Presbytery Presentation

 Chagall,  Yellow Crucifixion.   (I just like Chagall, no deeper meaning here.)

Chagall, Yellow Crucifixion.  (I just like Chagall, no deeper meaning here.)

I am currently in the process of exploring a call to ordained ministry within the Uniting Church in Australia. As part of this process I was asked to present to my Presbytery (regional church council) for them to discern a shared sense of calling. They did so affirm my calling. There are a few steps along the way yet, but here is the text of my presentation from today. 

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The question of calling and ministry has for a long time been difficult for me. In the church contexts I grew up in, discussions of calling often followed the common narrative of a singular turning point. A vision or word from God, a moment of realisation, a heart strangely warmed.

While this kind of experience can be profound, and play an important role in many people’s journeys, this has not been my experience. And I can, after all, only talk honestly about my own experience.

What I have experienced in terms of a calling to ministry has been a constant outworking of the Gospel in my life. To characterise this journey as broadly homogeneous, as though it were marked by “fate” or “destiny,” is probably dishonest. Instead the language I’ve found helpful comes, incidentally, from a sermon Sandy gave on the journey of the Jewish people through Exodus. We are tasked with looking at our own journeys “from the perspective of faith.” To do so recognises that for all of us our journey is one of embodied life: messy, surprising, fun, and at times disheartening. Vibrant spirituality is cultivating an attention to the breath of God animating this messy, embodied life. Indeed, that the Christian life could be anything else seems to betray the very body and blood at the visceral core of our community.

It is not, then, that my habit of asking questions about life, meaning, and the world -- which lead me to a philosophy degree … It is not that this habit of questioning is an inevitable precursor to pursuing ministry. Rather, this is simply a part of who I am that has graciously been caught up in my life of faith, through thinking and reflecting theologically. I am simply the fortunate recipient of opportunities to connect myself to work beneficial - I hope - to the communities of faith I have found myself in.

The question of calling, then, can never be an individualised one. It is always, for me, a question of the giving and taking, the ebbs and flows, the opportunities and responsibilities, of being caught up in the life of God, and being drawn into discrete Christian communities. In those ebbs and flows I am learning to find my identity and voice.

To put this in more concrete terms: I understand that my calling is reflective of me, and is shaped by my lived experience. But that I am called, that I can identify an experience of calling, cannot be unique to me -- and I would want to say, not unique to anyone who feels a call to ordained ministry. To be called is to be drawn as we are, in our own particularity, into the life of God, and the Christian communities that witness to that life.

We are all so called.


What leads me here, now, is not that I have a calling while others don’t. What leads me here is my particular journey, my particular way of questioning the world. My particular - but by no means unique - conviction that the love of the Gospel is defined through mercy and justice. These things about me find their rest in the Uniting Church, and so to it I offer my service.

Affirming with St. Paul’s reflection on ministry that it is the task of proclaiming the Gospel, and yet not I by Christ through me. It is the task - as if we were Paul at the end of Acts - of teaching and empowering the people of God, and yet being under house arrest, unable to leave. Because the point is to empower the work of others through service to them, and proclamation.

Simply: I feel called to bring myself, as myself, to serve the community that is church.

Sermon: Caught up in the Life of God

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Sermon preached at Ascot Vale Uniting Church, and Cross-Generation Uniting Church. 10th of June, 2018.

 Texts:

1 Sam 8.4-11, 16-20

2 Cor 4.13-5.1

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 God, help me by your Spirit to believe and speak truth, and help those that listen to recognise what is not. Amen.

“[T]hanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession …” (2 Cor. 2.14)

Our call to worship today was drawn from 2 Corinthians chapter 2. There Paul begins the argument that flows through chapter 3, and into our main reading for today from 2 Corinthians 4.

This opening image of a triumphal procession is overtly political. The triumphal procession refers to the parade of the conquesting King returning home, declaring the “Gospel,” or “Good News,” of victory. (This image is where early Christians drew the familiar language of “Gospel.”)

Our reading from 1 Samuel also talks about a King. Or rather, Israel’s desire to have a King. The people of Israel, it seems, wanted to settle down like other peoples and rely on the security and stability a King could provide.

While God grants Israel’s request for a King, God also offers a warning: the price of a King is high. With a King comes the harsh realities of an economy that is geared towards maintaining the King’s visible status and power. The desire for a King, in the context of the ancient world, implied a desire to be like slaves in service to that King.

Framing our reading from 2 Corinthians 4 with reference to these overtly political images might seem, at first glance, surprising. After all, our reading seems to point towards an escape from the world, and not a complex political entanglement with the world.

2 Corinthians 4 talks quite hopefully about our being raised as Jesus was raised, into the presence of God (v14). Even though our outer nature is wasting away, this momentary afflicting is preparing us for an eternal glory (v16-17). What can be seen is temporary, but we hope for the eternal (v18). Unlike the people of Israel we should not seek an “earthly tent,” but a “building from God … eternal in the heavens” (v5.1).

At first glance it seems that Paul is pointing us away from the world, and toward the hope of some sort of afterlife, some sort of flight into heaven.

I want to suggest, however, that what Paul offers us is not a flight from this world, but a renewed movement towards the world. Paul offers us a renewed understanding of who we are, as individuals and as a community. This new understanding of who we are is built on the fact that we are caught up in the life of God, transformed, and called into service on behalf of the world.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul describes himself as “one untimely born” (1 Cor 15.8). There Paul is referring to the fact that he was not one of the original followers of Jesus, he was not one of the disciples that followed Jesus through his life and ministry. Rather, Paul’s conversion to following the way of Christ was precipitated by a religious experience. Paul was, as it were, drawn outside of himself in an ecstatic experience of the risen Jesus. In order to understand Paul we need to take seriously the fact that his own experience of radical transformation, and being drawn outside of himself sets the foundation for his understanding of faith. For Paul, to be drawn outside of himself means rethinking everything he understood himself to be: rethinking his Jewish heritage, and rethinking his place within society.

