I felt rather privileged to find myself subject of a major article in Russia Insider. The transcript it contains has a few typos. Even so, it portrays my views very accurately and comprehensively. Russia Insider – September 29, 2018
I felt rather privileged to find myself subject of a major article in Russia Insider. The transcript it contains has a few typos. Even so, it portrays my views very accurately and comprehensively. Russia Insider – September 29, 2018
“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-29)
We find ourselves again in the centre of Mark’s Gospel, at a passage that most of us regular church people will be familiar with – the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples that begins with Jesus’ question “who do people say that I am?”
As I say, most of us regular church people will be familiar with this passage, and if you’re a regular member of an Anglican church you are entitled to feel particularly familiar with it, as this is the second time we’ve read this passage this year!
Two times in one year might not sound overly repetitive, but if you consider that our lectionary works hard at making sure we don’t read the same passage more than once every three years, twice in one year is relatively relentless!
Of course, there are other bits of the Scripture that the lectionary ensures reach our ears more often than once every 1,000 days or so. The Christmas story and the Easter story are two obvious examples, and they make sense, given that the Christmas and Easter stories are integral to events that we celebrate every year, but that’s not the case with this story.
I assume that the reason this story appears so often is because the church considers it important, and it certainly is important within the narrative of the Gospels.
In the Gospel of Mark, it is indeed the very centre – not only in terms of it being in the physical mid-section of the book, but in terms of it being the axis upon which the rest of the story about Jesus hinges. And maybe it’s more than that too – maybe it’s the text upon which our identity as Christians hinges?
That was certainly the way this dialogue was presented to me when I was at University. This was the key question – ‘who do you say Jesus is?’ If you answer that question the same way Peter did, you’re a Christian. If you answer it any other way, you’re going to hell! This is the exam that you cannot afford to flunk!
I seem to remember that this form of Gospel presentation was quite successful when I was at Uni (roughly a millennium ago). Perhaps life was simpler back then? Perhaps it still works?
Either way, after going on to study the Bible in greater depth myself, I came to realise that this presentation can only work so long as you don’t read the whole passage – most obviously the bit where Peter, who gets the identity of Jesus right, is referred to by Jesus as ‘Satan’ only a few moment later, suggesting that, even if Peter did get Jesus’ identity right, this didn’t necessarily put him on the happy side of the Heaven/Hell divide!
In truth, whether or not you see this question as being of apocalyptic significance, it certainly is the key question that identifies you as a card-carrying member of the church. This is what distinguishes us, as Christians, from Jews and Muslims in particular.
If you ask a Muslim, for instance, who she thinks Jesus was, she will likely give the same answer that a lot people were giving in Jesus’ own day – that He was ‘one of the prophets.’
I remember my beloved friend, Dr Hassoun (the Grand Mufti of Syria) saying to me that one of the things he loved about being a Muslim was that he was able to revere all the prophets – prophet Jesus, prophet Moses, prophet Mohammad, and more – and I remember thinking at the time that I was grateful that I didn’t then have with me any of those University-type Christians that might have been tempted to say to him, ‘I’m sorry, but that’s not adequate. Off to hell you go!’
I appreciate that, from the perspective of many of my Muslim friends, it’s as if we Christians are saying ‘You’ve got to give Jesus top billing! In the credits for the movie version of the history of the universe, you have to recognise Jesus as the star of the show’ and our Muslim friends are saying ‘well … we’ve got Jesus right up there in the opening credits. We just don’t have Him as a solo star.’
The differences seem rather trivial when you put it this way too, and it seems even more ridiculous to condemn people to hell because they didn’t get Jesus’ place in the credits quite right.
Of course, I don’t believe all Muslims are going to hell because they got this wrong (or all Jews or all-anybody-else for that matter). At the same time though, I don’t think that the issue at stake here is trivial either. Rather, I suspect we’ve misunderstood it.
The key, I think, is Peter – the one who gets so Jesus right, saying, “You are the Messiah”, and yet gets Him so wrong at the same time.
If you’ll allow me to continue with the movie analogy, Peter is indeed saying of Jesus
‘you are not just one of the lead players in this drama. You are the star of the show’
and Jesus accepts this recognition from Peter and yet, a few moments later, he’s telling Peter that he is Satan himself! The problem, as I see it, is not that Peter made any mistake by placing Jesus’ name at the top of the list of credits. It’s rather that he’s cast Jesus in the wrong show!
Jesus is the star of the show! Yes, but can you tell me a little more about the show Jesus is staring in? What has happened in the show thus far? Who are the other main characters? Who are the heroes and who are the villains? And most importantly, how do you expect this show to end?
If we’d asked Peter those questions, he might well have said that the story thus far was all outlined for us in the Hebrew Scriptures, as indeed it is, but those Scriptures can be understood in more than one way!
I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading lately in the areas of ancient myth and meta- narrative. I managed to get half way though Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” until the author’s fascination with the Upanishads and the ancient Sanskrit texts of India got the better of me.
If you’re not familiar with Campbell, he was probably the world’s most well-known mythologist (expert in ancient myths), and they made a documentary movie about him in 1987, called “The Hero’s Journey”. I haven’t seen the movie, but I have read most of the book of the same name that came out as a companion to the movie.
Campbell’s great thesis was that all great myths and stories (including the Biblical drama) follow the same basic storyline – a storyline that he called ‘the hero’s journey’
The hero’s journey has twelve distinct stages, according to Campbell, and I won’t outline them here, but I will give you Campbell’s summary of the journey.
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (from ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’)
As I say, Campbell saw this basic storyline as being at the heart of every great myth and legend, including the Biblical narrative, and his work had a big influence on people like Robert Bly (father of the modern-day men’s movement) and on George Lucas, who apparently developed the original Star Wars saga entirely in accordance with the twelve stages of the hero’s journey.
According to Campbell, individuals, as well as communities and countries, must have a story. He spent 38 years lecturing at a women’s-only college, and he said that when his students came back to see him in later life, it was immediately obvious to him who had followed the muse and lived out an adventure and who had simply been pulled along with the crowd.
For Campbell, this was the great danger – that you could hear the call to follow the hero’s path but instead get seduced by the temptations of money and power and spend your life desperately climbing to the top of the ladder, only to realise when you got there that the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall!
Campbell’s concept of the one great ‘monomyth’ has come under a lot of criticism since his death in 1987. More modern commentators have questioned whether Campbell took seriously enough the differences between different myths and stories as found in different cultures and traditions.
Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, for instance, have written about ‘The American Monomyth’ and how it differs from the standard hero’s journey. They published a number of books, with titles that speak for themselves, such as ‘The Myth of the American Superhero’ (2002) and “Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism” (2003).
Small differences in the archetypal narrative can have profound ramifications, and when the narrative goes toxic, it can cost the lives of millions of people.
This brings us back to Peter and his narrative – “You are the Christ! You are the star of the show!” What kind of show are we talking about, Peter?
