The Sabbath was made for humanity (Mark 2:23-3:6)

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)

Anarchy is something we all fear – those of us who know what it is, anyway.

I say that as someone who was a devotee of the Sex Pistols when they brought out “Anarchy for the UK” in 1977, though I think my enthusiasm at the time was a consequence of the self-destructive rage I was then experiencing, combined with my youthful ignorance.

“Anarchy for the UK. It’s coming some time, maybe”. It was wise of Johnny Rotten to add the qualifying ‘maybe’. It hasn’t happened in the UK yet, and we can be thankful for that, as where it has happened in recent years, anarchy hasn’t been something worth celebrating

My mind goes immediately to what happened in Libya after the ‘humanitarian’ intervention of NATO that led to the brutal murder of Muammar Gadhafi and the more-or-less total breakdown of Libyan society that followed immediately in its wake.

I wasn’t there, such that I can verify what happened, but the reports of murder and rape and all-round mayhem suggested that life in Tripoli became terrifying for the civilian population once Gadhafi was gone and law and order broke down.

I think of similar reports that came out of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein – the breakdown of law and order that cost so many lives and that, amongst other things, gave birth to ISIS and so many of the terrorist threats that we are dealing with today.

Again, I wasn’t there to personally verify the extent of the mayhem, but I did have lunch a couple of weeks go with Peter Van Buren, who was there as an American diplomat. He’d gone into Iraq, he said, believing the rhetoric – that his people were there to help the Iraqis find democracy and freedom, but then, he said, he discovered the truth. He wrote a book, entitled “We Meant Well”, which resulted in him losing his job and narrowly avoiding a goal term, though, on the positive side, it meant he got to speak alongside me at the conference in Iran two weeks ago!

The bottom line is that anarchy is not a good thing, and yet it seems to be the result of all our recent military interventions, however well-intentioned they may be.

Certainly, that’s the fear for the people of Syria, dreading the possibility of another humanitarian intervention from the West. We all know what the result of such a well-meaning intervention would be – anarchy, lawlessness, death and mayhem.

I give you this backdrop as we approach our Gospel passage today, where Jesus seems to flout the law, as I know we Christians are often tempted to snub our noses at the law and at legalism, and yet the truth is that when it comes to a choice between law and lawlessness, we choose law, and rightly so!

It’s easy to say ‘get rid of the horrible dictator’ but what do you put in his place? It’s easy to say, ‘don’t worry about law’, but what are the alternatives? Lawlessness is not an option that any of us are likely to feel comfortable with.

“One sabbath he was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (Mark 2:23-24)

“Pedants!” That’s my knee-jerk response, and, yes, it’s probably yours too. These Pharisees are so preoccupied with their petty little rules and regulations! What is the problem with plucking a few heads of grain as you wander through a field – on the Sabbath or on any other day? What’s the difference?

The real issue, of course, for the Pharisees, isn’t this particular law so much as it is the law as a whole, which is a complex and interconnected body of regulations, and when you start treating some of those laws with contempt it’s a slippery slope!

Dare I confess that I regularly break the traffic laws covering pedestrians by crossing roads even when the ‘don’t walk’ sign is clearly illuminated. Just because there’s no traffic coming doesn’t make it right to flout the law, does it? What if everybody flouted the law when they felt like it? Do I really want to live in a society where traffic rules are totally open to the interpretation of the individual pedestrian or driver (as they are in Tehran and Beirut and any number of other places where I never want to drive)?

Jesus’ initial response to the Pharisees on this point seems, at best, dismissive

“Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” (Mark 2:25-26)

It’s not normally considered to be a serious legal defense – to say ‘he behaved badly, so why shouldn’t I?’, though, notably, it was accepted at Nuremburg.

When Nazi war criminals were put on trial and charged with things like the deliberate targeting of civilians and civil infrastructure, the response that “we were only doing what the Americans and British were doing” was accepted as an adequate defense. Even so, we don’t normally consider the bad behavior of other people to be an excuse for lawless behavior on our part. Is that really what Jesus was suggesting?

It may be that Jesus was making a far more serious point, and that is suggested by the statement He makes that follows his retelling of the story about King David, and it’s a statement that I consider to be central to Jesus’ understanding of divine law:

“Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”” (Mark 2:27)

It’s not immediately obvious, I think, how this statement about the Sabbath relates to Jesus’ citing of the story of David and his eating of the sacred bread, which didn’t take place on a Sabbath (so far as we know), unless we assume that Jesus is making a very general and broadly applicable statement – that the Sabbath and, by extension, all divine laws, are there to benefit humanity, and need to be understood and interpreted in that context, lest they be misinterpreted and misapplied.

Applying this principal to the case of the sacred bread then means that, however special that bread was in the eyes of God, human need (hunger, in this case) trumps sacredness every time! If that’s right, Jesus’ thinking was truly radical!

As you know, I’ve just come back from a week in Iran, where I had the privilege of mixing with some high-profile Islamic thinkers, and also spent some considerable time with someone who is often referred to as an ‘ultra-Orthodox’ Jewish Rabbi.

Rabbi Weiss did say to me, “I don’t know why they refer to us as ‘ultra-Orthodox’. All we are trying to do is to be obedient to the law of God. How does that make us ‘ultra’ anything?” I take his point, and, however you refer to the man, he was much-loved by our hosts in Iran, many of whom, I think, would describe their religious piety in exactly the same way – “We are just trying to be obedient to the law of God”.

It was me – the Christian guy – who stood out in this respect. I would not agree that ‘trying to be obedient to the law of God’ was an adequate description of my religious piety. I’m not sure how I would describe it, but I’m pretty sure that the word ‘law’ would not even appear in the description!

When a Christian becomes a Muslim, the Muslim community don’t refer to her as a ‘convert’ but instead as a ‘revert’, suggesting that these people have reverted to the true law of God that Christianity quite possibly lured them away from. Personally, I think this is quite a helpful description, as I agree that the church did indeed move away from any literal adherence to the written law very early in its history.

Most Muslim scholars I speak to blame St Paul for this movement away from the written law. I think ‘no’ – the departure from rigid adherence to the written code starts very much with Jesus Himself, and no where is that better illustrated than here.

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27) – that’s a radical statement, and one that we should take time to fully absorb.

Without wanting to put words into the mouth of the Rabbi I was talking to or any of my scholarly Muslim colleagues, I do believe that if I were to ask any of them why we should be obedient to the written law of God, the answer would be “because it is written”, or something very similar to that.

Ours is not to reason why God gives us particular laws but simply to be obedient. Should the toddler question her parents when they tell her not to touch the stove or not to run out on the road? The proper response is not to argue the case but rather to trust the wisdom and beneficence of your care-giver.

Jesus though suggests that we can question why rules are given – indeed, that we should question why rules are given – indeed, that we already know why these rules are given and that we therefore must interpret and apply these divine laws in accordance with their deeper purposes, which always involve the enhancement of human life, rather than simply obeying laws unquestioningly.

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”

If we take this seriously, it changes everything, religiously speaking. It means that we can no longer make pronouncements about marriage and the family and human sexuality, or anything else for that matter, simply on the basis of what is written. Instead, it means that every religious law and precept needs to be evaluated in terms of its divine purpose. To what extent does this law or principal enhance human life, justice, beauty and peace, or does it threaten to inhibit any or all of the above?

“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (Mark 3:1-2)

This last part of today’s story again fleshes out the type of confrontation that can arise between these two different forms of religious piety. A man with a withered hand appears in the synagogue and the religious authorities are all focused on whether Jesus is going to break the law. Jesus’ focus though seems to be somewhere altogether different. He is focused on the man!

I’m not suggesting that everyone who focuses on the word will always necessarily neglect people. On the contrary, I’ve known literalist fundamentalists and even ‘ultra-Orthodox’ characters who, guided by the Spirit of God, always seem to interpret the written word in ways that affirm life. Even so, if we imitate Jesus, we don’t need to follow any difficult or convoluted route in order to end up affirming life. We start with freedom and dignity, and we interpret the law accordingly.

There is a danger in this, of course. When you dispose of the dictator (the law in this case) what do we put in its place? If all we have to substitute for the law are our own very-fallible intuitions, we are not in a good place. If the choice is between legalism and anarchy, give me law! I think though that Jesus here shows us very clearly that there is a third alternative to legalism and anarchy – namely, compassion.

What was it that distinguished Jesus from his religious opponents (in this and every confrontation that we see them in)? It’s compassion. Yes, they interpreted some of the ancient texts differently, and they differed in the way they approached those texts but the key issue was never an academic one. The key difference was compassion.

At the end of this month Holy Trinity is going to host a famous Lebanese Islamic Sufi, and the plan is that we and he, along with other invited representatives of the greater Dulwich Hill and Marrickville community will publicly sign the ‘Charter of Compassion’

“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

Those are the opening lines of the charter – a document devised and launched by Karen Armstrong back in 2009, and subsequently signed on to by religious leaders and cities and parliaments around the world, and hopefully soon by us too!

Armstrong, for those who don’t know her, was once a nun, and I don’t think there can be any doubt as to where she found inspiration for her charter. Compassion may indeed ‘lie at the heart’ of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions. For Jesus, I believe, it was His heart. It’s what distinguished him from His peers. It’s what shaped His theology and thinking. It’s the essential legacy He left to His followers.

I began with a song by Johnny Rotten. Let me end with one from John Wesley:

Jesus, thou are all compassion.
Pure, unbounded love thou art.
Visit us with thy salvation.
Enter every trembling heart.

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Zionism and Biblical prophecy

The ideology of Zionism, which provided the philosophical underpinning for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, was not initially a religious movement. Whether or not Theodor Herzl was an Atheist, his writings display no interest in religion, and he certainly made no connection made between his vision for a new Jewish state and the activities of the Almighty. Modern defenders of the state of Israel though are far less reticent in their use of religious language. Indeed, it is rare to hear any contemporary politician speak in support of Israel without making reference to some Biblical text or image! This seems to be especially true of politicians who identify themselves as Christians.