Understood in this way it is little wonder that Paul’s way of writing draws on references from the Jewish Scriptures, from the social and political practices of his day, and from contemporary philosophical and religious thought. As highlighted earlier Paul begins the argument that gets us to 2 Corinthians 4 by drawing on political imagery, Paul also draws on religious imagery - referencing the fragrance and aroma of sacrifices offered to the gods.

For Paul following the way of Christ draws everything in, it challenges us to rethink everything about ourselves, and leads us to a transformed understanding of who we are. Crucially, this transformation is built on the hope of resurrection. Not a hope, in the case of Paul, that was a long way off, that we will experience when we die. Hope for Paul is about being transformed now, because he experienced the resurrected Jesus now. The resurrection was not something he was moving towards after death, but was something that had already moved towards him. The resurrected Christ intervened in the life of Paul’s present reality. The resurrection had immediate consequence.

Paul only comes to faith because of this conviction: that the resurrection has happened, has interrupted and intervened in the present reality, and has immediate consequence.

When Paul is talking about the hope of resurrection in 2 Corinthians 4, then, he is not simply talking about a hope in the afterlife. Rather, it is the hope of resurrection that leads him to speak now. “We believe, and so we speak” (v13). We believe now, and so we speak now.

Being drawn into the presence of Jesus is not straightforwardly about what happens to us when we die, but about how we live now. Immediately before today’s reading Paul lists the sufferings that he has undergone in his ministry, Paul understands these experiences as making Jesus visible in his flesh. In other words, Paul finds himself in the presence of Jesus when he finds himself living out his faith. As Paul works for the sake of his communities he sees himself extending grace more and more and more and more. Paul sees himself, in this work, making Christ present more and more and more and more.

Even as Paul struggles to live out the way of Christ, he finds in his service to others the very presence of Christ. Even as Paul struggles to follow the way of love, he experiences ongoing transformation. As Paul struggles for the sake of the communities he serves, he does so that they  may be uplifted, experience grace, and have life.

Paul uses these experiences to continue reinterpreting his understanding of who Christ is. And he turns these experiences into a form of encouragement for his communities.

“Do not lose heart!”

Even though the way of the Prince of Peace is sullied by political leaders waging war. Even though the way of New Creation is setback by environmental degradation. Even though the way of welcome to the stranger is stalled by offshore detention. Even though the way of justice for the poor is stolen through exploitation. Even though the way of reconciliation for first peoples is stymied by the ongoing systems of colonisation.


We hold onto the hope of resurrection, intervening in our reality. We hold onto our own pursuit of transformation, our own pursuit of being shaped to serve the world. We hold onto the eternal hope of heaven -- that even if this earthly tent burns to the ground, we can form a community that believes and so speaks:

“peace over war - care for creation over degradation - welcome and embrace over exclusion - justice over exploitation - reconciliation over systems of oppression.”

We hold onto the hope that the life offered by resurrection will intervene in this reality. At the very least because it has intervened in our own lives, and so transforms us to live in service to the world. The resurrection is an experience that calls us beyond ourselves, to rethink everything we have understood ourselves to be. The resurrection comes towards us, it catches us up in the life of God, and leads us beyond ourselves so that grace might extend more and more and more and more, to the glory of God.

As Paul goes on to say just after our reading, we groan in this world, we groan for a better world to be made real in this one. This groaning yearns for the life of resurrection, the life that vindicates the life of service to the vulnerable Jesus modelled. This groaning is a sign of our inner transformation, so that we might commit ourselves to an outward manifestation of the solidarity with suffering that Jesus live, and the critique of injustice that Jesus proclaimed.


Paul does not call us to think fondly of fleeing this world. But Paul calls us to experience, and to live the resurrection. To be drawn outside of ourselves, in service to the world -- we are called to follow the way of Christ. Amen.

 

Silent and Afraid #4: The Question of Marriage

  The Widow's Mite (Le denier de la veuve) , James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The Widow's Mite (Le denier de la veuve), James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

It is no doubt obvious at this point that my ability to blog consistently is atrocious. Nevertheless, I continue to slowly compile my thoughts, unsystematically, and inconsistently. Here is a reflection on the question of marriage, and resurrection. In my own context my church, the Uniting Church in Australia, is set to decide whether it will embrace marriage equality - now law in Australia - at its upcoming Assembly in July.

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"Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’ -- Mark 12.18-27

This passage gets very little play in Christian discussions of marriage, despite the fact that it's one of only two times Jesus explicitly engages with the issue of marriage.

The context is Jesus' final public encounter with the religious leaders that have served as antagonists throughout Mark's Gospel. Having dealt with the question of taxes by condemning the temple system itself as profane, Jesus turns to face the Sadducees.

Their question is speculative, driven by their own theological assumptions. They don't believe in the resurrection, this is an argument to absurdity: if you believe in resurrection you contradict the law, and end up with absurd results. No resurrection. QED.

We are fortunate that marriage is here the case study for Jesus laying out the logic of resurrection.

Jesus' first riposte is to accuse them of not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God. Setting aside the question of Scripture for the moment, the power of God has been at work throughout Mark's Gospel. Miraculous healings - even simply touching Jesus' cloak - casting out demons, reaching a crescendo in the confession of Christ by Peter, preceding the transfiguration.

Having heard Peter's confession Jesus makes clear that the way of the Christ is the way of obedience, suffering, and death - even death on a cross. Peter doesn't understand this, and so Jesus rebukes him. In that context, having emphasised that the way of the Christ is the way of the cross, Jesus says that some of the disciples will not face death before seeing the Kingdom of God arrive in power.

