A Mixed Legacy

Posted: May 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

Easter 4A, 2017 John 10:1-10

A Mixed Legacy

The ‘good shepherd’, as we have been taught for generations, beginning with Sunday school, is one of the so-called foundational metaphors for Jesus in Christian imagination. And words like ‘pastoral care’ and ‘pastor’, get their meaning from the image of Jesus as a kind and caring ‘shepherd’ or ‘leader’ of the flock. The truth is however that we make lots of assumptions about what we mean when we use the word pastoral. I was at a church meeting up north last week when they were planning some teaching workshops and someone suggested that they should do a workshop on ‘Pastoral care’ the broad assumption being that what the that person believed was pastoral care was universally understood but the next question was, “what sort of pastoral care would be taught? Was it listening skills because good listening is essential for pastoral care”. “Yes, it is, but it needs to change things in the community, after all its about justice and peace; it’s about changing the lives of people”. Pastoral care is about foodbanks, budget advice, support groups etc etc. Suddenly in that meeting the idea of a workshop on pastoral care lost its way, it would be left for the facilitator to decide what pastoral care was and what they thought the church needed.

Pastoral care would be left to the shepherd to decide what it was and what was needed and the question was did the image of shepherd and sheep have the same impact that it did for those who first engaged with it?

In the past, many of our traditional liturgies of ordination and induction have played with this image.  Up until a few years ago the use of the 23rd psalm in funerals maintained this image as one of value and it seemed a foregone conclusion that when stories about a mix that has sheep, shepherds and Jesus, in them, they would very readily appear in the Lectionary. Another perhaps influence on this is the fact that for much of NZ history sheep and shepherds have been a mainstay in our economics as a nation. Not so much today as dairy seems to have taken over much to the detriment of our water it seems. Of course, the image of shepherds in Jesus time is very different from the image in ours especially in their functions. Protection of the animals may be the same but from what and how is vastly different. I suspect that the image of sheep and shepherds is less often used today because of these cultural shifts even if the lectionary still persists to include it and today is a good example as today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call John reminds us.

John has Jesus describing a scenario concerning raising sheep in 1st century Palestine. After carefully defining the characteristics which make for a ‘good’ or honourable shepherd in a sometimes hostile world, John takes this scenario and has Jesus applying it to himself and his ministry. So began a new legacy or model of leadership or shepherding. Question? Is it time for a new model of leadership, in fact has a new model already arrived and what is it?

One of the sad things that history reminds us of is that we can get stuck with images like the pastoral one and fall behind in our engagement with life’s evolutionary reality. When pastoral settings become fenced, when shepherds work from behind the sheep instead of in front of them, when dogs are used, the model of leadership changes. I am also aware that in the church the environment, the culture changes all require new models of leadership.

On a world wide scale there have been changes that have shifted the ground upon which the images of leadership live and have meaning. One of these that I think is most influential is at a multicultural level where nationalism and ethnic differences have become integrated because of globalization and a seemingly shrinking world.

Research seems to suggest that in this new smaller world young people who follow the Jesus Way actually operate on a number of levels at the same time. They, unlike those of us who are trained in traditional western modes no longer hold sociological and theological boundaries between identities (‘I am a liberal or I am a conservative is no longer a valuable identification process of value’). For us such boundaries were impossible to compromise or reconcile because many of us in the church operated and still do, on Middle ages theological categories and this made it difficult to reflect on 21st century realities. The shepherd image is hard for the church to let go of or replace with a new one even though it can no longer be fully understood as a viable model of leadership as the world has moved on.

Another model of leadership in the church to look at with the shepherd and sheep image is the contradictions between the recent Catholic Popes. We first think back to the election of Cardinal Ratzinger some years back now when the world was watching as a new church ‘shepherd’ was being elected. A bunch of red capped cardinals was meeting in Rome, not for a leisurely chat about ‘what time the surf would be up!’ But who would be the next male Catholic ‘shepherd’. The next pope. And we contrast that with the more recent election of Pope Francis.

We look back on Pope Benedict, as the grand shepherd now better known as the former “doctrinal enforcer”. A conservative in the coercive mode who followed the very mixed legacy of John Paul ii, the deeply traditionalist Polish pope, and we ask what sort of Pope? What sort of leader was he? What sort of shepherd was he?

I need to be careful here not to be making personal judgements because the reality is that some of you have come to St David’s from many different traditions in your backgrounds and in your family connections. Many of us have Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic, links, just to mention a few… I want to be sensitive to both your nurturing experiences and possible continuing relationships, especially Roman Catholic relationships so what I have to say needs to be seen in no way criticism.

Some comments made by Catholic folk have suggested that under Pope Benedict that the use of Latin in the Mass was returning; that feminine images were being removed from the language of the liturgy; That conservative groups were visiting parishes to report on priests and parish councils who push beyond the boundaries. It was also suggested that the divide between ‘doctrine’ and ‘scholarship’ was widening; and that the social policies of previous popes which wounded women, have continued. All of this suggests that the model of shepherding was changing and the significance of the change was of no small consequence.

On the continuing divide between ‘doctrine’ and ‘scholarship’, the retired Swiss theologian Hans Kung was known to have commented: “Don’t be fooled by the crowds: millions have left the Church…  (The church’s) credibility will only be restored if the new pope decides to re-orient the Church in (the) spirit of Pope John XX111 and the reforms called for by the Second Vatican Council”  (Kung. Online Catholics).

In an effort to bolster his claims of being a theologian, Ratzinger published a book called: Jesus of Nazareth. From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.

The title suggested, there would be at least a second volume to follow but while having a print run of over a million copies, the book has not received acclaim from biblical and ‘historical Jesus’ scholars, despite its title. One such scholar, Gerd Ludemann, has written a detailed chapter-by-chapter, critical response, titled: Eyes That See Not. The Pope looks at Jesus. While too detailed to treat here in full, a comment from his Epilogue is that Ratzinger both labels and describes his work inaccurately, if not deceptively.  The intent suggested by his title and announced in his preface, namely to discover by means of the gospels the historical Jesus, is in fact not carried out.  Moreover, far from addressing mere historical issues, the book is replete with doctrinally based arguments and personal meditations on his Lord.  Thus, the actual subject is not the Jesus of history, but rather the Christ of faith” according to Ludemann.

We had in Pope Benedict a model of grand shepherd and pastoral care that was intent on returning to absolutes, controlling thinking, and imposing order. What we have in Pope Francis is again another model of Grand shepherd. His focus is a future based on the present as opposed to the past and his focus appears to be on the practical application of theology. His model of leadership is exposed as more vulnerable politically yet claims a more traditional grand shepherd modern pastoral model as opposed to an ancient pastoral model.

Having touched on what could be deemed a recent legacy and the evolution of shepherding as a leadership model, noting here that evolution is not linear but rather chaotic, we return to our text for today by the storyteller whom we call John. We find here that John puts some additional words into the mouth of Jesus in his story: He has Jesus say; ‘I have come so they may have life and have it to the full.’ Other translations say: ‘…and have it abundantly.’ Perhaps we could say ‘wellness’ or ‘wholeness’. And in looking back at the models of shepherding and pastoral care it can be claimed that we can only have ‘abundant’ or ‘full’ life in a community of faithful and caring companions, who live by a vision of wholeness and justice for all and who embrace diversity and difference. Maybe the changes in our environment among the young is a sign of hope as they hold together that which even we have struggled with and which the two models of papacy have struggled with. How do we acknowledge that identity is important while being inclusive of a plurality of thought and idea. Maybe this is the resurrection message that we fail to see. When we say that ‘Jesus is alive in our midst’ what does it mean? Does it mean that gospel comes before culture or that culture comes before gospel or is it that both come together? Right now you might find yourself struggle to see how that might be but maybe that is because you have failed to change. Maybe living an abundant life is about seeing the vision Jesus offers of a new world into which we are invited a real way… a real invitation into a way of life we can see reflected in his own life” (Patterson 2007:80). And not one we have created.