Over the last generation, Christian Zionism has indeed become a bulwark of support for successive Israeli governments – allowing the State of Israel to flout the mandates of the United Nations and to oppress Palestinian Arabs with increasing impunity. Zionist governments are shielded from the dictates of the UN and from international law by their Western allies – most obviously the United States – and the US gets significant domestic support for its pro-Israel policies from the church.

If Norman Finkelstein’s analysis in his book of 2012 – “Knowing too much – why the American Jewish romance with Israel is coming to an end” – is correct, Zionist governments can no longer take for granted the support of Jewish communities outside of their country. Bizarrely though, they seem to be on much firmer ground when it comes to support from the church, at least in the United States.

According to the Pew Research Centre, 63% of white evangelical Christians in the USA believe it is their biblical responsibility to support the nation of Israel, and Christian Zionist groups such as the International Christian Embassy (ICEJ), Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) claim to have over 50 million members between them! These groups form a virtually impenetrable lobby when it comes to US foreign policy regarding Israel, and this is what allows the crimes of violence, such as those we see now perpetrated against unarmed protestors in Gaza, to continue, with Mr Netanyahu confident that no one is ever going to hold him to account.

As to the origins of this aberration of the church, I can do no better than refer you to my friend and colleague, Dr Stephen Sizer, who is an expert in this field. For today’s purposes, I want to focus not on the origins of Christian Zionism but on what keeps this ideology in place at a theological level, and I think the answer to this is reasonably straightforward. It is the appeal Christian Zionists make to their Scriptures – both to their New Testament and to the Jewish Bible – and most especially to a series of prophetic texts that they believe foretell both the establishment of the Zionist state and its victory over all its political opponents!

Armed with these prophetic texts, Christian Zionists claim that defending the state of Israel is a Biblical mandate for all believers, regardless of what injustices they might thus be sanctioning or how many people might be oppressed or killed. It is my contention though that not only have the Christian Zionists misread particular verses, but they have misunderstood their sacred texts at a deeper level and have failed to understand the way prophecy works in the both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

In terms of the texts these people appeal to, there are multiple sites on the Internet, (such as where they are laid out systematically. The starting point is generally the promise given to Abram in the Torah (in the book of Genesis) that the whole land of Canaan, which includes all of modern-day Israel and Palestine, will be given to his descendants as an everlasting inheritance:

“The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:8)

Indeed, the Hebrew Bible’s narrative of the people of Israel begins with this promise to Abram, which is a promise that has two other parts to it – namely, that Abram will also become the father of a great multitude and, most significantly, that through these descendants ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 13:3)

The focus of Christian Zionists though is on the part of the promise concerning the land, which they see as still being in the process of fulfillment.

In the history of Israel, as related in the Jewish Scriptures themselves, the land is both conquered by the descendants of Abram and subsequently lost to them, though there are indeed various prophecies of a return to the land.

“Say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land” (Ezekiel 37:21)

Christian Zionists will claim that this prophecy was not fulfilled (as is generally supposed) when the king of Persia, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to their land – an event generally dated at around 538 BCE – but nearly 2,500 years later, in 1948, with the foundation of the modern state of Israel!

Once this leap is made, and prophecies that are normally thought to be related to events that occurred two and half thousand years are identified as finding their fulfillment in the modern day, it doesn’t take too much imagination to find a plethora of other contemporary events referred to in similar fragments of Scripture.

Hence, Zechariah 8:4 – “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem” – is seen by Christian Zionists as being fulfilled not in the above-mentioned return from exile, but in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 when the Israeli army seized control of East Jerusalem from Jordan!

Likewise, prophecies that speak of coalitions of armies conspiring against Jerusalem, such as Psalm 86 or Zechariah 12:3 – “all the nations of the earth will be gathered against it” – are taken as references to current hostilities between the modern state of Israel and its Arab and Persian neighbours.

Moreover, and most disturbingly of all, the victory of the state of Israel over all of its neighbours is seen as being clearly foretold by the same prophets:

Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord Will be established 1as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. (Isaiah 2:2 and Micah 4:1)

Of course, for Christian Zionists, the end-point of their story is not the victory of the state of Israel over its enemies but the return of Christ, which they see as being intrinsically linked to Israel’s military victories.

I won’t bother explaining in detail how exactly they connect these military and spiritual events, as even I find it a bit baffling, but the upshot is that Christ can’t return until Israel has destroyed all her enemies, which, they say, makes it incumbent on every Christian believer to get behind the state of Israel in its military ventures so that the plan of God for the world might come to completion!

I hope I’m doing Christian Zionism some degree of justice in my brief summary. When I have heard these people speak, they generally pull out a lot more verses from the Bible to buttress their case than the small number I have offered above. Even so, I’ve limited my presentation to a handful of prophetic texts as my main contention with Christian Zionism is not with their interpretation of any particular text but with the way these people approach the prophetic literature as a whole.

Christian Zionists give their support to the state of Israel based on prophetic texts that they believe predict the victory of Israel over its enemies. I consider their interpretations erroneous, but even if I agreed with their interpretations it would not affect my politics since prophecy in the Jewish and Hebrew Scriptures doesn’t work that way. Biblical prophecy is never normative. The prophecies themselves do not tell us what to do. Biblically speaking, it’s always the commandments that tell us what to do. The role of prophecy is to bring us back to the commandments.

This is one thing that both Christianity and Islam and, I believe, Judaism agree on. Being a prophet of God is not fundamentally about predicting the future. There is a big difference between prophecy and fortune-telling.

In the Jewish Bible, as in the New Testament, as also in the Qur’an, the role of a prophet is to call people back into a relationship with God. If the prophet’s message includes dire predictions about the future, this is because God’s commandments have been broken and the prophet is urging his hearers to avoid the judgement he foresees by showing repentance and faith and obedience to God’s commandments.

It is God’s commandments that are normative. It is the commandments that must be obeyed. Prophetic predictions about the future function to call us back to those commandments, but the predictions themselves do not tell us what to do.

When Amos proclaims God’s judgement – “For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (Amos 3:6) – his purpose was not simply to upset people by telling them that they were about to be destroyed, nor was he inviting anyone to come and join him in destroying Israel. On the contrary, his purpose was to call his hearers to repentance so that the nation might not be destroyed.

When the prophet Jeremiah railed against the sins of Israel and predicted that
a ‘boiling pot from the north’ (Jeremiah 1:13) would spill over in their direction and destroy everything, this was not designed to shift anybody’s political allegiance from Israel to the northern nation of Babylon (or Assyria).

Jeremiah’s hope was always that the events he prophesied would not come to pass, and when things did take place just as he had predicted, Jeremiah wrote a whole book of Lamentations, mourning Jerusalem’s destruction.

Biblical prophecy is never normative. Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom did not make destroying Jerusalem a moral imperative, such that the correct response from his hearers would have been to enlist in the Babylonian army and join in the looting. Such prophecies were rather designed to function like shock therapy – jolting listeners back to a sober awareness of their spiritual plight.

Hence Biblical prophecies were never designed to shape 21st century foreign policy any more than they were given for the sake of satisfying curiosity about the future. Prophecies were given in order to call people to back to God and to God’s commandments.

Once we recognise this, the fundamental flaw in the logic of Christian Zionism is laid bare. They claim that the Biblical prophecies point to the triumph of the modern state of Israel over neighbours. Even if this were correct and that some prophet had predicted a military victory for modern Israel, this would not mean that either the prophet or the Bible endorsed such an event. Nor would it mean that believing people should support it, any more than Jeremiah’s dire warnings were intended to garner support for the destruction of Jerusalem.

In the Hebrew Bible, when a prophet gave dire predictions about the future, his hope was that his warnings would cause his hearers to come back into a relationship of obedience to God, and that this would result in his prophecies proving false. Prophecy thus always functions to lead us back to the commandments. The tragedy of Christian Zionism is that it gets the whole process back-to-front – urging us to follow the prophecy, even if this means breaking God’s commandments!

Prophecy has never been normative for people of faith. It’s the law of God that is normative. The commandments inform our actions and tell us how we ought to behave towards God and towards our neighbours. It is on the basis of the commandments that we might construct a Biblically-based foreign policy, which would require focusing, of course, on justice.

As a Sydney Anglican priest, I am privileged to be from a church tradition that has never been greatly influenced by Zionism. Indeed, I believe that at the Sydney Synod of 1948, when some people did stand up and suggest that the creation of the State of Israel was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, it was the principal of our theological seminary who corrected them, saying “No, no! It’s the fulfillment of the eighth commandment – ‘Thou shalt not steal’!”

This is indeed the great tragedy of Christian Zionism – that under the guise of faithfulness to Biblical prophecy, it justifies stealing and murder and any number of other crimes that are clearly contrary to the commandments of God.

A genuinely Biblical approach to the situation in Israel/Palestine must begin, not with prophecy, but with God’s unambiguous command to do justice – a justice that respects the rights of the Palestinian people to their land, to life and to liberty.

Father Dave – May 12th, 2018, New Horizons conference, Mashad, Iran

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The danger of Anti-Semitism

I want to thank the organisers of today’s event for privileging me with an invitation to address you. At the same time though, a part of me wants to say ‘thanks for nothing’ as you guys must know that by speaking at events like this I run the risk of having myself censored and disciplined and sidelined!

I do actually have a painful history of being targeted on account of the things I have said (either in writing or in speech) that are critical of the Israeli government. Indeed, I’ve had the privilege of being invited to address prominent groups of government officials and community leaders on topics completely unrelated to Israel/Palestine, only to find out afterwards that the organisers were subsequently warned not to deal with me again on account of my dubious stance I take on these issues!

I’ve had my websites and my Twitter feed and my Facebook posts gone through with a fine-tooth comb, and reports have been made to my bishop! My sites have been scoured for information in an attempt to indict me as being anti-Israel, even if not anti-Semitic, though I’ve had other people tell me that by being anti-Israel I am anti-Semitic, by definition, as criticism of the state of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism, and this is what I wanted to talk about briefly tonight. Is it OK to criticize the Israeli government, or is it actually a form of racism?

