Lectionary sermon for 23 April 2017 ( Year A Easter 2) on John 20: 19-31

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The expression “Doubting Thomas” is traditionally used to heap scorn on those who question some aspect of faith. Yet I want to suggest this does a disservice to Thomas and even a disservice to those who want to question what is important about Jesus and the way the teaching is applied today.

Thomas gets hardly a mention in the four New Testament gospels, but before we get to his famous doubts, we might also remember that earlier when the disciples are trying to talk Jesus out of visiting Lazarus who was understood to have just died. The problem here was that of a dead Lazarus in the very area where villagers had previously attempted to stone Jesus. It was Thomas who reportedly said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him”. He may later have expressed doubts about Jesus coming back to life, but in the Lazarus episode he was showing clear signs of courage.

Tradition makes the further claim that Thomas subsequently made his way as a missionary, first to Persia and then onto to South India where he was eventually martyred. This was hardly the mark of someone perpetually paralyzed by doubt.

As John the gospel writer tells the story, we tend to forget that Thomas was entitled to his doubts in that unlike the other disciples he had not already seen the risen Christ.

Certainly sometimes doubts can be corrosive, but Thomas used his doubts in a constructive manner. His requirement of not believing in the risen Christ unless he met Jesus in the flesh was portrayed by John as a test by a doubter, and yet if John has the detail of the meeting between them as correct we are left to guess how what Thomas discovered was enough to inspire him to become a missionary. If anything his doubts appeared to lead to a firmer faith.

But why would we despise Thomas for his initial doubts. If we put ourselves in Thomas’s place, doubting even seems more rational than credulity. The equivalent for us today might be watching a good friend die – then later going to the funeral home to pay our respects, only to be met by a stranger telling us “Sorry, he’s gone. He came back to life and he is out there somewhere.” Be honest. Would you accept that without question? And even more to the point, would Thomas have been wise to accept such an outrageous claim without question.

Remember too that in one sense the claims are still outrageous. Since the Bible is a curious amalgam of patchy history, poetry, culture, inspiration, parable, myth and praise, it is always hard to be certain which narrative parts are being recorded as history and which parts are closer to parable to encourage us in faith. Even if we are of a mind to see faith in terms of a catechism in which the thinking is left to Church leaders who instruct us as to the acceptable answers to all the tricky questions, it seems to me that all the best answers have always come from squarely facing one’s own honest doubts.

Certainly it is true that Thomas’ doubts do not seem to have been remembered with affection by Christians through the centuries, yet we might wonder if this had its root in the gospel writers’ respective theological differences. Thomas, whose gospel was claimed to predate the other New Testament gospels, had Gnostic traditions interwoven with teachings of Jesus used by the other gospel writers. This may help explain why his gospel got voted out of the final collection of books chosen for the most commonly accepted version of the New Testament.

We might also note in passing that for the most part the gospel attributed to Thomas was mainly of sayings of Jesus and was clearly less mystical and more down to earth than a good part of the Gospel of John. Some scholars have even suggested John’s version of Thomas as a doubter was added later to undermine Thomas’s credentials as a rival gospel author.

For those who find it hard to countenance a Bible where editorial policy has helped shape the narrative just remember that the four gospels already differ in detail when they report the same events.(See for example my article “Shaping God”). We now know for example some verses were added some years later by an unknown author to flesh out Mark’s version of the death of Jesus at the end of Mark’s gospel. We know from earlier versions these verses were missing and they did not appear till well after the original author had died. Other changes have also been noted in other of the New Testament books, so it is reasonable to at least acknowledge later editing as a possibility.

One set of traditions claim Thomas was not only sometimes known as Didymus = the twin ( ie the Aramaic for Thomas gives us Tau’ma or T’oma also meaning twin) but within the traditions some have gone further and claimed he was no less than the twin of Jesus. If this was actually the case it goes without saying that this would have serious consequences for anyone insisting on the reality of the story of the Virgin Birth. However the notion of Thomas being the Twin of Jesus is also thought to lend a little credence to the implication in one of the Nag Hammadi texts (the Book of Thomas the Contender), in which Jesus himself is quoted as saying: “Now since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion…….” If there was this family connection, this may even have been why another book “The Infancy Gospel of Jesus” purporting to tell the story of Jesus early childhood is also attributed to Thomas.

At the same time these traditions are still important. There is absolutely no doubt that a Thomas who by all accounts appears to be the apostle Thomas was a major figure in starting the Church of South India. The Catholic Church also highly values the Thomas traditions and one of their major teachings, the assumption of Mary to heaven, lists Thomas as the only witness to this event.

It is hard to be certain of how much the record of readings attributed to Thomas or for that matter miracles later attributed to Thomas in India, are based on fanciful recollections by his later admirers.

My personal favourite Thomas story is one which has Thomas as architect and builder in South India getting the commission to build King Gundaphorus (sp?) a lavish palace. Thomas allegedly decided to teach the King a lesson by giving the large sum of money for the project away to the poor. According to the story, when the outraged King got wind of this trick, Thomas’s defence was that he was building the king a Palace in heaven with this act of charity. My own cynicism has me wondering if in fact Thomas would have been able to avoid death if he had actually tried that on any autocratic ruler of the age in that part of the world, but I still like the story.

In an even more improbable example in the Infancy Gospel of Jesus, there is the story of a five year old Jesus carving some sparrows out of wood on the Sabbath, only have them then come to life and fly away. This would be miracle indeed, but clearly quite different in type to the miracles in New Testament gospels.

Please don’t hear me saying that my doubts about the literal truth of some of the events and stories associated with Thomas to mean the stories have no value. All significant figures in history have a degree of accompanying mythology and, like Jesus’ parables, the values that emerge from the stories are where their real worth may lie.

I guess I am also implying that some dimensions of faith require a healthy scepticism, but in the same way that Thomas could express his doubts in an open and honest way without abandoning his faith altogether I suspect that ultimately we must be free to ask our questions and do our own thinking before we settle on the main directions for our lives.

