Monday, July 13, 2020

Who is NZ’s Saviour?

A week or so ago, at the NZ Labour Party annual conference, our Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party was introduced as “New Zealand’s saviour.

Fortunately our Prime Minister is a humble person and disavowed this particular ascription. Some leaders around the world today might have accepted the ascription!

But I think it was a brilliant use of the word “saviour” because it is exactly what the biblical talk of “saviour” is about: there is peril, danger and risk to the people - a desperate need for the people to be saved - for a “saviour” to come and deal with the peril, turn aside the danger and diminish the risk to health and wellbeing. 

From Joseph, Moses, assorted judges and kings through to our Lord Jesus Christ himself, the Bible has many “Israel’s saviours”. The Bible as a whole is a testimony to God as Saviour - whether sending saviours when Israel is in trouble, or intervening in other ways, or finally and ultimately coming in human flesh to save the whole world through Jesus Christ.

To the extent that NZ has been in peril, danger and risk from Covid-19, the leadership of our Prime Minister and her Government has, indeed, saved us (so far ... obviously this particular moment in history has some way to go).

Generally, in respect of evangelism today, “Jesus is your Saviour” or “you need to be saved” begs the question “Why?” Mostly in the West people don’t feel a need to be rescued from any peril, except possibly the stock market crashing or the housing market keeling over.

We need - obviously - to explain the “what” of our need for a Saviour and that takes quite a bit of work in which “sin” and “judgement” are almost forgotten from our culture.

But the Labour Party official who invoked Jacinda Ardern as “NZ’s saviour” showed that there are conditions and situations in which the explanation may be easier to make - not that any of us wish for a global pandemic to occur so that we have an imminent and terrifying threat to our wellbeing.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Re Reading and Rereading Scripture

Last week I mentioned the death of Professor James D.G. Dunn.

This week Church Times reprints an article by Jimmy from 2013 which demonstrates his carefulness in scholarship and clarity in making an argument - on this occasion on reading Scripture with respect to arguments for and against the ordination of women. (From memory I think 2013 was when the CofE agreed to proceed with ordaining women as bishops.)

It can seem fraught “rereading Scripture”, after all, where might it end?

But we have to do it. This past week I have been pulled up with a start to find that Jonathan Edwards - yes, the Jonathan Edwards beloved of many evangelicals, influential for centuries on the ministries of well known preachers and theologians - owned slaves ... and thought this was consistent with Scripture.

I have just started reading A.C. Grayling’s The Age of Genius in which he argues that the 17th century gave birth to the “modern mind.” Inter alia, p. 9, he mentions Cardinal Bellarmino’s 1615 reply to Paolo Foscarini’s argument that Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe was consistent with Scripture. Bellarmino argues that the heliocentric model contradicts not only the interpretation of Scripture by the “holy Fathers” but also “modern commentators.”

Four hundred years later (1) no teacher of Scripture within the mainstream of Western and Eastern Christianity, no matter how wonderful she or he finds the “holy Fathers” thinks them correct on this matter, and no (2) “modern commentator” of 20th or 21st centuries teaches what Bellarmino asserts.

Scripture has been reread!

Part 2 or “further thoughts”

The trick, I suggest, with rereading Scripture is not to assume (whether eagerly or fearfully) that all rereading heads in only one direction (from the thin end of the wedge to the thick end?).

Even rereadings need rerereading.

Consider, many of the first Christians read Scripture in respect of military service through the lens of Jesus and determined that Christians could not join in the violence of war. Then, Constantine and all that, a rereading led to an acceptance of the validity of military service and fighting in wars (albeit with hope that all wars one was conscripted for were “just wars”). 1700 years later has that rereading settled the matter once and for all? Not really. Many Christians today are wary of military service and for a range of sound reasons, from unwillingness to kill another human being under any circumstances to healthy cynicism about the true aims and aspirations of warring nations. And many Christians think its okay ... just the other day I read a news item about a Russian Orthodox cathedral devoted to the military!

One could go on ...

I won’t save for observing that the importance of doing theology is doing that which continually assesses claims to true understanding of the purposes of God.

Monday, June 29, 2020

St Peter's Day Pot Pouri

Professor James D.G. Dunn has died

One of the great privileges of my life was to have Professor James (Jimmy) D.G. Dunn as my supervisor when I studied for a doctorate in Durham, UK, 1990-93.

Jimmy was a prolific scholar, excellent teacher and communicator in written and spoken word, with his career summarised in this Wiki entry. Warm tributes have been flowing around the world over the past couple of days via Facebook and other internet comms. Good examples are here, from Scot McKnight and Jeff Wisdom.

I endorse everything everyone has been saying. Jimmy was simply one of those remarkable people in life who are gifted in ways most of us are not while also being a wonderful person to be around - warm hearted, hospitable and humorous.

Perhaps the best thing said is by Jimmy himself, because it glorifies God, captured in this Tweet by Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley:

‘I doubt if I could commend (or blame) any one book for who I am today and would rather attribute any praise (or whatever) to the Holy Spirit’

What is the Gospel?

I spent a bit of time over the weekend thinking about the Gospel.

Yes, again!

If we ask the question, What is the Gospel according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John? we get a different answer each time if we focus on the programmatic statements near the beginning of each Gospel.

From Matthew, focusing on the Beatitudes, we see the Gospel as God's blessing of people against the normal criteria of life.

From Mark, the Gospel is the coming of the Kingdom which manifests itself in signs of power and wonder. (I acknowledge this is a summary of Mark, not a specific statement he tells us Jesus made).

From Luke, focusing on the first preaching of Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum, the Gospel is the proclamation of liberation for the oppressed.

From John, the Gospel is the promise of abundant, eternal life, symbolised by the first sign of Jesus, changing water into wine.

We could also think about the Gospel according to Paul - the Gospel is the power of God to save every person, Jew and Gentile, reconciling humanity to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Are there many Gospels? (Is Christianity confused? cf. ... many denominations ... or, worryingly, video memes doing the rounds this week as some American Christians argue against face mask wearing because God created us in his image and breathed his breathe into us ...)

I kept pondering through the weekend (you may be pleased to know!)

Notwithstanding the programmatic statements near the beginning of each Gospel, each Gospel is a rich array of events and expositions, of miracles and messages. No Gospel is solely defined by its basic programmatic message. Thus, I conclude, the there is one Gospel which is expressed in a variety of ways across the variety of the four Gospels (and the other New Testament writings).

The Gospel is Jesus encountering people and changing them for the better - where the change for the better is always a turning towards God, a transforming of lives in love and holiness.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

What can we say? Nothing and everything?

For the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the glory of humanity is the vision of God (St. Irenaeus).

Fundamentally the Gospel is obsessed with the idea of the unity of human society (Masure).

Amidst the swirling, whirling controversies and contretemps of this present time (so e.g. Trump can hold a rally by virtue of attendees signing  that they will not sue him if they get the virus; we have heroes in NZ re the virus who are dramatically cast as zeroes overnight here when a mistake occurs re control of our borders; and, as statues around the world are toppled, even a statue of Gandhi is under threat), what are we to say? There are moods and mood swings in our world which seem impervious to rational discourse. Perhaps we should be silent?

Yet this fractured world of ours is in a terrible situation - noting not just the fractures induced by the Pandemic and police killings in the US, but also Syrian strife continues, North Korean posturing alarms and China v India horrifies. “Black Lives Matters” - whatever we make of this sentence-and-political programme (e.g. Mohler), it is simply not appropriate to be silent in the face of oppression and systemic violence. A ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) is a ministry - an action, not a slogan - which must work with history and its tale of injustice which is not yet made just.

Look again at the two citations above (copied there from my permanent sidebar of quotations). Both speak to God’s great purpose for his beloved humanity. It is simply not possible to say that God’s purpose for a fully alive, unified humanity is being fulfilled in a divided world. Do we not have everything to say about this situation?

Is not the genius of the Gospel that it is a message of hope, joy and love for each individual and for all of us as humanity? The Gospel is personal and social simultaneously.

Of course often we Christians get the Gospel wrong because we focus on one to the exclusion of the other. (We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this - it is difficult to keep both foci going at the same time.)

But at times like this in the life of the world, we could and should be clear: there is a lot going on which is simply wrong when measured against the insight of St Irenaeus and Masure.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

A Kingdom theology for such a time as this?

