ and Jesus planned it in advance. The colt story makes this look like a planned political demonstration and this is reinforced with the link to Zechariah story where the king riding a donkey will banish war from the land, The king will be a king of peace. Implicit almost is the importance of Jerusalem as the place of the sacred temple. We remember here that Jerusalem has been central to the sacred imagination for a millennium. It is the City of God like Rome in the time of Augustin and it was the faithless city, a city of hope and a city of oppression, a city of joy and a city of pain. Sounds familiar does it not? It began its journey around 1000bce when under David all twelve tribes were under one king. We recall also that under David Jerusalem was not only a time of power and glory but also of justice and righteousness. He was associated with goodness, power, protection and justice. This is why the hoped-for deliverer was expected to be the Son of David, a new David indeed a greater David.

We remember here also that Jerusalem was not new to the domination matrix. In the half century after David Jerusalem become the center of a domination system, in this case the organization of a society marked by three features. By Political oppression, the many ruled by the few, the powerful and wealthy elites. Ordinary people had no voice in the shaping of society. By economic exploitation where the greatest percentage of a society’s wealth came from agricultural production, in this case in a preindustrial society where the wealth went to the Roman economy to feed R0me and the elites within Palestinian society in support of that. The gospel’s highlighting of tax collectors and collaborators indicated their influence within the society structures of ownership and commerce. The third aspect was the religious legitimation. These systems were legitimated or justified with religious language. The king or emperor ruled by divine right, the king or emperor was the Son of God the social order reflected the will of God and the powers that be were ordained by God. Of course, religion can also become the source of protests against these claims but in most cases, religion has been used to legitimate the place of the wealthy and powerful in the social order over which they preside.

We remind ourselves about now that none of this is unusual. Most human civilizations operate this way in the case of a non-religious society it is the way things are and the religious society is one where God has set it as that way. Again the empirical power of fear becomes the mainstay of religious thought and practice, believe or die, abbey the call or be the lost sheep. For our story then of Jesus’ last week Jerusalem it is a very significant setting that had come about through the centralization and the building of the single Southern Kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem at its core. We are also aware of its persistence in that for several centuries Jerusalem had been ruled by foreign empires and under them Jerusalem was the center of local government falling in 63BCE under the control of Rome. Here the significant change was that Rome abolished the Jewish monarchy and installed the high priest, in other words the temple as the primary place of collaboration. The Palm Sunday story is a challenge to this systemic power. The primary qualification for inclusion was wealth. Rome trusted the wealthy families as local collaborators with a free hand except for the collecting and paying of the annual tribute owed to Rome.

Of course, we can guess how this went as we are aware of what greed and power over, do, to us and so we hear of Herod executing his own class in the interests of power and control. His goal was to centralize power and control and he made Jerusalem the most magnificent in the Roman Empire. The trouble was that when he too overstepped the mark and spent too much money, he was forced to put pressure on his own sources losing their support to the point that when he died revolts erupted throughout the kingdom. Again, this meant a change for the Temple as Rome having burnt its bridges with local politicians e.g. Herod, it transferred control to the temple. It was of course very likely that the elite families created by Herod had provided the Priests and so the domination system continued this time under the umbrella of the Temple. Here the economics of society became intertwined with the economics of religion and local taxes became tithes paid to the priesthood amounting to over 20% of production. Another plus was the festivals when the 40 thousand Jerusalem inhabitants would become hundreds of thousands during festivals. All this meant that the temple authorities had a balancing act on their hands. How to make sure the annual tribute to Rome was paid while maintaining the domestic peace and order. Rome did not want rebellions. It was better that one man die than the whole nation be destroyed.

This was the Jerusalem that Jesus entered on Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and its role in the domination system. Alongside this is the Essenes who rejected the legitimacy of the present temple and priesthood and who looked forward to the day when they would be restored to power. Here we have the environment for the 66CE revolt that was directed as much against the temple collaborators as it was against Rome itself.

Again, this is the Jerusalem that the two processions enter into on Palm Sunday. The City of God is in trouble and we know it did not survive the first century. One of those processions was about the empire of Rome and the other was about the empire of God.

Borg and Crossan write: “Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city.  Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that rules the world.  Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the [empire] of God…  The confrontation between these two kingdoms [or empires] continues through the last week of Jesus’ life” (Borg & Crossan 2006:4-5).

Well, all that is about way back then.  What about now? What can we resonate with in 2022? There continues to be two visions of how we are to be human, religiously politically and socially. However the reality is that the current generation is a now generation with no interest in what was and no energy for what might be. They understand change and they now that it is beyond current systems of order and hope.  I asked an eighteen year-old what he saw as hopeful in his world and his response was I don’t know I just get on doing the now. Sometimes the vision from both the empire and the church seem very similar. As in the prosperity theology of such places as Destiny Church and the like.- the mega-church models that we hear have got it right and from such people as those of the “hysterically religious” (Spong 2007:9), such as those who preach a violent God. They say that “Some day we may blow ourselves up with the bombs… But God’s going to be in control… If God chooses to use nuclear war, then who are we to argue with that” (Jones, Quoted in Crossan 2007:199).

Sometimes the church has just got it wrong about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, which has resulted in a racist theology and overt racism. Sometimes the church has got it wrong socially and Priests and powerful religious exploit the vulnerable and the gentle. Sometmes churches get it wrong and become overwhelmed by economic greed and wealth. Again the downside of empire-ism. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was not against Judaism, not against the Temple as such, not against the priesthood or Temple leaders. It was, suggests biblical scholar Dom Crossan, a protest by one within Jewish society “against Jewish religious co-operation with Roman imperial control” (Crossan 2007:132).

And there have been many within the Global society who have protested against imperial control which has led nations to detain refugees in prison-like conditions. To wage war on countries through the spectacles of terrorism, but really through the hip pocket of ‘oil’ 
and to abandon citizens overseas, for political expediency. Most times the church has misunderstood Jesus’ journey, calling it ‘the triumphal entry into Jerusalem’. It was not triumphal.  Actually it was an anti-triumphal entry in its core expression. It was metaphorical. But regardless, sections of the church decide to take to the city streets to ‘march… demonstrating the power of Easter’ in gatherings of piety and triumphalism! But… and you will probably suggest I often have a ‘but’. But this is all very serious. 

I want to finish with a flourish by asking what if there is just a touch of humour in all this. Jesus’ stories – we call them parables – often had a humorous side to them. So, what if his particular  ‘Palm Sunday’ procession also had a touch of humour to it? Was the peasant procession taking the mickey’ out of the other, pompous procession? Maybe the emperor is not wearing any clothes after all!

What if Palm Sunday, if it is anything, draws us into the reality of this world. It is an invitation to continue to view the world differently. Barbara Brown Taylor in an article in The Christian Century, wrote: “When I listen to the most devoted followers of Jesus, they tell me what it costs to love unconditionally, to forgive 70-times-seven, to offer hospitality to strangers, and to show compassion for the poor.  These are essential hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry, which no followers of his can ignore…  What I hear less about from Jesus’ followers is what it costs to oppose the traditions of the elders, to upset pious expectations of what a child of God should say or do, to subvert religious certainty, and to make people responsible for their own lives. Yet all of these are present in his example too” (Taylor 2007). And, sometimes that can take some real doing! Amen.

Borg, M; J. D. Crossan. 2006. The Last Week: A day-by-day account of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Cox, H. 1969. The Feast of Fools. A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.
Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Patterson, S. J. 2004. Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Spong, J. S. 2007. Jesus for the Non-religious. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Taylor, B. B. 2007. “Something about Jesus” in The Christian Century, 3 April. Web site.