I remember having a rather intense chat with a friend of mine where we were talking about a group of people who had struggled, gone through very dark times, had to face the possibility of being completely wiped out, but through grit and determination had clawed their way back to not only survival but to real success! It was a real hero’s journey. Who were we talking about? Newtown Rugby League Football club.
I imagine that Peter would have spoken about his people in similar terms, though with even greater passion that my fellow Newtown supporter.
The Jews were a people with an epic story. Their adventures had led them through dispossession and slavery, through years of testing in the desert, and through countless battles where they had regularly been outgunned and outnumbered, and yet they had survived! And now they awaited their final liberation under the leadership of their Messiah – God’s chosen one, the Christ!
It was a hero’s journey, and I don’t doubt that Jesus’ narrative had all those same elements in it as did Peter’s story. Even so, I suspect that Jesus framed His narrative a little differently to Peter. The result, at any rate, was that it turned out to be a different story altogether – a darker story, a story of suffering!
“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33)
My guess is that Peter just stood there with his mouth open when Jesus said this. How could he have got Jesus so right and so wrong at the same time? It was going to take a lot of rethinking and reframing on Peter’s part before he could fully come on board with Jesus. They were speaking the same language, but they were living out different stories!
What’s your story? Everyone has a story, or, at least, everyone should have a story. Don’t settle for living somebody else’s story or adopting whatever pre-written story- line society hands down to you. Find your own story and live your hero’s journey!
What’s your story? That’s the first question, and the second question is this: ‘is your story a part of the same show that Jesus is performing in?’
These are big questions, and they’re worth taking time to reflect on.
For me personally, I often find myself with other Christian people who speak about Jesus the same way I do and yet, when we speak a little about our hopes and dreams, it seems as if we’re working from entirely different scripts! And then there are other people that God places in my way who would not answer today’s question about the identity of Jesus the same way I would, and yet we find that we’re on the same hero’s journey together!
Who do we say that Jesus is? It’s a question that we have to keep coming back to again and again, for it’s not just a challenge to get Jesus’ identity right. It’s an invitation to join Him on in the adventure of a lifetime.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 16th September, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org
“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” (Song of Songs 2:10-12)
Words from that rarely-read book from the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs, and appropriate words they are for this, the first Sunday of Spring.
‘Flowers appear. The time of singing has come’. Winter is now officially behind us, and this regardless of whether the wind and rain have fully acknowledged the new reality on the ground! It is a time of regeneration, of fertility, of celebration and of romance, and it is romance, of course, that is the central theme of this book.
I say ‘of course’ because I assume that you’re familiar with this book though you have every reason not to be familiar with it. Not only is the Song of Songs nestled deeply in the wisdom section of our Old Testament (almost certainly the least well- read section of our Bibles) but it is not a book that our fathers and mothers in the faith have never really encouraged us to read.
There is a problem with this book! The problem is not simply that it is a romance novel. The problem is that it is also quite explicitly a celebration of sex. And the problem is that this book not only celebrates sex in the abstract, but that the celebration is played out between two people who are clearly not married.
“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away ” (Song of Song 2:9-11)
Evidently the action section of this story lies somewhat ahead of this slice of the story where the man is depicted as stealthily scuttling around his lover’s garden in the middle of the night, throwing rocks at her window and trying to entice her to sneak out and join him. Even so, it’s clear where the whole affair is heading, and ‘affair’ is almost certainly the right word, for they wouldn’t be sneaking around if they were in a publicly legitimized relationship. The two lovers are not married, or if they are married, it’s not to each other!
Now … I appreciate that our church community in Dulwich Hill is often seen as being a bit controversial, most obviously because we try to be an inclusive community and have a history of support for issues like same-sex marriage. Those who would criticize us in that respect generally do so suggesting that we have succumbed to popular pressures impinging on us from outside of the community of faith.
My feeling is that what really threatens to radicalize us is not pressure coming in from the outside. It’s the radical forces agitating from within that are the problem – Scriptural truths that confront us through texts like this in the Song of Songs.
“The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Songs 2:13)
The church has always had problems with this. In truth, our Jewish mothers and fathers in the faith had problems with this long before the church even inherited these texts!
As late as the Council of Jamnia in the year 90, our Jewish Fathers were debating the place of The Song in the Scriptures, after which the battle that was taken up by Church Fathers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia until the Second Council of Constantinople eventually ruled in favour of the Song in the year 553.
During the Reformation the Scriptural status of The Song came up again, with Sebastian Castellio facing off against John Calvin.
We might find it encouraging that both the synagogue and the church did ultimately accept the Song of Songs as holy writ, but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that this was because they were broad-minded.
With the Church Fathers, at least, those who defended the place of The Song in the canon of Scripture did so on the basis that the romance in the book was to be understood as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church! Given the overtly sexual nature of that relationship though, the allegory defense does initially strike me as a little weird!
This controversy is all very ancient, and yet it all seems so very contemporary too, and I can’t help but see parallels between those ancient ecclesiastical debates and the contemporary church’s attempts to mandate what constitutes an appropriate sexual relationship between men and women and between men and men and between women and women (and combinations of the above).
It all gets a little messy, doesn’t it? Even so, we (the church) can’t simply stay silent on these matters either, can we? We can’t condone young people racing around and engaging sexually with each other when they aren’t married because it says very clearly in the Scriptures that you can’t have sex unless you’re married.
For instance, it says it in … hang on … I’ve got a verse here somewhere …
The believers are those who protect their sexual organs except from their spouses.”
Whoops. Sorry. That’s the Qur’an (23:5-6)
OK. It does say very clearly “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) but that’s not exactly the same thing and, even there, commandments like this need to be understood in their context.
Now … please don’t hear me saying that we should disregard the prohibition against adultery, but I think we should recognise that, in the context of the commandments of the ancient Israelites, the seventh commandment is basically a law prohibiting property theft.
Thou shalt not commit adultery” is right alongside “Thou shalt not steal”, and in many ways anticipates the more comprehensive tenth commandment against coveting.
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.” (Exodus 20:17)
The use of the male pronoun here is deliberate and instructive, as the prohibition is directed against men who would take another man’s property – be it his house or his ass or his wife or any of his slaves (manservants or maidservants).
We don’t live in that kind of world any more (thanks be to God) – a world where men own women and where men and women own other men and women – and while I’m not suggesting that this makes the ancient commandments redundant, I am suggesting that we need to do our due diligence before directly applying these mandates to our relationships.
We live at a time when, as a society and as a church, we are being challenged to rethink our understanding of both sexuality and marriage. The church at large has been in the forefront of defending traditional models – maintaining the primacy of heterosexual monogamy to the exclusion of all other forms of relationship – but we who are more evangelically minded (who take the Bible as our starting and ending point in these considerations) recognise that the Bible itself embraces a number of different forms of marriage, and that on the subject of sex, our Scriptures have almost nothing to say.
You’ll have to forgive me if that sounds counter-intuitive. Those who haven’t read the Bible in detail might well assume that it has a lot to say about sex because the church has always had a lot to say about sex, and yet the truth is that both the Christian and Jewish Scriptures have very little to say on the subject of sex at all!