A week or so on from my past post and our world (well, perhaps it is "the Western world" ... no statues being toppled in North Korea) is both as sane and as mad as ever.

The sane aspect is we are reflecting at a deeper level on the subtleties of endemic, implicit racism (e.g. where we white people think we have it all sorted but don't reflect on why it is that (say) the committee we belong to or the leadership structure we are part of is uniformly white). A Press column this morning by a local academic Mahdis Azarmandi captures neatly the difference between intention (to be racism free) and outcome (everything remains dominated by the colour "white").

A further part of the sanity is questioning whether we have fully understood the complexities of the historical background to present situations (e.g. does this statue or that street name over simplify the past through focus on success or virtue rather than on failure or flaw of some historical personnage).

I also appreciate the sanity of comments made here on ADU - thank you!

The mad aspect of the past week or so is a global Western society seemingly willing to turn on itself, to accuse itself of failure without sober estimation of success and to make hasty decisions on the basis of a minority approach to matters which otherwise would be maturely handled with debate and democratic process.

A further part of the madness, however, is yet another black person killed by police in the USA, and the deterioration of democratic process in the normal world leader in democracy, the USA. A Trumpian approach to democracy can scarcely complain about mob rule raging through US cities!

But what is a Christian to do and to think through these weeks?

Is it all a debate between Romans 13 and Revelation 13? (Is that debate even needed when it is city councils voting to "defund" the police? If Trump is your president, has he really been appointed by God? But if he hasn't, he is so bizarre that I found myself - rereading Revelation - unable to see him as a simple beastly manifestation of evil?)

Is it (per one post I read) a neat conceptual analysis in which I refuse to "bow the knee" for Black Lives Matter (because I discover this movement includes lots of socialist-come-communist type agenda) but will "bow the knee" for Jesus? Apparently bishops and politicians around the world have been arranging photo opportunities for the former when the bishops should have been focused on the latter.

Is it possible - it seems it is - that almost any thought I have about these matters, on second thoughts and closer inspection turns out to reek of privilege and shine with whiteness?

My humble (as a not entirely up with the play pundit) but probably privileged (as a white person with a certain set of advantages through education etc) thought is to ask what the Kingdom of God might be in this situation? I hope it is okay to ask this question.

What is the Kingdom of God like?

Jesus gives the answer in a number of parables which is kind of not an answer because we have had 2000 years of debating the meaning of some parables! Some unkind observers might say that we have also had 2000 years of avoiding application of the meaning of the parables we have not debated.

But the Kingdom of God is about life with the King - with Jesus as the centre of society - God's new society. In this society the first will be last and the last will be first. Jews and Greeks, Samaritans and Romans, all from east and west and north and south are welcome. There is no racism in the Kingdom (e.g. Galatians 3:28) because the King is equally King of all in his kingdom. There is no racism in the Kingdom because there is no people group Jesus did not die for.

Yes, many Christians have misunderstood this, from infamous examples like Afrikaners touting the Bible as supporting Apartheid through to all the not famous examples of you and me inadvertantly contributing to the kinds of outcomes Mahdis Azarmandi writes about in the column linked to above.

Also, Yes, when we understand the Kingdom better (as, e.g. Simon Peter did, through the testimony of Cornelius), we cannot go back, only forward towards the realization of Galatians 3:28.

But the Kingdom of God is also like this: In the Gospel according to John, "kingdom of God" becomes "eternal life" (read John 3) and eternal life (also "abundant life", John 10:10) is the complete - satisfying, fulfilled - life of the believer in Jesus Christ. That is, in a situation such as today's, when "action" - protests, statue toppling, statute revision, name changing (to say nothing of counter-action and resistance to change) - is to the fore, the Kingdom of God in this situation is not only about social change towards God's vision for a new, ideal society. It is also about each human person finding their best life in God - Jesus the centre of each life as well as the centre of society.

A whole of gospel witness to the Kingdom cannot see "action" as the sole demonstration of the transformative power of God in the political realms of today's world.

A whole of gospel witness to the Kingdom sees the need for all people to be transformed by God's power: to be free of racism is not yet to be free of all sin - of the flaws within which damage our neighbours and fracture our relationship with our Creator.

When we debate here in NZ whether statues of Captain Cook should remain standing or towns such as Cromwell (named for Oliver not Thomas) should be renamed, isn't King Jesus more interested in who we, today's flawed characters, are, and what we are going to do about our flaws?

Might we also say that a Kingdom perspective would also raise questions about "realms" and "reigns" as the presence of "other kingdoms" is felt by Christians?

There is something chilling in the air these days when not only statues but also other viewpoints are "smashed". When dissent is not tolerated, freedom to preach the gospel of the kingdom is threatened. Whether we are in the realm of Trump (suppressing the truth, dismissing dissenters, making fun of worthy opponents), or the reign of Xi Jinping (cracking down on protestors in Hong Kong, imprisoning Uighur Muslims, playing games with the Vatican) or in the kingdom of protest feeling pressed to change the name of a pub, we Christians have a lot of work to do between Romans 13 and Revelation 13 because, frankly, I am not sure that any of these realms are addressed comprehensively by either chapter!

What does it mean to be in the Kingdom of God in the kingdom of this sane and mad world?

Monday, June 8, 2020

Eradicating racism (and history)?

Both on Psephizo: Adrian Chatfield and Ian Paul.


The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has spawned uncountable news stories, many, many opinion pieces, and thousands upon thousands marching in protest across America and around the world.

Last week, Christians had cause to be shocked that President Trump used armed forces and tear gas to create a path through protestors to make a photo opportunity of him standing in front of an Episcopal church holding a Bible. (Literally "a Bible" because when asked if it was his Bible he said, No, it was "a Bible." One of the few true statements to come from his lips!)

(A subsidiary shock for some of us was that some Christians turned on those who condemned Trump for his behaviour.)

The protests have raised the question, not only in America, but here and elsewhere, with Coronavirus as a backdrop, When will we eradicate racism from the human story?

The vaccine, it has been observed, already exists, and each of us have access to it.

Certainly, for Christians, observing Trinity Sunday yesterday, there is much to reflect on:
- The Trinity as a community of love provides no basis for racism;
- The Gospel is always a call to repentance from behaviour and attitudes which are imperfect in their imitation of the holiness and love of God.

Overnight another question has emerged (albeit not an original question) as news reports from the UK tell us of a statue of a slave trader in Bristol being shifted by protestors and thrown into the sea, and also of a statue of Churchill being defaced with graffiti describing him as a racist.

Does eradicating racism today necessarily involve erasing historical memory of past sins of racism?

(In New Zealand, for example, we are in the midst of a period, 250 years after Cook's voyages of "discovery", of revising our estimation of Cook. In this case the direct charge against Cook is less about his racism (e.g. to the extent that he assumed the British were superior to all races met along the way of his voyages) and more about the racism he spawned (e.g. flowing from his voyages were the European settlers of these islands, we, their descendants today, have a natural tendency to celebrate Cook while not celebrating the Polynesian navigators 800 or so years before Cook who found their way here, back to the islands they came from and then back here with the firsts settlers of these islands).

My own instinct is not to remove and/or destroy statues - they are a monument to times past when things were different and thus a reminder to us of past wrongdoing and of present need to maintain our repentance of that wrongdoing.

But I imagine I have my limits - if I visited Germany or Austria I suppose I wouldn't be thrilled to find a statue of Hitler still standing.

But perhaps we can make useful distinctions?

There is nothing good to say about Hitler.

Churchill by contrast, for all his ill-chosen words about other races, did lead the fight against the scourge that was Hitler. That is, one can say good things about Churchill even as we reckon with his faults.

We might also observe that nobody is perfect.

If perfection is a criterion for erecting monuments to men and women, there should be none. But that seems a shame, for some of us humans have lived remarkable lives and leave treasured memories and memorable achievements.

Back to racism.

We should pray for America. Especially here in NZ. If the Treaty of Waitangi as a foundation document for our nation teaches us anything about racial harmony it is that it is very, very hard to achieve. Even with the Treaty as a starting point, we have made some terrible misteps, not least because for a long time we forgot about the Treaty!

Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Pentecostal blessing ...

This is very good ... and (noting recent discussions here) ecumenical!

