Thursday 17 November 2022

Luke 21:5-19(36)

 "Teacher, when will this be ... ?" (21:7)

And the first thing Jesus says is telling us not to be misled. (21:8) In response, Jesus doesn't go into a discussion about the sign of the end. He does that next, but first, he tells his disciples not to be led astray. It is only after warning us not to be misled that Jesus speaks a little about the signs. (21:9-11; 25-28) And notice that when he does speak of the end how very general these signs are. Despite the tendency for some to equate a conflict or natural disaster with the end, Jesus makes it difficult to correlate events in history and the end by speaking in general terms of the end. But then he says,

"But before all this occurs... "

And he mentions two sets of occurrences to occur before the end, that is, they are not signs of the end. The first is persecution. (21:12-19) By the time of Luke, this has/is happening. And the other is the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans. (21:20. Compare Mark 13:14) Again, by the time of Luke this is most likely in the past. So Jesus is explicitly separating out these dateable events (persecution and siege) from the more generalised signs earlier mentioned. That these events have taken place strengthens the prophetic credentials of Jesus. But it also gives us an added warning against too easily correlating earth-shattering events in history, in our society, or in our lives with 'the end'. 

So what does Jesus recommend instead of being led astray? 
Do not be terrified … (21:9)
By your endurance, you will gain your souls… (21:19)
Do not let your hearts be weighed down with the worries of this life … (21:34)
Be alert at all times … (21:36)
Praying … (21:36)

Thursday 27 October 2022

A Certain Ruler (Luke 18:18-30)

 This certain ruler must have been quite excited when Jesus said, "There is still one thing lacking." Great, only one thing! After a life of disciplined obedience to the commandments, maybe the ruler might be able to work himself into eternal life?

This passage reminds me of Luke 17:5-6.  "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed ... (you could do the miraculous). Just that little bit of faith is all we need? Really? Surely we can do that. No, that's the point. We can't manufacture even that little bit of faith ourselves. It's a gift.  The 'one thing lacking' (Lk 18:22) in our passage also seems impossible. Yes, that's right. It is impossible for mortals ... but possible for God. It is a gift. Peter and the others have received the gift. (18:28-30) The ruler leaves despondent because he doesn't get it. An impossibility for him but not for God. (18:27)

The God of the impossible. By Luke 18, we are late in the Gospel of Luke, and Jesus is nearing his journey to Jerusalem, where he will be rejected and killed. And raised. The impossible is possible for God. In other words, it is all grace. Or, to use the language of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is resurrection all the way through. God doesn't meet the little bit we have done (the mustard seed, the one thing) and top it up. It's grace through and through.

Thursday 20 October 2022

Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

 This parable is classic Jesus and stands as a warning to the critical spirit that lives in us and can take over if not combated. And it is entirely consistent with the biblical warning to beware the self-righteousness that can become the foundation of our identity.

This parable provides us with a classic example of finding a (false) identity by not being someone else. (vv 11-12) The Pharisee, critical of others, is grateful that he isn't a sinner like ... (See Phil 3:4-11)  And finding one's (false) identity isn't much better if it is found in one's own righteousness. And even if a sense of righteousness isn't accompanied by a conscious rejection of others, the rejection is there by implication. And some people internalise either criticism by others or the righteousness of others. Their identity of self-rejection is formed not by the God who redeems but by the criticism and/or self-righteousness of others. Whatever the case, these identities are all false. 

Imagine a society built on the Pharisee of this parable, where identity is formed and maintained by self-righteousness and criticism of others. It would be a burden because a false identity that needs to pull others down or needs to puff oneself up is like a drug and can never be fully sated. Such a society would eat itself in a flurry of criticism, self-righteousness, and virtue signalling. (Gal 5:13-15)

The sinner in the parable has a different foundation. He looks to God, the God who forgives and does not rely on the criticism of others or any alleged personal virtues. He looks to personal transformation. Imagine a society built on this foundation. It would be a society that builds up rather than pulls down. (1Thess 5:11) Inner change, not just thinking everyone else is the problem.  This is (part of) what we are called to be as church. Our foundation is Christ, the one who died as a victim of just such criticism and self-righteousness. We look to personal transformation (new covenant, the law written on our hearts) and bearing one another's burdens (Matt 11:28-30; Gal 6:2-3), not adding to the burden.

Thursday 25 August 2022

Middle Anglicanism (Part 1)

I grew up in what I call Middle Adelaide Anglicanism. This church is what I call Middle Adelaide Anglicanism. There are still lots of churches like this. And not just in Adelaide, all over Australia Anglican churches and Anglicans would see themselves as in the middle, or perhaps moderate. 

'Middle' doesn't mean grey, doesn't mean wishy-washy. The middle isn't defined particularly by the content of the belief held. You can find the exact content of belief in the middle as you can on the edges and extremes. This is very important: the middle isn't defined particularly by the content of its belief. I can hold the same beliefs as a sectarian on the edge of Anglicanism, and yet still be counted as Middle Adelaide Anglican. 

What puts a church like this in the middle and not on the edge or the extremes is humility and patience with our failings, combined with a willingness to be with those who might hold differing views within the recognisable Anglican Church. We seek our unity beyond particular views of purity. Our unity lies in Christ, and we negotiate that in faith knowing that our knowledge is partial, and this changes how we interact with each other. Discussion and argument, as well as listening, occur in the middle. And the middle can resist the sectarians, with all the force of persuasive speech and theology, and a good dose of common sense. 

 So if we can't distinguish the extreme by content, then what distinguishes the edge from the middle? Here are my suggestions of characteristics of the extremes no matter the content. 

 1. A tendency toward name-calling of all kinds against those who are not pure enough. 

2. The strengthening of the 'tribe' via the rejection of others and, therefore, a tendency toward fragmentation. 

3. An intolerance toward dissent and a willingness to silence opponents. 

 4. A lack of imagination to be able to see nuance and complexity, and a preference for 'you are either for us or against us.' In a similar way, sectarians tend to use universals (terms and phrases applying to more people than just their group), define these universals in their own exclusive manner, then exclude everyone else from being included in the universal. (It's a an old trick.)

5. A lack of humility coupled with self-righteousness, often cloaked in the particular language of morality used by that particular tribe. 

 Notice there is nothing in the list that is content of belief. It's a list about sectarianism that crosses all lines of particular beliefs. I say this because of the news this week, picked up by newspapers and inflamed by commentators of the other extreme, that a formal avenue of fragmentation has now been constituted called The Diocese of the Southern Cross. As I understand it, it will provide for those who consider themselves situated in an impure geographical diocese, a means to align themselves with the self-proclaimed purity of the self-designated Diocese of the Southern Cross. It is, as the Primate has said, the beginnings of a new denomination. The issues have been simmering for decades now. The break has come over the issue of same-sex marriage and the blessing of such.

The trigger, it would seem, was the recent General Synod where insufficient purity was displayed for those intent on breaking away. Mind you, the definition of marriage remains unchanged for the Anglican Church of Australia. Marriage is still defined as between a man and a woman. And yet, here we are. 

However, I wouldn't want anyone to think that I believe the sectarian puritans are to be found in only a single manifestation. In the way these things always operate, puritans are to be found opposing each other. Holding diametrically opposing views in terms of content but united in their dismissal of each other. This is how this works, with both sides gaining oxygen from their opposition to the other side. And you could be forgiven for thinking that the identity of each is to be found in that opposition, despite denials to the contrary. Of course, both extremes will say that they are the faithful ones. That's the point for them. They will use different language, of course. One side will talk about being 'godly' in a way that (ironically) fractures the Body of Christ, while the other side will talk about 'inclusion' and 'justice' in a way that (ironically) excludes those who are not pure enough. Neither side seems to notice the irony in both their positions. 

 When I was ordained the factions in the church were seen (mostly) as helpful because they provided a balance within the church. A grudging acceptance that the particular focus of a faction could benefit us all. But that seems to have passed us by, at least for the moment. 