Maybe the heritage Jesus leaves us is not about what happens after death, but what the knowledge of the words and deeds and the way he walked as Jesus, does for our lives…before death. Maybe the abundant life, the wholeness of life he talks about is not found in a theology of salvation but in a way of life, as we practice belonging, hospitality, respect, humility, and engage in conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)

The model of leadership, shepherding, pastoral caring needs to be open to and challenging of the context while showing it every respect as the product of its place and time so that abundant wellness will be our blessing, as we continue to go on the journey that Jesus chartered. Amen.

Notes: Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Ludemann, G. 2008.  Eyes That See Not. The Pope looks at Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Patterson, S. J. 2007.  “Killing Jesus” in (ed) R. J. Miller. The Future of the Christian Tradition. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press


Easter 3A, 2017 Luke 24:13-35

Food, and becoming what we eat!

The Road to Emmaus story is a wonderful story of invitation. It celebrates Easter. It requests participation.  It is in the best sense a faith legend. Bill Loader Uniting Church of Australia says that ‘whatever actual experience may lie behind the story, it is now an invitation.  It invites us to join the journey.” (Wm Loader Web site, 2005) He also suggests that the Road to Emmaus’ story is indeed a wonderful, original story by the storyteller we call Luke. He says it is a wonderful story of imagining, sharing, celebrating, and teaching. Especially ‘imagining’, because imagination never numbs us with description but coaxes us into a new situation.

As the story is told and the plot revealed we can find ourselves engaged in the questions and the possibilities of the story, as a different re-imagining of the world dawns. A point to note that this story is a ‘metaphorical story’; it is not ‘history remembered’, Marcus Borg nudges us and reminds us of this also.  (Borg 2001:44)

Having said that I want to introduce another idea that stretches this idea of what a metaphorical genre is and seeks to do.

Jacob Needleman, a philosopher at San Francisco State University, has studied the Gospel of Mary and his suggestion is that in both root and essence the teaching of Jesus is a vision and a Way that has been given to humankind from a source outside our known qualities of mind and sensibility. He suggests that the luminosity and mystery of what Jesus said and did two thousand years ago is a “shock from above” that changed the world and that continues to reverberate in the hopes of millions over the whole face of the earth. But he says, the inner and outer conditions of modern life are such that it has become nearly impossible for many of us to hear the spiritual traditions of the world. Needleman suggests that the Gospel of Mary, taken with the inspired commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup, can help toward making the teaching of Jesus once again alive— that is, ‘unknown’, I use the word ‘mystery’ here to link it with what I was claiming about mystery some weeks ago. The challenge is to use the word not in the negative sense, but in the great and fertile meaning of the word unknown or mystery. Every spiritual teaching sounds a call from above. But, the central aim of the teaching of Jesus is to sensitize us to the above that also calls to us from within ourselves. I am not happy with the reference to above here as I would rather use the word other. For me the word other breaks the link with old three tier universe thinking and I prefer that. The immensity of Christianity Needleman says; takes its interior meaning as a sign of an immensity within the self of every human being. As a path of inner awakening, as a path of deep self-knowledge (that is to say, gnosis), it invites and supports the inner struggle to attend, to “hear and obey” one’s own Self, God in oneself. As Jean-Yves Leloup suggests, this is the intimate meaning of Anthropos: to be fully human oneself, to be the incarnation of God. This is a challenging teaching— not in the philosophical or theological sense, nor in the sense that it has never been said before, but in the sense that our ordinary thoughts and feelings can never really penetrate it. We have too much culture perhaps. And it is unknown in the sense that we live our lives on the surface of ourselves, not knowing the one thing about our own being that it is necessary for us to know and that would bring us every good we could seriously wish for. We are speaking of an unknown part of ourselves, which is at the same time the essential part of ourselves: the Teacher within, our genuine identity. The way— and it is surely the way that is offered by all the spiritual traditions of the world— is the practice, and the community supporting the practice, that opens a relationship between our everyday sense of self and the Self, or Spirit.

This interior relationship between self and Spirit, we are told, is made possible through the inner cultivation of a specific quality of conscious attention and intelligence that in this tradition is referred to by the Greek term nous, or higher mind. One might suggest here that our motto, Honour the mind, live the questions and explore the adventure of humanity is another way of engaging with or illuminating this higher or other mode.

We know that it is the realm of intermediate attention and of mediating conscious forces in the cosmos that are mythologized as the angelic realms in the esoteric traditions of the world’s religions. It is in this miraculous yet lawful mediating contact between the higher and the lower or the inner and outer within ourselves that the deeper, intimate experience of conscious love is given— a conscious love for our starved and confused self that is at the same time love for our neighbour whose inner condition of metaphysical poverty is identical to our own. As Jean-Yves Leloup shows us, this is the love that is spoken of in the words of Jesus, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” It is a love that cannot be commanded, but that we are obliged to recognize as the defining attribute of our essential Self.

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is that the more it shows us about the meaning of Christianity, the more the mystery deepens. This paradox is due, surely, to the fact that, like every truly spiritual communication, it speaks to us both on the surface and at deep unconscious levels at the same time.

While at the intellectual level the honouring of the mind points to the resolution of apparent contradictions that sometimes drive us away from belief in the objective existence of the Good, holding to the living of the questions and exploring humanity, it at the same time opens the heart to a silent recognition of homecoming— the joy of what we knew without words all along, but had all but given up hope of finding. Here is the point of awareness, the aha! moment, the conversion experience. No mystery is greater or more welcome than this— that above our minds, in the depths of silence, we may be given to know ourselves as Being and as created to serve the good both for God and our neighbour. In this context Luke has us thinking about that which happens for us when sharing a meal together. So having been off on that deep exploration of being human we return to the story.

As we begin to get into this story we can be assured that many informed scholars have speculated as to where Emmaus actually was. Four places seem to have been suggested. The first was Amwas, near Latrun – approx. 20 miles from Jerusalem; the second was Abu Ghosh – approx. 7.5 miles from Jerusalem; The third Qubelba – approx. 7 miles from Jerusalem, and the fourth Moza – which was approx. 4 miles from Jerusalem). We also might note that many have heard and interpreted this story and some commentators have sought to explain aspects of this story in terms of an ‘interventionist’ God. They say that on the road back home toward Emmaus, God intervened deliberately, and kept Cleopas (and his wife?) from ‘seeing’ Jesus, so that Jesus could explain the scriptures to them.

On the other hand, others see the work of a ‘supernaturalist’ God in this story. When Jesus suddenly appears spirit-like, and then later on, is suddenly whisked away. And when Jesus can no longer be ‘seen’ with eyes because he had gone from this world to the ‘Father’, this new world evades our senses.

Well, I’m not sure for all of you, but none of these attempts resonate with me. Especially the theology of those two suggestions. I would claim that those approaches become little more than brainteasers and kill off the story.

I would rather like to stay with the context a little longer so that I can appreciate its influence of the story and to that end I would now like to offer some comments which I hope might be helpful as well as imaginative.

All stories are very concrete.  They ‘live’ within a particular context. And I am not alone when I suggest this story’s context may have been some debates about how Gentile Jesus followers could sense the presentness of the Post-Easter Christ after the death of Jesus. We remember here that within the ancient Jewish mind time and space are subject to the transportation of the event. The Passover is not a re-enactment but rather a reliving of the actual event. History is always renewed. In Luke’s time there is a need to articulate how this might be explained in his time with the questions he faces.

Luke does this by telling a story about the most common and important community occasion these followers of Jesus had experienced. The experience is of a meal in community rather than an ‘out-of-this-world’ experience. So we can put away the miracle issues, the interventionist God ideas and the supernatural explanation. This is a meal story and a bonding story. Why? Because Luke is grounded enough to know we become what we eat!

From all that we are now discovering about early Christian culture, meals played an important role in both community life and in the Jesus movement tradition. Indeed, ‘Followers of the Jesus Way’ regularly ate together, even before they began to conduct worship services. And Jesus seems so closely associated with meals that one of the criticisms levelled against him, you will remember, was as a ‘glutton and drunkard’.  (Matt 11:19)

We can be pretty sure that Luke heard some of those stories, re-imagined them, as well as having shared in some of the meals. He knew the power of story so he tells a meal story at a crucial point in this local community’s history.