There are some forms of doubts which lead to progress. I would like to suggest that the natural scepticism towards current scientific understanding shown by most of the now famous scientists was actually the key to their progress. Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science used to say that it is only when you try to disprove an accepted theory that science moves forward. I suspect that has been the same for the prophets and theologians through the centuries.

The first believers in primitive Judaism were satisfied that their limited tribal notions of a localized and partisan God were quite sufficient and it took first the prophets and finally Jesus himself to show why this notion of faith deserved to be doubted. And historically this process did not stop with Jesus. Christian ethics have been continually doubted, questioned and reshaped to deal with the needs of a changing society. Slavery and blind nationalism, at one time cornerstones of a local insular tribal society, have gradually given way to understanding that neighbours do not have to share one’s own religion or status level in the community. The assumption that all disease and disaster had religious cause has been modified as science has informed us about the causes of disease. In the same way our growing understanding about the universe and the laws of nature has caused us to question previous superstitions about the night skies.

Since conditions for the World’s communities have continued to change we now have a whole raft of new problems to face. Now we can produce more food by mass food production techniques a whole series of issues relating to the fair distribution of this food are currently being debated.

We need those who can express their doubts about traditional trade practice and resource management regardless of what may have worked in the past. Love your neighbour needs new expression in changed circumstances.

In an age where physical strength was valued, it made sense to have a male dominated society. In a modern society where education rather than physical strength is the basis of leadership, it makes sense to re-evaluate the respective roles of males and females. To doubt the aspects of faith designed to retain the old values of male domination is not automatically anti-Christian. Since biblical statements about role were designed for a now out-dated culture the ethics that came from that culture also need rewriting.

Advances in medicine mean we now have the problem of euthanasia to consider for those being kept artificially alive long past the expected life span. Advances in weapons research mean we now have to reassess when war is morally acceptable.

There are those who object to all advances of thinking on the grounds that today’s understandings confront us with ideas incompatible with what the forefathers in religion used to believe. And a flat earth society still exists! Remember it was the orthodox Church who took Galileo to task for questioning that the Earth was the centre of the universe, just as their predecessors had done earlier when “heretics” had first suggested that the Earth was not flat nor supported on pillars as the Psalmist had asserted.

It was the Bible literalists who objected to the science of geology casting doubts on a six thousand year old Earth, and no doubt there will always be those who dare not question lest they find that their comfortable certainties are threatened.

Because we are blessed with those who continue to use their doubts to help sort out their thinking and those who insist that all unreasonable assumptions are tested, we can be certain that transforming knowledge will continue to grow. Whether or not we are brave enough to do our own testing, and allow it to extend the horizons of our own faith is a question for our own individual life stories.

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The Confusion of the Elderly Curmudgeon

Well I am getting older so forgive me if once again I am missing something. Have I got it right that the North Koreans who have the temerity to want to make and test nuclear weapons must be brought to heel by military force if necessary? But surely the US has a new Commander in Chief who wants an increase in the number of nuclear weapons and has advocated that significant US allies do the same. His reasoning, explained via something called Tweeting, is that if anyone sees you have such weapons they won’t want to mess with you. This must be very puzzling to the North Korean leader.

Now POTUS Trump has just rejoiced in the explosion of the World’s second largest non-nuclear weapon in Afghanistan. This weapon reportedly killed 36 terrorists and presumably an unknown number of prisoners. They died in an underground tunnel complex (funded by the CIA in the 1980s) and the bomb was dropped all for the expenditure of an unbelievably large sum of US tax-payers money ($16 million/MOAB). Just as well this is being paid for by a reduction in tax on the rich.

The terrorists world-wide are being reminded that such weapons are very effective in terms of damage and I read in Wikipedia the smaller versions are cheap to make. If anyone cares to access the relevant articles on Wikipedia they can get enough information to get them to follow the lead of the US. And this is somehow meant to make the world a safer place??? Well goodness gracious me!

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POTUS IN CHARGE

Somewhat to my surprise I find myself agreeing with something that Donald Trump says about Syria!

According to POTUS (not to mention Fox) there is evidently a bad unpopular leader in the Syrian affair who represents a minority, is responsible for killing civilians without compunction, and is not above supporting the use of weapons which don’t meet acceptable moral standards. Trump thinks this leader has to go! And so say all of us!

I do have the slight reservation that Mr Trump has got the name of the bad person muddled.

If the leader in question does not enjoy popular support it can’t be President Bashar al-Assad because in the last election in 2013 for his current seven year term as president he got something like 80% of the vote with his nearest rival scoring less than 4%.    You certainly wouldn’t want to keep a President whose popularity drops below 50% !   (I guess POTUS is intending to suggest the less than 4% man in Syria as his preferred leader for that nation!) Don’t forget the UN observers and representatives from 30 countries thought that the Syrian Presidential 2013 election was fair and square. Nor have recent events done much to shift public feeling in that last year (2016) they had the party votes and al Assad’s party and coalition partners again scored over 80%. Like the turnout of POTUS inauguration supporters at the Washington Memorial, that’s YUGE!

Mr Trump was almost certainly echoing the horror of a global audience when he talked of his reaction to the sight of children suffering from gas attack.   However we have enough TV evidence ourselves to wonder if this was a newly manufactured display of emotion.    Certainly on this occasion we witnessed Donald Trump who came out with: “even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at (sic)  this very barbaric attack.  No child of God should ever suffer such horror!”     But had he already forgotten he said in the election campaign that he advocated the killing of terrorists’ families.  Surely families include children and wasn’t this a rebel village being targeted.  So does he really care about the children?   What of his reaction to the eight year old Yemini -American girl Nawar al-Awlaki killed in the US assault on a suspected Al Qaeda compound in Yemen.    That time there was zilch regret or concern for the small girl.   It was more concern that at the Generals for not making the raid to be more successful and rather than expressing concern for the child victim we heard POTUS  proclaim that the Navy seal’s death was now a legacy “etched into humanity”.

Now back to the killing of civilians in Syria…..
Quick fact check…. Who killed the most civilians in Syria last month?

