Never say “Never!” Mark 13:1-8 Ordinary 33B

Mark 13:1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

I remember this awful joke from the 1980’s

PW Botha (then President of South Africa), Eugene Terreblance (White Supremacist – Neo Nazi), and Desmond Tutu (Archbishop of Cape Town) are all given an audience with the Almighty and are allowed to ask God one question.
PW Botha asks, “Will the ANC ever come to power in South Africa?” God answers “Not in your lifetime”
Eugene Terreblance asks, “Will the Afrikanders ever get their own homeland?” God answers “Not in your lifetime”
Desmond Tutu asks, “Will South Africa ever have a black president?” God answers, “Not in MY lifetime!”

It’s a terrible joke. But we laughed at it because as whites in power we were arrogant and really thought that the status quo would last forever.

Today that joke is just sad. Simply because all of its assumptions were wrong.

It was the same for the Jewish religion in Jesus day.

There was an arrogance at the heart of its practice.

The temple was inviolable and eternal.
The people of Israel were the chosen race.
Chosen for privilege and power and not for service, they regarded themselves as better than everyone else.

For Jesus to suggest that it would one day be destroyed was both heresy and blasphemy.

Yet barely four decades later in AD 70 the temple was destroyed, and it has never been rebuilt.

Apartheid, Afrikander Nationalism, White supremacy in South Africa have all taken their place on the road to destruction that is the inevitable legacy of humanity.

Of course we are not immune from the same kind of arrogance.
We want our culture, our religious forms, our heritage to continue.
Because after all we are better than other people.
God has favoured us.
Afrikander, British, German, French Hugenot, Dutch, Zulu, Xhosa.
We are every bit as arrrogant as the religion of Israel of Jesus day.
Yet in our lifetimes we have seen the decline of the church and the erosion of Christian influence in society on a scale we could never have imagined.
Could it be that for us too the stones of the temple of our arrogance are falling?

We are about to receive, for the first time in the history of this circuit, a minister of colour in the Wesley section.

Unthinkable just a few years ago.

We as whites were the leaders of the nation, the culture, the church.
Never the majority, we simply ruled as if we were. Because we are English dammit.

What does the gospel say about this?

Jesus is clear. Kingdoms come and go.
The temples of stone will crumble and fall just like the power structures of politics and power.
There will be day when even this our lovely church will be empty, desolate and in ruins.

If you don’t believe me take a drive through the countryside. See the abandoned farmhouses, railway stations and the minig towns that are full of ghosts and rubble.

But you don’t even have to go that far. Just watch the decay of the temple of your body. That ought to convince you.

The question Jesus is asking without saying it is, “What remains?”

If bricks and mortar, culture and control, even our own flesh passes away.

What remains?

Jesus suggests that the inviolable core of reality is the life of God’s spirit in the world.

Isn’t that the place we should be looking to and living from?

Jesus said it like this,‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust* consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust* consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

“My Way” or a “Widow’s Way”? Mark 12:38-44 Ordinary 32B

Mark 12:38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Of all things valued in our culture and society, independence must rank very high.
We are schooled to develop it, trained to maintain it, resist the loss of it; God knows we have even gone to war to protect it.
We speak of fierce independence.
It is a quality of life we will fiercely defend.

Another value of our culture is faith.We inculcate faith in our children, we encourage not only faith but faithfulness.

“In God we trust” though somewhat discounted these days is still a motto for many.

Yet I have observed from my work with people who are in the second half of life and thus more aware of ageing, that faith often grows in inverse proportion to independence.
It is often as we lose the independence that made Frankie sing’ “My Way” that we are able to allow dependence on the Greater Self, the True Self what we call God, to emerge.

I am speaking here of course of faith as trust. The more common understanding of faith as belief in doctrines is an unfortunate translation of the Greek word “pistis”.
Trust is often a fruit that grows in the compost of decaying independence.

It is this abandonment of oneself to something deeper and less programmed and planned than our independence plans and investments which jumps out at me from the gospel for this Sunday.
The story of the widow’s gift is a story of abandonment to God’s provision.

