Monday, 28 October 2013

Review: Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (2nd edition)

A guest-review by Jeff Aernie

Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 2nd edition. IVP 2013. xxxi + 1088 pp.

For over two decades lecturers, students, and pastors have benefited greatly from the IVP Dictionary series. The first edition of the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (DJG) proved to be a wealth of information, becoming an instant success for its breadth and quality.

Given the widespread acclaim of the first edition it may seem odd that a second edition was needed. Many of the articles in the first edition continue to provide relevant introductions to the various aspects of Gospel studies which they represent. And yet, in light of the increasing speed at which Gospel studies has advanced, the second edition of DJG is a welcome contribution.

Most of those who are familiar with the first edition of DJG will simply want to know what is different between the two editions. One might be inclined to say: everything. It would be unfair and inaccurate to refer to this second edition as a mere revision – it represents a substantial update. Although there is significant overlap in terms of the entries, most of the articles are original contributions composed by new authors. Those few articles that have the same author in both editions have been substantially edited, with updates to both content and bibliography.

In terms of actual entries, there are 24 new headings, and 14 others that reflect either revised terminology (e.g., “Dreams” becomes “Dreams and Visions” and “Temple Clearing” becomes “Temple Act”) or a combination of previous articles (e.g., the songs of Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah are now combined into the more systematic “Songs and Hymns”). Several of the new entries revolve around more contemporary forms of criticism (i.e., “African American Criticism”; “Canonical Criticism”; “Feminist and Womanist Criticisms”; “Latino/Latina Criticism”; “Narrative Criticism”; “Postcolonial Criticism”). The other major area of study that sees increased attention in this edition is social-historical material, with contributions on “Cynics and Cynicism”; “Economics”; “Essenes”; “Gods, Greek and Roman”; “Judaism, Common”; “Orality and Oral Transmission”; “Sadducees”; “Slave, Servant.”

Three new contributions in particular represent significant advances. Richard Bauckham’s new article on “Christology” provides a systematic summary of the Christological emphasis of each Gospel, as well as tracing common characteristics across the fourfold Gospel. Given the focus of the volume, this type of synthetic treatment was a welcome addition. Joel Green, the only contributor to serve as an editor for both volumes, offers an important contribution on “Historicisms and Historiography.” While the relationship between history and the study of the Gospels has remained important since the publication of the first edition, questions of methodology have shifted. Green’s concise treatment of criteria-based historicism, critical-realist-based historicism, and social memory theory will provide a clear introduction for the next generation of Gospel students. It is also worth mentioning the addition of a constructive article on the “Theological Interpretation of the Gospels.” Andy Johnson here provides a clear description of a burgeoning area of study that should be mandatory reading for all theological students.

Most of the articles that were omitted from the second edition reflect a process of streamlining. For example, the older articles on “Benefactor” and “Taxes” are now helpfully subsumed under the more constructive essay on “Economics.” Two omissions, however, were particularly unfortunate. Most noticeably, the loss of Sidney Greidanus’ article on “Preaching from the Gospels” constitutes a significant deficiency. Students and pastors will want to return to Greidanus’ insights in the first edition of DJG. Perhaps less significant, given its widespread influence on other articles, is the omission of an article on “Rhetorical criticism.” Given the inclusion of a number of new articles on methodology in this edition it seems unusual that this would be removed as a separate entry.

Those minor complaints aside, one need neither be a prophet nor the son of one in order to assert that this edition of DJG will stand alongside its predecessor as an essential tool for New Testament studies. The editorial team is to be commended for creating a reference tool that will undoubtedly contribute to the future shape of the discipline.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Apostles' Creed for theothanatologians

by Kim Fabricius

I don’t believe in God:
not in the Father (Old Nobodaddy);
nor in the Almighty (aka the Big Other);
and as for “Creator” – well, not ex nihilo – no way;
but maybe I believe in the “God” of radical Process Theology,
maybe “God” worked a world from the shit he’d been given
and then became otiose or moribund,
or maybe “God” is just an obfuscation for “world”,
or maybe shit just happens.
I certainly believe that “God”, “Father”, “Almighty”, “Creator”
are signifiers of “transcendence”,
and that all transcendence-talk is irredeemably ideological,  
that all transcendence-talk inevitably legitimates oppression.
In short, I believe that transcendence is a univocal no-no.

