Sunday, February 27, 2022

Rethinking Scripture?

A few days back the daily office reading, according to the NZ Lectionary, included a troubling passage from Titus.

There are many troubling passages in Scripture. 

Some split opinion, if not churches (e.g. passages on salvation, on women/men, on rules for sexual behaviour). 

Some are more or less ignored, or ignored most of the time (e.g. James in relation to Romans/Galatians becomes an issue when, say, we study James, but not when we study Romans or Galatians; ditto, the meaning of most of Revelation; perhaps also Genesis 1-2 on the creation of the world). 

Some passages raise questions which are difficult to answer and which reflect some serious, potentially faith-losing concerns about Scripture as (in any sense) the Word of God - the so-called texts of terror, in which terrible things done by one human to another, appear to have the authorisation of God behind them (e.g. some ghastly stories in Judges).

A troubling passage, which does not involve complex argument and counter argument about (say) gender or sexuality, is Titus 1:12-13a:

It was one of them, their very own prophet [=Epimenides, c. 600BC], who said, "Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons."

That testimony is true.

Paul, writing to Titus in Crete, appears to endorse this stereotype view of Cretans, a view which consigns them all to the mental bin in which we place persistent liars, vicious brutes and lazy gluttons. It is a view which we would normally describe today as racist. It is also a pretty strange view in a Christian document. Imagine a mentor of a missionary in (oh, I don't know, say) Russia who wrote,

"Russians are always liars, vicious brutes and lazy gluttons."

The missionary would likely write back, "Umm, Paul, some Russians behave very badly, but most Russians are not like the stereotype you think they are."

Back to Titus.

What does it mean that Titus 1:12-13a is (I would argue) both Scripture and controversial (i.e. the proclaimed truth can be controverted effectively, not least, by Cretans asserting the precise opposite to the stereotype)?

It could mean it is a puzzle, which we are invited to solve, in favour of Scripture as (in the end, behind the apparent racism) a pure and unimpeachable "Word" or revelation from God.

Certainly there are puzzles in Scripture - challenging passages upon which some of the best of biblical scholars have brought learning and intelligence to - and resolution of the puzzles has been achieved in some cases. For example, there is a way of reading Genesis 1 and 2, in the light of evolutionary biology and astronomy, which both affirms the truth of these chapters and the truth of science.

But there are also puzzles (and I think Titus 1:12-13a is one of them) which either defy resolution or have resolutions provided which, in the end, are not particularly persuasive resolutions (so attempts I read to resolve the puzzle of the texts of terror in Judges).

What if we think about Scripture in another way, that Scripture has some bits which, frankly, honestly and even embarrassingly, are not reflective of what is actually true of God and what God would say about some situations (e.g. God, speaking directly about Cretans would never be racist like Epimenides was and Paul writing Titus was)?

That is, Scripture is permitted by God to have, is not rescued by God from having some passages which are (sadly, shortcomingly) human and not (joyfully, perfectly) divine.

There are implications to concluding that this, or something like it, is the most plausible explanation for the awkward, difficult, impossible to explain away parts of Scripture.

I will try to get to them next week or the week after. There may be a need to say something about Ukraine next week - after all, Ukrain and Russia's invasion of it is also a problem for theology. Is God a Russian Orthodox or a Ukrainian Orthodox?

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Love your enemies?

Last Sunday the Gospel passage from the Sermon on the Plain had a repeated message, "Love your enemies." This was a particularly relevant theme to reflect on in my sermon, noting that Russia appears poised to invade Ukraine and that protestors continue to camp on our Parliament's grounds, promoting a series of objectionable messages, including calls for executions of politicians and journalists. Thus (slightly adapted for publication on a blog):

Sermon for 8 am and 10 am Transitional Cathedral 20 February 2022

Readings: for “big picture” theme, Love your enemies.

Gen 45:3-11,15 [8 am] – Joseph is reconciled to his brothers who hated him.

Ps 37:1-11,39-40: verse 8: refrain from anger andforsake wrath.

1 Cor 15:35-38,42-50: the spiritual body of the resurrection … our hope of glory!

Luke 6:27-38 [8 am]: love your enemies.

How would you move the protestors on from the lawn and surrounds of Parliament? From Cranmer Square?

For our sister cathedral in Wellington, St Paul’s Cathedral, this is a sharp question because the protest is disrupting life in and around the cathedral.