It is not a teaching for stewardship Sunday or any fund-raising drive for that matter. Would that the church could learn to trust God more for it’s sustenance and depend less on its fundraisers and hedge-fund managers, like the widow did.
I am presently involved in a second-half of life transition. I would love to say mid-life but that would mean I am going to live to be one hundred and ten! My transition has been the most exciting adventure of deciding it was time to stop what I have been doing for the past thirty years, and then waiting for the flux that the decision created, to take form.

I have been astounded at the providence of God, and the doors and avenues that have opened that I could never have dreamt. But, only after I had thrown it all into the treasury!
My “new life” that begins in exactly one month’s time could never have been planned or strategized for by me acting independently.
It seems after thirty years I will have to begin preaching what I preached.

“My Way” may have been Frank Sinatra’s way.
I prefer to advocate the “Widow’s Way”.
Give it all to God and be surprised.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.” Mark 9:30-37 Ordinary 25B

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Let’s face it, church conflicts are the worst. It is probably due to the fact that in politics, sport and business there is no one denying the oft healthy, oft brutal competition, co-optation and coercion that is going on.
In the church we practice exactly the same dynamics but we pretend that we don’t. So when the conflict is made visible, as it was with the disciples travelling with Jesus, there is shock, awkwardness and horror.

The disciples competing for power is of course made all the more sinister because it is in counterpoint to Jesus’ teaching about his own selfless sacrifice to come.

Jesus then takes a child as a metaphor of the kind of community he desires. You and I have, in our lives, heard literally hundreds of sermons on this theme about how Christians should be childlike not childish, trusting and downright obsequious.
Nowhere is this sentiment more drippily expressed as in the hymn:
“Christian children all must be,
mild obedient, good as he.”

In your dreams pal!

Whoever wrote that didn’t have an inkling about real children.

Children fight. Children compete.
Children bicker and bawl when they don’t get their way. Just like Christians.
In fact one wag has said that, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in original sin, hasn’t had kids!”

So I don’t think Jesus was using children as paragons of conflict avoidance.
I wonder if the master wasn’t suggesting we develop the honesty of children who when they they fight, bicker and bawl; don’t pretend that they are not doing so?
Children are the perfect Christians because of their trust but I would like to think they are our models also because of their transparency.

Here’s looking at you kid!

A Cleansing Ritual for Preachers

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Mark 7:1-23

7Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

There are probably very few readers of this blog who don’t know of the work of the Jesus Seminar, a gathering of leading New Testament scholars who gathered, in the lead up to the Millennium, to evaluate the content of the canonical and apocryphal gospels in the light of emerging scholarship.  The seminar voted on the reliability and authenticity of the stories and saying attributed to Jesus by the compilers of the gospels.

One of the spin offs of the project is a very useful book by Robert W Funk and The Jesus Seminar entitled, “The Gospel of Jesus”.  It is a redaction of the material that the seminar deemed to be most likely the authentic sayings and stories from Jesus.

In my preparatory reading for preaching the gospel passage this week, I decided to reference the Gospel of Jesus. (It is chapter 14 for those who have a copy to hand).

What I discovered was interesting.  The following sections of Mark’s Gospel were deemed not to be authentic.

6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said,  21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It seems that at the core, the events and sayings of the passage are authentic.

What isn’t is the quotation of Isaiah as back up for the saying (6-7), the polemic against the Pharisees (8-11), the explanation of Jewish customs (11-13) (to be expected given the non-jewish audience of Mark) and the listing of what the actual evil intentions are (21-23).

As a preacher I find the superfluous material above particularly challenging.I realise that I am the better preacher when I present the message of Jesus as simply and contextually as possible.  I am, on the other hand, probably the least true to the kerygma (message) of Jesus, when I become polemical and argumentative, when I proof text to back me up, when I over explain everything, and when I presume to make lists of offences by which I judge others and encourage them to do the same.

After all isn’t that exactly the point of this passage in the first place!