(Let’s cut out the Greek metaphysical crap and cut to the chase.)
I believe that if ever there was a “God” not identical to the world,
or to the “historical process”,
he became” im-man-ent” (M&M’s for short) in Jesus of Nazareth,
lover, poet, all-around bad-ass,
crucified under Pontius Pilate,
dead – caputo – and buried.
In short, I believe that the deity committed deicide,
that “God” became an ex-“God” in Jesus,
and that Jesus then became an ex-Jesus, a Nazarene Blue.
I believe that the resurrection and ascension are phooey.

(Which takes me to the third section of the Creed,
though don’t read anything trinitarian into this format, it’s just a convention.)
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
“God’s” M&M’s  
in the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints
(nod to Hegel, but just kidding!)
in the world,
more specifically in communities of love and justice.
I don’t believe in the forgiveness of sins
(only “God” can forgive but, er, “God” is dead),
but I believe that violence can be redemptive
and I believe that, notwithstanding all the assholes,
we can create a better world.
I believe in continental philosophy everlasting.
(And if you think this creed is funny, va te faire foutre!)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

TV shows for the books of the Bible

by Kim Fabricius

Genesis: Once upon a Time
Exodus: Rescue Me
Leviticus: Dirt and Scrubs
Numbers: Lost
Deuteronomy: Law and Order
Joshua: Dad’s Army
Judges: Sons of Anarchy
Ruth: The Good Wife
I & II Samuel: Game of Thrones
I & II Kings / I & II Chronicles: Dynasty
Ezra: Lawman
Nehemiah: Homeland
Esther: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Job: Gimme a Break!
Psalms: Glee

Proverbs: Get Smart
Ecclesiastes: Wiseguy
Song of Songs: Sex in the City
Jonah: Mission: Impossible
The Prophets: Mad Men

Matthew: I Am the Law
Mark: Speedy Gonzales
Luke: Maverick
John: In the Flesh
Acts: The A-Team
Romans: Graceland
I & II Corinthians: Men Behaving Badly
Galatians: Justified
Ephesians: Broadchurch
Philippians: Lovejoy
Colossians: All in the Family
I & II Thessalonians: Curb Your Enthusiasm
Pastoral Epistles: Father Knows Best
Philemon: Porridge
Hebrews: Climax!
James: According to Jim
I, II, & III John: Love / Hate
I & II Peter: Rocky and His Friends
Jude: The Avengers
Revelation: The Closer

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Why go to church?

The children of Adam are emptiness,
the children of men are a fake;
they are set on the scales together,
and emptiness is their weight. 
Psalm 62:9

There are people who say that religion is a crutch, and I have never taken offence at that description. There have been times when I've gone to church feeling the need for personal forgiveness or comfort or strength or whatever. But the older I get – I'm not very old of course, but I'm not quite as young as I used to be either – the more I feel that my faith is not primarily a personal thing but a way of sharing the common lot with everybody else.

I go to church sometimes not needing comfort for my own private griefs but seeking consolation for the slow unfolding trainwreck that is called human history. I go to church sometimes hoping to find forgiveness not for myself but for my ancestors, my parents, my children and their children who will one day be born and will have to live (who knows how?) in whatever diminished world that I bequeath to them. I go to church sometimes not to be reconciled to any of my personal acquaintances, but because for fifty thousand years the land beneath my feet was home to other peoples, and I am hoping by some miracle to be reconciled to them. I go to church sometimes not seeking peace within my own soul but hoping to find relief from the raging violence that has boiled in the blood of all my brothers since the time of Cain.

I go to church and take bread and wine not necessarily because I feel hungry but because the common human condition is, at bottom, hunger and thirst and nothing more. It is the hunger of my mothers and fathers that I am feeding when I take the consecrated bread. When I take the cup it is the burning thirst of Adam that I slake. It is for the whole huge accumulated mass of human arrogance and stupidity and meanness that I hang my head in shame and say (embarrassed to be asking yet again), Lord have mercy.

I do not go to church because it is enjoyable (usually it's not), or because it is never dull (usually it is). I do not go to church because it satisfies my private needs and wishes (it seldom does). I do not go to church for myself. I go because of Adam. 

Yes, religion is a crutch. But it's not my own personal crutch. It is Adam's crutch. It's the human race that walks (if it walks at all) with a limp. 

And so when Sunday morning comes around I drag old Adam out of bed. I make him get dressed and put shoes on his feet. I brush his teeth. I lead him out the door. I force him to go to church. 

