A big thank you to Jonathan Barrett (the journalist) and Jill Gralow (the videographer) who put this piece together.
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A big thank you to Jonathan Barrett (the journalist) and Jill Gralow (the videographer) who put this piece together.
powered by Advanced iFrame free. Get the Pro version on CodeCanyon.
“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”” (John 21:15-19)
It’s the third Sunday in Eastertide, and so we find ourselves back on the beach with Peter and the remaining eleven Apostles.
Easter is the defining event of the Christian faith and so it makes sense that on these Sundays following Easter we deal each year with the same familiar Biblical texts that encapsulate our core beliefs and values.
Easter Day is our celebration of hope – the hope of resurrection and our hope for the victory of light over darkness. On the Sunday after the resurrection we focus on faith as seen in the story of ‘doubting’ Thomas. This week – the third Sunday of Easter – our theme is love; the love of Jesus and the love of Peter for Jesus – as played out in this scene on the beach.
I don’t know if you have a favourite Easter story or favourite Easter image. I think when it comes to warm and sentimental Biblical images, Christmas tends to have something of a monopoly – images of the baby on the manger, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men …
When it comes to Easter, Christian art has focused almost exclusively on the cross rather than the resurrection, which is understandable perhaps, but leaves us with a bit of a dearth of warm and winsome Easter images. For me, this story from John’s Gospel, with Jesus asking Peter if he loves Him, and Peter swearing passionately that indeed he does love Jesus, fills that gap. The curious thing is that the passage seems to have originally been no more than an appendix to the Gospel narrative!
I heard one commentator refer to this story in John chapter twenty-one as the ‘encore’ to John’s Gospel, and indeed, if you read the end of the preceding chapter, you’ll see that it’s quite clear that the author was concluding the story there:
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
End of story, applause, the author takes a bow, walks off stage and then, as the applause continues, walks back on and says, ‘ok, just one more story’.
In truth though, it’s not likely that this story was added in response to the adulation of the crowd. The end of chapter twenty-one itself suggests that there was some confusion in the early church over whether Jesus had said to the Apostle Peter that the Apostle John was going to live to see Him return. This supplementary story was clearly designed, at least in part, to put that controversy to rest by pointing out that this was not exactly what Jesus had said. I wonder too though if this story wasn’t also included to resolve certain controversies surrounding Peter, who strikes me as the most elusive figure in the history of the early church.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in this field, but I think that if you were reading through the New Testament for the first time and had just finished the four Gospels, and had no idea as to what followed in the book of the Acts of the Apostles or what was said in the various letters that filled out the book, I think you’d be justified in assuming that Peter would feature pretty strongly in just about all of it.
“Upon this rock I will build my church” says Jesus of Peter (Matthew 16:18), and on the basis of that powerful commission our Catholic sisters and brothers have always designated Peter as the first Pope.
Peter was first amongst the Apostles – surely? Did not Jesus Himself made that clear? Peter was the rock upon which the church would be built, the hinge upon which it would swing! The only problem with this is that the history of the early church, as recorded in the rest of the New Testament, doesn’t really bear this out!
When it comes to church leadership, it seems that James, the earthly brother of Jesus, seems to have been the official head of the church in Jerusalem, and when it comes to leadership within the churches outside of Israel, there can be no doubt at all that the leading figure there wasn’t Peter but Saint Paul!
What happened to Peter? He was obviously active, and he did indeed contribute a few letters that are included near the end of the New Testament. Even so, in these early records Peter does not shine forth as the rock upon which the early church was built. He seems to be more in the background most of the time. What happened?
Was Peter involved in some controversy that forced him to pull back from taking a leading role in public ministry, or did he die early on?
Of course, those who know the ‘Quo Vadis’ story know that tradition has Peter meeting Jesus on the road to Rome where the early church was being persecuted, after which Peter follows Jesus back to Rome to suffer martyrdom with his sisters and brothers. Even so, most historians would consider this as a ripping yarn rather than real history. The truth is, we really don’t know what happened to Peter!
The other really perplexing thing about Peter is the question of what happened to the story of his initial meeting with Jesus after the resurrection.
St Paul says of Jesus in his first letter to the church at Corinth, “that he first appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5). Clearly this was well known in the early church – that Peter was the first of the male Apostles to meet with Jesus after the resurrection – and yet we have no surviving written record of this meeting. What happened to it?
I think it’s generally assumed that this is what is missing at the end of the Gospel of Mark.
If you’re familiar with Mark’s Gospel, you’ll know that it is unique amongst the Gospel narratives in that it has no resurrection story at all – at least, not in its current form – or rather, that it has two or three different resurrection narratives in its current form.
Most scholars believe that Mark was the first of the four Gospels written, and with the oldest versions of that oldest Gospel story that we have, they end surprisingly abruptly.
After Jesus’ female disciples discover the empty tomb, we are told: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) THE END
This is hardly likely to be the way Mark intended to end his story about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The general assumption is that the original ending to Mark’s Gospel has been lost.
In its place you’ll find some other early resurrection narratives. They generally find a place in our versions of the New Testament as footnotes. Even so, the general assumption amongst scholars is that the original ending of the Gospel has been lost, and most of us assume that this original ending must have included the story about that early meeting between the resurrected Jesus and Peter.
It’s mysterious! How could such an important Gospel narrative get lost? Did something really embarrassing happen in that first meeting between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection, such that Peter (or some of his influential supporters) made sure that this story was left out when the Gospel was reproduced? That’s hardly likely, is it, as you couldn’t get much more embarrassing than what is included!
Did Peter perhaps get involved in another scandal of sorts, such that the bulk of the early church decided not to distribute some of the early stories that included Peter? That doesn’t sound likely either, does it?
The problem is that it’s hard to come up with any plausible explanation as to why anyone would want to deliberately lose the original ending of Mark’s Gospel. All we do know is that Mark has no ending whereas John apparently has two endings, and I think it is quite plausible that this extra ending in John, which was quite possibly published half a century after Mark’s Gospel, is there in part to make up for what had gone missing.
Now, you’ll have to forgive me if this sermon has thus far sounded like a lecture on Biblical literary criticism. I appreciate that while those of us who have been studying the Bible all our lives do get interested in all these questions about which Gospel was published first and why some bits are included and others are left out. I appreciate too though that if you’ve tuned in because you’re grieving and you’re searching for spiritual strength and peace, this sort of discussion about the dating of manuscripts and the construction of narratives can seem pretty dry. If that’s you, my request is that you bear with me just a little longer.
The point I want to make is that if the first of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the original group of twelve disciples takes place with Peter, isn’t it interesting that the last chapter of the last of the Gospels written also deals with a post-resurrection meeting between Jesus and Peter.
I think this is Peter’s epitaph, given to us by his friend, John. Whatever happened to Peter during those years when he stepped back from centre-stage in the early church, this is how the Gospel writer wanted him to be remembered.
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
It’s an intense and beautiful yet painful dialogue between Jesus and Peter. Repeating the question three times was an obvious allusion to the three times that Peter had denied knowing Jesus, just prior to the crucifixion. Jesus surely intended Peter to see that connection and the fact that Peter gets emotional the third time he is asked, confirms that Peter doesn’t miss the point.
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s affirmations of love with the words ‘I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you’. Perhaps that dialogue of forgiveness and reconciliation was what took place in their first post-resurrection meeting. What Jesus does here is rather to commission Peter again. He appoints Peter once again to the role of tending and feeding the sheep – of extending the love he has for Jesus to the members of the community of faith who need that love.
And then we get that chilling prophecy:
“when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)
And John adds, “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.” (John 21;19)
Despite, John’s comments, it’s not exactly clear what kind of death is being referred to here, except that it would not have been a natural death. When Jesus says “someone else will dress you” does He mean that Peter will be dressed in animal skins before being fed to the lions, or does the image of him stretching out his hands simply mean that his hands will be tied as he’s led towards the block?
Either way, the image is chilling, and I can never read it without remembering Henri Nouwen’s reflection on this prophecy – that the fate of Peter is really the fate of every follower of Jesus. Nouwen believed that this image encapsulated the path towards spiritual maturity – a process wherein we increasingly stretch out our hands and submit ourselves to Jesus, who leads us into places where we do not want to go.
For Peter, as for Jesus Himself, this path of suffering is the flipside of his love. Jesus suffers because He loves us. Peter likewise will suffer because he loves Jesus.
‘Do you love me, Peter? Do you love me? Do you love me?’
‘Yes, Lord. You know that I love you. You know that I love you.’
This is Peter’s epitaph. These are the last words written in the last Gospel about a man about whom so much is said but about whom much is also left unsaid. The final word on Peter is given to the Gospel writer John. Peter was a man who loved Jesus.
Let this be our epitaph too. Whatever else they say of us – that we struggled, that we failed, that we displayed all the weakness known to the human condition – let this be said of us too, that in the end we loved Him.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 5th of May, 2019.
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”
(Julian of Norwich)
I can’t remember when I first heard those words of Lady Julian of Norwich. I think they were first read to me by my mother. What I remember more clearly is the number of times I’ve repeated them to myself when times are dark.
It may be that I have a penchant for the darkness and that I just need to work at becoming more of a glass-half-full kind of guy. Even so, I know for myself that whenever I’m lying awake at night, trying to get to sleep, the memories that come sneaking into my consciousness are almost never of the wonderful times I’ve spent with my children. They’re always memories of darker events.
