Beyond Ecclesiastical Politics

In looking back over previous sermons on Trinity Sunday I noted that it has developed in some quarters as a Sunday when heresy, and even skepticism is raised as negative traits and proposed as against right belief, orthodoxy and even tradition.

This seems to be supported by Robert G Ingersoll who wrote that “Heresy is a cradle; orthodoxy, a coffin” Heresy and skepticism are healthy activities that have as their goal a truth that is workable, understandable and worthy of proclamation.

Like doubt, heresy and skepticism are important means toward an arguable reality and as Richard Holloway says “Truth is rarely simple and seldom obvious, which is why mature institutions recognise the importance of conflict and disagreement. It has to be noted that Christianity was born in conflict, and it has been characterised by conflict ever since. The Church’s obsession with heresy is witness to this fact”

The question we might ask is “Do I consider myself a heretic?”  The answer is I should. Why? Well! One reason might be to look at the history of the word. The ancient Greek word for ‘choice’ is the word we know as ‘heresy’. So, heretics are people of choice.

It was in the late second century or maybe a little earlier that a more negative or sinister interpretation began to be imposed as ‘heresy’. An idea of heresy in its negative sense gained real momentum in the writings of the first important Christian apologist, which is to say ‘defender’ of the faith.

This was Irenaeus (ca. 202 CE), a native of Asia Minor who became the bishop of what is now Lyons, France. He authored a book titled Against Heresies, a vigorous attack upon the perceived threat of Gnosticism to what he regarded as orthodoxy—that is, ‘right belief’.

Irenaeus’ book was so influential, it virtually defined heresy not only among his contemporary defenders of orthodoxy, but among Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant Christians well into modern times, including the 21st century! 

Thus, with the imposition of ‘orthodoxy’, all teachers, particularly those with original minds, were exposed to possible accusations of heresy. So, thanks in large part to Irenaeus, the term “heresy” has been a pejorative…A source of accusation, an indictable charge, and an occasion for censure or some other dire punishment, in many cases including torture and death.

We might ask; ‘What has all this to do with the Trinity? And the possible reason is that in the traditional Christian calendar, today is being celebrated as ‘Trinity Sunday’. Trinity Sunday – or as a version of the Athanasian Creed likes to put it: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible…”

The second reason is that it is also the doctrine around which most ’progressives’ have been charged with heresy. And just to take a little historical journey again. You may or may not be old enough to remember the turbulent 1960s and a couple of challenging heroes: Bishop John A. T. Robinson and German Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner. Both offered ‘heretical’ opinions on the Trinity. Robinson said during the Honest to God debates: “I was once asked a question after one of my talks: ’How would you teach a child the doctrine of the Trinity?’  It was one of the easiest questions I have ever received.  The answer was: ‘I wouldn’t’”. (Robinson 1967:86)

While Rahner, claimed that everyday devotional beliefs of most Catholics “would not change at all if there was no Trinity, so little does the doctrine engage their minds”.  (Freeman 2009:168)

I can remember starting a few sermons on the Trinity with the words that it was the Sunday most preachers would not preach on it out of respect for it. A way of avoiding its divisiveness perhaps?

One hesitates to list off the entire history of heresy but it might be worthwhile to note a few.

The first early heretic to note is Arius (256-336 CE) Alexandria Arius, a priest in the Church of Alexandria, Egypt, is perhaps the most famous (or infamous) heretic in Christian history. He lived at a time in which there was probably a general census among Christians that Jesus had been—and due to the resurrection, still was—divine in some sense, but his precise relationship as Son to the Father, much less to the Holy Spirit, had not yet been officially established.

Arius maintained the Son and the Father were not of the same being or substance (homo-ousios), but merely of similar being or substance (homi-ousios) —a verbal difference of one Greek letter. A “homoousian” in the fourth-century Arian controversy, was a person who held that God the Father and God the Son are of the same substance. Whereas a “homiousian” was a person who held that God the Father and God the Son are of like but not identical substance. Arius was considered as not of the so-called party line but his view gained great popularity throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and became so controversial that the Christian Emperor, Constantine, convened the first ecumenical council – the Council of Nicea – in 325 CE to settle the matter. 

It did, by imperial legislation, and against Arius and the emergent Arianism. He and his followers and their views were pronounced anathema, which by that time meant not only ‘insane and demented heretics’ but dangerous. Their books were burned. Their bishops sacked or murdered. Their churches suppressed by military conquest.

For all intents and purposes the Council of Nicea set the stage for an official Trinitarian doctrine: one Godhead, but three co-eternal and co-equal Persons, under one Name.

But the real tragedy of the imposition of the Nicean trinity and its aftermath lay in the elimination of discussion, not only of spiritual matters, but across the whole spectrum of human knowledge. In its place stood a decision of mind-boggling philosophical complexity “made more bitter and intense by ecclesiastical politics”.  (Freeman 2009:66)           

Because of or as a result of this complex conflict both the term ‘heresy’ and the concept it represents have been used relatively infrequently and mostly rhetorically over the last two centuries. Formal heresy trials have been infrequent and, more importantly, non-lethal. Infrequently yes, but not yet declared obsolete.

Closer to home was against Charles Strong (1844-1942)   An Australian the Rev Charles Strong came to Australia from Scotland and for some today, Strong is regarded as the first genuine theological progressive in Australia, with comparisons to John Shelby Spong. (Gardner 2006)

Ordained into the broad Church of Scotland in 1868, his success as a pastor, preacher, liberal theological teacher and social reformer led to his appointment as minister of Scots Church, Melbourne in 1875. For the next eight years Strong was never far away from controversy. He described his theology as “broad or liberal” which, he said, was “absolutely necessary to a minister of the gospel in order to the development of a healthy Christian life”. (Badger 1971:51)

Such a theology had several characteristics:

  • it was fluid, anti-authoritarian, “being bound by neither creed, church, dogma nor council” (Badger 1971:237)
  • thinks of God as an indwelling, energising Spirit
  • God was manifested in Humanity – Humanity was God’s ‘Son’
  • love and justice were always working together
  • it allied itself with science, and
  • it is based on human experience rather than an infallible book.  (Badger 1971:285)

Unable to resolve differences with the Presbyterian Church, and with the threat of a charge of heresy for promulgating and publishing heretical and unsound doctrine hanging over his head, Strong resigned, and immediately returned to Scotland. On his return to Australia in 1885, he assisted in founding the Australian Church – a free, non-sectarian, undogmatically-based religious fellowship.

And even closer to home 80 years later in the turbulent 1960s… Lloyd George Geering (1918 -) A New Zealander Born in New Zealand but having lived and taught in both Australia and New Zealand, Rev Professor Sir Lloyd Geering is best remembered for his high-profile 1967 heresy trial within the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. In several sermons preached and articles written between 1965 and 1967 Geering suggested why a new reformation in the church was overdue. “Is the Christian faith inextricably bound up with the world-view of ancient mankind, or can the substance of it be translated into the worldview of twentieth century mankind?”

He claimed the Bible was not literally inerrant, questioned the idea of a physical resurrection, and suggested humans had no ‘immortal soul’.

This can be considered not very revolutionary but a veritable storm erupted.  There was an immediate outbreak of calls for his resignation or at the very least, his dismissal.  So following hours of debate in presbyteries, congregations, and in national newspapers, the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, in heresy-hunting mode, in the full glare of television cameras and journalists, and having listened to both Geering and his detractors, declared that it found “no doctrinal error has been established, dismisses the charges, and declares the case closed.”

Geering had beaten the ‘heresy’ rap much to the disgust of those who brought forward the charge. One resigned and started his own church. The Catholic newspaper Zealander wrote: ‘Where does this leave the Presbyterian church now that it has sold Christianity down the River?’  (Geering 2006:164)

One of the most recent examples is another 50 years on in 2016, and in Canada… Gretta Vosper (1958 -) Canada. Rev Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada ordained minister and founding President of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, who, since 2001, has labeled herself a non-theist or atheist. And this so got up the nose of several of her Toronto Conference colleagues (a second time) —who concluded she was ‘unsuitable’ to be a minister— they petitioned the Assembly asking she be examined to determine if she should continue with the status of ‘minister’ in the church. After more than two years of arguments, meetings and newspaper articles, her ‘trial was set for June 2016.

The first of five questions to her were taken from the church’s ordination vows: ‘Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?’

Some edited comments from her very lengthy response follow.

“IF by “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”…you expressly mean the Trinitarian God, composed of three persons equal in essence, a being who presides over Earth from another realm, a supernatural one, from which it has the power to intervene in the natural world–capriciously or by design–by responding to our prayerful requests, or altering our minds and so, too, our actions…  no, I do not believe in that at all…”

“What I do believe… … has come to me through a heritage that is rich in church and in the religious denomination into which I was born and raised.  It is rooted in a family that, like many families, transmitted positive values to its children.  These same positive values have also been projected by humanity, alongside other, more dangerous values, to become the attributes of the transcendent, divine, supernatural beings we have called gods…”

“It does not follow, however, that supernatural beings provided the moral codes or values by which we choose to live…  And there are no moral codes that have been formed by the mind of a god.  Rather, there is a morality that we have created and that transcends our personal circumstances…”

Above is just a snippet and in the end, and after more than an estimated $500,000.00 in costs and thousands of words written and spoken, the church and Vosper came to an agreement where the charges were dropped.

That our energy is ancient and original, that our atoms are ancient and original, that our carbon-based chemical skeleton was a product of a grandmother sun’s alchemy, does not necessarily satisfy another aspect of our nature.

We are not only what we are, but who we are.  (Fleischman 2013:164) Many of us are still prepared to say we are religious or spiritual. But not satisfied with the theology we have inherited.

Many are looking for a religion/spirituality that is Earthy. This is how Lloyd Geering talks about such a ‘spirituality’. 