Four Images: A Meditation for Pentecost

Monday, May 25, 2020

Have Kiwi church leaders been too deferential to the NZ govt?

A Twitter buddy has fairly regularly been posing the question, Why have church leaders been so deferential to the government imposing restrictions on churches during our period of Lockdown?

Alongside news of church leaders in conflict with authorities in countries such as the USA and Britain (which includes CofE vicars in conflict with their bishops over churches being shut up), NZ church leaders have had an interesting couple of months in Lockdown (to speak generally at this point).

In Level 4 when the whole country was locked down the issues were whether clergy should have been deemed "essential workers" and why could not clergy be permitted to pray with those who were dying and to take funerals. Were church leaders too deferential to the government?

In Level 3, when funerals and weddings for up to 10 people were permitted, Were church leaders too deferential to the government about that limit on funerals? (Funerals for the most part much more difficult to postpone than weddings.)

In (the current state of) Level 2, where we may hold church services for 10 or fewer people (and, under certain conditions, funerals for 50 or fewer people) while various commercial enterprises involving people socialising (from bars to brothels, though the better comparison with churches might be schools) may entertain higher numbers, Are church leaders being too deferential to the government?

[Note in passing: yesterday I was interviewed about the limits, along with Paul Martin, Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, see here. See also this Taonga article.]

Today (Monday 25 May 2020), when we expect the government to announce a raising of the limit on gatherings including religious services (but with a strong hint to date that it might be as low as a rise to 20 or fewer persons), Will church leaders be too deferential to the government?

Speaking quite personally, I feel somewhat goaded by the question of deferentiality.

After all, what is leadership if it lacks boldness and bravery, refrains from speaking truth to power and so forth? Am I and colleagues somewhat "wet" in the face of this (at worst) trampling on the rights of churches to worship freely or (at best) seeming ignorant sidelining of the church by a government that appears not to understand churches? (After all, for all of us inspired by the Barths and Bonhoeffers of 1930s Germany, the true test of leadership, surely, is to NOT be deferential to a government imposing control on the churches!)

I also find my goaded self being a bit defensive. I have an explanation, a justification for this seeming "deferentiality". Would you like to hear it? (Well, you are reading this post!).

However, I recognise that, whatever I say here, future historians might adjudicate that we have been too deferential. So, it maybe that I and others are guilty as charged.

But, for what it is worth, and may a future historian please read this before making their adjudication, here are some thoughts.

(1) In Lockdown, we have never been in Nazi German or Stalinist Russia or any other kind of anti-Christian dictatorship. We have been in a global Pandemic, guided by epidemiologists as to the best way to combat transmission and our government's Minister of Health is a Christian and our Director-General of Health is a Christian. In general terms, deferentiality by everyone, including church leaders, has been deferentiality to a common national cause. This period has been about working with the government for the common good. This has not been a period to be anxious about "Bill of Rights" freedoms to exercise the practice of our faith etc.

(2) There have been very good reasons for some restrictions placed on Christian ministry. For example, to have been granted the right (in the first weeks at least) to minister to dying people would have been to also require PPE gear to be appropriately protected when making that pastoral call. But the reasonable priority was for doctors and nurses to have that equipment. (Nevertheless, I would acknowledge, and future historians may argue that after those first few weeks, the government and health boards could have changed the restrictions once PPE supplies improved.)

(3) Actually, anecdotally, some church leaders have wanted to be less deferential than they have appeared to be but, it turns out, their congregations have not shared their enthusiasm. Christians are human beings and as human beings they can read news reports about the spread of the virus and the importance of strict control of how we engage with other human beings to prevent spread. Effectively it appears that many church leaders’ deferentiality to the government has been deepened rather than weakened by their congregations.

(4) Ultimately, our deferentiality has been to the virus! If COVID-19 has taught humanity anything, it is that it demands respect. Disrespect this virus at your personal peril. The tragic narrative of the past few months includes many stories of churches around the world meeting in defiance of the virus only to have church members (and leaders!) catch the virus, sometimes leading to death. If Kiwi Christians have the good sense to show deferentiality to the virus, why would church leaders differ from their good sense?

(5) Nevertheless, a sharp question arises when we ask about some aspects of the Lockdown restrictions.

Should church leaders, for example, have been much more aggressive in response to perceived contradictions between the Level 2 restriction to 10 or fewer people being able to meet in church and many more being able to meet in restaurants and conferences?

Should we have made a stronger case for our ability to create and implement restrictive conditions in order that any gatherings would conform to the kinds of conditions that businesses and schools are being made to follow?

(6) Then, there are the counter questions. Currently, as I write, there are some colleagues drawing attention to this news item, out of Germany, in which 40 people, gathering for worship after their churches have re-opened, have contracted the virus. Shouldn't church leaders back off any pressure on the government for churches to re-open, be patient, and wait for the government to exercise its scientifically informed wisdom? On this line of thinking, deferentiality, contra my Twitter buddy, is a very good thing!

For what it is worth, I think some care is needed with the German news story. First, this is an outbreak after permission had been given, not when a church completely lost deferentiality and defied the German government by holding a service. Secondly, we are not Germany, by which I mean that we have a remarkable situation in which there has been no case of community transmission of the virus for several weeks. The very few cases now appearing are all (I repeat, all) related to known clusters. That is, the risk of an outbreak in a re-opened NZ church is effectively zero.

That is enough - let's see what the government says later today.

Update: our government has lifted the limit on gatherings including church services from 10 to 100 while we are in Level 2. And we might be out of that Level into Level 1 before many weeks pass.

Monday, May 18, 2020

If Jesus presides at the meal, can baptised followers be excluded?

So, a couple of weeks ago, a focus on the current Pandemic phenomenon of online eucharists.

This week, still with Eucharistic questions, but much longer standing ones.

Thomas O’Loughlin is professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham, UK and (relevant knowledge here) a Catholic.

Recently he wrote Eating Together Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press Academic, 2019. I can't remember who brought it to my attention first, but it may have been Bosco Peters here.

His thesis is this: the Catholic church should stop excluding baptised (non-Catholic) Christians from sharing in the Mass.

The provocation for writing was something Pope Francis said in November 2015 when a woman, Anke de Bernardinis, in a Lutheran Church he was visiting in Germany - as part of the 500 years anniversary of Luther's publication of the 95 theses - asked him about inter-communion in the context of a marriage of a Catholic (her husband) and a non-Catholic (herself). (Somewhat cleverly) Pope Francis said that this was something for the theologians to deal with.

A critical part of what he said was this (cited by O'Loughlin, p. 16):

"Instead on the journey, I wonder - and I don't know how to answer, but I make your question my own - I wonder: Is the sharing of the Lord's Supper the end of a journey or the viaticum [food for the journey] to journey together? I leave the question to the theologians, to those who understand."

Note that Francis is not attending to what the theologians have generally said about the rules of the Mass, the reasons why Catholics can communicate and non-Catholics cannot, and so forth. He is posing a new challenge to Catholic theologians - yes to other theologians but the nature of this question is that Catholic theologians' answers are the ones that will shift the weight of Catholic opinion. That new challenge is whether the Lord's Supper or Mass is being correctly understood in respect of discipleship - in other words,

"an invitation to Catholics to imagine the eucharist in a rather unfamiliar way. The key question is now: How would intercommunion help all of us as we live our lives?" (p.17)

So what O'Loughlin sets out to do is to answer the Pope's question and he doesn't see many other writings yet on the matter.

The edge to his discussion is that Anke de Bernardinis question is a real question of practical import in many families lives (to say nothing of, e.g., ecumenical relationships between churches so we can always sing Evensong together but never break bread together). It would be really good to have a change on this matter which normally - on the basis of what established practice governed by rules permits/prohibits - is shut down pretty quickly whenever intercommunion is raised.