At first glance, political critique and racism seem to be entirely different animals. I am regularly critical of the Australian government. Indeed, I am vehemently critical of this country’s treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers and I believe our record in this regard is absolutely disgraceful – something that every citizen of this country should be deeply ashamed of! Even so, by expressing these sentiments I don’t get myself labelled as being a self-hating Aussie or anything like that.

Likewise, I take enormous exception to the actions of the government of the United States, most obviously over their ongoing murderous rampage through Syria, which I believe is inexcusable. I don’t expect everybody to agree with me on that, but I don’t expect anyone either to label me as being anti-American or anything of the sort, as those who know me know I do sincerely love that country and its people.

Why is it then that when I criticize the actions of the State of Israel, an entirely different dynamic seems to apply? For some reason, it seems that I can’t be critical of the way the Israeli government treats its Arab population nor the native people of the West Bank and Gaza without being accused of discriminating against the Jewish people as a race!

This is especially pronounced when it comes to support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israeli goods and services. This appears to be a very ethical form of non-violent protest, similar in nature to the boycott campaign used so effectively against the South African government in the Apartheid era. The accusation though is that is regularly levelled against BDS advocates is that their campaign is only a cover for a new form of Anti-Semitism, aimed at delegitimizing the Israeli government and its people.

Personally, I suspect that some people who support the BDS could, in part, be motivated by a vile hatred of Semitic people. I suspect too that there may be some who support BDS because they have shares in IBM and it suits them to boycott competitors such as Hewlett-Packard! Even so, I am fully convinced that the vast majority of those of us who support BDS do so simply because we see it as the best way of achieving the liberation of the Palestinian people, and of putting an end to the oppression, discrimination and unrelenting brutality they experience at the hands of the Israeli government!

The recent violence displayed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) towards protestors in Gaza – shooting and killing numerous unarmed men and boys, and injuring thousands – seems to me to be such a horrendous crime that it cries out to Heaven for redress, yet this gets very little response from our political leaders!

Indeed, it seems to me the ultimate irony that those ‘leaders of the free world’ who displayed so much self-righteous anger over an alleged gas attack by the Syrian government said absolutely nothing about the undisputed cases of civilian murder that were being carried out across the border in Palestine! Our great custodians of the moral order felt it necessary to send millions of dollars’ worth of missiles into Syria, spreading an as-yet-unquantified amount of death and destruction because they just couldn’t stomach what happened to the citizens of Syria. The murder of the citizens of Gaza though didn’t even elicit a murmur!

How is this possible?  I do believe that in part it is because people have been cowered into silence when it comes criticism of the Israeli government. No matter how vile and violent the actions of the Israeli government, you don’t have to say much in defense of Palestine to be labelled an anti-Semitic racist!

Last week’s case of the disgracing of Mahmoud Abbas may be a case in point.

I’m afraid I haven’t been able to get access to the man’s full speech as I was very curious to find out exactly what he said that infuriated so many people. What is unambiguous though is that Abbas has been labelled as anti-Semite and even as a Holocaust-denier by the Israeli Prime Minister. From what I can see, Abbas did question why the Jewish people have experienced such a terrible history of persecution, and he seemed to suggest that it was because of the roles they played in society rather than because of their religion as such.

I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t know if there wasn’t more to what Mr Abbas said. Even so, I found it hard to see that what was presented in the reports was racist, let along that it involved denial of the Holocaust!

I won’t comment further on that as there may be more to the story that I’ve found in my research thus far. Even so, I do see accusations like this thrown about all the time (most obviously online) where people are accused of being anti-Semitic or of being Holocaust-deniers simply because they express concern for welfare of the Palestinian people, and we do need to keep these things separate, for one of the great dangers in this climate is that this attempt to broaden the definition of anti-Semitism will inadvertently lead to a growth in real racism!

Racism is a vile curse and a hindrance to human-rights efforts in whatever form it comes, and I personally believe that there is a real danger of a growth in genuine anti-Semitism, and I believe that at the heart of the problem is the Israeli government itself.

Mr Netanyahu continues to enact policies of violence towards Palestinian people, and he does so claiming that his government acts on behalf of all Jewish people everywhere in the world! Most of us are smart enough to realise that no politician and no government can ever speak or act on behalf of a whole race of people. Even so, as less aware people buy into the lie, the danger is that the violence of the Netanyahu government will indeed be seen as Jewish violence, rather than what it is – the oppressive actions of a corrupt government.

There is no shortage of Jews around the world who cry ‘not in my name’ in response to these actions of the Israeli government. Indeed, in my only-ever trip to Israel in 2002, where I was at the centre of a riot and was almost killed, one of my most enduring memories was standing besides so many young Jewish men and women who were joining us in protest against their government. And while I had the privilege of going home after my ‘Holy Land experience’ those young Jews and Jewesses continued on in the work, enduring humiliation and violence for the sake of their beliefs.

According to Chicago-based Rabbi Brant Rosen, in an article entitled Anti-Zionism Isn’t a ‘Form of Discrimination’ and It’s Not anti-Semitism there are indeed a growing number of Jews around the world who identify themselves as anti-Zionists and are motivated “by values of equality and human rights for all human beings.” We need to keep this in mind, as we need to fight the propaganda that wants to conflate the political and religious and racial dimensions of the Israel/Palestine tragedy.

We must resist all temptations fall prey to racism, just as we must resist the temptation to stay quiet for fear of being accused of racism, for we must speak out!

There are powerful forces trying to shut down discussion about the crimes of the Israeli government, but we must speak out. For the sake of the unarmed protestors who were shot and killed in Gaza, we must speak out. For the sake of all the Palestinian children in Israeli gaols, we must speak out. For the sake of all those in the West Bank who have had their homes destroyed, and for the sake of all those around the world who wear the keys of their ancestral homes around their necks, waiting for their right of return, we must speak out. For the sake of justice and for the sake of God we must speak out.

As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of he good people.” We must not remain silent. We must speak out – viva Palestina! God bless Palestine!

Delivered by Father Dave at UWS Bankstown Campus, May 5th, 2018

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Christianity and Politics

Father Dave and Rabbi Weiss address the faculty of Reza University in Mashad (Iran)

Father Dave and Rabbi Weiss address the faculty of Reza University in Mashad (Iran)

The relationship between the Christian faith and politics is not an easy topic for discussion, especially if we take our starting point from the Christian Scriptures – the New Testament.

Whereas both the other ‘religions of the book’ (Judaism and Islam) saw their sacred texts emerge in contexts where the faithful were in positions of political authority, the New Testament was written at a time when the church was a persecuted minority with no political power. Accordingly, while there is plenty of material in both the Jewish Scriptures and in the Qur’an that illustrates how a state should be run in accordance with religious principals, there is nothing comparable in the New Testament. On the contrary, the only references in the New Testament to political power, suggest that it is something that believers should avoid having any association with!

I suspect that the words of Jesus that most immediately come to mind when most Christians think about His relationship with politics is Jesus’ response to the question of whether his followers should pay taxes to the Roman occupying power. His response – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) – suggests that God’s realm and the political realm are two separate spheres, and that one should not interfere with the other.

I do not doubt that verses like this have contributed to the current Western democratic dogma of the separation of church and state, and indeed that position is consistent with other statements attributed to Jesus, such as “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), which is, significantly, said to have occurred in conversation with the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – a man of considerable political authority.

Whether words such as these should be taken as forbidding Christian believers to seek positions of political authority, or whether Jesus was just trying to keep the spiritual and political sphere’s distinct is open to debate. What is less ambiguous is that Jesus had a concept of leadership that was distinct from the model displayed by the political leaders of his day.

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It is not to be so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43)

This command of Jesus is recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels and is particularly significant for our purposes as it explicitly distinguishes between the accustomed way in which political power is exercised – where rulers ‘lord it over’ their people – and the form of authority that Jesus Himself modelled, which was an authority embodied in service to others.

The language Jesus uses seems to be deliberately extreme. Literally, He says that we are supposed to be the slaves of those who are under our authority, rather than the other way around! Instead of manipulating those under our authority, we are supposed to serve them.

Countries like mine still display the legacy of this teaching in the titles we bestow upon our political leaders. We refer to our governmental leaders as ‘ministers’, which means ‘servants’, and we refer to our most powerful political leader as the ‘Prime Minister’, meaning the first amongst servants. Even so, we don’t see a lot of servile behavior amongst the political leadership in my country. Regardless of the language, we lord it over each other just as well as ‘the gentiles’ of old ever did!

My reading of the New Testament, and of Jesus’ life as well as His teachings, is that institutional power was something that Jesus Himself deliberately avoided, and whether or not He would have explicitly discouraged his followers from seeking political office, I think it is beyond question that Jesus expected His followers not to use positions of authority, if they had them, to manipulate and exploit others.

This is obvious, and the other thing that is equally obvious is that the church throughout its history has paid scant attention to Jesus’ teaching on this subject! On the contrary, the church over the centuries has shown itself time and time again to be as power-hungry and as manipulative as any of its secular counter-parts.

My feeling is that Constantine’s victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in the year 312 was the beginning of the end for the church! This was the battle through which the Christian religion was elevated from being an illegal religious sect, undergoing regular persecution from the authorities, to being the official religion of the empire.

Prior to Milvian Bridge, if you were a Christian and you received a visit from the local authorities, it might have been to have you arrested and fed to the lions. If you received that visit after the victory of Constantine, it was probably because you were being offered a privileged position in the new government!

I’m not suggesting that it was a bad thing that the persecution stopped, but the power went to our heads! As Lord Acton rightly said, “all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The church became too powerful too quickly and fell subject to corruption. Tragically, nowhere has that corruption been more obvious in the history of the church than it its persecution of the other peoples of the book – in the appalling violence displayed to both Jews and Muslims.

Recognising the historic failure of the church to engage creatively in the political process, it remains to be asked what role the church should play in politics today.

A popular solution amongst Protestant churches is to have nothing to do with politics. This approach is grounded in the ‘two realms’ framework that I mentioned earlier, and I agree that it’s better for the church to have no involvement at all in things political if the alternative is another Crusade or Holocaust. Even so, I do believe that there is an alternative between these two extremes, and it’s found in the teachings of Jesus that I’ve already quoted: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43)

If the church is to engage with the political process, we must do so out of a desire to serve those around us and, I think, we must operate as servants – in other words, from outside positions of institutionalized power.

