Lectionary Sermon for 30 June 2019 on Luke 9:51 – 62 (Pentecost 3 C)

The Gospel challenge to “Church-ianity”
Have you ever wondered how it is that on occasion we, as groups of followers of Jesus, appear to pay so little attention to what Jesus actually taught?

I guess as individuals we can all respond to glimpses of understanding of the gospel. But the catch with combining with others – at community, at church, and even as a nation or with treaty partners is that somehow the gospel seems less important. Should we be relaxed about whole nations being treated as alien and unworthy of friendship even although as individuals we claim to follow a Jesus who calls for forgiveness, for tolerance, and for justice.

We behave as if our churches are considered successful as measured by the number of worshippers, as measured by the music, the quality of our buildings and as confirmed by being surrounded by those who think and act as we do. Perhaps not so easy for church members to be out there, struggling with the application of gospel in a sometimes uncertain world facing real life situations where because of our nation’s foreign policy neighbours and foreigners are getting a raw deal. So a question…are we as Church truly reflecting the message we claim to follow?

I am not arguing against getting together with fellow workers for the kingdom (kin-dom?) – but if we, and they, dont seem to be giving priority to the tasks of the kingdom, I wonder if this might be partly why outsiders see our worship as irrelevant. And further, if we cannot see past the like-minded in our castle to the stranger at the gate, we might then question what it is we are doing when we sing our songs of praise to Jesus who insisted that we care about our neighbours, whoever they might be.

According to the gospels, the Jesus we say we follow not only showed the intention to mix with those whose theology was different, but also seemed comfortable in meeting strangers away from centres of worship.

In today’s reading we find Jesus taking a short cut to Jerusalem through Samaria, directing his disciples to the Samaritan’s village. When the Samaritans found out he was heading to Jerusalem, they wanted nothing to do with him. Yet as if that was not enough, we find him refusing to condemn these heretics for declining to welcome his followers.

The reason why the Samaritans were at odds with the Jews in the first place probably seems strange to modern Western minds. You may already know that the Samaritans were descendants of two of the Southern tribes of the twelve tribes of Israel. Whether or not they could also justify their claim to be traced back to the priestly Levites was disputed by the Jews.

The schism is traced back to the time these tribes were jockeying for position, a little over 2,200 years ago. This included setting up different Holy places. It seems that one of the Samaritan early leaders, one Eli, son Hafni, saw himself as a rival for the position of high priest, who at the time was called Ozzi ( That is “O- Z –Z – I” just in case you were wondering and just in case there are any Australians present today!) When Eli spurned the previous holy mountain of Gerizim and set up his own altar in the hills of Shiloh to make his sacrifice to God on his own behalf and on behalf of his followers, he allegedly made the sacrifice carelessly leaving out the salt which was supposed to be part of the ceremony.

This was enough for Ozzi to accuse Eli of losing his right to be considered a legitimate high priest and a bitter civil war broke out between the two groups. Although there are only a few hundred Samaritans still around today (with a good number having converted to Islam over the centuries) we might also remember that in Jesus’ day there were still many thousand Samaritans living in the area called Samaria, and despite sharing many of the same scriptural traditions, there was still much bitterness between the Jews and Samaritans. For example, some years before Jesus was on the scene the Jews actually destroyed the Samaritan temple.

When we remember this act of temple destruction it is hardly surprising the Samaritans were nursing a grudge against anyone who had anything to do with Jerusalem.

Without identified Samaritans in our vicinity today, it is hard to see their dispute as any more than a pointless squabble, but don’t over look that Samaria was in effect a no-go area for any traditional Jews of the time and for Jesus and his disciples, as Jews, to go to Samaritan villages represented a tolerance that many of the day would have found hard to accept. It may also be a helpful reminder to us that many instances of intolerance in our society today – including intolerance based on sectarian, racial or political differences must seem to others just as silly as ever we now might think the dispute to have been between the Samaritans and the Jews.

What about that bit where James and John expecting Jesus call down fire from heaven on their non welcoming Samaritan hosts. This is probably best interpreted as the disciples’ understanding that in some way Jesus was Elijah returned. Since Elijah’s most memorable claimed act was calling down fire from heaven to ignite a sacrifice to teach the priests of Baal that Elijah’s power came from God (2 Kings 1:10-12), if James and John did believe Jesus was Elijah, for them what would be more appropriate as a way of convincing heretics than consuming them with fire.

Then Jesus shrugs off the apparent Samaritan rebuff. Perhaps this is Luke stressing for us that Jesus’ way has no place for revenge.

More to the point today’s passage confronts us with a challenge. The gospel can make some serious demands on the life of the one who is serious about following Jesus. Again the task is not to join in admiration of Jesus but rather to commit to the uncharted and possibly dangerous journey into the unknown. So here we find a man who wants to follow Jesus. “I will follow you wherever you go.” And what do we find? Instead of welcoming him as another disciple, Jesus appears to be putting him off. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Certainly it is no longer a case for his followers to be asked to literally accompany Jesus into Jerusalem, but there are countless issues each with their own dangers that are on offer to those who accept his challenge in the contemporary setting.

59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Not all the commentators agree on this one. There are some who suggest that perhaps that man was avoiding the challenge by using the perfectly reasonable funeral excuse, yet it may equally be that Jesus had guessed the man’s father was still alive. The Jewish custom was that the son must remain living at home as long as his father is alive, and only after the funeral would he be free.

61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Since few modern urban dwellers would have any experience of walking behind a plough, for us looking back while ploughing a single furrow seems an archaic illustration. On the other hand many of us are keenly aware of the misdirection and even paralysis which occurs when we continually look back to the once familiar.

Perhaps this reminds you a little of the quaint story in Genesis about Lot’s wife which, at least to my way of thinking, also has a universal meaning. You may remember it. As the author of that part of Genesis told it, God had told Lot to take his wife and family and flee the city? They were instructed not to look back (Genesis 19:17). Lot’s wife turned and looked back, and… (believe it – or perhaps more likely – don’t believe it)….what happened?
We are told in verse 26 she was turned into a pillar of salt.

A fairy tale?, or perhaps you have spotted one deeper meaning . When we look back and focus on the past, we become paralyzed, immobilized, and are perpetually stuck where we once were.

Now fast forward to the present.

I don’t think there is any argument that we are living in a rapidly changing world. This means our challenges too are constantly changing. History records the futility of attempting to stare down the impending change by resorting to past answers and approaches. The major conflicts of the last hundred years should underline for us that the past answers have proved positively disastrous when carried forward into the future. The interdependence of economic systems means that we actually have to start worrying about the fate of those far removed in a geographical sense.

For a previous generation Lord Palmerston was fond of pointing out when it came to international politics that nations had no friends, only interests. What has changed is that the circles of influence have widened to the point where there is virtually one overlapping circle of influence.

The learning of how to treat our neighbours then has to move from a scriptural aphorism to attitudes which are essential for mutual survival.
The arms race has made military solutions to disputes increasingly unpalatable. The forces of globalization make it impossible to shut ourselves off from what happens elsewhere in the world. Increasing populations make it imperative that we find new and better ways to protect our environment and share resources. How else can we claim to love one another as he first loved us?