What arrival of the Kingdom of God means in that instance isn't clear, and has been interpreted in several different ways. Does it refer to the transfiguration the disciples are about to witness? Does it refer to the cross itself, mindful of Jesus' rebuke of Peter? Does it refer to the resurrection? The second coming of Jesus?

Our passage from Mark 12 hints at a possible answer. There Jesus connects the power of God to raise the dead to the nature of God - referencing the story of God identify Godself to Moses, one of the founding figures in the story of God's people, Israel. Resurrection is not about a future hope for an afterlife, but about those who are living now. For the early Christians reading this we might imagine that this is rather obvious: the point of Jesus' own resurrection was that it had implications for their lives - and indeed our lives - right now.

The power of God, in resurrection, is not a question of future speculation, but of immediate consequence. We have to ask what the immediate consequence of resurrection is for the case of marriage. We might be even more specific: what is the immediate consequence of resurrection for this widow?

In fact, as Mark 12 continues, a widow appears - as if to answer the very questions raised by Jesus' encounters with the religious leaders.

She places two coins in the offering plate at the temple - this contrasts starkly with the rich who emptied their wallets. There Jesus upholds her offering. She has put more in than all the others.

This widow has modelled faithfulness in a temple that stands condemned. She has given freely what she has, even as the Scribes sought "devour widow's houses." She has been uplifted even as the question of her marital duties are brought unstuck by speculation about resurrection.

This radically concrete story of the widow's offering locates the resurrection. The resurrection is about the living; in this case, the widow, who's husbands have died, and left her with no children. She is the site of the resurrection, to be upheld and supported, to be given life. To be told Good News.

So the question of marriage is not one of legalism or speculation. It must always be tethered to the outworking logic of resurrection. That says to the poor, the lowly, and the powerless: you are upheld, even as the religious leaders seek to subdue you.

The issue of marriage fades into the background here. It is not marriage itself that should drive us - this is what Jesus teaches - but marriage, like all things, should be caught up in the resurrection life of God. We must always ask, about marriage as much as anything else, is this good news to the poor and suffering? That is the immediate consequence of the resurrection. And so any myopic focus on marriage that does not take seriously the immediate consequence of the resurrection is at risk of departing from the very teaching of Jesus on marriage.

To God be the Kingdom, the power and the glory.

Silent and Afraid #3: Behind me!

  St. Simon , Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1611), Museo del Prado, Madrid.

St. Simon, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1611), Museo del Prado, Madrid.

This is post three of my infrequent, and increasingly fragmentary series trying to make sense of the Gospel of Mark: part one | part two

 

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1 [16] As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. [17] And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me [ὀπίσω μου | opisō mou] and I will make you fish for people.’

 

 

3 [13] He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. … [16] So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); [18] … and Simon the Zealot, [19] and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

 

 

8 [31] Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. [32] He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. [33] But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind  me  [ὀπίσω μου | opisō mou], Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

 

 

14 [37] He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? … [47] But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

 

Forgetting is a key element in coming to understand. It allows what we know to become fragmented, to float like melting sea ice around our minds. Hopefully these fragments can be put together. There is a puzzle that I have wondered about for some time in the Gospel of Mark. As I go through waves of remembering and forgetting how the story unfolds different fragments from the story coalesce around different themes. As I noted in my previous entry, Mark’s Gospel consists of multiple threads that all run through the narrative and come together to form a rope: something robust that can actually be used for something. The thread I want to pull on in this post is the puzzle of the twin Simons.

 

Throughout Mark’s Gospel Simon-Peter plays a central role - some have suggested the central role (perhaps even more than Jesus). One can see in Simon-Peter’s characterisation a shadowy parallel to the beloved disciple in John’s Gospel. But what fascinates me is the slippage in the identity of Simon-Peter through the text. When he is first introduced he is Simon, a simple fisherman. When enumerated among the twelve he is renamed Peter: Rocky; as if to avoid confusion with the other Simon, one among the Zealots:

 

“The Zealots were a political movement in 1st-century Second Temple Judaism, which sought to incite the people of Judea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land by force of arms, most notably during the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70).” (Yes, wikipedia!)

 

And yet for all the renaming of ‘Simon the fisherman’ as ‘Peter,’ it is not the Zealot that rebukes Jesus’ fatalistic prediction of his own suffering and death. It is, after all, Peter. The same Peter who Jesus un-names in Gethsemane - calling him again Simon. The same Simon-Peter that John’s Gospel suggests is the one who leapt to violence against the religious leaders that sought to arrest Jesus. In fact we are not told by Mark himself who raised the sword.

 

There is a significant amount of slippage in the identity of Simon-Peter. Although demarcated as the Rock, the foundation of the church, it seems he is also at risk of being confused with the Zealot.

 

At this point it is worth showing my hand: I fall into the camp that suggests Mark’s Gospel was written in the later 60s CE. Around the time of the Jewish-Roman War, where defeat seemed inevitable, the destruction, or at least sacrilege, of the temple imminent. (We do not have in Mark the same level of detail about the temple’s destruction as we find in Luke or Matthew.) Understood as an artefact that seeks to intervene in the experience of its community, the text of Mark’s Gospel is frightfully self-aware of this precarious context. The fatalism of the suffering and execution of Jesus hauntingly echoes the same fatalism perhaps felt by its first readers: the same suffering, the same execution looming.

 

Understood in this way the characterisation of Simon-Peter, in contrast with the Simon the Zealot, carries this sense of foreboding. Something calamitous is coming, and it's only right that we should fight for what's right. And yet Jesus, in calling Simon out of his old identity, rebukes this idea. Most stingingly after Peter's confession. The echoes of Simon's calling ring in Peter's ears: opisō mou. “Behind me!” Only, with the confession in Mark 8 it is no longer Simon called to follow behind as a disciple. In Mark 8 it is Simon the Zealot - personified in Peter - renamed again: Satan. Called to follow once more the Messiah.

