Saturday, 5 September 2020

 Tomorrow in the Sunday lectionary we will be reading Matthew's version of the Lost Sheep parable. If you are thinking that you have heard enough explanations about this parable (whether Matthew's or Luke's version) check out a post I put together a while back comparing the canonical versions with the version fo the parable in the Gospel of Thomas. (Here) It is different. In Thomas, the shepherd seeks the lost sheep not because it is lost/weak, but because the shepherd loves it more. An elitism foreign to the canonical versions. The New Testament takes great pains to reiterate God's universal love for all of creation. God has no favourites. Jesus didn't come just for those with esoteric knowledge.

Having been hard green-left thirty or more years ago, I know how tantalising it is to think that God does have favourites. Christianity's insight (derived from a resurrected and vindicated victim) that the voice of the victim is the voice of God. This is not meant to be an ideological tool to make new victims. It is the sensitivity to the victim and our mutual making of victims that comes with the territory of being a follower of Jesus. But, without the conversion to the way of Jesus himself, this insight is distorted into a new ideology wherein to have any moral ground one must be a victim or speak on behalf of a victim.  The result? Look at where we are now in the West. New victims, self-righteousness, revenge, we have it all.

Friday, 14 August 2020

The Joseph Story

 The Joseph story is one of my favourites in scripture. It doesn't get much more real (except perhaps the cross!). A husband and his two wives ("And it was Leah!), favoured sons, bitter rivalry and envy, betrayal, forgiveness, conversion, and through and in all this God's presence.

I have posted some material before on Joseph. Check out this post on the conversion that Joseph leads his brothers to, and the way in which God's response to evil is not a moralistic separation of the good and bad, neither is God's response a gnostic ignoring of evil, but joining the story and putting the evil on a broader canvas of God's purposes. ("God intended it for good.") Or this post, a short reflection on how Christ is feels no envy toward us, and that through his Spirit we need not be envious of him, for everything that we can receive has been given to us.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Sinner: Changing How We see God, Ourselves, and Others.

Someone recently commented that, in the Victorian Stage 4 lockdown,  churches and brothels fall into the same category of activity and therefore restriction. Someone else quipped that both accept sinners! (Here.)I like that. Although it is a bit too easy to say compared to its practice. Contemporary society, allegedly, has moved beyond 'sinner' and the judgementalism that follows. However, using the word 'sinner' isn't necessarily judgemental. If you think it is necessarily judgemental then read on because I suggest you might still be stuck in the tight little circle of judgementalism that you are trying to leave. Scared that it might be true, we reject it. Protesting too much, so to speak.

These last few Sundays we have been reading the stories from Genesis about Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. The stories are about their schemes to make God's promise to them come true. (For the original promise, reiterated over and over throughout Genesis, see Genesis 12:1-3.) God doesn't need their schemes to bring about the promise, although God is free to use the schemes. (For example God doesn't need the scheming that brings about Abraham's firstborn son, Ishmael. See Genesis 17:15-22. But God uses the scheming of Joseph's brothers to ensure the survival of the people of Israel during the great famine. See Genesis 37-46:7.) The stories show us a God who is accommodating of all kinds of human shenanigans and failures. The fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham and Sarah, fulfilled in Jesus, is no cause for human pride. God's plan is not accomplished by human (self-)righteousness. It is God who brings about what God promises. But this is more than God just putting a brave face on a hidden resentment toward us. This is not the God of projected human self-righteousness and self-criticism. This is the God who can teach us how to relate to human failure (sin), both our own and the inadequacy and failure of others. This is what God is really like, through and through. God is with the people in promise and fulfilment, in covenant and law, with them, carrying them, loving them, making space for them, and ultimately saving us.

We see this in Jesus, intensely in his crucifixion and resurrection. God with us. Victim of human sin, literally carrying the instrument (symbol) of human sin, a cross. And from within the experience of bearing that sin bringing life and forgiveness. It is this God, with us (Matt 1:22-23; 28:16-20) truly walking our human life with us in the flesh: the life and death of Jesus, the God who makes space for sinners because God is love, it is this God to whom we relate as sinners. But that is not how most people think of the term 'sinner'. James Alison (here) says our language has a different tone than what people might think. (Words like God commands, desire, will, law. And, as I am saying here, a word like sinner.)

But not just our language changes. We are changed. "Sinner" isn't a term to demean, but when uttered in the Christian context, by a God who knows us and loves us, who truly empathises with us in Jesus, sinner becomes a term of grace. Sinner: I don't need to be perfect, I don't need to save myself, I am loved, known even in my human failure. There is nowhere left to fall away from God in Christ. 