It includes:

  • An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe
  • An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet 
  • An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself 
  • The value to be found in life, in all of its diversity
  • An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears * Responsibility for the care of one another
  • Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.  (Geering 2009:200)

Geering calls such spirituality ‘secular mysticism’. Another, called it ‘mystical naturalism’.

And here’s the rub! such a spirituality of whatever name, is heretical!

One has to ask if it is not high time for those of us who value progressive thought and action to reclaim the many condemned as heretics in the past (and present), and to acknowledge them for what they really are: heroes of faith.

Under different circumstances, their free-thinking might well have enriched religion in their own day, as it may do so for us today, as we appreciate and celebrate what they modelled: “not only the positive role of the intellect, of doubt, of freedom of thought, and of differences of opinion about doctrines, theologies, creeds, and other components, but the specific questions they raised and wrestled [with] as well.  In their honour, we may want to embrace for ourselves the label “heretic” or at least ‘Skeptic’ and its root connotation of freedom of choice, especially in matters of belief, and to take up its banner, not in subversion of the faith, but in support of it.”  (Laughlin 2013:109)

Rex Hunt of whom I quote often, and of whom I am most grateful for the sermon above has chosen to call and celebrate this Sunday ‘All Heretics Day’.

Bibliography:

Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne: Abacada Press, 1971.

Fleischman, P. R.  Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant.  Amherst: Small Batch Books, 2013

Freeman, C. A.D. 381. Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. New York: The Overlook Press, 2009

Gardner, A. “What’s in a Name? Strong and Spong.” Part of the Strong Symposium, University of South Australia. The Charles Strong Memorial Trust, 2006

Geering, L. G. “The 1967 Heresy Trial – Forty Years On”.  In private circulation from the author, 2006

Wrestling With God: The Story of my Life. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2006

Coming Back to Earth: From gods, to God, to Gaia. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2009

Laughlin, P. A. “Heretics or Heroes? Reclaiming the Faith’s Free Thinkers” in R. A. E. Hunt & J. W. H. Smith. (ed) Why Weren’t We Told? A Handbook on ‘progressive’ Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2013

Muir, F. J.  Heretics’ Faith: Vocabulary for Religious Liberals. Annapolis: Muir/Self Published, 2001

Ingersoll, R. G. Heretics and Heresies. eBook. The Gutenberg Project, 2011/2013

Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London: Fontana Press, 1967.

Vosper, G. “Response to the Questions of Ordination.” June 2016. Direct from the author.

https://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/

Pentecost, What, is it?

Posted: May 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Pentecost, What, is it?

What ‘Pentecost’ is, is a script full of symbolism which just cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event may or may not lay behind this story. Wind and flames and a cacophony of languages! Flamboyant speech! Great drama! Some claim it as the birthday of the church!

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  As an opening sentence for us in the time of Covid-19, is a bit ironic. In a literal sense, many of us are still isolating to a degree. Or at least taking proximity caution which makes it not prudent for us to be “together in one place.”  Even as we begin to gather again it still feels difficult to contemplate togetherness — much less celebrate a great feast day like Pentecost — in this context. 

But in another sense, we are in one place.  We are in a place of vulnerability and grief remembering the loss of lives that have taken place and the lives still being lost around the world. We are in a sense together in our uncertainty.  Together in our loss.  Together in our hopes and fears.  Across all sorts of distances — geographical, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic — we are bound together as one people, one humanity, one planet, still facing a common threat that knows no borders.  Like the disciples in our Gospel reading for this week, we are huddled together behind locked doors, waiting for Jesus to come among us and say, “Peace be with you.”  Waiting for him to breathe on us.  Waiting for him to speak the words we need so desperately: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” 

Pentecost — from the Greek pentekostos, meaning “fiftieth,” was a Jewish festival celebrating the spring harvest, and the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai.  In the New Testament Pentecost story Luke tells, the Holy Spirit descended on 120 believers in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Jesus’s resurrection.  The Spirit empowered them to testify to God’s saving work, emboldened the apostle Peter to preach to a bewildered crowd of Jewish skeptics, and drew three thousand converts from around the known world in one day.  For many Christians, Pentecost marks the birthday of the Church.

In Numbers 11 we read that Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

The ideas behind the New Testament Pentecost have some traditional roots within Judaism. What is common is that the very different biblical stories of the first Pentecost experience, are told in the most expansive and descriptive ways imaginable. That told by the storyteller we traditionally call Luke, the accepted author of The Acts of the Apostles, is dramatic. A heavenly sound like that of a rushing wind. Descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame. Patterns of transformed speech allowing everyone to hear what was being said in all kinds of languages. A moment of conversion resulting in thousands of people being added to a tiny community of faith. That told by the storyteller we traditionally call John, is personal.

The Spirit of God brooding in the hearts and minds of people as it brooded over the face of waters in the story of creation. What storyteller Luke describes as happening over 50 days, storyteller John suggests it all happened on the same day! And we should not try to combine or debase them into some simple chronological event. Ever since the so-called first Pentecost, this day has been regarded as a significant moment in the life of the church, even though we know little about the movement becoming that which we know as church.

The story Luke describes is a fantastical one, full of details that challenge the imagination.  Tongues of fire.  Rushing wind.  Bold preaching.  Mass baptism.  But at its heart, the Pentecost story is not about spectacle and drama.  It’s about the socially driven desire for common community awareness transforming ordinary, imperfect, frightened people into a way of being.  It’s about the disruption and disorienting of humdrum ways of engaging the sacred, so that something new and holy can be born within and among us.  It’s about human agency awakening to another way of being and doing, carrying us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and our neighbour. Pentecost day is the potential we meet in any and every day.

Let’s for a moment, think back to our own Sunday School days. Some of us if not many of us will have had what we know as a Pentecost experience and along with that will have gone what we were taught about the Spirit of God. Some of us were taught that the emblem of the Spirit of God is the Dove. Indeed, the dove of peace. My own personal challenge to the use of this emblem was when I found the family crest to have a white dove with an olive branch in its beak on a green mound and that the family motto was La Paix (The Peace). Another was when the Uniting Church in Australia chose the descending whit dove as its emblem, believing that this new church was a Pentecost church. They also included the flames on the UCA emblem.

I did wonder if they were Canterbury fans as the colours are Red White and Black.

The significance of the Dove is quite strong in that many church bulletins covers also seem to think the dove is the right emblem or symbol for Pentecost…The “sweet heavenly dove” of the Holy Spirit is popular and after all, there is much to be said for the dove. Rumour has it, it was a dove bearing an olive branch that flew back to old Noah on his Ark, signaling the good news of dry land after the great flood.

The Spirit of God also descends “like a dove” upon Jesus at his baptism, according to Luke’s gospel story. Traditionally a nice white dove suggests innocence, purity and peace.

And in medieval times they used to release hundreds of them in the cathedrals on Pentecost day. It is also said that they discontinued that practice when the doves rained down on the congregation more than light and grace!

We see the dove as gentle, graceful, and seductive, but that, according to storyteller William Bausch, is its limitation. It’s too sweet and sentimental and, finally, wrong’ (Bausch 1998:474).

Recent legend has it the Irish had it right when it came to Pentecost emblems. It has been claimed (and disputed I might add) that in old Celtic traditions the Holy Spirit was not represented as a white dove – tame and pure – but by a wild goose. Geese are not controllable.  They make a lot of noise. And have a habit of biting those who try to contain them. Geese, fly faster in a flock than on their own. And they make excellent ‘guard dogs. Ian Bradley, former lecturer in practical theology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, might be historically accurate when he says he can’t find any evidence to substantiate such a tradition in Celtic folklore beyond the creative imagination of George Macleod of Iona fame…

However, if experience has anything to say it could be that the Spirit of God is like a ‘wild goose’ after all. It comes not in quiet conformity but demanding to be heard. Its song is not sweet to many. It drives people together, demanding they support and travel with one another. It shouts a truth many with power would rather not hear. And it often forces those on whom it rests to become noisy, passionate, and courageous people of the gospel.

As Patricia de Jong has suggested: “St Paul did not have the benefit of Hallmark Cards, which thinks doves are just like love-birds, billing and cooing come Valentine’s Day.  But St Paul knows for sure, that the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is love – not the love sold to us by Hollywood and the greetings card industry, but the love of God which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, binding an aggregate of different and unlikely people together, creating new community on new common ground in the Body of Christ”.  (de Jong/FCC Berkeley Web site, 2005)

Pentecost is the wild goose of the whistle blower, the meals-on-wheels provider, the hospital visitor, the protester, and those seeking welfare and education reform, and employment opportunities for all. Today in the throws of Covid-19 it is likely that Pentecost as wild goose is demanding a new way of being, a way of compassion, understanding and goodness.

It is not surprising, then, that as we gather to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of God at Pentecost, our biblical readings have nothing to do with the innocence and purity and peace, associated with the Spirit as dove. But on the contrary, “this Spirit is the living energy, the creative vitality that stirs the waves and whispers in the wind, that warms the sun and eroticizes the moon, that vibrates in the sounds of nature, begetting novelty in every realm of [the universe]”.  (O’Murchu 2005:96)

So, in this time of evolving Covid-19 let us make a bold claim. Let us claim that the spirit of Pentecost is alive in this place where we are. Let us then continue to embrace new and different ways of worshipping and thinking theologically, so that we might reflect the challenging and unique diversity of Serendipitous Creativity God in the world. Let us also celebrate the Spirit of play and wonder in this place as we celebrate together, care for one another, push old theological boundaries, and go about the life of this community.

And finally, let us continue to embrace the dreams and visions of the future which we believe makes this place both unique and important. We could rest in nostalgia and our past, especially our past. We could also approach the realities of planning for a new beginning, believing that Pentecost is something more than a so-called past event.