It's a thankless task, but somebody's got to do it. 

I expect that if I keep dragging Adam along to church every Sunday, he might eventually become a Christian. And if he becomes a Christian – who knows? – perhaps in time he will even become that rarest and best of things: a genuine, proper, fully functioning and bona fide human being.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The theologian's automobile: or, how to tell you are a Docetist

It has often been observed that most of us incline instinctively to one or another form of heresy. It is why heresy is the most natural (and also the most individually satisfying) thing in the world, while orthodoxy takes effort and requires a whole community of individuals listening to one another and not only to their own inner voices.

I was reminded the other day of my own instinctive pull towards heresy. It was during a seminar. A theologian was reading a learned paper. I listened with the greatest interest and sympathy. I nodded gravely. I made notes in a mental notebook. I grunted agreeably when he quoted St Basil. I smiled with pleasure at his description of the genre of panegyric. He referred to a paper by John O'Malley on the topic. I added it to my mental notebook: Panegyric. Cf. John O'Malley. It was all perfectly splendid.

But then it happened. In a casual aside, the theologian mentioned his automobile. His car. He told a little anecdote involving – of all things – the car. How he had been walking somewhere one day because his car was in the – I hesitate to speak the word out loud – in the garage. How it was getting serviced. How there had been (stop it, I thought, why are you telling us this?) an oil leak. That is why the car was getting serviced. That is why he had been on foot that day, so he told us.

It took only the merest mention of this car for all my intellectual pleasure to dissipate. I was not pleased with the car. The car did not please me: I cannot emphasise this point enough. I did not want the theologian's car to be mentioned. I wanted St Basil and panegyric and ideas. Not garages. Not oil leaks. Not machines that require servicing.

As I drove my car home afterwards, I reflected on my displeasure and I had to admit to myself that I am, by nature, a Docetist. I am willing to put up (as far as necessary) with the world of the body, but it is the world of the mind that truly interests me. As a boy it was books and not sports that made me feel alive. I rolled up my sleeves to study Plato's dialogues, not to change engine oil. (Even the photo I chose for this post – did you notice? – is of an old car, a classic car, a Platonic black-and-white Ideal Car, not a vehicle that somebody would actually drive.)

I admit this. I confess it. I believe that it is wrong. I do not believe a Docetist like me can enter the kingdom of heaven.

That is why I need to go to church. It is why I need other believers to tell me about their mortgages, their barbecues, their babies' nappies – even, if necessary, their cars. It is why I need to gather around a table with other believers and their bodies, and to have someone stuff a piece of bread into my hands and tell me, The body of Christ, given for you.

I am a heretic by nature, I won't deny it. But the church is orthodox. The church is catholic. And in the church there is even room for a one-sided Docetist like me.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Kim's farewell letter to his congregation

Here is the last letter Kim wrote to his congregation for the church magazine (reposted from Connexions).

Dear Friends,

You shouldn’t be surprised if I tell you that I’ve been reflecting on Acts 20:17-38, Paul’s farewell speech to the elders at Ephesus. In it the apostle warns his friends to watch out for truth-twisters, and urges them to hold fast to his own teaching. Sounds good to me! Then he reminds them to be particularly attentive to church members who, one way or another, are struggling. Absolutely. Then, after prayer, the elders launch a communal cwtch, crying, “Don’t go, Paul! Please, don’t go!” But then they are thinking – rightly as it turns out – that they will never see Paul again. Kim – he’ll still be around. So, yes, not only elders but everyone at Bethel, maybe remember a sermon or two, and certainly look after each other, especially, yes, the struggling ones – and those who are still anxious about our future with the Methodists. But as for the “Don’t go!” – well, perhaps you’re actually thinking, “It’s about time!” In any case, it certainly is time for you to let go of me – and for me to let go of you. Paul’s farewell speech was rhetorically sophisticated. From me you get 10 bullet points.

• Be kind to everyone, even the jerks. The woman who pushed ahead of you in the queue, the shop assistant who was rude to you at the till, the guy who cut you off on the Oystermouth Road – you never know what is going on in their world: they might be distracted by a personal crisis, or wrestling with some inner demon. They may need your patience, not your reproach.

• Never take yourself too seriously, and go easy on taking pride in your achievements. In the imagery of baseball, just because you find yourself on third base doesn’t mean you hit a triple. So much of life depends on circumstance (place of birth, social and economic position, etc.); that is, so much of life is just fortune or luck, good or bad. And remember: God is especially fond of losers, and boasting really gets on his nerves.