As expected, ISIS (aka ISIL or the Levant) were pretty bad. The Syrian network for Human Rights (SNHR) claimed ISIS had been responsible for the deaths of 119 civilians in Syria in March. Among these were 19 children and 7 women.

The Russian and Assad’s Regime were probably even worse.  In the same month Russian and Assad forces were believed to have killed 224 civilians. The Russian/plus regime score of 224 civilians included 51 children and 42 women. That alone should qualify for the US disapproval in the strongest terms.

But there was one other group who were even more destructive. Unfortunately for Trump, the SNHR also claimed the international coalition forces, led by the US, (presumably accidentally) killed 260 civilians,  including 70 children and 34 women.

Well I agree with POTUS. Whoever the Commander in Chief responsible for the series of US Coalition attack on innocent civilians in March 2017 may be, he should indeed be encouraged to fall on his sword as soon as possible. And who is that??

There is the small matter of illegal use of US designed Sarin and illegal barrel bombs many of which distribute chlorine as a way of sowing panic. There is a slight problem here in that given the way the first responders were helping the child victims of the Sarin in the film reportage, the symptoms weren’t right for Sarin and the first responders were clearly doing it wrong in that they were touching the children without gloves and must surely have themselves become victims which was far from apparent in the film.

But the real moral issue is the question of why Saudi Arabia bombers have been dropping illegal barrel bombs in Yemen yet are acceptable allies of the US in the US led coalition in Syria. Surely there are not double standards at work! It almost reminds me of the Sarin sold by US agents to Saddam Hussein and used against the Kurds some years back, not to mention the glass contains held up in the UN Assembly by Colin Powell (containing a form of toothpaste) as proof positive of weapons of mass destruction.    And now I come to think of it, the last time the US used rendition of suspected enemies ex CIA operative told the New Statesman.  “If you want a serious interrogation you send them to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured you send them to Syria.  If you want someone to disappear -never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”   If the new POTUS and Commander-in-Chief had not already made it plain he wanted to re-institute water-boarding we might find his new conscience a little more plausible.

The last point we might consider is that a consequence of removing Assad from office would destabilize the remaining Assad controlled areas of Syria.

Even without this removal Syria will clearly need outside support. The UN reports currently state it would take $3.2bn to help the 13.5 million people, (6 million children), who will require some form of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.

The UN say about 70% of the population in Syria is without access to adequate drinking water, one in three people are unable to meet their basic food needs, and more than 2 million children are out of school, and four out of five people now live in poverty.

It occurs to me that although many buildings including many of the schools have been destroyed if the Assad Loyalists then become the enemy “We ain’t seen nutting yet.”

Thus far President Trump is ignoring this UN report and sees the rebuild as a side issue which doesn’t fit his America first policy. As he (and Fox) see it
• more air-strikes may be needed
• The US gives too much money to the UN anyway
• After talking with the few experts he does trust eg his daughter (who evidently told him to go ahead with the last strike in Syria), his son in law who is now an expert because he has now visited Iraq, and his Alt Right strategy chief Steve Bannon, it is all very simple. Bashar al-ASSAD must go!

What do the readers think?

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Lectionary Sermon for Good Friday Year A (14 April 2017) on selected passages from John Chs18 -19

Thoughts on Shifting the Wall
There was unintentional irony in the place chosen for Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus had spent much of his mission identifying and breaking down the walls between people, and there he was, being crucified at Golgotha just outside the physical walls of the city where he had been rejected.

Jesus appeared to have cared very much about removing non –physical walls. There were the metaphorical walls between the Samaritans and Jews, between Pharisees and the people, and the metaphorical walls keeping the lepers, the tax collectors, the women, the prostitutes, the lowly shepherds and fishermen in their place.

So Jesus told his parables, touched the lepers, ate with the prostitute, offered healing to the centurion’s son and when it was time to assemble his inner group of disciples, incorporated the fishermen, the tax collector and the zealot in his band of followers. In a very real sense this helped shift the walls. Yet there were also those who insisted on keeping him at a distance outside the walls they erected around themselves and their institutions.

For the zealots hoping for a Messiah was for-told to lead them to military victory over those who threatened their politics and faith. Jesus, with his gospel of forgiveness, did not meet their expectations. We cannot know for certain but some scholars suggest Judas his betrayer remained a zealot.

The High Priest and the ruling Sanhedrin did not accept Jesus’ right to give fresh interpretations of the law, or accept his healing and teaching ministry as valid. Certainly their walls may have been self-imagined walls of self protection, but in good part, it was the threat to those walls that gave the Jewish leaders the excuse to sell him out to the Romans.

The gospel writers paint word pictures of the traditionalists among the Jews becoming concerned at Jesus’ threat to their extensive habits of custom and tradition. The story of Jesus clearing the Temple of those who were trying to make large profits from their religion, the account of Jesus telling parables about the potential goodness of the hated Samaritans, the challenge to ancient customs of avoiding contact with lepers and the challenge to those who used religion to personal advantage all combined to make Jesus’ teaching a perceived embarrassment.

Given the strength of feeling against Jesus – particularly from those who represented the establishment, are we surprised that even Peter the leader of the disciples would be described as having his courage desert him at the vital moment?

Perhaps it was inevitable that they should crucify him outside the physical wall of the city.

Sometimes we need to take the familiar and look at it in a new way.

When we hear of the death of someone significant to the nation or community, it is one thing to acknowledge that the death matters, it is quite another to acknowledge that our personal attitudes might have something to do with the cause of death.

I guess at least some present today have heard the anecdote I am about to share, which as far as I know first had its origin in the events surrounding the Allied landings in France during the Second World War. Even if you do know the story, this time I would like you to revisit it, this time seeing it as a parable. I am uncertain where I first encountered the story but I acknowledge this account is remembered rather than copied.

It seems that the fighting in one forest area in France was bitter and among those who died of his wounds was an American soldier whose fellow squad members were determined that they would not simply abandon his body where it fell. With considerable difficulty they started to carry the body until they came across the walls of a Church cemetery. This, they felt, was the most appropriate place to bury their friend. They went inside, and there they met a priest. He knew enough English to understand what they were asking. He was sympathetic but there was one important issue that needed to be settled first.