It is the story of God’s continuing present-ness experienced again and again. The amazing story of people coming to awareness through reflection on the life of Jesus that the same Spirit that moved in him moved in them.”  (Morwood 2003:84)

Remember also the place of ‘the plural’ in the stories. It is not ‘incarnate’ in just one person, but becoming incarnate in us as community. Pentecost is as people dream dreams and see a vision of justice and compassion in the world. Serendipitous Creativity God with us, Our God is present now, for us, Our God is in our humanity and our God is in us. We are Co-creators with Serendipitous Creativity God living, involving and engaging us in being on the Way toward being fully human.

‘Into the Arms and Womb of God, (Almost)’’

This last week has seen us run into a number of Lectionary events that should be mentioned today. For New Zealand Methodists we had and have Covenant Sunday or Aldersgate Sunday and for followers of the Three-year Lectionary it is Ascension Sunday. After some 50 days, following an agenda primarily set by the storyteller Matthew, even though the majority of gospel stories have been told by the theologian/storyteller we call John, we have run out of Easter type stories. Ascension Sunday for many is a one-day Season. A Season which uses a heap of ‘up there’ mythical language “as naively as any passage in the New Testament” to quote 1960s ‘Honest to God’ John Robinson (Robinson 1967:76). So, for Three-year types we now ask what we are to make of the Ascension story in 2020?

Bruce Epperly reminds us that there is every possibility that some of those who first heard or read the story of Jesus being ‘raised in glory’ (like one of the ancient Greek heroes) 70 -90 years after the life of Jesus, actually believed he ascended to a literal heaven and would return from God’s throne ‘someplace up there’ at the end of time  (Epperly P&F Web site 2005).

While these ideas may not be absolutely accurate as literalism is a later development Greek and Roman cosmology would suggest that this is how they usually made sense of their world. But that is not how we understand our world today. So, the Ascension story is a bit of a test case of our ability to cope with strange language, and primitive cosmology.

The challenge for us, it seems to me, is to find new ways and new phrases of contemporary significance beyond the traditional literal images of ancient knowledge for the telling of both the Jesus stories and the God story.

We now question these so-called Western concepts of cosmology because story and poetry and imagination and image are believed to be as if not more important.

It is here that we begin our exploration of the text.

In light of the ‘otherworldly’ interpretations many of us will hear today we will begin by being quite clear that the heart of this particular Jesus story is not about some pre-scientific form of space travel… Nor is it about a past moment in time, or about some possible future event, usually called the Second Coming.

It is a story about our calling as Christians to heal and transform the world. Thisworld.
To live faithfully in this life on the journey that Jesus chartered. To follow the Way! Likewise, when we are engaged in our God-talk it too needs to go beyond our traditional literal images. It is here that my theology of ‘The Almost’ comes into play and offers a Way that recognizes a sort of purpose in all things including the cosmos yet resists the need to define that which should remain Mystery. It also recognizes that language, despite our utter dependence upon it, is never quite enough.

What follows is an attempt to talk about this Mystery in another way. John D Caputo, a Catholic Philosopher theologian I think provides a way of do this. He uses ‘perhaps as the alternative name of God that gives us a new less literal, more dynamic name for God He says that the name of God is the name of an insistent call or solicitation that is visited upon the world, and whether God comes to exist depends upon whether we resist or assist this insistence. The insistence of God means that God insists upon existing. If we say that God’s essence lies in God’s insistence, we mean that while metaphysics turns on the distinction between essence and existence, what Caputo is calling here a “poetics” of the “perhaps” and what I call a poetics and theology of ‘almost’ turns on the distinction between insistence and existence. God is an insistent claim or provocation, while the business of existence is up to us—existence here meaning response or responding, assuming responsibility to convert what is being called for in the name of God into a deed.

So, where metaphysics theorizes the distinction between of essence and existence, a poetics describes the “chiasm,” the “intertwining,” of God’s insistence with our existence. In a chiasm, each depends upon the other, neither one without the other. God needs us to be God, and we need God to be human. The insistence of God needs us for strength, even as we draw strength from God’s weakness. God’s insistence needs our existence to make any difference. Our existence needs God’s insistence in order to have a difference to make. God comes to exist in our response; our deeds constitute the “effects” the name of God has in the world. But we should be very careful not to attach any metaphysical baggage to such talk or confuse ourselves with God. A theology of the event is not supposed to end up in pantheism or reinventing “panentheism,” which is a fetching idea and very inviting, but in the end a bit too far-fetched, still more metaphysics.

Two other people who have attempted the task of new images and concepts are Shirley Murray and Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan. Both are contemporary composers whose work invites us to imagine God or the sacred, differently, and to experience faith with some different accents. We know of some of Shirley’s creativity as her contemporary hymns are often included in our liturgies. But Richard’s work is new to me as it might be to others. One of his songs, “Ground and Source of All That Is“, has these image based words (three verses only):

Ground and source of all that is,

one that anchors all our roots,
Being of all ways and forms,
deepest home and final truth.
We live and move in you
We live and move in you…

Lover of ten thousand names,
holy presence all have known,
Beauty ever welcoming,
Mystery to stir the soul. 
We live and move in you
We live and move in you…

Nature by whose laws we live,
author of our DNA,
All compelling call to life,
drawing one and all the same.
We live and move in you
We live and move in you… 
 

(Originally from Upper Room)

Another who offers creative work is Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and theologian. Her continuing invitation to us all is to consider the feminine image of God.
Not in some cheap Hallmark Mother’s Day card theology, but addressing God in relational ways. In one of her many reflections she offers this:

The God of history,
The God of the Bible.
is One who carries us in Her arms
after carrying us in Her womb,
breastfeeds us,
nurtures us,
teaches us how to walk,
teaches us how to soar upward
just as the eagle teaches its young
to stretch their wings and fly,

makes fruitful,
brings to birth,
clothes the lilies of the field,
clothes Eve and Adam with garments newmade,
clothes you and me
with skin and flesh
and a whole new level of meaning
with the putting on of Christ…
 

(Winter 1987:20).

These offerings of ‘Miriam Therese Winter’ provide a different way of thinking theologically and imagining God but in reality, they not very new ways, because the feminine image of God, has been around for generations, and sadly was successfully buried by church patriarchy as ‘pagan’. So, thinking theologically, which the biblical stories of the Ascension requires us to do, means more than just interpreting our given orthodox biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past!  (Sallie McFague). But in the ‘orthodox’ world of certainty, belief and literalism this can be dangerous stuff. Rejection of ‘Good News’ in favour of control and single truth was and still is far too easy, not because it was or is good, or bad, but because it was and is new!

So here we are at a level two Covid-19 driven event, on the verge of what promises to be a new or changed life which after all, is the purpose of Easter Season and so, maybe we might imagine this time as the ‘womb’ of God birthing us to be wonderful, creative, and caring human beings… Born in the image of God the ‘Almost’; Living creative creatures born in doubt, uncertainty and in the vulnerability of human reality and yet always that which is yet to be always with potential and purpose. Pilgrims living the questions and exploring the adventure of being human, ‘on the Jesus Way’ The Way being an ‘Almost’ Way; a not-so-easy journey which Jesus first chartered. He gave his life to what it meant to be human in his time, on the front line of healing, exorcising and political and economic exclusion and ultimately death as in living life to the fullest.

Faith in God is as Caputo suggests; where God; the ‘Almost’ is not a safe harbour but rather a risky business. God is not a warranty for a well-run world, but the name of a promise, an unkept promise, (almost, a yet to be.) where every promise is also a risk, a flicker of hope on a suffering planet in a remote corner of the universe. We do not have to believe in the existence of God but rather in God’s insistence. We do not need to say God “exists,” but rather that God calls — God calls upon us, like an unwelcome interruption, a quiet but insistent solicitation. A theology of ‘Almost’ Amen

Notes:
Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Book, 1967.
Winter, M. T. Woman Prayer Woman SongResources for Ritual. Oak Park. Meyer Stone, 1987.

Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) . Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.

rexae74@gmail.com

God? That Which Comes to Expression in Us. Living?

I am aware that my sermon last week about the words put into the mouth of Jesus by the storyteller John: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’, and the interpretation I offered, may have been a bit technical and maybe even challenging to some of you. I am told that this phrase is often the subject of much debate in the pages of somechurch magazines.

If what I said, was a bit technical last week it was in perhaps the reliance on interpretation of language and not what some of you have read or heard others say before. And, it would be ok to say that this might have caught some of you unawares, but then it may have perhaps stimulated your imaginations.

For those of you who missed last week I wrote a little about how can we make sense of the claim: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’. Traditionally, these words have often been used, and come across, as exceedingly exclusive. As if Jesus, in the guise of a benevolent but first century ‘Terminator’, is making an ambit claim against other religions. Or is some kind of heavenly bouncer, keeping people away from God. Especially those without faith. Those with not enough faith. And those who express their faith differently.

The sermon was an attempt to say that Jesus is not the ‘way’ in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership. He was and could be the path-way the ‘Way’ into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship… Into the mystery of our common existence. Jesus is the ‘Truth’ about that common existence. It is what makes sense given what we know about human life. Uncovering what is hidden, and bringing to light another dimension of human existence is the true living. Jesus is ‘Life’ because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other. The collective, interdependent reality of being human. The plural ‘you’. The non-isolated and living individual.

So, the challenge for those of us who live comfortably with the title ‘progressive’, and let’s face it, that is not everyone, is not the existence of other faiths claims. For the most part, most of us happily embrace religious pluralism and spiritual diversity, so long as we don’t have to explain it too deeply but the extreme of diversity is a distortion.

The challenge, it seems, is our surrendering of the Christian story to exclusive cults and preaching gurus, to fundamentalists and members of the ‘religious right’, and to the new neo-conservative evangelicals. And that is not relivatism or surrendering to the moderate but rather acknowledging and celebrating the dynamic living evolving peace-based pathway. But that was last week.  What about this week?

Maybe I need to apologize beforehand because today’s gospel story – John’s prelude to Pentecost might be just as complicated as it is about the continuing present-ness of God.

One possible way into this story is to sense the differences between the religion of Jesus, and the religion about Jesus.