Even more significant are the raft of advances in biotechnology which for the first time in history enable us to redesign our future. Some of you may have heard of the notion of trans-humanism or TH. TH is linked to the idea that science and technology can be used to continually improve and reshape the human condition. For example we have already witnessed the use of rudimentary artificial intelligence, cloning, medical implants, enhancement of intelligence, defect elimination and so on.

Although we cannot pretend in Canute-like fashion that this new tide of progress can be held back on command, the Christian challenge is to ensure that the focus on the well being of our fellows continues at the forefront of our thinking. With its current momentum, whether we like it or not, within three decades virtually everyone is likely to be impacted by trans humanism in some form or other. We can hardly claim that Christianity is a good guide for life if we cannot find a place for it in what is already beginning to happen.

Given the complexity of our modern world, one person’s efforts are not going to meet more than a tiny fraction of what is now needed. The genius of Christ was that he was able to identify some general principles which shaped his life and when (and should we add if ?) thoughtfully applied, shaped the life for many of his followers for the better through the centuries.

If we see the Christian life circumscribed by a focus on what happens in Church on a Sunday it may be that we have missed the impact of Jesus’ message. His journey took him to Jerusalem. Ours should take us out to find new meaning for the gospel in the life opening before us.

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Lectionary sermon for 23 June 2019 Year C on Luke 8: 26 -39 (Pr 7 C, Ord 12C, Pentecost + 2)

Demons For Moderns
For the modern sceptical generation, this story of Jesus healing the man possessed with demons must seem troubling at several different levels.

First, and perhaps most obviously, aren’t we supposed to have moved past a belief in demons?

Mental illness is frequently associated with chemical imbalance in the brain, with causal factors that include environmental influences and even genetic faults. For example an epileptic seizure, which the Church used to interpret as an example of one form of demon possession, is now known to be the equivalent of an electrical storm in the cortex of the brain and those with scar tissue on the brain appear to be particularly susceptible to such episodes. Other “demons” such as becoming drug dependent or exhibiting the symptoms of bipolar disorder are again thought to be much better understood in terms of environmental influence and brain physiology and biochemistry.

Given this modern science based mind set, what then should we make of demons as a cause of psychotic episodes? And even more particularly, should we accept demons can be persuaded to leave a sufferer’s body, and be transferred into a herd of pigs who then rush down the slope and drown themselves? As a literal story this seems too bizarre to be believable, particularly when the modern scholars tell us that Gerasa was literally miles from the nearest lake…so what then Luke’s story about?

The trouble both with those supporting conservative forms of Bible based religion and those attracted to some forms of science based understanding is that often both assume the other has nothing to offer..

Many stories about Jesus, if not totally unbelievable, are at the very least unique in that they do not suggest abilities which have been witnessed since. Walking on water or sending demons out of a body to madden a herd of pigs are not abilities I would associate with a contemporary religious leader. But what if such accounts are intended as stories to teach a lesson rather than stories that depend on their literal detail. As a parable this story would at least offer thought provoking truth.

William of Occam was the one credited with that wonderful simple philosophical principle of choosing the most likely explanation ahead of the unlikely and the bizarre. If we applied “Occam’s Razor” to this situation one plausible explanation (assuming it was an actual event being reported) at best might be that the man would never have accepted that he was cured of his demons unless he had witnessed some dramatic and visible sign. William Barclay for example suggests that if a herd of swine might have been feeding on the hillside beside them then the man’s wild ravings could conceivably have spooked the pigs, who might then panicked and rushed down the hill into a nearby body of water.

The interpretation that Jesus had achieved this by causing the demons to leave the man and enter the swine may well be the way an onlooker interpreted the event, but this is also contrary to what we know of nature and therefore, following William of Occam, we might say is the less likely explanation.

Each of the four gospels talks of Jesus casting out demons but as it happens, this particular version is rather different. By casting the scene in Gerasa the swine are left with a rather long trot to the sea of Galilee some 60km away. Matthew chooses to set this same story at Gadara 15 Km away from the lake yet on reflection this would still be problem for spectators and reporters alike if they too kept pace with some rather energetic swine to confirm what happened. However even if we have difficulty with the “demons to pigs” feature of the story, we should at least see either setting plausible for a parable.

The demoniac condemned to be cast out from his community as a consequence of his fits and outbursts accurately reflected what was for that age, the community reaction to the tragedy of mental disturbance. In the absence of modern diagnosis and treatment, this man’s treatment of being chained and shackled – and when necessary, forcibly restrained by brutal means was not unheard of – and probably no worse than treatment found up to a few generations ago even in places like England.

No doubt compared with today, before tranquilisers and other mood controlling drugs there would have been more dramatic psychotic episodes in public among such people and from what we know of severe psychological disorders, we can well imagine that a victim might break free from his restraint and run naked around the countryside as Luke says this demoniac was want to do from time to time.

We might also remember for example that Bedlam, an asylum for the so called lunatics from 1377, and for a good part of the next 600 years, employed a variety of what we now think of as inhuman treatments and at one time even attracted sightseers much in the same way as a zoo does with animals for our communities today.

In some ways the notion of being possessed by controlling forces is very much part of the understanding of modern clinical psychologists. Some psychologists like to picture this in traditional religious language – even using the ancient Greek word daimon meaning guardian angel or guiding spirit.

Certainly the dry and complex field of genetics may give a more technical alternative explanation for what is happening, but the emotional impact makes the notion of demon possession curiously accessible by giving it the persona of a malevolent guiding spirit.

Psychologist, James Hillman in his book, The Soul’s Code puts it as follows. “The soul of each of us, is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth.” “This daimon, guides us here; in process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe we come empty into this world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is the carrier of your destiny.”

When the daimon takes us down unexpectedly dark paths we get an insight into why the concept of demon possession can become so frightening.

When Jesus encounters such a demon possessed man he asks his name. The reply “Legion” almost certainly conjures up an image of a Legion of Roman soldiers – typically a group of around 6000. For the Jews encountering the Luke version of the story, some of the audience may have been thinking this represented 6000 unwelcome Roman invaders and from the reported symptoms, we might well understand the man’s feeling that he had been taken over from within by many unwelcome invaders.

That a person might feel possessed by strange powers which are controlling rather than controlled I find perfectly plausible. Having seen indigenous people in New Guinea terrified by spirit experiences, including I might add, pastors who sincerely believed that fire flies were the souls of dead people, and having personally been entreated by frightened people to exorcise evil spirits and to lift curses, I can well believe that there are still those today for whom the Spirit world is still very much real.

I am equally sure that many who seem in effect possessed, are unaware of the fact. More worryingly, if others cannot recognise it in themselves, perhaps even we ourselves are similarly vulnerable. Having watched alcoholics and drug addicts apparently unable to control their addiction I can also see that even if the demons now have more scientific labels they are just as frightening to those afflicted as they ever were.

When I re-read today’s story I noticed something that somehow had escaped my attention on the first reading. Not all the demons had been dealt with by Jesus’ intervention.

The townspeople found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.
And then the four words which show everything was not now OK.
And they were afraid.