 

The use of the character of Simon-Peter serves to better understand who Jesus is for the first community of readers. By highlighting the wavering of the identity of Simon (or is it Peter?) Mark opens up the modalities of Jesus’ way. Jesus may be understood as a Messiah, the heralded liberator and vindicator of the Jewish people. The new warrior King of the Jewish state. (It is important to remember in our own time that Jesus was born in an occupied Palestine, as an occupied Palestinian-Jew.)

 

Jesus rejects this understanding of the Messiah completely. Simon's warrior-like tendencies are rebuked sternly and clearly by Jesus. Instead Jesus offers a way forward that rejects violence and enacts peace.

 

Another important point, Jesus lived in an era of previously unknown peace and stability - particularly for Roman citizens. The Roman Empire, with its expansive army spread throughout its territory, knew how to establish and keep peace. Jesus knew something about peace we struggle to understand. Peace is often predicated on violence, immense violence. And so to reject the wavering of Simon-Peter, and to call him back onto the way of the cross, was to name the violent system on which peace was currently sitting.

 

There's a lot to unpack there, particularly how this critique of violence feeds back into Jesus’ later critique of the Jewish temple system. Suffice it to say that Simon-Peter, for all his failings, reminds us to look back at the figures that dance around Jesus throughout the narrative. Seeing in each of the key characters an idea that is central to the story. For Simon-Peter we might summarise the point like this: confessing the Messiah as liberator must mean a liberation from violence, but this is not an easy road, and there will often be faltering back to the way of violence. This is okay. Violence is ambiguous, especially when it props up visible peace. We should then be like Simon-Peter, in all his failings. For he is the foundation of the church: someone who seeks to fight for justice, and wrestles in that fight with the complex place or violence against violence.

Sermon: Pentecost - the Spirit and the Christ

This is the text of the sermon I delivered at Rosanna Uniting Church on Pentecost. It occurred to me in writing and delivering this sermon the interesting distinctions between the different Gospel accounts of the giving of the Spirit and the forming of the church. In this regard I wonder how one might read this sermon alongside my recent sermon on John. In any case, feedback always welcome.

 

  Pentecost Mosaic , St. Louis Cathedral, Missouri.

Pentecost Mosaic, St. Louis Cathedral, Missouri.

God, by your Spirit, enable me to speak truth; and by the same Spirit enable those that listen to point out what is not. Amen.

The end is nigh! The world is coming to an end!

All of it.

Political strife. Environmental degradation. The slow agonising heat death of the universe.

Everything is headed towards disaster, decay, and destruction.

Now all we have to do is wait for Jesus to return. Descending from the clouds to finally, finally wrap everything up. And reveal, once and for all, that we were right.

If we sit for a moment in this way of looking at the world, we might better understand the experience of the first Christians leading up to Pentecost. 

Jewish expectations of resurrection were tied to the end of the world. And the first believers had seen Jesus resurrected, alive in the flesh, after being put to death on the cross. Surely this resurrection was a sign of the end, a sign of the world to come.

It is was only natural to expect, then, that what was to follow was a slow spiral into chaos and destruction. As it happened this came to pass. Rome came crashing down on Jerusalem, destroying the temple seemingly once and for all. Christians faced persecution. And it was difficult to see a way forward, a way of hope.

As we enter the story of today's reading we should bear in mind what has just happened:

Jesus has ascended into heaven. Judas has died, and been replaced. The disciples are gathered in a house.

Waiting.

Waiting for something.

But it's unclear what. Perhaps they really did sit there thinking, 'this is it, the end is nigh.’

Indeed, after the Spirit comes Peter's first response is to preach that sermon. A sermon about the end of the world. Quoting the prophet Joel, Peter sees the Spirit's arrival as a sure sign of the “last days.” He quotes Joel’s references to:

“Blood, and fire, and smoky mist. | The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood.” (v19b-20a)

One can almost picture Peter giving this sermon wearing a sandwich board, or holding a giant sign, screaming on a street corner.

It is important to recognise this element of surprise in the story of Pentecost. The disciples did not see it coming. The outpouring of the Spirit simply happens.

While we have come to see this story as the story of the founding of the church, we should not be fooled into thinking that this foundation was led by the disciples. That the church was founded as a logical extension of the Jesus movement.

The church here is not a clear and logical outworking that follows from the realisation that Jesus can fly.

Rather, the church comes into existence as a response to the surprising activity of God: in response to an experience that is simply given to the first believers. The Spirit's coming just happens, and the believers are called to respond. It is the community that responds to the activity of God that becomes the church.

This contrasts quite a bit with other accounts of the giving of the Spirit, and the birth of the church. In John’s Gospel, to take one example, the disciples are similarly gathered in one room. There Jesus breathes the Spirit onto them directly, as he presents his scarred and broken body. The founding of the church in that context is connected quite clearly with the practice of gathering around the table, sharing in broken bread and wine: signs of a broken  body, and spilt blood.

What makes this account in Acts 2 of the birth of the church significant is that it does not seem at first directly connected with Jesus. We can see this in how the drama of the account unfolds.

The disciples are gathered together, the Spirit descends: a loud wind fills the house, tongues of fire fall and rest on each of them. This experience forces them out into the streets, where they encounter people from many different places, speaking many different languages.

Into this chaotic scene Peter stands to preach. Peter, as we’ve seen, names the full scope of what’s going on. It seems to point to something that calls into question the whole of reality itself.

This feeling of everything being called into question is echoed in our reading from Romans 8. There Paul says that Creation itself is yearning for revelation, groaning in labour pains, hoping to be caught up in the activity of God.

The surprise of Pentecost draws the first believers fully into the experience. It touches every part of them. It forces them out into the streets, preaching the end of the world.