The essential argument O'Loughlin mounts - each chapter taking up a different angle on the argument - is that it is against one of the most widely shared rules of humanity to have people in one's house when a meal is being served and denying some from sharing it. (And, conversely, for a Catholic in a non-Catholic church to refuse to partake in the meal offered there is also an infringement of this rule.) That is, "The Grammar of Meals" (Chapter 2) means,

"If I am the presider, and so acting as the host at the table, then I must make everyone present welcome and ensure that those who might see themselves as strangers or visitors know that this is a place of human sharing. Good human manners means that I must assume everyone present will want to eat and drink at the table. I have not spotted them coming into the meal, so now, by virtue of the grammar of meals, I cannot refuse to let them eat. If I am one of those at the meal and see it as a meal of my church, then I should be watchful for the guests and help them feel welcome." (29)

Of course, attractive though the core argument is, and challenging too (effectively he is saying Catholics should be embarrassed by this exclusionary approach), O'Loughlin really needs to deal with some standard reasoning for exclusion of non-Catholics at the Lord's Table. This he does. But does he do it effectively?

In my experience the main "standard" re reasons for exclusion is that a non-Catholic going forward to receive might not believe what Catholics believe about the eucharist. O'Loughlin makes a great case for pointing out that (i) Catholic priests do not actually quiz every Catholic communicant as to what they believe about the eucharist (and if they did they might get a surprise at the diversity of belief) and (ii) even Catholics do not keep up with the ever changing subtleties of Catholic theology through the centuries. Nevertheless I think this is a weak point in the series of arguments because the reality (it seems to me) is that if perchance there were doctrinal examination at the door of the church before Mass, then pretty quickly doctrinal uniformity would be achieved: it is not as though Catholics are averse to following a prescribed line, witness following recent changes to the creed. (That Catholics might not follow a prescribed line on, say, contraception is not - in my experience of Catholicism - any kind of evidence that doctrinal lines on creedal and liturgical matters would not be uniformly followed).

Much stronger is O'Loughlin's finish to this particular chapter where he makes the necessary point that doctrinal differences (say, between presiding priest and visiting non-Catholic) should not constrain eucharistic hospitality:

"Paul studied the activity in Corinth and then drew out the significance of what they were actually doing, compared it with their vision of who they were as disciples, and then instructed them to do it properly. Paul reformed not their doctrine but their practice. The core of the paradosis is the bodily memory of what we do together, not what we declare to be what we deem to be the best explication of what we do (doctrine). It is always worth recalling that the words we so venerate liturgically from the gospels regarding the eucharist are a command, in the plural, to do something: touto poeite (Luke 22:19); and it is followed by a second command to action: phagete (Matt 26:26). It is not a command to believe this oo have this or  hold this or look upon this." It is sobering to notice that Paul does not see the proclamation of the mystery of faith as a matter of words, as often in contemporary Catholic liturgy, but in the activity of eating and drinking together: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26)."

On this count, it is the eating and drinking together, rather than the doctrine to which any of the participants subscribe, that constitutes the reality of the mystery. This experience can then be examined for its meaning for the individuals and the group, and its implicit theology explored. Therefore, assuming that someone is willing to eat and drink at a Catholic celebration of the eucharist, is there any basis for excluding them because of difference in doctrine?" (pp. 138-139)

There is much, much more to the book than these few observations and citations. For example, and "of course," he reflects on the meaning of being baptised Christians willing to meet together. And, it is not a long book, 157 pages plus bibliography and indices.

In the end - and I know I am biased towards O'Loughlin's thesis - I like his argument and supporting arguments very much. I am convinced by them but I don't need much convincing and, to coin a phrase (not), it is not me he needs to convince!

Postscript: I could not help but do some reflecting while reading this book on the question of "Zoom eucharists." On the one hand, O'Loughlin implicitly mounts a strong case for my principal affirmation of meeting together physically for eucharist: it is a meal! On the other hand, to specify that the eucharist is a meal (with a grammar re hospitality and a case that the "doing" of the meal is more important than the "believing" about the meaning of the meal) is a form of doctrine. This is borne out by those of us who do not think "Zoom eucharists" can be an endorsed eucharist of the church: we could not teach that this can be so. In other words, there are doctrinal minima for even the most open of eucharists to occur and these minima, ironically at this time in history, preclude some forms of eucharist.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

"Ten" was once the name of a movie aspiring pastors didn't admit to watching

Many decades ago, when I was much, much younger, there was a movie made called "Ten" (or was it "10"?) which went something like "perfect woman" (Bo Derek) encounters "funny guy" (Dudley Moore, I recall) and ups and downs of romance happens and, I can't now recall what, there was an ending. Being a romantic comedy I'll supply this as the ending: happy! I guess this movie was made towards the end of an era when one could make mainstream movies that objectified women by giving them a mark out of ten for bodily appearance.

Anyway, fast forward to last Monday and "ten" or "10" has another meaning entirely for New Zealand and for our churches.

When announcing that NZ would move from Level 3 to Level 2 (tomorrow), PM Jacinda Ardern announced that no gatherings larger than ten people could be held: inside or outside a family home, inside or outside any other venue (such as a church), etc with exceptions being schools, workplaces, restaurants/cafes and (from Thursday next week) bars. This policy will be reviewed in two weeks time.

So, effectively, two more Sundays (minimum) of online worship.

Now, this was a surprise because as recently as the Thursday before the Monday announcement, it had been announced that the restriction re gatherings would be one hundred (100).

Quite a surprise and quite a challenge for those about to hold (say) a funeral. UPDATE: Since writing that sentence our government has, partly through the influence of church leadership, changed the limits on funerals to 50. But the post is mostly about ordinary church services.

But this announcement re "10" has turned out to be very interesting in terms of reactions and responses in the NZ Christian community.

Broadly speaking, my soundings and anecdata over the last few days - Anglican and non-Anglican conversations - suggest these reactions and responses within the NZ Christian community: in no particular order of strength of numerical support or any other measure:

- fury and fear that the government is running a now not so secret anti-Christian agenda;
- hand-wringing concern that the forces of secularization once again marginalise the church so that it is treated as though it barely exists and thus needs not to be consulted with;*
- anger that the church has been treated as a body which merely gathers to "socialise" rather than, first, to worship;*
- urgent invocation of the Bill of Rights in respect of freedom of religion which is now unnecessarily constrained;
- annoyance that the government has more faith in restaurants, bars etc to organise themselves to cater for 100 people than in churches (despite church leadership - including moi - putting hours of time into carefully worked out guidelines for worshipping safely;
- congratulations that the government understands only too well how slack many churches are about observing safe practice;
- acknowledgement that overseas some bad outbreaks of the virus have occurred when congregations gathered for worship and food and drink afterwards;*
- relief that we have at least two more weeks of being safe and/or gaining confidence to meet again with other people.

* = dispositions within myself!

And there seems some chance that the majority of Christians subscribe to the last point in the list above.

For some of us, that is surprising. But it is also the reality we work with through these next weeks in Level 2. I wonder if it reflects a simple physical reality that many of us are very tired.

But there is, I suggest, a number of matters to reflect on and to discuss - when we get the chance - about the character of ourselves as church - in relation to society, to the state, to challenges when they come in respect of disasters and the consequential shift in power dynamics in a nation.

Some final thoughts for this post.

1. Noting my update above re funerals. Actually, yesterday, a significant meeting was held between government and church leaders. I think the church may feel marginalised but need not. (And we could cut the government some slack: this is an extraordinary time and there are many voices trying to get inside their heads).

2. We are living through a disaster. Dynamics have changed in this nation - at least for the duration. Simple analyses focusing on (say) freedom to exercise religion may overlook an even more basic analysis: we are in a life and death crisis.

Just because the church has the freedom to baptise people in our rivers doesn't mean our rights have been curtailed if the police tell us not to baptise when the river is in flood!

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Online worship: The Presence and Future of Zoom Eucharists?


For further examination of "Zoom Eucharists" (by which I mean, in this post, eucharistic services conducted online by a priest who presides over communion in his or her own home but congregants in their own homes consume bread and wine they have with them), a starting point could be this Tweet:

To which I replied, having read a very thoughtful opinion-come-report-of-what-I-did in the Church Times (17 April 2020):

I found myself especially thoughtful about this comment in reply to Scott Gunn's Tweet:

Let's be honest: our questions about Zoom Eucharists are NOT questions about the power of God, the presence of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are sovereign and can do what They-as-One will, present everywhere and unconstrained by walls or wires. The comment above about the word of Jesus being effective in the healing of a servant in a different location to the centurion asking for the healing to occur makes that point. Our Eastertide celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a celebration of Christ's presence  EVERYWHERE in the world.