For most, aberrant behaviour is unwelcome because it makes folk uncomfortable. Violent people, the psychologically disturbed, those who cannot handle money, relationships, alcohol, sexual desires and so forth have probably never been welcome. And in practice no matter what assurances we might be given, that the afflicted one has now recovered, for most they remain unwelcome and their presence will continue to be disturbing. Even the one who appeared to have dealt supernaturally with such a state would not themselves be seen as safe or normal. Remember the man possessed had in effect previously been most satisfactorily dealt with as far as the Gerasenes were concerned. He no longer lived among them. Chained up among the tombs he was well away from the houses – and even when he had one of his violent fits he didn’t come back to the houses in town, he roamed the countryside, naked until again he was subdued.

Even if Luke is embellishing his story he is being extraordinarily perceptive as he does so.

The townspeople arrive and find the one who had been possessed, calm, clothed and in his right mind………And they were afraid. Of course they were afraid. They were sufficiently afraid to have Jesus leave town. The sex offender completes his course to rehabilitate him back into society and the psychologist says the offender is now ready to return to society. But we too have our demons of prejudice – or prejudging, and our demons then have us say an equivalent of – what is the word?…NIMBY! …not in my back yard. Perhaps we would do well to remember that those rejected by us for their behaviour or proclivities are probably equally rejected by others. Having identified and rejected the one we see as unacceptable we must then ask what that says about us.

So Jesus had apparently dealt with the demons inflicting the man – but even he was unable to deal with the more insidious demons of prejudice which stopped the townspeople from showing compassion to the one who had been afflicted.

And perhaps the story might help us to see our own situation in a new perspective.

Our generation is probably no better than Jesus generation in a desire to have awkward cases rejected by mainstream society for unacceptable behaviour. Jesus is recorded as caring enough about the demoniac to show transforming compassion but do we want to be among those who care our own rejects? If we reflect on those who society currently condemns, and acknowledge that in reality many of these are victims of conditions or situations beyond their control, as followers of Jesus is it fair to ask if we show by our actions that we are making good decisions about finding a place for our nation’s rejects.

If we can genuinely care for those whom society is determined to reject, is it too big a leap of imagination to hope that one day we too might be found, the equivalent of clothed, in our right minds, and sitting at the feet of Jesus?

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Lectionary Sermon for 16 June 2019 on John 16: 12-15

Sometimes trying to sort out and pigeonhole the meaning of words and ideas somehow misses the point. Without careful thought, repeating words and ideas from the Bible or even from the pulpit might not help. But that shouldn’t surprise us. Words and ideas get their meaning from context – and in our real world that context continues to develop and change.

Let me give you an example. Like a number of you in this church I am a grandparent. The dictionary tells me that your grandparent means whoever is a parent of your father or mother. Clear enough? Well in my experience the dictionary misses the main point. When my then two year old grandchild Bianca came to visit and held up her arms to be picked up, then brushed our golden retriever with my toothbrush, ate the dog-food and tipped her cup of water into the dogs bowl before she drank it, I knew I had a grandchild. When she picked up a book then climbed onto Shirley’s knee to be read to, I am guessing that Shirley would have been reminded that she has a real grandchild. The dictionary doesn’t quite tell us what being a grandparent means.

Here is another word needing explanation. This Sunday is called Trinity Sunday, so a question. What is it about the idea of the Trinity that might make any practical difference to our real relationships…. or to the lives any of us here in this worship space?

When lay people hear serious theologians discussing the Trinity with its long history of disputes, esoteric vocabulary, and at worst, its apparent disconnect with the everyday world, perhaps we should have some sympathy for those who prefer to get on with life and leave the theologians to their discussion.

What do you make of the theologians’ astonishing assertion that the three persons of the Trinity are “consubstantial” – I hope you all know what that means because I can’t be certain that I do. But just reflect for a moment. But why did it take something like 300 years before the disputes about the emerging idea of the Trinity began to be settled at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381. Did you know Augustine made at least twenty separate attempts to make the idea plain and are you surprised that some are tempted to ask why it was worth it

But for those of us anxious to make sense of our sometimes dimly understood faith, perhaps the Trinity only matters if the idea encourages us into new relationships.

Trinity as Father, Son and the Holy Spirit is an idea familiar enough to most denominations of the Christian Church. We might for example encounter Jesus in today’s lesson saying the Spirit of truth “will take what is mine and declare it to you”. Further he says: “All that the Father has is mine”. But we also have those familiar words we use inspired from Paul writing in the second letter to the Corinthians where he offers the benediction:

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor 11:13).

Ah – but did you notice. Even here it doesn’t say “three in one” – or that even more apparently curious notion that somehow God the Father is somehow one with God in Jesus and one with the Holy Spirit.

It is true the word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible but it is fair to say that some of the concepts and ideas on which it is based are at least being partially shaped, particularly in the writing of Matthew and Paul and by the time the early Church got around to its formulation a good number of the early Christians found it expressing what they wanted to say.

Perhaps we also need to be honest and admit that even at the Council of Nicaea where the Emperor Constantine had directed that Christians should stop arguing amongst themselves about how to talk about Jesus and come out with a common statement of position, not only were a number present unable to accept the suggested formula of the Trinity, but even some of those who accepted the subsequent wording of the Nicene Creed were far from agreed as to exactly what it should all mean. We should also note that some parts of the Church today steadfastly refuse to entertain the thought that Jesus and God are somehow equivalent and at the same time, despite that disagreement appear to be comfortable accepting Jesus’ teaching and the essence of his ethics in terms of the rest of their understanding.

Before we rush to insist that groups like the Unitarians have it all wrong, some humility is called for.

Almost every time God is encountered in the Bible (He?) is presented with an air of mystery leaving far more unknown than known. Even today, modern physicists who admit frankly they understand little of the workings of creation, would almost certainly caution anyone from making definitive statements about the nature of creation let alone any form of creator behind the process.

All we can know is that the Universe is now known to be infinitely bigger and more complex than anyone might have been able to begin to guess at the time of the compilation of the Bible. Saying the God of creation is God the Father may simply be reflecting one of Jesus’ several metaphors for God but the confusion deepens when we insist The Father is somehow another form of the Son. Nevertheless, as the theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, the Trinity emerged because the early Christians were trying to explain that they experienced God in three different ways, ie God in a threefold way.

In Elizabeth Johnson’s words: “They still believed in one God, but they experienced this one God in at least three particular ways: beyond them, with them, and within them”. The Father part was the notion that not only was there mystery in creation, they felt that there were glimpses of a caring force which they and their religious leaders likened to and personified as a loving parent.

However, even if this force felt caring, it was also acknowledged as beyond them, in other words as being utterly transcendent, beyond comprehension and strictly beyond description. When they talked of Jesus being the Son of God they were trying to say Jesus had grounded this notion in his own person and they felt that his being with them (demonstrating what we might these days call “his empathy”) gave a human dimension to the mysterious God which they wanted to call the Father.

Once Jesus had left the scene, his followers had a strong sensation that somehow he was still with them – and was now in effect within. This they felt was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

The essence of what became the Trinity was then: beyond them, beside them and within them.