How many times have I lied awake reliving the time my eldest daughter was almost drowned when she was only little, or remembering the deaths of my mother and father, or remembering the time I was mobbed by settlers outside Ashkelon Prison in Israel, or reliving my time spiraling around helplessly in a dinghy amongst the coral reefs off Manus Island in the pitch darkness.
Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps most of you, if you have trouble getting to sleep at all, lie awake remembering your first kiss, or the moment your first child was born, or the day when you won your first boxing match? Is it just me?
I don’t think it is just me. I think we all have a bit of a penchant to focus on the negative, and I wonder if that isn’t in part the reason that the church too, very early on, took as its symbol the cross rather than the rolling stone.
I’ve only ever met one person in my life who was trying to buck that trend. I met him in the Salvation Army Men’s Home in Surry Hills, back in the day where I was working as a volunteer with what was then the Sydney City Mission, and I was helping bus homeless men around to help them find somewhere where they could eat and shower and sleep. I still remember this big, burly Salvo guy showing me his tattoo of a rolling stone.
He said “I don’t know why Christians want images of the cross on their bodies. The cross is about suffering and death. I’m focusing on resurrection and life.”
That made a lot of sense to me at the time, and yet I can’t pretend that I’ve ever really taken it to heart, and neither have I ever seen a church that has. Even if we don’t go as far as our Catholic sisters and brothers, with images of bleeding hearts featured in all our artworks, we continue to decorate our buildings with crosses rather than rolling stones.
Are we all just a bit too morbid? Certainly, there are preachers out there who suggest that, and tell us that it’s time we made the ‘Good News’ good again.
These are generally the preachers you see on late-night TV, broadcasting from their own dedicated cable network somewhere in the USA, talking about the power of positive thinking, interspersing their presentation with lots of Bible verses, and invariably ending with a request to dig deep.
I don’t mean to bad-mouth these people. Nor am opposed to positive thinking, but the truth is that the New Testament itself is just not that positive, is it?
Am I wrong?
Most of you will know that I still have most of my theological library left in the old rectory building next door to the church, simply because there’s no room for all of my old books in the building that is the current rectory.
One of the books that I left in there, and which any of you are welcome to take home if you can find it, is a book I purchased many years ago from one of these American evangelists. I simply couldn’t resist it at the time.
It’s called “The Positive Bible”, and it was sold with the promise that you’d get “all the good stuff and nothing else”. It’s not the whole Bible, of course, and indeed, the sales page promised that you could read the whole thing in about an hour! That tells us something, as the Bible I’m familiar with cannot be read in about an hour, or even in a couple of hours. Obviously, a lot was left out!
In as much as I accept that there is a power in positive thinking, the Scriptures that have been handed down to us are not all sweetness and light, and I’m not simply thinking about all the wars and violence we find in our Old Testament. The stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus are probably the most imbalanced of the lot!
Look at the Gospel of Mark – generally believed to be the first of the Gospels written. It reads like a crucifixion narrative with an extended introduction. Mark doesn’t even really have a resurrection narrative. It ends with an empty tomb and with the disciples running about scared, not sure what to do next.
Mark is the most extreme example of the four Gospels, but in each case the story of Jesus’ death is a lengthy narrative, whereas the resurrection accounts are sketchy and leave a great number of questions unanswered.
The irony of this is that it surely should have been the other way around, as the death of Jesus was something that happened really quickly. There they were one night – Jesus and His disciples all having dinner together – and within twenty-four hours Jesus had been betrayed, tried, flogged and killed!
The resurrection saga, on the other hand, was a much more drawn-out affair. No one actually saw the resurrection happen, and it took a good while for the penny to drop with some people that Jesus really was back on the scene.
You’d think that this would make for a lengthy whodunnit-style detective novel where the disciples gradually put all the pieces back together and work out exactly what had happened to Jesus. No! Most of the pieces are left on the table. It’s the crucifixion that gets all the attention. Why is that?
I think to answer that we again need to think about how memory works – how we remember things and why we remember things, as the New Testament really is just the collective memory of the first followers of Jesus.
I read an interesting book recently by David McRaney, entitled “You are not so Smart”, in which the author went to some length to highlight what a volatile piece of machinery the human memory is.
We tend to think of memories as being like videos that are filed away in our minds – videos that we can pulled out at any time and played again to help us relive a past experience in all its detail. The truth is, McRaney says, that you can’t recall a memory without reshaping it.
I don’t know if you remember at little while back that we used to have different sorts of DVD’s that we could use to back up the hard drive on our computer. There was the read/write DVD where you could write information to the DVD as well as read information from it, and there was the read-only DVD, where you couldn’t write to the disk but only read from it.
The point I remember being made in this book was there no is such thing as ‘read-only memory’ when it comes to the human mind. You can’t read it without writing to it. You can’t recall memories without reshaping them.
This is why nobody is likely to say anything bad about you at our funeral. It won’t simply be that people are being nice (though hopefully they will be nice). It will also though be because the reality of your death will inevitably change the memories people have of you. Your friends will forget most of your bad points when you’re gone (if only they could forget them sooner).
Conversely, this is why in marriage breakdowns, estranged couple never have anything good to say about each other. All the good memories from the past are discolored by the pain of the breakup, and you can’t work out now how you ever fell in love with a person with so few redeeming features!
When it comes to the New Testament, the key to understanding the accounts we read of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, I’d suggest, is, similarly, to recognise that the disciples could only think about the crucifixion of Jesus in the light of His resurrection.
If there had been no resurrection, I’m not sure whether many (or any) stories from the life of Jesus would have ever been recorded. Why bother?
Had it not been for the resurrection, I imagine most people would have written Jesus off as a failed revolutionary and have quickly forgotten everything He’d had to say. I imagine they’d look back at all those healing miracles and think ‘I’m not sure now whether those people were as sick as we thought they were’
If it hadn’t been for the resurrection, perhaps some of the parables and wisdom teachings of Jesus might have been remembered, but if Jesus’ life had simply ended in a humiliating torture and death, how wise could He have been? It’s the resurrection that changes all of that.
Because of the resurrection, we see that everything Jesus said was important. Because of the resurrection, we realise that even Jesus’ humiliating death must have had a deeper meaning. It could only have happened because He let it happen, and so you go back over what Jesus said about His death, and you go back over the ancient Scriptures, and you start to reframe the whole experience in order to make sense of it all in the light of the resurrection.
The resurrection of Jesus is the lens through which the New Testament is written, and though which it needs to be read. It’s because of the resurrection that the followers of Jesus can spell out all the gruesome details of the torture and death of Jesus, because they know this is not the end of the story, and this too is why we can boldly take up what was once the symbol or Roman imperial power – the cross – and take it as the symbol of our freedom!
It’s not because the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross suddenly became less gruesome, but in the light of the resurrection, even that has been transformed into a symbol of life!
We tend to think that the past is fixed in historical concrete and that only the present is under our control, but the truth is that the resurrection of Jesus changes the past, the present and the future, and thank God it does, for it’s not only dark memories that come to me at night that bother me nowadays. It’s even more so the things I see when I open my eyes and get up! The ongoing violence in Syria continues to break my heart
On Manus another of our asylum-seeker friends has taken his own life
We see the signs of growing bigotry and intolerance on our own shores
And my friend, Julian Assange, has been arrested and is threatened with life behind bars, explicitly because he exposed war-crimes in Iraq.
Hey, I’ve got enough struggles of my own to deal with! How am I supposed to find the resources and energy to fight these battles too?
A friend of mine wrote to me only yesterday – a friend who is currently on stress-leave – and asked me how I cope with the pressure. I gave him a rather long and convoluted answer, but I think now that I probably should have just given him two words – embrace Easter!
Embrace Easter, and do so not only by listening to the message that the Gospel-writers share, but also do what the Gospel-writers did when they reframed all of life through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ is risen, and that changes everything. If there were only two certainties in life prior to the resurrection of Jesus – death and taxes – now there is only one certainty, and perhaps there are no certainties.
Maybe now, in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, anything is possible! “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” That’s resurrection thinking – thinking about the future in the light of the resurrection of Jesus.
There’s a similar saying that I also often quote too – generally attributed to John Lennon, though it actually goes back to Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho: “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end”. Again, that’s resurrection thinking.
Sisters and brothers, I suspect that most of you are far more balanced people than I am, but if you, like me, struggle with pains from the past and with fears about the future, today is the day to embrace Easter, and be liberated to live in the present! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Love has triumphed. His Kingdom comes.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 21st of April, 2019.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8)
We don’t often see Jesus depicted in scenes of settled domesticity. This is about as close as we get in the New Testament. We are in the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha – three of Jesus’ closest friends – and they’ve organised a special dinner for Jesus. The disciples are there. All Jesus closest friends are there. This is about as close as we get in the Gospels to a family portrait.
I don’t know about you, but I love family dinners. We had one last Friday night, partly in celebration of young Fran’s tenth birthday, though it all happened rather spontaneously.
We ended up at Pancakes at the Rocks in Darling Harbour – Ange and myself and all four children – and we had a lovely time, chatting, laughing and arguing about whether Jordan Peterson is a chauvinistic ratbag or a much-needed counter-balance to the twenty-first century feminist narrative.
In the case of Jesus’ family dinner, we’re not talking nuclear family, of course. If Jesus hadn’t disowned His blood relatives by this stage, He had certainly distanced Himself from them.
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)
Here they are – the mothers, brothers and sisters of Jesus. Some are by now good friends, and those friends are all disciples, and the disciples are all friends, and all are family!