Perhaps your answer to the question would be the current answer of the police: to do as little as possible which inflames the situation, which, effectively, is to tolerate the situation.

Or maybe you feel a bit more militant, like a number of people, otherwise occupying both the left and the right on our political spectrum, who want to see police action, even military action to bring the protests to an end.

Or, since we Anglicans are often teased about taking the middle way, our answer may lie somewhere in between.

Actually, no one seems to have the answer right now, and perhaps that’s because each answer has strengths and weaknesses, possibilities for success and risks of painful failure.

Why not just let the protests go on for as long as the protestors want to camp? Winter will come eventually!

One answer is that when protestors are calling for our politicians and media to be hanged, when they threaten young and old alike for wearing masks as they walk to school and to work, there is a level of hate which is intolerable (and may be illegal) in a civil, democratic and compassionate society.

It is, you see, actually quite a challenge to love people when they hate us, to love people when they promote hate through word and threatening actions.

Yet our gospel reading this morning has some quite direct and clear messaging from Jesus to us, his disciples:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.

No ifs, buts or maybes.

Indeed Jesus goes on:

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Then a bit later on Jesus challenges us about loving those who love us in return and then says, again,

Love your enemies.

The final point he makes is that when we do this we love people like God love people.

AND the lectionary today places a story of Joesph in juxtaposition with this message of Jesus:

Joseph, whose brothers hated him and nearly killed him, is reconciled to those same brothers.

Yet, we do have questions:

What is a Christian response to the protestors?

What is a Christian response to someone, anyone who hates us and makes our lives difficult if not impossible?

We must love them. We must do good to them. We must bless them and pray for them.

We do so confident that God see what we are doing and will reward us – our Corinthian reading reminds us that God blesses us both in this life and in the next life. Our confidence to love an enemy is the confidence from knowing that we share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ himself.

Now, let’s be careful about one thing: we can love someone without returning to their abuse of us, without giving them further opportunity to give expression to their hate. We should not be doormats to abusive people.

As Dean Lawrence writes this week, we may need to not be present to a hater, but we can, nevertheless, pray for them and thus do good for them in that way.

Some of us agree passionately with the protestors. Some of us disagree passionately with the protestors. Some of us may have mixed feelings about everything Covid.

But we have no choice if we are willing to listen to Jesus, we must love those who make us uncomfortable, those whom we disagree with, those who go beyond disagrement with us and hate us as our enemies.

That’s something for deep reflection on our part as Christians who belong to our civil, democratic and compassionate society: how do we love our enemies today?

It would be good to pray also for our brothers and sisters in Christ in Ukraine at this time also: their Jesus is the same Jesus as our Jesus. But they are facing a much, much more difficult situation than we are.

Finally, all times of upheaval are also occasions for speaking God’s truth into people’s lives. Chris Trotter, a well known left wing NZ columnist wrote something interesing on his blog:

Chris Trotter

It was the Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) who grasped the extraordinary fluidity of reality in periods of acute social stress and political disintegration. Moments in history when the hegemonic explanations of the ruling-class have lost, or are beginning to lose, their power to allay the fears and misgivings of subordinate classes. In such times – and we are living through them now – people are desperate for new and more persuasive narratives about the nature of reality.

The most persuasive narrative about the nature of reality I know is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

The best evidence we can provide for the truth of that narrative is the lives we lead as loving people.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

A gospel obsession

From my sidebar:

"Fundamentally the Gospel is obsessed with the idea of the unity of human society.


I think Masure is correct and also provocative (i.e. provokes us to think about the meaning of the Good News).

But it is a challenge, is it not, to agree with Masure and to work on unity?

Ukraine v Russia: in the swirl of anxiety about how this conflict may play out, let's not forget significant, embarrassing conflict in various churches in Ukraine and Russia which seems to owe more to nationalism than to "gospel-ism".

In our own Blessed Isles, where a challenging protest is playing out on the grounds of our Parliament. The protest's main message is that the Government should cease mandating vaccinations, but there is other messaging, and some of it is unsavoury (e.g. calling for lynchings of politicians and media) and some of it false (e.g. expressions of various misinformations re vaccinations, politicians involvement in global conspiracies).

While most of our country is united in wanting the protest to end, the protest is a reminder that we are not a united in our fight against Covid.

And, let's not forget, there is division in our churches (including Anglican churches) over vaccinations.

