Monday, 18 August 2014

But God Intended It For Good

It always seemed to me that Joseph was having a little revengeful fun at the expense of his brothers before he finally revealed himself to them. (Gen 42-45.) But reflecting on the reaction of Judah to the suggestion that Benjamin be left behind has changed my mind. (Gen 44:18-34) Judah has learned something of the evil that he and his brothers perpetrated on Joseph, and at the suggestion of sacrificing the next favoured brother, instead offers himself. So not only has he learned that betraying a brother is wrong, he has even been able to give up his resentment toward the (latest) favoured brother and rise above his fathers continued poor parenting. He will give himself up for a favoured brother and out of pity for a father who favours one brother over the rest. The 'journey' Joseph took his brothers on has borne fruit in Judah. That little part of the world was a better place for Judah's new insight and repentance. Add to this Joseph's forgiveness even of his recalcitrant brothers, and the food relief provided by Joseph for his family, and we can affirm that, in this instance, good did come out of evil.  "You intended evil, but God intended it for good." (Gen 45:5;  50:20) Joseph too, presumably, has learnt something along the terrible journey of being sold into slavery in a foreign land. Just at that point when he could have sought revenge upon his brothers, or at the very minimum, pointed out their evil while forgiving them, he places their actions on a broader canvas of God's purposes.

Does anybody learn much at all except through suffering? Gratitude seems to grow depth in people, although often the transformation is not through the kind of gratitude that fears the worst, but the kind of gratitude that grows in a person who has suffered. (Even Jesus learned through suffering. See Heb 5:8.) I wish it were otherwise, and this is not an explanation or justification for evil and suffering, but an observation of real people, myself included. The theological addition is as Joseph says, God intends the evil for good. God's response to evil is not a moralistic separation from evil or a gnostic ignoring of it. God journeys into the story of human suffering, failure and evil. Hence the call of Abraham and Sarah, God's blessing of Jacob, Joseph's travails, Moses and his exile ... and  Jesus and his cross and resurrection. God can use sin to bring salvation.

And if you are looking for a kids' talk on the Joseph cycle, try something along these lines.

When God uses us to bring about good, do you think God uses the good things we do or the bad things we do? (If the answer is 'The good things" that will help the surprise in the sermon.)

So things like ... being kind to someone, sticking up for some kid being left out at school?
Not lying ... not being mean ... (I find it hard to bring good out of bad stuff like this ... I usually have to start off fresh.) ... Definitely not selling your brother or sister into slavery and watching them dragged off to a foreign country... definitely not being part of a group that nails someone to a cross.

Definitely not. But God isn't restricted like that. God gets involved in our failures and can even bring good out of bad. Like Joseph ... like Jesus ...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Cheap and Costly Unity

"... so that they may be one as we are one." (Jesus, John 17:11)

While reflecting on last Sunday's Gospel passage (John 17:1-11) it occurred to me that unity and union, with God and with each other, is costly. And in the same way that grace is costly - although humans have a tendency to seek the cheap version - so too unity has its costly and cheap versions. The union Jesus looks toward comes at the cost of his life. It is costly, and our discipleship of him is costly, just as the unity in Christ we seek is costly.

Iain McKillop, Jesus' High Priestly Prayer in
John 17, from a series of 7 paintings
 focusing on that last night and Gethsemane.
A reason why unity in Christ is costly is because it does not end the quest for unity prematurely. Human societies feel safer when identity and unity are attained and can then be protected and enjoyed. What I like to call mutual back-slapping (the kind of human unity built on mutual affirmation within narrow parameters of behaviour or belief, and applies to most human organisations, associations, sporting clubs) stops too early in its quest for union. Prematurely ending the quest for unity is why mutual back-slapping doesn't have the capacity to go very deep, and when it meets conflict, has the tendency to paper it over. Moreover, while it might appear that mutual-backslapping groups are relaxed about diversity, this relaxed attitude is because the diversity is not actually part of the unity itself. (Cf 1Cor 12:4-11)  The hard work of including diversity and 'the other' isn't carried through. Community built on mutual back-slapping also falls easily into its alter-ego of the attack-dog, pointing the finger at the 'accused', forming a temporary but false unity on the ostracised.

Churches are called beyond this kind of tribalism (both the mutual back-slapping society and the attack-dog gang are tribalistic). Jesus reminds us of the cost of unity (see John 11:45-53) but also its provisionality. It is because the work of the Spirit in uniting the human race is not yet complete that churches are asked to hold themselves open to including the outsider, and work to make difference a foundation of their community.