Our Gospel scene today is taken from right near the end of Jesus’ earthly life, so this is a group of old friends. Long gone are the heady days of walking the shores of Galilee, looking for ‘fishers of men’. Long gone are the days of the Baptist and the ‘sermon on the mount’. These people have been living with each other for three years now. They are an established family. How would you describe this family of Jesus? ‘Dysfunctional’ is the first word that comes to mind for me.
I guess it depends on which part of the narrative you focus on, and I was listening to a preachers’ podcast this week where the host said very emphatically that when your congregation hears this passage, their attention will immediately be drawn to the statement of Jesus at the end of the passage – that “the poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8)
The host of the podcast, who is a pastor himself of course, said that this is the verse people always quote back at him when he’s doing a collection for the poor. “Hey, preacher, Jesus said that we’ll always have the poor with us, so what’s the point? I’m not wasting my money on a problem that is never going to go away”.
I suspect that this says more about the congregation that this guy pastors. I think I can say with some confidence that nobody takes that attitude in our community. Having said that, Jesus’ statement does seem jarring.
Just when you think the disciples have finally got the message – that, indeed, we don’t need extravagance and luxury, but that if we have wealth to spare, we should be sharing it with the poor – Jesus comes out with a statement like this!
It may help to know that Jesus is quoting – a quote would have been recognised by those who were with Him. The quote is from Deuteronomy 15:11: The poor you will always have with you”, and the latter part of the verse goes on to say, “Therefore I command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.””
In other words, according to the Deuteronomic code, the enduring reality of poverty means only that we have an ongoing responsibility to be generous.
Jesus is not contrasting the poor, who don’t matter, with Himself, who does. Rather, He’s contrasting the ongoing responsibility we have to the poor with an opportunity that is only going to be there for a moment and needs to be grasped – the opportunity for a special moment of love, as enacted by Mary.
It is Mary who grabs my attention in this passage, and I suspect that’s the case for most of us. She performs an act of love towards Jesus that is extravagant, passionate and intimate, but which also seems really inappropriate as there’s definitely a sexual dimension to it that might make us a little uncomfortable, and which surely must have made some of the others in the room uncomfortable.
“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (John 12:3)
Maybe if she hadn’t done the bit with her hair the scene might be open to a more conservative interpretation, but there’s no getting around the fact that this is exactly what happened. In a day when respectable women covered their heads altogether around men (just as many of our Muslim sisters do today by wearing hijabs) Mary not only let her hair down. She massaged Jesus’ feet with it!
I think that gritty detail is indisputable in this story, though many of the other details are open to dispute, as this story turns up in each of the four Gospel narratives, though with slight variations in each case.
The very fact that this story turns up in all four of the Gospel narratives should make us pause to consider how significant this incident is. Not many aspects of Jesus life make it into all four Gospels.
In terms of the countless miracles of Jesus, only one miracle makes it into all four Gospels – the feeding of the five thousand. The Christmas story (of Jesus’ birth) only turns up in two of the four Gospels. Indeed, there’s only a proper resurrection narrative in three of the four Gospels, but this anointing of Jesus is remembered in detail in all four!
Mind you, in the other three Gospels the woman who does the anointing has no name, and in Luke’s Gospel, she seems to be branded as a sex-worker!
In Luke, the scene takes place in the home of Simon, the Pharisee, and we’re told that “when the Pharisee who had invited [Jesus] saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)
Does this mean that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, was a sex-worker? Surely not? It is possible, of course, that there was more than one anointing, with multiple women letting their hair down but this is unlikely. More likely, I’d suggest, is that the woman who performed this act of love came to be identified as a sex- worker because good girls just don’t do this sort of thing.
There’s no denying that this was a self-consciously sensual act. What was going through Mary’s mind at the time? We have no idea. What does this imply about her relationship with Jesus? Again, we have no idea.
Was Jesus embarrassed by Mary’s actions? Was He gritting His teeth, or at least wishing that she hadn’t done it all quite so publicly? If so, He doesn’t let on. On the contrary, Jesus defends Mary against her detractors, represented by Judas in this case – someone who most definitely is a dysfunctional member of the family.
Interestingly, Judas doesn’t deride Mary for being shameless but for being wasteful, though it’s hard to know exactly what was going through his mind.
The Gospel writer, of course, thinks he knows exactly what was going through Judas’ mind – namely, that Judas was thinking about the money only because he was a thief. I’m guessing though that if Judas had still been around to defend himself when John’s Gospel was written, he might have asked that his questioning of Mary’s extravagance be interpreted a little more generously.
There we have it – this snapshot of the family of Jesus at rest. It’s a bit like one of those pictures you get when you have a family dinner and you ask one of the restaurant staff to take a picture of you all at table so that you can post the image up on Twitter for the whole world to see (something I totally forgot to do last Friday night).
Jesus didn’t have Twitter, of course, and yet this snapshot made it to the top of the social media anyway by getting featured in all four Gospels, and Jesus even predicted how many ‘likes’ Mary would receive.
In Mark’s version of this story (which is probably the first one written), Jesus is recorded as saying “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:9)
In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus goes even further, saying of the woman “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Matthew 26:10), which is something I don’t think Jesus ever says about anybody else ever.
This anointing is clearly a critical moment in the New Testament, as it was clearly a critical moment in Jesus’ family life and a critical moment for Jesus Himself! The question is ‘why?’ What makes this act – as simple and as ephemeral as it was – such a pivotal moment in the greater Gospel narrative? I think the answer may be that this is really the only instance in the Scriptures where one of us – one of the disciples of Jesus – actually tries to give something back to Him!
We are familiar with the New Testament narrative. It’s the story of Jesus, and it’s the story of God’s love for the world, demonstrated for us and made real for us in Jesus, and on the whole, the love-traffic (so to speak) is all one-way.
As the Gospel-writer, John, himself says in his first letter, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) The New Testament is the story of God’s love for us and not a story of our love for God. Yet in this story – in the story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany, one of us does something beautiful for Him!
I think this story is unique in the New Testament. I couldn’t think of any other instance in the Gospels where one of us tries love Jesus back.
There’s the story of the women who go to embalm Jesus’ body post-crucifixion, of course, but that was when Jesus was dead, and people always think well of the dead. This event took place while Jesus was still very much alive and moving, and Mary’s action was risky, and it was flawed, and in many ways it was ‘human, all too human’ (to use Nietzsche’s phrase) yet she was clearly genuine.
Perhaps Mary didn’t really know what she was doing, and maybe she had a lot of confused feelings mixed up inside of her, and I suspect that if she’d told Lazarus or Martha what she was planning on doing (assuming that she did actually plan it) they probably would have tried to talk her out of it. Even so, this intimate and sacrificial action was a genuine pouring out of love for Jesus, and Jesus says, “Leave her alone … She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Matthew 14:6)
Mary is our representative, not because she is the ideal representation of what love for God should look like, Mary is as confused as the rest of us. She is our representative because she was willing to let loose her passion for Jesus.
Welcome of the family of Jesus. Yes, it’s a dysfunctional family in many ways. It’s a family with people like Judas in it – people who say the right thing but whose hearts are far from right – and it’s a family with people like Mary in it – people who do weird and embarrassing things, but whose hearts really are in the right place. And then there’s the rest of us, doing our best to sound as right as Judas but to love as genuinely as Mary. Welcome to the family.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 7th of April, 2019.
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose
blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these
Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this
way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen
who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty
than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will
all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
Thus begins today’s Gospel reading, and in the translation I took this passage from it
included a heading – “Repent or die” – which sums up Jesus’ words here pretty well!
Some of you are here to celebrate a baptism today, and you may well have been
feeling pretty good up to this point. I didn’t pick today’s readings. Perhaps that’s why,
in the early church, baptisms all happened on Easter Day – a day we celebrate life!
Today’s readings centre around death, with people trying to get Jesus to respond to
news about a series of tragic deaths, and the response Jesus offers them seems
tasteless, especially for us in our current context!
I’m thinking of the dialogue about the Galileans in particular here – those “whose blood
Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). Apparently, the Roman governor
had ordered his troops to slaughter a group of worshippers while they were at prayer in the temple, and the image of people being massacred while at prayer is one that is
very raw for us after the terrible shooting at the mosque in Christchurch last week.
All murder is terrible, but slaughtering people at prayer seems particularly barbaric, and it
raises questions for us at a religious level too. How could God allow this to happen?
That may well have been exactly the question these people were putting to Jesus after
they raised the incident with Him, and Jesus’ response – that “unless you repent, you
will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:3) seems to be extraordinarily insensitive.
Jesus’ response to the other tragedy mentioned isn’t any more consoling either – that
of the eighteen people crushed in the collapse of the ‘Tower of Siloam’ (Luke 13:4)
Presumably, this tragedy was just one of those ‘acts of God’ for which no one in
particular was to blame, or perhaps the Tower of Siloam was something like the Opal
Tower in Homebush, where the tragedy may have been due to shoddy workmanship
or the skirting of building regulations or something like that. Either way, the lesson
Jesus derives from this incident – that “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they
did.” (Luke 13:9) – is not one designed to give comfort to those who are grieving.
This is our Gospel reading today. It is not a happy one, and it concludes with a parable
about a fig tree that is equally discomforting.
“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did
not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now
I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down!
Why should it use up the soil?’” (Luke 13:6-7).