And if we continue to accept the findings of modern biblical scholarship, then we can affirm that: 1. Jesus regularly accepted invitations to attend meals, but as a guest rather than as a host, and, 2. Jesus used these occasions for re-imagining and ‘indirect’ teaching, rather than the so-called ‘whiteboard and text’ kind. When he engaged in teaching he did it by sharing pithy, deeply understood and common language sayings and parables born in and out of the culture.

“Words and food are made out of the same stuff”, writes Rubem Alves. “They are both born of the same mother: hunger.” (Alves 1990:77)

  1. O’Donohue says; For around a meal, food is shared not hoarded, friendships are made and relationships strengthened.  And “experimentation, adventure and innovation lure us toward new horizons.” O’Donohue 2003:146)

We can be pretty sure that the continued celebration of meals – early Christianity often called it ‘breaking of bread’ – was motivated primarily by the needs of community, rather than establishing or remembering the so-called ‘upper room’ meal event. So for us, this story is not a forerunner to, or about, Holy Communion. And it certainly has got nothing to do with any doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’! But on the other hand, because all religious language is metaphorical… When bread and wine and BBQs are eaten, they become body and blood. Our body and blood.

In the same vein when body and blood are eaten, they become compassionate deeds. Our compassionate deeds. And when compassionate deeds are eaten, they become as Christ in our neighbour.

“Since the beginning of time,” author Robert Fulghum writes, “people who trust one another, care for one another, and are deeply connected to one another have shared food as a sign of and a reaffirmation of their relationship…  Every time we hold hands and say a blessing before a meal, every time we lift a glass and say fine words to one another, every time we eat in peace and grace together, we have celebrated the covenants that bind us together.”  (Fulghum 1995:81-82)

Because the storyteller Luke knows we become what we eat his Easter stories are an invitation to share, to journey, and to celebrate. And as his Emmaus story particularly notes, “hospitality is the open door to creative transformation and an expanded vision of possibilities.”  (Bruce Epperly P&F web site, 2008) Amen.

Notes: Alves, R. 1990.  The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press. Borg, M. J. 2001.  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally.  New York. HarperSanFrancisco. Fulghum, R. 1995.  From Beginning to End. The Rituals of our Lives. Moorebank. Bantam Press. O’Donohue, J. 2003.  Divine Beauty. The Invisible Embrace. London. Transworld Publishers/Bantam Press.

Leloup, Jean-Yves. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene . Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.



Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Easter 2A, 2017 John 20:19-31


An Open Ended Future

“In dealing with people, Jesus did not condemn those who questioned or doubted. While Jesus was harsh with scribes and Pharisees who claimed to have all the answers in water-tight belief containers, he was always ready to encourage the genuine doubter” (Webb 1995: 15).

Allen Dixon asked me during the week what being progressive means and my first thought was about how we as progressives might proclaim our point of difference? What is it that distinguishes our approach to Christian life? My reply to Allen in the end was chapter and verse as to what I thought it meant acknowledging that there is not simple one phrase answer to that question. I have since attempted to find a response that contains what I think are key elements that are inclusive of a variety of ‘progressive expressions. It is that I think progressives attempt to rediscover a direct engagement between scripture and the whole human experience within the timeless conversation of tradition.  Human concerns and questions are recognized and addressed in the biblical texts which know the human condition thoroughly and, simultaneously, bear witness to the holy.   The progressive teacher/preacher hosts a “sacred conversation” between all past texts and the present occasion they are read and interpreted in public.

In simple terms the progressive does not ask whether or not God exists but rather acknowledges that that which we call Mystery is a given and the progressive task is to connect the human stories of old with the human experiences of today in search of understanding acknowledging that what we search for is always Mystery.

Applying this approach to our texts for today we find that even Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Then when the disciples heard her news they were huddled behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews.” Here we as followers of the Galilean, a northern Jew the disciples are in fear of the Judean Jews and we could say especially the Sadducees, the very Conservative and Empire collaborating Jews. Without fanfare, John writes simply, “Jesus came and stood among them….” We need to remember here that John is not deriding the faction that exists within the Jewish community but rather acknowledging the diversity of thinking that existed in Jesus time. Unfortunately over time and in defence of Christianity the Church has misinterpreted John making his story anti-Jewish. What is interesting is that some Jewish scholars now find John more pro-Jewish that even they thought.

The author of John then echoes the promise and invitation to “peace” made the last time they were all together, Jesus says: “Peace be among you.” He offers his body, in particular his hands and side, to his disciples with the words: “receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then John’s narrative abruptly jumps forward a week when the disciples are again “in the house.” And here we meet Thomas, who was absent the previous week, insisting that unless he sees and touches the wounds left by the nails in Jesus’ hands and can put his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side left by the spear, he will not believe. This point about believing would suggest a later time of writing for John in that the shift from practice as central to faith to belief as central is linked to the cultural shift that demands a more obvious identity for the Christ following movement. We noted recently this development from the sermon on the mount being about doing and the Nicaean Creed being about believing.

Jesus appears again with the same promise of “peace.” and invites Thomas to touch the wounds in his body and to “believe.”   Thomas blurts out: “My Lord and my God.” John’s narrative continues with two crucial sayings with great importance for the future. First, Jesus now offers a specific blessing for a particular group of people: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Secondly, John pointedly writes that Jesus “did many other signs” that he did not write about, but the ones he did write about “are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” and that this “believing” will bring you “life in his name.”

Having wrestled with the story retold some 2 centuries later than the event and tried to acknowledge the earlier context and the context of the author we return to the very familiar story of Thomas. The lectionary reminds of this story close after Easter almost every year and in its familiarity we sometimes fail to critique it thoroughly.

Because we tend to hear it nearly every year it becomes a difficult story to tell or preach on, and the reason for this is that we all tend to assume we know the story and jump ahead to ‘our’ endings and miss the story itself. There are also a couple of strange things about this Thomas story. Strange, in that the story is often entitled ‘doubting’ Thomas, in a negative way, and this happens even though we are told that there is no such word as ‘doubt’ in the Greek! It is strange also because it assumes that asking questions is the same as raising a white flag of surrender, and can be understood as evidence of faithlessness! We progressives know that asking questions about our faith is the only way of keeping it active, alive and above all relevant despite cultural influence. Asking questions is less about being unsure and losing one’s faith and more about seeking a viable, practical faith that lives into the future. It also says that an evangelical faith is not about proclaiming a belief as unassailable truth but rather about exhibiting a wondrous, peace-filled life that speaks to others.

It was the German/American theologian Paul Tillich who in his small, blue bound book, called Dynamics of Faith, claimed that authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation. And that questions were not a sign of faithlessness, but rather a willingness to take faith seriously. We progressives would say that our faith walk has to be one of intellectual integrity. Doubt is a prerequisite and parking one’s thinking brain at the door is not a faith journey. Others have followed Tillich’s lead, such as Val Webb in her excellent book of some years back: In Defence of Doubt.  An Invitation to Adventure. And as we have explored the progressive study resource called ‘Living the Questions.

Returning again to the story Rex Hunt commented on some things he hadn’t noticed in earlier years. One of these was that the storyteller we call John sets his interpreted story within a particular community which was experiencing debates on mission strategy, leadership issues, and discipleship. This raises the point that Thomas does not receive a blessing as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement? This is an unexpected realisation. The second thing Rex noted was that the storyteller John seems to be making it fairly clear that the faith which marks a true disciple relies on the witness of others rather than a personal experience of the Christ.  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

A true disciple is in the place where they can practice belonging, practice hospitality, practice respect, practice humility, practice conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004). Faith is a safe place in the company of others, and that place is a place where we can be shaped and reshaped by our questions and our search.

Greg Jenks from Faith-Futures Foundation, puts it another way: He says: “Faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a personal miracle that removes all opportunity for doubt.”  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

Rex acknowledges that he had not heard that before in this story. And then he suggests that the third thing he heard, is what some claim is the underlying theme running throughout the whole of John’s collection of stories: namely; that we experience the creative, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life, not as an, other-worldly, supernatural, experience but as an everyday routine experience. Bruce Epperly of Process & Faith notes it as often subtle, unpredictable and evasive. “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, he says: “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.”  (Epperly/P&F Web site, 2008)

These are wonderful images that transform faith from a ‘what if’ ‘tit for tat’ sort of contract into a shared, co-creative experience born out of the positive potential of questioning and thus out of doubt.