Saturday, 28 March 2020

The Raising of Lazarus

In the season of Lent we are in preparation mode for Easter.
No wonder we get this set of readings. From life to death, to life.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is often referred to as the resurrection of Lazarus. It wasn’t a resurrection, Jesus is the resurrection, not Lazarus. But the so-called resurrection of Lazarus is a figure of what was to come. Lazarus’ raising is more like a kind of resuscitation because Lazarus will die again. Jesus’s resurrection is an utter transformation that takes who he is and all that he is into God. Including the human failure that crucified him, evidenced in his wounds. Even sin finds its end in resurrection. We call it forgiveness.
But the resurrection of Lazarus is also a figure of our conversion and life of discipleship. Lazarus moves from life to death to a life given back. So too our movement as we move deeper into God’s love: a movement from life to death and then back to a life renewed, life given back to us. In our daily dying and rising with Christ we die to the false self in Christ to receive back a renewed self, and renewed sense of self.
Imagine Lazarus. Who better to appreciate the gift of life than the dead, or the dead given back their lives. Lazarus must have really been smelling the roses (so to speak) after he was raised. Consciously living the gift of life as a gift despite the dark times of life. (This reminds me of that cartoon from Michael Leunig that has Jesus carrying the cross and because he is bent over he notices a flower on the path.) We too are called to smell the roses for we have gained our lives, not lost them. Whatever cross you bear there is a flower on your path just waiting to be noticed.
And part of our discipleship is to help others leave behind the barriers to living life more fully.
 The raising of Lazarus also speaks to us now as our personal and communal lives change, perhaps for ever, because of COVID-19.  Many of us are feeling once again the fragility of the human project, the project to continually make ourselves individually and communally. This self-made person and society is so fragile. Most of the time we wander around as though our projects are here to stay.  But the potter’s wheel of life has a tendency to pull the illusion down. It is tempting to live the illusion and rebuild the project. I most likely will. But I won’t do it with quite the same blithe arrogance that ignores the reality of our fragility and our dependence on God. When we are allowed to resume our former lives, I, like Lazarus, might live the gift of life given back, but more consciously live it as the gift it is.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Friday, 19 July 2019

Mary and Martha

On a recent Sunday in church, we read the story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel according to Luke. (Luke 10:38-42) The story focuses on the interaction between Mary, Martha, and Jesus. I am sure many sermons have been preached on the complementarity of Mary and Martha, urging us to unite active and contemplative, inner and outer, either within us or within our communities of faith. Other sermons will try to reconcile Jesus' rebuke of Martha, or perhaps be offended by it.  (See further helpful comments on the text from Ian Paul.)

But an aspect of the story possibly overlooked is Martha's resentment of Mary. (See this picture for Martha's face full of resentment.) She is resentful that Mary is not helping, or perhaps that Jesus favours her slack sister, or that she, Martha, is not receiving the recognition from Jesus that her service is meant to receive. A universal experience. Resentment makes the world go around.

St Paul says that without love all we do is worthless. (1Cor 13:2-3) It might seem a bit extreme, but he is right. At root, an act of service might also be about convincing ourselves that we are ‘good’ people, or perhaps a search for recognition. And when I say ‘convince’ I don’t mean in an explicit, conscious way. More like playing a subterfuge on ourselves, not just the world around. Hidden motivations lead to resentment very easily.

It has struck many people that whatever resentments Jesus may have held during his life and early ministry they have been refined out as he makes his way to the cross so that his death and resurrection are without resentment. ("Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing," and "Peace be with you.") He dies and lives for us.

In the story of Mary and Martha the latter’s resentment is disclosed. She wanted more than to be a servant. Jesus, on the other hand, in the time of his public ministry is satisfied to be Jesus, beloved of God, servant of humankind, without resentment even when crucified by those he loves.

Monday, 1 July 2019

A Children's Talk on the Holy Trinity

It can be difficult to know what to say to kids about the Trinity. Try this next time:

Can anyone tell me why they think the love we give (and receive from others) is imperfect?
I reckon it is because human love is always given with a good splash of our own needs mixed in. And our needs - most often legitimate - shape our love so that it is not actually for the other person. It is for me as well. No parent can love their child perfectly, just as no child can love their parent perfectly. So too with our friends and anyone else for that matter.

But not so with God. God is love already. God doesn't need us to have someone to love, or need us to have someone to love God back. God is love. A communion/community of love. That is what the language of Father and Son, and their mutual love of the Holy Spirit, is meant to signify. God doesn't need us. But this is exactly why God loves us. It is for us, not mixed in with God's own neediness. (God is needless in this sense, not in a frigid sort of cold and distant sense.)

This is why it is so important to let God be God, and ourselves and everyone to be less than perfect. So many people bear a grudge against a parent or child or friend or someone they hardly know because that person was human, that is, couldn't love them perfectly. But that is to ask them to be who they cannot be. Why ask people to be who they are not? What they are not?