This graveyard is consecrated for Church members”, said the priest. “Was this man a Catholic?”

Not specifically”, said one of his friends. “But as far as we know he was a Christian and we need to have him buried in an appropriate place. To know that we found a Church cemetery as a place to bury him would be at least a little comfort to his family

“Well”, said the priest, ” I am really sorry. But I have rules that I have to follow. He is not a Catholic. He cannot be buried in a cemetery for Catholics”.

The men protested. The priest remained adamant.
OK,” said one soldier. “Well at the very least may we bury him just next to the stone wall, just outside?”
The priest was understandably embarrassed, but he too thought that this might be the best compromise, so gave his permission.

After burying their friend as best they could, the soldiers left. After some discussion over night they decided they would return the next day with some flowers for the grave. They found the walls of the graveyard with no difficulty, yet there was a puzzle. When they went to the part of the wall where they had dug the grave – there was absolutely no sign of disturbed earth. Thinking that perhaps they had mistaken the place they walked further – then went back in the other direction – but all they found was undisturbed earth.

They sought out the priest.

“I can explain,” said the priest. “I was concerned that despite the rules stopping you burying your friend inside the cemetery, it didn’t seem to me to be Christian to ask you to bury him outside the walls. I started to worry about this. I couldn’t sleep, so in the end I went to the part of the wall where he was buried – and shifted the wall so that he is now inside, where he should have been in the first place.”

Now I suggested that we take this story as a parable directed at us – because I guess, like the Jewish leaders dealing with Jesus 2000 years ago, our lives are governed by the notional walls we set up to show who we accept and who we exclude. If our faith is to make a difference to our inclinations, maybe we too may have to see if there is a possibility that the walls can be shifted.

Understanding what happened on the first Good Friday has a great deal to do with the walls that the folk in Jesus day choose to make important. Finding the relevance of Good Friday at least in part, is to recognize that even we too have our often unspoken rules about who is to remain outside our protective customs. When we identify with those who are kept out by our customs it maybe like the priest in today’s more modern story, we may have to face admitting something may need to be done, for as long as the walls remain we cannot pretend God is in his heaven and all is automatically right with the world.

Like the priest administering the rules and customs of the Church we too might feel constrained by what our customs have become, but the real Good Friday test is to see if like Jesus staying with his mission, and like that priest in today’s story, we are prepared to do something about it.

Good Friday is a good day to remember that in war, as in peace, there are always those who can be persuaded to do the non-loving act. Of course there is the temptation to rush past Good Friday and on to the resurrection. But if the resurrection is to have meaning, then those who claim they recognize its meaning can hardly carry on to pretend that there are no human contributions to the continuing and very real suffering of Church and non Church people alike. Our institutions may serve the majority well, but can we find amongst us, those who are marginalized by their background?

Our communities – including our own nation all have their own way of keeping those beyond physical borders at arm’s length. When we consider the plight of the flood of war refugees in the Middle East and in Africa, and those simply searching for food, we can hardly claim that institutional violence died on the Cross with Jesus.

Nor can we simplify and pretend that whole classes of people other than us are singly and exclusively responsible for the evil that happened back then to Jesus and continues to happen today.

Despite John’s passing implication that the Jews as a total class were responsible for Jesus death, in reality it was some in the crowd, it was some of the leadership, and the failure of nerve of some of his followers which found Jesus on one side of the wall and, those that might have helped, found on the other. I guess we have to look to our own personal responses to evil to reflect how we should be perceived.

Certainly sacrifice was part of Jesus’ story. As any responsible parent or community leader must know, sacrifices can make a positive difference. But the transformation which can occur in lives is not some magic wrought by some religious act 2000 years ago. Telling the child prostitutes that we pray for them and that Jesus loves them, without doing anything to free them, is hardly following the way of Jesus. Telling the refugee carrying meagre possessions on their back as they face another day without sufficient food or water that Jesus has saved them by dying on the cross, simply won’t do it.

At one level, Jesus’ sacrifice was refusing to give up caring despite the metaphorical walls erected to his face, and this despite the weight of rules and custom. For almost all here present, I assume we are most unlikely to have to face anything like the physical threat of the cross, but its lesson is plain enough. Our challenge is to ask if we too care enough to take Jesus’ example and use it to reshape our lives and shift our walls to encompass more of those we do not currently treat as God’s people.

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Easter Sunday Sermon for 2017 (Year A)

It seems to me we it would be good to find our own personal answers to two questions about Easter. The first one is that perennial question – do we believe that Jesus was resurrected so that in some sense he has continued to live? We already know that from various well publicised polls in just about every nation considered to be Christian many will answer that one in the affirmative.

Of course in practice, Easter Sunday, globally by far the most important festival in the Christian year, has also become the most variable, with a profusion of religious customs and impressive occasions, most of which represent sincere attempts to demonstrate and celebrate the significance of Jesus’ empty tomb.

About the only thing in common across most denominations, is that for each an Easter Sunday service shape gradually emerges such that the regular church goers find predictable familiarity – both in the words of the oft told stories, and in the expected responses to the message.

I would imagine for example that when Pope Francis concluded one of his Easter messages with the words: “may the risen Christ guide all of you and the whole of humanity on the paths of justice, love and peace” that Protestants and Catholics alike would have almost expected those sentiments and would have been more than happy to say Amen.

But whether such sentiments came from a Pope, or a Protestant Archbishop, that should never be the last word on the subject. Our real challenge comes when we ask ourselves the next question: “Now, how is that going to happen?”

With some trepidation I would like to suggest that, no matter how entrenched our Easter Day celebrations have become, and no matter how well prepared and competently led our services might be, this in no way excuses us from working out our personal response to the Easter message.

Please note this is not insisting we reconsider the evidence either for or against a literal resurrection. Certainly that is an issue on which, sooner or later, we will probably reach our own conclusions and there are plenty of accessible books and articles summarising the main arguments for and against. Yet regardless of how literally we are expected to take the story of the resurrection, the real issue is whether or not we intend to do anything with the story at a personal and practical level.

