Monday, 20 March 2017

Stones Into Bread

Check out my latest post, to be found on the St Barnabas College Blog, here. It's a way of understanding why it is said that the temptations of Jesus are an affirmation of his calling to the cross, and a denial of an alternative path to success and practicality .... and a warning about finding our justification in justice and social change.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Rowan Williams on Military Service

For those who cannot see any way to justify war at all, but who also revere Rowan Williams, check this out.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Do Not Weary Doing What is Right

Humans have a fascination – moth to flame like – with the end of the world. Think of the end of the world movies of the last twenty years or so. The end comes (or almost comes) by meteor, zombies, aliens, ecological breakdown, nuclear war, or biological pestilence. And this fascination is not a modern fascination alone. It has has been like this for thousands of years. And we have real, live apocalyptists doing their 'thing' even now through all manner of cults, messianic movements, political groups, etc. The Bolsheviks and Nazis were apocalyptic, secular cults. ISIS is their contemporary religious clone.

End-time fascination isn't restricted to the right of politics either. On the day of the US election I was watching FB and as the news came in that Donnie Trump was going to win the election FB was overwhelmed with 'the end of western civilisation if not the world' type foreboding and hand wringing from the progressive green/left. 

Chapel of the Apocalypse (Coptic)

In the ancient world it was God who would bring the end through violence. That is one of the hallmarks of religious apocalyptic. But in today’s Gospel reading, which sounds apocalyptic because of the violence, the discourse of Jesus is shorn of its divine violence. It is human violence that Jesus is narrating. Terrifying as it is, he does not counsel joining a survivalist group. Instead, it sounds more like his disciples should keep on doing what he has already told them to do. Witness to Christ himself.

This is confirmed in our NT reading from 2Thessalonians. Those mentioned in the text as not working are likely to have given up the ordinary routines of life because they thought that Jesus was about to return and the End was coming. Paul admonishes them to return to their usual practices. And to the whole community he says that they should not weary in doing what is right. Everyday, even if in our imaginations it seems catastrophe beckons. 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

Lazarus and Dives, The Abbaye St. Pierre de Moissa
This is more than a warning against wealth and apathy. The parable is part of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. We are told that the Pharisees loved money and ridiculed Jesus.  (16:14) And they would not repent even if someone (Jesus) were to come back from the dead. (16:31) There is more going on here than a simple rejection of wealth or the wealthy.

The Pharisees in their love of money also despised the sinner. Their financial success  undoubtedly supported their self-righteousness. These two ingredients make up the many variants of what we now call the prosperity gospel: the righteous are blessed, and the blessed are righteous. Whether viewed in terms of wealth or sin, the prosperity gospel stands opposed to the gospel of Jesus.

In this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus the Pharisees - and what they represent - are the target.  Jesus is warning the 'Pharisees' that they are acting to the wrong script. They imagine that wealth/righteousness now equals blessedness in the life to come. They are wrong. Resurrection is partnered with a cross, salvation with grace, and God with Jesus.

Prosperity Gospels and Jesus just do not match.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Luke 15:1-10 The Lost Sheep

There are two canonical versions of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Both Matthew (18:10-14) and Luke (15:3-7) share a concern for the excluded or inferior members of 'the flock'. In the case of Matthew, the parable comes as a warning to the strong to hold close the weaker members of the community. In Luke, the context provides the focus for the message that concludes the parable:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them" (15:1-2) ... Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (15:7)
Compare the canonical concern for the excluded with the version that appears in the Gospel of Thomas.
Jesus said: The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep; one of them, the biggest, went astray; he left (the) ninety-nine (and) sought after the one until he found it. After he had laboured, he said to the sheep: I love you more than the ninety-nine. (Logion 107)
It might be the case that the root of Logion 107 has an equally ancient provenance as the canonical versions. (See here.)  However, the Gnostic use of its underlying elitism sets it apart from the canonical Gospel accounts. The parable itself does not lead inexorably to any particular teaching point, hence the three different conclusions drawn in each version of the parable. Perhaps Jesus used the parable a number of times in differing contexts resulting in the variety of endings. Or perhaps one or other is the closest to the original context and meaning of the parable when first uttered. Scholarly opinion on this point will, most likely, remain moot.

