I’ve often wondered how different church history might have been if its universal symbol was a basin and towel rather than a cross.
Today, on the eve of Good Friday, Christians commemorate the Last Supper at which Jesus, having taken a basin and towel, washed his disciples’ feet, saying “By this, all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Symbols are powerful and the first Christians used a variety of them to recognise one another in secret circumstances, often under state oppression. The cross eventually emerged “officially” under the auspices of Emperor Constantine and world history tells of its continuing use, yes, for inspiration, but also for oppression by the powerful.
The events commemorated today suggest followers of Christ will be recognised, not by the cross, but their loving service in the manner of Christ who abandons seemliness to wash the feet of others in service.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”
Who knew this was a name for the Wednesday before Good Friday? It brings in the Judas principle. He was the bean-counter for Jesus’ inner circle of twelve – the one who objected to Mary’s extravagant anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume which could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. From that time, we are told, he colluded with the authorities to turn Jesus over to them. Ancient church rites weave this occasion in to the Passion story of Holy Week.
It is telling how Jesus accommodated Judas in the whole episode – even to the embrace with which Judas eventually identifies Jesus to the arresting temple police.
We all live with a Judas principle – something primitive within that rebels against the common good and team goals. Jesus did not oppose Judas, carpet him, or cut him off. He did reveal his knowledge however, when at the supper before his arrest he said to Judas “Go and do what you have to do.” Somehow he wove Judas’ machinations into his strategy while allowing Judas the freedom to pursue his own dark lights.
Again, it seems a bit like dancing the Tango and my old judo teacher’s advice to not resist the force but to move with it to your advantage.
Perhaps this says something about how to manage polarities brought about by opposing passions in community life. Right now our country is divided over a legal decision of the High Court that yesterday led to the acquittal of Cardinal George Pell – relief for his supporters; despair and angst for the many victims of childhood sexual abuse, particularly by religious institutions. The finer points of the difference between legal and moral arguments are lost in the rawness of reaction.
How does Spy Wednesday speak into this angst? Like the poor, human dysfunction will always be with us. Jesus models a way, not of accommodation but costly acknowledgement – a crucifixion lies in the pathway. But so does a resurrection, ascension and Pentecost that, through Christ-filled community, transcends all things.
For both victim and ambassador, the pain and struggle of living the Christ life under the shadow of its defiled and disgraced institutional expressions will continue for some time. Spy Wednesday says, for now, embrace this reality as we walk the path to Good Friday in full hope of vindication beyond.
Retirement was meant to be easy and simple. Instead, for the last ten months, we have been involved in a battle of wits and wisdom with the powers and principalities of Australia’s labyrinthine financial regulatory system. In seeking redress for a failed retirement “lease for life” scheme, our cohort of some 105 retirees plus their landlords and investors have encountered lies, chicanery, buck-passing, evasion, entrapment, and ducking and weaving while dealing with august institutions charged with consumer protection. When principals (and principles) are not held to account, Australia’s apparent reputation as the seat of the crime capital of the world is well deserved.
Honesty, candor and transparency seem to have little skin in this game.
As our campaign continues, it is instructive to reflect on some of the ancient Christian commemorations of Holy Tuesday that focus on Jesus’ encounters with the ruling elite of the Temple. They use sophistry and trickery to entrap this dangerously popular teacher. In the end, their hypocrisy is exposed as they take and dispose of him by force. In argument, however, Jesus is always one step ahead of the game, and his integrity is ever intact.
The events described in the gospels are not meant to be analysed chronologically, but reflected on for meaning and application. Here is a simple summary for those inspired to continue.
The commemoration of Easter events does not stop with Good Friday or even Easter Sunday. Jesus’ story of resurrection goes on, equipping his frightened disciples with fresh courage and understanding . He ascends and then returns in the form of Spirit at the feast of Pentecost, outpouring on all flesh, equipping the receptive with the means to build a new global community imbued with compassion and creative boldness.