I will try to explain by reworking a point made by the current Archbishop of Canterbury in an Easter sermon when he referred to a recent survey in the then recent news in which it was reported “that only 40% of churchgoers are convinced that the new Archbishop of Canterbury can resolve the problems of the Church of England”. Despite his obvious gifts, Justin Welby spotted the futility of the tested proposition and we should particularly note his comment in response. I quote:

I do hope that means the other 60% thought the idea so barking mad that they did not answer the question.”

I suspect if the survey question had been reframed to read: “Do you believe that Jesus of the first Easter could resolve the current problems that beset his church and his world today?” regardless of how strongly we believe (or disbelieve) in resurrection we should probably admit if the Archbishop of Canterbury were consistent, he would have a perfect right to label this question also as “barking mad”.

Despite the best efforts of dictators and power hungry leaders of all persuasions, history teaches that humans are not automatons, to remain totally controlled as puppets. Among most who have attempted to follow the teachings of Christ through the centuries there has been a real mix of saints and sinners, and I suspect that most of us remain a complex mixture of the two. Indeed if we were automatons there would have been no point in Jesus inviting us to consider moral principles, since as puppets we could have been better controlled by a resurrected Jesus playing us as if we were some kind of global or even cosmic computer game.

It is not up to Jesus to direct our responses to the very human problems that beset the Church any more than the Pope Francis can produce world peace with a word or Archbishop Justin Welby can solve the current dilemmas of the Anglican Church without corresponding buy-in from their respective followers. What however I suggest we should do as a minimum, is decide how our current actions reflect the essence of what we believe Jesus was really about.

As I remember basic high school science, I recall that one of the seven basic signs of life is movement. When we talk about Jesus being alive for us, this should be very different from signing up to a Church where there is no discernible movement of ideas and where the customs and beliefs are rigid and ossified in a pattern designed for a previous generation and different circumstances.

Even at the time of the first Easter, there were few certainties to fall back on. Given that Jesus’ early disciples would have been hurt and even confused by his crucifixion, and given that there was no formal or timely evidence gathering following the crucifixion we can hardly be surprised that by the time the varying versions of the story were recorded, uncertainty remained.

With only four of something approaching 30 Gospels surviving the final selection of books in the New Testament, we only see some of the options that those first disciples were offered. A further complication is that of some very obvious editing of the Easter story. For example the last nine verses of Mark were added years after the original was written and the oldest copies of that gospel show the earlier ending.

The best of modern commentators are probably no more of a single mind than the first disciples on the scene. There is a vast difference between those like Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright who might be seen as representing mainstream evangelical teaching which gives credence to the physical resurrection of Jesus and that of Professor Emeritus Lloyd Geering who makes a persuasive case for Jesus only being resurrected in a metaphorical sense.

Although I would class myself amongst the progressive camp in my personal interpretation, and while I cannot be certain what the resurrection means in terms of physical life, the characteristics of the early Church showed a Spirit very much alive as those first Christians sorted out their beliefs and tried to adapt to a rapidly changing geopolitical situation.

Like the earlier Jewish prophets who railed against a faith designed for a previous generation, the early Church leaders had to fashion their set of beliefs to fit with their experience and recent memories. There was movement alright and some of it most uncomfortable.

Look at the history of those very first Christians as they tried to come to terms with a society that neither welcomed nor even recognised their insights. There was constant movement as the creeds were fashioned and refashioned, and as difficult philosophic concepts like the Trinity were explained and re-explained.

Some of the refashioning probably came about as the Gospel writers looked back and came up with their individual views of Jesus. In the book The God We Never Knew, Marcus J. Borg writes:

How do we reconcile the two different images of Jesus, the historical figure that did once live and walk and preach and died a horrible death and the Christ the God incarnate and saviour?

He suggests that we divide our view of Jesus into two. The first is the pre-Easter Jesus, the historical Jesus of blood and flesh, a wisdom teacher who walked Galilee and who was crucified by the Romans for being a potential rebel leader who was a threat to the local community’s traditional faith, and to Roman notions of law and order. The other the post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death. The post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian tradition and experience.

Many of us grew up hearing of Jesus mainly as the post-Easter figure: walking on water, feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes, Jesus as God incarnate, the Son of God, raising Lazarus from the dead, and himself raised again as a resurrected spirit body.

Is it heresy to suggest our task is to follow and respond to the wisdom he taught rather than stand transfixed in awe at what he has become in the retelling?

Not everyone welcomes such scholarship and continual questioning as a sign of life. Just as some of the Jewish leaders voiced strong objection when Jesus assumed a prophetic voice to show how the old faith had become too rigid to deal with the changes being experienced by occupied Palestine, others would later protest each change and each sign of questioning or reform in the early Christian Church. Later persecution of those who questioned rigid assertions, the burning or torture of Church reformers, the martyrdom of the first Bible translators and a strong reluctance to have Jesus’ principles of forgiveness and love of neighbour accepted as a blueprint for action showed not all wanted to recognise openness to change as a sign of life.

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once claimed that we make a genuine mistake if we assume that change can only be associated with the early church in the sense of those first Christians. Each generation faces its own new situations and challenges and in at least one sense, Jesus is not alive unless we allow him to be alive for us in our adaption to change. In the sense that we all come to the faith for the first time, and that we all have to struggle to find meaning for that faith in a changing society, Rowan Williams suggested we should all see ourselves as early Christians.

I suggested earlier that prominent scholars outline very different possibilities for what happened to Jesus after his body was removed from the cross. Just as the first disciples had different experiences and different witnesses to interview, if we are true to the notion of awakening to a living faith, I want to go further and suggest it doesn’t matter if we come to different conclusions, providing we never get to the point where we assume we now know all there is to know about what might yet turn out to be unknowable. More to the point, rather than argue the toss about whose image of Jesus is best, why not start with our current image and start to live accordingly.