This is particularly obvious when we put the Biblical writings in their historic context and compare what is said in the Bible with the role sex played in competing religions.
When we think of the Hebrew Bible, the battle was always between the God of Israel and the Baals – the gods of the Canaanites. The word ‘Baal’ is somewhat generic in that it can be applied to a variety of gods, but when these Baals were turned into graven images, they were generally depicted as bulls with oversized genitals, as they were always fundamentally fertility gods.
Sex was a divine power in the religion of Baalism in all its manifestations. Hence the common practice of temple prostitution. Baalism was a religion of sex because sex was about life, fertility and abundance, and hence about survival.
The contrast between the religious environment of the Old Testament world and that of the New could not be greater in this respect. While Baalism divinized sex – making it a divine force – the religion of the Ancient Greeks, which dominated the spiritual landscape of the Roman Empire, demonized human sexuality!
It wasn’t just sex, of course, that was considered degenerate in the thinking of the Ancient Greeks. It was all that was fleshly. The goal was to elevate mind and spirit above the flesh and the baser instincts, which led to both misogyny towards women (who were seen as being more fleshly) and, simultaneously, to the promotion of pederasty, where older men would enter sexual relationships with younger men, as this was somehow seen as being more spiritual.
I think it goes without saying that the New Testament doesn’t buy into any of this. Indeed, it may be that St Paul’s statements about homosexual sex were directly targeting this kind of pederasty.
My key point, at any rate, is that whereas the religions of Baalism and Gnosticism either divinized or demonized sex, the Hebrew and Christians Scriptures do neither. In the Bible, sex seems to be regarded as human phenomenon.
Before leaving the world of the Bible, and issues of religion and sexuality in the ancient world, I feel compelled to mention briefly the most disturbing thing that I came across in my research on this subject, and that was the data on Roman religion and sexuality – male cult sexuality in particular – as uncovered by Craig Williams in his book on the ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity1.
You’ll have to forgive me for using a rather explicit term here, but there is no other way of putting it. According to Williams, Roman male sexuality, as enshrined in their ‘cult of virility’ was all about penetration. The Roman male penetrated others – women, other men, children, etc. – but was never penetrated himself because this was how Rome dominated the world. Rome penetrated and dominated others – individuals and countries – but was never penetrated itself.
What makes this so repulsive, in my view, is that it explicitly combines religion with both sex and domination. A religion that combines sex and power is surely the very definition of perversity and spiritual corruption.
If we consider this Roman model alongside the beautiful text of the Song of Songs, the contrast could not be greater.
“O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely ...” My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song of Songs 2:14-16)
Here we read of no relationship of domination but one of beautiful reciprocity and mutual enrichment. The man speaks, the woman speaks, and neither is subordinated to the other, but both share equally in the joy of their romantic engagement.
This love is not a participation in any divine mystery any more than it is the work of the devil. Their love is theirs, and theirs to enjoy – a beautiful embodiment of what it means to be human, and indeed … an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church.
Yes, I’ve come around on this one. Of course, I don’t think the relationship between Christ and His church is about sex but, having said that, I don’t think sex is really about sex either. When done right, I believe sex is about intimacy, and the relationship between Christ and His church is indeed also an intimate one – intimate and passionate.
“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Songs 2:10-13)
Williams, Craig A. (1999). Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 2nd September, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org
“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
That’s not my normal opening prayer for a sermon but I suspect that many of you are familiar with it nonetheless. You may know it as the AA prayer for the NA prayer, as it’s a prayer used regularly by those in 12-step programs. What you may not know (and I didn’t know until I did a bit of research on it) is that the prayer is believed to have been written by theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. The only thing that has always puzzled me about the prayer is why it’s called ‘The Serenity Prayer’ when it’s not really a prayer for serenity!
Well … it is a prayer for serenity, but it’s also a prayer for courage and a prayer for wisdom, with the emphasis really falling on this final petition – ‘grant us the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we cannot change’, and indeed, that’s something worth praying for!
I thought of that prayer this week as I read again King Solomon’s prayer, which is, even more straightforwardly, a prayer for wisdom:
“O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (I Kings 3:7-9)
Wisdom – that’s the focus of the prayer and, frankly, that’s the focus of all of today’s readings, though most obviously with this reading from the Hebrew Scriptures where the newly anointed king Solomon prays for the wisdom needed to govern his people.
Wisdom – I feel that this great theme has been thrust upon me today as a preacher, and it’s probably very appropriate that I do preach on wisdom every now and then because it is a very prominent theme in the Scriptures, especially in the Hebrew Bible where entire books such as Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes have come to be classified as ‘wisdom literature’. Even so, wisdom is not something I generally ever preach on, and this for one extremely solid reason – it’s a very boring topic.
‘Boring’ may not be the first word that comes to mind for you when you hear the word wisdom’, and I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone for whom the Book of Proverbs is their favourite book in the Bible. Mind you, I don’t know anyone for whom Proverbs is their favourite book (or I don’t think I do) and if that is you it probably reflects the fact that we are on quite distinct spiritual tangents.
Mind you, ‘boring’ is not the first word that comes to mind either when you read Solomon’s prayer in the context of the greater story told in these chapters from the first Book of Kings where ‘wisdom’ seems to be all about knowing who you should kill in order to secure your throne!
The beginning of Solomon’s reign was indeed bathed in blood. First, he kills his brother, Adonjiah, which involves him in breaking a vow he has made to his mother. Then he kills both his high priest and the general of his army, demonstrating that, like his father David, he could be a real man of blood!
Is this wisdom? These killings happen before his prayer so perhaps they displayed his lack of wisdom at the time? Perhaps if he’d had more wisdom he would have seen a way of securing his throne that didn’t require him to murder so many people? Either way, this is the business of wisdom, which essentially involves having an understanding of the way the world works. In Solomon’s case that meant understanding the workings of the court and the way power structures operate. In our context the application of wisdom is inevitably more mundane.
I still remember some of the lectures I had back at Moore College on the wisdom literature. I remember enough of them, at least, to remember that amongst the many boring lectures I received there, those were amongst the most boring!
I remember too one year we had a visiting speaker from the US who gave an entire series of evening addresses on the topic of Biblical wisdom literature, and those evening talks were even more boring than the lectures I endured by day!
Mind you, I still remember from those evening lectures how the speaker defined Biblical wisdom for us, as an understanding of the way the world worked, and for some reason I still remember the illustration he gave us.
He told us how he’d been building a cupboard (or something like that) and that he’d discovered that if you hammer a sharp nail directly into wood it tends to split the wood but that if you blunt the nail a little bit first it tends to make an appropriate hole without doing the wood any damage. The great academic had, in fact, composed a proverb on the basis of this insight that ran something like ‘the sharp nail splitteth the wood but the blunt nail goes straight through’. This could indeed be a very useful piece of wisdom to have if you’re trying to build a cupboard, but not withstanding that, if you’re sitting up late trying to endure yet another lecture, it’s still very boring!