And then …

And then Peter remembers. Peter remembers the witness of Jesus of Nazareth. Not some abstract Christ, functioning as a symbol untouched by history or culture. But Jesus of Nazareth - Nazareth, that town up the road, that people can visit, and that remains a site of significant conflict and contestation.

Peter remembers that it is in Jesus of Nazareth, and truly in him, that we understand the surprising activity of God. We understand God who attested to Jesus with deeds of power, wonders, and signs. We understand God through Jesus’ solidarity with those that suffer, and are oppressed. Solidarity that lead him to the cross. And we understand God through Jesus being raised, being freed from death.

What we glimpse in the vision of the church offered by Acts 2 is an understanding of the church rooted in two fundamental things:


A surprising experience of God, and Jesus of Nazareth - a man attested by God.

The church, in other words, is the community formed by experiences of the Spirit understood through the story of Jesus.

Experiences of the Spirit that draw in all of who we are, calling into question everything in our world. Experiences that compel us outside of our houses, into encounters with people of every language and race.

And the story of Jesus that we read in Scripture, and see lived out in lives of justice, mercy, and love. The story of Jesus we re-tell over and over and over, as we proclaim in words and deeds the reign of God on behalf of those that suffer, and against those that oppress.

The Spirit and the Christ shape who we are as the church. We are the church because we respond to this activity of God - in the Spirit and in the Christ.

We might, then, breathe a sigh of relief: we do not have to be all things to all people. But must simply, and humbly seek to be drawn into the life of God in the world. We might understand ourselves as continually moving towards the activity of the living God already at work in the world. Not relying on ourselves, but finding the sites of hope in the world.

We might, then, also be freed in responding to the life of God in the world. The point is not to control or smother the flames. But rather to encounter change and newness by attesting to Jesus of Nazareth. Recognising that the Spirit of God goes before us, and Jesus stands behind us.

In reminding ourselves of the story of Pentecost, we remind ourselves of the livingness of God, the willingness of God to engage with God’s people - that is, everyone, all people of the world.


We proclaim the Good News: God is a living God. The Spirit is at work in reconciliation, in deeds of justice, of mercy, and of love. And in Jesus the Messiah we see this work most fully: crucified with those that suffer, raised in opposition to oppression.

We ourselves are caught up in the activity of God, can we live up to this call? Can we experience the Spirit of Pentecost?

Sermon: Brokenness and Hope (8/4/18)

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Brunswick Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia. Audio can be found here:
https://brunswick.unitingchurch.org.au/brokenness-hope/

 Caravaggio,  The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

God, help me to witness to the resurrection, and empower those that listen to voice their doubts. Amen.

Last week we commemorated Holy Week: the central festival in the Christian calendar. Leading up to this time many within the church - here and around the world - prepare themselves during the period of Lent. The time of lent, when many people give up something important to them, recalls the time of preparation that Jesus underwent before his public ministry. It is a time when many recall the seriousness of the suffering of Christ to come.

After Lent we retell the story of the end of Christ’s ministry. From the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday, to the dark depths of Good Friday, and the glorious resurrection of Easter Sunday. During Easter we retell the story of Jesus the Messiah, who, as one of the earliest summaries puts it: “humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.” We re-tell that “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” We confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Amen!

This is the central story of Christianity itself. And so it is important that we keep retelling it.

And yet, the task we have before us today - a week after Holy Week - is perhaps more difficult. More than simply re-telling the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, today we must begin to unpack the implications of this strange story. We must move from discussions about what happened, and start to ask: what happens next? We must try to make sense of it all.

John's Gospel, as we are told in today's reading, itself has in mind an answer to our question of what might happen next. In the aftermath of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the writer of John’s Gospel would have us believe, and in believing have life.

As we read John's Gospel we might bear this in mind: the author was themself trying to make sense of the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not unlike us today.

Let us begin by turning our attention to our reading from John 20. 

The resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, inside a locked room, he greets the disciples with peace, and presents his wounded body. This is difficult to understand.

Setting aside for the moment the strange account of the resurrected Jesus passing through a locked door, I want to begin by looking at another odd happening in the first appearance of the resurrected Jesus in our reading today. Jesus breathes on the disciples.

So, I tend not to just breathe on my friends as a sign of affection … Especially when, as far as they’re concerned, I’m either a corpse or a ghost. And yet this is what Jesus does. In breathing on his disciples we are told Jesus imparts to them the Holy Spirit.

At this point we might recall the creation narrative in Genesis 2, where God breathes the Spirit of life into humanity. The parallels between Jesus and the creation accounts of the Hebrew Bible run deep in John's Gospel.


John's famous prologue - “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” - frames the entire Gospel in reference to the foundations of creation. Local scholar, Rev. Dr. Sally Douglas has drawn attention to a key source for this prologue in the Jewish tradition that associates woman wisdom with God’s act of creation. That is, a tradition within Jewish thought that places someone else alongside God in the act of creating. From the very beginning John is suggesting that Jesus needs to be understood alongside the Creator God.

And so when the first witness to the resurrected Jesus, Mary Magdalene, mistakes Jesus for a Gardener we might imagine that she is not mistaken at all. But rather, she properly identifies Jesus as the Gardener, from the Garden: the Garden of Eden. John’s Gospel seems to suggest that Jesus is God the Gardener who walks among the plants, and animals, and who breathes life into humanity.

The language of “new creation” tries to capture this way of thinking about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has inaugurated a new creation! And so everything, everything must be re-evaluated in the light of who Jesus is. In placing Jesus alongside the Creator God John’s Gospel is suggesting that the way of God has now become the way of Jesus the Messiah.

We are invited to follow the way of God, by now following the way of Jesus. As the Father has sent Jesus, in this way we are sent. As Jesus forgave sin, in this way we are to forgive sin.