Nor, to deal with another matter, are our questions about Zoom Eucharists concerned with whether people experience such consumption as a profound experience of communion with God and with one another across time and space. Discussion on the matter is not a questioning of the felt experience in this time of crisis.

Finally, in this Introduction, an observation: the question of Zoom Eucharists is not in the same category as the proverbial,

Was it a valid communion when in a POW camp they only had rice and water; and there wasn't a priest? 

POW camps are not permanent human experiences (thankfully). Technology is here to stay. Our determinations re Zoom Eucharists are not only for the moment of the crisis in which Lockdown shuts us out of our churches. Our determinations are about a new permanent reality of ecclesiastical life: we can for all sorts of reasons, not only when in crisis of compulsory Lockdown, use technology to enable worship together. If a Zoom Eucharist is valid during Lockdown it is also valid when (e.g.) the Diocesan youth worker says to the Bishop, why don't we have a eucharist with all the youth across the Diocese via Zoom and save the planet by not using our cars to meet in one central location?

So what are the questions we could be exploring about Zoom Eucharists? (Spoiler alert: this post is mostly about the questions and will not presume to get to many of the answers!)


In no particular order of priority.

What is "consecration" in the age of online services?

What is a congregation in respect of gathering together via online means?

If we accept the possibilty of consecration over the internet, does it make a difference if the service offered has been prerecorded, or must it be "live"?

What values have we assumed to date about the materiality of Holy Communion? (Thinking of taking for granted that we gather in one physical space, with a priest materially present,* with a Table on which are placed the bread and wine which the congregation will consume).

[*Would we accept a priest (say, too ill to be in church), consecrating via a screen in the church with the congregation viewing her or him? Mostly, I would think not.]

May we now question those values?

Are there workarounds?

There is some talk here and there (and in comments to a recent post below) about things such as (to name two "popular" options):

- viewers in their own homes consume bread and wine during a Zoom Eucharist but with no pretence that this is "consecrated"; rather, the consuming is "in remembrance of Jesus' death" so, a "communion-like" moment within the whole Zoom eucharist.

- (with or without a vicar somewhere at the other end of the internet) a household bubble celebrate an "agape meal" in which bread is broken and consumed, wine is consumed and (say) 1 Corinthians 11 and relevant verses from John 6 are read out.

But do such workarounds work? Are they in danger of blurring the boundaries between what is and what is not a Communion service?

Finally, what is the nature of communion? Is it, for example, an offering or a meal? (See further below)


I want to be very careful - I am sure you do too - not to limit the power of God or to circumscribe the presence of Christ; and especially I do not want to contribute to notions that a priest or bishop has some kind of control over the power of God or the presence of Christ.

I think that means that consideration of Zoom eucharists as "valid" possibilties for the present and future church must be a consideration that is genuinely open to new insight in a new world made possible by new discoveries - insight into the character both of God and of God's commitment to be present to us through the materiality of the bread and wine of Communion in such a world.

If we are not genuinely open to such consideration, we should be honest and declare this to be so. (It is an honourable position and most Anglicans I see writing on social media hold to it!)

And, to be clear, to be open to such consideration is NOT to pre-determine the outcome of such enquiry.

The fact is, of course, that the signs through these weeks of global Lockdown are that there are fasting Anglicans (yearning for eucharist but content to wait patiently), frustrated Anglicans (genuinely unable to understand why Zoom eucharists cannot take place with pragmatic support from Anglican hierarchies) and pragmatically, progressive Anglicans (who have already determined that Zoom eucharists are fine - this appears to be a determination followed in some Sydney parishes and, no doubt, elsewhere). In sum, Anglicans are not agreed on the matter of Zoom eucharists.

That is not only understandable - we haven't exactly had a synod set up a commission to report back to a synod to ask the house of bishops to consider the matter who refer it to the wider Communion for comment ... etc - it is actually the big problem here!

My conviction about eucharistic ministry is that it proceeds from the common mind of the church which, in Anglican terms, means the common mind as agreed synodically. (Hopefully with due theological work beforehand).

Sure, there are different views about the eucharist in the churches of the Communion but each province has a prayer book (or two) and each has a common commitment to say this (or these) words and not those words when celebrating Communion. To say nothing of common commitments re priests or bishops as presiders (with, I think, one exception). That is, we share a commitment to the eucharist being thus and so rather than something else (even if the "thus and so" is layered with diverse understandings).

So, the big problem with Zoom Eucharists is not whether or not one can consecrate Communion by this means and the effectiveness "zoom" through space and time to each and every participating bubble (household) or similar questions (which are important questions to be worked through).

The big problem with Zoom Eucharists is what we will agree on.

Will it be our current agreement (which within ACANZP, and, for the most part, as far as I can see, in the AngComm is "No") or a new agreement?


(1) How do we respond to the immense value Anglicans place on the materiality of spirituality?

Whatever we make of Zoom Eucharists, Agape meals, they represent a strong desire for spiritual nurture through material means of consuming bread and wine. Whether for Pandemic or other reasons, when our present understanding of the eucharist means consumption is prohibited, is that the end of the road for the desire for more than "Spiritual Communion"?

(2) What is the nature of a eucharistic service?

Is it worship of God more than nurture of you and me? If so, we are "offering" something to God (Anglicans would carefully say, "a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving") and on such a theological understanding, what the priest does (with the people's support) is more important than what the people receive.

(Of course, in the internet age, these questions lead to other questions such as, In a global Lockdown, why is every priest making such an offering? Just one priest (Pope? Patriarch" ABC?) could offer on behalf of us all, tuning in around the world!)

(Incidentally, on an "offering" approach to eucharist, a prerecorded eucharist is, I suggest, fine: the offering has been made, perhaps two days before viewing, and the viewing then becomes an affirmation and appreciation for that offering being made.)

Or, (my own bias) is a eucharistic service a sacred meal which like all meals requires its participants to be in the same location as the food?

One of my appreciations during Lockdown has been the technology (Zoom, actually) which makes family get togethers possible. Especially good for a couple with four children living in cities not our own! But, much as I have appreciated these occasions, none has been the same as if our children were home and we make a meal together and consume it around one family table.

I actually have a similar appreciation for online worship: I have participated (or "participated") in some wonderful occasions over the past seven weeks. But at no point have I been tempted to think that this virtual approach is better than the "real presence" of being in each other's company as one congregation in one building.


We could observe an irony. Many discussions of eucharist, pre COVID-19, turn on questions of the "real presence" (or "real absence") of Christ, in/under the bread and the wine or sort of, somehow nearby. But, taking up an observation near the beginning of this post, discussion of Zoom Eucharist should not be anxious about the presence of Christ in many homes at once. The anxiety of such discussion is about the nature of the "presence" of the congregation!

UPDATE: For a very helpful post on an Agape Meal (as a legitimate means by which Christians at home (and via Zoom) might share food and drink with prayer, praise and proclamation, without recourse to a priest, head to Liturgy here.


Some posts - read by me, there are many other posts - on popular sites are worth drawing attention to re the online church in general and online eucharist in particular:

Ian Paul at Psephizo: here and here.

Bosco Peters at Liturgy: here (with links at the bottom of the post to four previous posts).

Doug Chaplin at Liturgica: here (especially raising the question of the eucharist as "offering").

Bowman Walton, here on ADU.

Also in the background to this post are various Twitter exchanges with @MalcolmFrench, @Liturgy, @TrevsDev.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Differences in the Gospels' resurrection narratives

Prelude: Listen to this wonderful Easter hymn to a lovely and well known tune (Woodlands)


The differences in the resurrection narratives of the four canonical gospels (and what Paul writes in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15) are at best a puzzle and at worst a provocation against a sense of the coherency of the biblical narrative at its most important and exciting point. When many people doubt the resurrection happened as an "historical event", the least we might expect is greater coherency in the four accounts. How did these differences between the accounts come about? This is my explanation.

- Mark’s Gospel is written first; then Matthew and Luke both use it when writing their gospels;
- John’s Gospel is written last; and has either direct or indirect knowledge of Mark, Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.*]

The role of Mark's Gospel

Mark's Gospel is the pioneer in a form of ancient biography in which Jesus is presented as Saviour of the world by telling his life story with a significant portion of the "life" being about his death.