And here we enter the missionary ground for Middle Adelaide Anglicanism. We live in a sectarian age, and a church that can model and teach how to avoid sectarianism has a mission within the church and the world around. Plenty of people have seen through the sectarianism (wherever it is found, and there is plenty around, and not just in the church) but don't know what to do. Some join the edge because of similarity in belief. Some join one of the edge factions because they find some affinity but are alarmed by the perceived extremism of the opposing faction. Whether people join an edge group or align themselves with such a faction in some way, the point is to remain in the middle. (Remember, the middle is not about unanimity or purity of belief.) Let's not naively be pulled into the full agenda of the faction. (It's fine to do so, but let's all show a little more discrimination than that.) Let's practice grace toward those who disagree, even if (you believe) they don't. 

 As one approaches the edge, the stronger the characteristics of sectarianism appear. But extremes live in us all. There is a discipline that needs to be learned to heal the tribalism in us. There is a discipline that needs to be learned and practised to avoid being sucked deeper into the vortex of sectarianism, tribalism, and puritanism that is sweeping the Western world, including the Anglican Church. A traditional church knows this. It is what we have been doing for a long time. Come to a traditional church and expect to rub shoulders with people who hold different opinions than you. Come and learn to seek a higher unity than unanimity of opinion. So let us continue to practise this discipline of middle Anglicanism in humility and with a desire to live the truth of the Gospel in our lives, and through our discipleship offer a path different from the sectarianism of the age.

Sunday 12 June 2022

Trinity Sunday Year C (Part 2)

In our baptism, joined in hypostatic union with the Son who stood abandoned for us, space is found for us to regain our identity as children of God, united with the Father through the Spirit.

The Gospel of John can seem a bit confusing at times. It's because the language reflects the union of the three figures of the divine story, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (You can think of God as a story or a movement of love, into which we are inducted through baptism, sharing in God's life.) Take todays' Gospel reading:

He will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:14-15)

The three - Father, Son, and Spirit - are so intimately connected to one another that to speak of one leads to the others. None can be cut off from any other. Today, the Spirit reveals Jesus, but everything that the Father has is Jesus' also, so all are present in the revealing of the Spirit. But notice that in their mutual presence none of the three loses their particular identity in their union with one another, while, on the other hand, never falling into a crass individualism. Indeed, the more the Son is the Son - that is, deepening his relationship to the Father- the more he is the Son in his identity as Son. (One reason why the naturally relational language of Father/Son in trinitarian language won't go out of fashion.) This is personhood, not individualism, and without the great sea of undifferentiated being in the background for us to be dissolved into. Personhood implies identity and relationship.

Made in this image, we reflect God in our inter-personal nature as human beings, for others are always present to us, one way or another. When we receive another person others are also present with us, at least in some manner, or perhaps a variety of ways. This mutual presence to one another is a common human experience hinting at the fullness of our being and our lives, and the whiff of the future blessedness of creation. (The experiential antonyms of mutual presence are also common: loneliness, despair, anxiety, revenge, murder, self-loathing, self-conceit, etc.) 

Here we meet also a trinitarian basis for forgiveness. And I am not talking about the forgiveness that we receive upon repentance - most of us can offer that kind of 'forgiveness', at least sometimes. Instead, I am talking about the asymmetrical, pure forgiveness of God. (See here.) In forgiveness, the Father refuses to lose the other (the sinner) and the Son restores to us our true identity as children of God. (Rom 8:12-17) In the Son's abandonment on the cross and in his resurrection and ascension, we can never be lost. God remains present to us, even in our human weakness, failure, and sin. (Romans 5:6-11) 

This is why I have difficulty conceiving of hell as popularly understood. We are never alone, even the damned. In the abandonment of the cross, this holds true, especially so for the abandoned/damned.

Saturday 11 June 2022

Trinity Sunday Year C (Part 1)

Readings for Trinity Sunday (Year C)  Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15. 

‘He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:14-15) 

 The strange language of the Gospel of John: the three – Father, Son and Spirit – are interconnected in such a way that if you talk of one, it naturally leads to the others. So today, the Spirit comes and will take what is Jesus’ and declare it to the disciples. So if they have forgotten anything, the Spirit will teach them. But then, immediately, Jesus says that all that the Father has is his. Therefore, if the Spirit declares to the disciples what is Jesus’ then the Spirit will also be declaring what is the Father’s. 

The three are so closely connected that we speak of the union of the three. And before we get bogged down in working out the apparent complexities of the Trinity, let’s catch one of the practical and simple implications of this language. Wherever God is, there is Jesus. So you can trust Jesus. And the gospels tell us that this union is not after the resurrection, but speaks of who Jesus is all the time. So you can trust what he says and what he does. Giving yourself to Jesus is to give yourself to God. The salvation that is won in Jesus is God’s gift to us. 

 And the Spirit. You can trust the Spirit, for the Spirit speaks (of) Jesus, and what Jesus has is the Father’s. To be in the Spirit is to be in the Father and the Son. To receive the Spirit is to receive the freedom of the Son, the freedom of the children of God who cry out ‘Abba’ – a cry of intimacy and love. There is nothing complex about that. It is the simple message of the gospel. Jesus is the salvation of God, and to receive this salvation is to be part of the love the Son receives and gives to the Father. 

 And if we are in Jesus, then our destiny is to be with Jesus, wherever he is. And he is with God. And so our final destiny is, likewise, to be with God. But not just our final destiny. For if we are in Jesus, and Jesus is in God now, then we are in God now. We don’t have to wait. This is the work of the Spirit. Jesus has departed, but the Spirit is given to us, who makes Jesus known and present in us and for us. Our final destiny is true right now. This is part of the meaning of Jesus as the way, the truth and the light. He is not just the destination (the Father, or heaven maybe), but is also the way there. And we are on the way now. We are not alone. (Or as John’s Gospel says, we are not left orphans.) And this is intimately tied to mission. In the NT our inclusion in God results not in a passive enjoyment of our relationship with God, but, in the confidence and strength of it, going out into the world. ("As the Father sent me ..." John 20:21)

Sunday 29 May 2022

Kids' Talk on the Ascension

 Today the kids and I talked about the Ascension. I had two questions.

1. Where is Jesus?
2. Where is God?

I started with the kids. They were unsure. So we wandered around the congregation a bit and asked some people to find some answers. We had a variety of answers, ranging from 'everywhere'; 'in heaven, although heaven isn't really a place like we usually think of a place to go'; 'seated on the right hand of the Father'; and thinking of God as a sparkle to be discerned in the darkness. All good answers.

I said to the kids that I don't think of 'where' is God or Jesus, but who is with God or Jesus. So, where is Jesus? Jesus is where God is. So where is God? Where Jesus is. And where are we? With God and Jesus in the Holy Spirit. 

Let's Not Reduce The Ascension

It is common for people to give up on the Ascension. ("Where did he go? There are just planets and stuff 'up' there.") But we could let the Ascension speak out of a thicker sense of reality than that, and not dismiss the ancients as pre-secientific simpletons and drongos. (For those reading from a non-Australian background, 'drongo' is an Australian term for 'fool'.)

Thirty years ago I tried a spiritual experiment. I rose early each day for three months and meditated for an hour. At the end of the three months I experienced a deep silence for a couple of seconds until I tried to claim it ("I've done it!"), and then it was gone. I describe it as a deep silence, but that doesn't do the experience justice. It was deeper than that, but I can't really think of a better word than silence to describe the experience. Undoubtedly bits of wires stuck to various parts of my head might have told us what was going on in my brain at the time, but that wouldn't suffice as an explanation or even complete description of the experience. (Reductionism in the guise of a complete explanation is like that: inadequate.)

Maybe 'ascend' is like 'silence' above.  Maybe 'ascend' is a good word for something much deeper and more profound than is captured by the common use of the word. Yes, Jesus ascended, but that just doesn't capture the experience. It was much more than that. Way deeper than just 'up'. 
Is Jesus ascending and therefore leaving us? Yes. And is ascension also creation being drawn into God? Yes. Such that now the presence of the God who is present to all creation (i.e. transcendent) is now imprinted with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Ascension is just as much about ascending away as it is about ascending into, about Jesus' absence from us, as our journey with him.