Daniel Bonnell, The Lost Sheep
The narrative of the Gerasene demoniac is a scapegoat/sacrifice story in reverse. (See Girardian Lectionary's comments on this  passage here.) The usual end of a scapegoating incident is for the victim to be thrown from the cliff and the persecutors to be looking down at the corpse in the water. In the case of the Gerasene Demoniac, it is the crowd that goes over the edge (metaphorically as the pigs), and the man left in his right mind. Similarly, Michael Serres suggests the parable of the Lost Sheep undoes the scapegoat mechanism. (Here, 'The Corresponding Positive Word' found on the last page of the article. Also, see the comments on the Gospel reading here.) The one, ejected into the wilderness, is sought out, found and brought back with great joy to complete the full complement of the fold. The logic of the parable is inimical to scapegoating. Luke and Matthew, in their particularizing of the parable, remain constant with this underlying logic. However, the joy that the reversal (of scapegoating) brings is not so easy as we imagine. If we suspend our interpretation of the lost sheep in moral terms (sinner) and see the lost sheep as the one who is a victim of expulsion (sinners and tax collectors, weaker members, etc.) the community that welcomes the lost sheep back must undergo a seismic transformation. For it was they who threw the sheep out in the first place. This is, of course, why the parables of lost sheep, coin and son are offensive. People expel the scapegoat in the first place with, at the very least, a reluctant satisfaction. The return of the sheep at the hands of the shepherd brings condemnation. Joy must come after a conversion. (Think here of the scapegoat Jesus and the transformation to joy of the disciples that was to come after the resurrection.)

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Luke 14:25-35

Sounds pretty harsh.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple… So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:26, 33)

Hate those we love? Even life itself? Renounce that which we possess?  Jesus uses hyperbole to make the point that discipleship comes ahead of all other claims on our lives. But to say that is hackneyed and doesn’t  help us negotiate how we live in a world of valuable relationships. And the use of such harsh language tends toward a kind of dualism that encourages disciples to reject the world around, and for those of us unwilling to do so, to feel inadequate disciples perhaps. So where to from here?

A way in to understand these sayings of Jesus is provided by Paul Nuechterlein (here) by considering that strange and ambiguous saying, “I love X to death.” Does this mean that we will love X until we die? Or does it mean that our love will suck the life out of X? I’m sure we would like our meaning to be the first only, but the second is universal. Humans have a tendency to love for our benefit, and so often to the cost of another. Self-interested love distorts all relationships with people and possessions; we fill ourselves with that which cannot ultimately satisfy. In the case of people, to their detriment (love to death); in the case of possessions, to our detriment and the earth's.

Following the grain of the metaphor ‘love to death’, is the antidote ‘hate to life’? By renouncing (‘hating’) our possessing of people and ‘stuff’, do we allow life to return to our relationships? This is Jesus’ insight here. Read it again:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple… So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:26, 33)

Relating without self-interest allows self-giving. Jesus’ call in this hard saying is to mimic God who relates to us disinterestedly, that is, without self-interest. God is secure and does not need us to fill a need in God. The self-giving of God in Christ rests on this needlessness of God, enabling Christ’s death and resurrection to be entirely for us. (See Romans 5:6-11)

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Luke 13:31-35: A Lukan Passion Prediction

The juxtaposition of the metaphors of fox and chook in Luke 13:31-35 is one of the ways in which this passage is laced with Jesus' impending death and resurrection. While commentators pick up the chook metaphor and mention its protective and caring imagery, it strikes me that chooks are fox food, to put it bluntly. Jesus, the prophet who must die in Jerusalem like the prophets before him, will be the chook who gathers, but will accomplish this gathering by being eaten by the fox. (See John 11:49-52.)

In the Australian Anglican lectionary (APBA) this Gospel is paired with Isaiah 55:1-9 for Lent 3C. Those who are hungry are famished not because they have had their faces ground into the dirt (Isaiah 3:15), but because they have sought that which does not satisfy. The Living Water, the True Bread, Christ crucified and raised. A path his disciples follow, life through death, and not just for themselves but for others.

For our Lent study this year we are reading through Rowan Williams' Silence and Honey Cakes. It is a profound little book, using the Desert Fathers and Mothers as exemplars of dying to the false self built up through the self-justifications and obsessions that keep us from our true self in God and our neighbour. Despite surface appearances, the subtlety of their understanding of the frailty of our human nature and the grace that saves, is beautiful. They lived the invitation from Jesus to find life through dying to self and into God. And I know it is so true, but so difficult to live. It is not that we aren't all experts in loss and loss of self. If it were a simple matter of just experiencing loss, I suppose God would not have needed to send Jesus in the first place. But our losses in life alone are not the path to salvation, even though they can theoretically teach us so much. The problem is that we defend against them and feel them as loss only, and then seek to re-establish ourselves on our own terms. It is hard to accept that life comes through giving up, not filling up (Isaiah 55:1-9), surrender not survival. (Lk 13:31-33) We have to be coaxed to accept Jesus' call to life through death, partly when we get tired of fighting the losses, but mostly by being loved into letting them go.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Jesus the Apocalyptist?