As a more modern generation we might argue we are now in a position to question aspects of the early Church view. Each part of the metaphor description of the Trinity should be checked against knowledge gained elsewhere. Creation not only unfolds large scale as our telescopes push back the frontiers into the depths of space, but also when we look down though our electron scanning microscopes. Every aspect of this changing creation, great and small, is gradually unfolding year by year. The biggest change for the Trinity is that this knowledge overwhelms our Father image with an impression of something much more unified and far less restricted to the human concerns of a single species on a relatively tiny speck floating in an unimaginably vast expanding universe populated by Galaxies of innumerable changing stars, planets and what is more, a Universe now suspected to be only one of many universes.

God the Son similarly changes as more facts come to light. It is not so much that Jesus himself must be radically different to his portrayal in the Gospels, but since we now know far more about other religious settings and far more about the history of his time than was revealed in the New Testament writing, we have to be more cautious about what we claim to know with certainty. A key question here is to ask how much of his reported wisdom is applicable today for our changed circumstances – and how much relevance we can expect Him to have for those born into vastly different cultures and religions. And lastly we need to acknowledge that those mysterious feelings we have about a guiding Spirit are a little harder to interpret when we now know that many of our feelings are partially shaped by the biochemistry of the brain. To take one small example, many behaviours that in Jesus day were classified as sins, are now known to be influenced by neurotransmitters in the brain, by heredity and by environment.

Please notice that the sense of mystery and transcendence if anything is increased by modern knowledge, and it still makes perfect sense to remind ourselves that “God” is still beyond us. If we know that we ourselves find it hard to grasp what we are trying to describe as creation, we should be reluctant to pretend that we know enough to dismiss others’ attempts to put it into words. We should also check out our own religious language to make sure we are not dumbing down our image of this God of transcendence until “He” becomes what the poet William Blake once called a “Nobodaddy” as a sort of a ventriloquist dummy, somewhere “up there” in the ether, fabricated by our imaginations for the express purpose of doing what we ask for our exclusive satisfaction.

When it comes to the metaphor of God the Son highlighting the importance Jesus for us, beside us, remembering him in particular as the wisdom teacher for the practical everyday situations, we can’t have it both ways. If the flesh and blood Jesus was prepared to reinterpret the law for situations of need in front of him, we cannot pretend that this same Jesus would have us stay unable to face the unfolding situations and issues in front of us because we are frozen in our religious past.

We might secretly think only Methodists have it right. But Jesus seemed to imply that the Spirit guides us to deal with those of different faiths as neighbours to be loved. If he was right, it is not just a matter of announcing to others that Jesus is the Son of God as part of the Trinity, it is more a matter of showing by our actions that this same Jesus is still beside us because we are attempting to follow the essence of his wisdom and reinterpret it for our generation.

In the last analysis, it is when we stop reading and cast within for the Spirit leading us on, that our faith might start to be transformed from something to be talked about to something that lives.

Yes, new knowledge will continue to bring new insights and the last word is far from being spoken. After all the notion of the Trinity continued to change long after the writers of the New Testament had struggled to express what they felt, simply because the situation facing the early Christians continued to change. Those changes are now accelerating. As life brings new challenges we will need to continue to adjust our thinking and no doubt the most meaningful creeds are still to be written.

Maybe the biggest adjustment in the time to come is when we realize that our biggest challenge is not to shape the right faith formula, Trinity or otherwise, but rather to seek the formula that will shape us, particularly in a way that we might be freed to offer something for our present and our successors future world.

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Lectionary Sermon for June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday, Year C, on Acts 2: 1-21

Two questions for you about Pentecost. First question… Is the Acts version of the story a factual account? – and the second: Does it set us up for our journey as followers of Christ? Perhaps only one of these questions matters. Can you guess which?

If we are honest we probably should admit that there are some parts of the story line that don’t quite add up. As the drama unfolds we meet a series of events totally unlike anything we would ever expect to see in real life. Along with the rushing wind, (and here we are talking about wind inside, not outside), we read those present saw divided tongues of fire, accompanied, not by the incoherent babbling of a modern Pentecostal-type service, but by the miraculous sudden ability to talk coherently in foreign languages.

Perhaps confusing real fire with metaphorical fire may not be wise.
In the 16th Century, one member of Florence’s famous Medici family, Lorenzo de Medici, fancied himself as a bit of a showman. Since as far as Lorenzo was concerned, real flames were part of the original Whitsun occasion, he felt the Church congregation was entitled to get a feel for what the experience would have been like.

The Florence Church gathering must have been impressed with his re-enactment of Pentecost, particularly with the spectacular roar of flames from the ceiling. And it was memorable. The actors’ clothes caught fire, the furniture caught fire, then the walls of the Church – not to mention some nearby buildings were destroyed. Do you think Lorenzo would have been invited to give a repeat performance the following year?

But let’s turn now to that even more remarkable magic, with humble followers of Jesus being transformed in an instant into expert linguists.

Peter the fisherman with his explanation was also mysterious. He said in effect that they were witnessing the beginning of the end. Reflect on this bit: “I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” !!?

Well sorry, the Sun is still there, and last time I looked the moon looked pretty much the same as the one visited by the astronauts. No, Peter’s interpretation on this occasion was not what the rest of the book of Acts described – and nor, well at least not in the almost two thousand years since, were these to be the literal experiences for the followers of Christ.

Pentecost may be the official birthday of the Christian church, but attempting to portray the original version as a simple factual record to be read in the comfortable setting of a modern church service hardly does it justice. And don’t forget many conservative Christians insist that must be how it happened. Yet by modern standards, the story itself is seriously weird so we find modern critics such as the members of the Jesus Seminar suggesting this appears to be more Luke, the author of Acts, trying to explain the main features of the birth of the Christian Church in a way that builds confidence as a way of teaching key understandings rather than by trying to give a simple factual account.

Today I want to suggest a more important often overlooked question. Regardless of how you may feel about the accuracy of Luke’s reporting, the real test, as with all scripture, what are the truths here that help us in our own real faith journey.

Pentecost itself is a borrowed festival – one of three significant pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish religious year. The word – derived from a word meaning fifty – is supposed to happen fifty days after the festival of Passover. To the Jews, Pentecost celebrates Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, in other words, God forming a Covenant with the Jews. Pentecost comes to have additional meaning as the birthday of the Christian Church because in the Acts version, a New Covenant is set up as the Spirit comes upon these early Church followers. As Peter explains it, these phenomena are like the last days when: “it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

The Pentecost version in Acts may not make sense as actual real world events, yet the wind, the tongues of fire, and the different languages are all better understood if we think of their special religious significance and meaning.

The Bible – and I should add that this works in both the Greek and the Hebrew – uses the same word for the wind and breath it does for the Spirit. The “wind” then tells us that this is a standard metaphor for Spirit, the presence of God. The other metaphor, “fire”, is another code for the presence of God. Remember God speaking through the burning bush, remember the pillar of fire guiding through the wilderness, and remember God igniting the wet wood for Elijah.

For me the Acts version referring to speaking in tongues is also intended to have an underlying meaning.

Those of you who have travelled will know that different languages can be something of a mixed blessing. In foreign lands, on hearing your own language spoken, there is relief – yet hearing an unfamiliar tongue, there can be confusion and a feeling of somehow being excluded. Some Bible writers agree. Remember the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel which presents the mixture of languages as a total breakdown in communication. Here with Pentecost, the variety of languages is the setting for total communication.