The religion of Jesus is without much text available to us and so it is found in the echoes of the sayings he spoke and the stories he told, not as law, but about how to live,  and by that I mean how to treat one another, how to re-imagine the world. Some might say living the golden rule ‘Do unto others etc.….’ is enough to understand the way Jesus lived, but his humanity suggests that there is more to it than that and it is this that we seek.

The religion about Jesus has often been the religion of literalism and fundamentalism. In this path we find ourselves leaping forward in the history of the Christian movement and the institutionalisation of Christianity and then its politicizing as the state religion. And when this path has been followed it is believing a certain story about an interventionist God, with the promise that if you do believe, you’ll be saved some day after you die.

The religion of Jesus however, is not a ‘supernatural’ story.  It is a real and applicable story. It is about how you can be made more whole, here and now, as a human being, and how you can help make the world more whole, here and now. From our very best guesses (thanks to the work of amateur sleuths and scholarly critics), we can say the message of the religion of Jesus was one of liberation and empowerment and compassion. It was about seeing the alternative way of living, the other opportunity of life freed from cultural prisons and seeing the economic, social, religious and political options within human systems of life. The religion of Jesus was about providing new or different pathways to experiencing and serving God in daily life, this life.

And from all we have puzzled over and learned, we can also say the message from the religion about Jesus was one too often aimed at implanting and maintaining fear as a motivator and thus frightening or controlling people, hating those who are different, skeptics who asked questions about the ethics or the benefits to whom. Look out is you were a zealot of any kind or an assertive woman.

The religion about Jesus emphasizes the ‘noun’ and sanctifies belief as concrete and immovable whereas the religion of Jesus emphasizes the ‘verb’ and celebrates the dynamic, living, moving, evolutionary nature of life itself. As some have said: The religion about Jesus is ‘Easter’. The once only moment of new life and the religion of Jesus is ‘easter-ing’. Crucifixions are real and happen whenever we trap something in its context never allowing it to evolve and be interpretive. “It’s about the miracle of new life coming from old, life out of death, right here and now.  There is nothing supernatural about this understanding of the relationship with the divine even though it feels so magical when it happens…  Life is about honouring that spirit of life that comes and goes as it likes, but when it comes our way it can make all the difference between feeling dead and feeling alive…” (Davidson Loehr UUAustin Web site, 2008). 

The stories we heard this morning from Philip and from John, are more about ‘easter-ing’ than ‘easter’. They are not about bigger miracles or stricter commandments or watertight creeds. They are about a dynamic, creative, evolving ‘present-ness’ in our midst. The truth is that the stories are conditioned and shaped by the language of their day: the earth is flat for them, bad things that happen are coined as sin and sin causes sickness, God as all powerful and distant. The three- tier universe supports this because Nature is part of the mystery but so are our stories conditioned and shaped by the language and imagination of our day.

What we have in common with the so-called Luke’s version of Paul, is that we too can claim: God is ‘not far from each one of us.’ Our God is present and active everywhere on earth… As Progressives our God is closer to that which is human. The incarnation is more intimate than theirs perhaps, or humanity and divine are less objective and more subjective than they were. Things in common are found in the slow development of human cultures and societies, the growth of knowledge, and the constant search for meaning as women and men tell stories and share their connectedness, and in the urging of us to love graciously and generously, to break down barriers between people, and to put an end to religious elitism and religious wars.

A progressive imagining may be for a more creative, compassionate, loving and vulnerable humanity. And rather than an attempt to control, extend and condition happiness and human achievement, we might embrace and rejoice in the knowledge that our God lives and comes to wonderful expression – in us, as us. Missing pieces we might have, vulnerable we might be, at the whim of serendipitous reality we might be and as ‘at risk’ that we are. In this might be a theology of illness that enables us to engage with the Covid-19 virus and take responsibility for our effect on the climate of our world and on its future as a planet where human life evolves. So, we might say, long may this species we know as human live, long live human living as we know it. If living can be a living of Jesus rather than about Jesus then so may it be! Amen.

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John 14:1- 7

‘It’s What he Didn’t Say That’s Important’

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

One of the most pervasive and misconstrued texts in John’s Gospel is the suggested reply Jesus makes to Thomas’s questions about Jesus’s future. “We don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?” And Jesus answers saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. The trouble is that it is almost certain that Jesus did not say that at all. It is on much scholastic work, agreed that the text is the author’s words seeking to argue that Jesus is ‘The Christ’.

One of the most horrible outcomes of this mis-construal is what we are seeing in the United States and in many places around the world today. Lack of tolerance with difference and the resurgence of racism, sexism, and an acceptance of belligerent bullying attitudes. Individualism gone mad perhaps.

Rev Hunt tells of what happened for him when he was a student at Melbourne Uni. In the mid to late 1960s. A member of EU (Evangelical Union), a religious group on campus, came up to his lunch table in the student union cafe of the university. ‘Do you believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?’ asked a very intense, but earnest fellow student. Rex was a bit dumbstruck and didn’t quite know how to answer him. So, he just smiled politely folded his meat and salad sandwich in its waxed lunch wrap, and got up to leave.

‘He’s the way!  The only way to salvation!  Get on board before it’s too late!’

Here we have an inkling of what the power of a misconstrued text is. When read as justification for exclusivity ‘I am” ‘‘The only one” “believe or else” it creates an environment of, belligerence and intolerance and the escalation of disagreement.

Rex left the cafeteria, angry, embarrassed and frustrated. The desperation of the guy’s certainty both frightened and angered Rex. Years later the sureness of conviction, and the exclusivity of it, still makes me him feel uncomfortable.

Returning to our text we have to consider what John has Jesus say is bad advice. John Kirwan the former all black in promoting an honest engagement with men’s depression suggests that the ‘harden up mate’ and the ‘toughen up get over it’ response is bad advice

In our therapy-infused culture, this is considered horrible advice.  Feelings should not be “held in,” but expressed openly.  The author of John must have missed that lecture.  He gives a message not unlike the one that John Kirwan rubbishes.

“Do not let your heart be troubled.”  John has Jesus urging his disciples to move beyond their anxiety and to “trust into God and trust into me.”  (The word is pisteuein, more properly translated as “trust” or “faith” rather than “believe.”  Also, the preposition is eis, which means “into,” not “in.”)  John has Jesus asking his disciples to put their “troubles” in the proper perspective and to see them in light of God’s power.  This is not a lot different from “smile and get over it.”  See your pain, or your troubles, disappear by believing in what I say about this guy Jesus.

Another concern about misconstrued text is the fact that in the English language, the word “you” serves as both the second person singular and the second person plural.  Most other languages, however, have a distinct word for the second person plural.  Most people don’t realize that the vast majority of all uses of the word “you” in the Greek New Testament are plural.  To put it another way, if we read these texts as being individually addressed to us, we are mistaken.  They were not addressed to individuals, but rather to a community. When John has Jesus say, “Do not let your (pl.) heart be troubled.”  The disciples, collectively, have a “troubled heart.”  In Johns gospel, Jesus himself had also been “troubled” on three occasions.  He was “troubled” at the reaction to his raising of Lazarus (11:33), the approach of the cross (12:26), and Judas’ betrayal (13:21).  Now, this emotion is ascribed also to the community itself. “In the house of my Father, they are many habitations.”  The word translated as “habitations” is monai.  In the popular imagination, this is often taken to mean that the Presbyterians will have a room–indeed, a mansion–and so will the Catholics and the Baptists. 

Monai actually means a temporary resting place for a traveler.  It was associated with caravans.  In those days, there would be a contingent of folk who would go ahead of the caravan to “prepare a place” so that when the caravan arrived there, the camp ground had been prepared, the water supply located, and food prepared.  The travelers in the caravan would have a place of comfort to spend the night.

So, Monai is less about getting some fancy room in the hereafter, in a house separate from the people you can’t stand, and more about welcome, hospitality, and community for people traveling on a journey. This sentence is reminiscent of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy 1:33 where he says that the Lord “goes before you in the way to choose a place.”  Just as Moses led the people into the Promised Land, so Jesus will lead his people to the place where he himself is going.  (“I come again and I will take you to myself so that, where I am, I and you might be.”)

Then we come to ‘The Way’:  “And you know the way–hodon–to the place where I am going.”  The concept of “the way” had been around awhile.  Moses had used the phrase “in the way” in the Deuteronomy passage.  Likewise, the Psalms refer to the Torah as “the way” (Ps 119: 29-34).  Moreover, according to the book of Acts, the Christian faith was first known as “the way.”  The word hodos, or “way,” is used over 100 times in the New Testament.  Its use here, however, is the only time it appears in the fourth gospel. 

Thomas is taken aback.  “We do not know the way,” he says.  When Jesus had announced, in chapter 11, that he was returning to the Jerusalem area, a place of danger, Thomas fatalistically declares that they might as well go with Jesus and “die with him” (11:16).  Thomas knew “the way” that led to death well enough, but not “the way” that leads to life.

Jesus spells it out.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Earlier in the fourth gospel, we were told that Jesus is truth (1:14), and “the resurrection and the life” (11:25).  Now, he is also “the way” itself. This is another ego eimi saying, which means that the most important words in this important sentence are the first two–“I am.”  Ego eimi is an emphatic way of saying YHWH, God’s own name, in the Greek language.  Lest anyone miss the point, the fourth gospel has Jesus also say, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

Thomas had asked, “How can we know the way?”  Here, the fourth gospel uses the word oida for “know.”  Oida is the kind of knowledge that you get from first-hand, physical experience.  It is the kind of knowledge that is objective and demonstrable. 

Jesus responds, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”  In this sentence, Jesus uses ginosko, which is the kind of knowledge one gets through intimate experience.  This is a kind of “mystical knowing.”  Thomas’s “knowing” is of the everyday variety.  Jesus’ “knowing” is the kind that comes “from above” (3:3).  This is consistent with an over-all theme of the fourth gospel, which is intimate relationship and mutual indwelling between Jesus and his followers. 