I have told this particular story before but I think it bears retelling.

During his 1990 Edward Cadbury Lecture given in the University of Birmingham, England, Brazilian Rubem Alves told a story of a boy who found the body of a dead man washed up on the edge of a seaside village. There is only one thing to do with the dead: they must be buried. In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial, so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral. As they did, the women began to talk and ponder about the dead stranger.

He was tall… and would have had to duck his head to enter their houses. His voice… was it like a whisper or like thunder. His hands… they were big. Did they play with children or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman’s body. The women laughed “and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection: a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead, returning… their bodies alive again”.  (Alves 1990: 23)

The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening, became jealous of the drowned man as they realised he had power which they did not have.

And they thought about the dreams they had never had…

Alves ends this part of the story by telling that they finally buried the dead man. But the village was never the same again.

This suggests that to know the reality of resurrection is to experience it. Not as some doctrine which involves belief in a supposedly empty tomb. Or an insistence on the literal historicity of the biblical stories.

Again Bruce Epperly says: “we all experience it by simply being alive, and going through all the normal, routine transformations of human growth and love and death”.   (Epperly, P&F Web site, 2008)

So, the good news of Easter, is not the so-called final scene as it is in fairy tales that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. Nor is it the horrific death at the hands of betrayal and evil but rather it is the beginning of an open-ended future. The faith moment, the wondrous infectious experience is the moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return, and our bodies – individually and as a church community – are alive again.


Notes: Alves, R. 1990.  The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press. Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to See God: Prayer and Practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press Webb, V. 1995.  In Defense of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St Louis. Chalice Press.

When We Get Past The Joke!

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

When We Get Past The Joke!

Palm Sunday 9.4.2017

Matthew 21: 1-4, 6-11

All three synoptic gospels contain the story of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, but only Matthew cites the passage in Zechariah 9:9 as providing the prophetic backdrop for the Triumphal Entry. Matthew’s rendering of the passage from Zechariah includes the parallelism reflected in the phrases “humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” This parallelism leads to the very strange picture in verse 7 of the disciples putting their clothes on both the donkey and its colt and Jesus riding on both. It may be that the author misunderstood the nature of Hebrew poetic parallelism, which repeats an idea in different words, giving “sense rhyme” rather than “auditory rhyme.” On the other hand, the author may have pushed his narration almost to the edge of common sense (he doesn’t explicitly say how Jesus rode the two animals) in order to emphasize the parallels between prophecy and fulfilment in the life of Jesus.

Another dualism in the message is of course the dueling processions: Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from the east. Bethphage is just to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives is just east of the Temple. Here again we have the connection with the tradition. The Mount of Olives was, in Israel’s Sacred Memory, the place from which an assault on Israel’s enemies was to begin (Zech 14: 2-4). We note also that the direction of approach is significant for at least two reasons: (1) Coming to the city from the Mount of Olives is a prophetic and eschatological image, and (2) there were two processions into Jerusalem during the time of passover; one–the procession of the Roman army–came from the west; the other–those with Jesus–came from the east. The Roman army was coming to maintain order during passover, a time when the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 to well over 200,000–both conservative estimates. Moreover, passover was a celebration of liberation from Pharoah in Egypt, and Rome was uneasy about the anti-imperial message of this association.

The Romans were headquartered at Caesarea Maritima, a city built by Herod the (so-called) Great to honour Caesar Augustus and make money for himself. Herod built monuments to Caesar at every opportunity. Caesar Augustus was Octavian, Julius Caesar’s nephew and adopted son. During the Roman civil war, Herod had been an ally of Octavian’s enemy, Mark Antony. Shifting his loyalty to Octavian after Antony’s defeat was a nifty piece of political footwork on Herod’s part, and may also have added to Herod’s ebullient enthusiasm for all things Octavian. He even named the harbour Sebastos, which is Greek for “Augustus.” Sebastos was one of the finest harbours in the world. It was constructed over a 12 year period (25-13 BC) and was state-of-the-art for its day, rivaling both Athens and Alexandria. It was used primarily for the export of agricultural products from the region–or, to put it another way, it provided an efficient harbour for the plunder of the region–and could also be used to supply the Roman Army in case of war with Parthia.

The procession of the Roman army from Caesarea Maritima to Jerusalem would have been an imposing sight–Legionnaires on horseback, Roman standards flying, the Roman eagle prominently displayed, the clank of armour, the creek of leather, the stomp of feet, and beating of drums. The procession was designed to be a display of Roman imperial power. The message here is that resistance is futile!

The counter-demonstration of Jesus came from the east, the opposite direction. Jesus comes to the city not in a powerful way, but in a ludicrously humble way, inciting not fear, as in the Roman procession, but cheering crowds who clear his way and hail his presence. We should not underestimate the significance of this picture. Sarcasm and irony are often the only mechanisms available for the oppressed to express themselves. The procession of Jesus creatively mocks the Roman procession.

G K Chesterton captures Palm Sunday from the perspective of the donkey that Jesus rode.

G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked And figs grew upon thorn, Some moment when the moon was blood Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry And ears like errant wings, The devil’s walking parody On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will; Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour; One far fierce hour and sweet: There was a shout about my ears, And palms before my feet.


Looking at the available texts we see that Mark has three predictions which are mirrored in Matthew (16:21-23, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), each with some Matthean additions. In the first prediction, Matthew adds to Mark a statement about the necessity of going to Jerusalem (16:21): “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem.” (Jesus doesn’t actually head south until 19:1.) In our text for Palm Sunday, he has arrived. But there is an important thing to note and it is that just before he makes his final approach to Jerusalem, Jesus sends two people into a nearby village. The two disciples are instructed to go into the village and, as soon as they get there, they “will find a donkey tied and a colt with her.” They are to take this donkey and colt. If anyone were to ask them about it, they are to give the “secret password” and say, “The Lord has need of them.” Here we have an indication that there is a network of Jesus supporters operating “under the radar.” Moreover, this network of Jesus supporters reaches even to a village just outside Jerusalem. The Galilee-based Jesus movement reaches even into Judea, even to the very gates of the city of Jerusalem itself!

In this passage, Matthew, for the first time, directly associates Jesus as king. (The magi were looking for the “king of the Jews” in 2:3, but here the association is more explicit.) Jesus is treated as a royal figure throughout. He doesn’t get on the donkey. He is “sat” on it by others. Therefore, when Jesus’ secret followers in the nearby village hear that “the Lord needs them,” from Matthew’s perspective, that is enough to say.

We recall here that Jesus is to ride two animals and maybe at once: And this had happened so that it might be fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Speak to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden.” And the disciples went and did just as Jesus appointed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and they placed the garments upon them, and they sat him upon (them). Two animals have a significance to the story.

What Matthew has done here is insert the twelfth of fourteen “quotation formulas” from the Old Testament: “Speak to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden.” The quote appears to be a combination of Isaiah 62:11 (“speak to the daughter of Zion”) and Zechariah 9:9 (the rest). This (mostly) Zechariah text is the interpretive centre of the passage. And from that Zechariah text, Matthew leaves out the phrase “triumphant and victorious is he.” Jesus is obviously not going to be that kind of king, at least not yet. As Matthew recounts it, the quote accents the humility and meekness of Jesus.

In referring to both a donkey and a colt–“humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”–Zechariah was using a grammatical device known as “hendiadys,” which means expressing a single idea with two nouns. This parallelism is quite common in Hebrew poetry. For example: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path”. (Ps. 119: 105) The statement expresses one thought in two complementary ways.

At this point scholarly opinion is all over the place. Some say that Matthew flat misses the parallelism. Others say he knows about it but ignores it. In any case, Matthew does clearly refer to two animals, both a donkey and a colt.

Some have cited this as evidence that Matthew didn’t really understand the Hebrew language or the Hebrew people, but there is no evidence of this and it is reasonable sure that Matthew was Jewish, and knew full well about Hebrew poetry and the parallelism in Zechariah. He also knew full well that Mark, his source, clearly has only one animal involved in Jesus’ procession. Therefore, Matthew was deliberate in making the change to two animals–“and he sat on them” (epekathisen epano auton).