In the last analysis, the unquestioning acceptance of a series of belief statements risks being not so much faith as a cop-out living on the assumption that others should do our thinking for us. Faith, if it is honest, must be tested against our realities. Remember that the early church is simply a way of describing those who were prepared to explore and develop their faith for their highly individual changing situations. Will we in our response to the first Easter be recognised as having the best characteristics of the early Christians?

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Lectionary sermon for Palm Sunday (Year A) April 9, 2017 on Matthew 21:1-11

When you stop to think about it, Palm Sunday is a rather strange Christian festival. Getting into the spirit of Palm Sunday has always seemed to me to be rather artificial and even forced, because welcoming anyone – let alone Jesus – with waving Palm branches and cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David” as he rides in on a donkey, is very far removed from what we are used to doing in everyday life.

We also have the distinct disadvantage that we know what comes next. It is hard to get quite into the palm waving spirit of the occasion with the crucifixion starting to cast its shadow. Even in the midst of the celebration event, we find it difficult to forget that, no matter how many admirers were on hand for this particular parade, a few short days later Jesus is taken, humiliated and subject to a particularly nasty form of execution.

When it comes to the original Palm Sunday crowd, no matter how enthusiastic they might have appeared in Matthew’s account, it is hard to believe that they were totally genuine in their support, particularly when a few days later, they appear either to have turned on Jesus, or at the very least quietly withdrawn to allow the authorities to carry out their version of summary justice.

It also seems to me that focussing exclusively on rather overblown theology whether it be Jesus being welcomed as the King of Heaven, as prelude to this Jesus about to be sacrificed for our sins, or this lamb of God somehow saving us in the process, risks missing the main points of the story.

First of all there was something quite deliberate about this parade, which, even if it didn’t quite exactly happen as recorded, gave adequate reason for the authorities to kill Jesus.

Pax Romana, which for Israel meant the enforced peace of the Romans in their conquered territory, was never any better than uneasy temporary calm.

Although the military might was clearly in the Romans’ favour, the Jews were most reluctant hosts. There had been a number of aborted attempted efforts to stage a revolution. Each time a revolt was planned, let alone staged, the Romans would exact terrible revenge as a clear warning to any other potential trouble makers.

This did not mean that the Jews were entirely cowed into submission. As far as the Jews were concerned, it was not so much that the Romans were exacting large taxes, but more that they threatened the free expression of the very religion the Jews held so dear.

Because the Jews were very clear that their Lord, their God, was entitled to their total and absolute loyalty, the sticking point was always that the Romans expected the Jews to demonstrate first loyalty to the Roman Emperor. The position of the Roman Emperor was highly symbolic but it went far beyond that of a mere ruler. Don’t forget at the time of Caesar Augustus, the Emperor was presented as a God, and his numerous titles included that of Son of God. The Romans expected all their subjects to recognize the unique God-like status of their emperor, and demanded that even while their conquered subjects might be permitted to follow their own religion, this must always take second place to the acknowledgement of the Emperor.

Conversely, the Jews were taught from their scriptures that their salvation would come with some sort of reincarnation of King David, and this mighty one alone would be their Saviour.

The well known scripture from the words of the prophet (Zechariah 9:9), made the prediction which Matthew quotes as “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Perhaps in the interests of accuracy we might acknowledge in passing that Matthew, unlike the other gospel writers, has been a little careless with his use of the inserted word “and”, which then has Jesus mounted on two animals, the donkey and at the same time, the colt, which when we think about it, might have taken some doing in practice. This however is a relatively minor point and we do at least get the sense that what Jesus was reported as doing in this parade was deliberate enactment of the prophecy.

While it is true this was only one of the signs the people had been eagerly awaiting, some of the contemporary writing of the time portrayed this Messiah more as a mighty warrior king than a man of peace, no doubt coming to drive their enemies into the sea. There were those in the crowd reportedly confirming that here was the predicted prophet – perhaps recognizing the Zechariah allusion. As a consequence we learn of shouting crowds, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

To the crowd then there seemed at least some who showed their delight as those looking for their deliverer. However it is very likely that some present would have had serious reservations.

Some would have been concerned no doubt that the expected one didn’t match the expectations of a warrior king. There is even ambiguity about Jesus in the New Testament. The parables and teaching of Jesus and our Palm Sunday image of Jesus riding peacefully into Jerusalem on the ass-colt of a nursing donkey, has been re-imaged many times in subsequent history. For example the book of Revelation Chapter 19 has Jesus on a white battle horse out to do physical battle with his foes:
I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war…..I saw the beast and the kings of the Earth with their armies to make war against the rider on his horse….And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Rev 19: 11,19,21)

Being human we should admit there is always a tension between what we hope we are following and what our baser instincts encourage us to follow.

Any discussion of Palm Sunday is further informed by the insightful book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (The Last Week) where they remind us that about the same reported time of the peaceful and joyous entry by Jesus on one side of Jerusalem, there may well have been a much larger and impressive Imperial military parade coming in from the direction of the coast with Pilate entering the city accompanied by his troops who normally were stationed on the coast in Caesarea Maritima. As Borg and Crossan phrased it:

Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, p. 3).

Given the current fascination with Video War games, not to mention the ever popular war films, action heroes and war documentaries, even today we might suspect such a military parade might gain more followers than the low key arrival of a humble Prince of Peace. Whether or not we are brave enough to insist that following the message of the Prince of Peace should always take precedence over the periodic calls to arms that has characterized the recent history of most nations there is a question. Based on what we know of our home town, should history repeat, which of the two parades would we prefer to associate ourselves?

If we try to imagine ourselves actually present at Jesus’ parade it is interesting to speculate on the effect of this parade on the authorities.

When they got to hear about it, the implication that here was a potential Messiah would not have pleased the Romans. Since the Romans expected the first loyalty of the conquered people to be directed to their Emperor, the thought that Jesus might be competing with the Emperor would not have been welcome news.

The Temple authorities would have had it drummed into them by the Roman overlords that further rebellion would not be tolerated. The Jewish leaders’ continued existence in positions of control in the Temple depended on their ability to keep the peace for their foreign masters.