• If you ever think that Christianity is easy – that faith is uncomplicated, that truth is not odd, that the Sermon on the Mount is undemanding – then you can be sure you’re not doing it right. Christianity is not only not easy, it is quite impossible. That’s why God gives us the Holy Spirit: to do the impossible – beginning with prayer.

• Don’t be afraid of anyone or anything. Fear is not only self-crippling, fear is the infernal engine that drives our most distorted and destructive desires: anger, envy, greed, hatred, violence. They are all the smoke above the factory of fear. Ultimately, all fear is the fear of death. But Christ has conquered death. So what is there to be afraid of?

• Sorry, dear Methodists, but John Wesley was wrong: cleanliness is not next to godliness. Silliness, however, is. That’s why God created children: to keep people silly. And grandchildren to make them sillier still! Silliness is a serious matter. A wise intelligence is always laced with silliness.

• Never stop asking the Big Questions. Asking the Big Questions is a sacred obligation. And be worried, be very worried, if you never change your mind. God forbid that, looking back over your life, you can say that you have no regrets, that you wouldn’t have done anything differently. Frank Sinatra was an idiot: “I did it my way” means you did it the wrong way.

• Our biggest illusion is that we are free. In fact, we are the slaves of no end of possessions and obsessions, wants and worries. We are always on the way to freedom. Only those who are utterly unconcerned about themselves, blithely indifferent to what other people think about them, but totally committed to those who suffer and experience injustice, are free. Only the forgiving, merciful, and compassionate are free.

• Everyone is made in the image of God. Therefore everyone has an inherent and ineradicable dignity, a dignity that no sin can efface and that commands our respect and attention. Dividing people into “the deserving” and “the undeserving” – don’t go there! Go there and you are in danger of losing your soul.

• Gratitude: there is no characteristic more definitive of being a Christian. The entire Christian life flows from gratitude. God doesn’t owe you a thing. All is gift. The thankless bear bitter fruit; only the thankful harvest strawberries. The German mystic Meister Eckhart was right: If “Thank you” is the only prayer you ever say, that is enough.

• Finally: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. And Jesus again! Not the Jesus who is a projection of our and needs and wishes (Jesus “the Friendly Ghost”, as the stellar American theologian Robert Jenson put it). No, the Jesus who stalks the pages of the gospels. Only this Jesus can deliver us from a fantasy Jesus. Only this Jesus is Jesus, the crucified and risen One, the Stranger who meets us daily and says, “Follow me!”

For the rest, the wonderful Czech theologian Tomáš Halík speaks of “getting a second wind” in the life of faith. So: let’s all take a deep breath …

Fare well.
Fare forward!
Love,

Kim

x

Monday, 7 October 2013

It’s about Him: Kim's farwell sermon

Yesterday Kim turned 65, preached and presided at communion, had lunch with his congregation, and retired from pastoral ministry. This is the text of his last sermon as well as the communion service that followed.

It’s not about me, it’s about him, it’s about Jesus. That is all I have ever wanted to do as your minister: to remind us all – me first – service by service, sermon by sermon, visit by visit, conversation by conversation, in assurance and doubt, in clarity and confusion, in joy and sorrow – it’s about him, it’s about Jesus: his lordship and friendship, his disturbance and consolation, his grace and commands.

Again, I know I have failed you. I always knew I would fail you. Because I don’t think success in this vocation is possible, and even if it were, I don’t know what it would look like (it’s certainly not measureable). Yes, failure is inescapable. In preaching, I know I should have prayed more, thought harder, spoken more clearly. In leading, I know I should have been more assertive here and less directive there, more discerning, more enabling. In caring, I know I should have been there for you in such a way that no one need ever have said, “I’m sorry to bother you, I know you’re busy, but …” In all things, I have failed to decrease so that Jesus might increase, too much Kim and not enough Christ. And for proof that I have failed you – gentle rebuke! – that so many of you are here today because of me, when you should be here every Sunday because of Jesus. Because it’s all about him.