When he quotes from the Old Testament, Matthew like most Hebrew scholars feels free to tweak the texts he quotes in order to suit his purposes. This is not the style of a literalist. What we are left with is that Matthew quite obviously refers to two animals and everybody since has been scratching their head over why. Most likely, it was to underscore the fulfilment of the Zechariah text–not just one fulfilment, in other words, but a double one! Matthew knows full well that Jesus did not ride two animals at once and he doesn’t care. His point is not historical precision, but theological insight. His point is that “your king comes to you,” which is the fulfilment, in a complete and total way, of the prophetic Zechariah text.

Lets return to the entrance: We find a very great crowd spreading their garments in the way, and others were cutting down branches from the trees and were spreading them in the way. And the crowds, the ones going before him and the ones following, were crying out, saying, “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed (is) the one coming in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” And when he entered into Jerusalem, all the city was shaken, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Matthew anticipates the Hollywood “red carpet” by about two millennia. He shifts focus to the action of the crowds–“a very great crowd” spread both garments and branches onto Jesus’ path. In 2 Kings 9:13, strewing cloaks onto the path was a sign of royal homage. The crowd, by strewing cloaks onto his path, is treating Jesus as a royal and kingly figure, which is further underlined by their comparison of Jesus to the Great King David.

We notice here that Jesus was not welcomed by the people of Jerusalem. The noisy crowd is not composed of Jerusalem city dwellers, but rather “the ones going before him and the ones following.” Most likely, this refers to the disciples and those who joined the movement along the way to Jerusalem.

The composition of the crowd is suggested when Jesus actually enters into Jerusalem, Matthew says that “all the city was shaken.” Seio means moved, shaken to and fro, with the idea of shock or concussion. It’s the word for earthquake, and where we get our word “seismic.” An earthquake will also occur at the death of Jesus (27:54). The city shook with fear when Jesus was born (2:3)–Now, the place is roiled, shaken, and shocked when he enters as an adult.

Here we have a dialog between the city and the crowds. The city asks the question: “…all the city was shaken, saying, “Who is this?” The crowds answer that this is “the prophet Jesus.” In doing so, they are fulfilling the text of the prophet, Zechariah. They are telling “the daughter of Zion,” which is Jerusalem, who comes.


The crowds’ assessment is said to be lacking by many scholars because the crowds only identify Jesus as “prophet” and not as “king”–the assumption being that “king” is a higher title than “prophet.” Is a political title really higher than a Biblical and spiritual one? We have a question of Matthew here. Would that have been his point of view?

The crowds are also providing some cover for Jesus. The high regard in which the crowds hold Jesus, particularly as prophet, prevents the political authorities from arresting him in public (21: 46). Yet, we also know that this is also the city that kills the prophets (23:37), and we are under no illusions as to what will come next.

In summary then we have the entry linked to the tradition of the ancients, we have the use of Hebrew parallelisms to communicate the entry and Jesus to the tradition and we have the clear subversive political challenge of the mocking of Rome. And we have this set within the subversive network of Jesus followers.

The environment for this show is the other factor in the dramatic story about palm Sunday We need to remember that at the time Palestine was an occupied country.  It was ruled by the Romans. Nobody wanted them there. So Jerusalem was something like Paris during World War Two. People hated the Romans, despite the collaborators. And even the collaborators hated the Romans.

Jerusalem was a big city. There were at least 50,000 people lived in the city, and some people estimate it was a lot larger than that. At Passover each year, thousands more people would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The population would swell to four times its normal size… maybe more. Passover was so important, and so ingrained, that the Romans couldn’t stop it happening. It was easier to let it happen and try and manage things.

What is the resistance the Jesus movement was up against? Why would Rome want to stop the Passover? Well, let’s remember what it was about. It was about Israel being set free from Egypt. It was about God rescuing the chosen people from the overlords, and from Pharaoh, King of Egypt. We don’t have to be a genius to work out that at each Passover festival some firebrands would be suggesting that maybe a new Moses was going to arise, and with the help of God, set Israel free from the new overlords. This Passover, remember in Hebrew thinking is actually the revisiting of the stories from the past not just a symbolic remembrance. those wild preachers would say with some degree of certainty, God will set us free from the Romans.

The Romans would know the significance of this way of thinking even if not fully understanding it so, to make sure nothing got out of hand, the Romans would boost the Jerusalem garrison each Passover. The Romans had their base at a port called Caesarea, which was to the north west of Jerusalem. To avoid the mountains, they would march down the coast from Caesarea and then cross over into Jerusalem from the west.

Maybe you can begin to see what was happening. Each year at Passover, there was already a big procession into Jerusalem. What better challenge than to have an alternative and a sarcastic mocking of that tradition and its attending power assumptions. The two processions gave people a choice about which procession to follow, and highlights the fact that we too have a choice. In This case it is empire or people.

The authorities understood what Jesus was saying because he was dead in a week. The question is will we laugh at what he did, and just enjoy his street theatre, just treating it as one more episode of The Chaser, to be forgotten by next week. Or… even though there will be “Thursday nights” when we desert him, and fail him, are we going to see the message and follow him? Amen.

Life After Death.

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized


Life After Death.

John 11: 1-45

2nd April 2017


The story of the raising of Lazarus brings us back to the overarching question – can there be life again in stale, barren places? In all the death and dryness that sometimes surrounds us, can hope live and breathe and resurrect through Jesus Christ? We note that this is an intriguing story that brings Jesus face to face with a very personal grief. In the gospel stories, the only individuals who are singled out as ‘loved by Jesus’ are the family in Bethany, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’.

This is not to claim that Jesus did not personalize faith because there is no doubt that, Jesus ‘loved his own’, had compassion on the crowds and called his followers to love each other, but here is a more intimate scene. He endures a personal grief in the death of Lazarus.

The story begins with Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus who was weak. He was unwell. And they inform Jesus by saying “Lord, you know who you love is weak.”   You know who you love is the key to the personal relationship that exists between Jesus and the family, and Jesus responds by saying, “This weakness is not to death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it.” Jesus’s response is pastoral, comforting and supportive of their plight. Jesus was loving Martha and her sister and Lazarus and he remained with them for two days.

Jesus’ response to the message is reminiscent of what he said about the man born blind in chapter 9.  In that case, the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  In the case of Lazarus, his sickness is for “the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it.” In the sisters’ message, they had referred to Lazarus as “he whom you love.”  The word is phileis–“friendship love.”  The narrator informs us in verse 5 that Jesus “loved” the three siblings.  The word here is egapa–unconditional love.  Jesus loves Lazarus more than his sisters know.  (This is odd:  Here, Mary is the one who is referred to indirectly–Jesus “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”)

Even more odd, Jesus hangs around for another two days “in the place where he was”–presumably, “across the Jordan.”  No two ways about it, this seems cold.  On the other hand, we’ve already been told that Jesus loves Lazarus unconditionally.  Even though he seems to delay unnecessarily for two days, he also seems unperturbed, and also seems to know exactly what he is going to do.  The reader’s trust level in Jesus is, somewhat paradoxically, enhanced.

Another supporting claim for the intimacy of the relationship and for the claim for Jesus being the outsider as he was in the woman at the well story, the word “Lazarus” comes from the Hebrew eleazer.  “Lazarus” is believed to be a Galilean pronunciation of Eleazar, indicating that Lazarus and his sisters were likely “Galileans.”  We also remind ourselves here that to be a Galilean in the fourth gospel was not determined solely by geography.  To be a Galilean means to share a “Galilean” frame of mind. Here we have the basis for many Jews to see Jesus as the crazy Galilean with an affinity for Samaritans.  Thus the fourth gospel can be said to be an argument between a Galilean and Judean worldview.  The Judean view represents that of the empire, what Walter Wink calls “the powers.”  I would suggest that part of the problem is that the Judean view had to deal with the merger of empire with temple and thus the Galilean point of view is that exemplified by Jesus–a new world of equality, mercy, justice, and true life. Part of our problem is that here was also the seeds for the anti- Jewish sentiment that Christendom was later to become corrupted with.