The question is not how we can demonstrate that Jesus is the all-powerful and Holy God descended into the human realm. The first appearance of Jesus to his disciples re-emphasises the point that Jesus’ identity is bound up with a re-evaluation of the world, and the Creator God who stands above it. The question now is how our assumptions about the world are reimagined in the light of Jesus the Messiah. And how our assumptions about God are reimagined in this same light.

We might now say that Jesus is not like God: God is like Jesus.

For this reason Christians have said that there is a new creation, built upon Jesus the Messiah, and we can begin again.

The resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, inside a locked room, he greets the disciples with peace, and presents his wounded body. This is difficult to understand.

And yet Thomas confesses, “My Lord and my God!”

In preparing this sermon I thought I had a fairly solid grasp on the story of “doubting Thomas.” The disciple who did not believe upon hearing of the resurrection, instead demanding proof. Having demanded this proof, Jesus suddenly appears presenting his scarred body as if to rebuff Thomas’ doubt.

But Jesus does not “suddenly” appear. Jesus appears, but a week later. This gave me pause:

Perhaps I had Thomas all wrong. Indeed, his fault is doubting the resurrection until he saw it himself. As if the other disciples did not themselves come to belief only after Jesus’ first appearance.

I’m working on an alternative interpretation. Thomas, for all his doubt, seems to be aware that resurrection does not mean erasing the past. New creation does not throw out the old creation. Thomas does not say, “I will believe when I see Jesus present himself, alive and well, healed of the injuries that led to his death.”

This is an important corrective for those of us keen for simple and quick solutions. Jesus does not offer us that.

Jesus offers us a scarred and broken body. But one that still has life.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection interrupts the normal order of things. The normal assumptions we make about how the world works. The normal assumptions we make about how locked doors work. Importantly, the way of Jesus interrupts how we gather together. Jesus proclaims a new vision of life and community that critiques the old. A vision we see expressed in our other reading today from Acts 4: where the followers of Jesus share what they have in love for each other, meeting the needs of everyone.

And so as we continue to unpack the implications of the one who overcame death, we remember that he yet bears the scars of crucifixion. The one who inaugurates a new order of things, yet calls us to this new way here and now.


Perhaps, then, we can do nothing but retell this same story in a different way.

When Jesus died he gave up his Spirit. There are some in the Christian tradition that have understood the Spirit as precisely the bond of love between God and Jesus. As Jesus died, giving up his Spirit and breathing his last, he opens the bond of love between God and himself, and makes possible our inclusion in this Holy Love. Jesus stands with our humanity even to his own death. Here Jesus begins a new creation.

As we celebrate the resurrection we celebrate that this love between God and Jesus can overcome anything: even death on a cross. The love between God and Jesus overcomes all boundaries between God and the Godforsaken, between God and the Godless. And in breathing the Holy Spirit on his disciples Jesus breathes upon them this same divine love. Jesus brings them into the new creation. A new creation built on love.

And so for us too: nothing can separate us from the love of God. The love of God that brings scarred and broken bodies into our communities, and calls us to welcome the broken with love and hope.

The resurrection does not easily erase the scars. It brings the scarred and broken bodies we bear into an irrevocable community of love. It calls us to hope. To be new creations. Challenging ways of gathering that are not shaped by love.

The unfolding of the Gospel, the ongoing life of the scarred and broken body, shapes our community. It leads us to forever greet each other with peace, and in ever new ways to embody love. Our reading today, and John’s Gospel itself, close with the sense that this is an inexhaustible task. The ongoing work of resurrection cannot be completely recorded or captured. It is the eternal life of love that we are called to now.

Christ is risen! Hallelujah! This is Good News. Amen.

--

Blessing and Sending Out

May the Lord feed you with wisdom, and breathe upon you truth
May you experience God’s unspeakable love
Christ lifts the burden off of you.

Go in peace,
Welcome others into hope
Love and serve the Lord,
In the name of Christ.
Amen.

Silent and Afraid #2: Baptised on the Way

 Icon of St. John the Baptist (Nikolo-Ugreshsky Monastery near Moscow)

Icon of St. John the Baptist (Nikolo-Ugreshsky Monastery near Moscow)

 

1 [4] John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. [5] And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. [6] Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. [7] He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. [8] I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’


[9] In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. [10] And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. [11] And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’


[12] And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. [13] He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.


I have been meaning to keep writing my reading of Mark’s Gospel. Unfortunately life can get in the way, cutting into the time needed to sit, reflect, and write. This itself should remind us that all writing is sutured to concrete realities of life. To reiterate, this reality that texts are always connected to material realities drives my reading of Mark’s Gospel.


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As I’ve been percolating my reflections on the Gospel of Mark I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with narrative approaches to the text. I signalled this in my first post in this series. My dissatisfaction has two causes:


First, it disconnects the text from the community in which it resided, and the communities in which it still resides. In reading the Gospel of Mark simply as a text we are at risk of making assumptions about its composition that may be explained in other ways. Since we have no access to what lies behind the text some of the best interpreters have therefore suggested that we simply take the text as a text and set aside the unknown reality behind it. This increasingly seems to me to be unwarranted. Not because I have - at last! - secured some insight beyond the text. But because regardless of what the reality was in the author’s community behind the text, there was such a reality. And regardless of our ignorance of that communal reality, we are well aware of our own. And insofar as our own communities are Christian, and see texts like the Gospel of Mark as, in some sense, Scripture, we are obliged to see the text as enacting an intervention into the situations of our communities.


Second, a narrative approach to the text imports assumptions about how the text should be read. Notwithstanding the significant diversity of interpretations of the Gospel of Mark, the common narrative approach to Mark’s Gospel assumes that the story evolves from beginning to end. Certainly the text does have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But very few interpreters therefore think that we should read each section with equal weight. There is consensus within scholarly commentary that the Gospel of Mark amounts to a passion narrative (the end), with an extended introduction (the beginning and middle). Quite right. What interpreters then do is simply read the narrative as if the character of Jesus were fated -- as if the original readers had not already read the ending.