See also:
God Alone is Good
You can Trust God
Further Thoughts on Transcendence

Friday, 24 May 2019

Doctrinal Purity and the Pre-Eminence of Love

It is easy to wonder why the church has stuck so doggedly to its claim that Jesus is pre-eminent.  According to the traditional line of belief, Jesus is God in the flesh, with no one and nothing above him. This kind of claim can be seen as arrogant, divisive, and exclusive. (It certainly is the latter.) If Jesus is pre-eminent, then there is no other Messiah to expect, no other figure equal, no other religion to merge with Christianity or replace it. An unfashionable belief in our (allegedly) relativistic age. So why not be more open to changing our beliefs? Why not give up the doctrine and believe in ‘love’ or ‘inclusion’ instead of Jesus? The reason is that, if Jesus is pre-eminent, without equal and not to be superseded in any way, then self-sacrificing love, compassion, mercy, communion (etc.) are pre-eminent. And not just a bloodless, hypothetical form of love, but an enfleshed love that shows us the way to love and be loved. Subtract the belief in Jesus and how would the pre-eminence of love hold? Add the traditional belief back and we see that Jesus is not just the exemplar of love but the guarantee of love’s pre-eminence.
It seems to me that this is the practical effect of holding to the traditional doctrinal purity of the church’s belief in Jesus. Rather than diminishing love, compassion, mercy, and self-sacrifice, the traditional belief intensifies them. Love displayed and lived on a cross. This is the very nature of God! There can be nothing more primordial or nothing more important. And this provides a way for us to bring together (as good Christology – theology about the Christ – always does) that which we have torn apart in the church. Often it seems that Christians divide into two camps: those who hold to doctrinal purity and those who stand for justice and peace. The two are meant to go together.

Friday, 23 November 2018

God Alone is Good

Jesus says that no one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18) Well that’s a relief. It’s a burden to think that the task of our lives is to be good. (Which is to say, not being bad.)

Jesus makes the above declaration about God in response to a question from a rich man. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus begins with the affirmation that God alone is good. “But anyway” says Jesus, “how you going with the commandments?” “Great” says the guy, “I seem to have them down pretty well.” This guy thinks he is good. And he thinks Jesus is good, and that Jesus thinks that Jesus is good. And so he tries to identify with Jesus, to build up a mutual back-slapping club with him for all those who are good.

No such luck for the guy. “Give up everything and follow me.” To give up his wealth would be to give up the evidence that he is good. (That is, God blesses the righteous, and the guy’s wealth is therefore evidence that he is righteous. We call this the prosperity gospel these days and it is alive and well not so much in the church but in society around us.) Jesus invites the guy to give up the burden of his (self-) righteousness and to follow him, Jesus. “No way fella”, he says, and off he goes grieving for (we are told) “he had many possessions”.

People can often feel guilty about their wealth when they hear this reading. And that would be to miss the point. Guilt about not being good? ("I feel guilty about my wealth", which is to in some way say that I am bad because of it.) Oh dear. But isn’t Jesus saying that God alone is good? Imagine if, having felt guilty about one’s wealth after reading this passage, one gave it all up. I suppose we could feel very good rather than guilty (bad). But would this be discipleship?

Only God is good.

The call to discipleship that Jesus makes to the man is not a better way to be good, that is, free from possessions.  The passage is consistent: Jesus says it’s not about being good (God alone is good), the man says that he is good, Jesus calls him to give it all up and follow him, surely not just to be good, but to escape being good. Discipleship of Jesus is not about being good.
It’s a call away from being good.

Here’s another way of looking at it. If I said I was showing compassion to someone because I was good, or if showed compassion because I felt guilty, that wouldn’t be compassion. That would make my ‘compassion’ be about me, not the person I am being compassionate toward. Being good to please God is about us, not God. Jesus asks us to love not be good.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Pentecost, Ideologies, and the Reversal of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel occurs in Genesis 11:1-9.  United by one language, a monochromatic humankind builds a monument to its own glory, a great tower. God ‘comes down’ to see this arrogant attempt at greatness, and scatters the people giving them many different languages to disunite them. One could read the story as an act of grace in a way, because God’s intervention prevents humankind uniting under a banner of uniformity. (A parallel to the human arrogance of the story of Babel is the great projects of human arrogance in the twentieth century – Nazis, Bolsheviks, etc. – and the way in which they crushed the diversity of the people under them, literally killing off the diversity that would not yield to their ideology.)

The account of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11) is, among other things, the reversal of the Tower of Babel. Pentecost was a Jewish feast day, and Jews from different lands (and languages) came to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival. The Holy Spirit allows the disciples to speak to the listeners in the tongues of the listeners. The Gospel unites the listeners not by squeezing them into the language of the disciples as though the gospel were an alien ideology, but the gospel comes to the listeners from the inside of their thinking and culture. It is a gospel for all people without uniformity.

This last point is very important in a world of ideology. The Holy Spirit did not work on the listeners to allow them to understand the language of the disciples. That would be squeezing the listeners into the culture of Galilee. And the church from then on would have had the licence to squeeze everybody into an original language and culture. Instead, the natural impulse of the church has been to enculturate the gospel wherever the gospel went by, for example, translating the Scriptures into the common tongue. In fact, if the Holy Spirit had worked on the listeners instead of the speakers, this would have been contrary to the Incarnation of God in Christ. God became human, entering into our very humanity, to be one of us, to speak ‘our language’.  This original mission of God in Jesus continued on the day of Pentecost, continues to be the driving force of Christianity.