Cannibal or Mystical? Ordinary 20b John 6:51-58

John 6:51-58

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

It is interesting to me that the three world religions that have the highest incidence of conflict and war are the three “religions of the book”.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam have the dubious distinction of having fought most amongst themselves and others.

As one whose initial, adolescent and subsequent experience of God has been direct and thus mystical, I think I know the reason for the conflict. Some things are just impossible to put into words. To presume to capture, or at best. describe the ineffable in language is almost impossible. The most eloquent and reasoned statement of belief is immediately vulnerable to misunderstanding and conflict.

As I read today’s gospel, I was reminded of this difficulty with descriptions. Eating Jesus’s flesh drinking his blood? What on earth (or in heaven) is he going on about?

Whilst having to think coherently about something to say on Sunday, I am also beginning my newest book. Yes a real paper version, with “pages”, purchased last week at my favourite bookstore. It is by Kevin Nelson MD Professor of Neurology at the University of Kentucky and titled, “The God Impulse: Is religion hardwired into our brains?“.
It is early days. I am only on the thirty third page, but already I am engaged. At the moment Nelson is reminding me of the monumental work of William James in “The Varieties of Religious Experience“. It is at this point that the book intersects the Sunday gospel.  Nelson is outlining on page thirty three  the four qualities that James listed for mystical experience. If like me you are grappling with the cannibalistic communion that John’s gospel is describing, these four qualities may help?

According to William James a mystical experience has the following qualities:

  1. It is somehow beyond language.
  2. It imparts knowledge that is above normal human understanding.
  3. It is of brief duration.
  4. The person having the experience is passive.

The first statement above is key to the text this week. The encounter Jesus is describing does, in a sense, defy description. That is why he uses the profound language of mastication, ingestion and absorbtion.
To even begin to take this language literally would be disastrous.
This is exactly the problem the religions of the book have. “Literalism is idolatry” or so says the British Philosopher Owen Barfield.  To expect the already challenged language of our beloved mystical religions of the book to yield literal, utilitarian instruction manuals is not only silly, it is downright dangerous.

So I hope this Sunday, not to explain this gospel passage in any way.

I hope not to give my hearers easy recipes for action.

I hope only to immerse them in the mystery that Jesus is intimately masticable, ingestible and absorbable in ways that defy understanding but which can be life transforming.

You’re a prophet? Have you lost your head?- Ordinary 15b

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

I like to be liked. I suppose it’s the curse of my temperament and of my profession. Not many people like to be disliked. There is something masochistically deranged about people who like being in the bad books of others. Herod wasn’t one of them. After all Herod was a politician. I am not sure if biblical politicians had to shake hands and hug babies as they do today, but you can be sure they needed to be liked.

Herod wanted to be popular and so he kept in with the religious prophet John the Baptist because it is always a good thing to stay in step with the church. I overheard a member telling another the other day, “Always stay on good terms with your minister and your bank manager. Herod would have understood.

Herod also had to stay in step with his new wife Herodius. She had first been hsi brother’s wife and the circumstances that led to her becoming Herod’s wife are not clear, but John did not approve. So Herod had a conflict of interests. Keep the prophet happy or the wife happy?

Then there was step daughter also called Herodius, and we all know how difficult that could be.

Film makers over the years have portrayed Herod as a bit of a lech. Getting all steamed up by the dance of Herodius and rashly offering her anything in the kingdom, even half the kingdom himself. It is not clear what in the dance pleased him but Herod walked into a classic conflict trap. It was not longer a conflict of interests, it was now a conflict of values.

Herodius’ hatred for John the Baptist forcing Herod to choose between his religious appreciation of John and keeping the peace with his new wife.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  And it wasn’t 2012!

The mistake most preachers make here is to berate Herod as weak willed and gormless. I don’t think many of us would have done anything different from Herod. After all we are speaking about him countering his spouse for the sake of some disposable prophet.

Family values and all the Dr Phil shows would endorse Herod’s choice. He went with his wife and her needs. He was supportive and nurturing of the relationship and after all he was the king.  It was not as if this was the first person whose head he had chopped off!