‘Give it another year!’, the farmer pleads, and that’s where the story ends. We don’t
know if the landowner decides on a stay of execution for the tree or not. Either way, the
overall message – repent or die – is clear enough, and our newly-baptised member
could be forgiven at this point for wondering ‘what have I just got myself into?’
I’ll state at this point that I never see it as my job to make the words of Jesus palatable
for us. If Jesus’ words were meant to be offensive, it would be wrong of me to try to
sugar-coat them in order to take the sting out. Having said that, a text without a context
is a pretext for a proof-text (as we always say). In other words, if we do want to take these words seriously, we must understand the context in which they were spoken.
What were they really asking – these people who wanted to dialogue with Jesus about the murder in the temple? Were they grieving relatives? Almost certainly not! What then – were they just wanting to engage with Jesus in a bit of theological speculation?
One plausible interpretation of this dialogue is that there’s a political agenda at play.
Pilate is murdering Jews – Jews at prayer! What does Jesus have to say about that?
What is Jesus going to do about that?
I’d suggest that Jesus’ shifting of the discussion from the temple incident to the tower
tragedy (which, we assume, had nothing to do with the Romans) indicates that the
context was not really political but more strictly religious. In other words, these people
were asking the age-old question, ‘why does God allow things like this to happen?’
This is an age-old question. It can also be, I believe, a very dangerous question, as it’s
regularly associated with the process of scapegoating! I’m not suggesting that every
time we ask why something bad happened that we are looking to scapegoat someone.
It is a very human to ask ‘why’. Even so, a lot of the time when we are looking for
answers, what we are really looking for is someone to blame.
When tragedy strikes, be it by the sword of Pilate or by the bricks from a tower or from
a gun fired at a mosque, it can understandably make us feel insecure, and so we look
for answers in order to find reassurance. ‘If those people were gunned down in a mosque in Christchurch, does that mean I could be gunned down here in church in Sydney?’ That’s the question, and it’s the sort of question where we really want someone in authority to come up and say to us, ‘No. Don’t worry. I can’t happen to you because you’re not a Muslim’.
‘Isn’t that why bad things happen to people? It’s because they are bad people? Isn’t
that why there are all those wars going on in majority-Muslim countries. It’s not our
fault – surely – and it can’t happen here where we are all progressive, forward-thinking
white people who love our children and do lots of decent and forward-thinking things.
Those people who get shot or crushed by towers – there’s a good reason for that, and
even if I don’t know the reason right now I’m sure that God is just, and so those people
must have deserved what happened to them, and if they didn’t deserve it then there
must have been some higher purpose to it all, even if I just can’t see it at the moment.’
These are the sorts of dialogues we have with ourselves and, at one level, it’s entirely appropriate that we do. We believe that God is just. We don’t believe that things just happen randomly in our world, and we don’t believe that evil triumphs, do we? If we believe in God, we believe in order, surely, and justice. It’s offensive – blasphemous even – to not believe that there is a good reason for everything that happens. Well … that’s certainly what Job’s friends believed (for those who’ve read the Book of Job).
I’m not suggesting that it isn’t appropriate to ask these questions. Indeed, how can we
be religious people and not ask these questions? Even so, the danger is that in looking
for an explanation to tragedy, what we are really looking for is someone to blame so
that we can feel more secure. Who we blame probably doesn’t matter too much. It can
be Muslims, Jews, black people … anybody, so long as they are not ‘one of us’.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans
because they suffered this way?” Jesus asks – those poor souls whose blood Pilate
mingled with their sacrifices. “I tell you, no!”
“Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”
Yes, these tragedies are terrible. Yes, they are unnerving, but no, these people did not
suffer because they deserved it. They weren’t any more sinful than anybody else.
Even so, get your act together or the next tower is going to fall on you!
It’s not immediately obvious why Jesus had to add that last line, reminding us about
our own mortality. Was He responding to a smug attitude on the part of the people He
was dialoguing with? Either way, one thing we can immediately get from these
sobering words is that there are lessons to be learned from tragedies like this.
There are lessons we can learn from the tragedy in Christchurch. It can remind us that
life is fragile, and that we should make the most of every moment that we have. In
watching those who are grieving in Christchurch, it may reinforce to us too that these
people are our sisters and brothers, and it may encourage us to reach out in love to
our Muslim sisters and brothers here in Sydney.
There are lessons we can draw from this tragedy, as from all tragedies. What Jesus
wants us to be clear about though here is that ‘something bad happened to those
people because they deserved it’ is not one of the lessons.
In a funny way I’ve had to apply the wisdom of this Gospel passage to my own life in
the last twenty-four hours. I don’t want to trivialise the tragedies mentioned in the
passage, and I certainly don’t mean to compare my struggles to those who have
suffered so much in Christchurch recently. Even so, when my fight was cancelled last
night it was for me something of a crisis of faith. How could God allow that to happen?
As I say, I appreciate that my concerns were relatively trivial. Even so, I had been
convinced that God wanted me to have this fight and that I was going to raise money
through it and that I was going to get some of that money over to people in Syria who
needed it, and when I turned up all ready to rumble last night, only to be told that the
powers from on high (the Combat Sports Authority in this case) had blocked my fight
from going ahead, it was something of a crisis of faith for me.
Interestingly, it was my Muslim friends at the venue who were telling me, ‘this is God’s
will. God obviously doesn’t want you to fight tonight. Maybe you would have killed your
opponent. Just wait and we will see what God is up to’. At the time I was less capable
of believing that there could be anything good in the fight’s cancellation but, as I
thought it through, and as I read over this passage again, it did occur to me that even if
I couldn’t work out why things had happened the way they did, there were certainly
other things I could learn from the experience.
The most obvious lesson for me was to be reminded of the wonderful support I had
from my friends who had come to be with me and support me in the ring. I also had
three wonderful text messages of support from my three wonderful daughters (one of
whom was there with me but decided to text me her support nonetheless). Perhaps it
was God’s way of reminding me of how much I had to be thankful for.
As I say, you’ll have to forgive me if that seems to be trivialising the dark and serious
issues targeted in our Gospel reading, but I do believe that even though the incidents
discussed are very specific, the relevance of Jesus’ teaching here can be very broad.
The broad issue at stake here, I believe, is simply how we deal with things we don’t
understand – most especially with really painful things that we don’t understand.
We all want answers. I find that the older I get, the more questions I have. I take some encouragement from remembering an interview done with Mother Theresa when she
was still with us. The interviewer asked her how she made sense of the suffering she
saw around her. I don’t remember her exact words, but her response was something
along the lines of ‘when I get to Heaven, I’ve got a lot of questions I want answered’!
Asking ‘why’ is very human though, as I say, it can also be very dangerous. It all depends on the context that gives rise to the question. The Germans actually have a special word for this – ‘Fragestellung’. It means, literally, ‘the putting of the question’.
How you put your question generally determines the answer you get. If you ask your
question out of pure curiosity, this leads to one kind of answer. If our questions arise
directly out of our insecurities, these tend to lead us to different sorts of answers.
Those who know me well know that I am a great disbeliever in science. Yes, I believe
the earth is flat and that evolution never happened. Well … no, I don’t really believe the
earth is flat and I have no real issue with evolutionary theory either, though I do
consider it to be just a theory, and a theory with a lot of problems.
It’s telling, I think, that in our society evolutionary theory is an almost unquestionable
dogma, and if you do question it you tend to get yourself ridiculed, and I think there’s a very straightforward reason for that – namely, it’s all we’ve got! In terms of the origin of the species, evolutionary theory is the only theory out there. The alternative is mystery
and we don’t like mystery.
This is what we are dealing with when we confront human and animal suffering too.
So much of it just doesn’t make any sense. We would like to make sense of it all
because we want to believe that the world is just and that everything is in order and,
hence, that we are safe, but so much of life just doesn’t make sense.
The alternative to having answers is embracing mystery, as the alternative to certainty
is faith, but who wants to live by faith when you can have science and certainty?
As I’ve noted, our Gospel passage ends in uncertainty. What’s going to happen to the
fig tree? We don’t know. It’s a mystery. What we do know is that the fig tree is only
going to survive if it starts behaving more like a fig tree and less like a weed. It needs to
undergo a radical transformation. In the words of Jesus, it needs to repent.
The Greek word here is ‘metanoia’, and it’s one that Jesus used a lot. It’s combines
two other Greek words – ‘meta’, meaning to move beyond, and ‘nous’, meaning mind.
To experience metanoia is to transition to a different state of mind, allowing ourselves
to undergo a mental and emotional reboot, such that we become different people.
This indeed is Jesus ultimate alternative to having all the answers. It’s not just
embracing mystery. It’s undergoing a metanoia, and so responding to the mystery of
suffering in our world and in our lives by fundamentally reorientating ourselves
towards God and towards our fellow human beings.
Forgive me if that’s an overly philosophical note on which to finish today’s sermon.
Perhaps my thoughts are better summed up by an aphorism attributed to the ancient
Greek thinker, Epictetus – “Reflection is endless. Action is lost”. There’s nothing wrong with looking for answers to the pain we see around us and the pain we find in ourselves, but our job, ultimately, is not to know the answer but to become the answer.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 24th of March, 2019.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in
the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1-2a)
Here we are, back in the wilderness with Jesus, and all you seasoned church-goers know what that means. It means we’ve reached the first Sunday in Lent.
Lent – the season of the church year that I feel least comfortable with. Even the word ‘Lent’ seems alien to me, as indeed it probably should, as it’s a variation on the word to ‘lengthen’, indicating that we’ve hit that time of year when the days are beginning to lengthen, which they are not – not in this hemisphere of the world, at any rate!