In what follows I presuppose that Mark provides the key ingredients of the gospels that follow his lead, Matthew, Luke and John: Jesus' ministry begins with baptism, followers are called to journey with him, there are miracles performed, teaching is frequent and some excerpts are given, opposition against Jesus mounts, then the events leading to Jesus' death are told and the concluding event is discovery that Jesus has been raised from the dead. (Whether Mark is a direct or indirect source of the other three gospels is immaterial to this point which is about the contents of Mark's Gospel being generally known in the Christian communities of the Mediterranean region as the other gospels were being composed.)

Apart from including these "key ingredients", what do Matthew, Luke and John have in common relative to Mark’s Gospel? They add to what they know from Mark’s Gospel. While not always incorporating everything they know is there. (Matthew and Luke, almost certainly using Mark as a written source, tend to tell a shorter version of what they find in Mark’s Gospel). Most obviously all three Gospels expand Mark through adding in extensive teaching by Jesus. Matthew and Luke are fairly similar for some of this expansion (raising the question whether a common source, Q, is used by both).

All three Gospels also expand on Mark's beginning of the life of Jesus. Mark begins with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. Matthew and Luke go much further back, with differing conception/birth/infancy narratives that share a few common details (Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem as birthplace, Nazareth as home). Each provides a genealogy for Jesus, Matthew's going as far back as Abraham, the father of Israel and Luke's as far back as Adam, the father of all humanity and the son of God. John's Gospel begins with a theological prologue which locates Jesus' beginning in his pre-existence and not in his conception/birth.

Mark's resurrection narrative (16:1-8) is well known for its brevity and spare details: the tomb of Jesus is discovered as empty; the risen Jesus is not seen; and the women who discover the situation do not even tell anyone about it. There is, however, a strong hint that Jesus will be seen, in the near future, in Galilee.

Despite some pretty tight commonality in respect of Jesus’ burial (all four gospels agree that Joseph of Arimathea is responsible for Jesus’ burial; only John’s Gospel differs by adding Nicodemus into the burial party), when it comes to the resurrection narratives, each of Matthew, Luke and John expand on Mark's account and in doing so proliferate differences across the these expanded narratives.

The common details, incidentally, are that there is a visit to the tomb early on Sunday by at least Mary Magdalene; the tomb is discovered to be open and empty of Jesus’ body, and an angel or angel-like guide offers guidance to the tomb discoverers.

The four gospels were composed sometime after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15, his famous chapter on the Resurrection (of Jesus and of us), and set out in a few verses a traditional narrative of the sequence of appearances of the risen Jesus. While Paul clearly mentions that Jesus was “raised”, he does not directly connect this action with the emptiness of the tomb. But Paul’s concern is the appearances - he wants to add his own experience of an appearance of Jesus to the list. It is completely plausible that when Paul writes of Jesus "died ... buried ... raised ..." that "raised" means raised in a physical action evidenced by the emptiness of the tomb."

Mark 16:1-8 has no appearance of the risen Jesus, only an anticipation of an appearance in Galilee. From a narratival perspective, for the story he tells of Jesus to end with resurrection, Mark needs a connection between the burial of the corpse of Jesus and the anticipation of an encounter with the risen Jesus which is not to be an encounter with a ghost. Hence the tomb needs to be empty of the dead body of Jesus and this is what is discovered. (Note that this is not a claim that the empty tomb was a matter of narrative and not of history. Explaining that is a post for another day, suffice to say here that the smoke of Christianity is well explained by the fire of conviction that the tomb was empty, Jesus'  body was raised to a new form of life and his appearances to those first witnesses were not appearances of a ghost.)

Expanding Mark's Bare Narrative with Narratives of Appearances

Now the obvious move to make if one were to expand Mark's account, with a nod to the traditional narrative which Paul inherited, would be to describe some appearances of the risen Jesus. Matthew, Luke and John do this. Not one of those appearances is exactly like the other (and we need to say something about that in a moment).

There are two other obvious moves to make. One is to dispel some counter-narratives.

Matthew does this by dealing to a rumour that the body of Jesus was stolen.

Luke does this by emphasising Jesus eating and drinking, presumably to dispel murmurs that Jesus didn't "really" rise - it was just a ghost which people were experiencing. (There is an element of this emphasis in John's story about Jesus and Thomas, though John's greater point is that it is possible to believe in the risen Jesus without direct experience of the risen Jesus.)

Thus we find further differences at work in these accounts.

Another obvious move to make is to provide a concluding scene in which the followers of Jesus are commissioned to continue his ministry and mission in the world. Matthew and Luke both do this as the very last part of their respective gospels (and somewhat disturbingly place this scene in different locations and report different words).

John provides a commissioning scene but it is not the last part of his gospel (though intriguingly it is the last part of the resurrection day). It hardly needs saying but John's commissioning scene involves different words to Matthew and Luke's respective commissioning scenes and adds in a bestowing of the Spirit. Yet more difference.

We can look at such differences from a slightly different perspective. Let's compare Matthew and Mark: Matthew hardly expands on Mark's concise account in Mark 16:1-8. His differences with Mark are: the women do encounter the risen Jesus; there is a brief story which puts paid to the idea that the body of Jesus was stolen; and there is an encounter between Jesus and the disciples (as anticipated by Mark's account) when he commissions them in Galilee for global mission.

Luke, as a fellow user of Mark as a source, is very different to Mark and has nothing in common with Matthew's expansion of Mark save for a commissioning scene as the very last part of his Gospel.

With respect to Mark, Luke both improves Mark (by clarifying that the women did tell others about the empty tomb) and alters Mark to suit a Lukan agenda which appears to include a robust portrayal of the risen Jesus as one who has been bodily raised to a new life. Not only is the tomb empty but Jesus eats and drinks.

Expansive Expansions: Luke and John

But there is more to the Lukan agenda than providing a robust portrayal if the "nature" of the risen Jesus. First, Luke wants everything about the resurrection of Jesus focused on Jerusalem. Jesus does not go to Galilee and, somewhat glaringly, Mark's "he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there he will see you, just as he told you" (16:7) becomes Luke's "Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee ..." (24:6). Jerusalem (albeit on its outskirts) is where the commissioning takes place (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-12) and thus Luke's narrative of the mission of the apostles will be from one capital to another, from Jerusalem to Rome rather than from an obscure region, Galilee to the centre of the Empire.

Secondly, Luke is happy to upend Mark's "barebones" or minimalist detail approach to his resurrection narrative, in contrast to Matthew's (actually) very light extension of Mark, by telling a sumptuous, long, theologically dense/thick/rich story of an encounter between two disciples and the risen Jesus. This is the "Road to Emmaus" story, Luke 24:13-35. It is for another occasion to wax eloquent on the wonderful aspects of this story, suffice to say here that Luke not only reports this extensive encounter, he also develops this encounter so that it becomes a model for post Ascension Christian life: the risen Jesus is encountered in the exposition of the Scriptures and in the breaking of bread together. (For even an other occasion, this story is paradigmatic of worship based on the twinning of the ministry of the word and the ministry of the sacrament).

Reading Luke, in contrast to Mark and Matthew, prepares the way for reading John and reflecting on the differences between his resurrection narrative (or, we might even say, three narratives) and those of Mark, Matthew and Luke. John also knows how to tell beautiful, long theologically dense stories of Jesus and he doesn't stop when revealing to us the significance of the Resurrection.

First, what does John say that is similar (and different) to at least one of the three Synoptics? (This is broadly speaking - no attempt at minute detailed comparison).
- Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, seemingly alone (but two male disciples actually enter the tomb).
- Mary has an encounter with angels and with Jesus (but her dialogue with Jesus is different to that recorded in Matthew, though Jesus in both encounters directs the woman (women) to talk to the male disciples).
- On the evening of the first day of Resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples (but the dialogue with the disciples is largely different to that reported in Luke; then, because Thomas is missing (according to John), there is a "repeat encounter" a week later, unknown to the Synoptics). Within that first Sunday evening appearance is a commissioning scene (with words unknown to Matthew and Luke).
- Finally, John tells the story of a final encounter between Jesus and the disciples in Galilee (but Matthew and Mark know nothing of this narrated event, a fishing expedition and a barbecue breakfast).
Thus we see some significant continuity between John and the Synoptics:
- Like Matthew, John seemingly  takes a cue from Mark and there is an appearance of the risen Jesus in Galilee;
- Like Luke, John takes time and trouble to offer (not one but) three elaborate narratives featuring encounters between Jesus and disciples (Mary, disciples & Thomas, Peter & the Beloved Disciple);
- Like Matthew and Luke, John has a scene in which Jesus commissions the disciples for future mission;
- Like Matthew (who deals to the claim that the body of Jesus was stolen) and Luke (who deals to the claim that the "risen Jesus" was merely the "ghost of Jesus"), John deals to some things: first, to those who think that "if only I could have been present when the risen Jesus was bodily present on earth" (the Thomas narrative); and, secondly, to those upping some kind of rivalry between the Petrine church and the Johannine church (the Great Catch of Fish epilogue in John 21).