We note here also the continuing argument for the sacredness of the everyday. Like the claim a couple of weeks ago that it is the ordinary, everyday water, the water we take for granted that is the living sacred water. We find that the fourth gospel uses two words for “life.”  One is bios.  Bios is day-to-day physical life—or “the phenomenon of life in its outward manifestation,” according to John Sanford.  The current way of life is bios.  The empire is bios.  Bios life dies.

The other word is Zoe and Zoe is “saved” life, God’s life–with both an inner, mystical element, and an outward connection to Life itself.  Zoe is Jesus, according to the fourth gospel.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” he will say in today’s lection.

Here we have the clear setting of the scene which is the debate at one level between the meaning of words and at the other level, the everyday life that is at the same time spiritual and sacred. Lazarus, we are told, is sick.  The word is astheneo.  In psychology, the word “asthenia” has the sense of lassitude, without energy–“weakness,” defined broadly.  The word had this same sense in the first century.  It appears five times in the first six verses.

Another thing to note here is that we have not yet been introduced to Mary, yet she is referred to here as if we already knew the story that comes in the following chapter.  In chapter twelve, Mary of Bethany applied an extravagant ointment to Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. What about Martha, her sister, Is she being placed in a slightly secondary position to Mary?  Their home, Bethany, is described as the “village of Mary and her sister Martha.”

In the chapter previous to this one, Jesus had been in Jerusalem, but, under threat of arrest, Jesus left Jerusalem and hid out “across the Jordan” (10:40).  Jesus’ specific location is not mentioned, but Mary and Martha seem to know where he is.  Underground movements often have their own methods of communication.  They send a message to Jesus in which they tell Jesus that Lazarus is sick.  They make no request, however, for him to come to Bethany, perhaps because Bethany is only two miles outside of Jerusalem.  Bethany is in the heart of Judea–a place which, for Jesus, is very dangerous.

Then after this, he was saying to the disciples, “We may go into Judea again.”  The disciples are saying to him, “Rabbi, just now the Judeans were seeking to stone you, and again you are going there?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day?  If a certain one might walk around in the day, that one is not stumbling, for that one sees the light of this world.  But if a certain one might walk in the night, that one stumbles, for the light is not in them.”

These things, he said, and after this, he was saying to them, “Lazarus, our friend, has been sleeping, but I go so that I wake him.”  Then his disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has been sleeping, he will be saved.”  But Jesus answered concerning his death, but they seemed he is speaking concerning the rest of sleep.  Then Jesus said to them openly, “Lazarus is dead, and I rejoice through you so that you might trust.  But we go to him.” Then Thomas, the one called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “We go, and you, so that we may die with him.”

The disciples are unnerved at the idea of returning to Judea.  They had only recently escaped Judea by the skin of their teeth, and now Jesus wants to go back?  John again plays with the darkness and light motif when in chapter 9, he has Jesus say that, while he is in the world, he is the “light of the world” (9: 5).  This indicates that there will be a time when he is not “in the world.”  This will be “night.”  Staying faithful will be difficult in that circumstance.  But, for now, he is “in the world.”  His followers are able to follow him, even into treacherous situations, while he is with them.

Jesus identifies Lazarus as “our friend.”  This, incidentally, is the first indication that the disciples even knew who Lazarus is.  Lazarus has “fallen asleep.”  The disciples make the common-sense point that, if all he is asleep, “he will be all right.”

It could as well–and perhaps better–be translated this way:  “Lord, if he has been sleeping, he will be saved.”  The word is sothesetaisozo, in its future passive form.  In the fourth gospel, sozo, when used by Jesus, means spiritual salvation.  Here, however, it is used by the disciples, and seems to indicate a recovery from illness.  Both uses of the word are acceptable, although its usage here is an indication that, as per usual in the fourth gospel, Jesus is speaking on one level, where everybody else is thinking more concretely. Asleep means not awake verses asleep means dead.

We note also here that prior to the resurrection of Jesus, there are seven “signs” in the fourth gospel.  If the number seven is the number of God–the number of completion and wholeness–then the seven signs of the fourth gospel, taken together, give us a complete picture of Jesus.  (After Easter, there is an additional sign, the eighth one, which is a sign of the new creation.)

The first sign is the wedding at Cana where Jesus revealed his “glory” and his disciples “faithed” in him.  The story of the raising of Lazarus is the seventh “sign.”  In this seventh “sign,” God is “glorified” and the disciples will “faith.”  The seven “signs” begin and end in “glory” and “faith.”

The disciples had resisted going back to Judea.  Thomas says that, yes, they will go with him, but, rather fatalistically, expects the journey not to end well.  In fact, he supposes that all of them will die with Jesus, a not unreasonable assumption.  As the story progresses, however, there is no mention of the disciples actually being with him as he goes to Bethany, and, indeed, they appear not to have gone.  The next time we see the disciples, it is verse 54, and they are “out in the wilderness.”

Back to our story and we find that when Jesus arrives, he is told that Lazarus has been dead–“in the tomb”–for four days.  He is thoroughly dead, in other words.  Moreover, Judeans are at the home of Martha and Mary.  The Judeans are professional mourners who were hired to come in and do the job of mourning with the family.  These Judeans are “the death people,” you might say.

Martha goes out to meet Jesus.  This would seem to say, somewhat contrary to verse 17, that Jesus wasn’t all the way in to Bethany.  We are not told how Martha knows that Jesus is in the vicinity.  Nor are we told why Martha goes to meet him while Mary stayed home.  One wonders:  Is Jesus’ visit a secret?  Does he not want the Judeans to know where he is?  Is Mary staying at home with the mourners in order to provide cover for Martha to leave?  Does Mary even know that Jesus is near?

Jesus’ conversation with Martha is also odd.  Martha expresses faith is Jesus’ ability to ask God for special favours.  Jesus replies that Lazarus–“your brother”–will rise again, most likely an indication of what he is about to do.  The fourth gospel has already told us that “the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out (5: 28-9).”  Martha, however, responds with a statement of belief in the general resurrection “on the last day,” a rather typical pharisaic belief of the time.  What about Jesus’ ability to raise someone right now?

Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one trusting into me, if that one might die, that one will live, and anyone living and trusting into me might surely not die forever.  Do you trust this?”  She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I have trusted that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  Jesus responds with the divine name–ego eimi, “I am.”  “I am the resurrection and the life”–zoe life. He goes on to explicate both resurrection and life.  Those who “trust” (pisteuein) will live again even if they die, and those who “live” and “trust” will not die at all.  Zoe life is not only “life eternal,” but true life–the essence of life, the Life Principle itself–right now.

At the same time, death literally hangs in the air in this text.  Lazarus is already dead, the “death people” are wailing, but Martha has somehow freed herself from that process, that which is expected of her for a time in order to be with Jesus.  The fourth gospel is again raising the pressure in the confrontation between death and life.

For the Johannine community reading this text, c. AD 90 or later, the persecution of Christians had already begun.  It was sporadic and localized, yes, but also brutal.  The Emperor, Nero c. AD 65, had used Christians as human torches, after all, and Emperor Domitian would soon ratchet up these persecutions another notch.  Trusting in the Lord’s ability to bring life out of death would have been a crucial aspect of discipleship for a beleaguered religious minority.

Can there be life again in stale, barren places? In all the death and dryness that sometimes surrounds us, can hope live and breathe and resurrect through Jesus Christ? We who follow Jesus would like to think that is true and say that all the texts we know off in some way speak to that call to be an embodiment of hope in stale or scary places, to hear the cries of our brothers and sisters, to breathe life into the body of Christ by living fully like Jesus did.

There is a story I want to leave you with that I think speaks in to the place between the spiritual and the concrete, that perhaps approached the question of how the Jesus of thousands of years ago can speak to us today. It is a story of the parents who, angling for a bit more time with their coffee and papers, offered their young daughter a puzzle to put together. On one side of an insert of the paper was a current map of the world, so they cut it up and told her they would go out for a walk as soon as she’d put the puzzle together. Fairly happy with themselves, they settled down with their second cup. Two minutes later she came back and said the puzzle was finished. ‘How did you manage that so quick?’ they said. ‘It was easy she said. There was a person on the other side of the page, so I put the person together and the world followed.’


