Discovering old journals

Packing to move house is like an archaeological dig. Every now and again as you negotiate the “toss” and “keep” piles of stuff, you come across something that says “pause”. Today I discovered a journal I began to keep when I was considering acceptance of the call to train for ministry. It nearly went on the “toss” file because it’s hidden behind a cover that says “English Exercises”. The first entry is dated 16th March 1969.

It was sober reading depicting my struggle with the issues of discernment for both the faith journey and the times. My horizons were quite narrow and unashamedly and rudely evangelical, even though I had been formed in a broader representation of Churches of Christ. At the same time, I struggled with a recognition of this something that sat awkwardly, attempting to filter strident influences from other sources through what my fledgeling faith discerned as a gospel of love. My reflections on whether or not to become involved in the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign predicted my future journey into a gospel pacifist outlook, even though I sought leadership from the churches in vain.

Now, as I near the end of sustained involvement in church ministry life some 49 years later, I see that while I have changed much, much is still the same. To be sure, I move through difficult circumstances and challenges with more poise, dignity and authenticity than then. But the questions still remain, the search for a genuine expression of the gospel of love amongst the people I am called to serve, wherever that may be. My greatest caution is to not stop the questing, for I have come to understand that the answer is in the never-ending question. So it looks like Wondering Pilgrim must continue his journey!

Swinging on the Vine

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Somehow I felt I had to justify this sermon title for John 15:1-8 at our combined Uniting Church/Church of Christ service this morning.

During the week, with ANZAC Day music playing in the background, while I exegeted the Greek text of “abiding,” my attention was drawn to jazz variations of the ubiquitous commemoration hymn, “Abide with Me.” Here is what I listened to and played to our combined congregations this morning.

 

The “I am” sayings attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel are the set piece that gives rise to expansion, repetition and poetic exploration much in the way a jazz orchestra explores a theme. While we listened to the BJO’s rendition of “Abide With Me” we noticed the cornet setting the main theme as the accompanying instruments almost champed at the bit, waiting for their opportunities to respond, improvise and interpret, the cornet later rounds them up bringing them back to the central theme.  We then looked at the John 15 passage, observing how the text works in much the same way, illustrating the unity to which abiding in Christ individually and collectively identifies and which cannot be separated.

Yep, we were swingin’ on the vine!

Thomas – the beloved disciple?

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ThomasYesterday was my 43rd Thomas Sunday since ordination, meaning that I have possibly preached this many times on the account of Thomas “not believing” until he had encountered the Risen Christ himself and verified by the visibility of the “marks” of crucifixion.

My understanding of this encounter has gone through a lifetime of development, moving from the Sunday School scolding “to not be a Doubting Thomas” to an appreciation of the complexity of Thomas’ courage and questing faith.

As I was contemplating what further might be said when preparing for yesterday’s 43rd (and possibly final) Thomas Sunday homily, the thought struck me that Thomas could actually be the anonymous “beloved disciple” mentioned at six key moments in the Fourth Gospel and traditionally identified as its bashful author, the Apostle John. After all, according to our account, Thomas had an unidentified twin (Didymus), never named and only mentioned on this occasion.

Now the Fourth Gospel is full of enigma and double entendre and was almost rejected on several occasions from the New Testament canon for its alleged Gnosticism (an early church heresy that feted “special knowledge” and separated spiritual and material realms.)

I have come to approach John’s Gospel as something like the playing out of a Greek drama on a cosmic stage, with each character’s encounter with Christ portraying the questions, dilemmas and struggles of the attending audience, namely you and me. The idea that both Thomas and “the beloved disciple” have represented different aspects of us who are growing in our following has fleetingly appeared in my presentations over the years. But to conflate the two – Thomas and the beloved disciple together – this is a new and exciting thought.

In case I was in danger of birthing a new heresy, I hit Google in the hope of finding some supporting scholarship and found this: The Apostle Thomas as the Beloved Disciple

I found Charlesworth’s arguments compelling and worth exploring invitationally with my congregation, particularly as, over the years,  we have had fraternal connections with Christians from Syrian and Indian traditions, each of which trace their origins back to the faithful work of the Apostle Thomas.

I once nominated Thomas as my patron saint because of my constant questing. I guess this will not abate and I hope it doesn’t.

 

 

Goats, Cricket and Good Friday

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cross1Atonement Day on the ancient Hebrew calendar marked the day that two goats were brought before the community. One goat was ritually slain, the other, the scapegoat, having had the sins of the community laid on it, was set loose into the wilderness, not to knowingly be seen again.

Anthropologist/theologian Renee Girard cites this as an example of how a society, evolutionally violent at its core, maintains cohesion.