As anyone who has ever tried to learn a language will know, there is a quantum jump from having a school foreign vocabulary lesson to genuine communication in a foreign language. Successful crossing of language barriers means recognising different cultural patterns, understanding different figures of speech and even recognising and using appropriate non-verbal cues. Saying then that the tongues of fire gave the ability to communicate is talking then of the ability, not just of vocabulary recognition, but something closer to forming bonds of empathy.

Again this is a spiritual idea and follows from the tongues of fire representing the essence of the Holy Spirit. Luke seems to be saying that using the Spirit allows us to get close enough to allow true communication to take place.

But what then is the significance of the setting?

Luke’s version of Pentecost starts with the disciples and other followers meeting together in a house, or did he perhaps mean hiding together? Given the circumstances we may well suspect that, regardless of the form of the story, he was identifying with those first disciples who were likely to be timorous and frightened followers of Jesus hiding nervously away from the genuine dangers of an unwelcoming community. In the first few months and years this must have happened on a number of occasions. In all probability they had cause to be extremely worried.

Although we understand that by this stage there would have been stories circulating about Jesus resurrection, assuming people were subject to the same sorts of doubts as they are in this day and age, it is unlikely that the stories would have been universally believed. If the authorities had been prepared to crucify Jesus, his followers must have expected similar treatment for spreading the same gospel. By the time Luke began his record, stoning and beatings for those in the early Church were becoming more frequent.

With the wisdom of hindsight, we know that the concerns of such early followers were totally justified.

The Romans made no secret of the fact that any talk of a single Son of God was unacceptable unless people were talking of the Emperor. By the time the book of Acts was written, the author, now widely understood to be Luke, would have witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and consequently understood that the Romans would not tolerate any movement considered a threat.

The Jewish religious leadership had already decided that Jesus did not qualify as the Messiah.  The expected Messiah was thought to be recognised among other things for his powerful military leadership.  With his first expected task supposedly to get rid of the foreign Roman control of the Holy city of Jerusalem, there was no way this Jesus with his message of non violence and forgiveness would fit most Jews’ expectations.

Those in the Pentecost gathering must have been only too aware that the Jewish hierarchy, now at the point of desperation, was intolerant of their new movement. We can only presume that they would not have been surprised to learn that the orthodox leadership would shortly be using those like Saul (later known as St Paul) to suppress any move to support any identified as false claimants for the Messiah-ship.

The visiting of the Holy Spirit is recorded then to give the followers the confidence to come out from their place of hiding, to be the gospel in the world, confident that the presence of the Holy Spirit will bring them close enough to communicate.

As already mentioned, the most unexpected part of the story is the part where those present start to use the tongues of fire as a means of speaking in other languages – and notice it says that those who came from different nations and different foreign communities were all hearing voices that spoke to them in their own language.

For those of us comfortable in our own Church community, there is a special message here. The Rev Jim Burklo, a coordinator of the Jesus Seminar, in an interview reported by Rex Hunt, suggested that typically religious beliefs fall into three separate categories.

The first is exclusivism which is the idea that our own religion is the only one that is right and the rest are either wrong or even evil. Confining church activity essentially to what happens inside the Church would be one mark of an exclusive Church.

The second is inclusivism which is another way of saying that although my faith is the only truly correct faith, we can allow that yours is not without interest and accordingly we should tolerate one another’s religion, looking for ways to cooperate and communicate. Can you hear the echo of inter-church dialogue in this one?

Then of course we have the notion of pluralism, the idea that my religion is good for me and by the same token your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me.

To me, this last category of pluralism is what Pentecost demonstrates in the speaking of tongues. Pluralism is at the heart of true communication in religion, for to truly understand the other’s voice we must not only hear the words in form, but also understand their spirit.

So how should we best commemorate Pentecost? I certain don’t favour trying the notion of creating real flames in the body of the Church. Perhaps we could try working ourselves into a trance making the sorts of sounds we imagine were heard at that first gathering. Some congregations opt for that choice.

But surely the whole point of Luke recording this event for the Church was so that the Christians might know they would find sufficient power in the Holy Spirit to get out there in the world and start being the Church.

Maybe it calls for our honest inward reflection. Is our Church a shelter of withdrawal from the part of the world that threatens? Or do we accept that there is sufficient power of what we can only call the Holy Spirit, to take the principles taught by Jesus and live them in the community and world? Ultimately our lives will tell others which choice we have made.

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The Trump “Miracle”…. but not for all

President Trump and his supporters have been very keen to trumpet the success of the Trump led US economy. And it is hard to argue against noticing that the GDP has risen in Mr Trump’s first term. The employment data also looks positive in that fewer are registering as unemployed.

For those who don’t look too closely, such statistics certainly make it seem more likely that Mr Trump can be returned for a second term. But if you check out the underlying detail you may agree with me that the taking of these indicators out of context does not give a true picture of what is really going on.

Of course some people must be advantaged every time the GDP rises, but as it turns out, on this occasion with closer examination we find, not only while some the rich minority have clearly done better, it is a good number of the poorer majority who now find themselves worse off. It also turns out much of the GDP is siphoned off and we see from many company reports that many have preferred to take advantage of the situation to build inventories, perhaps in part as a buffer for the increasingly entrenched trade war situation.

Nevertheless some, including some lucky investors, have obviously still benefitted.  Any rich recipients of such a windfall would presumably see the economics very differently from those denied a share. Perhaps this explains in part why, when surveyed recently via a Gallup poll, those polled were ask to register their support for Mr Trump’s earlier decision when he announced his tax rebates for the rich.

According to the afore-mentioned Poll results 40% of the population accepted that Mr Trump had done the right thing but 49% had actually disagreed. One of a number of reasons for the disagreement might well have been that the gap from tax no longer being paid turned out to be part of the now reduced safety net for poorer people.

One key recent survey conducted for the Federal Reserve, at least according to Deutsche Bank’s Torsten Sløk, showed that the distribution of household wealth in America has tended to become steadily more disproportionate over the past decade, with the richest 10% of U.S. households representing 70% of all U.S. wealth in 2018, compared with 60% in 1989. More to the point, again according to Sløk, was that it turned out that the increases in wealth following the tax rebates mainly went to the wealthy BUT many others were measurably worse off.

The employment figures are even more ambiguous. It is absolutely true that the number of registered unemployed in the US has dropped. This should be good. Well not necessarily! The important figure we should consider is the number of registered employed as a proportion of those actually potentially available for employment. The fact is that despite the population increase, the number employed today has dropped compared with the number employed back in the year 2000.

The economist Jeffrey D Sachs noted: “The civilian employment rate in April 2019 has been reported at 60.6% of the working-age population, but this is down from its annual peak of 64.4% in 2000. Much of America’s currently low unemployment rate reflects the withdrawal of many low-wage Americans from the labor force”.

Even in their own terms, the GDP and employment data are much less impressive than the headlines suggest. First-quarter GDP growth, for example, showed a surge in inventories, which might signal slowing output growth in future quarters. And it is, at best, a preliminary prediction.

Likewise, while a lower unemployment rate would normally seem heartening, in the event, it turned out that part of the reported decline in April also reflected a reduction in the labor force.