"I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me ... I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name ... " 

And here is an Ascension kid's talk for church.

And here is a poem on the Ascension, from Barb, a local Anglican priest.

Friday 8 April 2022

Deeper into Sin to be Freed from it.

Walking the way of the cross during Easter is traditional. You can do it in Jerusalem (the via dolorosa), or closer to home you can do it at your local church. We are invited to 'walk' the path of the saviour each time we read the story from Gethsemane to tomb in dramatic form. I like the latter best when we (the congregation) take all the parts other than the role of Jesus. We walk the road from Gethsemane to tomb not out of guilt and as an excuse to self-recriminate. Nor do we grovel as we walk in a religious version of a show-trial. Nor is the journey an occasion of (inner) chastisement leading to catharsis, like some kind of pagan festival. We walk as sinners, sinners who know they need a saviour. It isn't hard to know our need: one only has to look at the newspaper of history, or one's own heart and experience, to see the universality of sin and our need to be saved from it.

People these days recoil from the term 'sinner'. In my experience, they cite either the self-recrimination that has gone with 'sinner' in the past, a self-recrimination aimed at controlling 'the sinner'. Alternatively, some people cite the way 'sinner' has been used to point the finger at others, with 'sinner' in this version of history partnered with judgementalism. 

Ironically, a culture that has given up on 'sin' and 'sinners' is captive to the very consequences it wants to avoid. Denying the universality of sin/human failure - that is, pretending that there is some part of me that is quarantined from the imperfect world I have grown up in - makes those very consequences more likely. In naivete about the world ("Let's all just be kind to one another" or "Why can't people just love each other?"), to extreme narcissism (think identitarian politics), and then onto scapegoating and cultural polarisation (think social media), we have core features of the contemporary cultural landscape.

Instead, Christians walk the via dolorosa as sinners in need of a saviour, and a saviour appropriate for our mutual sinfulness. Walking the via dolorosa as a sinner is, ironically, to get off the see-saw of self-recrimination and criticism of others. Walking the way of the cross with the saviour also brings with it freedom, and should make us more difficult to control through guilt. 

Why is this? Mostly because we are loved, that's the point of the whole Jesus thing. And as beloved, we don't have to hide from our sin. We can receive the salvation of the saviour. We don't have to be in the centre of the universe: we can let God be the centre and receive God's love and forgiveness, renewal and freedom.

 God's way of dealing with human sin is to go deeper into the human predicament by being a victim of sin. And we must go deeper into our sin by acknowledging our need for a saviour. This is the path that yields genuine repentance (not guilt), and we emerge with a new empathy for the human condition, which we share.

Friday 1 April 2022

John 12:1-8 Mary, Jesus, and that Perfume

 “As the best thing is love itself, not the benefits which it confers, there must be no censure of its lavishness as disproportionate.” (William Temple, Readings in St John’s Gospel, p. 191.) 

 Imagine your brother has just died and three days later Jesus turns up. Jesus does miracles. “If you had been here he would not have died.” (Jn 11:32) That’s Mary of Bethany. She then goes off to mourn at the tomb. Jesus follows and raises Lazarus from the dead. 

 When Lazarus died, Mary did not fully comprehend the significance of Jesus, and especially, the meaning of his death. She understands that Jesus has the power to perform miracles. She does not yet understand Jesus fully, though. She will witness the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, and then understand the miracle as a sign pointing to the meaning of the death of Jesus.

 Fast-forward to the anointing, and Mary now understands. She has seen Lazarus raised from the dead. Her brother is alive once more. Later, when Jesus is at table in her house she does not come to him to acknowledge the miracle as such. The miracle is a sign of something greater. She now understands the miracle as a sign, and she is the first to come to this understanding of the death of Jesus in the Gospel of John. This is why she anoints Jesus for his death. The miracle brought life where there was only death, and as a sign the raising of Lazarus points to the life-giving death of Jesus. The death of Jesus will bring life, eternal life, and the Spirit welling up in the heart of the believer. (Jn 7:37) Where there is death, now there is life. (Jn 12:23-24) The cross will not have the odour of death, to be imprisoned behind a stone (11:39). Instead, his death will have the aroma of extravagance and life that fills the house and will not be contained. (12:3 and 20:1)

John 12:1-8 is the gateway from the public ministry of Jesus (of signs pointing to the meaning of his death) into the narrative of the Passion, that is, the death and resurrection of Jesus. It can be read profitably with John 11. (See Jn 11:2) This larger chunk (from 11:1 – 12:8) retains a focus on the death of Jesus throughout. It begins with the raising of Lazarus, and continues with the plot to kill Jesus. (11:45-53)  Ironically and unknown to him, the high priest, in justifying the plot to kill Jesus, speaks the truth about the significance of Jesus’ death. (11:50-53) They will kill him to eliminate him, but Jesus will go to his death as the one sent from God to unite all the children of God. And then there is the duplicitous Judas, who will betray Jesus. (12:4-6) 

 Mapped over this focus on the death of Jesus is the movement of Mary from tepid, half-understood faith, to a disciple who comprehends. She anoints Jesus for his burial, having kept the perfume for this day of symbolic burial. (12:7) She has not anointed Jesus as king/messiah (see Mark 14:3-9), but in a similar fashion to the way in which Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is symbolic of a total cleanse (13:8-10), this anointing speaks of future embalming. (R.H. Lightfoot, St John's Gospel. A Commentary, p. 236)  This anointing is not a symbolic purification of Jesus. Soon, Jesus will symbolically purify his disciples as he washes their feet, but Jesus does not need purification, he will purify others (cf. Hebrews) and is therefore worthy of this great act of extravagance and love.  “She responds to his self-giving love by giving her all, giving herself in a beautiful, foolish and scandalous way.” (Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John, p. 206)

Tuesday 8 February 2022

Is it all over for the traditional church?

 We are living through an intense period of cultural self-flagellation, or, in other words, a cultural moment of criticism (directed at self and others), purges, confessions to all manner of 'sins', and virtue signalling. The gospel speaks directly to such cultural moments with its message of grace not works, universal sin, forgiveness, beauty and goodness (not perfection). But that is for another time. 

This cultural moment has played into the general collapse of confidence within traditional churches, at least amongst more traditional Anglicans in Adelaide. It is not uncommon to hear people say, dejectedly, that traditional Anglican churches will disappear in the next few decades, or that we will be gathering together in house churches like the first Christians, or something similar. And this is sometimes coupled with a confession of failure or inadequacy, for 'sins' past or present. (The 'sin' of liking traditional worship is common, as though that is, somehow, the problem.) This is not helped by prominent church management/growth material which is, if not explicitly, at least implicitly contrary to or ignorant of the strengths (and possible futures) of traditional churches. (Ah, for the day we have a church survey sensitive to the gifts and future of traditional churches!) 

Does it need to be said that reading the future through the lense of past and continuing decline misses the part human innovation plays in all our personal and corporate futures? Apparently it does. Traditional churches, contrary to the propaganda, are good at innovation precisely because they understand the base they spring from and to which they return. Moreover, one should not confuse traditional with being moribund. The stability provided by knowing where you come from (part of what it means to be traditional) and being familiar with your strengths to be reenvisioned and, at times, redeployed, will bear fruit in a culture doing its best to flatten people out. 

The task for the traditional church is not to drop the ball, and certainly not to give up, just as it is not to try and recreate the past. There will be a few traditional churches that can have a future through nostalgia, but most will find a future that is genuinely traditional, engaging, and faithful.

The task, then, is not to abandon the tradition but instead to tinker with how we deploy our resources in being traditional, helping those seeking depth and purpose to find a home in our congregations. Let's be nimble enough to be able to use in our traditional churches the church resources not particularly suited to us, yet still helpful and that at times make us feel a little uncomfortable about our lack of imagination.

That is, perhaps, one plea I make to leaders and clergy in traditional churches, and to congregations from whom support must come for traditional churches to have a future. We need to be more nimble with our use of and familiarity with the tradition as we mould a future, nimbly integrating insights and experience that will help us. 