We tend to assume that the only way to fight a corrupt power is with an equal power that is less corrupt. The problem, of course, is that all power does indeed tend to corrupt.

When I think of movements that have made for lasting and significant social change in the last century, three great movements come immediately to mind:

  • The independence movement in India that was led by Mahatma Ghandi in the early 20th century
  • The Civil Rights movement in the United States of America, lead by Martin Luther King Jr. in the middle of the last century.
  • The Iranian Revolution in the late 20th Century.

All three were profoundly peaceful revolutions that avoided the use of violence to achieve their political goals. All three movements were deeply grounded in religious ideals and were headed up by spiritual leaders who were servants to their people.

I do believe that today, if we are going to confront the dark forces that are currently threatening to tear our world to pieces, we need another spiritual revolution, led by spiritual men and women, using the non-violent weapons of prayer and self-sacrifice.

The proper path for the church, I believe, is clear. The problem is that it has always been clear and yet we, the church, have never had the courage to follow it! I suspect that if we are going to finally prove true to our calling at this late stage of human history, we will need the support of other peoples of faith – support from our Islamic and Jewish sisters and brothers most especially.

Together we can make a difference. Together, if we remain grounded in our spiritual ideals and open to each other in love, we can combat the forces that threaten to destroy humanity. We, the church, will never be able to erase our checkered history, but together I believe we can step forward into a better future.

Address given by Father Dave at Reza University, Mashad on May 14, 2018.

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We are the answer we have been waiting for (a Pentecost Sunday sermon)

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.(Acts 2:1-4)

It’s Pentecost again – the birthday of the church – and it did occur to me this year that Pentecost may be where the tradition of the birthday cake actually started.

This is pure conjecture on my part, and I was on a plane when I started this sermon and this thought came to me, so I couldn’t research ‘birthday cakes’ on the net, but if you’ve ever seen some of the classic depictions of the disciples at Pentecost, where ‘tongues of fire’ come down and rest on each of them, the Apostles do often look like a row of birthday candles, each with a little flame appearing on the top of their heads.

I suppose I could have researched the history of the birthday cake after I got off the plane, but I didn’t really want to lose the image that I had in my head of God coming down and lighting all the candles on that cake, celebrating the birthday of the church!

I don’t really think anyone is sure what it was exactly supposed to look like, but what Luke, the author, is trying to make clear is that something truly exciting was happening at Pentecost. Just as a master chef takes various ingredients and mixes them together to create something spectacular, God is at work at Pentecost, mixing together wind and fire and human flesh to create something new and amazing – namely, the church! To understand why this new creation is so significant though, I think we need to recognise that something very ancient is on view here too.

I’ve just come back from a conference in Iran where I’ve (quite literally) given more TV and radio interviews than I can count, responding (among other things) to questions as to why the world is the way it is.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in analysing international political affairs, though I’ve learnt a lot over my 56 years (and over the last five or six years in particular) and the curious thing is that I find myself, more and more, going back to the Torah when I do these interviews, as I become increasingly convinced that the answers are all there at the very beginning of our Scriptures and that nothing has really changed.

Why is there still war in Syria? Why is the Israeli army shooting unarmed protestors in Gaza? Why is the US talking about invading Iran? Why won’t the Australian government treat the men of Manus Island like human beings and give them a chance to live normal human lives? Of course, these are each complex questions in their own way, but at their most basic level, the answer, I believe, is always the same – namely, it’s the human lust for power that is generating all this misery, and that’s all there at the beginning of the book of Genesis. We eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because we want to be like God!

I don’t mean to be overly simplistic and, indeed, the problems facing today’s world do require careful analysis and solid thinking. Even so, while some things change, others remain the same and, in the end, we haven’t moved far from our spiritual ancestors. We still lust for power. We still want to be like God.

Those who knew my dad before he died (more than 17 years ago now) may remember that he became increasingly interested in these early chapters of Genesis as he got older too, though I’m not sure it was for exactly the same reasons.

One of the reasons I’ve become so fascinated with those ancient stories – the story of Adam and Eve in particular – is because I’ve read a number of books lately on the anthropological history of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – books that try to depict human life and society before the move to farming and settled communities, which took place somewhere between twelve and twenty-four thousand years ago.

A lot of recent work done in this area suggests that Thomas Hobb’s famous depiction of ‘primitive’ human life as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” is almost certainly erroneous. Analyses of life in contemporary hunter-gatherer communities, where they still exist, and the anthropological studies of our ancient forebears that I’ve read suggest that life in those days was relatively idyllic. People worked for two to four hours per day, spent many hours each day playing and spending time with their children, in communities that were relatively free of both disease and violence.

Certainly, it stands to reason that in a subsistence society, where survival is always a cooperative effort, there is no private property and hence no such thing as theft. There is therefore very little reason to fight, and no need for politicians or armies. One author I read suggested that humanity wasn’t so much thrown out of a garden as into one (if by ‘garden’ we mean a cultivated agricultural environment). Perhaps it would be equally accurate to say we were thrown out of a garden and on to a farm.

You’ll forgive me if I seem to be straying from the today’s text, but it’s all connected (in my mind at least). When Genesis depicts us as being thrown out of the garden and on to a farm – “in toil you will eat of [the earth]” (Genesis 3:17) it then traces the degeneration of the human species into jealousy and murder, and you can see this descent depicted over the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. This downward spiral ends at the tower of Babel, where people band together with a view to, again, becoming powerful. They say, ‘let us make a name for ourselves’ (Genesis 11:4) and set about building a city with a great tower in the middle of it.

This Biblical depiction of humanity’s movement from the garden to the city is surprisingly similar to the way anthropologists describe the evolution of the human community, from a nomadic lifestyle to settled agricultural life, which brings with it private property, greed, war and politicians. The Genesis narrative though covers a dimension of this evolution that the anthropologists largely neglect – namely, the way in which the up-scaling of human cooperation always seems to make things worse!

The more we band together, the worse we become. The sin of Adam and Eve is bad, but their children are worse, and it’s the team effort at Babel that is depicted as the end-point of this process of degeneration, all of which is true to human experience!

Jack the Ripper did some terrible things, but it took an entire nation working together to create the Holocaust. Individuals murder, but it takes armies and governments to commit genocide. What we do as individuals can be horrible, but it’s not until we all pull together that we really have the potential to destroy the entirety of creation.

From a Biblical point of view, when we all band together, we suck, and when a whole lot of us get together en masse, such that we are able to do really significant things on a grand scale, we generally suck even more.

This is the story of human history and the building of empires that allows for the growth of industry, the development of technology and economies of scale. All this is powerfully impressive in its own way, but we know too that there is a very dark side to all the wonderful history of human achievement. In the shadow of every great tower that we build there are populations who are subjugated and enslaved.

Nothing better embodies that truth for me than the Great Wall of China – surely one of the most magnificent testimonies to human industry present in the world today – but those who know the history of the building of the wall know that it was only made possible because of the enslavement of millions of indentured workers, who, as they died of exhaustion, had their bodies were thrown into the wall as building continued. There is always an underside to the history of every great human achievement.

As an aside, if I remember correctly, the wall was only crossed by invading armies twice during the reign of its initial builder. In each case, it wasn’t because any of the armies managed to breach its fortifications. They just bribed the guards.

The descent of humanity, at any rate, is captured, Biblically, in this ancient story of Babel and the tower (in Genesis 11), and it is Babel and the tower that form the background to the Pentecost event as we read of it in the book of Acts, chapter two.

In the Genesis story, people band together to ‘make a name for themselves’ and God, we are told, foresees their terrible potential and so limits their power by confusing their language, which, again, is true to human life.

The charismatic appeal of dictators is indeed limited by the fact that no one dictator speaks everybody’s language. The realities of linguistic and cultural difference do limit the appeal of any human individual. Truly, the curse of Babel is a blessing in the sense that it slows the process of empire-building. Even so, it is a curse, as ultimately human community is a good thing, or at least it can be.

And that’s what we see at Pentecost. That’s what the birth of the church is all about! It’s God’s way of bringing people together in community in a way that doesn’t suck!

“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.(Acts 2: 4)

  • At Babel people came together to make a name for themselves and be great. At Pentecost God brings people together in order to create something great.
  • At Babel God confuses everyone’s language in order to limit their capabilities. At Pentecost God bridges the language divide to create new possibilities!
  • At Babel everything ends up breaking down into chaos and confusion. Pentecost ends in a fair degree of confusion too, but it’s a creative confusion!

The birth of the church at Pentecost is a spectacular event, but the tongues and the flame and the wind and the chaos are not there for their entertainment value alone. They are a volcanic eruption giving birth to a whole new possibility for the world!

Whenever I do these interviews where people ask me about why our world is the way it is, and what we can do about it, I always end up talking about the church!

That might sound ridiculous, as the church has certainly contributed its share of misery to humanity over history.  Even so, when we look at the church here in Acts, in the days before it became an institution with a bottom line, we see, I think, something of what we once were, and something of what we could be once again.

My reasoning, as I discuss this in interviews, is quite straightforward:

Our world seems to be controlled by powerful corporations and the governmental institutions that serve them. We aren’t strong enough to fight these great monoliths on our own as individuals. We need to come together. The problem is that whenever we come together, what we might call ‘the Babel effect’ kicks in, and we end up getting obsessed with making a name for ourselves, and we get corrupted by power.

The church though was founded as a community without a bottom line, uninterested in power. Yes, we have often succumbed to the lust for power, and yet we’ve never completely abandoned the beliefs and principles upon which we were founded either

What we have in the church is the possibility of true human community, given life by the breath of God, led and sustained by the Spirit of God, grounded in divine love.    If we can’t find hope for the world there, where will we find it?

We are the answer we have been waiting for – that’s the message today!

God didn’t put on a fireworks’ show at Pentecost because we lacked entertainment. Pentecost was God’s announcement to the world that true human community was again a possibility – a community that, while it doesn’t lust for power, has real divine power to undermine and overthrow tyranny and oppression in all its forms!