Perhaps it needs to be stressed the number of people in the theoretically employable group has risen in the same time. The answer to this apparent puzzle is very simple. We note a now growing host of factors that prevent more outside the workforce for registering as unemployed. For example some states have shortened the time for individuals to be out of work before removing them from the list. Similarly the reason for giving termination is now more likely to disqualify individuals for registering as unemployed. State regulations have also been toughened for those who cannot prove their right to work eg those without a green card type qualification or the alien versus permanent resident alternative.

Some long term arrangements, like turning a blind eye to undocumented workers eg many farm labourers in the Mid West or construction labourers where the employer had been anxious to reduce costs, (cf Trump construction sites!), are now being more carefully policed. In summary there are fewer employed but fewer can register as unemployed or register for unemployment insurance. Now bring in the afore-mentioned the GDP increase not being shared with the whole population. In short, this means the Trump administration’s chosen macroeconomic indicators of GDP and employment may sound good but they certainly have limited bearing on true wellbeing for many.

We might look for example at the declining life expectancy for 2016 and 2017 despite population increase. This should signal a warning especially as it coincides with factors like a decreasing access to health care amongst the poor, a soaring opioid epidemic, and increasing suicide rates, all of which do not indicate an increase in well-being or happiness.

The US population with half describing their current position as “excellent” or “good,” yet the other half describing them as “only fair” or “poor” is not particularly good given that the US has the strongest GDP figures of all developed nations. Some 49% of Americans believe the economic situation is improving, while 50% feel that it is worsening or staying the same. It should also concern the decision makers that only 31% claim to be satisfied with the direction their country has country, while 67% are dissatisfied.

Some of the dissatisfaction may of course be related to the increasing split in the community between those supporting President Trump and those opposing his Presidency.  Other factors include: spiralling personal debt (including credit card debt, student loans and the notion of personal share of the National debt) all of which have  worsened despite President’s Trumps promise to do away with the National debt together with reduction in the all important statistic of home ownership. As it happens, the national homeownership rate for the first quarter of 2019 was 64.2% (according to the U.S. Census Bureau). That is below the historic average of 65.2%, which dates back to the 1960s.

Another alarming issue not captured by GDP or unemployment rates is the sharp rise in anxiety among Americans. Whether or not this extends to the red-hatted Americans inside the group I have heard some cynics call “the prosperity gospel brigade” is not immediately clear to me. But the point is this. Gallup recently reviewed a set of troubling views reflecting concerns well beyond the President tweets and boasts about successes. In the Gallup summary we read:

“Even as their economy roared, more Americans were stressed, angry, and worried last year than they have been at most points during the past decade. Asked about their feelings the previous day, the majority of Americans (55%) in 2018 said they had experienced stress during a lot of the day, nearly half (45%) said they felt worried a lot, and more than one in five (22%) said they felt anger a lot.”

Stress, worry, and anger all hit ten-year US highs in 2018. From the samples compared with those elsewhere, Gallup rated the US as the seventh-most stressed population in the world in 2018, less stressed than Greece, the Philippines, and Iran, but surprisingly more stressed than samples in Uganda, Turkey, and Venezuela.

Americans’ self-reported happiness also declined in 2018. Asked by Gallup how they would rate their life on a scale from zero (worst life) to ten (best life), Americans in 2018 responded with an average of 6.9, down from 7.0 in 2017, and 7.3 during 2006-2008. For the year 2018, America was placed, perhaps more significantly in the bottom half of the OECD countries, down from 19th in 2016-2018.

Even in their own terms, the GDP and employment data are much less impressive than the headlines suggest. First-quarter GDP growth, for example, showed a surge in inventories, which might portend slowing output growth in future quarters. And it is, in any event, a preliminary estimate. Likewise, as explained above, while a lower unemployment rate sounds heartening, part of the reported decline in April reflected a reduction in the labor force.

As a New Zealander, like many others living outside the US I am surprised that when the economy is being assessed and “found” to be successful by the current administration, that the success is not being set in context. Even a casual glance at the main figures (eg the US Debt Clock) shows horrendous level of student debt and extraordinary health costs for the average citizen. But I would have also thought that the notion that US should be successful as a stand alone economy is curiously outdated by the way the world now works.

In the hope of generating some critical thought I further offer the following for discussion by my readers.

1. If the world trade system is now governed by the WTO (which short cuts the complexities of supply trains and sets up long term trade policies) I would wonder at the wisdom of the scorning of WTO generated trade arrangements and controls and instead prefer the new Trump administration system of arbitrarily messing about with abrupt tariffs, which to me seems to unsettle the trading partners’ home economies and makes the US seem a less reliable trading partner when compared with other large economies where arrangements are much more settled. (Over the last two years we in New Zealand have moved ahead with our trade with China and made much more limited progress with new markets in the US).

2. The notion of financial profit being the only measure of an economy would appear particularly problematic. For example the burgeoning weapons trade whereby the US has made Saudi Arabia one of the strongest military powers in the world, may have made the shareholders in the US arms production factories rich, but the refugee problem has come close to breaking point as a consequence, particularly where civilian populations are frequently targets in places like Yemen and Syria.

3. While the UN has been an previous expense for the US, pulling back on US contributions to relief programmes may save money in the short term, but also makes many regions a more unstable and destabilizes future markets.

4. There seems to be a confusion between building the local US economic system while at the same time choosing to crush any economy which follows its own interests rather than supporting the interests of the United States (think Iran wishing to build its own economy with its own oil trade or Cuba being punished for historic attempts to take back its own political system).  Many polls taken outside the US in the last two years show a dropping international confidence in the leadership in the US and we might wonder if reactions from overseas organizations and leaders regularly rubbished by the President may be a contributing factor to the loss of confidence.

5. I would have thought that some of the more astute in the Trump Administration would have noted that larger trading blocs are increasingly side-lining the US in major trading deals. This may yet moderate the enthusiasm of traditional supporters for the current economic direction chosen by the President and its much internally vaunted successes.

NOTE  The first part of this article leans heavily on work done by Jeffrey Sachs.  Reader feedback and criticism would be appreciated for all the suggested interpretations in this post since they vary from much of the reported claimed economic successes of the Trump administration.

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Lectionary sermon for June 2, 2019 (Easter 7 C)on John 17:20-26

Human Beings into a Unity of Doers!  

If you have ever prayed a prayer that remained unanswered you are in good company. In this morning’s gospel reading, the writer of John’s gospel records Jesus doing precisely the same thing. His prayer is call for unity…. yet ever since his followers have acted as if this was an unattainable goal.

The writer of John’s gospel has been criticised by many Bible scholars both for contradicting some key detail about Jesus in the other gospels (usually referred to as the synoptic gospels), and for John’s enthusiasm for oblique mysticism.

Certainly a first encounter with the gospel writer John gives an initial impression that he, or perhaps an apostle he used as his primary source, had been with Jesus for his mission – and he reinforces this impression by attributing the gospel detail to “the beloved disciple”, There are of course problems with this.

You may have noticed John implies a two and possibly three year ministry for Jesus and records Jesus at three separate Passovers. The other gospels present a one year ministry and only mention one Passover. The Synoptic gospels highlight the baptism of Jesus, but John has Jesus meeting John the Baptist yet not being baptised by John. The other gospels report Jesus’ parables and miracles as for helping people, John leaves out the parables and sees only signs in the miracles.