Something like that happened in Australian cricket this week. A sacred code was violated and sacrifices and scapegoats were needed. The media high priests called the shots and the public at large was vindicated. It has arguably been the nation’s most unifying event in recent days.

And now it’s Good Friday and the scapegoat chosen to bear the brokenness of the cosmos was Jesus of Nazareth, the one anointed as the Christ. Believer or not, do not dismiss what this day signifies! It is repeated time and time again, all around us. Good Friday’s scapegoat did not disappear into the wilderness, however. He broke the system, and after tomorrow we will enter a new kind of world!

Footwashing – another Easter symbol

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footwashingToday begins the three days of Easter.

The little-heralded act of Jesus enacting his calling as a servant and washing the feet of his bemused and scandalised disciples is the act that begins the three-day drama of Easter.

He said to them,

‘Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Alongside the symbol of the cross, itself a scandal, we might well lay the foot-washing basin and towel as a symbol of service for followers of the Way.

Just imagine depictions of the basin and towel adorning church steeples and hanging as pendants around our necks. How would this change the public perception of contemporary Christianity?

Psalm 118 & The Easter Vigil

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To my mind and heart, there is nothing like hearing the Psalms in the original Hebrew. There are many rich renditions stemming from Christian devotion, and they are particularly apt for the death and resurrection themes of the Easter vigil. The Psalms, however, are steeped deep in the Hebrew tradition and are the crucible of the Christian story. So dwell on Psalm 118 while listening to this:

 

Easter where the rubber hits the road

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Rubber roadIn the closing phrases of his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, the Apostle Paul delivers what biblical scholars call the kerygma – the announcement of the good news of Easter.   From the content of the letter, we can tell that the fledgeling church had some serious issues, and the apostle’s frustration mingled with love in dealing with it all has been palpable.

Here, in his final appeal, he calls them to remember the good news in all its detail. None of it happened in isolation from the grit and challenge of daily living. They are living examples of its power for transformation. So it is with you!

The Joy of Holy Week

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Unbridled joy – memories of an event that still carry an undercurrent of the celebration of our life together as we approach Easter 2018

The celebratory feast of accomplishment described in Isaiah 25 is very suitable for an entry into Holy Week, which culminates in the Three Days of Easter (Triduum) that embrace the trial, crucifixion, entombment and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who is also the Christ.

Holy Week is confusing to many across the spectrum of Christian tradition. Do we focus on the angst and desolation of the crucifixion or rejoice in the Risen Christ? For many it is an either/or proposition; it seems that we don’t do well in holding both/and in the palm of our hand. Consequently, many of the devout will concentrate on Good Friday devotions, choosing to linger on the pain and suffering of Christ that evokes remorseful pondering of our sinfulness of which crucifixion is accusing evidence, even though forgiveness is to be found there.   The joyful will eschew Good Friday observations as too depressing in the light of what is accomplished through Christ’s resurrection so they will pull out all the stops on Easter Sunday shouts of “He is risen!”

 

But one does not have to be split between these two approaches which are based on historical responses to two doctrinal perspectives – atonement and theosis. Atonement discussions have dwelt on the nature of Christ’s work on the cross in reconciling a broken world to the eternal purpose of the Creator. Theosis discussions are focused on the process of Christ-filled living that is transformative.  For more, hear Alexander Shaia on this podcast.

Isaiah’s feast, it seems, has room for it all!

Mark’s Deposition

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Raphael - depositionOf all the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, Mark’s seems to dwell at some length over the details of what happened to Jesus’ body immediately following his death.

To quote Julius Sumner Miller’s famous question “Why is it so?”

  • Is it to establish the fact of Jesus’ death? There is no evidence that the “swoon” theory regarding resurrection was yet in play. On the contrary, Mark’s audience was facing the threat of violent death each day under Nero’s persecution. Perhaps such lingering provides a point of identification. Here are contemporary witnesses to the Roman certified death of Jesus.
  • A number of names are mentioned, unusual in this gospel narrative. Notably, there are a group of women standing off at a distance. Two are named, presumably they are known to Mark’s audience. Also named is a high ranking official of the Jewish ruling class, Joseph of Arimathea. Not only is he named, but there are details of his negotiation with Pilate and the donation of his family tomb to afford Jesus a dignified burial not otherwise accessible to crucified insurrectionists. Again this lends credibility to the fact of Jesus’ death.
  • Later, we will find Mark’s account of the empty tomb confronting and the reaction of the women unsatisfying and unsettling in the light of “joy of Easter Day” celebrations. Again this speaks deeply to the challenge before Mark’s original audience. How does faith work when Damocles’ sword is hanging over your head by a rapidly unravelling thread?

I’m sure there are other considerations worth noting, but these are enough to keep me guessing for a while!