Many years ago I preached a sermon entitled “Who Is Jesus of Nazareth – for Me?” It’s still a good title, especially, I think, for a final sermon. Of course, I’d like to delete the “for Me” because, yep, it’s not about me, it’s about him, but you can’t do that. You can’t do that not only because there is no Jesus-in-general, but also because I cannot know Jesus directly, I can only know him in a mediated way. We always see Jesus through the lenses of the gospels, each with its own particular picture of Jesus; and, in turn, we never read the gospels neat, we always bring with us traditions of interpretation; and, in turn, these interpretations are always conditioned by context and perspective; and, finally, there is me – yep, me again, darn it, always getting in the way – me with my readings of Jesus inevitably distorted by prejudice and fantasy. This side of eternity, our knowledge of Jesus is always correctable, provisional; there is always more to know. Still, Jesus himself confronts us with the question “Who do you say that I am?” And equivocation won’t do, the answer is urgent: Who is Jesus for me today (Bonhoeffer)?

Well, for starters – the present is what the past is doing now – Jesus for me now cannot be other than Jesus who was then. He must be the 30-odd-year-old Jew who lived in first-century Galilee, a Roman colony administered by a local despot, where there was systemic oppression and exploitation, as powerful and wealthy elites used religion to legitimate their place in the social order and violence to protect it. These were very troubled times in occupied Israel. Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, was a small agricultural town, population 400 max. The issues of hunger and debt dominated daily existence. Jerusalem was 70 miles south, population 50,000, swelling to a quarter-million during the Passover festival of liberation. There the high priest and his Temple colleagues collaborated with Caesar’s minions. As for life 24/7, being Jewish, practicing the teachings of Torah and tradition – food laws defining what you can eat; purity laws dealing with the body, its fluids and blemishes; the weekly sabbath, time set apart for worship, rest, and festivity too; all overseen and regulated by the scribes and priests.

This is the world in which Jesus appears, blazing like a comet across the night sky, clapping like thunder on a cloudless day. What was he like? He is the “man who fits no formula” (Eduard Schweizer). The engine room for this human dynamo – his relationship with God, so intimate that, like a child, he calls God Abba. This Abba-experience of Jesus – it is the source and secret of his being, his life-style, his mission, which is to announce the arrival of, and to get people ready for, the “kingdom of God”. And, please, after 31 years, I trust you know that the kingdom of God is not some sanctum within nor a heaven above, know that Jesus did not come to bring us a quiet life, nor to flog fire insurance, that he came as the agent of God’s shalom, the personal and corporate experience of grace as forgiveness, acceptance, and inclusion, of social justice and the common good. God wants it all, God wants it now, and there ain’t nothing going to stop it – this divine invasion – sweeping away all that opposes it, all that inflicts suffering and death, all that murders joy and hope.

But this rainforest of flourishing starts as a seed, starts with 12 ordinary Jews, representing the 12 tribes of Israel: the renewal of the world begins with the renewal of Israel. Jesus is, above all, a teacher, so he tutors the disciples, but he also gives public lectures, and the heart of his teaching is so simple that a child can understand it and so hard that only the empowered can do it. By provocative short sayings and absurdly counter-intuitive stories, Jesus challenges, teases, and shocks us to see the world radically differently from our conventional perceptions, which for Jesus are symptoms of an optical illness. Discipleship thus begins with vision, a vision of this new world that Jesus discloses, which, hidden in our old world, happens to be the real world; a vision that then inspires lives that embody the values of this new world in opposition to the values of our old one, cynical, pitiless, and nihilistic.

You see, because Jesus loves the world, he sifts the world. He has a special compassion for the little, the least, and the lost, and a particular beef with the movers and shakers. Jesus comes in love, not judgement – he is, in fact, the love of God incarnate – but when human beings encounter such divine love, there is a decision to be made and an outcome that follows: either love kills you – you die to self and live for others – or you kill love – which is exactly what the combined forces of church and state do, in the name of law and order of course: love gets lynched.

And that’s it… But no, it’s not! Hooray! Whoopee! God raises his dead Son. The victim turns out to be the victor. The friends of Jesus, who in stupidity and cowardice betray, deny, and abandon him – they re-experience grace as forgiveness. The enemies of Jesus, who in fear and malice torture and execute him – well, in his risen life as in his earthly life, Jesus does not answer his killers with vengeance. Who knows, maybe one day they too will see the world otherwise, disarm, and drink deeply from the love God never ceases pouring into the world like lake upon lake of the finest Shiraz – Jesus likes to liken the kingdom to a never-ending bit-of-a-do!