Of course, Lent is not supposed to be something we get too comfortable with, is it? It’s generally understood as being that time when we give things up.
I can never think of giving things up for Lent without remembering our dearly beloved and belated sister, Grace Reppion-Brooke, who, even in her late eighties would solemnly dedicate herself each Lent to giving up sex for the full forty days! Whatever else she gave up, dear Grace never relinquished her sense of humour!
In truth, I don’t know how many in our community do give things up for Lent, but when we do, they tend to be relatively small things.
I’m not meaning to trivialise anyone’s Lenten efforts, but I’ve never heard of anybody actually giving up all forms of food for the full forty days of Lent, which would be the obvious thing to attempt if we were really trying to model ourselves on Jesus in the wilderness. Instead, those of us who do give things up tend to give up particular forms of food, such as chocolate, or coffee, or even alcohol.
I would not want to minimise the effort required to give up any one of those things for the full period of Lent. Personally, I feel I’m doing pretty well if I can get through a day without any of them. Even so, to equate Jesus’ forty-day struggle with the devil in the wilderness to a month without chocolate is quite possibly missing the point.
I suspect that most of us in Holy Trinity who take Lent seriously treat it more as a time of quiet reflection, where perhaps we do a moral inventory of ourselves, and take time to reflect upon our weaknesses – those habits and tendencies that we struggle with, that might be holding us back from fulfilling God’s purpose for us.
In preparation for my own Lenten journey in this regard, I decided this year to work through a book by Brene Brown on the subject of shame.
For those who aren’t familiar with her work, Brene Brown is probably the world’s leading expert on shame, and the book I read was based on hundreds of interviews she’d done over seven years of research on the subject. Indeed, the book was almost eleven hours in length, and it felt like a Lenten discipline just to read it.
In the book I read, Brown goes to great lengths to distinguish shame from guilt, humiliation and embarrassment – each of which she sees as distinct phenomena. Brown believes that shaming people never helps anyone, whereas recognising guilt can, conversely, be very productive.
The difference, according to Brown, is that experiencing shame is saying to yourself, ‘I’m hopeless’ – a recognition that leads only to despair – whereas recognising guilt is saying, ‘I did something hopeless’, which can easily be followed by ‘I can do better!’
I found Brown’s distinction to be helpful, and I thought it might be a good basis from which to approach our Lenten disciplines. Even so, when I refocused on today’s passage – the story of Jesus wrestling with temptation in the wilderness – this all seemed to be about as relevant as the discipline of giving up chocolate.
In as much as the forty days of Lent are obviously historically connected to this forty- day period where Jesus wanders in the wilderness and overcomes the devil, the problem we have when we try to take lessons for ourselves from this is that the gospel writers do not present Jesus here as our model.
This passage is not designed to teach us how to deal with your demons. On the contrary, these wilderness temptations are very Jesus-specific, and I’m not convinced that they are recorded in order to tell us anything about ourselves, though they do tell us something about Jesus, and quite possibly something about Israel.
The connection with Israel – the historic people of God – is unmistakable in these stories. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days. The Israelites struggled through the wilderness for forty years. In both cases, they were periods of testing.
Do not harden your hearts as you did … in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me;
they tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’ (Psalm 95:8-10)
Those forty years in the wilderness were remembered as a time of testing, and there’s no doubt that the Gospel writer expects us to make the connection between Israel’s forty years in the wilderness and Jesus’ forty days. Not only are the two realities connected by location and by the number ‘forty’, but the Old Testament quotes that are given in our Gospel narrative are all taken from the book of Deuteronomy – the final book of Moses, emerging out of that wilderness wandering.
Indeed, if there is any model in the Gospel story as to how we overcome temptation, it’s WWMD – ‘what would Moses do?’ The temptations that Jesus encounters are the temptations Moses and his people encountered, and the Scriptures used by both Jesus and the devil are verses taken from the last book of Moses.
As I’ve said, Lent is not a season I feel comfortable with, and this 40-days-in-the- wilderness story is not a narrative that I feel comfortable with either. Jesus’ temptation story is not my story. These struggles are not my struggles. They are Jesus’ struggles and perhaps they are also the struggles of the people of ancient Israel, but what has that got to do with me?
Perhaps, in answering this question, it might be helpful to consider exactly what form these temptations took for the ancient people of God.
Those of us who know our Hebrew Bibles will not have too much trouble making the connection with the first temptation – the struggle for food.
The first thing we are told about Jesus’ experience in the desert is that He was hungry – indeed, that after forty days without food “He was famished” (Luke 4:2). The ancient Israelites struggled with the issue of hunger in their wilderness wandering too. Indeed, in Exodus 16 we read them complaining to Moses:
“If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt. … There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.” (Exodus 16:3)
The response, you may remember, is that God miraculously provides the people with manna from Heaven – some strange sort of flaky bread that formed on the ground – and when they complained that there was no meat to go with the bread, God sent them quails that were apparently very easy to catch and make a meal of.
This is the greater context of both Jesus’ struggle with hunger and of the devil’s first temptation – that Jesus might turn the stones into bread. Jesus’ response – that a person ‘does not live by bread alone’ might not seem to be directly related to the story of Israel, the manna and the quails, but He’s actually quoting Deuteronomy 8:3:
“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
The temptation Jesus faces here is simply to trust that God will provide. Jesus faces this temptation – a test that his people had failed to pass – and He deals with it.
The second temptation Jesus faces involves the taking of power over the world, and it might seem, at first glance, that it’s a shame Jesus didn’t accept this devil’s offer. After all, would not Jesus have made the perfect ruler of the world?
The proviso though is that Jesus ‘bow down’ to the devil in order to take power, which is exactly what politicians always seem to do whenever they take power.
It is remarkable, I think, how many politicians with (what seem to be) noble ideals somehow lose all of those ideals once they take office. It seems that the very process of adopting institutional authority destroys the person who takes it.
We are familiar with Lord Acton’s dictum – that “all power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – and we know from the Gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus that He was constantly dodging the expectations of His followers who were always waiting for him to make a grab for political power.
Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Whatever power Jesus is going to wield is not going to require Him to bow down to the devil in order to get it.
Of course, when we look at the history of the people of Israel, we see that they got just as caught up in the political power-struggles of their day as did their neighbours. The history of the people of ancient Israel is filled with violence and corruption and political intrigue, and, combined with their failure to trust in the provision of the Almighty, the final result could only be death and conquest and exile.
This is the story of the greater Biblical drama. Israel’s lust for power and lack of trust in their creator led them into captivity where they waited for God to send someone to set things right again – someone who would succeed where they had failed.
This is the Jesus we see here in Luke chapter four, struggling with the devil in the wilderness. It’s not Jesus, our model – showing us how to deal with temptation. It’s Jesus, our representative –get things right on behalf of the people of God so that we can get the process of the redemption of the world back on track.
A quick word about the final temptation, where Jesus is encouraged to throw Himself from the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that God will make sure He doesn’t get hurt. This is such an odd temptation, as it seems to run in direct opposition to the first one.
In the first temptation, the devil tells Jesus to take care of Himself instead of trusting that God will provide. This time He’s challenged not to take care of Himself but to leave it to God, which also seems to be a problem. How do we make sense of this?
I think there can be a fine line between genuine faith – that God will provide for our needs – and fatuous optimism – that whatever we do, God will always be there to look after us. That seems to be the way Jesus interprets this temptation – that He’s being asked to presume upon the grace of God, presuming upon His special status.
Jesus’ response is again from the book of Deuteronomy (6:16), though I won’t bother tracing the way the Israelites presumed upon their special status as God’s chosen people, as I’m all too familiar with the way this operates in the church!
You don’t have to be an expert in church history or even to have visited a session of the Sydney Synod to have seen religious presumption and arrogance at work. We assume that we have all the answers, and we consider ourselves to be the special people of God, chosen to bring God’s sacred message to the world, and so we assume our positions of moral authority from which we make our proclamations, and we expect the rest of the world to take us seriously.
In many ways these terrible child-abuse scandals that we, the church, are now being forced to face up to, are the consequence of our presumption. We put the Lord to the test, blithely assuming that all would be well and that we – God’s special people – would be divinely protected. We haven’t been.
And so perhaps there is something of a model for us in these temptations of Jesus – not so much for us as individuals, struggling with our addictions to alcohol and chocolate, but for us as the people of God in 21st century Sydney, struggling to be relevant and authentic witnesses to the grace of God in the cross of Christ.
The temptations Jesus faced were uniquely His, and yet they mirrored the historic struggles of the people of God of old and, in many ways, they mirror the struggles we face as the church of God in the 21st century.
We want to make an impact. We want to change the world. Like the people of God of old, we want to see God’s Kingdom come. Let us take time this Lent to reflect on the way Jesus did that – the way He inaugurated that Kingdom – not through political power and violence, and not through arrogant proclamations given from on high, but with humility and trust, and with a constant willingness to go the way of suffering.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 10th of March, 2019.
“But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:27-30)
I suspect that no one remembers the last time I preached on this passage. If you do remember, your name is Jan, as Jan Pickering is the only parishioner who was a part of Holy Trinity when I last spoke on this passage, which was in February 2001
The reason that I haven’t spoken on this passage since is because these words from the Gospel of Luke have not been publicly read in this church since February 2001. Indeed, this is my 29th year in the parish, and I believe that this is only the second time in that period that we have ever had this Gospel passage read aloud in church!