As far as the authorities were concerned that here again was a potential leader who may well serve as a rallying point for trouble, would have created consternation.

We always have the safe option of watching from the side-lines while others, like Jesus himself, identify by word and action with what they believe to be important. It is relatively easy to applaud from the kerb, and it may be tempting to treat even our acts of worship in that sense. Singing “Ride on, ride on in majesty!” is good poetry and acknowledges Jesus’ journey. Where it does fall short, is in acknowledging that his message only finds meaning in our willingness to make his parade our parade. However to identify with Jesus is to identify with his proscription for change, and symbolically this means stepping off the kerb to join the parade.

I also need to confess that I am not confident that I will always support the man on the donkey when he is rejected.

I retain an awkward memory from downtown in suburban South Auckland where I witnessed a large and very belligerent father smack his pre-school daughter in the head and follow it with a string of obscene curses. I stepped forward to remonstrate with him but under his furious glare – suddenly words failed me. I am sufficiently uncomfortable with my response to wonder what others would have done under the same circumstances. Given my timid capitulation, it seems curiously appropriate that I should now find myself contemplating those who failed to risk their lives defending Jesus when it became clear that the parade they had appeared to support was over and the danger mounting.

However I am equally sure that what we make of the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee becomes potentially life changing when we realize that it should continue to matter which parade we choose to follow, and ultimately, tomorrow when Palm Sunday is behind us, whether or not we are still prepared to follow when the shouts of adulation die away.

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THE JESUS SEMINAR IN RETROSPECT

Now that Jesus Seminar is now effectively part of our recent history it is fair to ask what difference it has made to the understanding of the body of knowledge about the Bible for thoughtful Christians?

Before we turn attention to the opinions and conclusions of the Jesus Seminar it is worth reflecting on some of the reasons why this particular group of scholars should have wanted to subject the Biblical account of Jesus to radical examination in the first place.

The historical setting for this late twentieth century research project had a variety of substantial causal factors. First the Biblical studies were starting to be informed by a whole variety of strands of learning and the building blocks of Biblical knowledge were being systematized and disseminated in ways in ways undreamt by scholars of previous centuries.

Just to take one example, an increasing number of scholars were matching recently discovered ancient versions and fragments of texts and comparing them with standard translations while at the same time improved knowledge of ancient languages was becoming more widely available.

Although for many conservative Christians, questioning the infallibility of scripture was a bridge too far, at the same time, the careful, and it should be admitted, widely criticized work of those like David Strauss, Albert Schweitzer and John Robinson had popularized some of the more serious discoveries about problems with the Jesus record to the point that they could no longer be ignored.

Unfortunately despite a variety of extensive research projects it had become virtually impossible for non-Bible scholars to evaluate the scholastic opinions. In practice with so few of the lay people with systematic knowledge of the literature it had even become virtually impossible to get a feeling for the current consensus expert view on whether or not to trust much of the New Testament as a literal record.

In the distant past, those who dared to raise objections to traditional teachings had been roundly condemned and identified as heretics. By the late nineteenth and for almost of the twentieth century the previous rejection and even violence received by those who tried to make contemporary Bible scholars’ work more accessible to the general public was now the exception rather than the rule.

What had happened was that theological study had gradually coalesced around on one hand a rather large set of traditional schools serving the so-called conservative denominations while a smaller group of more liberal scholars made occasional forays to announce plausible assertions that followed from the examination of new evidence.

From the drip feed  of such knowledge, far more scholars were becoming aware that the various books and parts of the books of the Bible had many problems in interpretation. Inconsistencies in the reported teachings and in the reported actions of Jesus were also becoming better known. If that wasn’t enough some of the previously acceptance of the miracle claims in the Bible was becoming widely suspect in view of the nature of the real world as revealed by science and it was felt in some quarters that to pretend otherwise was to consign Christianity to followers who were proponents of naive or even deliberate unquestioning ignorance.

In addition some fragments of earlier versions of scriptures discovered more recently had revealed evidence of substantial editing which raised questions about whether or not there should have been questions about which parts of the Bible were authentic to the first authors. Given that the traditional gospels were clearly assembled a good number years after Jesus had finished his mission, there was the awkward question of how accurately his actions and words had been reported.

The traditional assumption that the Bible had some sort of theological immunity from standard scholastic analysis had previously been enshrined in creedal beliefs and strongly worded claims by past Church leadership. It should also be remembered in defence of earlier attitudes to the Biblical accounts that until sophisticated methodology had established strong evidence for plausible alternatives in the Bible record, and until Biblical history was sufficiently tested there had been no sufficient reason to reinterpret part of the textual record.

In one sense the challenges to the old accepted wisdom are always partially doomed because the knowledge gleaned as a result of testing new hypotheses is always incomplete and may contained serious weaknesses. However as with scientific theory building, the true value in each new approach is whether or not there seems a closer approximation to observed reality. In other words, each new theory becomes valuable if it causes us to notice aspects that we had previously been ignoring.

Again using a scientific analogy we may well start with a naive view of a young earth. When we encounter the experimental evidence for the dating of rocks, for continental drift, for the dating of fossils, and look to astronomical evidence for the age of the universe most modern scholars claim that such evidence should shift our earlier understanding.

Just because a theoretical advance does cause us to understand and notice more it does not follow that the premises of that advance were complete, correct or even certain they will not be subsequently replaced by a better theory. In practice each eventual change in accepted wisdom is typically far from easy and when substantial changes are mooted, those who are on record as supporting a previous position are understandably slow and reluctant to shift.

This brings us to the Jesus Seminar. In 1985, the Seminar’s founder, a Bible scholar, Robert Funk assembled a group under the auspices of the Weststar Institute which subsequently grew to number more than 150 scholars and laymen prepared to subject the gospels to critical analysis. The fact that the group turned out to include a good number of liberal scholars from schools of theology like Harvard, Vanderbilt and Claremont is hardly surprising in that these three schools in particular had a reputation for seeking to push the boundaries.