This is exactly why unity is costly. Unity grounded in diversity changes the community as it stands, and makes the life of that community less comfortable. When the current unity of a congregation is considered provisional it means that congregation is saying that it expects, even wants, its current identity to change. New people will mean a new identity, both for the existing members of the community and those joining it, requiring both some personal and group dying.

When unity and its cost is understood like this much of the New Testament focus on Christian disunity (e.g see 1Cor 1:10-31; chapters 5-8; 11:17-34; chapters 12-14) and the confusion to identity that new members (Gentiles) bring (to faithful Jewish Christians, see the Gospel of Matthew; Acts 15:1-21; Galatians 2:11-14) becomes understandable. Whether it comes through the personal call to die with Christ or a community's call to die to its current secure identity, union in Christ comes at a cost and humans tend to resist that call.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Was Jesus Treated as Divine in Early Christianity?

Larry Hurtado
Here is a short summary from Larry Hurtado on the state of play regarding the emergence of the belief in the divinity of Jesus. He dismisses those who say that the emergence of Nicean-type theologising is the beginning of the Christian assertion of Jesus' divinity. He says such a proposition "is actually scarcely defensible".  He says it is really a matter of whether belief in the divinity of Jesus was an eruption very soon after the resurrection (months, perhaps a few years) or whether it takes a few decades of development. He opts for the former, and while I started with the "scarcely defensible" position 30 years ago, I have been moved to the eruption theory (emanating from jerusalem) through the sheer consistency and (theo)logic of the evidence and argument.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Uniting the Theological, Biblical, Mystical and Pastoral

Josep Benlliure Gil Life of Francis of Assisi
In a recent post (here) Collin Cornell shares some thoughts about how to teach Old Testament at seminary level. He notes a tendency in biblical studies to 'archaize' the bible through historical study. As he says, while this might, to some extent, undo the latent fundamentalisms and prejudices we bring to our use of the bible, archaizing the bible also has some deleterious effects. In particular, he notes that it enables the student to pull apart the biblical text but, as it were, not to put all the pieces back together.  The child-like pre-study use of the bible is transformed because historical study makes the text less sentimentally familiar, but the child-like whole is not replaced with a, potentially profound, adult use and understanding of the bible. There is something missing, and he suggests students have to be helped to love the text again through its study, not despite the study.  I think this is a common experience in theological studies in Australia. And it seems to me that what can also be missing, whether in my own study here at home, in the seminary, or in the local church, is the reunification of what we call biblical studies, systematic and historical theology, ascetical and mystical theology, and pastoral studies. Imagine learning to read scripture through the intelligent, questioning and faithful use of all the tools and wisdom Christian  theologia (in its fullest meaning) has to offer. I imagine being taught by Rowan Williams is, or being taught by Hans Urs von Balthasar was, such an experience. Being taught by John Gaden in the eighties was just such an experience for me.
Hans Urs von Balthasar

This kind of theologizing (and teaching) is not easy to do. Partly because to do it one needs familiarity with the texts as well as theology, historical and hermeneutical study, etc. All this takes experience and discipline. But it also requires us to be making connections between what is usually presented as discrete and separate(d) packages of thought, methods and purposes (Old Testament, New Testament, systematics, historical theology, pastoral studies, etc.). We also need to keep the creative juices going, and at some point those of us who read theology often end up just parroting what we read rather than doing something with what we read. And lastly, touching our depths, including the full panoply of human experiences and emotions, and then bringing this into our theological study and reflection (and praying), well, that is not easy and requires faith, courage and discipline, not to mention self-awareness.


  1. I have hesitated to use the word 'spirituality' and instead opted for 'ascetical and mystical theology' but perhaps 'spiritual theology' would do. See here for helpful thoughts on 'spirituality' from Kim Fabricius.
  2. For some critical warnings regarding the historical method in the study of Scripture see here.


Monday, 15 July 2013

The Good Samaritan

Rembrandt's The Good Samaritan
In preparing to preach on the Good Samaritan I came across a strange piece of information. The word used for 'compassion' in the New Testament has its roots in the 'wet bits' pulled out of the corpse of a victim of human sacrifice. So, if your heart was plucked out during a sacrifice in ancient Greece it would no longer be referred to as a heart but splanga-something-or-other, and it is this word that the Jewish tradition used to refer to compassion. (You can read its history in Kittel's TDNT) That's strange.