Another important aspect of leadership in traditional churches is to fireproof the future of our churches. This is not building walls to keep out the world. This is about a sensible evaluation of our structural weaknesses (e.g. expensive property costs, smaller congregations) and determining how best to gather current resources and deploy them for the future so that our churches do not physically collapse. It is going to become harder and harder for congregations of historical, substantial suburban churches to be able to afford the major costs of roof restorations and replacement, for example. Redeployment of resources for the future while attending to the exigencies of discipleship-making now requires nimble leadership and wisdom from congregations.

In all of this, we shouldn't be surprised that traditional churches have declined in congregational numbers and place in society around. The cultural shifts that are accelerating have been going on for a long time. We can make some pretty good, broad-brush predictions about what future conditions for traditional churches will be like. Not only can we think about fireproofing our churches, but know the desirability of traditional churches re-establishing their presence in their local community (beyond fundraising and serving without explicit witness), while creating new, and honing existing, pathways for people to enter the world of faith.

I haven't mentioned God in all of this. So, before someone comments saying we should trust God, I remind you of the joke of the guy sitting on top of his house while the floodwaters rise, rise, and rise. The plank of wood floats past, the boat comes past, the helicopter (you can string it out for as long as it takes to make the point) ...

Thursday 23 December 2021

Thin Experiences and the Virgin Birth

I remember someone who told me that they had been surprised by gratitude. Not that they were ungrateful before. Perhaps they could be characterised as someone who found meaning without transcendence, without mystery, without anything more than what can be explained by science for example, that is, without God. A flattened reality, but as it turned out, a flat reality haunted by transcendence and mystery. I say that because they realised that they felt grateful. But to whom? It didn’t make sense. Who should they be grateful to when life was good? Maybe it is just luck? (No, hang on, isn’t luck/good fortune originally part of the Greek/Roman pantheon of gods?) If they were to be consistent they would either have to give up being grateful or embrace the truth that we are surrounded by mystery and transcendence. They chose gtatitude. I liked their honesty and consistency. 
 Gratitude is a very common experience. It’s worth thinking about. What does it mean to be grateful? Should it be expelled by telling oneself that it doesn’t make sense in a universe lacking inherent meaning and purpose? Possibly. But then again, maybe there is more to it. Maybe gratitude, the experience of gratitude, is one of those thin places of our lives where the ‘more’ of mystery and transcendence breaks through. 
 When I tried to be an atheist I lost beauty for similar reasons. I could still recognise beauty, of course. But beauty seemed more than skin deep to me. It ran deeper than my appreciation of it, there was ‘more’, another thin place where transcendence breaks through into our lives. The bond between us as people, human compassion and love, for similar reasons are thin places. You can explain our bondedness, compassion, and love if you wish in terms of evolutionary benefit to the species, but we often experience them as thin places where we sense the ‘more ‘ of reality.  And this mystery, this transcendence, this ‘more’, is never against our humanity, never against human experience, it deepens the truly human as we encounter what transcends us. 
 But the ‘more’ isn’t like a thin layer of icing on a cake that you can just peel off and throw away leaving the cake undisturbed. The ‘more’ is not an add-on. We can live as though it is, sure. That is the nature of the ‘more’ that I am talking about. Transcendence – the ‘more’ - suffuses our lives, yet we can live most of the time oblivious to the presence of transcendence. Thin experiences make us aware of the presence of what I am calling transcendence and mystery, the experience that there is a good deal ‘more’ in our lives and in reality, and mystery really is everywhere once we have our eyes opened. This is part of the religious impulse. When I tried to be an atheist I was unable to ignore this ‘more’ no matter how hard I tried. And why would I ignore it? Not just for the sake of consistency, but because more is on offer! 
 And so we come to Christmas. I know that the whole virgin birth thing might be difficult to believe. Or is it? When I read the accounts of the Gospels it seems to me that people experienced Jesus himself as a thin place. A thin place in the flesh, in person. That the mystery that surrounds us, that beckons us to a deeper experience of our humanity and of life, would become manifest personally as a human being, isn’t such an alien idea really. You could think of the virgin birth as another way of saying that mystery came among us, that the mystery surrounding us, that is deep within all reality, came to fruition in the womb of Mary. Those who can’t let anything exist outside of the test tube cannot accept what I am saying. But if you sense, like I do, that there is ‘more’ going on in your life, that you have thin experiences, then faith beckons. The mystery beyond us, yet that also encounters us so often if we have the eyes to see, this mystery, so beautifully matched to our human experience, of course it would become human. Of course. The experience of thin places in my life didn’t make me expect Jesus, but once I encountered Jesus, I understood the thin experiences of life better. Indeed, I understood that mystery and transcendence are embedded in the very fabric of my humanity.

Saturday 4 December 2021

The Surprising Mediator Between God and Humankind

This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For
there is one God
there is also one mediator
between God and humankind
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all. (1Timothy 2:3-6)
The baptism by John in the Jordan evokes some of the great moments in Israel's history, of failed covenantal righteousness and renewal offered. Think of the Exodus, liberation from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea. Think of the entrance into the Primised Land through the (temporarily) dry bed of the Jordan River. Followed by centuries of prophetic criticism and hope in a new covenant. 
In the Baptist, the offer of renewal is underway: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Lk 3:3) in preparation for the coming of the messiah. (Lk 3:15-17) 
John preached for a response. (Lk 3:7-14) John called the people from their unfaithfulness and from the centres and people of power and importance into the wilderness (Lk 3:1-2), like returning from exile. (Lk 3:4-6)  
But there was a surprise in Jesus, the messiah. Jesus is God's radical turn to the sinner, displayed in a fashion that brought joy to some and opposition from others. In the table-fellowship of Jesus, his absolving of sins and healings, his relationship to the Law and the Temple, his parables and teaching, Jesus ran counter to the expectations of many. (cf Lk 7:18-23)
And this turn to the sinner is deepened in the cross. The rejection of Jesus by all leads to the greatest surprise: forgiveness of sins to those who rejected the offer of grace and forgiveness in the first place! And if that wasn't surprising enough, the one rejected is our acceptance of the offer of renewal. In Christ we are simulataneously forgiven and in his faithfulness, self-sacrifice, and surrender to God the covenant is fulfilled. The Law is written on a human heart. (The heart of Jesus, see Jer 31:31-34.) 

Wednesday 24 November 2021

In Jesus we see that God is not a monster of our imaginations

When bad things happen it is easy to say something like, "What did I do to deserve this?" Probably nothing in the sense of the question above. God isn't punishing us when bad things happen. Of course, if we play with fire we get burnt, that is true. But that is not the same as saying that God is the author when bad things happen. This is so important. 'The gods' did bad things, just read Greek mythology! God does not. God dies on a cross for us, we did the crucifying, God did the rising. On the cross God judges human sin by being a victim of sin and raising the innocent Jesus from the dead. The risen Jesus sends out his disciples to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins, not vengeance. It would be wildly inconsistent for the Father of the Lord Jesus to then bring disaster down on our heads. 

People can also have a tendency to misinterpret history in a similar way. An earthquake is not God's punishment. We shouldn't impute to God the disaster that follows the earthquake. People seem to have been (and still are) infatuated with end-of-the-world scenarios. Whether divinely inspired or human-induced, people continue to guess the meaning of events and interpret them as coming from a malevolent or angry god (even secularised people have their own versions of this). In the past people have been obsessed with dating 'the end', and dates still figure prominently in all kinds of secular future dooms. Jesus tells us not to misinterpret the events of history. He knew people would say all kinds of things in his name, and make all kinds of claims. So he explicitly says, don't be fooled by false messiahs, and don't see God as the author of disasters. Disasters, whether human-inspired or not, will come, but don't make God out to be a monster. (See Mark 13:1-8) 

The event to correctly interpret is Jesus, his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. God's response to suffering, evil, and death is not to make more of it. God’s response is to overcome suffering, evil, and death by surrendering to its power. Jesus, born in a stable, crucified and raised, interprets our history. We are loved, and in Christ our future is secure, even if it doesn't feel that way at times.