Why, you might ask, have we been working so hard to avoid these commands to love our enemies, to give to those who ask, and not to judge. Why indeed?
I’ll try to offer an authoritative answer to that question a little later. Let me say now though that it’s not because these words are not popular. Indeed, I suspect that this passage (or the variation of it that appears in Matthew’s Gospel) has appeared on more posters and more Powerpoint presentations (with soothing and inspiring music playing in the background) than any other snippet from the New Testament!
As a younger Christian, I had exactly such a poster blue-tacked to my bedroom wall. It was an image of a sunset, if I remember, highlighting rolling hills and natural beauty with these words overlaid on top. They included the Beatitudes of course – Matthew’s version, that is (the one that blesses the ‘poor in spirit’, rather than Luke’s version, where Jesus simply blesses ‘the poor’) – and it concluded with these commands that we love our enemies and give without expecting anything in return.
I am not sure how these words from Jesus managed to make it into the Helen Steiner Rice lectionary of gentle and insipidly-inspiring spiritual words. Even so, what I am reasonably confident of is that, when they were originally spoken, these words must have been amongst the most offensive things Jesus ever said!
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28)
To appreciate the deeply offensive nature of this language, we only need to ask ourselves who Jesus was referring to when He spoke of our enemies.
When we use the word ‘enemy’ in our own context, we probably think of any number of persons who wronged us over the years – the guy who used to bully me at school, the woman who spreads rumors about me at the office, and my former partner who has made life hell for me and for the kids – and I don’t doubt that we can make real enemies in this life. Even so, when Jesus spoke of the enemy I don’t have any doubt that for His listening audience only one group of people came to mind – the Romans.
It would be exactly the same if you went to the birthplace of Jesus today and started telling people to love their enemies. Regardless of how people responded, there’d be no ambiguity as to who you were referring to when you spoke of the enemy. You’d be referring to the occupying army (in today’s case, the Israeli Defense Forces).
I read a rather gut-wrenching article by Dr Ghada Karmi, written last Christmas, about her perception of modern-day Bethlehem.
She quotes the carol, “O little town of Bethlehem/How still we see thee lie/Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by” and says “Nothing could be further from the truth than the image of a sweet, untroubled Bethlehem as depicted in a carol originally created by the pious imagination of a Victorian Western-Christian.”
She then goes on to outline what it is like for the modern-day residents of Bethlehem – Christian and Muslim alike – walled in from the outside world and surrounded by twenty-two Israeli settlements that have taken their land and uprooted their trees.
Regardless of what you think of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, my point is simply that if you wandered the streets of Bethlehem today, telling people to love their enemies there would be no doubt who you were referring to. Likewise, with the Jews of first-century Israel, when Jesus told them to love their enemies there would have been no ambiguity as to who He was referring to. It was to the occupying army.
This is even more obvious in Matthew’s rendering of these commands, which includes the exhortation, “And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matt. 5:41), as the reference is clearly to a Roman soldier.
It was Roman law that a soldier could compel any Jew to carry his backpack for him for one mile (1,000 paces) – a backpack that normally weighed around 30 kilograms – and if you refused to drop what you were doing and comply you would be flogged.
Jesus commands His followers to go an extra mile, which would mean you’d have to go four miles out of your way by the time you’d finished the task (two miles there and two miles back). That was a big ask, but not nearly so big an ask as the greater command to love these people, who were not simply unwelcome foreigners, but the people who killed your uncle and had put your brother in prison!
It’s impossible to know exactly what it would have been like to live under the Roman occupation but historians like Josephus say it was a brutal experience. According to him, in one case, 20,000 Jews were killed in a riot that started when a Roman soldier ridiculed some pilgrims at the Passover with an obscene gesture. Some think Josephus prone to exaggeration, but even if the casualties were only a tenth of that number, it’s still a horrible example of the abuse of power and of military brutality.
As I say, it’s easy to take these words out of context, where they sound lovely and sweet and inspiring, but in the context of a violent and bloody military occupation, the command to love those who oppress and persecute you is a big ask, and the command doesn’t translate easily into our context – most especially into my context.
Speaking as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male, I must be a part of one of the least persecuted groups in human history. If you’re black, female, gay and financially struggling (or any combination of the above) you probably have a better appreciation of the enormity of what Jesus is asking of us here. Even so, and even for me, it seems like a big ask, as we seem to be required to open ourselves to abuse!
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again”
What happened to ‘don’t let people treat you like a doormat’ and ‘stand up for your rights’? There doesn’t seem to be room here for self-defense, or even for justice!
Mind you, one person who took these words extremely seriously and who took a firm stand for justice was Martin Luther King, Jr. He often quoted these words from Luke chapter 6 and said that they showed Jesus to be an extremist – an extremist for love!
When I think of King and his work, one image always comes to my mind. It’s the image of African-American protestors trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on March 7th, 1965. I expect that all of us who have seen newsreel clips or photographs from that event will likewise remember it.
It’s the event the Civil Rights movement remembered as ‘Bloody Sunday’, where unarmed protestors were sprayed with tear-gas, charged by police on horseback, and hit on the head with truncheons as they tried to peacefully cross the bridge.
Perhaps particularly memorable was the image of Amelia Boynton (one of the organisers of the march) who was beaten unconscious by state troopers and photographed lying bleeding on the road of the bridge.
It is a terrible thing to watch defenseless people brutalized by armed representatives of the state, especially when they seem to be doing nothing to provoke the violence. King though believed that this sort of non-violent resistance to injustice was exactly what their master – the extremist for love – demanded of them, and indeed, these verses do seem encourage this willingness to allow yourself to be abused.
I’m not sure I can do that. I remember being invited last year to a protest in support of asylum-seekers that was organised by a Christian group with an explicit commitment to pacifism. I asked them whether I had to make a commitment to total non-violence in order to be a part of the protest.
I wasn’t sure I could do it. I figured I could probably take a beating myself if I had to, but I can’t imagine I could have stood back and watched Amelia Boynton being beaten unconscious, or that I could watch anyone else get beaten unconscious without wanting to step in and try to do something, with my fists if necessary.
How far do you take this? Yes, Jesus was clearly offering a challenge to the Jews of first century Palestine in terms of how they should respond to their Roman overlords, but what would Jesus have done if He had been living in the Warsaw ghetto in German-occupied Europe during World War II? Would Jesus have really simply embraced the brutal Nazi persecution and gone willingly to the death camps?
I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, but one thing I am sure of is that those academics who have suggested that Jesus was really a zealot revolutionary, intent on the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation, are way off track.
I don’t know if many others here have read Reza Aslan’s recently-published book, “Zealot”, but Azlan is the latest in a long list of academics who have suggested that the historical Jesus was just another revolutionary who failed in his goals and who was later transformed into a supernatural figure by his first followers who had a far different agenda to that of their master.
I mentioned Azlan’s book only because it is current and popular, and not because I think it is a particularly good book. Indeed, I found his cherry-picking approach to New Testament to be annoying, and I still can’t work out why he thinks that Matthew 22:21 – “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” – proves that Jesus was really a revolutionary.
No matter how you interpret that verse (which can be interpreted in a lot of ways) you’ve still got to take into account other things Jesus said that were directly relevant to the Roman occupation, such as, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
By trying to place these commandments from Jesus where they belong – in the context of the first century Roman occupation of Palestine – I do not mean to suggest that they are not relevant to us in 21st century suburban Sydney. My point is rather that if Jesus expected his disciples to love, bless and pray for those who were murdering members of their family, taking their lands, and persecuting and oppressing them, how much more does He expect us to forgive and forget when it comes to the petty grievances that most of us deal with.
I’m not suggesting that all of our grievances are petty. Some are not, but none of our grievances would be more serious than those suffered by the people to whom Jesus originally addressed these words. If Jesus’ initial hearers were expected to respond to violence and persecution with love, blessing, patience and forgiveness, how much more should we be expected to do the same?
The problem is that it’s hard. It’s really hard to forgive those who just make us feel uncomfortable, let alone those who genuinely injure us, and yet that is exactly what we are commanded to do!
I said at the outset today that I’d try to offer you an authoritative answer as to why this is only the second time we have read this passage in church in the last 29 years. In theory, it’s all to do with the date that Easter falls on, and hence when the season of Epiphany ends and Lent starts, and the readings are rostered accordingly. We don’t normally have this many Sundays in Epiphany, but Easter is coming late this year (for reasons I totally don’t understand) and hence we have these extra passages from Luke’s Gospel.
That sort of explains the issue, though it doesn’t explain why the church chose to schedule this reading at a point where they must have known that it would almost never get read. As a person who loves a good conspiracy-theory, I’m tempted to think that the historic church, which has a prolific history of meting out violence to its enemies and of waging war in the name of Christ, knew exactly what it was doing when it structured the lectionary the way it did.
I’m going to conclude today’s sermon with the same illustration I used when I preached on this passage in 2001, with the story of the little boy who goes each week to the corner store with his mother to do the shopping.
Each week when mum goes to the checkout, the proprietor, Mr Jones, encourages the boy to put his hand into the lolly jar and take as many lollies as he can. Each week the boy declines the invitation, and each time he does, Mr Jones reaches into the lolly jar himself and gives him the boy a handful of lollies.
The boy’s mother eventually asks her son why he always refuses the invitation to put his own hand into the jar and instead lets Mr Jones do it for him. He replies, “because his hands are much bigger than mine”.