Life begins with relationships – listening, waiting with each other, realising that we are part of something so much bigger. If we are to bring life, justice, healing – hope, then we need to begin with ourselves and the possibilities our changed lives may bring to the world. Yes, there can be life again in stale, barren places? Yes, in all the death and dryness that sometimes surrounds us, hope can live and breathe and resurrect through Jesus Christ? Amen.

Blind from Birth

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Blind from Birth

March 26th, 2017

Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-14


“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” — John 9:5

I was reading a sermon on our text by Robert Hamerton-Kelly this week and I have unashamedly used some of his material because I thought it was interesting. His sermon was written in 2008 so some of it is out of date but some key points are worth revisiting.

We begin with that old bugbear Original Sin and we acknowledge that very few of us thinking people accept the doctrine today even if we agree that the human species is not perfect but rather yet to be fully realized. Being human is an evolutionary journey that is not yet complete thus the definition of being a sinful, fallen being has nothing to do with our origins but rather the recognition that we have a way to go to be better human beings. Our reading this morning from John presents a statement that the man in question was blind from birth, that is, that his was an original blindness. Blindness from birth is as radical a visionary affliction as there is and easily distorted be naming it as an original sin outcome. Sins of the fathers and all that.

Prof Bill Newsome, an authority on the neuroscience of perception, suggested that a blindness that has never, ever seen, can only be overcome by a laying of all kinds of physiological and anatomical foundations anew. We are reminded at this point of the phenomenon of Helen Keller who went blind and deaf before the age of one year, and although consequently aphasic as well, could write an autobiography full of vivid visual imagery. Her loving mentor Annie Sullivan must have mediated the world to her, which is remarkable enough, but if she had never seen at all, had been blind from birth it would have been impossible, for her to perceive what she wrote about.

This raises the question: is there more to perception than the sense of sight alone, and by extension, the other senses? Is it possible to enjoy not extra-sensory perception but para-sensory perception, that is that the perceptual process, which is a function of the brain, is not wholly dependent on the eyes? Who says it is a law of nature that perception must go only through the senses? As we learn more about the brain so we learn that the 19th century scientistic fundamentalism, of the kind Richard Dawkins and others represent, might actually be wrong and misleading.

Much of the new discoveries about the brain and how it works leads us into greater complexity as to how it works and asks serious questions about our previous assumptions about what truth is and how we use it. I don’t intend to spend too much more time on the science of this other than to say that the brain and how it works is a fascinating subject and our understanding of what it is to be human is developing at a rapid rate. In regard to our topic today it is suffice to say that the recently emerging new understanding of processes of perception in the brain and their unsteady link to the senses, are a watch this space phenomenon.

The point we return to here that Jesus can enlighten the dark world of one born blind, that is, in metaphorical mode, Jesus, the light of the world, is the antidote to this perceived, congenital darkness of the world. Despite the limitedness of dualism the imagery in both our lessons uses the fundamental symbols of light and darkness to express good and evil, and in the Gospel, the symbol of darkness is the man born blind, that is originally blind, and the symbol of light is Jesus Christ the light of the world.

We choose this one point to focus on out of the many one might treat in such a rich passage, the darkness of congenital blindness and the man who is the light of the world. Darkness then, especially in the human form of radical blindness, is a vivid symbol of self-deception. Self-deception being the choice to concretize an understanding or to remove it from critique. The Gospel suggests in original sin type of thinking that we are radically self-deceived from the day of our birth, that darkness, in the sense of a fundamental fraudulence about who we are and what the world we live in is like, is historically speaking our “natural state.” This of course goes to our understanding of what it is to be human and I would want to suggest that both the darkness and the light is our natural state and not just the darkness. and that the metaphor is about us being afraid to engage with the light. To leave the womb of darkness, to enter the path of evolution and development. And it is this fear that is the fallen-ness we know and struggle against as human beings.

To add to this discussion we remember that we are in lent and heading toward Easter and the meaning of the cross. This immediately introduces another blindness so to speak. The blindness that appears to be original or part of the natural state of being human, the propensity for violence. We face the question not as to whether there “is a link between the Cross and the violence of the 21st century but rather “What is the link?” because we can assume such a link, as it seems the gospel does, and more than that, we have to deal with the idea that the Cross on which a young man is being tortured to death by church and state together, is the first true word to be spoken about who we are, not “they” but “we,” you and I. Another choice of darkness over light, another avoidance of our limitations that we can slot away into the too hard basket by naming it Original sin and thus unchangeable.

Hamerton-Kelly writes of his view of the American situation in 2008 and he calls his talk, “From Golgotha to Guantanamo,” or “From Joseph Caiaphas to Dick Cheney,” and he suggests through their own American Caiaphas, they are torturing and blaspheming the living Christ as he dies right then under the weight of their congenital sin, which is scapegoating violence. We might want to locate today’s violence in the area of globalization of economies, global movements of refugees and world migration. Pressure are on economies to rationalize taxation policies to deal with online and multinational companies and to provide infrastructure that copes with movement of peoples and integration of cultures and social difference.

“In as much as you have done it to the least of these my brothers you have done it to me” (Matthew 25:40 &45), is not a metaphor, or symbol, but a spiritual fact; when we torture hurt others or cause others pain we hold the Risen Christ on the cross, we engage in violence. So this Lent when we look on the Cross and think “violence” we also reflect on what happens for people who commit violence. Evidence seems to suggest that in many cases people lose their souls, shrivel up and die long before their biological system stops working. Clearly the image, of a young man in the throes of being tortured to death, is one of the central iconic proclamations of our faith, and that image says that the Christian revelation is primarily a revelation to a self-deluded species, unrealistic about the fact that we potentially, are violent to the core and have throughout human history got some strange sort of satisfaction by torturing people to death, and it is a revelation of who God is, namely, the opportunity and potential that we do not have to succumb to that way of settling our differences. Nor do we need to avail ourselves of a need for a scapegoat to do it for us.

The call is to see that the need to avoid confronting our own failures as a species is not alleviated by a scapegoat, nor is it dealt with by ignoring it and choosing the safety of the darkness. The choice of the darkness is to choose to be like those who are blind from birth, and who are they? They are you and I, unoriginal sinners. None of us are able to avoid the light and sit in darkness, none of us can wallow in our self-esteem because it just might be self-delusion, and self-delusion is to give in to the natural reaction to all threats and all challenges which is to use violence of some sort to seek self-esteem

The challenge for us is to accept our congenital blindness, not congratulating ourselves because we can see no evil nor hear any evil, especially of ourselves, but rather being self-aware enough to see the light of the world, and I hear the Calvary cry of pain both as the agony of our cruel race as well as our own personal responsibility and seek not to rage against others or pass on the violence we receive by some miraculous reorganization of responsibility.

We resist seeing ourselves as we really are because we hide in the sacrifice of others. violence. We sit in the dark. ”Don’t bother I’ll just sit here in the dark” and because we think there is no alternative, we call the darkness light. If all we have is darkness our religion will take the form of so much hyper-moralistic exhortation aimed at others,

Last week we spoke of the living water as the water that is not some magical water that stands above life but rather the very water that we take for granted, the water of our everyday and it is that that made it precious and sacred. We also suggested that the Samaritan woman see who Jesus really was. Hamerton-Kelly offers a story that pulls all these themes together under the umbrella of awakening to the light.

“Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign forever and ever.” Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world (John 9:5).” “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).”

So the challenge this lent is to see the light of the Cross as a revelation of who you are and who God is for you, and rejoice, for there is no greater love than what is realized there. There is no need to hide from our reality in our moralistic pride or in the darkness of our self-congratulation. We are all that one born blind and Jesus has applied the mud he made with his spittle to our sightless eyes, and we can see, for the very first time. Amen.