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

A translation of verses 8 through 14 is:  Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”  Jesus said to him, “I am with you a lengthy time and you do not know me, Philip?”  The one who has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not trust that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak from myself, but the Father abiding in me does his works.  Trust me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.  But if not, trust the works themselves.

“Truly, Truly, I say to you, the one trusting into me, the works which I am doing, that one will do also, and that one will do greater than these, for I am going to the Father.  And whatever you might ask in my name, that I will do so that the Father might be glorified in the Son.  Whatever you might ask in my name, I will do. Do you see how the exclusivity and thus the fostering of belligerence and authoritarianism, is overcome by the inclusiveness of the plural you and the sharing of tasks or the glorification of the Father in the Son. It is the togetherness that the Author of John loses in modern use of the text.

Taking this plural, you further we see the concern for community when Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough–arkei–for us.”  Philip had earlier worried that they would not have “enough” (arkousin) food to feed the large crowd (6:7).  In his only two utterances in the fourth gospel, Philip is portrayed as fussing that what they have is not enough.  The food had not been enough, and now Jesus is not quite enough either.

John has Jesus responding with, “I am with you through a lengthy time–chronos–and you do not know–ginosko–me, Philip?”  The word chronos refers to earthly, chronological time.  It is distinct from kairos, which is “special time”–the in-breaking of God.  In ordinary experience, in ordinary “time,” one cannot “know” Jesus in an intimate, mystical way.

Jesus tells them that his words are the same as the “Father’s works.”  Then, he tells them that if they cannot believe his words, they should turn to his works.  What’s more, they will do even greater works than Jesus! 

A question this raises is “What could they possibly do that would be “greater” than what Jesus has already done in the fourth gospel?”  Jesus has healed the sick and raised the dead.  What can they do to top that?  Well maybe one thing remains:  They have not yet established an on-going community centered in Jesus, which follows him, and does his works.

Jesus assures the disciples that, even though “the way” may be difficult, they can call on him and he will do “whatever you ask in my name.”  This is not, of course, a flinging about of Jesus’ name as some kind of magic talisman in order to get what a person wants.  That is mere egocentricity.  It asks in our name, but not that of Jesus. 

To ask in Jesus’ name, as Ray Brown has said, means to be in union with Jesus.  To ask in Jesus name is, as Paul put it, having the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2).  What would Jesus ask?  What would Jesus think?  Indeed, what would Jesus do?

In summary then, ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ is not about believing Jesus as the only one, and more about the need to be collectively motivated, and empowered.

The Way is not about right behaviour and more about a journey one takes as one trusts and the personalization is less about the individual and more about the relational communal reality of human life. And this makes the understanding of salvation, evangelization and exclusive identity very different indeed.

While the John story seems to have been set within the context of a debate over differences, that debate seems to have been between those who were Jewish followers of the Galilean (called ‘revisionists’), and those who were Jewish followers of Jewish orthodoxy.

They viewed matters differently.  Perhaps profoundly so. But the story’s modern usage seems to have taken these differences to extremes. From all that we can read we have to have come the conclusion that during his life time, Jesus/Yeshua resisted questions about his personal identity. When pressed, he deflected them toward the central motif of his teaching…

  • the present-ness of a compassionate God, and
  • the radical or ‘counter culture’ demands he made on human living.

But it is also true that when the words ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’… have been used, they often make Jesus sound like a heavenly bouncer, keeping people away from God.  Especially from those without faith, those with not enough faith, and those who express their faith differently.

Religious authorities and groups of every age and creed have often exercised their religion in two ways: – as a weapon against others, and – by protecting God from others.

History seems full of such ‘weapon’ stories and events: The Crusades.  The Inquisition.  Sudan. Middle East.  Indonesia.  Northern Ireland. And the gospel stories are littered with ‘protecting’ stories: People who brought their children to Jesus, but… Women who touched, ate with, plead with Jesus, but…

One has to ask if ‘ethnic cleansing’ is just a more extreme form of this same motivation.

So, what can we do with these words: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’?

Well! Let’s not beat around the bush! Scholars tell us it is highly probable that Jesus never made this claim at all. The words were put into his mouth by the storyteller/mystic John! So, to hear them, we need to hear them differently. If these words can be read in terms of relationship with the God rather than describing a content of dogma to be believed, these words can be an invitation to us to be on the journey which Jesus chartered. We can be people of the Way!

The Jesus of the Way as sage, provides a way of passage from one place to another. Becoming and exploring and doubting, rather than condemning or belting us over the head.

So rather than bullying Jesus into what he is not.

• Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership. He is the pathway into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship. This is the way… into the mystery of our common existence.

• Jesus is the truth about that common existence. He uncovers what is hidden, and

brings to light the last dimension of human existence.

• Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other.

As storyteller John Shea puts it: “Jesus of Nazareth was the triggering centre of an event which restructured the God-self-neighbour relationship.  This event was not only healing and transforming but mysterious and overwhelming’ (Shea 1978:118).

It is in this context that the words of Jesus, as suggested by John, come. ‘I am the way, the truth the life…’  And as Jesus challenged the dominate system of his day, so these words contend with the powers and principalities of this day.

In this person, we see a concern for the marginalized and the vulnerable (which included both the poor and the wealthy), and a rejection of the belief that high-ranking people of power are the favoured ones of God.

The good news then in this statement is, not about Jesus, but about God and us in the spirit of Jesus. Or as Bill Loader puts it in his comments on this story: “Trust that God is the way Jesus told us and demonstrated to us.  That means two things: we can trust in the God of compassion in which there’s a place for us, and we can know that the meaning of life is to share that compassion in the world – there’s a place for all!

But then this important suggestion: “We can join that compassion wherever we recognise its ‘Jesus shape’, acknowledging it as life and truth and the only way” (WLoader 2005/www site).

Notes:

Shea, J. 1978.  Stories of God. An Unauthorized Biography. Chicago. The Thomas More Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

John 10: 1-10

The Good Shepherd as the Voice That Soothes

Call it the desire for life or the impulse of creation, or perhaps the human spirit, inside each of us there appears to be a deep, congenital restlessness. It is as if we are less about being restful beings who sometimes get restless, and more about being restless beings who occasionally experience rest. Karl Rahner, might have had it right when he said that we do not have souls that get restless, but that our souls themselves are lonely caverns thirsting for the infinite, deep wells of restlessness that make us ache to sleep with the whole world and all that is beyond. I don’t want to get into whether or not we have souls here but just to accept that there is something about the human condition that suggests we do. John O’Donohue suggests that we do and that it is perhaps a place where life begins.

The soul… is the place where the imagination lives.
The imagination is the creative forces in the individual.

It always negotiates different thresholds and
releases possibilities of recognition and creativity
which the linear, controlling, external mind will never even glimpse.

The imagination works on the threshold that runs between
light and dark,
visible and invisible,
quest and question,
possibility and fact.

The imagination is the great friend of possibility.
Where the imagination is awake and alive
fact never hardens or closes but remains open,
inviting you to new thresholds of possibility and creativity.

John O’Donohue.

Because of this inner restlessness we can find it difficult to concentrate during the day and to sleep at night. We go through life feeling like we are missing out on something, that life is more exciting and fulfilling for others than it is for us. Our achievements rarely satisfy us because we are always aware of what we haven’t achieved, of missed chances and failed possibilities. Always too, it seems that we are inadequate to the task, that we disappoint those we love.

Ultimately, we reach a point in life when there is an ache and a sadness inside us that no one can still and comfort. For many of us the negative is the first thing we see. It is so obvious it is part of the DNA so to speak. While this is not so for all it does seem pervasive in society. We are always a bit dissatisfied. As Henri Nouwen puts it, in this life it seems that there is no such a thing as a clear-cut, pure joy, but that even our happiest moments come with a shadow, a fear, a jealousy, a restlessness. Inside us, no matter what our age, we are always somewhat lost and full of a sadness that we don’t quite know what to do with. Henry David Thoreau the American essayist, poet, and philosopher. was right, it seems. We do live lives of quiet desperation. What are we meant to do with that?

An analogy might help us here: we might be able to learn something valuable, by comparing these feelings to what a baby feels, at a certain moment, in the presence of a baby-sitter in the absence of its mother. As many a frustrated baby-sitter has learned, there can come a moment, usually later in the evening, when the baby grows tired of being titillated by flashy toys, extra sweets, and the continued cooing of the baby-sitter. The baby becomes irritated, cranky, weepy, and finally disconsolate. At this point nothing will soothe its aches, except the voice and the touch of the mother herself. The baby needs to hear the mother’s voice and the mother’s voice alone. No attempt by the baby-sitter to replace the mother or even to imitate the mother are of much avail. The baby will not be fooled, there comes a moment when only the mother can soothe and comfort. The baby’s disquiet will disappear only when she again hears the mother lovingly call her name.

It’s no different for us really, as adults, when trying to come to grips with our congenital restlessness. We can distract ourselves for a while, be titillated by flashy toys, be soothed and lulled by sympathetic voices, and momentarily even be content in the absence of our real mother. We have done this in these last few weeks as we have filled our isolation and social distancing with on line activities, music playing and emails and texts. But there will come a time, usually a little later on in the proceedings when we are a bit more tired and cranky, when these things will soothe no more. We will begin to miss, in the very depths of our souls, the one voice and one presence that can ultimately bring us rest. We may have even noticed this in our shutdown situation. Our patience is shorter, our willingness to engage in conversation is either stilted or we are less tolerant of differences, more ready to put our point of view. Rumi, the Sufi Mystic calls this “Divine Dancing”
and suggests it is a place where we feel out of sync perhaps with the divine dance of life.

When you dance
the whole universe dances.

The world dances around the Sun.
The morning light breaks,
Spinning up with delight.

How could anyone
Touched by your love
Not dance like a weeping willow?

Today I spin wildly
throughout the city;
I am the cup-bearer,
My head is the cup.
Perhaps a scholar will see me
and drop his books.
Perhaps the world will see me
and forget all its sorrows.

