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Sunday, March 1, 2015

The blessing of faith

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.23-31; Romans 4. 13-25; Mark 8.31-38 

In the land of Israel and of Palestine there is a war. Despite the current truce, people are being killed daily, and not only those who carry weapons. Non-combatants are losing their lives also: men, women, and children. Over these past decades since the creation of Israel as a modern state many thousands of families have been left to grieve for their loved ones in numbers that most of us would find unimaginable. I remember an interview with one of those Palestinian women who survived the 1983 massacre carried out by the “Christian Militia” in southern Lebanon, a massacre that was clearly engineered by Ariel Sharon as Israeli Defence minister. With eyes that, even 18 years later, had not done with crying, she described how the militias had entered the one-room house of her family at night. They shot her father and brother immediately, and while they were still alive but helpless, proceeded to rape her mother and herself. She was only 12 years old at the time. Then, after they had killed her mother also, the militias left. 
  It is these kinds of atrocities which fuel the resolve of the suicide bombers. For many there seems no better way to honour the dead than to take from the enemy ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life’. And let’s not kid ourselves here. While the war between the Israeli military and Hamas is certainly political, and certainly ethnic, it is also, and most importantly, a religious war. It is very much a religious war: a struggle between two religious laws, the law of Moses and the law of Mohammed, each striving for supremacy over the other, each claiming the land for itself in the name of the God who gave it, and each doing so to the absolute exclusion of the other. The Israeli government has said, on many occasions, that there shall be no Palestinian state while the suicide bombings continue. Hamas, on the other hand, will accept nothing less than the total exclusion of Israel from the occupied territories and beyond. And Hamas is willing to fight for that end with the only effective weapons it appears to have, the bodies of its young. How does one resolve such a deadlock? How does one break this cycle of retributive and summary justice, especially a justice that seems so deeply religious in its culture and derivation? A difficult question, a very difficult question! But one I believe to be essentially religious and theological in character. For whether the individual combatant and his or her superiors have a personal religious commitment or not, all of them speak and think and act within a complex web of religious and theological meaning. Each of them act out their sense of vengeance and of justice within a language and code that is religious to the very core. So there will be no solution to this conflict without that solution being also a religious and theological solution.

Read in the context of this clash of two religious laws, each of them claiming an exclusionary legitimacy over the other, the letter of Paul to the Romans takes on an extraordinary poignancy. For Paul writes as a Jew who sees serious flaws in the use of religious law to make any such claims. Listen to what he says to his fellow Jews in Romans chapter 2, verses 17-24:

If you call yourself a Jew and rely on the religious law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you not commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you not rob sacred places? You who boast in the law, do you not dishonour God by breaking the law?
And then again, in chapter 3 verses 28-30: 
For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the religious law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not also the God of non-Jews? Yes, of non-Jews also, for God is one; and God will make righteous the Jew on the grounds of faith and the non-Jew too, through that same faith. 
Can you hear what Paul is saying here? The difficulty with believing that one’s own religious law is superior to another’s, and therefore worth opposing to that other’s by whatever means seem necessary, is simply this: that any religious law worthy of that name is impossible to keep. Its righteous demands are way beyond the capacity of even the most devoted of worshippers. Now, if that is so, then the promotion of that law as the highest law of God, the only law, the law to which all other codes must bow in submission, ends up in a profound and tragic irony. God is actually dishonoured by the ones who promulgate that law in his name. And so the law also condemns the very one who would keep it! So what is the law for, according to Paul? Not to save, he says, but to condemn. Not to exalt the one who believes in the law over those who do not, but to humble such a person to nothing beneath the impossible demands of divine justice. And doesn’t this analysis describe the situation in Israel and Palestine so very well? The Jewish law condemns the Jews for their murder, and the Islamic law condemns the Muslims for theirs. And yet the war continues, because these respective laws are applied only and exclusively to the ones perceived as the enemy! 

There is only one way beyond this tragic situation, says Paul. And that is to relinquish all belief in the efficacy of one’s religious law, whatever its contents, to establish your superiority over another. In fact, says Paul, no human being is able to claim superiority over another because all of us are justified, made righteous and whole, not by the works prescribed by the law, but by faith in the mercy of God to all, and for all. Now, this is where Paul makes a very interesting and clever move, a move that has the potential, even today, to dissolve the power of religious conflict. He invokes the story of Abraham: how God promised that he would be the father of many nations, and that his descendents would live in the land which we today call Israel or Palestine; how Abraham was made righteous and whole not by his obedience to a religious law, which has not yet been given, but by his faith in God’s promise, even when such promises seemed no more that a foolish dream. And that is how it is for us too, says Paul, whether Jew or Gentile. None of us are made righteous and whole by our obedience to a religious law, but rather by our faith in God’s merciful promise. 