That, in short, is the Jesus who was and is and is to come, the same today, yesterday, and forever. This Jesus lives for me, with me, and, sinner that I am, often against me. Does he answer all my questions? On the contrary, always with the counter-question, my interrogative Saviour: “You work it out!” Does he keep me from suffering? On the contrary, he says that I should count on it, that discipleship is dangerous, because obedience will likely get me into trouble with the same kind of grace-abusers who finally nailed him. Does he advise me to play it safe and cut my losses? On the contrary, this is the guy who extols a shepherd who endangers his prize lambs to fetch a wayward runt, a father who delights more in his irresponsible spendthrift of a son than in his respectable book-keeping brother, a heretic who risks his life and empties his wallet on the victim of a roadside mugging, and a farmer who pays a bunch of last-in part-timers the same wage as his all-day grafters.

Finally, does he love me? What a silly question! Of course he loves me, and nothing I do can make him love me any more or any less. In prayer he quiets my restless heart, in work he gives me a sense of freedom and purpose to be there for other people, in leisure he tells me to laugh and live it up. And as for the death that stalks me every day and will one day overtake me, he says, “Don’t be afraid!” – death is but the self-expenditure of love – and he promises that because he lives forever, I will live forever too. What more could I want? What more do I need?

And those failures? With my failures he is patient – and more: he gives me a family of failures for company. If it’s not about me, it’s about him, it’s also about us, the church, this gaggle of goofballs. But we are – at least I hope we are – also a community of character that is serious about finding and focussing our life in Jesus, serious about the struggle to speak truthfully about God – so much contemporary God-talk is froth and piffle – and therefore serious about engaging in odd and subversive practices like worship, confession, Communion, Bible study, by which we are nourished and strengthened to live out the Sermon on the Mount, that snapshot of life in that new world coming, of which Jesus is both the promise and the pioneer.

No, it’s not about me, it’s about him; but he’s about us, he’s about everyone!

I’m finished – and famished: the Lord has prepared another Supper for us. As Porky Pig famously stutters at cartoon’s conclusion, “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!” Or is it? For though we may not recognise it at the time, what is every ending but a new beginning?

*

Service of Holy Communion

THE INVITATION
Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? You’ve come to the right place!
There is plenty of room at this table.
It’s not full until all kinds of people are here:
tall people and short people, portly people and skinny people,
people with rosy cheeks and people with wrinkly skin,
black-skinned and white people, the blond and the bald.
Come, there is room for you. We’ve got the best food –
hearty bread to fill your belly, heady wine to make you sing.
Come, join us – and live.
Let’s eat and drink!

THE PEACE

THE NARRATIVE
People have been breaking bread in the name of the Holy One for centuries.
Our Jewish mothers and fathers blessed bread and wine and shared it.
Christians have gathered around tables and sat on mats
to pass the loaf of love and the cup of kindness.
And generous people have given hospitality to travellers and strangers, fellow pilgrims on the way to the kingdom.
We remember how Jesus shared a meal with his disciples in an upstairs room,
one who would deny him, another who would betray him.
There he took bread, raised it to heaven, and giving thanks to his Father,
broke it with a sound that echoed in his heart, and said:
“This is my body, broken for you. Eat it and remember.”
Then he took the cup, sweet and bitter offering, held it in both hands –
it would not pass – and giving thanks to his Abba, said:
“This is the cup of mercy that will spill all over the world
and open the hearts of many. Drink and remember.”
And they did. And we do. Let us give thanks to God.

THE THANKSGIVING
World-maker, Barrier-breaker, Peace-bringer, Holy God:
In the beginning, You. In the now, You. 
And when time ends, You. Always You!
With a handful of dust you gracefully fashioned us,
shaping us to be signs of your presence on earth.
You gave us the breath of life and placed into our hands the power to create,
into our heads the freedom to think, 
and into our hearts the strength to love.

You gave us all we need to live:
food and drink for our bodies; natural wonders for our senses;
wake-time and dream-time for our minds; and for our souls –
the light of the law, the rod of the prophets, the songs of the psalmists,
and the vision of a just and joyful world.

In the fullness of time the Word became flesh – you pitched your tent among us:
learning and loving, teaching and healing, forgiving and rebuking.
You shook the pillars of power and paid the price –
the lash of the whip, the crown of thorns, the cruel cross.
Death held you briefly, but in three days you burst forth alive,
and the echo of the empty tomb rang around the world.
Risen and reigning, you call us into fellowships of faith seeking understanding,
communities of character, churches in mission.
Your Spirit continues to revive and empower us,
informing, unforming, reforming, transforming.