When I had the privilege of addressing the faculty of Reza University in Mashad a few days ago, I put before them three great peaceful human movements that have taken place within the last century that I believe have had enduring effects:

  1. The Indian movement for Independence, led by Mahatma Gandhi, that took place at the beginning of the last century.
  2. The civil rights movement in the US, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that took place at around the middle of the last century.
  3. The Iranian Revolution, that took place towards the end.

All three movements, it seems to me, were fundamentally spiritual movements, led by spiritual people, and they were each essentially non-violent.

I appreciate that not everyone would characterise the Iranian revolution of 1979 that way, as there was indeed a wave of violence following the creation of the new state, but the mass protests that led to the downfall of the Shah were made up of millions of people taking to the streets, led by their clerics, armed only with their prayers.

I believe this is the only kind of human revolution that can change our world for good. If we are to take on the forces of darkness, it will take an army of spiritual people, brought together by God, armed only with the weapons of prayer and self-sacrifice.

It needs to happen. I believe it must happen. Pentecost reminds us – it can happen!

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on May 20, 2018. 

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Embracing the + in the LGBTQI+ (Sermon on Acts 8: 26-40)

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza’ (This is a wilderness road)”. (Acts 8:26)

It gave me a bit of a chill this week when I looked at our reading from the book of Acts and saw it opening with a reference to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. We are told explicitly there that it is a ‘wilderness road’ – a term which, when it appears in Scripture, generally suggests something more than it being just another dirt road. It was a desolate road – a forgotten road, one that is travelled by forgotten people. Certainly, it seems to be that today.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that at the end of that road today there are a battalion of snipers from the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) who have shooting and killing unarmed protestors on the other side of a fence that designates the border between Gaza and Israel!

It seems inexplicable to me that while three of the most powerful countries on earth – the United States, Great Britain and France – were recently bombing the hell out of Syria in retaliation for an alleged gas attack on innocent civilians, allegedly carried out by the Syrian army, a stone’s throw away, at the end of that road from Jerusalem to Gaza, there were hundreds of innocent civilians being shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Forces – a crime that nobody was disputing, and yet no one threatened to bomb Israel in retaliation. Indeed, none of those self-appointed judges of humanity were even talking about it!

Why is there such a disconnect? How did our world get to be like this? These are difficult questions to answer, but one thing that is clear is that this part of the world has seen a lot of unjust and unnecessary suffering.

Ange and I had the opportunity to watch the recently-released movie on the ministry of St Paul. I confess that the movie brought me to tears at more than one point.

The image that continues to haunt me from that movie was of the Christians locked up in cells beneath the Colosseum in Rome – men, women and children all crowded together in adjoining cells.

The Christians, of course, had been accused of trying to burn down Rome – a crime which is generally believed to have been instigated by the Emperor Nero himself. Even so, the Christians were convenient scapegoats, and they are pictured in the movie as waiting in their cells, not having a clue what is going to happen to them until they receive the news that there are going to be games held there the next day, and then the penny drops, and people begin to cry and scream.

Thankfully the movie does not depict the games themselves, though there is a short scene of Roman soldiers pushing children out though the cell gates towards the central stadium, where you can hear the roar of the crowd in the background.

As I say, that image still haunts me, and I did find the movie as a whole to be a sobering reminder of what life must have been like for many of our Christian sisters and brothers in the first century.

How did our world ever get to be like this? Why does God allow innocent people to be tortured and killed like this? These are questions we continue to ask ourselves, and we might expect that if we were going to find answers to such questions in the Scriptures, we might find them in the Book of Acts, where Christian people are constantly being oppressed and brutalised.

Indeed, today’s story in Acts chapter 8 is inserted between two accounts of violence – the first being the story of the stoning of Stephen, and the second being the account of the persecution undertaken by Saul, who heads to Damascus hoping to arrest members of the church there and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains.

Not all these persecutions were successful, of course (Saul’s being an obvious case in point), but most were, and yet at no point does the author of the book try to explain to us why God didn’t step in to stop these things from happening. What we are told though, explicitly and bizarrely, is that every time the church experienced violence, the result was that it grew, and it grew not just in size but in breadth!

In Acts chapter 7 (the chapter preceding today’s one) we’re told of the aftermath of the stoning of Stephen – namely, that the persecution scattered the early church across Judea and Samaria, resulting in … a mission to the Samaritan community!

I’m sure we remember the reputation Samaritans had (from the Parable of the Good Samaritan amongst other things). These were those half-brothers and sisters of the Jewish community who were generally much despised by regular Jews. Taken in context, this inclusion of the Samaritans is all part of the gravitational movement of the early church away from the centre of religious orthodoxy towards the periphery.

The church begins as a small group of entirely kosher Jewish men and women. At Pentecost (Acts 2), Jews from every nation come on board. In Acts 7 the Samaritans join the party, and from there the news about Jesus starts penetrating the thoroughly non-Jewish world (largely through the ministry of St Paul). In the middle of it all though we have this little pericope about the conversion of a character who is without parallel in the Scriptures – a man very much on the ecclesiastical periphery, not only because of his ethnicity, but because of he is sort of gender non-specific!

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (Acts 8:27-29)

Maybe I’m not correct. Maybe the Ethiopian Eunuch considered himself very much a man. I don’t know and it’s very hard to work it out as there aren’t a lot of eunuchs around now such that we can hear from them as to their own self-understanding.

Mind you, some scholars do suggest that the term ‘eunuch’ could simply be a designation of the man’s office as a high-ranking official in the court of Queen Candace, but I think that if Luke (the author) had wanted to say ‘official’ he would have used the word for official. He deliberately uses the word ‘eunuch’, meaning a male who had been emasculated, and I believe he did so because he had Deuteronomy 23:1 in mind – “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”

I’m a little reticent to make pronouncements about persons whose sexuality puts them on the periphery. Indeed, when it comes to the LGBTI community, I’m not even confident that I’ve got the acronym right. I think it’s LGBTI, but I know some people add a Q or a Q+, though I’ve been told by others to drop the Q, and I don’t think you can add the + unless you have the Q, but I’m not entirely sure about that either.

I do fully respect the difficulty in settling on a fixed form of the acronym, as the goal is to be inclusive, and it’s hard to be sure if we’ve included everyone once you fix the acronym, though I appreciate too that not everybody who feels left out can be included or necessarily should be included.

I don’t think any of us want to include those who have a sexual orientation towards children as a part of the ‘+ community’ or as a part of any community we’re involved in, regardless of whether the ancient Greeks found that form of sexuality acceptable! We tend to make a clear distinction between activities between consenting adults and abuse, and that certainly resonates with me. Even so, the ambiguities about who should be included and who not to include don’t stop with pederasty.

I just completed reading what I thought was an excellent book on the philosophy of love by Canadian philosopher, Carrie Jenkins, who lives a polyamorous relationship. She’s a heterosexual woman with two adult male partners. At the end of the book she details some of the discrimination she’s received as poly-person, and it’s been extensive and, curiously, much of it has come from people in the GLBTI community!

According to Jenkins, a lot of gay and lesbian people feel that people like her are discrediting their efforts to be accepted by the mainstream, and so she finds herself labelled as immoral rather than as different by people who, until very recently, were themselves labelled as immoral rather than different by the broader community.

Where in this spectrum would the Ethiopian eunuch have found himself, I have no idea. What we can be confident about is that he would have been on the periphery of the Jewish temple community.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

That this man, who, presumably, was not a Jew, and would not have been allowed into the temple even if he had been a Jew, would nonetheless travel to Jerusalem to worship was itself remarkable! Evidently, somehow, this man had come to find in the religion and Scriptures of the Jews a form of spiritual integrity and truth that he could not find in his own culture and amongst his own people.

We don’t know his exact story, but we know that he travelled a long way to be near to the place where he felt God was, and we know he had his own copy of the Jewish Scriptures (or at least a section of them) and this must have cost him (or his queen) a small fortune, as in the days when these manuscripts were only copied by hand, they would have been hard to come by and distributed very frugally.

The other things we know about this man, and this is really the most remarkable thing of all, is that whatever understanding of the faith he had embraced up to the point where he met Phillip, he moved away from it completely and embraced the Good News about Jesus, all within the space of a short chariot ride!

What was it that so convicted this man as to the truth about Jesus? Acts chapter 7 gives us a clue by detailing some of the conversation that took place in the chariot:

“Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”” (Acts 8:32-34)

The passage the eunuch is reading is from is one of the well-known ‘servant songs’ of the prophet Isaiah (chapter 53), and Phillip, of course, takes this as a God-given opportunity to talk to his new friend about the suffering and death of Jesus who he no doubt identified as being the very suffering servant that Isaiah spoke of.

My guess is that for the eunuch (and I’m sorry to keep referring to him as ‘the eunuch’ but unfortunately, we never get to know his name) – my guess is that for the eunuch this is more than a ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense’ moment. This was rather the missing piece in the puzzle that he had been waiting for, because in Isaiah’s servant he would have seen (possibly for the first time) a depiction of a God who suffers.

As I say, we don’t know this man’s full story, but my guess is that, despite his money and high position, he was something of an outcast. Certainly, the only image we get of him, travelling half way around the world to be part of a religious community that would never fully accept him, is somewhat pathetic. What he finds in the church, of course, is immediate and complete acceptance. Philip has no hesitation at all in baptising him. He doesn’t feel any need to consult with the other Apostles first as to whether they should allow a eunuch into their assembly. He knows full well that, despite what is written in the law of Moses, the love of Jesus embraces everybody!

Those who know my sermons know that I like to make one point with one sermon, I seem to have made two with this one. I’ve been talking about the way God allows us to suffer and about the way God forms the church as an inclusive community. What I want to say in closing is that these are the same point for, in the Book of Acts at least, these two are one. We suffer in order to become more inclusive.

If you can’t immediately see the connection, read through the Book of Acts again   for yourself. It’s the pain and suffering of the early church that keeps pushing its members out on to the periphery, where they find Christ waiting for them, ready to introduce them to people that they had never intended to include in their fellowship. Likewise, God uses our pain to open us to other people. He brings us down so that we might encounter others at the bottom of the ladder who have nowhere else to go.