No the villain here isn’t Herod, nor is it hate filled Herodius. The villain is expediency. For the beheading of John the Baptiser is the forerunner of the greater travesty that plays out in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus some months later.

What Herod did is what Caiphas did.
Here is John’s gospel: So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

Prophetic witness and personal or political expediency do not have a good history of co-existence. It is most often expediency that wins.
It is no different in our day. Herod the King, Caiaphas the high priest, Presidents and Popes, Mayors and Ministers.

Who on earth would want to be prophetic and challenge evil?
You must have lost your head to be a prophet.

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 70,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 3 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

The call of the Slaughtered Shepherd

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

Once again I come to this passage from John’s gospel remembering that John never says anything that is not significant. Parchment was too rare and expensive to waste on non-essentials. Every word and phrase has power in John’s hands. It was John who gave us that chilling four word phrase just after Judas has departed the upper room, “… and it was night“. In that endline all the horror of what is happening is captured.

So I come expectantly, to this passage from John and he hits me with another of those phrases.

First he tells me that it was the time of the Festival that had been set up by the Maccabeans in 126BCE to commemorate the re-consecration of the temple in Jerusalem, the festival of the Dedication. He then hits me with, “It was winter”. A barren season when there is little sign of life. He is in the re-consecrated temple yet I wonder if John is suggesting that consecrating a building without consecrating one’s heart is a cold and fruitless ritual?

It is in this bleak architectural and calendar space that Jesus is questioned as to whether he is the Xristos, the Messiah.

I can almost hear the sigh in his voice as he replies,” “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Jesus has been performing many restorative acts of resurrrection, healing, forgiving. Restoring people’s food security, in raising men for vulnerable widowed homes. Countering bad shame blame theology by healing Canaanite children, Roman children, and even Synagogue leader’s children like Jairus’ daughter, to show that bad things do not only happen to bad people. If all of my works of restoration do not show you that God’s Xristos is here, then what will?

Remember, word economic John has located Jesus very precisely. All that is missing are the GPS co-ordinates and we could reference the spot on Google Earth! Jesus is standing in Solomon’s portico.

Solomon’s portico that abutted the court of the Gentiles, where all the sheep trading and money changing was going on.

  • Can you hear the haggling of the priests and the pilgrims?
  • Can you hear the clinking of the coins as they drop onto the tables that Jesus will overturn next time he comes to town?
  • I am sure Jesus heard all these sounds too.
  • But it was another sound that gave him the metaphor he needed for this Good News moment.
  • If we listen carefully you and I can hear it too.

Do you hear the bleating of the sheep and the silence of the lambs?

These are not calm and pastoral flocks, these are the fuel for the bloodthirsty religious machine that the temple has become, and it is the fear and dislocated cries of the scapegoated sheep that Jesus uses to teach us this Shepherd Sunday.

You don’t trust that I am the Messiah, because you don’t recognise my voice above the noisy screams of your own conflicted lives. If you were my sheep, this call to life, love, compassion and community would not be strange to you, and you would follow me. But as it is now, all you have is this beautiful building and a winter-blighted religion in which your frozen hearts cannot care less about the desperation of the pilgrims who need to know God’s life.

That is why I have come. I have not come for fancy porticoes and friezes, nor for festivals and feasts. Of all your laws I will keep only one rule, that you love God and each other. And of your rituals I will retain only a piece of broken bread and Elijah’s cup of wine from the Passover meal. The rest is as dead as these poor bleating sheep soon will be. There is no salvation in all this sacrifice. That is why I have never once spoken of myself as a sacrifice. No I am a Shepherd.

A shepherd whom your laws declare to be permanently unclean, because I work with blood and dung.

Yet, despite who you judge me to be, those who need life and love, compassion and community, come to me. Their belief is not some doctrinal and ethical veracity, it is simple trust. Trust that opens their eyes to glimpse God, in me and in themselves. In that union of my Father and me they come to share in a life that will last forever.