Finally, to those beautifully, theologically dense narratives in John's Gospel. If Luke sets the standard with his Road to Emmaus, John keeps it up with his encounters between Jesus and Mary, Jesus and the disciples then Thomas in the upper room, then Jesus, Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Everyone's favourite resurrection narratives.

But what is John doing? We have no idea what basis in "history" he has for these narratives (e.g. there are no other witnesses to the dialogues between Jesus and his disciples in John 20 and 21; and where there is a chronological cross over, on the evening of the first Sunday of Resurrection, Luke 24:36-43 and John 20:19-23 have very little in common), but we see the John of developed dialogues between Jesus and others (e.g. Nicodemus, John 3; the Samaritan woman, John 4; Mary, Martha and the disciples re Lazarus' death, John 11) doing what he does so well: using dialogue within narrative to make profound theological points.

John is doing at the end of his Gospel what he does at the beginning and in the middle: he presents, or better, reveals the truth about Jesus, the one who lives, has always been alive since before time, and for a season dwelt among us as a fellow human being in whom the Logos made his home. We cannot peel away a husk of theology here in order to determine the seed of history. The meaning of Jesus' life is inseparable from the story of his life and this is no less true in the final chapters of John's Gospel as in the remainder.

So then, why significant differences between the Gospels' resurrection narratives?

The differences arise, I suggest, because each Gospel writer uses the opportunity of the bare detail of the resurrection as an event in history (the body of Jesus is raised to a new form of life, the tomb is thus empty of the corpse of Jesus, there are appearances of the risen Jesus to his followers) to speak to their respective communities. (This is not to say that the Gospel writers have a vision for the reception of their Gospels which is narrowly limited to (say) their local church or (say) one people group such as early Jewish Christians. It is only to say that local concerns make their way into Gospels intended for a wide audience.)

Mark, it seems, is content that his community needs no further information about the risen Jesus: he lives in their midst, they know this. They may even have among them those who were witnesses to the risen Jesus.

Matthew, we may surmise, wants to record for posterity that the risen Jesus did make appearances, to two groups in particular, female disciples and to the Twelve; but also has a need to deal with a counter-explanation for the empty tomb, that the body of Jesus was stolen and hidden somewhere else.

While Luke appears to need to nail down that the risen Jesus is not a ghost (he eats and drinks) while testifying to the extraordinary nature of the risen Jesus (who comes and goes at will), his standout need as narrator is to confine all resurrection narratives to Jerusalem and it environs. It is not, in my view, at all clear why he so steadfastly eschews the possibility of depicting Jesus in Galilee. But there is no puzzle about Luke's use of the resurrection narratives to draw the story of Jesus to a rounded end. The Scriptures foretold his coming; the risen Jesus now teaches, twice, that the Scriptures are fulfilled.

John places the two most important disciples - Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple - in his Gospel near the beginning of his resurrection narratives and they are back at the end. Is John saying something about two great streams of primitive Christianity, the Petrine and Johannine churches? (And if he is, what is he saying? That they are both important? That contrary to the view the Petrine is most important, the Johannine church is as important?). Nevertheless Mary Magdalene is highly honoured: she has the only one-to-one encounter with the risen Jesus. Through each of the encounters John draws his gospel to a close: salvation comes to those who believe in Jesus the Son of God and follow him. All may believe, whether readers of this Gospel at the end of the first century or those who were privileged to have personal encounters with Jesus when he dwelt on earth (before and after his death).

There are differences across the four Gospels (and the Pauline account I have barely touched on, 1 Corinthians 15) but they are resolutely united: Jesus rose from the dead.

In closing we might make this observation: are the differences between the Gospels at their endings greater than the differences at their beginnings?

*Addendum: why I think this assumption re John’s knowledge of the Synoptics is reasonable.

John’s Gospel has this outline:

Introduction (John 1, very intriguingly, has within it all the important titles for Jesus found in the Synoptics) (There is no birth narrative, unlike Matthew/Luke) (Including Baptism of Jesus, though here is it presumed and not recounted, unlike the Synoptics).

Sign 1: Wedding at Cana (not in Synoptics, but they have material about old/new wine; weddings)
Sign 2: Cleansing of the Temple [this is controversial as one of the signs but has been argued]
Sign 3: Healing of an official’s young male son/servant (similarity to healing of centurion’s servant in Matthew/Luke)
Sign 4: Healing a Lame Man on a Sabbath
Sign 5: Feeding the Five Thousand (and, some, walking on water; others, this is a separate sign)
Sign 6: Healing a Blind Man
Sign 7: Raising Lazarus from the Dead (only John’s Gospel) (but this incident is critical to John’s explanation of why the authorities decided to have Jesus’ killed. Thus it is intriguing that the Synoptics’ key “late” such incident, the Cleansing of the Temple, is not replaced by John, just displaced (see above).
Followed by the Entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, Last Supper, Betrayal, Arrest, Trials, Sentencing, Crucifixion, Burial, Resurrection.

If the bulk of John’s Gospel was thus and so, it would read more like a slimmed down Synoptic Gospel than a different Gospel to the Synoptics. But the bulking out of this outline is in the Johannine discourses and dialogues, which have a very different flavour to the Synoptics when they report to us the sayings, teachings and conversations of Jesus.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Online Worship: From Disruption to Participation

Life remains busy under Lockdown here in NZ. We will finish Level 4 at 11.59 pm
Monday 27 April; but Level 3, for at least two weeks won't be much different. A smart
alec politician observed that it will be Level 4 with KFC. (Explanation: some takeaways
will be purchasable again).

So, online worship will continue for a few more weeks - and many parishes will be
considering it continuing for many weeks after we get to Level 2 (when services, with
congregations 100 or under, can resume, providing social distancing criteria are met). In
Level 2 we expect vulnerable parishioners will choose to continue to stay at home on

I have a post in the pipeline with further reflections on "Zoom Eucharists" and prior to that
coming on stream, there is another on the Gospel Resurrection Narratives. In the absence
of output from me, I am very pleased to offer a post by Bowman Walton, regular
commenter here.

Bowman writes ...  From Disruption to Participation

Father Ron, I hope that you do not mind my asking: how did folks at SMAA celebrate the Feast of Feasts this year? I have been asking others as well, but I am especially curious about parishes like yours that have such a richly eucharistic calendar. One would suppose that they have a keen sense of the mystery of our participation in Christ. Yet the invisible plague outside our windows-- we hope-- is testing our mettle in living that out.

This lock-down deprives everyone of unmediated worship. But it also disrupts a Spirit-given habit of
communion, one that usually anchors our connection with Christ through time, and in him, with others--brothers and sisters in faith, the created world for which we pray, and even the “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” who join our praise and thanksgiving to the Father.

As a hermit in a COVID-19 hotspot this year, I found myself this Easter recalling the celebrations of
years past. That was not my plan, but the memories just came. Different times, different countries,
different languages, but recognizably the same Pascha however the congregation of each moment had
gathered to say Christ is Risen! Talking to friends this past week, I have noticed that we were all more or less prompted to search our memories for these hours past. We know Who did this.

Staying in the Lord through memory and time

When we talk about the Spirit’s gift of Jesus’s presence to us in communion, we usually think of it as
spacial-- the Lord in heaven is suddenly also on the altar-- or as eventual-- his people on earth are for the moment near to his heavenly throne. St Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin. Both ideas have deep roots in the East, but a long tradition there also emphasizes that Jesus’s eucharistic presence to us persists through time. “I am with you until the end of the age.”