I’m not suggesting that all human suffering is simply a mechanism to build more inclusive communities. Even so, I do believe that God works through all suffering – through the martyrdom of unarmed protestors in Gaza as well as through the more mundane struggles of depression and relationship breakdown we experience here.

I do believe that through the violence and the pain, through the cross and through the humiliation of it all, God is at work to form us into a new humanity, and that through His suffering and ours, His Kingdom comes.

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 29, 2018. 

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Opening our minds to the Scriptures (Luke 24: 44-47)

“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47)

I suspect that many in my community would be appalled if they knew how much time I spend each week on social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Indeed, I fear I rival some of our most ardent teenagers in terms of posts posted and tweets tweeted.

This week past I’ve spent a particularly intense time in the Twitter-storm, as I figure I have a duty to each one of my 34,106 Twitter followers (as it was at last count) to keep them up-to-date on what is really going on in Syria, though I do sometimes forget that not every one of those souls is necessarily on the same page with me.

On Thursday I tweeted the latest news I had received from sources inside Damascus – namely, that there had in fact been no chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta

What I reported was that an analysis of soil samples taken by the Russian army had come back, showing no signs of relevant chemical residues. Further, no hospitals in the area had reported dealing with patients carrying injuries consistent with any chemical attack, and that locals were apparently saying that the whole incident had been staged by the notorious ‘White Helmets’ (that supposedly humanitarian aid organisation who are, in my view, merely a propaganda tool of Al Qaeda).

One of the first responses I received to my tweet was from a gentleman who said that I “lost him and every intellectual when I mentioned Russian soil samples”.

I interpreted this to mean that I’d been unclear with regards the investigative work undertaken by the Russian army. After all, I’d kept my report to 140 characters to make it fit as a Twitter tweet. I replied by including more detail on the investigations. It then occurred to me that, of course, clarity wasn’t the issue at all. It was the fact that my source was Russian, when the Russians obviously could not be trusted.

I had forgotten, somehow, that to many people, the Russians are the bad guys, and that their testimony can never be trusted. This led me to question myself – ‘have I come to think of the Russians as the good guys, whose word cannot be questioned?’

Either way, this and my subsequent social media manoeuvrings last week served to remind me that every new fact we try to deal with is inevitably interpreted within the broader framework of related beliefs and assumptions that we already hold to.

With this latest global drama, as each new scene unfolds, we connect what is new to what already has a place in our conscious understanding, and we inevitably do so in a way that makes the new information consistent with the existing storyline, however we understand that greater storyline.  I believe the technical term for this greater storyline is the ‘meta-narrative’. In other words, it’s the ‘big story’, which both contains and helps us make sense of all the smaller stories.

Meta-narratives are a part of the scaffolding of our belief system. We may never have noticed the scaffolding going up, and yet these core narratives strengthen and support our particular beliefs and hold them all together. Like scaffolding too though, they are rarely directly on view, and we may not even be aware that they are there!

It took Noam Chomsky, the great linguist, to make me aware of the meta-narrative I’d absorbed as a child regarding the place of the USA in the global community. Chomsky pointed out that the US is cast in the role of a father to the global family, responsible for good behaviour in the household. Sometimes the father acts harshly to discipline a wayward child, but only ever with the child’s best interests at heart.

Once you take on this meta-narrative, you don’t see any hypocrisy in the fact that the US has enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons but nonetheless gets very upset if any other country tries to develop similar weaponry without its permission. After all, it’s OK for father to carry a stick, and to hit an errant child with it if he has to, but God forbid that one of the children should try to get hold of the stick and use it!

Religions too have their meta-narratives – big stories that tie together all the little stories and try to make a consistent whole out of them, and, as with politics, so too with religion, people can have different meta-narratives that string the building blocks of religious belief together in very different (and often competing) ways.

We are told that one of the key things Jesus did with His disciples after the resurrection was that he taught them the Scriptures.

“ [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (Luke 24:44-45)

I suppose there is more than one way to envisage what this process of ‘opening their minds to understand the Scriptures’ might have looked like, but if by ‘Moses, the prophets and the Psalms’, Jesus meant the three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible (normally referred to nowadays as the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings) Jesus’ point was that He is featured in every section of the Hebrew Bible.

This could, of course, mean simply that there are isolated verses in every one of those books where Jesus is mentioned prophetically. Perhaps He told them:

‘You see where Moses talks about another prophet like himself who will come? That’s a reference to me. And see those passages where the prophet Isaiah talks about the suffering servant? That was me he was talking about too!’

It’s not impossible that this was the process Jesus went through with His disciples after His resurrection – giving them a long list of proof-texts that they could use in future arguments with Jewish non-believers who accepted the Hebrew Bible as God’s word but weren’t convinced regarding the proper identity of Jesus.

It’s not impossible that this was the process but it’s unlikely, as most of these books don’t contain much prophecy! Far more likely, I’d suggest, is that what Jesus was addressing was the meta-narrative – the larger story that He understood to be weaving all the Scriptures together, and in which He played a pivotal role.

Of course, we would have had to have been there to know exactly what Jesus said. Even so, I don’t think it’s too hard to work out, broadly speaking, what Jesus might have taught His disciples, as we are in a pretty good position to grasp how those people understood the greater Biblical narrative prior to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles give us a pretty good idea as to how these same people understood that narrative after the crucifixion and resurrection. Hence, I think it’s fair to assume that what transformed their thinking was, at least in part, what the resurrected Jesus taught them.

What was it that changed in the Biblical meta-narrative of the disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? I don’t think it’s hard for us to answer that question. It was that the post-resurrection community came to see the Biblical meta-narrative as being less ‘Israel-centric’ or perhaps we should say less ‘Rome-centric’.

What was the last question the disciples asked of Jesus before He disappeared from their sight? According to the book of Acts, it was “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

Even at their last meeting the disciples were hanging on to what had been at the core of their earlier religious meta-narrative – namely, that God was going to act in history to end the Roman occupation and to restore Israel as a sovereign nation.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t answer that question directly and does not deny that political independence for Israel might still be a part of God’s plan. Even so, I think it is beyond debate that while this hope had been at the core of the religious hope of the disciples when they first signed up with Jesus, it played almost no part in the preaching and teaching of the early church as it evolved in the first century.

The change that takes place in the understanding of the disciples, as they make their transition from being the first followers of Jesus to becoming the early church isn’t in any simple reinterpretation of any particular text or group of texts. There’s a fundamental shift in the meta-narrative. Some would see this as a move away from the political towards the spiritual. I’d suggest that this transition might better be understood as a move away from being Israel-centric to being inclusive of all people, but we grasp this best by doing a quick sketch of that meta-narrative.

“In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth”, we’re told (Genesis 1:1). Not long after the beginning, God and human beings have a falling out, and by the end of the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis, things are in a bad state. Humanity have been kicked out of the garden, murder and mayhem have taken place, creation has already started to fold in on itself with a great flood, and human beings are no longer able to talk to each other due to the curse of Babel.

At the beginning of Genesis chapter twelve a new hope emerges in the form of the three-fold promise God makes to Abram – that He will make of Abram a great nation, that He will give Abram’s people a homeland, and that through Abram’s descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The implication is that the process of degeneration that was outlined in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis will somehow be thrown into reverse through these promises. In many ways, the rest of the Scriptures (both our Old and New Testaments) are concerned with the unfolding of these promises made in Genesis chapter twelve.

God does build a great nation through the seed of Abram, and by the end of the books of Moses God has almost given them a land. Even so, the history of the people in the land is not a consistently happy one, and there is a great deal of murder and bloodshed and idolatry and all-round godlessness, such that the descendants of Abram, instead of becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth, find themselves constantly under judgement, suffering for their sins.

The way people suffer for their sins in this narrative is never arbitrary. The punishment for idolatry (which, biblically speaking, I believe, is really the only sin) is always that you have to live with the God you’ve chosen to serve.

The punishment for the sin of choosing Donald Trump as your President is that you have to live with Donald Trump as your President. Of course, that’s a tragedy that affects the rest of the world too, but it’s not arbitrary. It’s the inevitable consequence of your choice. Likewise, the suffering endured by Israel, enduring occupation by the Babylonians, by the Greeks, and by the Romans (in that order) was not an arbitrary punishment, but the inevitable result of their choice of the wrong leader.

Up to this point the meta-narratives of the disciples of Jesus, both before and after the cross and resurrection, would have been much the same. Where they changed, I’d suggest, is in how they saw this problem of sin and occupation being solved.

There is no doubt that the dominant meta-narrative for Jews in the first century was that God was going to send them a leader who would lead them to victory over their Roman oppressors, and so get the nation back on track towards fulfilling the second promise given to Abram – the promise of a land. What Jesus showed them was that Israel’s problem was not primarily with Rome but with God, and that Israel still needed to suffer for their idolatry. Even so, Jesus would do the suffering for Israel – enduring all that the violence that Rome’s false gods could throw at them!

Further, the way the story would continue from this point, in terms of what the resurrected Jesus must have taught His disciples, was that they would not simply pick up then on the old promise of the land, but would move straight on to the third promise – the promise of being a blessing to all the families of the earth!

Think this through! Get your Biblical meta-narrative right, for getting the big story right is far more important than getting any particular story or verse right. How we understand the core narrative shapes how we interpret all its component parts.

When we find ourselves in conflict with other believers, differing in our interpretation of particular passages on issues of sexuality or gender or in any number of other areas, the real issue is almost always a clash in meta-narratives, and not a failure in intellectual rigor by the other side, though that’s generally how we like to interpret it.

Allow Jesus to open your mind to the Scriptures, and get your meta-narrative right, though recognise too that this is full of dangers. People call me an Assad apologist because I question the official Syrian meta-narrative have doubts about the Syrian army’s use of chemical weapons. They called me an apologise for Saddam Hussein years earlier when I didn’t buy into the weapons of mass destruction propaganda.