The seminar was particularly active in the 1980s and 1990s. It preceded the short-lived Jesus Project, which was active from 2008 to 2009. Amongst the group were a number of fellows (I have heard currently about 80  ?) each of who was required to have a post graduate degree in Theology, Biblical Studies or some closely related discipline, and also required to have familiarity with one or more of the Biblical languages.

One striking and apparently novel method chosen to establish how much agreement there was about each conclusion was a much streamlined version of the traditional method of a publication appointing referees to decide whether or not a paper should be accepted for publication in a journal. The Jesus Seminar alternative was to have each fellow vote on each conclusion with a series of coloured beads.

Although subsequent outside commentators from conservative traditions were later scornful about this voting system, this may well be because the Jesus Seminar group conclusions were often at odds with the traditional positions supported by the critics.  The system did at least provide a relatively unambiguous view of how each examined passage was understood by the Seminar in terms of historicity and to reflect to what extent they trusted the record of the individual event to be true in the sense that it happened as described.

The voting system was summarized as follows:

Red beads – indicated the voter believed Jesus did say the passage quoted, or something very much like the passage. (3 Points)
Pink beads – indicated the voter believed Jesus probably said something like the passage. (2 Points)
Grey beads – indicated the voter believed Jesus did not say the passage, but it contains Jesus’ ideas. (1 Point)
Black beads – indicated the voter believed Jesus did not say the passage—presumably coming from later admirers or a different tradition. (0 Points)

A confidence value was then determined from the voting using a weighted average of the points given for each bead.

The evaluation was based on something like 500 statements and events.  Much of the subsequent criticism was based on the high number of grey and black decisions. It should be stressed that the statements and events to be considered came from more than just the first four gospels. For example, the earlier gospel of Thomas, together with the other main gospels circulating in the first three hundred years after Christ, were also considered. The superficial criticism that only a very small percentage of the words and deeds were accepted as red or pink is taken out of context in that many of the rejected words and deeds came from non canonical sources. As it happened many of the accepted (red and pink evaluations) were found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke whereas the much later Gospel of John considered by many theologians to be intended as theological commentary had a much higher proportion of non acceptance of strict authenticity.

The other frequent criticism of the Seminar is that its membership included a good proportion of unrecognized scholars. While the lay people and non scholars were part of the discussions the key leaders and representatives of the group were the appointed fellows (ie the recognized scholars). My purely personal view is that the criticism on that point is largely unfounded since the group was led by respected Bible scholars some of who like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg who are extremely well known scholars and perfectly capable of identifying weaknesses in evidence or conclusions.

The fact that the group also produced new translations of both the New Testament and the Apocrypha to use as textual sources shows that there must have been a significant number of effective scholars in their midst. These translations are now published and collectively called the Scholars Bible and accepted as a helpful document at many schools of theology. This acceptance inevitably lends weight to the work of the Seminar.

The group published their initial results in three reports:
• The Five Gospels (1993)
• The Acts of Jesus (1998),
• The Gospel of Jesus (1999)

They also have also run a series of lectures and workshops in many of the major U.S. cities and been invited to make presentations to various international symposia and conferences..

The Jesus Seminar was very active through the 1980s and 1990s, and into the early 21st century. Although never formally disbanded, it effectively ceased functioning as “The Jesus Seminar” in 2006, shortly after the 2005 death of its founder, Robert Funk. Former Seminarians have carried on the tradition of the Seminar, and continue to publish works researched and developed using the methodologies of the original Jesus Seminar.

The Seminar’s reconstruction of the historical picture of Jesus find him in a human setting, born of two human parents, performing no miracles that were outside the laws of nature, functioning as a faith healer using the techniques of his day, teaching a gospel of liberation, teaching the kingdom as being already present, and using parables, unexpected aphorisms to challenge the perceived weaknesses of the conventional religion of his day and make it clear that outsiders were equally deserving of a place inside the kingdom. The group also rejected the evidence for a physically risen Jesus as being more probably associated with visionary appearances amplified in the retelling by his followers, rather than agreeing Jesus to have “died for our sins” they believed evidence suggesting he was crucified by the Romans as being a potential threat to an occupied Palestine.

These claims are by no means unique and have been made repeatedly by other scholars, particularly in the last two centuries. It is also true that traditional Christians have been most reluctant to accept such challenges and the conservative reaction to the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions was entirely predictable. Historically however there has been some movement. As late as 1992 the Catholic Church formally accepted the theory of evolution and conceded Copernicus and Darwin had not been committing heresy with their theories!

Although the challenges to the Seminar’s work have been frequent and at times vociferous I can’t help feeling that given the nature of the evidence that rather than just saying they are wrong on all points, the burden of proof is on the critics.

The accounts of the most spectacular events in Jesus life obviously contain serious misreporting (cf examples in my own post “The Shaping of God” found elsewhere on this website) and this misreporting to me suggests editorial imagination. Because these same events eg the loaves and fishes where atoms for the molecules in the fish and bread were presumably created in defiance of the accepted laws of nature, the walking on water ( defying the law of flotation) water into wine (transmutation)or Matthew’s account of tombs bursting open and hundreds of corpses walking around (unnoticed by any other contemporary historians – and even unnoticed by any other Gospel writer) are all nature defying and I feel where a strange event is reported and there is a probably believable alternative we should always favour the most likely explanation until persuasive contradictory evidence appears.

I know some prefer the magical explanations but if Jesus was indeed the super magician I would have thought that suggests Jesus most certainly could not have been the Son of Man. That doesn’t mean the strange miracles are wrongly reported but since John Dominic Crossan has suggested a plausible alternative that these were more likely to be parables ABOUT Jesus surely we need some persuasive argument to shift us from that view.

Having attended one of the workshops (in Sydney) and having my own interest in the scriptures rekindled as a consequence I have a personal debt of gratitude to the Jesus Seminar.   Because the Jesus Seminar continues to draw attention to many key questions about the authenticity of the Jesus accounts worth which I think are worth discussing in the Church today I think their work deserves serious consideration. I am more than happy to consider contrary views.

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