COVID-19 has certainly turned the tables over economically. “Free market” trickle-down philosophy has suddenly and seismically given way to billions of dollars worth of rescue to keep society viable. One can discern a palpable shift in many communities. Supermarket brawls that reflected neo-liberal “survival of the fittest” philosophy have given way to neighbours and strangers looking after each other. Imposed restrictions are giving rise to creative initiatives as people rediscover “the commons” – the way in which villages of old ensured everyone was “looked out for.” The miracle that no-one ever thought of is happening – a quiet socialist revolution under a strictly conservative government. As we continue to find ways of thriving while in danger, one ponders what will last, whether the new found good can remain sustainable or greed seek to take up the reins again.
The Monday before Easter commemorates the occasion of Jesus clearing the Jerusalem Temple of traders and money-changers – the one instance described of violent physical action on Jesus’ part. High level corruption had entered the holiest place and Jesus was having none of it. This action solidified the course for what many saw as his downfall and eventual trial and execution. They did not take into account the matter of resurrection, ascension and the pouring out of himself in Spirit when the world was gathered at Pentecost.
Corrupt systems have a finite shelf life. The human will to thrive in mutual community is forever.
On the surface, we see highlighted the perennial battle for, not scarce, but abundant resources. The nard is worth a year’s wages for the average worker. What do we do with a surplus? Splash it around extravagantly or “spend it responsibly for the common good?”
This is not the question John’s Gospel is addressing, and the story plunges us, if we let it, into a deeper perspective. What is the state of our union with Christ and his purpose? John’s Gospel is eucharistic in nature – we participate in Christ’s radiant victory over all that would defeat life even on this fifth Sunday in Lent. From this perspective, we move on to serve the world, but Judas is left in a state of miscomprehension because he never quite “gets it.”
When we question this night’s budget outcomes, may it be from the eucharistic space!
He had already run down the road to greet the returning wasteful prodigal. He had already thrown the best robe around his shoulders and was now feting him with a roast calf on the spit and having all his old friends around. His youngest was home, bewildered, hosed and feted, hardly believing the turn of expectations.
But one was still lost, his firstborn who had stood by him through thick and thin, who shared his wealth, but who is noticeably absent from the lavish celebrations. Resentful, he loiters in the darkness refusing to come in.
His dad goes out to meet him and sits down on the stump next to where his eldest glowers. “Please, come home, son, and join the party!”
Baptism of Christ by John: Artist Dave Zelenka. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Down under, we are in that part of the year “when nothing happens.” Christmas/New Year is done and decorations are being boxed and put away. While a few are returning languidly to their daily labours and many are still enjoying the long vacation, many wait with bated breath for the contentious date of our official National Day on January 26 to pass, when, hopefully with a sigh of relief, we can all get back to whatever passes for normal living.
And we miss what promises to be the most exciting season on the Christian liturgical calendar – the season of Epiphany which runs from the 13th day of Christmas (January 6) to the eve of the first day in Lent, the 40 day period of preparation for Easter. Epiphany is about God’s glory bursting forth in radiance throughout the cosmos. As we live the annual cycle of the Christ narrative, we internally claim the boon of living as fully divine offspring as a result of the Incarnation, and in preparation for the arduous self- reflection required of the Lenten period. It is a crucial part of the annual prayer rhythm in radiating the Christ story in engagement with and service of the world in its long arc of transformation to completion.
It begins with the story of the visit of the Magi to the Christ household in Bethlehem. The story is brilliant with meaning – universal recognition, understanding and receptivity to the Christ revealed in Jesus, awakening conflict with the status quo and the summons to “go home by another way.”
Another Epiphany marker is the first sign offered by Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John, the wedding feast at Cana where Jesus transforms water into wine, signifying to all present that the long-anticipated consummation of all things has begun.
Here are three pegs on which we (who live south of the Equator) can hang our summer reflections. How does the glory and brilliance of the Christ story fill us as it fills and completes the universe? How do we give expression to an awareness that the Christ who lives in us and transforms us into his likeness evokes Divine recognition and pleasure? How will this translate in supreme service to the world we live in?
Plenty to ponder as we prepare for this year’s adventure.
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.
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.
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.
Atonement 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!