Wisdom is an understanding of the way things work – whether it be nails or nature or business or politics – and while that can be boring, the truth is that it is all rather necessary too and, in all honesty, it’s something I personally need a lot more of.
I’m not wanting to pretend that I’m an idiot, but in terms of the serenity prayer that asks for wisdom, peace and courage, I do a lot better at the courage end of that spectrum than the wisdom end. Over the years I’ve shown myself to be pretty good at summoning up courage to jump into a boxing ring or wrestling cage and put my body on the line to fight for some great cause. What I’m realizing now is that I never had the wisdom to know how to make the most of those events. If I had, our work today would probably still be being sustained on the strength of those performances.
I’m pretty good at breaking into detention centres on Manus Island, even if it means almost drowning as I spin around in a disabled boat, trying to escape the local navy. What I’m not so good at is knowing how to use that experience and the knowledge I gained through that experience (and the enormous store of unpublished film footage that we still have) such that we can really make a difference for those poor men.
I’m really good at leaping into warzones in Syria – boxing in the ancient ruins of Palmyra where ISIS held their ghastly executions, and engaging with kids in a part of Homs where suicide bombers had just blown apart half the street. What I’m still learning, and seem to be learning very slowly, is how to use those experiences to make a real and tangible difference in the work of peace.
I really struggle with this. I’m struggling particularly at the moment with the whole ‘Freedom for Julian Assange’ campaign.
I really want to make a meaningful contribution to the man’s freedom, and, of course, It’s not just about the man himself but about the things for which he stands – for freedom of speech, for freedom of the press, for the need to keep private information private but to make public officials publicly accountable for crimes they commit.
All those things are deeply important, I believe, and I’m more than ready to put on my boxing gloves or sneak into a detention centre or parachute into a warzone if that will help. The problem is that none of those things will help. What I need here is not more courage but wisdom.
I had breakfast with Julian’s dad last week and he’s a wise man. He gave me a much clearer understanding of the constraints our politicians are under – those that would like to help Julian.
Apparently, there are a number of politicians who would like to help but they are never totally free to speak out or to act as they please. Even the most senior political figures in our country have very limited options. They have colleagues in the wings, waiting to destroy them if they make the wrong move, and, unlike Solomon of old, they can’t just order an assassin to go and take out those who are limiting their hold on power. For better or worse, our system just doesn’t work like that.
I’ve been focusing on issues particularly close to my own heart, but we face the same need for wisdom in everything we do as a community.
We have a strong and passionate movement in our church, wanting to see refugees and asylum-seekers get a fair go. Even so, it is not always obvious how best to channel that energy. We need wisdom (and guidance).
I believe, likewise, that all of us who are the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill are passionately committed to maintaining an inclusive community where everybody is welcomed, and where everyone, regardless of race, gender, education or orientation is accepted and affirmed, where their humanity is valued. At the same time, we don’t want to unnecessarily alienate ourselves from other sisters and brothers in the broader church community who don’t see eye-to-eye with us on these areas, any more than we want to unnecessarily alienate other faith communities. In other words, we need wisdom as well as passion.
I’m tempted to say that we need a balance, except that the word ‘balance’ normally implies that you have to reduce one side of the equation in order to increase the other. In this case I’m not suggesting that we decrease passion in order to temper it with common sense. On the contrary, we need passion running at full throttle! We just need wisdom running at full throttle too.
That’s how Parish Council meetings are supposed to operate, I think.
I note that this is, in fact, the first time I’ve mentioned the Parish Council in this sermon though I suspect that for many listening the Parish Council has already come to mind more than once over the last ten minutes. I’ve used the word ‘boring’ quite a number of times now, and I think that for some of us the two concepts – ‘Parish Council’ and ‘boredom’ – are so intrinsically linked that you can’t say one without bringing to mind the other. If you fall into that category, don’t feel bad! One of the core themes of this sermon is that mundanity is a vital part of the process.
I’m not really suggesting that all our Parish Council meetings are boring either. They aren’t – not all of them, at any rate, and none of them are boring all of the time. Even so, in my twenty-eight years in this parish I am yet to hear one of the faithful say to me, “Oh, I can’t wait for the Parish Council meeting next week!”
In truth, that is not a criticism. Parish Council meetings aren’t supposed to be like a trip to Luna Park. Wisdom doesn’t work that way. Wisdom is the more softly-spoken sister in the family of faith. She keeps her head down for the most part. She does the maths. She balances the budget. She negotiates quietly. She connects with the right people and earns their trust. She gets the job done.
“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I can never say that prayer without remembering the time I said it at the death-bed of a man named Les who used to live here in Dulwich Hill.
Les had been an alcoholic for many years and yet he got sober and in his later years he devoted his time to working as a boxing trainer with young men, helping to keep his young charges on the straight and narrow. He was a beautiful soul who had an enormous impact on the lives of many people. I buried him more than 20 years ago and yet I still her his name mentioned regularly (and always with great respect).
In his final days his doctor suggested that he lighten up and have a few beers to help relieve the pain. He refused. The doctor said he’d write out the order for the beers on a prescription form, but Les wouldn’t do it. He was a wise man to the end. And so, in his final hours, we stood in a circle around his bed – me with his wife and children – and we all prayed the prayer together.
“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
We need more wise men in this world. We need more wise women. We need more wisdom. Yes, we need passion, daring, charisma, commitment and compassion, but we need wisdom too. We need it in abundance.
Lord God, grant us wisdom, grant us courage, and grant us your peace. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 19th August, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org
I have sinned against the Lord
2 Samuel 12:7-13
“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.””
Thus reads one of the most dramatic attacks on imperial power that we read of in the entirety of the Bible. Nathan the Prophet is railing against the anointed king of Israel – David – in a way that would normally be considered both inappropriate and dangerous for a person in his position. Even so, the faithful king, who had up to this point been extremely unfaithful, is suitably chastened by the words of Uriah and he repents.
The larger dialogue is quite gripping too, I think – beginning, as it does, with Nathan’s parable about the two farmers – one rich and one poor – where the rich guy pillages the flock of the poor guy in order to feed a guest. This is Nathan’s very clever way of getting around King David’s defenses. Rather than confronting him with his crime head-on, Nathan tells David a story that gets him emotionally on-side before revealing that his story is, in fact, a story about him (David), where the king is the villain!
The story is also a good example of the importance of understanding parables in context. If you don’t know the story of David and Bathsheba, and how David had slept with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, and then tried to cover up his role in the pregnancy by trying to get her husband to sleep with her, all of which ultimately led to the murder of the uncooperative husband who, strangely perhaps, chose death over sleeping with his wife. If you don’t know the broader story, the parable won’t make much sense, and perhaps that’s true of other parables too – that we need to understand all of them in context if we are going to understand them at all.
Even so, what makes this passage so memorable is not the academic insights it yields concerning the interpretation of parables. It’s the gut-wrenching nature of the confrontation between the prophet and the king, where David is forced to face squarely what he has done, and where he is given the choice of continuing to behave like an oriental despot by violently silencing his accuser or of accepting responsibility for his actions and turning back to the real power behind the throne in obedience and faith.