Even the most sophisticated interpreters read the narrative strictly naively: Jesus, as a character, develops throughout the narrative, but like a Greek tragedy there is a fated end. I would suggest that the Gospel of Mark is not trying to make the point that the crucifixion of Christ is necessary, or to retell the life of Jesus with the looming inevitability of death floating as a spectre in the background. Rather the text is continually an attempt to provide the author’s community of faith with the resources for a particular understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.


Recall my suggestion that the text transgresses its own boundaries as a text. The Gospel of Mark pushes beyond itself, it challenges us. And so it is not a simple retelling of the story, but retells this story only ever to guarantee that the story is continued. In this vein reading the text from start to finish is perhaps not the most helpful way into it. It is much better to read the text as a series of threads woven together into a more robust rope that can then be used for something.


Writing about any one of the these threads is a difficult task. This difficulty has thrown a spanner in my initial intentions to provide a straightforward sequential reading of the text. Nevertheless we shall push on with our first encounter with John the Baptiser.


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The figure of John the Baptiser plays a central role in the Gospel of Mark. However, it is difficult to appreciate this role so early in the text. It is not until we see the characterisation of John develop throughout the text that he fully comes into relief. As such the focus of this entry will be on baptism as prefiguring the mode of revelation endorsed by Mark as he writes his account of the beginning of the Good News.


I first worked out this material in a sermon that fell the first Sunday after epiphany. Epiphany is an odd event in the Christian liturgical calendar, because it tends to fall around new year's, and coincide with the beginning of the standard liturgical year that begins after Christmas, and tends towards lent and Easter (the Archimedean centre point in the Christian year). And so a preacher is presented with an unusual range of texts. Texts that mark epiphany; texts that aim at marking the new year; and texts that mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.


In a fit of irony I chose the text placed at the top of this post as an epiphany text. Epiphany which celebrates the revelation of Jesus to those outside - namely Gentiles - was here marked by a text that begins the Markan trope of the Messianic secret. Indeed, not simply the Messianic secret, but this text (Mk. 1.4-13) sets the terms of Mark’s understanding of revelation that runs through the whole text. As an epiphany text things are all wrong: there seem to be no Gentiles to speak of, no public revelation, just a wild desert preacher and a young Rabbi about to take his mantle.


To understand just how difficult this text is it’s helpful to set it aside some of its earliest recorded readers: the other Gospel writers. When set aside the other Gospel accounts, Mark’s account is the most restrictive of all in terms of revelation. It seems only Jesus can see the Spirit descending like a dove. John and the crowd are not privy to this divine revelation, as they seem to be in Luke and John's Gospels.


The divine voice from heaven is likewise restrictive. It addresses Jesus directly: “You are my beloved Son.” The indirect and public declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship, through the mouth of John the Baptiser, or a booming Heavenly voice is absent.


Matthew’s Gospel finds the interaction between Jesus and John at his baptism so awkward that Matthew feels the need to insert an interaction between Jesus and John, to relieve the tension the encounter creates.


The first Sunday after epiphany we read this difficult text: no gentiles, no public revelation. And worse: as soon as Jesus’ divine sonship is revealed he is drawn out into the desert. Upon his return he begins a ministry characterised by a messianic secret: no one is allowed to publicly utter that Jesus is the son of God.


The importance of this text is that it sets up the terms of revelation that Mark uses throughout the rest of his text. And, as noted in my first post, sets up the fact that Mark’s text transgresses itself: it is conscious of itself as more than a text, the text is a conversation partner within a community of faith. If we are to read this text faithfully, then we must take seriously what it means to see this text as a conversation partner for ourselves.


The terms of revelation Mark employs are not simply fascinating aspects of a text, but are instructive for our own grappling with questions of divine revelation. How might we see baptism as a mode of revelation?


First, it should be noted that Jesus’ baptism  by John is not Jesus’ first baptism. Sergei Bulgakov sees Jesus’ conception as the first and paradigmatic example of spirit baptism. Echoing the theme of baptism as participation, it is by the spirit that God participates in humanity. Recalling the great birthing waters over which the Spirit hovered in the beginning, God came in Christ to dwell fully in and with our humanity. This first baptism of Jesus - in which he is incarnate by the Holy Spirit, to use the language of Nicea - recalls Genesis 1 as a key intertext. (In this regard John’s Gospel sits comfortably within this stream of thought, as do the annunciation narratives of Matthew and Luke.)


The idea of baptism in which, through the symbol of water, we participate in Christ, is mirrored in the Spirit's enabling of Christ's participation in humanity. This understanding of baptism is absent from Mark. Mark sees no need to include the accounts of the unusual birth of Jesus.


I am somewhat sympathetic to the claim that the opening word of the Gospel of Mark:  Ἀρχη (beginning), does allude to a sort of founding or creation motif. However, if this text is offering us a new founding we should be careful not to import our assumptions about creation into this text.


Accepting our conceit that everything is deliberate, Mark omits the first baptism of Jesus for good reason. By refusing to acknowledge the stories of Jesus’ unusual birth Mark draws on different threads within Jewish thought. Mark offers a counter narrative.


Creation does not begin with the world over which God is sovereign. Indeed, as Jesus’ flight into the desert highlights, this opening movement of the text is as much about Exodus as about Genesis.


This way of blurring creation and exodus is not unprecedented in the Jewish tradition. The clearest example is in Habakkuk 3. Where Habakkuk’s resolution to the suffering of Israel intertwines the Exodus and Genesis narratives. Indeed this is to such a degree that the creation account of Genesis is repudiated: creation is much more akin to the ambivalence of Job than the meticulous care of the Priestly tradition.