Now, God, we pray: infuse these gifts of the earth – bread and wine and us –
with your grace and energy.
May our eating and drinking in faith and expectation equip us to share
the good news of your peace with all people and nations,
until the coming kingdom is the kingdom come,
and all rejoice in a new heaven and a new earth.

THE LORD'S PRAYER

THE BREAKING OF BREAD
This bread, earth-grown, hand-made, and heaven-blessed,
is now for us the bread of life.
This cup, fruit of the vine, lifted in love and drunk with courage,
is now for us the wine of salvation.

THE POST-COMMUNION PRAYER
God, our creator, we thank you for the nourishment of bread and wine,
word and worship, family and friends.
Jesus, our brother, we thank you for the way you walk with us,
past comfort, through conflict, toward connection.
Spirit, our breath, we thank you that you call us in to send us out
with strength, commitment, and compassion.
Holy Three-in-One, now may our thanks go from our lips to our living,
human hymns of hope and laughter:
Amen.

(Carla A. Grosch-Miller, much adapted)

Friday, 4 October 2013

He finally got it

A sermon by Kim Fabricius (his second-last one before retirement)

You’d think it would be a no-brainer. For Peter I mean. For, er, Pete’s sake, he had been there when Jesus laid into the Pharisees over ritual purity and dietary restrictions (Mark 7:14-23). They had noticed that the disciples weren’t washing their hands before eating. Nothing to do with hygiene, mind, as we moderns might think. No, the issue was ethnic and religious identity, the drawing of a symbolic boundary between the way Jews behaved and the way Gentiles behaved. That’s why the Pharisees were adamant not only about washing their hands before eating but also about not eating with people who didn’t wash their hands before eating – which is why they were so shocked about the company Jesus kept at mealtime. And now he tells them straight: he repudiates these culinary scruples.

Okay, the regulations about washing, even though they were a well-established tradition, they weren’t actually in the Jewish scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, so you could say that Jesus wasn’t actually being unbiblical. But kosher food laws – not how you should eat but what you could eat – they are set out very clearly in the book of Leviticus. And Jesus rejects this teaching too. The modern New Testament translation called The Message graphically renders the words of Jesus: “It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life; it’s what you vomit – that’s the real pollution” (Mark 7:15-16.) Heart-puke – greed, arrogance, unkindness – these, not soiled hands are what make a person dirty. And just in case the disciples don’t get the message, Mark adds: “That took care of dietary quibbling; Jesus was saying that all foods are clean” (Mark 7:19b).

Again, Peter was an eye-witness – he saw what Jesus did, he heard what Jesus said. And it wasn’t like this was the only time that Jesus played the nothing-can-contaminate and no-one-is-contaminated card, insisting that the category “polluted people” is an empty set. Peter was there when Jesus touched lepers and healed them. Peter was there when Jesus touched dead people and raised them. Peter was there when a woman with chronic menstrual bleeding touched Jesus, which not only didn’t disgust him but indeed deeply impressed him. Here too Jesus subverted the clear teaching of the Bible: pus and periods – contaminating stuff, and if contact is made, there are very clear rules, biblical rules about what you do to decontaminate yourself. These are the laws of God – and you don’t break the laws of God. But Jesus did. And Peter was there, there when he did.

But, again, all this isn’t just about things – soap and food, skin and blood; ultimately these things are about people and about identity, about how I secure my sense of self by being different from you, and about how, in turn, your difference becomes a threat to my identity, which I must defend with fixed boundaries; which means I must be defensive, which makes me anxious, fearful, and finally hostile. Keeping clean and kosher is thus a symbolic practice that both embodies and sustains a world view that divides those who are God’s people from those who are not God’s people. So when Jesus rejected Jewish purity regulations, he wasn’t just breaking a rule, he was repudiating an entire system, destabilising a whole culture. No wonder the reaction was swift, concerted – and finally fatal.

I repeat: Peter was there, there when Jesus made it emphatically, repeatedly clear that there are no “polluted people”. But Peter didn’t get it. Mark is always saying how the disciples didn’t get Jesus. Now I hope you can see why, can see just how radical the teaching of Jesus was. So radical, in fact, that even after the resurrection, Peter still didn’t get it. Which brings us to the story of the conversion of Cornelius in the book of Acts, chapter 10. Only it isn’t the story of the conversion of Cornelius, it’s actually the story of the conversion of Peter himself, the story of how Peter finally does get it.