Happily, David chooses the latter alternative. Even so, the story doesn’t then resolve into a happy ending. David will be punished nonetheless, but not directly. David will be punished indirectly, through the rape and degradation of his wives and through the death of his soon- to-be-born child, all of which seems extraordinarily unfair on the women and on the child. Even so, there is one line in this story that has always rankled me here even more than the apparent injustices meted out against those who were surely not responsible for David’s transgressions, and that’s the statement made by David himself at the conclusion of this passage: “David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”” (2 Samuel 12:13)
That line always bothered from the first time I read it many, many years ago.
“I have sinned against the Lord” says David. Fair enough, but isn’t that something of an understatement, and doesn’t that rather miserably fail to grasp the full extent of your criminal responsibility? David might indeed have sinned against God, but didn’t he also sin against Bathsheba – the woman whom he raped – and against Uriah – the man whom he murdered?
At the risk of offending anyone who feels impelled to champion the powerless at this point, I want to recognise that questions can be raised concerning the innocence of Bathsheba in her dalliance with David, and even over the possible complicity of Uriah in his own death.
That may sound ridiculous at first, but I read a rather good book recently – ‘Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes – removing cultural blinders to better understand the Bible’ – that focused on the importance of understanding the culture and context in which these Biblical stories take place. The author (Randolph Richards) spent most of his life working as a missionary in remote parts of Indonesia, and he spent some time focusing on this story of David and Bathsheba as he sees it as an archetypal example of where our failure to understand the cultural context leads us to misunderstand the narrative as a whole.
Richards suggests that the story of David and Bathsheba is not a simple tale of royal rape and murder, any more than it is a story of modern-day romance. There would have been no way that Bathsheba, bathing in the nude on her rooftop, would not have been acutely aware that she could be seen clearly from the rooftop of the palace. Nor could she have been unaware of the king’s presence on the rooftop, as he would have been accompanied by a sizeable entourage.
Moreover, Bathsheba’s presence in the royal bed-chamber would never have been a secret between the two adults (whether consenting or non-consenting). Every member of the palace staff would have been fully aware of what was going on, and it is likely too that Uriah would have heard about what had happened long before he returned from the battlefield.
Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, would have been fully aware of what the king was playing at when he encouraged his soldier-on-leave to go home and relax with his wife. He would have recognised straight away that the king was giving him an opportunity to resolve a delicate situation. Uriah’s refusal to play along though makes us wonder what he was playing at. Was it really Uriah’s integrity that stopped him from going along with the king’s plan or was the man hoping to play the king for some greater gain? Was Uriah perhaps looking for money or for some privileged position in the royal household, or was he just stupid?
By saying all this I don’t mean to sanitize the behavior of David, nor suggest that he was not a rapist and a murderer. I’m simply suggesting that all the players in this drama are players.
Having said this, even if no one is completely innocent in this story, that doesn’t really make anybody less guilty either. Whether we think David is guilty of rape, murder, or simply property-theft as the parable suggests, there is no question that David has sinned grievously. And I don’t think that the fact that he is depicted as having sinned against God really makes his victimization of both Bathsheba and Uriah any less serious.
“I have sinned against the LORD.”, says David. “Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned”, he says again in Psalm 51 (verse 4).
Does this mean that Bathsheba and Uriah have been forgotten in the reckoning on David’s transgressions? On the contrary, what I think it means is that the violation of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are things that God takes very personally. To violate them is to sin directly against God!
It has taken me a while to come to this understanding. Initially, when I read this passage, it did seem to me that both David and the prophet Nathan were trivializing David’s crimes against Uriah and Bathsheba by seeing the whole thing as a religious issue. I now see it the other way around – that every crime that we commit against our sisters and brothers in the human family is something that God takes very personally. Conversely, I see too that, from a Biblical perspective, there really is only one sin – idolatry.
If that seems like a crazy or overly-pious thing to say, perhaps that’s because you, like me, have been used to dividing the world into two – distinguishing what is religious from what is secular, the spiritual from the scientific. In reality there is just one world, and every false thing we do in this world is a form of idolatry.
Moses gave us ten commandments, you will remember. Jesus reduced the ten to two – the love of God and neighbour, – but it was Saint Augustine who reduced the two to one – “love, and do what you want”. There was wisdom, I think, in Augustine’s reductionism, for it is true that you cannot love God, whom you cannot see, and not love your brother or sister who you can see (1 John 4:20). In practice, the one does resolve into the other.
Likewise, with idolatry – love’s opposite. To worship the idols is to pursue an abusive and obsessive lifestyle, and to pursue and abusive and obsessive lifestyle is a form of idolatry.
I personally grow more and more convinced that this world is being overtaken by the worship of Molech – the ancient God of the Ammonites. This is the God cited in the Hebrew Bible, most often associated with child sacrifice.
I don’t like to point fingers at other countries and other peoples, but I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the USA, simply because of its size and power, has led the way in the worship of Molech since I’ve been alive. I am not an expert in these sorts of things and I’m happy to be corrected, but I haven’t seen any other country in the last generation that has so consistently sacrificed its children on the altar of war.
I remember hearing an excellent speaker reflecting on the election of Donald Trump at the last US Presidential elections. The speaker held up an iPhone and said “if you become CEO of Apple Corp you might change the colour of these things and you might fiddle with the markets a little but you’ve still got to sell these things because it’s what you do and your existence depends on those sales. Likewise, if you take over as CEO of USA Corp., you’ve got to make war because your economy depends on it!”
If you’re President of the USA, you have to sell weapons and you have to use weapons, and you might decide to downscale military intervention in one part of the world, but you’ll soon have to upscale it somewhere else because you can’t survive except by killing people! You have an economy based on death. If that’s not the worship of Molech, I don’t know what is!
I hope my American friends aren’t taking too great an offence at this because I love the American people and I love the country, and I’m hoping that they’re going to let me back in there the next time I try to visit, though I appreciate that getting into the USA is far from automatic for me now due to the number of recent trips I’ve made to both Iran and Syria.
At any rate, my point is not to target one country and its people, but to recognise the subtle way in which idolatry can overtake an entire culture and country, even when churches and other religious organisations are booming!
You’ll never see a more overtly Christian country than the USA, but this doesn’t mean much, for this was always the way it worked for the prophets as well. When a prophet like Amos or Hosea or Jeremiah went about railing against the people of Israel and telling them that they had abandoned the God of their fathers and were worshipping idols, this didn’t mean that the
people had closed down their synagogues and replaced them with pagan temples with great stone statues in the middle. On the contrary, the orthodox religious system was often booming, and the Bible was being read and hymns were being sung and prayers were being said. It took God’s prophets to come along and say ‘this isn’t Yahweh, the God of your fathers, you’re worshipping. This is Baal’!
If you know your Hebrew Bible, you’re familiar with the term ‘Baal’. It was a generic term, literally just meaning ‘lord’. Accordingly, it was a word that could be applied quite legitimately to worship of the God of Israel, and in the prophecies of Hosea there’s a fair degree of wordplay concerning God’s role as ‘baal’ or ‘lord’. The point is, of course, that it’s never just been about words and names. It has always been about the big picture.