Now this is really important stuff in the midst of the religious wars in the Middle East. For the three religious traditions which hold Jerusalem to be holy are also traditions which look to Abraham as the first witness to a God who is one. And Abraham, in a cycle of stories which all three traditions regard as authoritative, is one who is justified not by his obedience to the law-giving of Moses, or of Jesus, or of Mohammad, but by his faith in the merciful promise of God! Can you hear the hope in this proclamation? Can you see the potential there for demolishing the very ground which justifies this war? If Abraham is our common father in faith, witnessing to the one God in whom we all believe, then cannot Jew and Christian and Muslim sit down at table together, not as enemies, but as siblings? If we are justified and made whole not, first of all, by our obedience to the law as we find it in our particular traditions, but by our faith in God’s mercy, than can we not share, humbly, in the wonder of that gift together? And finally, if God promised Abraham that his descendents would live in the land and become a blessing to the whole world, can we not share, as daughters and sons of Abraham, in that inheritance? For the text of Genesis 17.7 is quite clear. The promise is for all Abraham’s offspring, not for Jew alone, or Christian, or Muslim. It is for all Abraham’s seed.

So, let me encourage all of you to prayer. Let us pray, along with Jews and Muslims who share these convictions, that the stories of Abraham may be read and reread in the schools and markets of the holy land. And not only there, but in the parliaments and palaces of Iran, Iraq and Libya; in Mosul where ISIL is holed up; in the White House and at 10 Downing Street; at Kiribilli and at the Lodge; and in the homes of both Meshaal & Netanyahu. Most of all, let us pray that the story of Abraham’s faith may penetrate even into the training and education of soldiers, that they may learn the lesson at the heart of all our faiths: that Shalom, the within and between peace of God, comes only to those who are willing to die – not in conflict with one’s enemy – but to the very idea of the enemy. Only by dying to the basic principles and claims of this dark world, says Jesus, may we rise with him to the peace of our Father’s kingdom.

This homily was first preached at Ormond College on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in 2009.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fear death by water

Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

In 1922 T.S. Eliot published what many still consider to be the most important poem of the 20th century. ‘The Waste Land’ presents itself as a series of scattered images of Europe in the wake of the First World War. Ranging from the author’s memories of childhood visits to Germany, through cockney conversations in a London pub and walks along the Thames, to fragmented recollections of classical stories from Rome and India, the poem depicts a world in which the ‘nymphs’ – that is, the coherence of things – ‘have departed.’  Nothing is left, says the voice of the poet, except ‘voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells’.  The poem is also about the author’s own ‘death’ – figuratively speaking – that is, his incapacity to make all these images of European meaning cohere in a way that can sustain his life.  ‘Fear death by water’ says a clairvoyant the poet consults early in the poem.  And by the end the poet is so desperately dry and thirsty in the wasteland of his imagining that he has actually begun to search for the water by which he is convinced he will die, yet it is unclear if the poet has found it, or no.

The images offered us by the first Sunday of Lent are not entirely unconnected to what Eliot saw and experienced in London at the end of World War 1.  The Noah story is about a similar cataclysm, a flood, which – like the First World War – completely did away with the world as it has previously been known. One day everyone was going about their business, sure of the foundations on which they walked and the meaningfulness of the directions in which their lives were taking them. But then, suddenly, rain began to fall. And – absurdly, irrationally, inexplicably to most - the rain didn’t stop.  Indeed, the rain kept falling until all life on earth – all except that preserved by God in the ark – was no longer alive, but dead.

And then there is the story of Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan. If there was ever a time and a place in which the phrase ‘fear death by water’ rang with portending truth, it was the ancient Mediterranean where literally thousands of souls were sent to a watery grave by the wrath of the gods made manifest in ocean storms and the monster Leviathan who lived beneath the waves.  The rite of baptism deliberately invoked the universal fear of these apparently cosmic forces, that sense in which one could never be the master of one’s own destiny because the gods were always more powerful. Yet baptism sought, also, to both modify and transform that fear by invoking a phenomenon still very strange and foreign in the ancient world, the phenomenon of a God who seeks to influence the world solely by the grace of unconditional love.  