The story begins with a strange dream. In it Peter sees a blanket on which there are images of all sorts of animals, un-kosher animals. Then he hears a voice: “Kill, and eat.” “God forbid!” Peter replies. The voice says, “God doesn’t forbid anymore. And if God says it’s okay, it’s okay.” This troubling conversation takes place three times, the biblical number of “that’s a wrap”. That God now calls clean what he once called profane – this isn’t a dream, it’s a nightmare. Peter is profoundly disturbed, and as he is trying to figure it all out, three men arrive (“three” again – this is clearly an important story). They tell Peter that their master, Cornelius, a captain in the Roman army – a Gentile – has had a vision in which he’s been told to invite Peter into his home to hear what Peter has to say. Peter thinks, “I don’t have anything to say.” Still he goes, and on the way the penny drops, thuds, as he interprets his weird dream: eat vile food means mix with vile people. Peter still can’t help but feel that what he is doing is highly improper, and he’s still not sure what he’s supposed to say, but Cornelius makes it easier for him, makes him feel welcome, introduces him to the wife and kids, easing the tension, the embarrassment, and loosening Peter’s tongue, such that the apostle begins to tell the story of Jesus.

But as he reaches what he thinks is the conclusion of the story, Peter is interrupted – by God himself, who pours out the Holy Spirit on this pagan household. The theologian James Alison calls this “the maximum moment of being disconcerted. That a holy story should be told to a group of the impure as something confrontational, something to make them feel bad about themselves so they might purify themselves … is perfectly comprehensible. Yet, as you watch the story being told you notice that, rather than being confronted and downcast, the listeners all find themselves overwhelmed from within with a sense of delight, seeing the story as good news for themselves.” The message is not “Change or God will not love you”, the message is “You’re okay, God loves you just as you are.”

This event and this message – it triggers a human earthquake of historic proportions. Peter finally gets what he hadn’t gotten in the ministry and teaching of Jesus himself – that there are no polluted people. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he sees with his own eyes, hears with his own ears, experiences at first hand that these Gentiles, whom he’s been taught since childhood are to be avoided and excluded – that God is actually delighted with them just as they are, and welcomes them into his family without having to go kosher, become circumcised, observe the Sabbath, or perform any other of the culturally and religiously distinctive practices that set Jew apart from Gentile. Now Jew and Gentle can join hands and walk into and work out the future – becoming a new humanity – together. As Paul, another strict Jew, a Pharisee, who, remember, had tried to destroy the church precisely because it was mixing the unmixable, but who finally got it too – as Paul would succinctly put it: “There is no longer Jew and Gentile, for all are now one in Christ.”

It seems to be part of human nature to secure identity by rivalry, building barriers, erecting implacable oppositions of “Us” and “Them”. In the ancient world the most fundamental opposition was “Jew” and “Gentile”. During the age of colonialism it was “the British” and “the Oriental”. The biggest and most dangerous contemporary opposition is probably “the Christian” and “the Muslim”, particularly as Islamophobia is infected with another virulent strain of the “othering” of people, namely racism. But there are other forms of “othering” about – there is always a “Them” to label, libel, and liquidate. We know, of course, that there is no respectable theological justification for maintaining these oppositions, but argument itself, no matter how irrefutable – and never underestimate the power of stupidity – you’ll never convince people by reason alone. Because our sense of identity is at stake, the rational alone cannot shift our visceral, gut feelings of fear and loathing. As with Peter, it takes a very personal experience of one of “Them”, an encounter that is not menacing but ministering, where the Holy Spirit can work her magic and shift the boundaries of our being, making them permeable, and re-define holiness as radical inclusiveness.

Hassidic Jews tell a story. Rabbi Pinchas asked his students how one recognises the moment when the night ends and the day begins. One student asked, “Is it the moment when there is light enough to tell a dog from a sheep?” “No,” said the rabbi. Another student asked, “Is it the moment when one can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” “No,” said the rabbi. “So when, then, does the morning come?” the students asked. “It is the moment,” said Rabbi Pinchas, “when we look into the face of any person and recognise them as our brother or sister. Until then, it is still night.”

Yes, it was a long night’s journey into day for Peter, but the dawn came, the sun rose, and he finally got it. I pray that we may finally get it too: that the Other is my Sister, my Brother. Welcome!

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