Saturday 30 October 2021

The Lord our God, the Lord is One (Mark 12:28-34)

South Australian Year 12 school exams are just around the corner. When I sat for my Year 12 final exams over 40 years ago the outcome wasn't particularly noteworthy. I had already peaked at school, a year or so back. The problem for me was that I couldn't see the point of what I was doing. Not that the benefit of schooling was lost on me. And I could see possible pathways ahead. And there wasn't and still isn't anything wrong with any of those pathways. It's just that I wanted the answer to the "Why?" behind the options of life. I lacked a comprehensive meaning to bind it all together, a meaning that could infuse my life and make a more complete (rather than relative) sense of any particular path I would take. A way of sifting what was on offer, and finding my place in a deeper and broader meaning. 

It still reminds me of a few pages in Walter Kasper's, The God of Jesus Christ (1)on the ancient world's quest for 'the One' lying behind the multiplicity of the world around. Without a binding, unifying 'One' behind the multiplicity the plethora of 'stuff' around us teeters on meaninglessness, amounting to arbitrary and haphazard encounters. They might have a relative meaning, but without the meaning of a unifying force behind them, the bits of our lives eventually appear arbitrary or haphazard. Like the horizon which makes the foreground comprehensible, without a background of unity the multiplicity of the world 'would be nothing but a dust-heap piled up at random and lacking any order and meaning." (p. 235) That's what my future felt like, all those years ago. (I couldn't verbalise it like that back then.) 

Another example. Sometimes a young person attempts to consume as many experiences as possible, hungrily, voraciously, as though in the cumulative consumption of each experience one will find meaning. Sometimes this happens at the other end of life, after a realisation that one's days are numbered. Not necessarily anything wrong in any of the experiences, but in the end, a life of cumulative, relative experiences or meanings is, in my experience, not enough. Living is more than discrete experiences, no matter how many and varied.

And if we were to think of this unity behind the multiplicity as 'the One' (and we wouldn't be alone in the history of religion and philosophy), we would not be referring to a numerical oneness. It is the oneness of unity, completeness, providing an overarching meaning and purpose. Unity, but also uniqueness, for there can be no other, no other source, no other comprehensive meaning, or else we are back to multiplicity. And this 'One' is universal in its completeness and uniqueness, 'the One' for all peoples.

The above is not unrelated to Jesus' use of Deut 6:4-5 in answer to a question about the commandments: Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Mark 12:29) But my discussion above is not the source of Israel's affirmation of the oneness of God. Israel encountered God, and through that encounter over the centuries came to see that the God of Exodus and Exile is also the God of creation: one, complete, unique, and universal, transcendent if you like.

But there is more to the story of this encounter. In Christ God revealed to us that 'the One' is love. The unity and completeness that is the source and ground of creation is love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Not just loving, but God is love. See 1John 4:7-12.)

And encounter is where my story after Year 12 took me. I encountered God in Christ afresh, and over the years have come to discover 'the One' behind the multiplicity, the God who brings a unity and completeness, meaning and purpose to what is otherwise teetering on the arbitrary. It was if you like a journey from both ends, in the beginning the implicit search from the dead-end of multiplicity without unity, and then from the other end the active encounter with God in Christ (who is the unity implied in the dead-end).

My story is not unique. Many people feel the "dust- heap piled up at random and lacking any order and meaning." And ignore it, for they meet a brick wall. They need encounter. Others come straight through encounter and in that encounter, with the discipline of prayer, scripture, worship, and reflection integrate their past into a concrete meaning and purpose transcending any single experience or meaning. Coming to Christ can start either side, but always includes encounter, for it was only in encounter, cross and resurrection, that we learnt that God is love, and that love is the sole criterion for meaning and purpose, as Jesus says in today's Gospel reading.

1. Kasper, Walter. The God of Jesus Christ. New York: Crossroad, 1988

Thursday 2 September 2021

On God’s Love, Spiritual Discipline, and the Freedom of Patience

In Jesus and the Spirit the Father has shared with us God’s (the Holy Trinity’s) own life with us. Not just that God loves us, but much more than that. God is love, and we live in that love. There is not another face of God inconsistent with the face of Jesus. The Breath/Spirit of God is the Spirit of that Jesus shared with us. What we see in Jesus – this is what God is, really. Moreover, there is nothing more that the Father can give us. There is nothing more intimate than the Son and the Breath/Spirit of God. Everything we can receive has been given. There is nothing God is withholding, waiting for us to earn. Everything is given – what more can there be than the love that is God? The effect of what God has done in Jesus and given in the Spirit is still working its way through our lives and, indeed, the whole of creation. But we have been and are lavishly blessed by God. 
 To live into what has been so lavishly bestowed on us requires new habits of thought and feeling, and this means practicing the spiritual disciplines to allow the sense of the presence of God to blossom. That makes it sound like hard work. And while part of the Christian calling is to learn some new habits of awareness and gratitude, the answer is not always an intense discipline, but a freedom and patience that waits for God in our lives. This might sound strange, but often the less intense we are while faithfully engaging in the spiritual practices the more likely the presence of God will be unveiled in our life now and in our past. After all, joy can’t be manufactured, it is a gift.

Saturday 28 August 2021

Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. (Psalm 51:1) 

[And that is exactly what God has done in Christ.]

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:5) 

In a particularly difficult time in my life I had a dream that I remembered the next morning. In the dream I was in a large gathering, robed, and in the Gospel procession to the middle of the large crowd. The Gospel Book was opened and I was about to read and realised that the wrong reading was open. But I spoke the good news of the gospel (it was John 10, the Good Shepherd) to the crowd, but I read it by heart. 

I was talking to someone recently who told me of an occasion when they forgave someone for something most people might bear a grudge over. It was like it just flowed out of her heart. She didn’t need to coerce herself, fight with herself over what to do. I said it sounded like a flowering of her heart, like she knew the good news by heart and lived it. (It reminded me of my dream.) 

The problem was recognised in the Hebrew Scriptures. We are told that God is not swayed by outward appearance, but looks on the heart. (1Sam 16:7) And what is in the human heart? After the flood, God promises to never again curse the ground because of humankind, for evil dwells in every human heart. (There’s no simple solution to evil, like killing off the bad people to leave the good people.) The problem is the human heart. (Gen 9:21) Jesus teaches this too: it is what comes out of a person, from within, from the heart, that defiles a person. (Mark 7:21-23) What is to be done? The Psalmist cries out to God, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (51:1) The problem is the human heart, and the solution is for God to cleanse the human heart. The prophet Jeremiah recognises this when he contrasts the old covenant with the new covenant. Instead of the law being written on stone tablets that must be inculcated into the human heart, God will write the law on our hearts, and we will come to know God by heart, and ourselves as God’s people. (Jer 312:31-34. See also Ezek 36:26; Matt 26:27-28; Rom 2:29) Or to put it another way, God will replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. (Ezek 11:19-20) 
The transformation of the human heart is accomplished in Jesus. Jesus knows God by heart. God begins the new creation with Jesus. His heart is God's heart, our heart. But it is not as if Jesus just glides through life serenely oblivious to the temptations and despair of life, as though his heart is insulated from real life because it is God’s heart. On the contrary, Jesus has a true heart of real human flesh. His heart makes him more open and vulnerable, and through him, we are opened to this real human heart. His via dolorosa is the way of a human heart. 

In the same way, the rebuilding of our hearts into hearts of flesh does not insulate us from the world. There are many ingredients necessary for the spread of the good news of salvation in Jesus, not least his disciples opening the door of their hearts to their neighbour and inviting them in.

Saturday 21 August 2021

The Epithet of Sinner (John 6:56-69)

In today's Gospel reading (John 6:56-69) those who follow Jesus are being pared back. They are a remnant of what they were. Jesus collected quite an array of followers, but over the course of his ministry they disappeared. The righteous are being thinned out. Today, they are thinned out because of his teaching about the bread of life and consuming him for eternal life.  And in the end Jesus would lose all his followers, and he, Jesus, would be the remnant, the righteous one. His righteousness covers me, that’s part of being redeemed. Being crucified to my old self, the self that makes crosses and all sorts of metaphorical crosses for others. 