We find ourselves in a similar position, facing these commandments to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. It is really difficult. Yet His hands are bigger than ours. His heart is greater than ours. His capacity to forgive is endless
Lord, give us your hands, give us your heart, give us your capacity to forgive. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 24th February, 2019.
“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Luke 4:28-30
I can never read this story about the lynch mob trying to kill Jesus without being reminded of my own experience of almost being lynched. Interestingly too, my near- lynching experience happened not that far from where the mob tried to kill Jesus!
It was April 2004, outside Ashkelon prison, south-west of Jerusalem. I was waiting to greet my friend, Mordechai Vanunu – the ‘nuclear whistle-blower’ – as he concluded his 18-year prison sentence (11.5 years of which had been spent in solitary).
Morde had been punished because he told the world about Israel’s secret nuclear weapons facility, hidden under the Negev desert. Like those whistle-blowers who came after him (Ed Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, …), Morde was targeted and, in his case, successfully abducted by Mossad agents, shipped back to Israel and made to pay for exposing the lies being told by his country’s leaders.
Over the 18 years of his confinement I had written to Morde every month, who had been a part of my church and Bible-study group, and I always promised him that I would be there, waiting for him, on the day of his release. Somehow, I always envisaged that it would only be me and a few friends waiting for him. As it turned out, there were thousands there, and the vast majority were baying for Morde’s blood!
I was close to the front gate of the prison which was secured by a cordon of police officers who were holding back the crowd, and we were pressed against each other so tightly that it was very difficult to move at all. When Morde finally appeared and was then thrust into an armored car that went rocketing out of the gates and away from the crowd, the police cordon broke and the crowd rampaged on the streets.
I tried to make my way back to the bus that had brought me to Ashkelon but was stopped by a French woman from a TV station who asked me if she could interview me right there in the street. I said ‘sure’, but no sooner had she started the interview than we were surrounded by a mob of men who started cursing and spitting on me.
I don’t think they specifically knew that I was a friend of Vanunu’s, but I was wearing my clergy collar and was obviously a supporter. Apart from the occasional ‘go home’, they were screaming at me in a language that I didn’t understand. And then I was getting kicked and punched instead of spat upon, and as the numbers grew I could no longer see any daylight between the members of the mob enclosed around me.
As the blows increased, I realised that there was nothing I could do to defend myself. I put my hands together in a position of prayer, hoping that someone (or God) might intervene. And then a hand grabbed me in the middle of my back and pulled me out of that ruck and pushed me in the direction of my bus, and I didn’t look back. I kept walking, and have no idea what happened to the woman who was interviewing me.
Forgive the long introduction to a sermon that’s not about me or Morde, or even primarily about mob violence. In my defense, the draft was originally twice as long. Once I started reliving that day, it all came out. These things leave an impact on you.
What is interesting, by contrast, is how briefly the Gospel deals with Jesus’ incident. We are told “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:29-30).
Are we supposed to see a miracle here? Was the lynch mob suddenly blinded, such that they could no longer see Jesus, who glided through the crowd without anybody realizing He was gone, or was it something closer to my experience where there was such confusion amidst the mass of angry bodies, writhing and pushing each other, that nobody was probably entirely sure exactly who they were trying to beat up?
We don’t know the details. That’s probably because none of the disciples were a part of that mob, and because Jesus probably never spoke about it, as most people don’t talk a lot about these sorts of experiences. It would be interesting to know, if He had talked about it, how He understood it. Did Jesus see it all as a big misunderstanding or, more likely, did He recognise that this was just a foretaste of what was to come?
What we do know is that this is Jesus’ first experience of mob violence. It will not be His last. Eventually the mob will kill Him, with the help of the Roman government, of course, which, in a sense, was just another kind of mob.
Why do we do such terrible things in groups that we would never do as individuals? The process is called ‘deindividuation’ in social psychology. It’s a term that describes the astonishing way normal, educated, and often apparently moral people become murderous fanatics when part of an uncontrolled mob.
What causes it? One theory is that individuals feel anonymous in the larger group and sense that none of their actions will be counted against them as individuals. Kierkegaard believed that the problem with every crowd was simply that the weight of individual responsibility was always divided by the number of persons in the mob.
However we understand it, people do things in groups that they would never do as individuals. The lessons passed down from the early chapters of Genesis, and from the Tower of Babel story in particular, remind us that while sin has always been a part of the human condition, it’s when sinful people get together to ‘make a name for themselves’ (Genesis 11:4), that things really start to unravel.
That’s why I can never take seriously these horror movies about Freddy Krueger or any of the terrible super-villains, no matter how revolting their crimes. Criminal people can do terrible things, I grant you, but it’s when we get together as a community that things get really awful. Jack the Ripper killed a lot of poor women, but it took a whole country working together to create the Holocaust.
When you walk around Syria or Yemen, and even when you see the conditions being experienced by the men on Manus Island, it’s not wicked individuals that are causing all this. It’s takes a whole pack of us, working together. The question is why? Why do we do it? Well … why did the mob that went after Jesus want to kill Him?
The Gospel-writer makes it clear that it was something Jesus said. Luke begins, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” (Luke 4:28). The potentially confusing thing here though is that Jesus had said a lot of things.
Jesus was in Nazareth. He was at the synagogue. He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read and he read from chapter 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Is this what upset people, or was it the very brief (8-word) sermon that Jesus gave on the passage – “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
Some commentators have suggested that these are exactly what upset the people. Jesus was proclaiming God’s ‘Jubilee Year’ – a time of true freedom and abundance when the gap between rich and poor would disappear and when debts would be cancelled. Some suggest, understandably, that this announcement would have enraged the rich members of the synagogue who stood to lose out in this great redistribution. That would make sense, except that the Gospel writer says that Jesus was well-received up to this point. It was what He said after that that upset people.
“Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, “Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”” (Luke 4:23)
Clearly people were looking for a sign (a miracle) from Jesus to show that He was qualified to make His announcement – proclaiming God’s Jubilee Year. Jesus says that they’re not going to get a sign, and he follows this by giving two examples from Biblical history that make the point that miracles aren’t simply produced on-demand.
It’s at this point that everyone gets upset, and no doubt they would have been upset with the way in which Jesus seemed to be so presumptuous. Even so, when you think someone is presumptuous, you tell them to pull their head in. You don’t try to kill them. Is there another piece to the puzzle here? Of course. It’s the occupation!
If you want to know the problem that was plaguing the Jewish population of Palestine in the first century, the answer is always the Roman occupation. I’m not saying that individual people weren’t struggling with their own issues. For sure, people were struggling with illness and with debt, and no doubt plenty of parents were struggling with the good-for-nothing guy that their daughter was infatuated with. Even so, as a group, as a community, and as a mob, the problem was always the occupation.
It’s exactly the same in Palestine today. I’ve heard people suggest that Palestinian education system is to blame for bringing up children to hate their Israeli neighbours, or that the ideology of Hamas is to blame. No. The problem is always the occupation (in this case, the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank).
Whatever form of freedom Jesus was talking about when he ‘proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord’ that day in Nazareth, what the people of Nazareth would have heard was the promise of an end to the occupation.
The Roman occupation was a political problem – yes – but it was also a spiritual issue. It was about the place of the people of God in the plan of God. It was about history, Scripture, covenant and promise. It was about everybody’s dream for a better world, and what Jesus did in Nazareth, in the scene depicted for us in Luke chapter four, was that he tapped into the dream of the community for an end to the Roman occupation and, from their perspective, he then threw it back in their faces!
On the one hand, Jesus clearly announces Himself as the spirit-filled Messiah spoken of by the prophet Isaiah – the one who would bring in the new world order. On the other hand, he made clear that He was not interested in leading them in any armed revolution, and you can’t do that – not to the people of Nazareth at any rate.
Our dreams are important to us. We have dreams about who we want to be. We have dreams for our families and for our children. We may even have dreams about what we want our house to look like one day. There’s nothing wrong with having dreams, and surely nobody has the right to come and simply smash our dreams. The problem is just that not all of our dreams are in alignment with Jesus’ dream.
Of course, there are no shortage of preachers around who will tell you that Jesus is just waiting to give you whatever your heart desires. ‘Name it and claim it’, they say. ‘Jesus will give you a bigger bank balance and a better sex life! Whatever it is that you want, ask and you shall receive’. Well … tell that to the congregation in Nazareth
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
I believe Jesus’ vision of the coming Kingdom fully included an end to the Roman occupation of Palestine, just as I believe that the unfolding of that Kingdom today fully includes the ending of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Kingdom includes both of these acts of liberation, and it includes a whole lot more! It includes the ending of all wars, of child abuse, violence, the persecution of asylum-seekers, the imprisonment of those who tell the truth to power, and even of death itself!
The dream of the Kingdom is something that we can all tap into. Even so, both in terms of the content of that Kingdom and in terms of how we get there, we need to work on taking on Jesus’ dream, rather than relying solely on our own imaginations.
There’s an old joke about someone who is being shown around Heaven on their first day there. They are being introduced to all sorts of amazing places and all sorts of amazing people from all sorts of backgrounds and faith traditions. Then the new- comer asks what the big walled-off section is in the middle of Heaven that they can’t see into. She’s told that that’s the Sydney Anglican section, as those people dreamed of a Heaven where they would be the only ones there.