Father Ron Rolheiser the Catholic Author of many books suggests that “Of course, the one voice that can soothe, the one voice that we search for among all the others, is the voice of God, as the primordial Mother. Ultimately, he says; we reach a point in life when there is an ache and a sadness inside us that no one can still and comfort, other than the one who ultimately brought us to birth. Like the baby frustrated with its baby-sitter, we too need to hear our mother lovingly pronounce our names.

Here we have the Emmaus road event, the Resurrection event, the Conversion event so to speak as the moment of awareness. It was always there awaiting conscious expression, a soul in its unveiling perhaps. Or as the writer of John puts it ‘The good shepherd opens the gate and calls, and we respond.

The Gospel of John also opens very differently than the other Gospels. There are no infancy narratives. Right at the beginning we already meet the adult Jesus or the Messiah (Christ in Greek) and the first words he speaks are a question: “What are you searching for?” John’s whole Gospel then tries to answer that, but the full answer is given only at the very end, by Jesus himself.

What are we ultimately searching for? Why the restlessness? What’s its purpose?

A Shepherd playing with the sheep.

The shepherd is so constantly with his sheep that sometimes his life with them becomes monotonous. Therefore, he will occasionally play with them. He does this by pretending to run away from his sheep, and they will soon overtake him, and completely surround him, gamboling with great delight.

On the morning of the resurrection, Mary Magdala meets the newly-risen Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. He approaches her and asks (in words that repeat his question at the opening of the Gospel): “What are you searching for?” She explains that she is searching for the body, the dead body, of Jesus. He says just one word to her in response: “Mary.” He calls her by name and, in that, she not only recognizes him, but she hears precisely what a disconsolate baby cannot hear in the voice of her baby-sitter, the voice of the mother, lovingly pronouncing her name.

In Jesus’ response to Mary Magdala, we learn the answer to one of life’s most fundamental questions: what do we ache for? Why the restlessness? Yes; it is crucial for human living but what is it that we want? Ultimately, it seems all our aching is for one thing, to hear what we name as God call us by name, for this Good Shepherd thing to break through the sea of negativity, and restlessness and to find it as lovingly empowering and individually valuing. There comes a moment in the night for each of us when nothing will console us other than this, hearing our names pronounced by the mouth of God so to speak.

Amen.

Eating Together in a time of Covid-19 lockdown.

“What a wonderful story!  It celebrates Easter. It invites participation.  It is in the best sense a faith legend… 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)

So suggests Bill Loader, the Uniting Church theologian from Western Australia. And I reckon the ‘Road to Emmaus’ story is indeed a wonderful, original story by the storyteller we call Luke imagining, sharing, celebrating, 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. This is what makes this a great story. But a ‘metaphorical story’ not ‘history remembered’, as Marcus Borg nudges us and reminds us.  (Borg 2001:44)

To set the scene in what we know of history we are reliably informed that 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 was Qubelba – approx. 7 miles from Jerusalem, and the fourth was Moza – approx. 4 miles from Jerusalem) So we can deduce it was as close as 4 and as far as 20 miles from Jerusalem. In travel time this could have been between 1 and 5 days walk from Jerusalem

We also note that many have heard and interpreted this story differently. For instance, some commentators seek to explain aspects of this story in terms of an ‘interventionist’ God. That on the road back home toward Emmaus, God intervened deliberately, and kept Cleopas (and his wife?) from ‘seeing’ Jesus, so Jesus could explain the scriptures to them. On the other hand, others see the work of a ‘super-naturalist’ 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.

When I think about my own faith journey, I can see that I too, wandered in and around and wondered about these approaches.  I’m not sure for all of you, but today none of these attempts resonate with me all that well. Especially the theology that those suggestions raise, indeed, they become little more than brainteasers and can kill off the story for me.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t seek to unravel and appreciate the context of the story. And to that, I would now like to offer some comments which I hope might be helpful as well as imaginative.

Holding St David’s mission statement in mind especially the ‘honouring of the Mind bit one has to agree that our consciousness and especially our language ability and its importance in our humanity demands that we take all stories as being are very concrete. Not perhaps eternal because they ‘live’ within a particular context. It is this context that makes them real and concrete. Andin applying this to our in the context of our text it suggests that this story’s context may have been some debates about how Gentile Jesus followers could sense the present-ness of the Post-Easter Christ
after the death of Jesus.

Luke tells a story about the most common and important community occasion these followers had experienced. The experience is of a meal in community rather than an ‘out-of-this-world’ experience. This is a strong suggestion that this is a meal story and a bonding story. Maybe the storyteller 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 tradition. In fact, community meals in the sense of a group of people gathering came before Christianity had even become a movement of note. This is thought to be how diverse and often groups with conflicting views of who Yeshua was began to congregate. It was a meal together that was the seed.

It is thought that ‘Christians’ 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)

Returning to our text it is fair to say that Luke had 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:

  • Jesus regularly accepted invitations to attend meals, but as a guest rather than as a host,

And

  • Jesus used these occasions for re-imagining and ‘indirect’ teaching,
    rather than the so-called ‘whiteboard and text’ kind.

“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) 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)

It is also safe to assume that the continued celebration of meals by the early movement developed a code that both identified and protected the gatherings and this code was that the gatherings were called ‘breaking of bread’. This code being motivated primarily by the needs of community, rather than establishing or remembering the so-called ‘upper room’ meal event.

So, this suggests that this story is not a forerunner to, or about, Holy Communion. And it certainly has got nothing to do with the Catholic 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. When body and blood are eaten, they become compassionate deeds. Our compassionate deeds. 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)

In these times of Covid-19 one has to admit that the above metaphor is being stretched or perhaps limited by our need to be in our bubble or to be at a physical distance. What does it mean be deeply connected and to share food together as a sign of our relationship? How can we shake hands let alone hold them and say grace, bless a glass and eat in peace and grace together? Sure we can express the metaphor in out bubble if we have one with more than ourselves in it, but is that safe when one or others in our bubble go out of it for supplies?

Well maybe a return to level three or two will enable the metaphor again? But what about relationships? Are they limited to the physical? Does the metaphor not allow for and in fact encourage going beyond the physical? What about the spirit of relationship? How is that manifest without the physical?

The storyteller Luke knows we become what we eat! And 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)

Do we need a new metaphor or can we enlarge our understanding of its gift to language and to our ability to be hospitable? Can out language and our concepts of care, compassion, hospitality and love reach beyond the need for the physical and hear the cries of despair beyond the words, beneath the words and no longer accessible though reading body language. Can we tell the stories in a Covid-19 world?

Two stories that speak of our shared experience under Covid-19

Just a Pinch

by Jim Burklo

A pinch of yeast within the flour
A treasure hidden in the ground
We know not the day nor hour
When the pearl is finally found
Secrets held in mustard seeds
Salty grains give food its worth
All our small but loving deeds
Show your presence in the earth

Scenes in the Kitchen

One night I had a dream.

I dreamed I was walking across the room with my God. 

Across my mind flashed scenes from my earlier life.

For each scene, I noticed the presence of my spouse going about tasks.

One scene belonged to me beyond time another to my God.

When the final scene flashed before me,

I looked back at kitchen floor

and I noticed that many times I had walked across the kitchen

there was only one scene to be had.

I also noticed that it happened

at the very lowest and saddest times in my life.

This really bothered me and I asked my God

why it was that once I had decided to follow the Way

my God would walk with me all the way,

but that during the most troublesome times in my life,

there is only one scene with the one I love within it?

I said that I didn’t understand why

when I needed it most I would be left alone

My God replied,

As love we have never left you.

Perhaps during your times of trial and suffering,

when you see only one scene of your loved one,

 it was a time when we were together.

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.

rexae74@gmail.com

John 20:19-31

Easter: An Open-ended Future, Alive!

We have all heard it, or at least all of those who have some affiliation with the church and the Christian faith. I am of course talking about the story about Thomas. It is a very familiar story.  Too familiar, perhaps. And therein is one of its problems. We hear it every year at this time, the first Sunday after Easter, that is, if ministers and preachers follow the set lectionary. And because we tend to hear it every year it is a difficult story to tell or preach on, because everyone, preacher and listener, reckons they know the ending, and often we all jump ahead to ‘our’ endings and miss the story itself.

So, this year hopefully with our Zoom meeting up and running I now invite you all to tell the story as you remember it. What do you remember about it? And remember you don’t have to get it right because what you remember is right anyway.

(General sharing/telling of the story)

Thank you.

What we might have gleaned from that exercise (if we did have a discussion) is that there are many interpretations of this story. But there are some similarities and the first is that it is often titled ‘doubting’ Thomas, in a negative way, yet we are told there is no such word as ‘doubt’ in the Greek! Another is that it is as if asking questions is the same as raising a white flag of surrender, and evidence of faithlessness!

It was the German/American theologian Paul Tillich who blew that latter criticism right out of the water for many of us when in his small, blue bound book, called Dynamics of Faith, Tillich claimed that an authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation. And that questions were not a sign of faithlessness, but a willingness to take faith seriously. And others have followed Tillich’s lead, such as Val Webb in her excellent book of some years back: In Defence of DoubtAn Invitation to Adventure. And latterly, the progressive study resource called ‘Living the Questions. You might recall here St David’s Mission Statement at the beginning of the Liturgy pew-sheet, Honour The Mind, Live the questions and Explore the Adventure of Humanity that seeks to encapsulate the call to recognise our ability to make language say what we want, the inherent need to embrace a life of doubt as a positive and enlightening opportunity and that such a life is an adventure that brings the novel as safe, encouraging and life enhancing.

So perhaps we can sense some of the dilemma we face each year as this story comes around in the lectionary. Despite that however, if we are true to what has just been said about doubt there have to be new things to be heard in its retelling.

One of the things might be 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 sounds like it might be helpful for Northern Presbytery does it not? And how often have we heard those words in the last few years as the City parishes face a new world driven by business models, uniform expectation and top down management? This makes more sense when we can we hear that Thomas does not receive a blessing as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement?