So I like the epithet of sinner. Not just sinner. Redeemed sinner. It’s why Christians don’t mind being named as sinners. We are redeemed. But often we think of ‘sinner’ as a judgment on us. A source of shame, and a state we should escape from. Not being a sinner is preferable to being a sinner. But I prefer to see ‘sinner’ as a way of being that is my identity, how I am in the world. Not as a description that can and should be jettisoned as soon as possible. I think of ‘sinner’ as something almost permanent; this is how I am. Not a layer poured over the top of who I am that I could peel off at some point (if I stopped doing bad things perhaps) and resume being me. I think redeemed sinner is who I am. Sounds negative, and the world rejects and avoids such an epithet. (“I'm not one of those...”) Or sometimes it is embraced as an expression of a deep dislike of self. (“I’m worse than everyone else.”) But for me it is always redeemed sinner, and that changes everything. 

But doesn’t "redeemed" mean that I am no longer a sinner? No, better to keep ‘sinner’ than not. Here’s why. Sinners redeemed in Christ know that they are loved. Not because of their own righteousness (the remnant is Jesus, not Jesus and me), but because of God’s unearned and freely given mercy and love. I receive and therefore my reconstitution comes from gift. That’s what it means to be a redeemed sinner. 'To be' because of gift, the gift of love, or more precisely, the gift of a relationship of love. It changes how I see the world. It’s all gift. I am built up by receiving, in thankfulness, not in grasping or resentment. What I learn as a redeemed sinner becomes a prism through which to see all of life. It is the beginning of joy and the scent of the peace that passes all understanding.

Saturday 17 July 2021

Crucifying the Dividing Walls of Humanity

I know that the obvious boundary in the Bible is Old/New Testaments. I prefer to make the split Genesis 1-11 and the rest. Genesis 1-11 contains those stories we might say are universal. I read them and understand that I am being described, as is the world, and our universal, human predicament.  (E.g. Noah and the flood, here.) God's response we read about from Genesis 12. (Here.) The universal predicament of humankind brings a particular response, God's call to Abraham and Sarah to leave their secure home and to wander the promised land in faith, and God promises that through them all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12:1-3.) Paul makes much of this (Rom 4 & Gal 3) including that marvellous claim that this blessing to the Gentiles is the Gospel! (Gal 3:8) This blessing is manifest in the union of humankind through the dismantling of the barriers that divide us. (Acts 2:1-11 compare Gen 11:1-19 see hereherehere) These barriers that divide us are universal, and our universal predicament. They have as their root human envy, rivalry, arrogance, and the violence to maintain and create dividing walls, all to be found in increasing intensity as we read through Gen 1-11. Christ saves us from this predicament, by bringing us, Jew and Gentile, together through the cross. (Ephes 2:16, but Jew/Gentile as paradigms of all dividing walls, see Gal 3:27-29.)  And that is the extraordinary thing. Crosses maintain the barriers. Jesus, accused blasphemer, crucified to maintain the wall that divides, brings us together through that very instrument of violence and division. Through Jesus, handed over into the hands of sinners yet vindicated in the resurrection, Satan's ruse (here) is unmasked for those with eyes to see. That which divides us - the accusations, the pride, the rivalry, all of it - and that crucified Christ, is now crucified to us so that it is Christ who lives in us. (Gal 2:20)  

This is why St Paul rails against division and the sort of attitudes and behaviours that cause it. (1Cor 1:10-17, and notice he then launches into his great proclamation of the power of the cross, 1:18-25. See also Rom 12:3; 1Cor 8; 11:17-22; Gal 5:16-26.) Division in the church insults the Gospel itself, for our unity in Christ is integral to the Gospel, not an added on extra. If you don't believe me search and see how often Paul links poor behaviour and its renewal to the death of Christ and the death of our old nature. (E.g. Col 3:5-17.) And notice how Paul's explanation of faith, law, grace, and justification can lead to his reflections on God's promise to Abraham. (See Rom 1-3 leading into Rom 4, and then keep reading into Rom 5! Also, Gal 2:15-21 leading into Gal 3.) 

In an age of intensifying polarization, with accusation and counter-accusation, here is a mission for the traditional church. Traditional churches eschew fads, do not have a cause derived from Jesus (that is a cause having a life apart from Jesus) and are wary of the heightened emotionalism and easy judgements of the mob. Nurturing this and living into our unity in Christ, while still holding a variety of opinions on different topics (often divisive topics in the world around us) is not an easy road. But because it is the gospel itself it includes cross-work (Mark 8:34-35) but also freedom and human dignity, and the whiff of resurrection.

Saturday 26 June 2021

Virtual Choirs, Perfection, Clay Jars, and Making Space for Each Other

Recently I listened to a choir conductor explain the process of creating a virtual choir performance. It requires skill, but also a sensitivity to the human because the best virtual choir performances won't be 'perfect' if they are to sound beautiful. Perfection, when put together by a computer program will sound robotic and manufactured. In creating a virtual choir performance slight 'imperfections' are introduced to make the performance not just beautiful to the ear but also human. What a great metaphor for being human, and the church for that matter.

We are clay jars (2Cor 4:7-15), but who prefers the factory manufactured clay piece to the piece of art that has within it the 'imperfections' of the human hand? The more perfect, the less human, generally. And we recognise this on the screen in those dystopian movies and TV shows that have regimented societies seeking perfection by brainwashing and violence. History is replete with real-life examples. Thank God the preferred human way of fashioning human perfection is not God's way of bringing the metamorphosis of transformation! God works with our imperfection and makes something beautiful from them.

This is not to abandon the call to perfection. (Matt 5:43-48 cf Luke 6:32-36) But it is to make space for each other's imperfections. There is something beautiful about the 'making space'. And this 'making space' is to make space for our mutual imperfections without condoning or condemning ourselves or anyone else. And in this space, we seek the transformation that comes through God's love discovered in our mutual love of one another.

Last week I spoke of the space that the cross gives human beings. (Here.) God provides space for us to be who we are, even to the point of crucifying the Son of God. And it is in this space of weakness (1Cor 1:18-25) that God brings the transformation of forgiveness and resurrection. It is a space of mutual forbearance, but not of carelessly inflicting our imperfections on each other. It is a space of discipline and a space for repentance, for experiencing the love of God in forgiveness without any hint of self-rejection.

Friday 18 June 2021

Who is this? Mark 4:35-41

 Without the cross, the answer to the question (about Jesus) "Who is this?" pops out wrong. But with the cross and the resurrection of the crucified, the answer is Christianity. Because of the cross and the resurrection of the crucified:

1. Christianity has a sensitivity to the voice of the victim and the human tendency to scapegoat. Where Christianity has taken root in a culture so too has the moral high ground of victimhood. (Look at the West now and the place of the voice of the victim. But this sensitivity is meant to be coupled with conversion to Jesus and his way of forgiveness to prevent making new victims.)

2. Christianity teaches of a God who is sympathetic to the human condition, for in Jesus God has suffered with us in the flesh. And it is through this suffering and death as a victim of human sin that God has brought about union with us. A union with us at our lowest point, i.e. as sinners.  (See Rom 5:6-11) One can never get to this spiritual insight without the cross (and resurrection) of Jesus.

3. And then, this crucified Jesus, now risen, offers forgiveness, not vengeance or 'justice'. (John 20:19-23) There is no line in the sand that to step over brings destruction. Instead, we discover the patience of God and space for human freedom, and the means to be transformed through repentance and forgiveness.  (2Peter 3:8-9) 

4. And in the space (to sin) that we see in the cross of Jesus, we see also a model of what creation is like. As Creator God does not transgress our freedom but gives creation space and its own integrity to be who we are, and in that space to be transformed by love. (1John 4:7-12)

5. To be Christian is to know God's love revealed in Christ and his cross and resurrection. And to be judged by this love, not the judgment of others or the judgment of self-loathing. This love that has given all and reaches the depths of who we are, asks of us everything. For it is in the spiritual renunciation of all that we believe we are that we transcend the boundaries of our current humanity, bringing to light that which is hidden. In other words, we learn to be loved and to love.