But to turn to the parable itself. It has struck me for a while now the clever way that Jesus pushes beyond compassion in this parable and undercuts the kind of moral superiority that leads to rivalry, conflict and 'sacrifice'.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Jesus the Innocent Victim (Lent Study Week 4, 2013)


Jesus the Innocent Victim

Please read Luke 23:32-49 (or segment)

Notes
Troyes (part) altarpiece
  1. The passage is drenched in irony. Those who mock Jesus reject him as the messiah and the points of mockery are exactly why he is the messiah.
  2. Even to the end Jesus is faithful to his mission in obedience to his Father. He has preached non-retaliation and forgiveness, invited the sinner to experience God’s acceptance through healing and fellowship, and now he prays that the Father will forgive his executioners and those who mock him. (23:34)
  3. The mockery reiterates the charge of blasphemy against Jesus and deflates the expectations that his healing ministry encouraged.
  4. The innocence/righteousness of Jesus is recognised by two unlikely characters, one of the criminals executed with him and the centurion (Lk 23:47 cf Mk 15:39) presumably in charge of his crucifixion. (See also 23;4, 14-16) The faithful death of Jesus evokes a change of heart amongst some of the onlookers (23:48 cf 18:13) and strengthens the resolve of even a member of the council. (23:50) The unanimity that bound together all those who condemned Jesus is beginning to unravel.

Some Questions

Have you ever discovered you were part of a unanimity of condemnation that was later proved a misjudgment? (That is, the person was innocent of the charges.)
Can you remember how you were persuaded to join in? 

And how was it that you discovered that the charges against the accused were false?

What happened next?

Where was God in all this?

And can you remember a time you were wrongly accused? Where was God in this experience?


Final Thoughts

  1. The resurrection is the vindication of Jesus and the sign that those who judged Jesus, and the judgements made about him, were wrong.

  2. Beware joining the unanimous crowd of condemnation! Beware the tight arguments we form in our own heads that justify our condemnation of someone we are in dispute with.

  3. The resurrected Christ, still faithful to the Father, preaches repentance and forgiveness of sins, not retaliation. The disciples are wtinesses to this Jesus.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Eating and Drinking with Jesus (Lent Study Week 3, 2013)

Last Supper by Jacopo Bassano

Luke 5
vv 1-11 Jesus calls first disciples
12-16 Jesus cleanses a leper
17-26 Jesus heals a paralytic
27-28 Jesus calls Levi
29-32 Jesus invited to a banquet
33-39 Jesus and celebration




Luke 7
v 34 “a glutton and a drunkard” See Deut 21:18-21
36-50 “... hence she has shown great love.”

Luke 14
vv 1-6 Eating and curing on the sabbath
7-14 Humility, who to invite
15-24 Bring in the poor, crippled and lame

Luke 22:14-23 Last Supper
Luke 23:43 Paradise as a banquet, see Isaiah 25:6-9

1. Jesus eats with those rejected and vilified. These people recognise in Jesus someone victimized as they are, by those who have rejected them. And Jesus is willing to risk the opposition that will come from his mixing with sinners and eating with them. Eating and drinking with sinners disrupted the rigid and enforced system of insider/outsider and was an enacted parable of God’s acceptance of all. (See Luke 15)

2. Luke 5:30 Pharisees ask the disciples why they eat with sinners compare Mark 2:16. By time Luke writes the church is being asked the question. Jesus answers the question (5:31), and this is the reason the church shares a table fellowship of festivity and inclusion signifying God’s acceptance and generosity. And notice Jesus’ answer, pointing to the healing ministry of his eating with sinners. (See Luke 4:16-21; 7:18-23)

Some Questions
Do people say this about our Eucharistic practice? (Lk 5:30)

What do people say about our Eucharistic practice?

How could we enhance the sense of the Eucharist as an occasion of joy in the presence of Jesus?

How do we welcome people to the table? 

How could we strengthen this practice?

Who isn’t welcome at our table at church? 

How do we live and invite people into a discipleship of righteousness and inclusion?

Quote for Reflection
“Jesus' compassion is characterized by a downward pull. That is what disturbs us. We cannot even think about ourselves in terms other than those of an upward pull, an upward mobility in which we strive for better lives, higher salaries and more prestigious positions. Thus, we are deeply disturbed by a God who embodies a downward movement. Instead of striving for a higher position, more power and more influence, Jesus moves, as Karl Barth says, from "the heights to the depths, from victory to defeat, from riches to poverty, from triumph to suffering, from life to death." (Henri Nouwen)

Monday, 4 March 2013

World-Wide Mission (Lent Study Week 2, 2013)

Peter Baptising Cornelius by Francesco Trevisani

A. Mission and Missionaries
Some passages you could check out in Luke-Acts
  • Luke 3:4-6 all flesh
  • 4:18-20 the Spirit of the Lord, justice
  • Luke 10 the harvest is plentiful but labourers are few
  • Luke 15 lost sheep, lost coin
  • 19:10  to seek out and save the lost
  • 24:44-49 repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations
  • Acts 1:8 you will be my witnesses .. to the ends of the earth
  • Acts 10 conversion of Cornelius, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
  • Acts 15 the Council of Jerusalem (compare with Galatians 2:11-14)
  • Acts 28 gospel has reached even Rome

When you think of the mission of Jesus/the church/Holy Innocents/you yourself what do you think of?