We all dream of a better world, but our dreams need guidance too. Let the dream of Jesus be our dream. It is a big dream – a dream of freedom, justice, peace and love. And as Dom Helder Camara said – “when one person dreams it is just a dream, but when we all dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 3rd February, 2019.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
“Someone in your life is about to burst out of his or her shell – make sure you’re there to cheer them on! … This is your chance to be someone’s personal hero and personal cheerleader. Get out there and lend a helping hand”
As is my habit this time of year, I’ve checked in on my daily horoscope. That was the advice offered me today – Sunday, January 6th, 2019 – from astrology.com, which I thought sounded like the authoritative place to hear what my stars had to tell me.
I only check my horoscope once per year, largely because I can still hear the voice of my father in the back of my head, saying “don’t you believe any of that rubbish!”
That was the stance I was brought up with – that it was all a load of rubbish – and then, while I was at seminary, someone pointed out to me – ‘well … there must be something to it. The wise men followed their stars and it led them to Jesus!’
Yes, today is Epiphany – the Feast of the Epiphany – and we are blest indeed that this year Epiphany does fall on a Sunday!
Today is the day when we remember the visit of those wise men to the infant Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel according to St Matthew, chapter two – and if ever there was a day to consult your stars, I figure that today is the day!
The Feast of the Epiphany is much more than a day for star-gazing though, and over the last 2,000+ years of the existence of the church a lot of fascinating traditions have become associated with this day.
Epiphany is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, as celebrated in the song that I’m sure none of us have ever been able to forget, even if we can’t remember exactly whether the gift for day twelve was lords a leaping or ladies dancing or drummers drumming.
Either way, the song is a good reminder that the Twelve Days of Christmas have a history in the church, as does the Twelfth Night, remembered in the famous Shakespearean play of the same name.
In some sections of the church, this Twelfth Day of Christmas is considered to be as significant as Christmas itself, and in Spain and in some Latin American countries it is still a public holiday. Traditionally, it was the day when you opened your Christmas presents, and it was the day when you took down your Christmas decorations.
In Siberia today – this Epiphany as every Epiphany – a goodly number of our Russian Orthodox sisters and brothers will take a dip in water as cold as fifteen degrees below zero, jumping in through a whole cut in the ice by the priest who first blesses the freezing water so that they might wash away their sins.
As if we needed more reasons to remain Anglican!
In some areas of England and France, a far more tame Epiphany tradition is to have a communal celebration with an Epiphany cake which has had a pea and a bean baked into it. According to the tradition, whichever man finds the bean in his slice of cake becomes king for the night and whichever woman finds a pea becomes queen! I couldn’t find any explanation as to what is supposed to happen if a man finds the pea or a woman finds the bean.
How any of these traditions grew out of the story of the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus is anybody’s guess. I can’t see any obvious connection, beyond the general theme of celebration, as Epiphany event does indeed proclaim a truth that is worth celebrating. That truth, I believe, is simply that Jesus belongs to everybody.
“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1b-2)
We use this term, ‘wise men’, but the original Greek word is ‘magi’, from which we get our word ‘magic’. These visitors are magicians of sorts, though not of the conjuror variety, such as we see on stage. They are court magicians, such as might act as advisors to the king, as members of the royal court.
If you’re familiar with the book of Daniel, where Daniel and his three friends became part of the Persian royal court, their position in the court would have been as magi. Hence, they played a special role in all matters requiring spiritual wisdom, such as the interpreting of dreams and predicting the future, so that they might help prosper the king and the kingdom, both economically and militarily.
These magi at the heart of the Epiphany story are likewise understood to be court officials, and, if we are to take this story literally as history, religiously speaking, they would almost certainly have been Zoroastrians.
I learned a little about Zoroastrianism, reading the Reverend Dr Niveen Sarras’ commentary on this text. She’s a Lutheran pastor in the USA.
According to Dr Sarras, Zoroaster himself (the main prophet in Zoroastrianism) was also believed to have been miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin (a 15- year-old Persian girl in his case). Like Jesus, Zoroaster started his ministry at age of 30, after defeating all of Satan’s temptations, and he predicted that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.”
Zoroastrian priests believed that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars and, like the Jews, the Zoroastrian were, at the time, anticipating the birth of a universal savior.
What this means is that these magi come to Jesus, not on the basis of any prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures, but on the basis of the Zoroastrian virgin-birth prophecies. Dr Sarras believes that this was certainly the understanding of Matthew, the Gospel writer, who is proclaiming that religions unrelated to Hebrew monotheism, and other sacred texts, outside of the Hebrew Scriptures, did indeed also point to Jesus.
All this reminds me very much of our own Epiphany experience that we had here in Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Christmas Day, when we were visited by our own magi.
If you missed it, I’m referring to the visit paid us by Sheikh Shoaib Naqvi and his colleagues of the Muhammadi Welfare Association in Granville.
Sheikh Shoaib isn’t a Zoroastrian, of course, and he might not appreciate the comparison. He’s a Shia Muslim cleric, of course. Even so, if you were here, you’ll know that he read to us from his own Scriptures some words of prophecy regarding both Mary and Jesus, and he and his colleagues came here to honour Jesus!
If you missed it, it’s on the church’s Facebook page, as Sheikh Shoaib had his brief speech videod, and he posted it to his Facebook page, and I then shared it on ours.
Interestingly, I spent some time with Sheikh Shoaib the weekend after that visit, and he told me that he’d received quite a bit of negative feedback on his Facebook page.
He said that while he’d been 100% supported by how own faith community, the video had been shared and re-shared around the world, and he’d been criticized by some of his old associates back in Pakistan and elsewhere.
It seems that a lot of people in Pakistan think that if you turn up at a church, you have to drink the wine we serve. Shoaib assured them that this was not the case – that the consumption of alcohol here is entirely voluntary.
I note with some pride that we received zero negative feedback from the Christian community (at least as far as I know). Having said that, I suspect that a number of our less-regular visitors that day might have assumed that Sheikh Shoaib was just part of the Nativity scene.
And why wouldn’t’ they? It’s the season! The week before we had half of the Sunday School children dressed up like Bedouin Arabs, roaming around the building. Additionally, we’ve got models of saints dressed in plush, red winter garb alongside woolly sheep and other stable animals. Why would a wise man in a turban look out of place?
In truth, I love this time of year, and I love the pageantry, and the way we dress up, and I love our special visitors, as it’s all a part of the central Epiphany proclamation – that Jesus belongs to everybody.
It’s interesting that the word ‘epiphany’ has another use in our language, entirely independent of this Gospel story. According to the dictionary, it can also mean “a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation.”
I suppose the two epiphanies are not really unrelated, as they are both tied to the Greek word, “epiphainein”, meaning, ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’. The star suddenly appeared as a revelation to the magi and, in similar ways, things suddenly occur to us when we have our own ‘epiphanies’.
I’ve had a few epiphanies in my life.
I think the first was when I was eighteen and one night I had a life-changing epiphany when I realised that God was really ‘out there’, or, to be more precise, that God was really close to me, and was deeply interested in what I was doing with my life! That was the most life-changing epiphany I have ever had.
Many years later (and I’m embarrassed to admit that it was many years later) I had another epiphany – that same-sex orientated people were probably no worse sinners than I was (and, in many cases, were far less so). As I say, I’m embarrassed to admit that it took a number of years before I had that particular epiphany but, again, it proved to be life-changing.
A few years after that I had yet another epiphany, when I realised that the Spirit of God was as actively at work in the heart of my friend, Mansour – a Muslim Sheikh – as He was in mine! That epiphany would also prove to be life-changing!
I may have more epiphanies to come, but I note that all my more recent epiphanies have been what I would call ‘Epiphanal epiphanies’. In other words, they have been situation-specific realisations of the greater truth that Epiphany teaches us – that Jesus belongs to everybody, and that ‘everybody’ really does mean ‘everybody’.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
So says St Paul in his letter to the Galatians, for indeed that is where the New Testament is taking us. It ends there – in the affirmation of our oneness in Christ, where all the divisions between rich and poor and slave and free and gay and straight and orthodox and heretic and us and them are broken down and resolved and all are one in Christ Jesus.
It ends there, but it begins here, in the opening chapters of the first book in the New Testament, with this odd story of these unfamiliar men in turbans who come to stand alongside us and pay their respects to Jesus.
I started my sermon today by sharing with you some of my horoscope reading for today. In case you’ve forgotten, it mentioned that someone was going to “burst out of his or her shell” and that my role was to be there to “cheer them on!
“Get out there and lend a helping hand”, was the closing exhortation of that prophecy and I really don’t know if this sermon has been that helping hand for anyone today. If that’s you, and this sermon has helped you burst out of your shell, do let me know.
That, at any rate, was the extract from my daily horoscope on astrology.com. What I found even more interesting though, from the same site, was my weekly horoscope, which gave specific recommendations for each day of the week, concluding with, “express yourself eccentrically on Sunday.”
I thought about that for quite a while, and wondered whether concluding this sermon with an ‘ice-bucket challenge’ might help bring the Epiphany message home. I decided though that most of our church thought I was already eccentric enough.
It did occur to me though that if ‘eccentric’ means being ‘out of step’ and ‘non-conformist’, then there is probably nothing more eccentric that we can do than simply proclaim the message of Epiphany – that despite all our differences (of gender and class and race and education and religion, and all the other factors that distinguish and divide us), we are one, and that the Lord Jesus belongs as much to the Sudanese Muslim woman on the other side of the globe as He does to us.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 6th January, 2019.