Saturday 12 June 2021

The Kingdom of God is Like a Weed

 Jesus likens the kingdom to a weed. (The mustard seed grows into a weed.) So the kingdom isn't the project you are doing in the shed, it is to be found behind the shed in the unkempt part of the yard not usually visible from where all the action is happening. That's funny. It must have provoked at least a little snigger amongst some, while others may have been a little offended.

These days it is difficult to find someone in the church who doesn't recognise the danger of identifying our pet projects with the kingdom. We know that when we give our hearts to pet projects (that is, the pet project becomes an idol, displacing the kingdom from its place of honour in our hearts), all kinds of problems and disasters occur. Idols always distort those who worship the idol and the outcomes. 

If avoiding making our pet projects into idols were as easy to say as do, I suppose human history would look significantly different to what it actually does. And this isn't just for religious people. Pet projects become ideologies, driving adherents to say and do all sorts of crazy stuff. Like any idol.

And this is why the parable of the mustard seed is so helpful. It's a warning against pet projects. Even when we think the pet project is the kingdom. Even when the pet project begins in kingdom-type activity. It's just too easy to equate what we are doing and thinking with the kingdom. We all decry the empire-building of yesteryear but are happy enough to think that when we act justly or evangelise (or whatever it is your church tradition values in particular) that we are doing God's work. Well, yes, possibly. But it is a slippery slope, and is why history looks like it does.

I could just say, let's hang loose people. Let's not invest too much in our pet projects. But how to give (of self) genuinely and hang loose? How to avoid becoming tepid? (Neither hot nor cold, see Revelation 3:16.) Well, keep looking behind the shed. That's the point of the parable, or at least part of it. Keep looking behind the shed. And when we do, and we see the weeds growing, let the weeds take your interest for a while. We can divide our attention, which is a good, practical way to get our hearts off the pet project and (at least potential) idol in the shed. God is doing all kinds of stuff, not just our pet project. It might be time to move on from the pet project. The kingdom requires nimbleness.

Here is a parallel from the Christian tradition. People hunger for spiritual experiences. Christians have always hungered for spiritual experiences, and when an 'experience' is granted, hang on to the experience. And not just Christians, it seems that many contemporary people are hungering for 'spiritual' experiences, although who knows exactly what the world thinks it means by 'spiritual'. Anyway, the advice from the Christian tradition is not to hang onto the experience. The experience may well be helpful, but hang onto it and it will become less and less helpful until it has the opposite effect. Kind of like how the pet project can become an idol. The advice is to just go back to praying, like normal, and leave behind the experience. The experience has done what it was meant to do. Move on. And that is part of the problem with seeking a  'spiritual experience', it feels like it is helping us grow, but it will actually stop us from moving and growing in a relatively short space of time.

Or another parallel. In the Christian tradition, God is more unlike than like any image or thought we have of God. Words and images have the tendency to become replacements for God, that is, idols. Or, less dramatic, prevent us from continuing our journey into and with God. We get stuck. Just like spiritual experiences, we can get stuck. Just like pet projects. We can get stuck. The kingdom is moving on, let's keep looking, moving, joining, looking, moving ...

Monday 7 June 2021

Satan Casting Out Satan

 When the opponents of Jesus turn up accusing him of being in league with Satan (Mark 3:22) he doesn't so much as deny it as play with it. It is not the ones we humans expel as evil/immoral/ etc who are in league with Satan, but the accusers (who believe themselves to be righteously casting out Satan) who are in league with Satan, the great accuser: Satan casting out Satan. (3:23)

This dynamic of expulsion is played out among us and through human history. It seems good and right, even necessary to expel. And its effects of a temporary peace (by expelling the supposed source of conflict/sin) reinforce and support the sense of virtue retained/regained. But this peace is temporary, for a house divided is inherently unstable. (3:24-26)

And Jesus will ransack the strong man's house by first disarming him, like a thief. (Mark 3:27; compare Matt 24:43, 1Thess 5:2, 2Pet 3:10, Rev 16:15) The strong man is Satan, and he will do this on the cross. Satan will cast out Satan, and Jesus, in the disguise of a criminal and immoral person rightly crucified, the lie of accusation will be unmasked and God's vindication of Jesus in the resurrection will give us eyes to see.

This is scapegoating, Satan casting out Satan. When we participate in scapegoating we are in league with the diabolical. Of course, we all think we would never do such a thing. No one ever does think that, we always think we are innocently and righteously identifying the problem (someone else). All kinds of self-righteousness accrue.  Social causes are vulnerable to being pulled into the diabolical. (Its why someone always ends up against the wall when the revolution comes.) Whatever you think of the righteousness of a pet cause (to say this should immediately give pause), the conditions for just such scapegoating are visible around us. 

The lie that allows humans to be content in self-righteousness is best maintained if the scapegoat is guilty of something. That way the fiction of their (whoever they are) guilt can have at least an air of credibility. Scapegoating pops up as sides and causes are taken, and as victims (of evil) and perpetrators (of evil) are discovered and denounced. Satan casting out Satan. As mentioned, it is best if there is some element of guilt present and some element of ostensible (self-)righteousness. But the guilt need not be related directly to the 'crime', only tangentially. But when the invective rises and continues to rise, when we are all forced to take a side, or when to not take a side is to be accused of being on the wrong side of history (siding with evil), Satan is casting out Satan.

Following Jesus asks us to be sensitive to the victims of the diabolical who are innocent of the crimes heaped on them (not necessarily innocent). To be a follower of Jesus is to renounce the false peace and feelings of righteousness that flow from Satan casting out Satan. At a minimum, to be Christian and part of a Christian community is to find our communion in love and forgiveness, not in expulsion.

Thursday 3 June 2021

Am Important Detail at Pentecost

Acts 2:1-12 tells the story of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples after the Ascension of Jesus. It is easy to miss the significance of a small detail embedded in the story. It is crucial that the disciples are given diverse tongues rather than the hearers enabled to understand the (single) dialect of the disciples. Imagine if it were around the other way, with the listeners enabled to understand the one language. Christianity would be another religion, a religion in which God's word is uncluttered with the varieties of human culture, indeed of human experience. A religion that perceived variety as an impediment to unity, or should I say, an impediment to uniformity.
    Christianity affirms that humans don't have to be translated into a monoculture.  We don't have to reject who we are, where we come from, how we have learnt to be human, to be Christians. Hence the church's commitment to translating the gospel into the language of the people. Christianity is a religion in which variety is celebrated, and this variety is not an impediment to our unity.  There still remains a gospel to be heard, and this gospel will change us and the languages and cultures in which we express ourselves. But the gospel is accommodated to the human family in all of its variety, not the other way around. 
Not that this little detail in the Acts story begins God's accommodation to the variety of the human family and all creation.  The pedigree stretches way back.  Most especially so in the Incarnation, with God becoming human in Jesus so that we can share in God's life as human beings. (John 1:14; 2Corinthians 8:9) 
    And this story is not the only example of Christianity's insight that variety is not the enemy of unity. Christianity likes bringing together that which is usually separated. A doctrinal example is the doctrine of the Incarnation. According to the belief of the church expressed in the creeds,  Jesus is not a mish-mash of divine and human, nor some divinised quasi-human. Think here, for example, of the Creed of Chalcedon, 

... without confusion or change, without division or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together ... 

The union of that which is usually apart - divine and human. This union provides us with a glimpse of our future in God: union with God without our diminishment (or God's).  But if Jesus were in some way not fully human and fully divine the little detail in the Pentecost story would have to be the other way around. And we would have to change St Paul's reflection in 1Corinthians 12 (especially vv 4-7) on the variety of gifts given to the church. So too the Christian insistence that our final fulfilment is not to be dissolved back into some great sea of being, but to be who we are, in Christ united with the Father, through the Holy Spirit. (1Cor 15:20-28.) And we would have to change our doctrine of creation. In Christianity God not only permits 'the other'/creation, but loves creation, providing creation with its own integrity. (Christianity is not pantheism.)
    All of these examples speak of God's sensitivity to our particularity and personhood, and the variety of all creation in which God delights. So, of course, when the Spirit is given the disciples speak in diverse languages rather than the Spirit squeezing the listeners into a cultural straightjacket.