B. Acts 10: The Ins and Outs of Community

Acts 10:9-16
10:28 God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean
10:34-35 God shows no partiality
10:36Israel, peace by Jesus Christ, Lord of all
10:37 that message spread
10:39 we are witnesses
10:43 everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name
10:44 the indiscriminate Spirit! And baptism

1.We are tempted to think that it is relatively easy for a community to remain faithful to its identity (current and historical) and let in new people. But how easy is it really? (Think about the functions of a ‘tribe’ psychologically and sociologically, both positive and negative.) It is easy for members of a community to mask an attitude of assimilation into the existing ‘culture’ of a community with the belief that we are open to new people in our community. When people join an existing community change happens - for the community and for those who join.

How well do we negotiate this tricky boundary here at Holy Innocents? (Give concrete examples please.)
Where are the points where we need to grow or change? And how might we do that?
2.We take the freedom of the gospel  and its call to break down the barriers separating people for granted after centuries of its inner dynamic shaping Western culture. Some now wonder how it was that people didn’t see this freedom before and act on it. Some wonder if the gospel is now superfluous given that the ethnic and discriminatory barriers between people can be rationally unmasked and dismantled. But is it really that simple? Is it that simple in your life? Without the gospel working over the millennia, would our freedoms have been possible? And what about the future?

Monday, 18 February 2013

Some Study Notes and Questions on the Temptations of Jesus


Some notes and questions on Luke 4:1-13 that I will be using in the Lenten study this week.

1. The temptations of Jesus in the desert are not a chance meeting between Jesus and the devil, and they are not at the instigation of the devil. Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert.
Q: Why are the temptations instigated by the Spirit? Why is it necessary for Jesus to be tempted?

2. Forty days recalls the forty years of the desert wanderings of the people of Israel after their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Unlike the people of Israel, Jesus renounces the temptation to idolatry and lack of trust in the faithfulness of God.  
Q: How has your trust in and faithfulness to God gone in the desert times or places of your life? 

 3. Jesus refutes the promptings of the devil by citing Scripture. The devil gets the hang of this and uses Scripture to justify the third and final temptation.
Q: How do you feel about the devil’s ability to use scripture? How do we stop the misuse of scripture? What does this tell us about how to use scripture?

Temptation of Jesus by Michael Hudak
 4. “... until an opportune time.” (4:13) The opportune time will be the Passion of Jesus. (See Lk 22:3) The Passion will be the final proving ground of the Son; in the cross the true sonship of Jesus will be revealed.
Q: Opportune in what way?

5. Commentators like to call the temptations of Jesus programmatic. By this they mean that the temptations reveal something about the whole ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection.
Q: If you were to write a similar account of the three programmatic temptations of your life, what would they be? (One will do if you can’t think of three.)


Quote for Reflection

Crucifixion by Richard Wallace
The Roman captain asks Lavinia, a young Christian, why she is willing to die as a martyr.

THE CAPTAIN: Are you then going to die for nothing?
LAVINIA: Yes, that is the wonderful thing. It is since all the stories and dreams have gone that I have now no doubt at all that I must die for something greater than dreams or stories.
THE CAPTAIN: But for what?
LAVINIA: I don’t know. If it were for anything small enough to know, it would be too small to die for. I think I’m going to die for God. Nothing else is real enough to die for.

George Bernard Shaw, Androcles and the Lion (Act II)
Quoted in Paul Harris, (ed.), The Fire of Silence and Stillness,  p. 168.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Temptations of Jesus Luke 4:1-13