In the baptism of Jesus a peculiarly Jewish logic about the meaningfulness of things is therefore brought to both its zenith and conclusion. For the semitic peoples of the ancient world both shared and did not share in the pagan fear of catastrophe that obsessed their neighbours. Like their neighbours, they believed that the power of nature - the power of water, if you like - signified everything in the universe that could take one’s life away, everything that could render one’s plans and schemes both null and void, everything that could make a mockery of the notion that we are the masters of our own fate.  Unlike their pagan neighbours, however, who were constantly seeking to do deals with the gods to secure their protection against catastrophe, the Hebrew preachers believed that the power behind all power was essentially both good and gracious, and desired nothing other than the good of the people, and desired this good unconditionally.

The Hebrew stories about death by water were also, therefore, stories of LIFE by water. A flood comes to consume the earth and all its wickedness. Yet God preserves the seeds of a new world in an ark that floats upon the receding torrent for 40 days and 40 nights.  The angel of death is sent to destroy all the firstborn of Egypt. Yet God’s people are preserved by walking through the depths of the Red Sea and trecking, for 40 years, through the wilderness until they cross into the land of their freedom via the Jordan river.  Jesus’ life as a carpenter and compliant citizen of the Roman state is put to death in that same river by baptism that he might rise to live the life ordained for him by the God who claims him as his beloved Son.  He receives, at that moment, the Spirit of God, who immediately drives him into the wilderness so that he can really learn what it means to do away with one’s own dreams and embrace the dreams of God.  For 40 days and forty nights Jesus learns what it means to repent, to change one’s mind and heart, for the kingdom of God has indeed come near.

Friends, the 40 days and nights of Lent begin with these stories of death by water in order to set our course aright. 40 days and nights hence is the beginning of the paschal Triduum, the Great Three Days which commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus' own baptism: his death on the cross at the hands of evil powers, and his rising to life as a sign of God’s final triumph over such powers by the power of what we rightly call love.  We look forward to this time because in Jesus’ rising is the possibility of our own rising. In Jesus’ triumph is the possibility of our own triumph. In Jesus' victory is our own victory.  Easter is therefore our goal and our destination.  

Yet, and this is very important, these stories of death by water also remind us that there can be no rising without a dying; there can be no prize without a willingness to give up on the very notion of winning; there can be no victory without a submission to complete and utter loss.  For Lent is the process of getting to Easter by a dying to ourselves and a living to God. Lent is about confessing the truth about ourselves and our world, the truth of our utter helplessness to make for either sense or for good apart from a divinely given sensibility concerning the good.  Lent is about the art of repentance and surrender, of turning from what is evil and giving ourselves only to what is beautiful and noble and true. Lent is about forsaking the business of getting by and learning to walk in the byways of God. It is about crying through the night and welcoming the joy of dawn. Lent, in short, is designed to kill everything in us that keeps us in chains so that God can free us, can redesign us, and fill our ‘empty cisterns’ with a new resonance for salvation. And we speak of these things in image and metaphor precisely because they are far too important to leave to the prosaic, rational, flat language of the prevailing discourse.

I pray you all a blessed and holy Lent.  In the name of God . . .

This homily was first preached within the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist, North Melbourne.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Christ the exorcist

Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147.1-11, 20c; Mark 1.29-39

According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus did a number of things after he was baptised. He travelled around the cities and towns of Galilee, preaching that the reign of God was at hand, so everyone had better get ready. He also healed many who were sick, beginning with Simon Peter’s mother in law, who was in bed with a fever when Jesus came to visit her. But what Mark seems to be overwhelmingly keen to tell us about Jesus is that he was an exorcist, a man who casts out “unclean spirits” or “demons”. In the passage we read a moment ago, all the city of Capernaum came to the house where Jesus was staying, bringing their sick and their demon-possessed. There, we are told, he ‘cast out many demons, commanding them not to speak because they knew him’. Towards the close of the passage, as Jesus prepares to travel around Galilee for the first time, Mark has Jesus say that he is off to preach and to exorcise. This, then, is Mark’s summary of Jesus’ mission: to preach the good news and to cast out demons. To preach and to cast out demons.