In a rite before the Sunday liturgy in, say, Thessaloniki, the priest blesses the round loaf and cuts it into pieces. A wedge of the bread is later consecrated with the chalice of wine, and then smaller pieces of the rest are distributed to the faithful as they kiss the cross and depart. As its name *antidoron* (< Greek "in place of the gifts") suggests, these take-out pieces of the blessed bread continue the ancient practice of distributing the host to all so that they can communicate themselves at home during the week on Wednesdays and Fridays. The liturgy ends; the communion must not.

A medieval practice followed that one: the celebrant carried the antidoron out the door in a procession to the place where the congregation would share an agape meal like those of St Paul’s day. So the blessed bread in that way linked Christ’s presence in the congregation's eucharist to their further presence in the streets. "This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world."

In the monasteries of Mount Athos, this is still done. But there, the procession winds its way through
porticoes to the refectory where the monks listen to readings as they eat their portions. Reflecting that, the refectories are painted with murals that somewhat mirror those of the church-- in both places one is surrounded by frescoes of saints-- and whose unifying theme is brotherly love.

This is holiness-- the Holy Spirit takes hold of us, deepens our intention to participate in Christ through time, and enables us to keep it through all the obstacles that come. More than any other intention, this one requires vigilance.

At a certain monastery known for its oppositional temper-- a black flag on its ramparts reads Orthodoxy or Death!-- the celebrant once led that procession down a corridor adorned only with apostolic warnings against sins of the tongue copied in an elegant Byzantine hand and framed in gold. If we slide from comparing views into trolling for sport or insulting brothers, the mouth of hell yawns open. The brothers there have opinions as strong as the wind off the Aegean, but they also know their weakness.

Just so, a congregation gathers around the chalice like long distance runners who are apt to run off theircourse and lose their form as they tire, but who are still trying to improve their stride and their times. “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

Richard Hooker would surely approve this practice of lingering in the Lord's eucharistic presence long after the liturgy has ended-- in principle, through the week-- because it is constancy in what he saw as the purpose of that means of grace: the soul’s union with Christ. Baffled wranglers still ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?,” as they do in St John vi 52. But Hooker would point out that it does not matter much how one understands the metaphysics of the communion one makes, so long as one makes it intending to remain in it forever.

Meeting the Lord in the digital cathedral

Our ever-smarter phones have no good substitute for participation in the communion itself. Carrying the ball makes you a rugby player; watching someone else carry the ball makes you a fan. Most people I know has seen the occasional services that are also made-for-television spectacles-- royal weddings, state funerals, etc-- but we watch these as geeks, fans or citizens, not to transact the business of the Body of Christ. Anyway, the Lord is immediately present wherever two or three gather in his name; why should they watch him being present elsewhere?

But these computers in our pockets do have three capabilities that could enrich our solidarity in Christ--
(1) the Body can communicate with them to transcend its buildings and boundaries;
(2) we can standardize or tailor the presentation of ideas that help us to participate; and
(3) we can see the Body’s life as it is in other places and times, other “sorts and conditions.” When the faithful of a place have all three, they will be more together than at any time since they prayed under one roof. In that sense, those who integrate them in the service of the local Body are laying foundations for the digital cathedrals of this century.

If you have their cell numbers, you can gather folks across town into a congregation with a text message. Some Roman Catholic bishops up here have gathered flash mobs for events-- learning, service projects, processions-- with mass or vespers. We tell the children that a church is the people, not the building, but they learn all too early that we mainly mobilize the people around the buildings. An inexpensive capability of mobilizing members around need and purpose instead has far-reaching consequences.

Souls can use their phones to connect intentionally by interest and need. An ecumenical social medium to rival Facebook could be very fruitful. In Britain, the NHS has been experimenting with therapeutic communities online with some success. It is not hard to imagine how a similar approach could support ministries in person to the addicted, the homeless, the bereaved etc. To say nothing of those displaced by a disaster, cordoned off from violence, or locked down by a pandemic.

Apps can prompt with timely, tailored information. The world’s best museums use them to explain
religious art in their collections; why on earth don’t churches explain their arts-- visual, musical, and
textual (especially scriptural)-- in apps of their own? It is beginning, slowly.

And just as distance runners now use apps to goad them to practice, map their locations, track their
strides, and time their runs, so serious communicants might be helped by apps that help them to steadily improve a rule of practice. Today, most apps for this purpose are digital-books-with-a-clock that show the prayers and readings appointed for particular hours and days on phone-screens. Their convenience is undeniable, but the next generation of them should be better guided by the needs and UX of those who actually use them.

Most parishes today post links to each Sunday’s sermons in a tidy but boring list. Some retreat centres do the same with retreat talks, guided meditations, and the like. What might happen if these were collected, edited, and presented, nay promoted to lists of those interested in their topics?

Everyone today has a camera and mic in pocket, and access to open source software for editing video.
This is gradually making us a more oral culture than we have been, one in that way more like the ancient world from which we came. It is also enabling voices to speak their minds and show their surroundings from situations like nothing that we have ever seen. At the same time, it is harder than it was for churches to get their distracted members to pay attention to anything merely printed and mailed. Street-wise St Paul might not today collect funds for Jerusalem with a mass mailing. Yet secular platforms like Facebook and YouTube, Skype and Zoom are not optimal for the exchanges of voices and views that should happen among those who pray for one another.

And although the Body is necessarily conserving in most ways, she has been praying for a century for one big disruption that digital technology enables-- the reunion, or at least collaboration, of once-related denominations who are now estranged. Whilst the cost of digital cathedral-building can be low relative to its value, most of these churches have stretched budgets. Working together on a better platform that all can use may be the way to put decades of dialogues, reports, and resolutions to work in the streets for good.

Today, as Bosco says, we live half of our lives online and this is bound to be disruptive. Can we make
disruption beautiful? We always have.
• Early Christians needed to be able to refer quickly to passages copied on several scrolls, and as it
was cumbersome to have them all unrolled at once they became early adoptors of a new
technology-- pieces of scrolls sewed together along their left edge. Over the millennium that
followed, piety inspired ingenuity and they made the book beautiful.
• Huge congregations required special buildings of vaulted stone. In the hard acoustics it was hard
for those in the back to hear what was said in the front, but it was easier if the clergy sang on the
resonating pitch. Plainchant began of necessity, but has continued as a sacred art.
• As late antiquity was becoming the middle ages, the disruptive technology in the East was the
painting of murals and icons. It acknowledged saints, inspired women, toppled a dynasty, and
posed a christological question that only the last ecumenical council could answer. But when
crowds flock to an exhibition of icons today, it is because they are beautiful in some way that
nothing else is. Jesus’s avatar on the internet today is nearly always a Byzantine icon.

Faithful Christians have not so much adopted technologies as inhabited them, adapting them to the piety of souls, the needs of the Body, and the devotion to God of the crafty people who actually copy the manuscript, chant the verse, paint the icon, code the software, edit the video, make the documentary, etc. Disruptions are not beautiful, but the Holy Spirit uses our participation in them to make a new beauty that speaks to the heart.

Our online life puts something subtle at stake: the difference between being saved as a solitary and
sovereign consumer of data, and being saved through fully personal participation in what God is doing--also online-- in his new creation. Both stories have helped souls, but both cannot be the whole. In that way, the scriptures press us to re-evaluate carefully what we have been treating, if at all, as a matter of indifference.

Peter Carrell responds: no one voted for the disruption to life on the planet as we know it, caused by
COVID-19. Very few people ever vote for disruption! But disruption is the experience of 2020 (including the tragic disruption of those dying from COVID-19, among whose number we count those who went to work as doctors and nurses to heal the sick and have died themselves).

Bowman's post above develops the theme of disruption in liturgy, indeed in the very life of the church, as we are thrown into forced dependency on devices, at least for a season. His observations of the present time are laced with personal memories and ecclesiastical histories of other times in Christian experience when disruption altered the course of our theology and our practice. Good may come of this year's disruption, but Bowman's point is that it will not be handed to us on a plate, neatly wrapped and with a plain English explanation of how to make it the best.

We will need to ask, seek and look for what God is giving to his church at this time. There will be matters which compel us to discern carefully, decide wisely and act boldly. There is definitely an opportunity amidst the losses caused by disruption to find gains which draw us closer to Christ and more deeply into fellowship with one another.