What form of idolatry do we practice in this country? Are we as devoted to Molech as our American cousins? Perhaps not. I suspect that our devotion in this country is focused more on the regular Baals of the Canaanite pantheon.
If you’ve seen images of the Baals of the Ancient Near East, as dug up by archeologists, you know that they are generally depictions of bulls or other animals associated with fertility, often boasting radically oversized genitals. Baal worship hence becomes associated with the divinizing of sex, though the greater goal was always productivity and abundance. Worship of the Baals, in other words, was the spiritualizing of the thirst for sex and money.
“Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned”, says King David (Psalm 51:4)
To see David’s failure as a spiritual issue is in no way to minimise the serious nature of the crimes committed against both Uriah and Bathsheba. It is though to recognise that this story is more than a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting your sex drives get the better of you. It’s an illustration of what happens when an individual and a country loses its focus.
“’Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength’ This is the great and first commandment” (Deuteronomy 6, Matthew 22)
This isn’t just a rule that we are supposed to work at, along with the nine that follow. This is about how we orientate our lives as individuals, and it’s about how we orientate ourselves as a community and how we orientate ourselves as a country.
As we’ve noted numerous times in recent months, Australia was the first country in the world to sign on to the ‘Charter of Compassion’ (in 2010) which extolls the central importance of compassion in our common life. When though we look at our country’s recent treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, what we see is not simply the result of poor policy-making, any more than it is the work of a small group of particularly misguided and morally- compromised politicians. It is rather symptomatic of a country that has lots its focus and forgotten the centrality of compassion, and gone chasing after the Baals instead!
“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.” (Joshua 24:15). These were the words of Joshua to the people of Israel, challenging them to regain their focus as a community.
This is the big question. This is always the big question confronting us all, every day, as individuals and as a community and as a country – which God will we serve? Behind every sin and failure, great and small, behind every war and death in custody, this is the question.
“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served … or the gods of the Amorites … But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 5th August, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org
“So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.” (2 Samuel 6:12-16)
You could be forgiven to asking why I’ve chosen to preach on this ancient story of David’s adventures with the Ark when the rostered Gospel reading for today was on the beheading of John the Baptist – a far more sultry tale.
The truth is that I am preaching in the death of John the Baptist, but I couldn’t resist starting with our reading from the Hebrew Bible as I see an important connection between the two stories, and the connection is not the dancing!
Yes, in both these stories people dance, and in both stories the dancers seem to be scantily clad, but that’s about where the similarities end. David’s performance (at least according to David’s own interpretation) was a deeply spiritual affair – an early attempt at liturgical dance, perhaps – whereas Salome’s dance seems to have been far more carnal in intent.
It’s not the dancing. The common thread I see between the two passages – the story of David and the ark, and the story of the death of John the Baptist – is that in neither case is it obvious what spiritual truth we are supposed to get from the story.
If you are a person of faith like me, you probably believe, as I do, that these stories were not simply given to us as good yarns to keep us entertained on cold Sunday mornings. The stories are part of God’s word to us, and God speaks to us through these stories. And, so I ask you, what is God saying to us through the David story?
The standard evangelical position in this regard is that what God is saying to us is whatever the original author of the text intended to say to us. That doesn’t solve the issue but it does reframe the question: ‘What is the author of this story trying to say?
Is the moral of this story that all of us should strip down and dance before the Lord? That’s one possible interpretation of the author’s intent, and that would certainly be a challenging conclusion to draw from the passage.
If we do take this message away from the passage and if we do try to be faithful to it, the results will probably be mixed. There would be some members of our church community who could quite likely grow the church through such performances. There would be others though, like myself, who would doubtless drive people away!
In truth, I don’t think this passage is a veiled exhortation to dance, or even a more general exhortation to honour the Lord in the best way that you can. If you ask the scholars what they think the author was trying to convey in this passage, interestingly, the consensus is that the author is trying to let us know that no descendent of Saul is ever going to be king of Israel again!
That message might not be immediately obvious, but the clue, apparently, is in the final verse (2 Samuel 6:16) regarding Michel, daughter of Saul and one of David’s wives, who we are told “despised him in her heart” when she saw David dancing.
The immediate sequel to this is that Michel and David have a shouting match over the incident, the result of which is that David cuts her off and, we are told, she remains childless to the day of her death! (2 Samuel 6:23)
Thus begins what scholars call the ‘Succession Narrative’, the main theme of which is the question of ‘who will be the successor to the throne of David?’ That’s certainly how Leonard Rost understood it, at any rate, in his seminal book of 1926 “The Succession to the Throne of David”.
From Rost’s perspective, the incident with Michel begins the process whereby potential claimants to the Davidic throne are gradually eliminated, one by one. No descendant of Saul (via Michel) will ever be on the throne. That is settled here. Subsequently, as we are told about the internecine rivalry between David’s children, others are gradually eliminated – Amnon, who rapes his half-sister is then killed by his half-sister’s full-brother, Absalom, who is also eventually killed. Then we have David’s affair with Bathsheba which produces a son, Solomon, and so, gradually, the succession narrative is resolved. That’s how the scholars generally see it, anyway.
My point is that if, in order to understand what God is trying to say to us in these stories, we need to understand what was on the mind of the original author, it’s not always immediately obvious. Who would have thought, initially, that this story about David and the ark was really, primarily, a story about succession to the throne?
Perhaps Leonard Rost is wrong, of course. That’s possible. Perhaps the author of this story in the second book of Samuel wanted to convey multiple things to us. That’s all possible. Either way, my point is that if God’s message to us in these passages is tied to authorial intent then God’s word to us is not always obvious.
I have exactly this problem with the story of the death of John the Baptist as recorded in Mark 6. It’s a gruesome tale, full of colour and vibrance, and great material for a movie, but what is the author trying to say to us through this story?
“When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mark 6:22-25)
What is God trying to say to us through this story? What is on the mind of the author who gives us this story? It’s not immediately obvious. I don’t think anybody has interpreted this passage as an exhortation to dance, though it could be seen as a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of dancing.
‘Don’t let what happened to Herod happen to you! Don’t get drunk and invite your partner’s daughter from a previous relationship to dance lest, in your drunken and lustful stupor, you make promises to commit acts of violence that you’ll later regret!’
That’s a warning that I’m sure we could all take to heart, though I frankly doubt that many of the first readers of this story (or many of us) are really in much danger of following in the path of Herod.
The more obvious explanation as to why this account is given is as a record of the Baptist’s death for his many followers. We know that John had many followers. Even as the Apostles go out preaching the resurrection, they come across followers of the Baptist. No doubt all of them wanted know what happened to their beloved master.
It would make sense to give a detailed record of the Baptist’s death. What makes less sense though, if the author of our story was really writing his account for the disciples of the Baptist, is why he gives so little detail about John and so much detail about Herod and the horrible machinations of his court.