Now I’m not sure what you imagine these unclean spirit or demons to be, but I hazard a guess that, like me, you’ve had different theories at different stages of your life. When I was a child I imagined that a person was a bit like a car, with a personal soul or spirit sitting at the wheel making sure that the driving went smoothly so that there would be no accidents. What happened with demon-possession, I thought, was that some other soul or spirit, some personality that didn’t belong in the car, would jump in on the passenger side at a set of lights and lunge for the steering wheel. What followed, I surmised, was a titanic struggle between the personality that belonged and the personality that didn’t belong, to get control of the car. I also theorized that if I was ever possessed by a demon, I would not be strong enough to get rid of him, so I would have to call on Jesus to help me. And Jesus would. 'Cause demons were afraid of Jesus. The bible said so.

When I’d grown up a little and was reading lots of pop psychology at Uni, I developed my theory a little further, largely in dialogue with a book called People of the Lie, by M. Scott Peck. In that book, Peck argued that there were two kinds of demons. One was not that dissimilar to the one I already believed in: a disembodied personality which came from somewhere else with the express purpose of taking over the running of someone’s life. Peck, a psychiatrist, claimed to have come across such personalities on more than one occasion. But the other kind of demon he talked about was not of this kind. It was simply a human personality gone seriously wrong. A human personality, inhabiting a human body, who did evil things but without any trace of regret or pangs of conscience. An example he gave in the book was of a man who gave a gun to his teenage son for his 16th birthday. Now, in American culture that is not such an unusual thing, especially if you live in the rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ southern counties. The difference in this instance was that the boy’s older brother had shot himself with that same gun . . . on his 16th birthday.

The idea of a human personality turned evil whittled away at my demon-theory for a few years, especially while I was studying pastoral psychology at theological college. There I read the psychological theories of Carl Jung, along with the many theological theories of personality which Jung had clearly influenced. For these writers, the demonic was an aspect of every person’s personality. Hidden in shadow, hidden in each person’s unconscious, were undesirable forces that usually went unacknowledged, and yet were very much part of us. Most of the time, said Jung, we “project” these forces onto others; that is, we dupe ourselves into thinking that it is other people who behave badly or with evil intent, when in fact it is ourselves. By blaming others we avoid having to acknowledge the fact of our own responsibility. The goal of spiritual growth, says the Jungian school, is to “withdraw” our projections, or to “make friends with our demons”, a difficult process that involves acknowledging that one can never rid the world of evil without first acknowledging one’s own evil tendencies. Much of contemporary practise in both pastoral counselling and spiritual direction takes its lead from these insights.

Of course, I have changed my mind again. One does. One must, in order to grow. But this time the change comes from another direction. Not from the latest psychological theories, although I’ve read some of them. This time the change has come through a re-engagement with the Scriptures, and with the stories of Jesus’ ministry and mission in particular. What I realize now is that while there is certainly a great deal of truth in the various psychologies I’ve mentioned, it is not necessarily the truth as the Scriptures understand it. And I am convinced that what the church needs now, more than anything else, is a reengagement with the riches of its own truth, preserved for us in Scripture and tradition. For without a deep and transformative engagement with this truth we may still, perhaps, be human beings, but perhaps we shall not be the human beings that God promises we may be. Certainly, we shall not be Christian human beings, full of Christ, possessed (if you like) by him alone.

So, what does Mark, the writer of the first Gospel, say about demons? Well, he says a number of things, if you are prepared to read carefully. What he first says is that demons are bad for people, and they are very common. As common as sickness. They are oppressive spirits which, like sickness, make people’s lives miserable. Note, if you will, the way in which Mark talks about demon possession and sickness as if they are almost the same thing. They are not the same thing, not exactly, which is why Mark distinguishes them by name. And yet he mentions one in a pair with the other on most occasions; and on some occasions—as with today’s passage, where Jesus ministry is summarised as the twofold activity of preaching and exorcism—demon possession seems to represent sickness as well. Why is that? Because demon possession is like being sick. It can happen to anyone. It’s not something you necessarily choose for yourself. But the effects are awful, painful, miserable.

The second thing Mark says about demons is that they are often multi-voiced or multi-personalitied. Take, for example, the story of Jesus first miracle, an exorcism in the synagogue. Here the possessed man calls out to Jesus in a multiple voice: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1.24). Compare that with the story of the demoniac amongst the tombs of the Gerasenes. When Jesus asks the demon’s name, it replies: “My name is Legion, for we are many” (5.9). This last story is particularly revealing, I think. For it tells us that demons have something to do with a people being colonised by foreign powers, foreign armies. Let me explain.