Don’t underestimate what it can cost you to be true to the core narrative of Scripture either – to hold fast to a belief in inclusiveness, mercy, forgiveness and love.

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 15, 2018.

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Easter 2018

Happy Easter … again.

When I say ‘again’, I’m not simply alluding to the fact that I’ve already given you Easter greetings today, but I mean ‘again, this year’, as this is now my 28th Easter as parish priest of the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill!

Who would have guessed that the romance would last this long? Who would have guessed we would spend so many Easters together, though, to be exact, I’ve only been present for 27 of our 28 Easter Sundays over those years. On the other one (2014) I spent the morning in Westminster Abbey and much of the evening in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in the company of our dear brother, Julian Assange.

I’ve been thinking a lot about dear Julian lately, as it seems unlikely that he’ll spend another Easter in the Ecuadorian Embassy (for better or worse). How good it would be if he could share next year’s Easter Sunday service with us here, though the possibility of that happening has never looked more remote than it does right now.

At any rate, there are many wonderful benefits that come with sharing so many special days like Easter with people you love, though the regularity of it all does also present special challenges to the preacher. How do I come up with something fresh this year – something that you haven’t heard twenty-six times already!

Of course, not everybody here today has been here to hear each of those twenty-six previous Easter Day sermons, but the evolution of our community does, in itself, bring its own challenges, for you guys are frankly a far more demanding audience than the happy flock I addressed here twenty-seven years ago!

I appreciate that I had the advantage back then of being the first cleric to accept an appointment in this place for what must have seemed like an eternity to the righteous remnant who were still hanging on here – feeling as if they’d been forgotten by the Diocese and left to atrophy and die. Dulwich Hill was just too rough a neighbourhood for any self-respecting family to move into the area. The fact that I was willing to be here, to share the Dulwich Hill experience with the band of brothers (and sisters) who were still holding out meant that I didn’t need to do much to feel appreciated. Indeed, so long as I was speaking English, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much what I had said. The good people of Dulwich Hill were just glad to have someone who was willing to get in the pulpit!

Moreover, we were a much more homogenous unit back then than we are now. We weren’t entirely white and middle class by any means, but there weren’t a lot of us then, and even fewer of us under the age of seventy. All being at a similar stage of life meant that we were almost all facing very similar life challenges, and that made it a lot easier to work out where the Scriptures really spoke to the community.

We are a far more diverse group today. We span a wide age-range, from those who can’t yet walk to those who are struggling to still walk. We come from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and some of us hold down high-paying professional jobs while others amongst us are struggling to find a job. Moreover, I believe that we have never been a more spiritually diverse community.

I take some pride in us being a spiritually diverse community, and by that I mean that were are not all the same kinds of Christians.

Perhaps some of us wouldn’t even call ourselves Christians (and that’s OK too) though I’m pretty sure that most of us would be happy to accept that label. Even so, I’m equally sure that there is a vast diversity amongst us when it comes to what it means for each of us to be followers of Jesus.

Of course, at one level, everybody’s spiritual experience is different, and so no two religious people of any variety are going to identical in their beliefs and self-understandings. Even so, there are a broad spectrum of distinct but nonetheless well-defined colours within the Christian spiritual rainbow (so to speak), and I think we see many of those different hues and colours represented amongst us here.

When I was a young believer, people would often ask me ‘what kind of Christian are you?’, and they’d be looking for a label like ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ or ‘Evangelical’ or some combination of the above, such as ‘liberal evangelical protestant’.

These labels can be helpful in defining what kind of Christian you are, but they function primarily to assign you to a particular tribe within the Christian family, rather than to say anything specific about what Jesus means to you. A more helpful way of appreciating Christian diversity, I think, is to look at what religious beliefs (or ‘dogma’s) are most central to your spiritual understanding.

When you think of yourself as a Christian (if you do think of yourself as a Christian) what exactly does this mean to you? Does it mean being part of a broad spiritual family who have a mission to accomplish in the world? Does it mean that your sins are forgiven? Does it mean that you’re going to Heaven when you die? Does it mean that you experience a personal relationship with Jesus?

Of course, you may want to say that it means all of those things to you and more. Even so, which is most central to your self-understanding? This is by no means a trivial question, as I remember being warned at seminary of those who would shift the deeper theological truths away from centre of our spiritual self-understanding.

I went to Moore College – a conservative Evangelical seminary. What theological truth do you think is at the core of their spiritual self-understanding? The atonement – the truth that God in Christ is reconciling the world to Himself through the cross. I remember there being warned specifically about those who put at the centre of their Christian thinking, not the atonement but the incarnation – the fact that in Christ God became human and shared our human experience with us.

That might not sound like much of a shift in emphasis. Indeed, it might not sound like a shift at all, as surely it’s possible to hold to a belief in both the atonement and the incarnation without the two being in conflict, and indeed it is, but don’t underestimate how such a shift in emphasis can transform you into a very different kind of Christian.

Without wanting to over-simplify the situation, let me suggest to you that those who’s spirituality centres on the atonement tend to be more Heavenly-minded, often seeing the whole point of Christianity as being a means to get you into Heaven when you die. That isn’t always the case, of course, but a focus on the atonement and forgiveness of sins tends to move us in that direction.

A focus on the incarnation, on the other hand, tends to be a more this-worldly focus. God shares our humanity in Christ, and if the human condition is good enough for God then humanity is something that is worthy of respect. God did not give up on humanity, so neither should we. As He came down and shared our condition, so we too must empty ourselves and share in the struggles of all our sisters and brothers.

Those who know me well and have been listening to my sermons for any length of time probably realise that for me, it’s neither the atonement nor the incarnation that are at the centre of my spiritual thinking. It’s Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God

That was a shift in focus I made many years ago after reading the so-called ‘liberation theologians’ who saw in Jesus’ teaching about the coming Kingdom of God a hope for a whole new social order – a world where poor people were fed and where there is no more injustice or war or oppression of the weak.

What I’m talking about here are different spiritual orientations, each of which have Jesus as their focus, but which emphasise different aspects of His life or teaching. These three different areas of focus that I’ve mentioned are by no means exhaustive of what we find amongst those who call themselves Christians in different parts of our world. Indeed, one of the great discoveries for me in the last few years has come from interacting with more sisters and brothers in the Christian Orthodox tradition.

I was fascinated to find that in the Orthodox tradition – be it Greek Orthodox or Syrian Orthodox or in other branches of Christian Orthodoxy – the focus tends to be not on the atonement nor the incarnation nor on the Kingdom of God. The Orthodox tradition focuses on the Transfiguration – on seeing Christ in His glory, and in the hope we have of ourselves one day seeing Christ in all His transfigured beauty!

What kind of Christian are you? What is the focus of your spiritual understanding? When you think of Jesus, what do you see? Do you see someone with a bleeding heart, as depicted in so much Catholic art? Do you see a young man who is very good-looking with blond hair and blue eyes and who speaks with a sophisticated American accent? Do you see someone else entirely?

When you think of the teachings of Jesus, what teachings first come to mind? Do you think of John 3:16 – ‘for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son’? Do you think of the beatitudes – “blessed are the peacemakers … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” (Matthew 5).

When you think of the life of Jesus, what do you see Him doing? Do you see Him touching a leper? Do you see Him giving dignity to women? Do you see Him healing the sick? Do you see him suffering on the cross?

There are many kinds of Christians, and the truth is that all of them are connected in some way to the Gospels and to the wisdom that has been passed on to us through our forefathers and foremothers in the faith. I’m not suggesting that all forms of Christian spirituality are therefore equally well connected to the Scriptures or to the wisdom that has been passed down, but the key thing that I do want to say today is that all forms of the Christian faith in their multi-faceted variety all have their starting point here – on Easter Sunday – in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

Wherever it ends up, Christian faith begins here – on Easter Sunday morning.

Whatever happened on Good Friday – however central that was to the life of Jesus and to the history of human-kind – no one would have bothered to interpret what had happened on the cross had it not been for the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty three days later.

However wonderful the teachings of Jesus – however much He pointed us to a new reality and urged us to build a different kind of world – nobody would have bothered remembering those teachings were it not for the fact that Jesus, having died on Friday, was somehow found to be alive again on Sunday!

What I love most about the resurrection stories that we read in the Gospels is that they are all so incomplete and unsatisfying. We like stories that have solid conclusions just as we like stories that have happy endings, and we just don’t get any of that in the New Testament Gospels!

We heard the resurrection account from John’s Gospel this morning, which is generally assumed to be the last of the four accounts of the life of Jesus written. Indeed, there may have been fifty years between the publication of the first Gospel and the publication of this last Gospel. Even so, despite the fact that the early church had all that time to put together a properly connected story, it still comes across as being radically incomplete!

It’s the story of the resurrection, but there is no actual account of the resurrection – no description of the miraculous body of Jesus somehow coming back to life. Far from it, instead of any depiction of the spectacular and miraculous, we get a story of people running around and looking for Jesus, and of a person whom Mary initially took to be a gardener, but then later became convinced was Jesus!

If you find that unsatisfying, go back to Mark (presumably the first Gospel written) where nobody seems to even see Jesus initially, but where the account ends with the women scared and not knowing what to do while the men are all in hiding!

Christian faith begins with this sense of confusion at not knowing what to do with the empty tomb! Gradually Jesus’ followers start to work it out, and they go back and reinterpret things Jesus said and did in the light of His resurrection, but as we leave those early followers in their befuddlement, the story is anything but finished.

Christian faith starts at the empty tomb but the story doesn’t end there. The Gospel narratives seem to be deliberately open-ended. They don’t have a straightford happy ending. Where does the story end? It ends here – in all the diversity of interpretation and in all the various forms of Christian expression that we see around us today.

We are the conclusion of this story. I’m not saying that we are necessarily the final chapter of the story, as it’s a story that is still being written. What I am saying though is that we are the current end-point of the process of confused interpretation that has gone on for the last two thousand years – a process of trying to come to terms with what happened on that Easter Sunday morning when Jesus’ tomb was found empty.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Yes! That’s where our story of faith begins. It’s up to us now to help shape how our great story is going to end.

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Easter Sunday, 2018. 