Lent 3A, 2017 John 4: 5-42

Water! The Creative, Transforming God…

Over the last few days and weeks we in New Zealand have been reminded just how fortunate we are compared to some other countries. We have experienced some downpours of rain that have challenged our infrastructure and cause havoc among many lives. Thank fully loss of live has been minimal and in most cases confined to livestock trapped in the sudden deluge. These events have reminded us again just how fortunate we are to be a nation with water aplenty. The blessing of this is highlighted when we think of our nearest neighbour Australia with its vast dry deserts. One of the driest continents on earth, where water is a precious commodity. In fact it would be fair to say that water is everything. Water is life…

You might even remember here the words of the Baptism liturgy where we spend quite a number of words on water with a focus on the active, dynamic symbol of water. We might also make connections with the middle east, the birthplace of Jesus and make connections also with the precious nature of water in a dry climate. We might also perhaps remember that too much water has powerful destructive potential be it in New Zealand a land of plenty water or Australia a land with less. We might also note that the story we heard this morning from the storyteller we call John uses the symbol of water and then that we are in the middle of the season called Lent, which begins with stories around a time in the desert, a place of little to no water,
When we explore this in its context a bit we might see that like Australia Galilee is one perhaps not the driest but of close to a driest inhabited place on earth, and so we might say they have some inkling of how precious water is. Australian maps boldly show some rivers that only flow once a year. And in some cases only flow a few times in a century. The truth is that numerous travelers, from the early explorers through to present day have perished for lack of water. No water, no life. Water and life go together. One quote is that to survive in the Australian desert “is to know the sources of moisture and how to tap into the watertable” (Ferguson & Allen 1990:37).

And that’s what the early settlers found so difficult. A dry, hot place. A place that had to be ‘conquered’ to get anywhere. So hostile and barren did the land appear to them, that they could never dream of co-operating with it. We in New Zealand perhaps are so blessed with water and so used to co-operating with it that we err on the side of exploiting it and end up being reminded of its preciousness when our exploitation hits back. When our homes get flooded by a rising water table or a failure of our control systems. We are reminded to treasure water because it means life.

When we look at the collection of stories told by John, we see that he tells several stories using water. Water turned into wine. Water to wash disciple’s feet. Jesus walking on water. And of course, there are all those exciting fishing stories. A bit like those TV programs where the presenter kisses the fish before throwing it back depicting the thrill of the catch is not about killing and eating the diminishing number of fish but rather about the thrill of the chance to catch or not and when the randomness has been beaten the satisfaction of the catch is manifest Randomness has been won over by certainty. Order is restored and chance banished and the throwing back is rubbing it in. The living water has delivered and been dominated.

Today’s story of a Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well, belongs in this collection. In this story John has Jesus asking the woman for a drink of water. Indeed, the conversation between the two, is the longest of any Jesus is supposed to have had with anyone. Traditionally, the substance of the story is said to be about ‘liberal’ Jesus talking to an immoral Samaritan ‘outsider’ woman. The difficulty with this interpretation is that it trips up the rest of the story. Immediately after Jesus describes her past, she says, “I see that you are a prophet” and asks him where one should worship. If you believe the worst of her, this is nothing more than a clumsy attempt to change the topic. But if you can imagine another scenario, things look different. “Seeing” in John, it’s crucial to note, is all-important. “To see” is often connected with belief. When the woman says, “I see you are a prophet,” she is making a confession of faith. Why? Because Jesus has “seen” her. He has seen her plight — of dependence, not immorality. He has recognized her, spoken with her, offered her something of incomparable worth. He has seen her — she exists for him, has worth, value, significance and all of this is treatment to which she is unaccustomed. And so when he speaks of her past both knowingly and compassionately, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet. For this reason only does she risk the central question that has divided Samaritans and Jews for centuries. This is no awkward dodge or academic diversion; this is a heartfelt question that gets to the core of what separates her from Jesus. And when Jesus surprises her with an answer that is simultaneously more hopeful and penetrating than she’d expected, she leaves her water jar behind to tell her neighbours about this man.

So if this seems at least as probable an interpretation as the more routine traditional one, why do so many preachers assume the worst of her? There are two possible reasons for this. First, there is a long history of misogyny in Christian theology that stands in sharp contrast to the important role women play in the gospels themselves. Women, the four evangelists testify, supported Jesus’ ministry. They were present at the tomb when their male companions fled. And they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Yet from asserting that Eve was the one who succumbed to temptation (conveniently ignoring that the author of Genesis says Adam was right there with her — Gen. 3:6) to assuming this Samaritan woman must be a prostitute, there is the ugly taint of chauvinism present in too much Christian preaching, perhaps particularly so in those traditions that refuse to recognize the equality of women to preach and teach with the same authority as men. But as many scholars have pointed out, this and similar interpretations are an awful misreading of an important story.

A second reason preachers cast this woman in the role of prostitute is that it plays into the belief that Christianity, and religion generally, is chiefly about morality. Treating the Bible as one long, if peculiar, cartoon, we read every story we find in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance. But this story is not about immorality; it’s about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers — dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus’ ministry as she is the first character in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.


If we preachers can rise above the misogyny and moralism that characterizes too much Christian theology, we have the opportunity to tell this woman’s story for what it is: a story of the transforming power of love and the capacity to receive and live into a new identity.

When we stay with the story… with the help of Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish New Testament scholar: We find that (One) The woman is not an outsider. Jewish Jesus is the outsider. She is a Samaritan, and they are on her home turf. (Two) that the woman’s visit to the well in the daylight, is a storyteller’s device about seeing the ‘light’, rather than an indication of social ostracism. The Samaritan woman is the one who sees. Who has understood, has received the revelation, has seen the light. And (Three) There is absolutely nothing that indicates she is ‘sinful’ or sexually promiscuous. “The… woman (might be) unfortunate, but she is not sinful…  The only ones who condemn her are the biblical scholars.” (Levine 2006:137)

Another person who might help us appreciate this story beyond the traditional, is a bloke called Rick Marshall.  Taking John’s image of a well and the rising up of the water, Marshall says: “Who knows where (the water) comes from.  But we drink it and go on living our lives…  That’s how the creative, transforming power of God is:  Who knows where it comes from, but it sustains us and we go on living our lives. It is like the randomness of creation, the serendipity of evolution, the potential of water. We are called to trust the ‘Living Water’.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005) It nourishes the dryness and the damp but if in our seeking to control it rather than trust it we will kill it or abuse it and we have a desert flash flood or a sodden earth catastrophe. It sustains us if we trust it and we go on living our lives. “We experience the creating, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005)

I wonder if this is also what the storyteller we call John had in mind, when he told the story of Jesus asking a woman for a drink. Water is life, It is a Living water. It permeates our living, it is our livings life blood. Randal Wehler’s poem attempts to explore this sense of this living water’s place in the scheme of life.

A Face In The River

by Randall Wehler


I stand on a bank of a running river, immersed in a flow of my own called life

Sad, happy, fearful, calm, and joyous awe-filled waves lap up all around me


The waters seem to call to something deep inside me, awakened to a Godly spirit

Seeing that what life gives — the good and the bad — must have meaning and purpose


Though poised on the river’s shore, it’s but a short walk into the cleansing waters

I can suspend, weightless, against the flowing Earthly energy of fluid sustenance


I feel nourished, also, by God’s numinous presence whose works are all around me

Having been created with awareness to contemplate the divine, the world, myself


The Sun shines, coloring flowing waters with changing hues throughout the day

As a divine presence guides me daily to think, feel, and experience the wonder


Were I to stare down into these waters when they’re calm and my spirit serene

I’d see my face reflected, maybe sensing a glimpse of God dwelling inside me


My life and spirit move onward — questioning, seeking, finding, and knowing

As the river’s waters flow, coursing a movement into channels of Earthly design


I can rest assured that God (as understood) can guide us all in Christ-like ways

Reflecting on scripture where Jesus declares God’s provision of “living waters”


This living water is so intrinsically part of life that it is easy to become complacent about it, to take it for granted. That is the nature of this living water. So wonderfully precious yet so invisible it is taken for granted. This living water is how the transforming presentness of Creativity God is. It sustains us as we live our lives, quietly moving through life, our life. So we might live life to the full, love wastefully, and be all that we can be.  (John S Spong)


Notes: de Mello, A. The Song of the Bird. 10th edition. India: Anand. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988. Ferguson, G. & R. Allen. ”Thirsty in a Dry Land: The Migrant Experience of the Absence of God” in G. Ferguson & J. Chryssavgis. The Desert is Alive. Melbourne. JBCE, 1990. Levine, A-J. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne, 2006.