Saturday 17 April 2021

Glorified Wounds

 Jesus is the Lord who came to save us by dying for us on the cross. The wounds in Jesus' glorified body remind us of the way in which we are saved. But they also remind us that our own wounds are much more than roadblocks on our way to God. They show us our own unique way to follow the suffering Christ, and they are destined to become glorified in our resurrected life. Just as Jesus was identified by his wounds, so are we. (Henri Nouwen)

Friday 16 April 2021

The Wounds of Jesus are Not an Embarrassment

 The wounds of the Risen One are neither an embarrassment nor inconvenient.  The cross was not a mistake that needed Plan B to correct. If the wounds of Jesus were an embarrassment or an inconvenience we would not have an account of a Christophany of the Wounded-Risen One.  It is almost like Jesus wants his disciples to see his wounds.

In popular culture the afterlife is portrayed in ethereal terms with at least the world of suffering and death a past memory, or perhaps even ignored. Think of Dumbledore and Harry P speaking near the end of the movie series in a railway station of sorts. Like an escape from reality, a dualism with the unreal afterlife wholly disconnected from the evil world from which he has escaped. Not so the resurrected Jesus. He is no bodyless spirit or vision. The resurrection takes all that we are, and our histories, into God's future and transforms us. Resurrection has nail holes.

We should be rattled. Imagine seeing a dead man who is so visibly alive as the risen Christ yet has all the wounds of death. The kind of wounds that kill. It isn't enough to say that such a person is alive. It would be better to say that a dead man is alive. And that doesn't make any sense, or at least not in the way we ordinarily think of life and death. It wasn't just a matter of God reversing the death of Jesus, as though death was banished. It is more like God gave life to a dead man who remains dead, except that death has lost its sting, its meaning, and its power. Life and death, as two sides of the one coin as we experience life and death, no longer mean what we think they mean. Christ is risen!

I like that little bit in Colossians where we are told God made a public example of the rulers and authorities, triumphing over them in the cross. (2:15) When the risen Jesus flashes his wounds to his disciples (John 20:20; Luke 24:39-40) he is making a public example of his victory over death and the power of death. Not the public example of a Roman general in a Triumph. Indeed, the evidence of the triumph of God in Christ is exactly what Rome would see as signs of defeat. But, because Christ is raised (not just alive again instead of being dead), death has lost its sting, death has lost its meaning and power, the wounds of Christ are his Triumph.

Thursday 15 April 2021

The Hand and Feet of Jesus

 Jesus' hands and feet were not just anyone's hands and feet, but the signs of his real bodily presence. They were the hands and feet of Jesus marked with the wounds of his crucifixion. It is of great spiritual importance that Jesus made himself known to his disciples by showing them his wounded body. The resurrection has not taken his wounds away but, rather, they had become part of his glory. They had become glorified wounds. (Henri Nouwen)

Wednesday 31 March 2021

The Death of Jesus v the Death of Socrates

The death of Socrates is very different from the death of Jesus. Socrates dies with equanimity, almost elegance. With a bit of philosophizing, he helps others see the necessity of his death, and so he then dies with great dignity. This is very different from Jesus. Jesus sweats blood. Forget the question of whether that is physically possible. It's a great metaphor for Jesus' inner anguish as he approaches death. 

At the last supper, Jesus gives a portion of bread to his betrayer. Is this an act of forgiveness, an offering of his 'body'? (See here.) Whatever you think of that, one can't help feel the poignancy of the moment. Jesus' world is collapsing and he still offers the bread to Judas. And then Jesus makes his way to Gethsemane. He needs his friends as his world darkens, but they fall asleep. "Take this cup from me ..." The God who has been so diligently responsive throughout his public ministry is now silent. Where will this end? On the cross, with loud crying (Hebrews 2:7) and a cry of lament, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" His inner turmoil is apparent as he experiences God's absence. Jesus dies a lonely, isolated figure, and I feel our common humanity in his suffering and anguish, made intolerable by desertion and godforsakenness. His end is extreme, but we know something of anguish, isolation, and suffering. 

Jesus' death is so different from the death of Socrates. It is hard to imagine Socrates crying over anyone, but Jesus cried over Jerusalem. Jesus felt a deep sympathy with those he healed, so much so that the New Testament says that, in respect of his healing ministry, Jesus 'took our infirmities and bore our diseases.' (Matt 8:17. See Isaiah 53:4-6.) Jesus is no philosopher like Socrates. He is a High Priest offering himself in the depths of his humanity and ours for the salvation of the world, a path that leads right through the middle of suffering not around it. Jesus could relate to people and heal them: not because he was distant from them, but because he knows us from the inside. (Heb 2:14-18) And it is why we can relate to God through him. We are not leaving behind our humanity when we come to God through Jesus, but are invited into a more intimate sharing of our common humanity. We are not less prone to inner anguish, but more prone to feel the world and its pain. 

Tuesday 23 February 2021

Is Forgiveness a Duty?

Is forgiveness a duty? Is it the case that if we don’t forgive others, then God won’t forgive us? Do we have a responsibility to hand God’s forgiveness of us on to others? And are we obliged to forgive others so we can break the cycle of revenge? That's duty, and it has its place. But the motivation for forgiveness is love, not duty. 
But what is the alternative to dutifully 'forgiving' someone if we can't really forgive them? Well, if we are not able to forgive the alternative is not to tell ourselves that we should forgive others. The alternative is an act of will not to seek revenge against that person, and to guard against subtle acts of retaliation. There is a level of authenticity in this kind of non-aggression. We are not trying to make out everything is fine. And it doesn’t extend the harm that has already occurred. And then we can do the spiritual disciplines that I outlined previously. (Here). Maybe, one day, we will forgive the other party.

This question is similar to helping others out of a sense of guilt. The motivation for forgiving others or helping others matters. St Paul says we can do all sorts of incredible feats of self-sacrifice, but without love, nothing is gained. (1Cor 13:1-3) Acting out of guilt is really about us. Helping others out of guilt is then really about us, not the ones we help. And the 'help' we offer is very easily skewed or distorted when it is offered for our benefit.  Moreover, guilt is too closely related to self-disgust to take us very far. And guilt doesn’t build a future but is stuck in the past. 

And responding to the needs of others out of guilt will bring unintended consequences. For example, let’s say someone is feeling guilty about the blessings in their life so they decide to be ‘generous’ in money/time/goods toward those they perceive to be less fortunate. And isn’t it handy that the recipient of the largesse then comes to depend on the ‘generosity’ of the giver! I say 'fortunate' because then the feelings of guilt can be easily assuaged. Almost like a vending machine. Whole industries of charity are built on evoking this ‘generosity’. 

 In the same way, forgiving someone wallowing in guilt won’t relieve their guilt but more likely feed it. The person feeling guilty feels a little better after being forgiven, encouraging them to seek forgiveness over and over. A kind of moral addiction if you like, and Christianity calls such addiction salvation by works. (Or these days we might call it virtue signalling.) And the moral addiction easily becomes a moralistic addiction seeking out other sinners to denounce. We have a plague of this at the moment in western societies. 

 But to return to the original question: do we have a duty to forgive others? Duty ultimately skews relationships. It is good to remember that. We might think that we should at least mouth forgiveness for the benefit of the person seeking forgiveness. Maybe, but inauthenticity on our part won’t get them very far. Remember, a genuinely remorseful person won’t necessarily require us to forgive them. That's because they won't be seeking forgiveness for their sake but to heal a relationship as best as can be done. So they will let us have our feelings and our work to do rather than require us to forgive them. And genuine remorse means the person has already done some of the work themselves about their actions, who they are, and the future. 

Contrast this with the person who needily seeks forgiveness. They will need more than a show on our part. They could come to church and authentically open themselves to the One who has already forgiven them so as to heal and lead them beyond their neediness.