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Getting Angry with Jesus (a sermon on John 2:14-16)

“In the temple [Jesus] found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:14-16)

This was not the reading I expected to be confronted with this week. I know we’ve left behind the Christmas story and, more recently, Epiphany (the story of the wise men from the East who came to worship Jesus as a child). I appreciate, indeed, that we’re in Lent now, and hence have been wandering with Jesus through the desert. I just didn’t expect Jesus to be tearing up the temple just yet! It’s a disturbing change of pace, and it depicts Jesus in a way that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

I don’t know how many of us have seen the movie, Talladega Nights. It’s one of my favourite Will Ferrell comedies (which is saying a lot, as I’m a big fan of his comedy). What stands out for me in that particular movie though are the extensive prayers given by Ferrell’s character (racing car driver, Ricky Bobby) who always directs his prayers to the baby Jesus, beginning with “dear baby infant Jesus”.

During his saying of grace at a meal, his wife interrupts him and points out that Jesus did grow up, to which Ferrel responds by saying that it’s his grace and that when it’s her turn she can pray to whichever Jesus she wants to. She can pray to teenage Jesus, to bearded Jesus or to grownup Jesus. He just prefers Christmas Jesus!

I think a lot of us prefer the Christmas Jesus, and certainly we prefer Christmas Jesus to the Jesus we come across in this scene – namely, angry Jesus.

Angry Jesus is probably not the Jesus we direct our prayers to. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, yes, but angry Jesus, no. I expect most of us don’t see anger as a good thing. Perhaps we struggle with our own anger. Not many of us, at any rate would see anger as something we want to nurture and develop within ourselves, and few of us, I suspect, are comfortable with seeing anger as one of God’s divine attributes!

Yet, clearly, Jesus was angry, and in this scene in the Gospel according to St John, Jesus acts violently. Christian pacifists are quick to point out that Jesus doesn’t actually kill anybody, and that He probably only used His whip on the animals and not on the people He was turning out. Even so, we see aggression from Jesus here that is highly discomforting, and we see anger. Jesus gets angry!

I get angry. I get angry when I think about Syria. I appreciate that not everybody is as emotionally connected with what is happening in Syria as I am. Even so, I suspect that nobody has been able to avoid the latest news broadcasts reporting the hellish assaults on the civilians of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian army and its allies.

Once again, we are being told that unfortunate civilians are trapped in what the United Nations has referred to as a ‘hell on earth’, with latest reports putting civilian casualties at 520, with thousands wounded, under the heavy assault launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s ground forces, supported by Russian air strikes.

I wouldn’t want to deny for a second that the situation in Eastern Ghouta is horrible. Even so, what these latest media reports leaves out is that the reason the Syrian Army is engaged in Eastern Ghouta is because the entire area is under siege by foreign-backed extremist groups, such as the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front.

The area has been under siege for nearly six years now, and for all that time these people have been raining down mortar shells and sending suicide car bombs into the densely-populated centre of Damascus, which is only a few kilometres to the West!

I was in Damascus when two of those mortar shells landed in the carpark of the hotel we were staying in. It killed one of the hotel security guards and blew the leg off his friend. I was having a shower when I heard these enormous explosions. By the time I got downstairs though, the bodies had been taken away – one to the hospital and the other to the morgue – and life had returned to normal. It was such a daily occurrence in Damascus that few people were still talking about it half an hour later.

The civilians of Damascus who have been killed or injured by these militants based in Eastern Ghouta now number in the tens of thousands. I don’t doubt that the terrorists themselves are now having a hard time of it, and I don’t doubt that innocent civilians are being caught up in the crossfire as the Syrian Army finally routes these people from their well-established bases. Even so, the selective outrage of Western powers and their media outlets at the moment makes me very angry.

Lies emanating from centres of power are always disturbing, but it is not the lies as such that enrage me. It’s the needless loss of human life that these lies mask and, more so, the prospect of further loss of life that these lies potentially foreshadow.

Why are these lies being manufactured now, with ISIS having been beaten and most of Syria has come back under the control of the government? The only answer I can come up (and it’s one that I wish I could avoid coming up with) with is that this is a propaganda offensive, preparing the ground for an overt campaign of violence against Syria by the US and associated powers (that could well include Australia).

This prospect makes me sick to the stomach. After all the Syrian people have suffered, to suggest that we are waiting in the wings, ready inflict a whole new wave of suffering upon these people, makes me sick, and it makes me angry – very angry.

I get angry about Manus Island too.

I look back on my trip there and my time in the detention centre, which was more than three months ago now, and it all seems a little surreal! Arriving in the camp in the middle of the night was a little like being dropped into a warzone – a very intense environment, where all the stable parameters that mark out normal human life as we experience it are gone, replaced by darkness, desperation and human struggle.

I must confess that when I walk into situations like this I often have at the back of my mind that now, having uncovered this terrible tragedy, we – the good guys – will be able to do something about it. In the case of Manus, I have to remind myself that, no, this is a tragedy we have deliberately created! Moreover (at a government level at least) this is not only something we created. it’s a tragedy where we are actively trying to prevent others (such as the New Zealanders) from resolving!

I try to maintain some level of contact each day through reading the Twitter feed from men I met there – people like journalist, Behrouz Boochani, and Abdul Aziz Adam.

A few days ago Behrous wrote (February 22nd) “A refugee in East Lorengau camp tried to commit suicide this morning. He cut his neck seriously but his friends helped him and sent him to hospital. Just now they brought him back. There are no psychological facilities in Manus.”

A few days earlier, Aziz wrote (February 16th) “The 3 refugees are back from the hospital to the camp they have blue scars on their faces. One of them said we were just walking & 10 Navy guys with big muscles attacked & start beating us. They were so scared, traumatized by this horrible incident & similar to Good Friday shutting.”

These are not particularly sensational tweets, but they do give you a feel for the daily struggle experienced by the men of the Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre – a processing centre that many of the inmates felt never seemed to process anybody!

It makes me angry, and one of the most infuriating aspects of the tragedy, of course, is the obsequious humanitarian gloss that the defenders of offshore detention use to justify their policy. They never speak of their desire to punish asylum seekers and to make an example of them to the rest of the world. Instead, they speak of ‘turning back the boats’ to prevent more unnecessary deaths at sea, as if they really cared.

It’s similar with Syria, of course. No one suggests defending Al Qaeda from the Syrian army. We speak of protecting the civilians of Eastern Ghouta. I don’t doubt for a second too that there was a similarly hypocritical moral gloss on temple operations!

These merchants and money-changers – they weren’t there to make money, but to help people in worship. After all, the system of worship required animal sacrifice, and if you were travelling to Jerusalem from out of town, nobody could expect you to drag your animals across endless miles of open countryside, so the system, whereby animals were sold to worshippers, was a service to the community.

The money-changers, likewise, were just there to help. You couldn’t expect God’s house of prayer to accept payment in the currency of the godless occupying army! The money-changers did you a great service by relieving you of your filthy Roman lucre and exchanging it for the shekels you needed to buy your sacrifice.

Somebody had to do it. If prayers were to be given and sacrifices were to be made, and if the community of the faithful were to be able to remain faithful in their religious observances then these mechanisms were as necessary as their buildings and alters and their clergy and Parish Councils. Selling animals and changing money, might not be the most glorious aspect of worship, but they were vital components in the greater worshipping life of the community. And Jesus bought into none of this! Instead …

“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:15-16)

Jesus saw clearly what was going on. It wasn’t about worship. It was about making money, and it made Jesus angry!

My guess is that everybody in Jesus’ day knew that the temple system was a rort and that their leaders were milking them, just as everybody today knows deep down that we are being lied to about Syria and Manus Island and so many other things.

I did wonder whether taking a whip of cords to the Australian Parliament would do any good? I suspect it would only get me arrested. At the same time, we might ask how much good Jesus accomplished through His actions?

My guess is that Jesus’ disruption of the temple’s business, from the point of view of its financiers, was a very minor glitch in overall operations. The merchants and money-changers were probably back at their tables the following day, if not the same day! The losses would have been quickly compensated for, the animals returned to their stalls, and all the money all gathered up and put back into circulation.

Does this mean Jesus’ actions were a waste of time? Perhaps Jesus wasn’t trying to reform the temple system – at least, not in the short term. Perhaps He was trying to send a message to the broader worshipping community, telling them that they didn’t have to put up with all this, or perhaps He was sending a message to the people in power – letting them know that their corruption would not be tolerated forever?

I recently wrote a letter of support for a young woman who is a friend of many in our church community – Poppy Danis – who, last November, climbed the Sydney Opera house and tried to drop a large banner, drawing attention to the situation on Manus Island. She didn’t quite succeed but was instead arrested and (despite my appeal for clemency) was later fined $5,000 – an amount that she really can’t afford to pay.

I can appreciate that Poppy does question whether her efforts were worthwhile. My exhortation to her was that she should not doubt the value of what she did, despite the fact that she didn’t fully succeed in her aims. You can never know the ripple effect of your actions, and the bottom line is that when you’ve got the anger of Jesus inside of you, you’ve got to do something!

We need to pray that God will give us the anger of Jesus. This is not something we are likely to feel immediately comfortable with. Praying for the heart of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus, the eyes of Jesus (who sees the value of every human being) – this probably comes naturally to us, and yet we need to pray too for His anger – for the wrath of God which (as Emil Brunner put it) is the ‘hot instrument of His love’.

We need to take deep into our hearts the hostility of Jesus towards all forms of corruption, and towards all forms of institutionalised violence and oppression, no matter how uncomfortable that may make us feel, and somehow, of course, we need to do all this without letting go of gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

It may not be immediately obvious how we do that, and yet this is the reality we have to come to terms with – that the Christmas Jesus and the Jesus who clears the temple are in fact the same Jesus.

Mind you, as we journey through Lent, we know full well that we are on our way to meet with a Jesus who is even more difficult to come to terms with than the one we meet in John chapter two – namely, the crucified Jesus, with whom our Gospel stories climax. If we have trouble identifying with Jesus in His anger, we are likely to have an even greater struggle, meeting Him in His agony?

Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday, March 4th, 2018

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