John also gets some of the contemporary history quite wrong – or at least out of step with the work of other writers of the day. For example for the apostles and for the first few years of the Christian Church, Christianity was understood to be a sect of Judaism, yet for John, Jesus is portrayed as setting up a faith in opposition to traditional Judaism. Furthermore, the other great work often (mistakenly?) attributed to the same John, namely the Book of Revelation, is written in a different style of Greek. Many scholars currently claim John’s gospel is widely accepted as the last of the gospels chosen for the Bible, written we are told, by an unknown first century writer working from second hand sources.

Having said all of that, many scholars would insist that this gospel provides the most compelling theological presentation of all the gospels, and that includes gospels that did not make the final cut into the canon of the New Testament. John’s work, sometimes described as an extended essay on the centrality of love, is rightly praised for selecting phrases and metaphors which get to the heart of Jesus’ teaching. One of my friends calls John a portrait painter rather than a biographer and I can see what he means.

Today’s gospel lesson written in the turmoil that followed the Christian Church being splintered and cast adrift from its Jewish seizes on one of these critical ideas which still have profound implications for current challenges to the current members of the still divided Christian Church and a deeply divided world community. This is of course Jesus’ extended prayer for inity amongst all who would follow his teaching.

As a prayer to produce a guaranteed result, thus far it appears a failure. But when Jesus says he is praying that there shall be unity, it is a prayer of the sort where some very human responders, including Christians of our generation, still hold the key to the answer.

Nor should we think of Jesus calling for something he was able to accomplish easily with his own disciples. Even in his own mission, Jesus encountered James and John competing to see who was worthy to sit beside Jesus in heaven – and another time, disciples who argued who among them was the greatest.

Remember also Matthew the collaborator publican who had a record of working alongside the Romans as a tax collector, becoming a member of the same band of followers that included a zealot who was committed to getting rid of those like Matthew. Don’t forget too, according to the gospels, Judas was prepared to betray his master despite many months of being on the road with Jesus. Nor as it turned out, were things better after the events of that first Easter. Paul, as a newcomer to the faith, was still to have his falling out with Peter and James.

However in Jesus’ prayer He was not simply focusing on his fractious and divided disciples. In verse 21, we find him praying for the disciples, He then prayed for all believers. And as self-claimed followers of Jesus we don’t need to look far before we encounter reason for embarrassment. Clearly, Jesus’ followers are still divided, just as they have been through the centuries, sometimes bitterly so. It would take a particular form of myopia not to notice today’s lack of unity?

Here I am not, as you might suppose, talking of joining the denominations into one unwieldy conglomerate. My concern is more for the lack of identification with others, an absence of identified unity offered to those who don’t share a common background. Jesus himself had modelled an acceptance of difference. He did not choose disciples for uniform background and nor did he accept traditional exclusions. Touching lepers, talking to the rejected of society, noticing the good in traditional enemies of Judaism; these things showed he was open to a unity of spirit and not just a unity of re-jigged Church superstructure.

I remember some years ago putting some Teachers’ College students through an exercise whereby those not in the know were pressured by students in a set up situation, to agree with statements that were demonstrably untrue. For example I would draw two lines on the board and tell the class who were already present that they should pick the longest line as being the shortest when late comers came into the room. I would then wait for an unfortunate latecomer to arrive and ask the class to vote on the shortest line. Almost invariably, the latecomer on seeing the show of hands would uncomfortably agree with the nonsense option.

Imagine the nonsense of claiming to follow Jesus yet pretending not to see the governmental non-forgiving option when it comes to foreign policy. And what about remembering a communion meal at which Judas was a guest, by celebrating the Eucharist in a form that could not be shared with some guests because they were not of exactly the local version of faith.

Imagine celebrating a man who told the story of the Good Samaritan by pretending not to see the worth of the Red Crescent (the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross). Or bringing it closer to home, imagine coming this Sunday to celebrate one who prayed for unity in his followers and following this with total lack of interest in serious attempts both to seek unity of spirit and failing to be finding good in those who dress and worship differently.

It is a poor excuse to say in this we are no different to others. I suspect the meek acceptance of bad majority opinions continues to confine and shape thinking which a moment’s reflection might reveal as nonsense.

Ralph Milton tells an oft quoted story about how John Henry Fabre, a French naturalist did an experiment with some Processionary Caterpillars.
In Milton’s words:

These poor little beasties will follow the next caterpillar ahead of them, no matter where that caterpillar happens to be going. Fabre arranged a bunch of his fuzzy friends in a neat circle, each one touching the one just ahead. Faithful to their DNA, each one followed the next one.

In the middle of the circle Fabre put some of the caterpillars’ favourite food. So would they stop following, even for a moment, just for a bite of lunch?

Not on your life. The food was there within inches, but they just kept on following each other in circles until they collapsed and died from hunger.

In the traditional Church, there is evidence that even now, processionary caterpillar thinking can dominate.

Jesus’ teaching is clear enough. There we find Jesus’ prescription for living in his way, his call for unity for his followers, his wish for total and generous forgiveness of enemies, compassion offered to neighbours ( even those who differ in belief), not building up treasures on earth and so on – all clear directions to those who might listen. Yet because we are bound by group traditions, we lose sight of the real food on offer. Time after time, woolly group thinking trumps our independent judgement about how we are progressing towards these goals.

If we felt free to choose from first principles, I suspect we would know to choose more helpful paths. Surely a society built on principles of unity, compassion and love would not only be true to Jesus’ prayer as recounted by John, but it would make more sense than the divided realities we are taught by our institutions to preserve.

When John defined God as Love, I believe this was a moment of great insight. When he records Jesus as saying 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” He is also putting us in touch with a method to act on his call for unity.

Whoever first coined the expression “Human Beings” was perceptive. I have heard it suggested that there are really two types: be-ers and doers. The be-ers are simply content to let things the way they are and trust that everything will turn out alright in the end.

“Beings” certainly conjures up this common way of thinking. The do-ers take an active part in working towards what they believe to be the best form of action. I wonder if “human being” is the most positive alternative expression. What about calling the peace-making form a “human doing”? But whatever the case, I suspect that this two-form classification is at best an over-simplification. Many of us are capable of being a continually changing mixture of the two. However, if you asked me which form I saw dominating, I would have to admit the evidence is clear that the Human being dominates, and our lack of unity is the consequence.

The Dalai Lama once suggested: “the whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, and forgiveness”.

Unfortunately in practice it seems to be an unrealized ideal. This is not typically how most religions turn out in practice. Like the consequent ideal of unity, achieving the Dalai Lama’s purpose of religion assumes that the human do-ers will overcome the inertia of the be-ers. The resulting outcome is as likely or unlikely as how much we with faults or frailties like ours are prepared to make it become.

To focus on the expression of love for those who are different to us would seem an extraordinarily persuasive way of bringing about unity. When an individual or a group is kind to us we automatically warm to them.

Conversely when they ignore us or worse appear to be waving a big stick in our direction it is probably human nature to respond with antagonism and suspicion. So why through history have our ancestors been found waving sticks? Time after time, it is the socially isolated who become anti social in response, as many of the killing rampages in the US have demonstrated. Even internationally, nations like North Korea or Iran only threaten those who have threatened them or isolated them in the past. That should suggest to us a way of encouraging trust in others. Perhaps we might reflect on the current US foreign policy (or even dare I say our own foreign policy!) and ask how it would measure up.