You will remember that Jesus ministry took place in a police-state, much like the police state of, say, Chile under Pinochet, or Russia under Stalin. No citizen could walk more than a couple of blocks without running into a Roman soldier, a legionnaire, who belonged to a massive force of men who had occupied the countryside, and ruled it with absolute power. The people suffered terribly under this yoke. They suffered like Russian citizens suffered under Stalin. A woman or boy could be raped or otherwise molested by a solider, and have no recourse against him. A Jewish man could be commanded to carry a soldier’s pack for him, or to murder someone for him, or to do almost anything that solider wanted, and that man could do nothing about it. Jewish people were paid to inform on each other, to betray each other in order to save themselves from trumped-up charges. In an environment like that, people could not avoid the constant sense that they were not the masters of their own bodies. Their lands, their homes, even their bodies and minds, had been colonised and possessed by the Roman hordes. Like ants, they overran the land in Legions, and the consequences were truly awful.

So what does Mark mean, when he talks about demons? One should remember that he is most likely writing his Gospel just after the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. For Mark, the demons symbolise the devastating effects of the Roman colonisation of his own, Jerusalem-based community. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Mental illness. Despair. Distrust. Lies. Envy. Greed. Murder. War. The kinds of demons one can still see today in Africa, in the Middle East and South Asia, and even here in Australia, amongst Aboriginal people and seekers of asylum. The kinds of demons one sees amongst the colonised.

It is instructive to note that it is not only Mark who took this view. It was also the view of the Christian communities that survived the destruction of Jerusalem, but continued to live under the yoke of Rome. In the second, third and fourth centuries, as the Church developed its baptismal rituals, an important part of the preparations was a regular liturgy of exorcism. Here the baptismal candidates, or catechumens as they were called then, would be questioned by the bishop with regard to the way they lived their lives. Here the key question was, “Are you living your life under the fear of Rome, or are you giving your life into the freedom of Jesus?” At each questioning, as the many layers of Rome and Roman influence were uncovered, there would be an exorcism, a liturgy in which the colonising demons would be symbolically cast out, and the catechumen’s ears and eyes sealed with the cross against the reinvasion of the hordes.

As we approach Lent and (in a few protestant churches) our own rituals of exorcism, let me ask you this. In what ways have the demonic forces of our own culture and time colonised your lives? In what ways have they whittled their ways into your heart and made you afraid, afraid perhaps for your financial future, or for your social and vocational “success,” or that of your kids? How have you taken on board the values of these demons, acceding to their demands because you feel there is no other way—no other way than to live as under-resourced nuclear families, stuck in under-supported bubbles which put both marriages and childrearing practices under unbearable pressure; no other way but to buy unaffordable houses a very long way from where our friends and neighbours and support networks live; no other way but to work longer and longer hours and build bigger and bigger prisons, and protect ourselves against the practise of hospitality and compassion?

If the demons have indeed colonised your own heart and mind, as they have colonised mine, then I have a message for you, a message from Mark’s gospel. This is not the only way. There is another way, another possibility. For what Mark also says about the demons is that they know Jesus, they fear him, and they obey him. Jesus has the authority to drive the demons away. For in the end, they are chimera, shadows which recede when the light of Christ’s truth is brought to bear. The Lenten season, which approaches fast, is an invitation and an opportunity; for in Lent we hear the call of God to take our baptismal vows seriously— to turn from evil, to cast aside the colonising influences of our culture and times, and turn instead to Christ—his will and his way. The promise of Easter lies before us: that if we die with Christ, we shall also live with him; that if we lose ourselves, our colonised selves, for the sake of Christ and his gospel, then we shall find ourselves anew, in a new form of a human life and community we could not have imagined before. So. If the demons have hold of you, turn to Christ. He will drive away the demons and fill you with his Spirit. His truth will set you free.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Three 'Christmases'

In contemporary Australian experience there are three kinds of 'Christmas' celebration.


The first kind is perhaps the oldest, because it takes its inspiration from the pre-Christian midwinter festivals of the Germanic and Nordic peoples.  This festival, know in its Anglicised form as 'Yuletide', apparently culminated in a three day celebration encompassing the winter solstice at which much ale was consumed, animal sacrifices were made and the blood of sacrifice sprinkled over representations of the gods as well as over their worshippers. The meat of the sacrificed animals became food for the feast. Toasts were dedicated to Odin, the king of the gods,  to Njörðr and Freyr for good harvest, to dead ancestors, and to the chieftan who presided at the feast. Scholars have connected these events to the Wild Hunt led by Odin through the night sky to kill a sacred boar or stag, which signified the taking of life at midwinter which had the power to inaugurate the return of life with the oncoming spring.