These sheep of mine will become, by grace, one flock with one shepherd. This flock will be struck and scattered across the face of the earth, for it is winter now, a cold and barren time.

But one morning the sun will rise, the hearts of ice will melt, and the Shepherd will repeat his eternal call once more. “Follow me.”

You may slaughter sheep but you cannot kill a shepherds love.

Not in winter, in fact not ever!”

You can never go home again

John 21:1-19

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

It was that master of integral thought, Ken Wilber who first woke me up to the reality that, “You can never go back…” No matter how great the trauma, nor how strong the nostalgia, there really is NO place like home. It doesn’t exist anymore.

Living and counseling as I do in the beauty of Port Alfred, or as the locals call it “at the Kowie” referencing the river that mouths into the sea here, I find myself using the analogy of the river often. I refer particularly to the reality that you cannot put your hand into the same river twice. It is a Zen saying that highlights the Buddhist emphasis on impermanence. You see, the river is always changing and so the second time you put your hand into the waters, the river has already changed and isn’t the same river anymore. We cannot go back.

Yet this is exactly what Peter and the other disciples do after the Resurrection. Some would say, they were back in Galilee because Jesus told them to go there. Others like John Shelby Spong would posit that their dreams of ministry and mission for the Kingdom had been totally destroyed, and that Peter’s statement, “I am going fishing.” And the other disciples’, “We will go with you” are statements of resignation to having to return to the way of life they left when Jesus called them away from those very shores three and one half year before. They soon learn that you cannot go back, and that you cannot cast your nets into the same lake twice. Their efforts to ply their previous trades are fruitless. That is, until Jesus appears on the beach. Unrecognizable, his resurrection influence on their gutted world is evident even though his identity is not. Isn’t this a beautiful illustration of Prevenient grace? You don’t have to recognize Jesus to experience the fruitful blessing of his risen presence.

There are two other details in this fish barbeque scene that lure my preaching mind for some deeper reflection during the coming week.

Firstly, the fish is already on the fire. It is essential for the disciples to realize that Jesus is sufficient to himself. He doesn’t need them to fish for him, in fact the dependence is all one way. The church is totally dependent on Jesus and not the other way around. Some of the worst preaching I have heard, is preaching that fails to emphasize this truth. I am sure we have all heard this kind of saying, “The Lord really wants to bless you but he can’t because, …” The sentence is completed with any number of conditions that try to sluice-gate the flow of grace to the congregation. “You have too much sin in your life”. “You haven’t got enough faith”. “You haven’t paid your tithe” Take your pick, it’s all rubbish! Heresy created by not noticing that the fish that Jesus is about to share with his destitute disciples, is already on the grill before the boat (the iconic symbol of the church) pulls ashore. “I have food you know not of.” Remember? When will the church stop trying to control the flow of grace?

Secondly, is it not sad that Peter is the only one who is prepared to jump ship to get to the risen Lord? Too many years in too many pastoral appointments in a mainline denominational church, have demonstrated to me that few Christ followers will leave the comfortable confines of the iconic boat, and swim to Jesus in the sea of challenge and faith (even if they can’t walk on it as Peter momentarily did earlier). In these days of pedophilic scandal, diminishing attendances at worship, conflict riddled clergy and council relationships, we still cling to the gunwales and want to keep our feet dry. Why are we clinging to this leaky vessel, fast becoming the ghost ship of the damned? Are we cursed to cling to the 153 fishy dogmas, doctrines and rules, when Jesus already has fish, that he wants to feed to his flock, cooking on the beach?

Peter and the disciples went home and discovered that though it may have been “where the heart” was, it certainly wasn’t where Jesus wanted them to be.

How utterly consoling is the conclusion to this abortive homecoming.

On the same shores (or is the spoonerism correct “shame sores“) where scant three years earlier Jesus spoke life changing, home leaving words; he speaks them again… “Follow me

We can never go home again, that’s true.

What is also true is it’s never too late to leave home and follow.