Human beings we may well be. The question is: as potential do-ers are we like processionary caterpillars to remain focussed on our communal previous path to leave Jesus prayer unanswered?

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Lectionary Sermon for 26 May 2019 John 14: 23-29

The Second Coming? – (R Open minded): Parental guidance not a bad idea.

Like health warnings on food and tobacco, it might be that sometimes even sermons should require a warning to flag potential discomfort on the part of the consumer.

Because this sermon risks upsetting those who hold to inerrancy and infallibility of the scriptures, it may be more comfortable for readers or listeners who share that view simply to switch off and stop following the sermon at this point. On the other hand, if you like to think your way through key issues, might I suggest you first consider and evaluate the argument of this address, then if you think it appropriate, contribute to the debate by giving me an honest reaction.

When I read Jesus’ words encouraging his disciples for what lies ahead, I sometimes wonder if a good proportion of today’s believers have really thought through what we are expected to do with Jesus’ recorded teaching on the second coming.

Having heard a number of street evangelists on the topic, and in particular, some of the more conservative evangelists, I do understand that a reasonable proportion of those who see themselves as Christian, take the imagery of the Book of Revelation together with reported words from Jesus as literal prediction.

As a consequence many appear confident that soon, perhaps even any day now, Jesus will appear from the clouds to gather up the faithful and whisk them up to heaven to enjoy their rightful reward. Because this assertion is totally outside human experience, I acknowledge there is no certainty they are wrong, (or right for that matter!) and bluntly – no obvious way of testing what they claim. However in today’s reading at least, Jesus seems to be talking about a more accessible idea. There is still the underlying idea that “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” , but here, the dwelling places are strictly human.

Perhaps we should start by looking closely at the words from the start of today’s gospel.

23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…..

This seems to be saying that in effect Jesus and or God or the Holy Spirit will be taking up residence in the person – or at least “the heart” of the one who takes Jesus seriously enough to follow his teaching. For me this is not a dramatic one time, and for the whole world event. There are disciples in every generation and given that we sometimes sense in such people the emergence of warmth of nature and signs of essence of compassion, it may not be a second coming miracle in the conventional expected sense of the word, yet in another sense I still see it as consistent with Jesus’ fulfilled prophecy. If people following Jesus have taken on the characteristic central to Jesus teaching, is this not Jesus entering their heart?

Not everyone would see this as being the second coming. In fact although there is plenty of evidence that the gospel writers and then St Paul and some of the other New Testament writers talked and wrote as if Jesus was coming physically at the end time – and specifically within a very short time frame, today’s reading give us a totally different slant.

But there is something we need to face squarely. Even if Jesus and the New Testament writers had intended to say that his disciples were going to experience all that Jesus was interpreted as saying about the second coming in a literal sense and in their lifetime, events proved otherwise. Despite predictions of most dramatic happenings within the lifetime of the readers and hearers of the contemporary audience of the day, there is no indication that these second coming events ever happened for that audience.
For example, if we contrast today’s measured description with the Luke version of the Armageddon which SHOULD have occurred for the generation of first witnesses in Luke 21:25-33, we see predictions which failed to materialize.

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” ……..Amen, (And note the next bit)
I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Luke 21:25-33 NAB)

Well if it literally happened that way, it wasn’t just the disciples who missed it. By all accounts, the stars have remained apparently twinkling in the heavens, the seas did not roar and nor as far as we know, did those of Jesus’ generation, die in fright at those signs.

Even if the New Testament writers themselves got the second coming wrong, should that really surprise us? Like some of our contemporaries, they too were on a faith journey and faith has blind paths, as well as moments of insight. So what if Paul insisted end times were upon his contemporaries? And he did. Well why not? He had never heard Jesus speaking in the flesh and was only repeating what others had told him. So for example:

In Philippians 4:5 Paul thought that the end was near and that Jesus would return soon after he wrote those words.

In Hebrews 1:2 Paul ( and remember this is two thousand years ago) Paul says he believes he is living in the “last days.”

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Paul stated: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: And the dead Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: And so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Paul was in good company. James (James 5: 8) thought that Jesus would return soon.

Peter too believed that he was living in the “last times” and that “the end of all things is at hand.” 1 Peter 1:20 & 4:7

Yet if they did get it wrong on this score let us also admit they did us a huge service in other places. Thus the sublime writing of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 helps us ground a concept like love in day to day practicalities.

In his account of true religion, James had a practical focus to faith that is just as relevant today as it was then. If the same Peter who led the disciples wrote first Peter, his continued leadership is evident no matter how he may have misinterpreted the end times.

This is not to say that the second coming should therefore be ignored. If for example the picture language was chosen to get our attention and encourage us to deal with some realities, then it starts to make sense.

For example Revelation was written at a time when the Roman Empire had declared itself on collision course with the Christians who were insisting on acknowledging one God – thereby challenging the Roman Emperor’s right to title himself a God. We might note for example that the author of the letter of John thought he was living in end times because he could see so many anti-Christs about (1 John 2:18). John also says the anti-Christ was present at the very time he was writing (1 John 4:3).

If we see the Anti-Christ, as with any major leader who acts against the principles of Christ, this then becomes poetic rather than literal, yet it still teaches an important truth.

As persecution increased the Christians needed encouragement and if this might be codified with signs helping those in the know to see the Beast of Revelation as the Roman Emperor – the leader of the current persecution, so much the better. That the Book of Revelation also talks of the eventual triumph of Christianity would have been extremely encouraging to those facing genuine danger.

We can see, if only from the four gospel accounts, in some cases, the same words of Jesus are given different contexts and in some include differences in detail. This establishes that editing was taking place and it is not unreasonable to suspect that in some cases the words being edited were not actually words of Jesus, but rather words written in the mouth of Jesus to support current truths that the gospel writers felt needed sharing.
I also happen to believe that if we were to find that the second coming literature was intended as poetry to draw our attention to key truth, I for one would still find this of value.

If, as mentioned previously, the second coming is at least partly a coming into ourselves as a human dwelling place, this is particularly helpful as we check where we are in our own walk of faith.

For example, notice that to qualify as a human dwelling place, popular labels like born again or Christian become less relevant. As far as Jesus appears to be concerned it follows that calling yourself Christian, a born-again – or even for that matter an atheist     is not where it is at. He makes his precondition abundantly clear. “Those who love me will ……no he didnt say …believe in me …… it was …….keep my word…..”

Can I suggest taking moment of reflection to consider if we have begun to attempt to follow the principles Jesus enunciates. I believe this would be time well spent. If we follow John’s text for today, it is only when we keep Jesus’ word that our love will be evident. In that sense Jesus may already have come for the lives of others. And perhaps his second coming was always meant to be interpreted that way. Our challenge might then be to consider if, for us, he has already come and is continuing to be found in our own life’s witness. AMEN



(Given the above may not represent consensus thinking, reactions would be most welcome. If you happen to think these predictions are for a yet unrealized prophecy I suspect you also need to make up your mind about the significance of 2000 years of failed prophecies: see my post “End Times – this time it’s serious… again”.)

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