Some of us have felt this concern in the last few years have we not?

For me, hearing this from our text was an unexpected realisation.

Second, our 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) In other words, it is in the place of doubting that is the place where we can practice belonging, practice hospitality, practice respect, practice humility, practice conversation and disagreement. (Bessler-Northcutt 2004). This also suggests that doubt provides a safe place in the company of others, and that in doubting we can be shaped and reshaped by our questions and our search.

Greg Jenks from Faith-Futures Foundation, puts it this 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) Maybe some of us haven’t heard it being put like that before in this story.

And the third thing we might have heard is what some claim is the underlying theme running throughout the whole of John’s collection of stories we experience the creative, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life. As doubt is so much a part of our lives so is the transforming power of our God, our serendipitous creativity. Often subtle.  Unpredictable.  Evasive. “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests Bruce Epperly of Process & Faith, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.”  (Epperly/P&F Web site, 2008)

I like those images because they introduce both an alternative way of seeing things as well as a hint of humour as a vital component of life

And talking for a minute on laughter; Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox, in his book The Feast of Fools, suggests that the “comic spirit is somehow closer to Christianity than is the tragic”.  (Cox 1969:150) Then 18 years later, in April 1987, he published in the journal Christianity and Crisis, an article called “God’s Last Laugh”. In it he suggested: “God laughs, it seems, because God knows how [Easter] all turns out in the end.” Cox went on to say: “On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil. But, without a trace of irreverence, can we not also say there is something genuinely comic about Easter? Could it be God’s hilarious answer to those who sported and derided God’s prophet, who blindfolded and buffeted him, and who continue to hound and deprive God’s children today?”  (Cox 1987)

He had in mind, no doubt, the custom found in some Orthodox churches, where members meet in the church – usually on the Monday after Easter (through to the following Saturday), and called ‘Bright Monday/Week’ – for a feast and festival. Games would be played. And there would be much laughter, dancing and joke telling. Why? Because, they said, it was the most fitting way to celebrate the ‘big joke’ God pulled on Satan in the resurrection. That has to tickle one’s fancy does it not! But it leaves us with the over-all question: Why does laughter hold such a meager place in our religious life?

Returning to our test we come to the realization 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. 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)

The good news of Easter, then, is not the so-called final scene as it is in fairy tales that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. Easter is the beginning of an open-ended future. A moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return, and our bodies – individually and as a church community – are alive again. That sounds like a pretty good message from and Easter during our Covid-19 experience. Yes; the world will be different and while we might doubt our ability to recover, our doubting contains the possibility of remaking the world. Amen.

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.

rexae74@gmail.com

Easter Hope During Covid-19

Posted: April 11, 2020 in Uncategorized

Easter Hope During Covid-19

1 Corinthians 1: 22-25

On Friday I spoke of a Crucified God and while it was a slight confirmation of what has traditionally been the norm for Good Friday it was an attempt to make it align with a ‘Progressive’ understanding of where or thinking on God might be today. The reality of the human condition as binary, or good verses bad or right vs wrong assumptions was challenged. I suggested that events such as the Covid-19 virus that is sweeping the world was the result of an excess or can be termed as an evil event as a result of excess and that such an excess was when humanities creative responsibilities overtook evolutionary limitations. When scientists go too far too fast, when human expectations and actions put the whole creation at risk. When human aspirations overtake common sense and social responsibility. When human imagination escapes moral responsibilities.

The English Standard Translation of our Corinthian Text reads “At a time when Jews expect a miracle and Greeks seek enlightenment, we speak about God’s Anointed crucified! This is an offense to the Jews, nonsense to the nations; but to those who have heard God’s call, both Jews and Greeks, the Anointed represents God’s power and God’s wisdom; because the folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are.”— 1 Cor 1:22–25, SV trans.

“This is a theology that begins in atheism,” Caputo says, but he also says that this is just that—a starting point. Caputo’s statement needs to be understood by drawing upon Paul Tillich’s idea of atheism, where God is “always that which precedes this division [of subject and object].” When something becomes real to us, it enters subject-object relations, but we need to resist this tendency when it comes to God because it naturally leads to misguided attempts to “prove” God’s existence or nonexistence. When a theology begins in atheism the question of whether God exists or not is a question of no value. Another way I think of putting this is to say like Richard Kearney suggests that There is Theism illumined by atheism and then there is ana-theism, God after that God, God of the death of God if you like or maybe even a call to look for Easter Sunday, a God of the empty tomb.

The concept of a supreme being, an entity among entities, is unavoidable as history has shown us yet is also half-blasphemous and mythological. The concept of God a supreme being projects an idea of God as somebody like us, only bigger, better, smarter, who out-knows us, out-wills us, and out-wits us at every turn, a God who casts an eternal, relentless eye on us. It’s no wonder that we grow up understanding fear better than love when as an infant we are often told that God is watching over us all the time. This notion of God is almost impossible to avoid and yet it’s theologically spurious! It anthropomorphizes and finitizes God. It renders nature as uninformative, and it encourages a dominion over, irresponsible exploitation such as it seems has created the Covid-19 virus. No one is suggesting that the arrival of Covid-19 was sitting around waiting for an opportunity to act on us. The proper theological and religious response to this “God on high” is atheism, but as Our text reminds us, that’s the beginning of theology, not the end. There is ana-theism, a God after that God, there is the Easter Sunday Hope of a new heaven and a new earth. As Caputo puts this is a Good Friday context when he says; For God to be God, God must not, should not, ought not exist, not if the Kingdom of God is worth pursuing.

The Easter Sunday message, the resurrection story or at least the beginning of the story has the Gospels being far from clear as to just what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had been rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have got there before anybody else. There was a man she thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that there were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of “fear and great joy.” Confusion was everywhere. There is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did he say? What did he do?

This is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it—the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs—have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. It’s not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. Here we have the challenge of another way of seeing weakness or ambiguity and uncertainty. The story doesn’t have the ring of great drama. But somehow it does have has the ring of truth to it. It sounds like life as we know it. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt. How or why the Covid-19 virus came upon the world is not certain, yet at least because we hear all the speculation, but the fact that it is here and that it coming was unimaginable is without doubt.

This reminds us that the symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.

He was not in the tomb. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching it till they find his face. This is the Easter story of Hope. This is the story of an emptiness to be filled, an end to what is and the birth of a new Heaven and a new earth. Covid-19 is an evil unimaginable event the ramifications of which is an emptiness waiting to be filled with a new way of being. It was unexpected, unwanted and confusing and it brings an emptiness waiting to be filled. This is the hope of Easter. God does not exist but the insistence of God is calling us to live a Kingdom- life.

One of the helpful approaches to this change in thinking is to remind ourselves that we don’t want to lose the unlimited depth of God. If we’ve got a problem with something, change the metaphor, Tillich says. In this case, we need to think of God not as on high over and above but rather in the depths. Think of God as the womb, or the ‘Almost’. Tillich uses the word “unconditional” to describe God. Caputo, in response, goes as far as to say this: “If God exists, that would ruin everything. If God exists, that would ruin what we mean by the Kingdom of God. He says that the unconditional demands that God not exist. For God to be God, God must not, should not, ought not exist, not if the Kingdom of God is worth pursuing.”

Ok! Now we might say that if God doesn’t “exist” the way an object exists, then we might need to think of God as “unconditional,” but what do we mean by that? Well1 Maybe we need to consider it from two different directions.

The first is from the point of view that there is an out there, a reality that can be spoken of. Starting there suggests that the unconditional from “out there” breaks in and seizes us without giving us any say in the matter. There’s no compromise or barter. It’s coming at us without our invitation and maybe even against our wishes. This is not a projection from us but a projectile coming at us. We might even like it to go away! It wakes us up in the middle of the night and it won’t let us get back to sleep.

The second is from the point of view of the self; that suggests that the unconditional in this sense is something we affirm. We hope for this if we’re worth the oxygen we are breathing. This is the sort of thing for which there is no small print. A good example of this is the ideal of welcoming the other. The unconditional is about welcoming the other and being hospitable in the best sense of the word—not how we normally do it, inviting only people we like and need and who somehow serve us. What would it be like to welcome the Other? An excerpt from a poem I wrote might suggest something about the unconditional nature of this welcoming the other.

………… The truth is that without you I cannot love

In you I see the stories of the one you meet

You share the love you have known that stops my heart from beating.

You speak of happiness with a smile that makes me weep with joy

The truth is that without you I cannot love.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need to be able to say, “I could be the one that loves you like you love me.

There’s nothing I would do better than to be able to keep it this way,

Wishing that you would know all the secrets I’ve kept,

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

Maybe we wouldn’t use the word “invitation” when thinking about the empty tomb and its challenge to us but rather the word “visitation”—it’s the emptiness, the open, unencumbered nothingness that invites us to enter, it’s the knock of the door in the middle of the night that invites us to open ourselves to risk, to chance a new future or a new tomorrow. Is it a stranger in need of a cup of cold water, and the challenge is to not miss the message by thinking that there might be someone there to do you harm? The risk of genuine hospitality is irreducible. If there’s no risk, it’s all about welcoming the same. This means that, yes, whether we like it or not, the unconditional includes disaster and unforeseeable harm and evil. Nothing guarantees that it is good. But if you play it safe without opening yourself to this moment, if you’ve taken every precaution to remove every possibility of danger, you’ve also drained life of its vitality. It we allow the Covid-19 situation to fall into the vibes of a supreme, almighty, untouchable, God then we have denied the ‘Almost’, we have denied the Crucified, vulnerable ambiguous, unexpected God of the empty tomb.