Come on”, says Peter, “Jump ship! There is fresh fish cooking on the beach!

The importance of being uncertain.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It was Wilson Mizner who quipped, “I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.”

The history of doubt in the West begins not so much with Thomas as with the influence of Rene Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650)

Descartes is often regarded as the first thinker to provide a philosophical framework for the natural sciences as these began to develop. In his Discourse on the Method, he attempts to arrive at a fundamental set of principles that one can know as true without any doubt. To achieve this, he employs a method called hyperbolical/metaphysical doubt, also sometimes referred to as methodological skepticism: he rejects any ideas that can be doubted, and then reestablishes them in order to acquire a firm foundation for genuine knowledge.

Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist (Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy). Most famously, this is known as cogito ergo sum (English: “I think, therefore I am”). Therefore, Descartes concluded, if he doubted, then something or someone must be doing the doubting, therefore the very fact that he doubted proved his existence. “The simple meaning of the phrase is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof that he does exist.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/René_Descartes

Descartes began the movement in the West away from mystery to certainty, which was great for science but sad for spirituality because he moved the locus of consciousness from the heart to the head. It has remained there ever since.

One of the reasons I find the Philokalia teachings of the Eastern Orthodox so engaging, is the instruction to “stand before God having placed the mind in the heart.”

You see I don’t think Thomas was a doubter as much as he was an honest engager of reality. He wanted to be sure.

It is this quest for certainty that has become a serious challenge to mainstream Christianity today. The rampantly growing fundamentalist wings of all the world’s religions are thriving because in a world filled with uncertainty, the deepest longing of the human heart is certainty. The fundamentalist however make the error of assuming that certainty in matters of faith is possible.

Part of the problem as Karen Armstrong points out in “The Case for God” is that faith has come to mean belief (as in belief in doctrine and dogma) where in fact the word pistis means trust in a person or a truth. Trust whilst being a far more relational (heart) word than belief (head) word also has less certainty to it. Which is Armstrong’s second contribution to this discussion. She points out that in the ancient religions including Patristic Christianity, there was a healthy balance between Mythos and Logos, whereas modern Christianity has lost the mythos dynamic altogether. In fact ask the avergage person today what a myth is and they will say, a fictional story that isn’t true. Fundamentalist Christians won’t even allow their children to read Harry Potter! Mythos in the true understanding of the concept is a symbolic archetypal description of truth in the form of narrative.

I love the story of the elderly Granny who is tell her grandchildren the story of the Exodus and prefaces the telling with, “Now children I need to tell you that this story is absolutely true. It just might not have happened this way!

It is this respect for mystery, mythos and doubt, and my weariness with cock-sure certain conservative Christians that attracts me to the writings of Leslie Weatherhead. He was the person to coin the phrase, “The Christian Agnostic

A-gnosso means “I don’t know

It is the opposite of certainty and the seed bed of real trust in Jesus who seems to come closest to me with his bleeding hands and side, in the moments of my life when I am least certain of myself and of most everything else.

Doubt and Faith are companions and not opposites. “I trust in the areas of my life where I am not certain.”

So as I am feeling a tad burnt-out after preaching through Holy Week and the Easter Tridium , let me end my blog this week with some salient quotes from Weatherhead’s “The Christian Agnostic

Leslie Dixon Weatherhead (1893-1976) was an English Christian theologian in the liberal Protestant tradition. Renowned as one of Britain’s finest preachers in his day, Weatherhead was noted for his preaching ministry at City Temple in London and for his books, including The Will of God, The Christian Agnostic and Psychology, Religion, and Healing. Weatherhead trained for the Methodist Ministry at Richmond Theological College, in south-west London. The first world war cut short his training, and he became Methodist Minister at Farnham, Surrey, in September 1915. After serving in India, Manchester, and Leeds, Weatherhead was called, as a Methodist Minister, to be Minister of the City Temple, a Congregational Church on Holborn Viaduct in London. He served there from 1936 until his retirement in 1960.