This story from Mark chapter six is not actually a story about John. It’s a story about Herod, Herodias, and Herodias’ daughter, Salome. If you’ve seen the movie version, the only appearance John makes in this story is as a prop. Herod, Herodias and Salome all have speaking parts in this scene. John says nothing.
I guess it’s obvious why John says nothing as he doesn’t have a head, and maybe the author of the Gospel knew nothing about John’s final days or any last words that he might have said. In that case though, was it really necessary to give all the gruesome detail about Herod, the dance, and the platter?
When I consult the scholars again I find, as I suspect, that this narrative is not generally understood as being primarily a story about John at all. Neither though is the author really trying to focus us on Herod or Herodias, let alone Salome. According to the scholars, the author is really trying to say something about Jesus!
The link is made at the beginning of today’s story:
“King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (Mark 6:14-16)
Technically speaking, there are two passion narratives in the Gospel of Mark. The key one that we are most familiar with concerns the suffering and death of Jesus. This is the other one. The suffering and death of John prefigures the suffering and death of Jesus. Though they are obviously distinct, both are stories of humiliation, of the abuse of power, and of the lethal nature of the system.
John, as a prophet of God, was persecuted and suffered. Jesus, a prophet of God, would also be persecuted and suffer. Elijah, who also gets a mention, had his own history of persecution, of course, as did all the ‘prophets of old’, mentioned at the beginning of our passage. This, I think brings us to the heart of the message the author is trying to convey – namely, that the path of a prophet is a path of suffering.
Whether it be John or Jesus or Elijah or one of the prophets of old, you can’t speak the word of God without confronting the system, and you can’t confront the system without paying a price.
Some you may have heard the one-hour interview I gave last Monday as a part of the #Unity4J online vigil for Julian Assange. The vigil was made up of thirty-six one- hour interviews with a whole series of people, of which I was the final one!
I was glad to have the last spot, partly because it meant I got to close the vigil in prayer, but mainly because it meant I didn’t have to get up too early on Monday. I didn’t realise though until I saw list of the other participants afterwards what an esteemed group I had been a part of. Amongst the others interviewed were people like Cynthia McKinney, Chris Hedges, George Galloway, Ciaron O’Reilly, Caitlin Johnstone, Ray McGovern, Peter Van Buren, and Daniel Ellsberg.
If you don’t know all those names, you likely recognise some of them. They are politicians and journalists and former intelligence officers, all of whom, for one reason or another, at some stage, spoke out against the system, and all of whom, I think, if they haven’t been imprisoned have been threatened with imprisonment!
It was a great privilege for me to see my name listed in that group, but sobering at the same time, of course. I’m not suggesting that any of these activists, nor Julian, are Christ-figures, but they do have this in common with the group listed in our Gospel reading today – Jesus, John, Elijah and the ‘prophets of old’ – that they all spoke out against the system, and they all paid a price for doing so.
This, I believe, is at the heart of what the author of our Gospel reading intends to convey to us in today’s story – that the path of the prophet is a path of suffering – indeed, simply that faithfulness to God and to Jesus inevitably leads to persecution.
This, of course, has been such a common theme in our Scripture readings lately that you’d be forgiven for finding it all a little repetitive. We’ve had Saint Paul hammering away, week after week, telling us how it’s all the pain that he’s endured that shows the integrity of His discipleship, as Jesus Himself has talked repeatedly about how the Son of Man must suffer.
I think the Scriptures keep repeating all this to us because it is so counter-intuitive that we are likely to forget it unless we are constantly reminded. There is something elemental in us that says, ‘if you are doing the right thing, things will go well for you’. That just seems so logical and almost the essence of how good religion should work.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that God never rewards those who are faithful. Even so, what the Scriptures keep reminding us is that the opposite is also true – that the faithful struggle – and that if you are genuinely true to God and to Christ, you are going to get yourself into trouble. Things will go wrong for you.
I do believe that this is at the heart of what the author of Mark’s Gospel intends to convey to us in this story. Even so, I won’t take it to heart if you prefer to interpret this narrative, and the story of David and the ark, as being s simple guides on good and bad ways to dance.
In truth though, uncovering God’s word in Scripture requires more than diligent thought and academic prowess. It also requires courage. For ultimately our Scriptures point us not only to timeless truths about the universe but to things about ourselves that we might not want to face, and they bring us to Jesus, who is both a wonderful and a frightening person to meet.
first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on July 15th, 2018
“I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-5)
And if you think that sounds bizarre, did you catch the story that made the MSN news page this week – “Priest Kicks Family Out of Church Before Mom’s Funeral”
The story was about the parish priest of Saint Mary’s Church in Charlotte Hall, Maryland (USA) – a Father Michael Briese – who apparently got so upset with the congregation who had gathered for the funeral of the late Agnes Hicks that he threw the entire gathering (reportedly, some hundreds of people) out of the church building and on to the street, such that the family had to carry the casket with them as they looked for somewhere else to hold the funeral!
Apparently, the problem was that a family member knocked over Father Briese’s chalice! “That’s when all hell broke loose”, said the deceased’s daughter. The priest “literally got on the mic and said, ‘there will be no funeral, there will be no mass, no repass, everyone get the hell out of my church.’”
I know people think I can be embarrassingly extreme in way I box and prance about sometimes but, take encouragement, I have yet to do anything quite as extreme as that! Of course, nobody has knocked over my chalice yet either, so who knows?
There was a great quote from the funeral director too, who claimed that “Briese was calling the funeral attendees “crackheads, prostitutes and thieves. I’ve been a funeral director for 30 years”, he said, “and I have never experienced anything like that.”
He needs to get out more, doesn’t he? He’s been living far too long in the refined environs of Charlotte Hall, Maryland. Church leaders haven’t always been well-groomed, genteel, and softly spoken, which, of course, brings me back to Saint Paul.
I’m not suggesting that St Paul made a habit of throwing people out of his church, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he did do that occasionally. Most certainly he had a penchant for coming out with statements that you never saw coming, and today’s reading is surely one of them – “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.” (2 Corinthians 12:2). Where did that come from?
Now, I know that most of us are probably familiar with this passage and so we’ve always associated this statement with Saint Paul. Even so, if we didn’t know it was Paul, and if you just heard someone read that to you, not knowing who had said it, what would you think? You’d probably assume these were the words of a Hindu mystic, wouldn’t you? Where is the ‘third heaven’ anyway? I thought there was only one? And since when did the Apostle start having out-of-body experiences?
I tried to read this passage as if seeing it for the first time. My first thought was ‘could this really be Saint Paul?’ to which came the obvious reply, ‘of course it is! Anyone wanting to imitate Saint Paul would not say something so out-of-character!’
Or perhaps it isn’t out of character for Paul to speak of bizarre experiences of the numinous and the holy? After all, he refers numerous times to his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus – an ecstatic experience that completely changed his life. This was another life-changing religious experience. Perhaps he had a lot of them? Even so, why talk about them here? Indeed, why talk about them at all if they were purely private affairs that nobody else would ever be able to understand?