As Jesus begins his ministry Mark seeks to set this as a new creation. This new creation is not an ordered perfection that Jesus seeks to return us to. It is rather a way -- a way that ends in liberating death. For this reason there is no need to begin with a miraculous birth that grafts perfect humanity back into the corrupted root. There is only need to acknowledge the arrival of a secret way. Only those that follow this way will see - as Bartimaeus will show later.


This is what we are introduced to in Jesus’ baptism. The arrival of the way, which we are called to follow. And along which we will see. This is a major theme of the text, and it is perhaps the major theme of the Christian life. It is a way that does not seek a return to perfection, but seeks to re-enact the liberating work of Exodus, challenging the quaint notions of truth in the created order. No truth is found publicly. It is found along the way, it is found in following the pursuit of justice.


Jesus’ baptism by John is interesting not because it begins Jesus’ entry into creation. It is interesting because it begins Jesus’ entry into our human condition of sin and repentance. In this sense it is Jesus’ entering into the task of liberation. (This claim of solidarity is so radical the Gospel of Matthew has to try to erase it.) But this act of solidarity with the sinful, entering into the task of liberation, is the trajectory of the story of Jesus. And it begins with baptism. - as it does for us.


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I have, perhaps, introduced too much too quickly at the end here. But my hope is that I can slowly unfold this way of reading as I keep writing and re-writing.

Silent and Afraid: a project

  Mark the Evangelist , Il Pordenone.

Mark the Evangelist, Il Pordenone.

16 [4] When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. [5] As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. [6] But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. [7] But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ [8] So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

1 [1] The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

This is my first post on Theology Corner. I felt that moving my blog to this platform would finally encourage me to blog with more consistency. The only challenge I faced is what to write about. I finally have my answer.

I have been wrestling with the Gospel of Mark for several years - it was my gateway drug into formal theological study. As I’ve studied and wrestled with the text my views have grown considerably. I frequently return to the Gospel of Mark as a way to help me think through the shifting sands of my theological commitments. This text is a work of pure genius, and so it has been rich enough to hold my theological reflections over several years.

Finally, I think, I am ready to venture a reading of the text. Fortunately this aligns with the year of Mark in the common lectionary. So my hope is that between my own musings, and preaching opportunities that come my way I am able to develop a basic approach to each part of the text. And at the end of the year I’ll have enough to collate together for a more complete interpretation of the text as a whole.

This post is aimed at trying to introduce my idiosyncratic approach to the text.

My view is that when you read the Gospel of Mark and come to its end (which is properly at v16.8), you should immediate begin reading it again. This is why I have placed the final half chapter and the first verse at the start of this post. I am interested in the fact that the text effaces itself. It erases the legitimacy of its own ending. As the text ends we are left with the two Marys and Salome: silent and afraid. And yet as we turn to the beginning of the text we are reminded that this is the beginning of the Good News. This text we have before us exists only because of the message that the women did not tell to anyone. Perhaps after all they were courageous: the first apostles, the first evangelists.

This raises significant questions about how we should approach this text which seems to happily undermine itself. We should remember that this text belonged to a particular community, it spread as an authoritative text throughout early Christian communities - and has remained so even today. The point is that we need to take seriously how this text transgresses its own limits.

Perhaps if we read the text not simply twice, but three times, we realise another way the text could interpret itself. We are the ones who bear the responsibility of witnessing to the resurrection; the women who are silent and afraid thus offer a challenge to us: will we be silent and afraid, or will we overcome our fear as they must have?

There is a certain conceit that this open-ended and constructive approach to the Gospel of Mark must adhere to: the text as we have it must be accepted as it is, and as a completely deliberate act. This, of course, is probably not true. As we read through this text we might find reason to overcome this assumption. And yet my approach begins with this conceit in order to appreciate the deep richness of the text. This interpretive project is as much a work of constructive imagination as it is an attempt at levels of exegesis. This is part of what makes this approach idiosyncratic.

The other aspect of the interpretive approach of this project which is idiosyncratic is that it doesn’t aim first and foremost to read the text as a narrative. Now, certainly, Mark’s Gospel is a narrative. And it is a particularly interesting narrative, with inspired characterisation, and incredibly canny structure. However, the approach I want to take here does not limit my interpretation to these narrative components. Rather, I see the text first and foremost as an artefact within the community of faith, playing a dynamic and complex role in the formation of theology within that community. One might conjecture, for example, that the frantic action of Jesus in the earliest parts of Mark’s Gospel are in fact designed to serve as a source book for sermon illustrations. Mark collects there various stories that floated around the earliest Christian communities in order to provide a standard edition of Jesus anecdotes. As such, the earliest part of the narrative may not in fact be written with consideration of the characterisation of Jesus within the story, but with consideration of the characterisation of Jesus within the preaching life of the community.

This shift from the text as a world, to the text as a part of the community of faith raises other considerations throughout the text. To foreshadow a future post which I have had sitting as a draft for 2 years: while there may not be a resurrection appearance at the end of the text, there may be one reworked into the middle. In the transfiguration, perhaps, we can see Mark countering in his communities what Luther might call a theology of glory, instead Mark wants to promote a theology of the cross. The constructive approach I am interested in takes seriously that this text sits alongside other texts, the accretions of culture and tradition over time, and the practices of communities of faith, and all of these must be a part of our interpretation. We do not, then, have in mind a historically located sense, but a fully present, fully living meaning for ourselves.

Precisely because the text qua text effaces itself, and transgresses its own boundaries, it leads us to relocate it within a fuller account of the life of faith. The text challenges us, not because it is difficult to excavate ancient meanings, but because it confronts us as our contemporary: it most directly challenges us. Will we be silent and afraid? Or will we recognise what this text is for us: The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

To make this explicit: the opening verse of this text is titular. And so this journey to put into words, and some images, and some music, what this text means for us is simply to partake in the journey of the way. The journey that seeks to write the second volume: The Continuing of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This added volume which we write with our own lives.

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Grace and peace,

Matt.