Jesus Tempted, by Chris Cook
"If you are the Son of God..." Luke has just emphasised for the reader the sonship of Jesus. (Lk 3:22; 3:23-38) Presumably, if this temptation is to have any force at all, there was a chink in the armour of Jesus.  If out there in the desert Jesus wasn't wobbling in some way in regards to his relationship with God, the devil's introduction - "If you are the Son of God" would have been water off a duck's back. So what's wrong with making some bread out of stones? A bit showy granted, but nothing like jumping off a tall building (the last temptation). If resisting this first temptation is to be programmatic, as commentators like to call the temptations, then I would like to suggest that the temptation itself must be more serious than unnecessary (private) showmanship, and more serious than Jesus listening to his belly too much. There is something else going on here. Jesus, presumably, was doubting his sonship, or the fatherhood of God, or both. When our needs aren't met as usual all sorts of fears and aggravations appear within us. Jesus' reply shows us that he squeezes out the temptation by recommitting to God's care for him beyond his usual needs (like food). God's care will be disclosed to Jesus not in a prosperity gospel, not in a nice comfortable life, not in the avoidance of pain, but by Jesus being fed(/led) by more than these usual desires. Without overcoming this temptation it is difficult to imagine Jesus being able to say on the cross: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." (Lk 23:46) 

Twenty years ago I prayed the Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld every day for a year. 

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father. 


I had to stop eventually because I couldn't commit to it; I didn't want to trust God like that, I really wanted my life to be fulfilled by 'bread', health, family, children, wealth, career. Oh dear.

Twenty years later some of the usual desires for my life (listed above) are lost. I have to admit I wouldn't protest if they were magically restored to me.  But the truth is I know I want to live by more than bread alone. (I am not so sure about the cross bit with, "Father, into your hands ..." A bit of a way to go yet. At least I hope so!!)

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Virtue of Patience and the Traditional Church



Do we live in a particularly impatient age? Probably not, patience is a virtue that must be learned, meaning that impatience has not suddenly appeared in the last few years. But do we have the opportunity or necessity of learning to be patient as perhaps people did a thousand years ago? I suspect we do. All technological break-throughs shift the 'locality' where people have to show patience. We don't have to show patience in the same areas of life as did people in 1813, but we still have to show patience. So, for example, I have access to enormous amounts of information in a very short space of time. I don't need to patiently send a letter asking for a document; instead I can pull it up on the internet.    Perhaps - because of the pace of change and technological innovation - in comparison to former generations we are more tempted to think we shouldn't need to be patient, leading to higher levels of impatience. However,  it still takes the same disciplines to be patient now as it did a thousand years ago, and in some areas of our lives nothing has changed, and we must learn patience in exactly the same way as did our forebears.


The seemingly slow pace of personal transformation is one of those areas. There are no shortcuts in the daily dying and rising with Christ. Technology hasn't made this dying and rising any easier than it was a thousand years ago. We still have to learn the same degree of patience with those we live with and love as did people in 1013. We still have to learn that we are not God and therefore we must exercise patience when praying and looking for the kingdom of God.  We still need patience in worship, learning the rhythms of worship and not to manufacture the kingdom now. Welcome to the traditional church.





Saturday, 2 February 2013

Transcending Friendship To Be Friendly



Friendship circles are a two edged sword. Friendship builds relations of warmth and intimacy, encourages community and builds a sense of self worth. All good. But friendship can easily exclude. I can't be friends with everyone, and to maintain friendships I spend time with friends more than strangers for our friends, and in conflict take their side rather than the side of a stranger. Friends can make me feel included, but by definition can make others feel excluded. So I can reinforce and strengthen my sense of belonging by excluding others from my friendship circle. But not always of course, and probably rarely consciously. Most of the time I like spending time with my friends: I see them, I go over and talk to them missing the 'other' I walk past to get to the friend. This happens in any group meeting. The meeting closes and we congregate to those we know and enjoy.

A strange paradox for a Christian church is that to be friendly the congregation must transcend friendship. When the liturgy finishes a friendly congregation includes those who might not yet have friends in the congregation. Churches reliant on friendship circles break into groups and have the smell of cliques. Sure, there is nothing wrong with having friends wherever we are. And when we join a new church we might stay because we have made a couple of friends, but at some point we are called beyond friendship to truly include others and break down barriers that might be mirrored in the lines between groups in the church.

I can't think of anywhere in the Gospels where Jesus says we should be friends. He says that he calls us friends and that we should mimic his love for us by loving one another. (John 15:12-17) Our love for one another is found in our unity with Christ. Indeed, the passage just cited follows that great teaching on the vine and its branches where Jesus commands us to abide in him. (See especially John 15:1-11)

Elsewhere Jesus tells us to love our enemies. (Matt 5:43-48) Imagine if your enemy attended the same church as you! What a great opportunity to obey Jesus' command to love as he loved us (see Rom 5:6-11) And what a better picture of the kingdom such a church would be than a church of friends. It would of course be harder work at times, and there would be times when we would prefer the company of our friends at church. But a church that has enemies within it would be a great place to practice one's discipleship.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Introduction to Girard

If you are looking for an introduction to Girard you could catch Brian McLaren's PPT at a recent conference here.