This bizarre act of sharing is followed by what is possibly an even more bizarre and more personal revelation from Paul, where he talks about his ‘thorn in the flesh’.
“to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
What is he talking about? Even more so than before, Paul is deliberately vague.
Christian people have speculated for thousands of years over what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ really was. It was, he says, literally, “an angel of Satan sent to beat me up”, but what does that mean?
Some suggest, rather mundanely, that it was his poor eyesight that was the issue, but that hardly explains why he spoke about his problem in such veiled terms. Others have suggested that perhaps he suffered from epilepsy, which would indeed have been a deeply embarrassing condition for a man in his position and might well have been the expected outcome of all the hits he took to the head.
Others suggest that his struggle was with his sexuality. I think even Calvin saw it that way. Calvin paraphrases Paul “to me has been given a goad to jab at my flesh, for I am not yet so spiritual as to be exempt from temptation according to the flesh.”
If Paul did struggle with his sexuality or with his sexual identity, that could explain a lot of things, including why he was so reluctant to talk about his struggle openly. The bottom line though is that we don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, and so we have this bizarre testimony where Paul is sharing with us something that is deeply personal, but which is so personal that he can’t actually tell us what it is!
Now … I appreciate that if the role of the preacher is to help people understand the Scriptures, you might be feeling rather dissatisfied at this point. You could be forgiven for expecting that a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12 might help you understand what Paul was talking about with his mysterious visit to the third heaven, and that I might help to shed some light on what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ really was.
I confess that when it comes to understanding exactly what Saint Paul was talking about here, I haven’t got a lot of wisdom to offer. I do think that I’m on firmer ground though when it comes to understanding why Paul said what he said, and I think the ‘why’ question, in this case, may be even more significant that the ‘what’.
This dialogue is part of Paul’s attempt to defend himself against his many enemies by displaying his spiritual credentials. Paul had a lot of enemies. Indeed, he had so many that he must have wondered sometimes whether he had any real friends.
Paul probably managed to make enemies of all of the Jewish peers that he’d grown up with and studied the Torah with. If most of his fellow Jews hated him, it was the Romans who eventually killed him, so he didn’t have many friends there either. The opponents we read about most of the time though in his letters are his Christian enemies, and that’s where I suspect it hurt him the most.
As we find him here, Paul is battling for the hearts and minds of the church in Corinth against fellow Christians, and while he doesn’t name names in this letter he does use a sarcastic term to refer to his opponents in this same chapter of his second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul refers to them as the ‘super-apostles’.
“I have been a fool! You forced me to it. Indeed, you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.” (2 Corinthians 12:11)
The term ‘super-apostles’ is a disturbing one, as when the word ‘apostle’ is used in the Gospels, we know exactly who it is referring to. It’s referring to one of the twelve disciples, and the term is generally used only of the twelve disciples.
In the Gospels there were only twelve Apostles. After the death of Judas there were only eleven which was why they drew lots to elect a replacement (Matthias) and bring the number back to twelve. Even so, they were a deliberately fixed group made up of persons who had lived and moved with Jesus during his earthly ministry.
Paul would later claim that he too was an Apostle since he too had met with Jesus (on the road to Damascus), but since this happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus you can understand why some people responded to Paul’s claim to be an Apostle by saying, “well … yeah … sorta”.
We need to appreciate the situation this created for the first Christians in Corinth. They had discovered Jesus and they wanted to follow Jesus but none of them had met Jesus in the flesh or heard his words first-hand. Hence, when the community was unsure as to how best to follow Jesus, what did they do? They couldn’t refer to the Gospels because they hadn’t been written. The best recourse they had was to talk to someone who had been with Jesus during His earthly ministry and had heard what He’d had to say first-hand. In other words, they looked for an Apostle.
Paul – whether those he was arguing with at Corinth were people claiming to represent the twelve in Jerusalem, or whether they really were Peter and James and John in the flesh – Paul did experience an ongoing tension with the twelve Apostles, and that must have made it almost impossible for him to have an effective ministry.
The issue, of course, was always the same. The issue was how inclusive the church of Jesus Christ was supposed to be. I’m sure that, in theory, everybody (even the super-apostles) agreed that the church’s doors were open to everybody. In practice though, Paul believed that his opponents wanted a church for Jews only, where non-Jews were treated as second-class citizens, and that wasn’t good enough.
One of things I most admire about the great German saint, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was how early he drew the line when the Nazis started to exert their influence in Germany a century ago. When the church ruled, in 1933, that Jews were no longer allowed to be ordained as Christian priests. Bonhoeffer said, “the church that does not ordain Jews is not the church of Jesus Christ”, and there he took his stand.
It’s exactly the stand Saint Paul took. Of course, Bonhoeffer’s opponents would have said that the church was not rejecting Jews but only barring them from ordination. Bonhoeffer would have nothing of that. There were no second-class citizens in the church of Jesus Christ, which was exactly what Saint Paul was saying of non-Jews!
The issue doesn’t have to be race. The church has a long history of making second-class citizens of people, and we continue to do so today, regularly, on the basis of gender and/or sexuality! In whatever form it comes, the church that excludes people is not the church of Jesus Christ! As both Paul and Bonhoeffer and others have discovered though, this is never an easy truth to proclaim.
The thing I love about Saint Paul was that he stuck to his guns! Despite everything, Paul never backed down on his belief in the inclusiveness of the church of Jesus. When you think about the things that Paul had to battle with, this was incredible!
Paul had to fight against everything he’d been brought up with – with his belief in the Jews as God’s chosen people, where there was no place for the ‘uncircumcised’. Paul had to rethink and reinterpret all of that.
Secondly, he had to deal with the emotional pain of being a traitor to his own tribe. Little doubt Paul’s Pharisaic family would have disowned him, and who knows what happened to his first marriage?
Finally, having left his Jewish tribe and joined the Christian tribe, Paul must have never felt fully accepted there either. I don’t think he ever entirely resolved his issues with ‘the twelve’, and yet he continued to push for an inclusive understanding of the life and ministry and teachings of Jesus, even though, prior to the cross and resurrection, Paul had never met Jesus, and Paul must sometimes have felt, deep down, that compared to the original twelve Apostles, he was radically underqualified to give the final word on Jesus, even with all his intense spiritual experiences.
Some years ago, I read an excellent book by Steven Pressfield, entitled “Do the Work”, where the author suggests that we have two great assets in life – stubbornness and stupidity.
We like to call them ‘daring’ and ‘persistence’ or use other similarly noble terms but Pressfield suggests that we call them what they are – the stupidity to attempt things that we should never attempt, and the stubbornness to persist with them, despite the fact that common sense is screaming at us to give up.
What was it that empowered Saint Paul to display such an extraordinary degree of stubbornness and stupidity? According to his own account, it seems that he had some deep experiences of Jesus (whether in the body or out of the body, who knows) – experiences that empowered him for the long haul.
May God give us grace to enjoy similarly deep experiences of Jesus, so that we might be empowered to be as stupid and as stubborn as was the blessed Apostle.
first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on July 8th, 2018