How do we achieve unity in church and in society in this age of pandemic and misinformation, of necessary collective action and concern for individual well-being?


Monday, February 7, 2022

At the core of the Gospel

Let’s give “Anglican issues” a wee break. They’re not going away anytime soon, and they won’t be resolved in the twinkling of an eye glancing at a blogpost here!

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was Luke 5:1-11. I wasn’t preaching but I gave the reading some reflection and that included thinking about its parallel in John 21:1-14.

First, the fascinating parallels between the two passages: both involve an unexpected catch of fish, against the grain of failure to catch, but in response to direction from the (carpenter, not a fisherman) Lord Jesus, with Peter a central character in each story, and some connection (direct in Luke, imminent in John) of Peter being (re)commissioned for ministry. But pretty much the parallels end there. Luke’s story sets Peter on the road to being an apostle who will contribute to catching people for God - a great big catch as the Acts of the Apostles tells us; and, by implication, sets others on that apostolic pathway, because Luke’s story substitutes for Mark and Matthew’s fishing-call stories of Peter, Andrew, James and John. John’s story is part of the larger lake/beachside story of Peter being forgiven for his three denials of Jesus and re-called to “Follow me”, with the emphasis on the renewed ministry not being the apostolic mission to grow the Jesus movement but on the apostolic role of pastoral care for the flock of Jesus: Feed my lambs.

Aside: on some matters previously touched on here, this year, with respect to Anglicanism’s relationship to the Roman Catholic Church and its claims to be “the” church of God because of its Petrine roots and continuing Petrine office, John 21 is also fascinating because of the interplay there between Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, or, we might say, between differing poles of Christianity, Petrine and Johannine. Anglicanism is (we could argue) at its strongest when it both respects and honours Petrine Christianity and confidently but humbly forges its own pathway according to a different pole. We can always do worse that allow ourselves to be inspired by Johannine Christianity!

Back to Luke 5:1-11.

While I wasn’t preaching yesterday, I did hear a sermon on Luke 5:1-11 (and its related OT reading, Isaiah 6:1-8). The preacher skilfully worked from both passages, and from the specific parallel between Isaiah’s and Peter’s recognition of their uncleanness/sinfulness in relation to “the Lord’s” holiness, to highlight the power of God to change us, to transform our lives from within (when so much of what the world talks about re change is change via external factors, behaviour modifications etc).

As I continue to reflect on the relationship between church and gospel, because I believe that beyond all diagnoses and prognoses of the church’s ills and ailments, lies the simple issue of the message we proclaim and the power of that message to win adherents in our day, it struck me that yesterday’s preacher put his finger on something very important.

Whatever words, or actions we use to describe and to present the gospel, the good news of our message must be that there is a God who is able to make a measurable difference to the human situation - that is, God can change us when other means and methods cannot; in a world of amazing transformations (this amazing device on which I type these words to you via the miracle of the internet; development of a virus beating set of vaccines in record time; etc), the challenge of transformation of ourselves remains, and if the gospel offers nothing in response to that challenge, what goodness does our news of Jesus offer?

Now there is lots more to say about the content of the gospel - about the good news of Jesus as an understanding of the world which provides purpose and meaning for human existence, even in the midst of pain and suffering, and thus is a message of hope, joy, peace and love, filled with authentic and eternal content. The gospel is nothing but the good news of lots of “both-and” goodness from God, with the cornerstone message that change to our lives and hope for our lives comes from God graciously reconciling us to himself, dying in Christ on the cross that we might live abundantly and eternally, sharing in the resurrection of Christ. But today’s post gratefully acknowledges yesterday’s particular insight from the preacher’s faithful engagement with the appointed readings!

Our challenge in these difficult days is to be the church which attests to the work of God changing us, transforming us, because by gathering in Jesus’ name, God through the Spirit is visibly making us into the kind of people other people want to be.

And it is a challenge, because we are often more frail and fallible than we would like to be. God is working among us and has a lot to do, yet. The remarkable encounter between Jesus and Peter in Luke 5 was life changing but it didn’t mean Peter would not later deny his Lord three times. The further life changing encounter in John 21 sorted out a number of issues for Peter but it didn’t means that Peter would not later need sharp correction in his not-yet-mature understanding of the scope of the gospel (Acts 10-15; Galatians).

What is God doing in your life and mine?