Jesus was not an apocalyptist. He subverted the apocalyptic language of his day by hollowing it out and giving it new content. The shock of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the theological effects for the first generations of Christians, took time to work its way through, leaving many parts of the New Testament hanging between the apocalyptic and (what James Alison calls) the eschatological.

Edvard Munch, Golgotha
Mark's little apocalypse of Chapter 13 omits the God of vengeance. Human violence is human violence, the violence that murdered Jesus. The apocalyptic moment is no longer some future event replete with scenes of violent retribution, but shifts to the Passion of Jesus. And it is the Passion that follows immediately after the eschatological discourse of Mark 13. The apocalyptic moment (13:35-36) is the handing over of Jesus  - in the evening (cf 14:17 Last Super & 15:42), at midnight (betrayal by Judas), at cockcrow (Peter's denial, 14:72), and at dawn (handed over to the Romans 15:1). The discourse is directed to the disciples of Jesus, now living their Gethsemane, warning them to remain awake with their crucified Lord. That is, we are warned to keep awake, just as the disciples could not at Gethsemane. (14:41-42)

Luke's version of Mark 13 is to be found in Chapter 21. The three major prophetic sections of the discourse correspond to future persecutions of the disciples, the destruction of jerusalem, and the coming of the Son of Man. The first two, at the time of the writing of Luke, have already been fulfilled. The Book of Acts has narrated the persecution of the disciples, and Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD. The eschatological elements of the coming of the Son of Man in the third prophecy so general to be of no use to an apocalyptist. And the discourse ends with Luke's more full version of 'Keep awake'. (Mark 13:37; cf Luke 21:34-36)

All this is hardly surprising given apocalyptists' tendency to envision a future of salvation based on expunging all trace of sinners from God's future. There is no wholeness to be found at the expense of excluding others. Jesus' ministry, directed to the 'sick', and his death for the sins of the whole world as a victim of human sin and violence undercuts the point of apocalyptic's vision of purity.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Bearing Sin to Change the Human Heart (Matt 21:33-46)
The tenth commandment warning against covetousness takes adjudicating good and evil from outward observance to the state of the heart. (Exod 20:17) I might covet your new phone but never betray the fact to anyone, even myself. Indeed, to hide my covetousness from myself I may well deny my attraction to the phone altogether. In the same way, the miser can hide their miserliness from even themselves with an outward generosity. People came to see that outward observance alone is not an absolute guide, despite what Jesus said in another context. (1) Jesus follows this trajectory when he locates sin not just in committing adultery but in the lustful heart. (Matt 5:27-28) Eventually this new insight, in tandem with the brute fact of Israel's inability to keep the precepts contained in the Sinai covenant, led some to look forward to a new covenant where the human heart itself would be made true to the law. (Jer 31:31-34) This would be God's doing.  God's freedom cannot be constrained by human failure.

Jesus' parable of the Vineyard and the Tenants is of a piece with the above reflection. The parable in the Gospel of Mark has Jesus himself warn of the destruction of the murderous tenants. For all the continuities between the parable and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the good news of Jesus remains in tension with this parable. Jesus the Son is murdered, true, but the result of his murder is not the destruction of sinners, but their salvation. The risen Jesus comes with a message of repentance and forgiveness, the living embodiment of the forbearance of God, evident in the cross, but now revealed in the Risen One.  Jesus' death and resurrection is for the salvation of all. It is interesting to note that Matthew has changed Mark's version of the parable. (Mk 12:1-12 cf Matt 21:33-46) Mark has Jesus answer his own question. What will the landowner do to the tenants? Destroy them. In Matthew Jesus asks the question, but his opponents answer him. The vengeful god resides in the logic of Jesus' opponents, not in Jesus.

1. In Matt 7:15-20 Jesus seems to suggest that judgment is a little easier than this - after all, fruit is easy to see. But notice that he is speaking of the same issue, wolves in sheep's clothing. Fruit there is, but more subtle than mere observance of law.

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'.