One other way to put the “unconditional,” drawing from Jacques Derrida, is the “impossible.” What we mean by God may indeed be just this—in the phenomenological sense, not the logic of P and not-P. We go through life with a horizon of expectations. When we turn the corner, we expect to see the old familiar place, not a sea of nothing! Such predictability in life is necessary to our survival. We work with what is possible within a range of expectations. Again, here I might suggest is the ‘Almost’ as God. Nobody wants to gainsay the importance of the possible in this sense. We foresee what is likely to come, the ‘almost’ and we make preparations along the terms of the relatively stable world in which we live.

When someone breaks all the rules, we don’t know what to do. The rules come after the event because nobody saw this coming. Here is the challenge of the Covid-19 virus; will the rules that helped us manage the virus become the norm or influence the rules we adopt. And yes, there’s also a relative instability to be acknowledged. It’s possible to turn the corner and discover that the place we know has been torn down. Something can shatter our horizon of expectation. If it weren’t, life would be same-old, same-old. When something shatters our horizon, it forces us to reconsider everything from the ground up. When we have been betrayed by someone we trusted unconditionally. When someone breaks all the rules, we don’t know what to do! The rules come after the event because nobody saw this coming. This distinction between the horizon of expectations and the in-breaking of surprise cuts into all aspects of life.

We depend upon the relative stability of life, life is not a bed of roses, life is very much like good Friday and the cross, we all bear it often but we also need the open-endedness, the absolute surprise, the challenge of the invitation to be unconditional, to love the other.. Though we want stability of the world put right, we also want a certain amount of chaos, the open, empty tomb, what James Joyce called “chaosmos.” The name of God is the name of the great “perhaps”—I again would say the name of the great ‘almost’ not in the sense of vacillation or not yet or even the probability but in the sense of a possibility, of the impossible, a newness never before known. This is a miraculousness to life that can’t be discounted. This is the Kingdom, Kin-dom, Realm of a life of promise

In summary then, we don’t need to get rid of God, but we need to rethink what we mean by God. We don’t stop at the literal meaning of a text (if we can even find it); we start there. We ask ourselves what the meaning of Christianity is and we remind ourselves that we don’t need it to be calcified. Trapped in fear of the unknown or the unknowable, nor does it need to be trapped in the fears that are created by those who would make us think like them. Christianity is the ongoing living activity of the tradition. The name of God is the deep deposit of that tradition that invites and in fact insists that we live a post Easter life.

And what is the Kingdom of God? It is the very works of compassion that are the living spirit of it, not the result of a rewards and punishments system, not based on an exchange value system. The Kingdom of God is incarnate in the people who are naked, hungry, and imprisoned and is enacted in administering works of compassion. That’s what it is, if it is at all—and, in fact, it is not or it is ‘almost’ to the extent that people remain naked, hungry, and imprisoned without being administered to. That’s why the Kingdom of God is always becoming, the Kingdom for which we hope and dream and pray. The Kingdom does not exist, but insists. It calls and it is ‘almost’ Amen.

You might like to hear the above in another way. If so, you might like to watch the video below

What Could a Progressive Good Friday Look Like?

Luke 23:1-32

Here we are again. It is Good Friday and we are at the foot of the cross so to speak. One could say that it is more than metaphor to say that given the state of the world in the throws of a Covid19 pandemic. Maybe Good Friday is more important than ever before in our lifetime. But what do we with a Good Friday and the Cross when we’ve abandoned the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and the divine necessity of Jesus’ death? What do we do with the ‘mantra’ “Jesus died for our sins,” or “Jesus died so that we might have eternal life and escape God’s wrath,” or, “Jesus paid the price for our salvation,” and “sin deserves death and Jesus stood in our place.”  With the increasing number of non-religious in the Western World at least, one has to think that the above mantra, have been abandoned by most. What about the many 21st century Christians, who without reflecting regularly use iPods, ponder photos from the Hubble telescope, go to Sikh and Hindu doctors, and believe that humankind emerged from a multi-billion-year process of evolution. What about those of us who assume without thinking that human sin brought death into the world. That we are born steeped in this original sin. That human sin deserves divine punishment. And what about those of us who as Christians assume that Jesus came to break our bondage to sin. That in fact Jesus’ death was foreordained and that he lived his adult life knowing he was going to die on the Cross. And what about those of us who assume that Jesus’ death is God’s way of securing our salvation. And that only a divine sacrifice can free us from sin and insure eternal life, rather than eternal damnation. And lastly what about those who assume that the only pathway to salvation is a personal relationship with Jesus, demonstrated by an explicit affirmation of our sin and the sole salvation of Jesus Christ.

And let’s be clear here. These “orthodoxies” have provided assurance for us once upon a time, but to many of us today they no longer make sense, nor do we believe in a God who requires the death of “his” son to secure our salvation. We can also see divine grace operating in other religious traditions and in the experience of faithful agnostics.  Still, many of us attend Good Friday services; some of us even preach at such services, despite our theological and liturgical reservations.  The question here is; can we as progressives “redeem” Good Friday in a way that affirms the interplay of divine love, human creativity, and human brokenness, while avoiding dubious theologies that assume salvation requires violence, including the predestined death of God’s only Child?

Here again is St David’s statement. How can we ‘Honour the mind, Live the questions and Explore the adventure of Humanity and beneath that statement or within it is the demand for an authentic ‘Good Friday’.

We do not need to celebrate divine violence on Good Friday or any occasion, but we live in a world characterized by implicit and explicit violence against the Earth, child and adult slavery and sex trafficking, the political scene gridlocked by its own design, disparity between the wealthy and the vulnerable, and in many places political scrambling in the face of Covid19. Nor do we need to celebrate disruption and violence as the world faces the results of Covid19. We are only too aware, when we open the doors of perception, not only of the beauty of the Earth but of our precarious situation as a result of human decision-making and the machinations of powers and principalities.

Despite this we can creatively remember Good Friday in ritual and retreat by reflecting on the interplay of our personal and institutional shortcomings and the co-creative companionship. We cab see that “Were You There When They Crucified by Lord?” is the quintessential Good Friday hymn.  Of course, none of us were there physically. But, we are all part of an ambiguous history that persecutes prophets and promotes celebrities.  On Good Friday, we can ponder all the little crucifixions going on right now in our world, often unnoticed, but very real – death dealing actions that lead to melting polar icecaps, global climate change and the potential cataclysm that awaits our children and children’s children, complacency at mass starvation and genocide, apathy at sex trafficking and human slavery, our addiction to oil and weapon ownership, the Changed world due to Covid19, and the list goes on, even before we explore our own personal ambiguities and culpability in the subtle violence of everyday life.

Even though Jesus’ death was neither foreordained nor necessary to appease some God’s wrath, we can recognize that we are no better morally and spiritually than many of those who shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion, stood idly by doing nothing to prevent it, and implicitly sentenced Jesus by their involvement in political and religious institutions.  Are our political leaders – and we as voters – any more moral than Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders?  We also operate out of self-interest and are willing for many to suffer or die for the “NZ way of life.”

Good Friday also affirms the tragic beauty of the divine relationship with the world.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from the vantage point of a prison cell, proclaims that only a suffering God can save and Alfred North Whitehead speaks of God as the fellow sufferer who understands. Last week I wrote of the need for a Weak Theology, ‘A Crucified God’ and I have argued before for a theology of ambiguity, uncertainty and an approach to an alternative way of speaking of God as the ‘Almost’.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have debated the doctrine of patripassianism, the belief that God the Father suffers on the Cross with the Son, Jesus.  While patripassianism, or divine suffering, has been labeled a heresy, based on the belief that the divine nature is incapable of suffering and that Jesus’ suffering touched his humanity but left his divinity unsullied, many believe that the deeper heresy is the belief that God does not suffer with the world.  A changeless, unfeeling, and apathetic God can neither heal nor save.  In contrast to a passionless deity, a meaningful vision of Good Friday proclaims that our God suffers with us – in terms of the Cross it is the whole of our God that suffers – on the cross and thus in every moment of creaturely suffering.

Difficult as it is to admit our complacency and culpability, we can on Good Friday answer “yes” to the question, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  We can also say “yes” to the grace that feels our pain and regret, the pain of those broken by the world’s greed and complacency, and live in the hope that the one who feels also forgives and transforms, and enables us to rise up with new energies for global healing.

When stripped of the orthodoxies that birthed the questions, we began with today it is possible to see the obvious. Jesus’ work is done; he is now history.  But, our personal history is always unfinished and subject to transformation at the hands of others.  Jesus’ work is objective in its “facticity,” as a person of history but the moment they began sharing stories about the Teacher, Healer, and Saviour, new histories began.  Jesus’ ministry lives on in resurrection moments when the words and wisdom he spoke transform us and when his Spirit moves through our spirits, initiating a new creation and making a pathway within the wilderness of experience.

When we revisit Good Friday the words “it is finished” can be a relief.  They can suggest that our suffering can end and we can enter into what has traditionally been termed ‘the rest of the saints’.  Even here, our death remains unfinished for we live on in memory, DNA, spiritual impact, and grief. Our lives may perish but they live forever more in life’s memory and the ongoing history of the universe.

Jesus’ words both those most likely to have been his and those from the mouths of later comers, come from the recognition that our existence from moment to moment is contingent on forces beyond ourselves, such as what it means to participate in the evolutionary truth.  They also reveal a trust in a power within and beyond us that brought us into life and will receive us upon our deaths.  This is an act of trust, and not a description of everlasting life.  We can’t intuit the “furniture of heaven” based on Jesus’ confession.  The most we can do is – and perhaps this is more important than any postmortem knowledge – is to place the whole of our lives in their temporality into a reality that we can never know a completion of, and we might call it a divine caring, a serendipitous creativity.  This may be the ultimate healing, the sense of peace that comes when life is unfixable, uncontrollable, uncertain, risk filled and where death is all around, and a cure eludes us.  We are not alone; it is not completed, it is ‘Almost’ and we belong to that which we call our ‘Almost’ and nothing – abandonment, thirst, or cross experience – can separate us from the face we cannot look at, the ‘I Am’ and in traditional words ‘God’s love’. Amen.