“I believe passionately that Christianity is a way of life, not a theological system with which one must be in intellectual agreement. I feel that Christ would admit into discipleship anyone who sincerely desired to follow him, and allow that disciple to make his creed out of his experience; to listen, to consider, to pray, to follow, and ultimately to believe only those convictions about which the experience of fellowship made him sure.”

“As I see it, all questions regarding the factual accuracy of Biblical statements—notably such ‘miraculous’ events as Virgin Birth, Resurrection, etc.—are wholly irrelevant to the true issues. Indeed, I should go so far as to say myself that the whole value of the Gospel story to mankind—and it is very great—lies not in its historical but in its legendary, mythical, or ‘typical’ character. It is not, I think, the Sermon on the Mount—or at least not this alone—that constitutes the peculiar contribution of Christianity to human thought, for very similar maxims are to be found elsewhere, and in any event could be deduced from first principles. It is to be found, rather, in the affirmation that all that is best and highest in man, as typified in the person of Jesus, is bound to arouse opposition, is often persecuted and apparently destroyed—yet is in fact indestructible an does perennially ‘rise again’ triumphant over seeming disaster.”

“The essential in Christianity, past, present and future, is loving Christ and one another, and if the Quaker finds God in the silence and the Salvation Army in the band, the Roman Catholic in the Mass and the Baptist in immersion; if the High Anglican likes incense and ceremonial, and the Methodist puts his emphasis on personal experience, the fellowship of the authentic class meeting and Charles Wesley’s hymns, why talk of disunity?

“When people said to me, ‘I should like to be a member of the City Temple, what must I believe?’ I used to say, ‘Only those things which appear to you to be true.'”

“When I really believe a thing, I mean that its truth possesses me. . . Truth is self-authenticating, and when it possesses me, nothing can shake it from its enthronement until some greater truth displaces it or gives it less prominence.” [ellipsis added]

“We still make of prime importance matters about which Jesus said nothing. How can a matter be fundamental in a religion when the founder of the religion never mentioned it?

“No argument or logic carries the same degree of conviction as insight, and it is the kind of conviction by which we know that dawn over the Alps on a perfect morning is beautiful. Argument cannot produce it and doubt cannot remove it. The outward beauty meets the inward recognition and in our hearts we know.”

“Any man, to the extent to which he is good, reveals the nature of God.”

“I am not prepared to hand over to any other person, though wise and learned, or to any institution however ancient or sure of its position, my inalienable right to search for ever-growing and ever-expanding truth. I believe the craving for security in belief is one which arises from within ourselves, and can only be met adequately form resources which are within ourselves. It seems to me that it is far more important for a soul in evolution to believe a few things because it has struggled, thought and suffered to discover and possess them, than it is for it to have a comfortable and orderly faith which it has adopted from any source outside itself.”

“I reject unchecked subjectivism as the authority in religion. No one can suppose that the final authority in religion is what the individual happens to think is true, unless his decision is preceded by long meditation, the weighing of all the available evidence and prayer for guidance.”

“. . . we must not thrust beliefs on people, belaboring their minds to try to make them accept orthodoxy, we may set these same beliefs before people, showing them the rich truth which we have found and which they may come to receive as their questing mind develops and grows.”

“I would like to be able with authority to present the case for believing in God, but I would far rather be and authoritative argument for believing in God. The saints are the best argument for Christianity. They have the highest authority in the world for they coerce us and yet our coercion is a willing one. They drive us along the way which in our best moments we want to go. When we read their lives, and even more when we touch their lives with our own in day-to-day living, we meet Christianity’s unanswerable argument. We know, with an authority nothing can resist or overcome, that Christianity changes lives and that if Jesus Christ were given a chance he would change the world.”

“For myself, I refuse mentally to close the canon as if inspiration had run out! Why should we follow traditional thought more than modern thought?”

“We must resolutely refuse to judge Jesus by the Bible. We must judge the Bible by Jesus; by the total effect of a consistent personality made upon us from all sources, including our own experience.”

“There is no authority for God’s existence except the inward conviction that is born of mystical experience.”