Contemporary neo-pagans are both reviving and creating Yuletide traditions which emphasise the cyclic nature of fertility in the natural world. They point out that many elements of contemporary 'Christmas' celebrations probably have their roots in paganism, including Santa Claus and his reindeer (Odin or Freya on the wild hunt), Elves or other magic folk who give or seek gifts (symbols of the presence of magic or the 'other world' on midwinter's eve), Christmas trees (evergreen to signify the eternal power of life returning from death), miseltoe (the key ingredient in a druidic fertility drink), the roasting of a pig (a vestige of the tradition of fertility sacrifices), and the prolific use of the colours red (signifiying sacrificial blood) and white (representing midwinter).


At least as old, perhaps, is the Christian festival of Christmastide, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary in Bethlehem as the Son of God and saviour of all the world.  Although never as important as Eastertide in the Christian imagination, there is clear evidence that a festival surrounding Christ's birth  - as recorded in the gospels of Luke and Matthew - was beginning to take shape in the ancient Near East as early as the 3rd century CE.  Contrary to much public opinion, there is no evidence that the early candidates for Christ's birthday (December 25 and January 6) were chosen to coincide with pagan midwinter festivals in either the south or the north of Europe.  More likely is Andrew McGowan's proposal that since ancient Christians believed that Christ was conceived on the same day as his death (roughly March 25) he must therefore have been born on December 25. 

Between the 4th and 12th centuries, celebrations of the Nativity of Christ alternated between
December 25 and January 6th, which was celebrated in the Eastern church as the Epipany (or 'manifestation') of Christ as Son and messiah of God at his baptism.  Eventually, in the Western rite, Christmastide became a season that spanned the days between the eve of January 25 (when Luke's birth narrative about Angels and shepherds is featured) and the feast of the Epiphany (which, in the Western church, became the day when Matthew's birth narrative about Herod and the Magi from the East was ritualised as the first manifestation of Christ to all non-Jewish people).  Christians have long celebrated the season with joyful liturgies of word, song and sacrament occuring on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Sundays of Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany (whenever it variously occurs). The one note of sobriety within the season is usually reserved for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 27 or 28) which commemorates the infanticide visited by Herod on the children of Bethlehem at hearing that a Messiah had been born.  Contemporary churches in the ecumenical tradition often connect this event with the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, and therefore with the plight of refugees fleeing oppression and persecution in the modern world.

The period now know as 'Advent', beginning from the 4th Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity, probably began with a desire to prepare for Christmas in a way that paralleled the long-established practice of preparing for Easter with forty days of prayer, fasting, exorcism and theological reflection. In this spirit, the primary theme of Advent eventually became not the 'first' coming of Christ at Bethlehem, but Christian hopes for a 'second' coming of Christ at the end of the ages, when all that is evil and unjust in the world will finally be put to rights.  Advent therefore encourages Christians to consider their experience of hope - the 'not yet' of faithful expectation - and asks them what God would call them to do by way of prayerful self-transformation and common human service as they wait for the grace and justice of God to be revealed in all its surprising fulness. 

The origin of gift-giving at Christmastide is unclear. Some surmise that the practise was taken over from pagan mid-winter festivals when offerings of food were given to the gods or else to vengeful ancestors in order to guarantee their blessing for the year to come.  A more likely orgin is strictly theological: gifts are given to the poor and marginalised in imitation of God's gift of Christ to all who are poor, broken or despised by the world. This theology is certainly at play in the story of St Nicholas of Myrna, whose feast day is celebration on December 6.  St Nicholas is said to have distributed alms to the poor and desperate of his diocese anonymously, under the cover of night.  The migration of this tradition to the English-speaking world also seem to have effected a migration of St Nicholas' gift-giving to the Eve of the Nativity, perhaps under the inflence of some of the pagan traditions we note above about Odin or Freya. Certainly, the modern Santa Claus myth created by American advertisers owes more to pagan than Christian sources.


Christmas as it is celebrated in contemporary Australia certainly owes more to the re-weaving of traditional devotional practices by capitalism than it does to anything that is more genuinely pagan or Christian.  Capitalism is like a magpie that seeks to feather its own nest by stealing the treasures of others. And 'Christmas' has become the most prominent example of this. A consumer festival that begins in early November and continues through to the early weeks of January, this 'Christmas' evokes traditional religious practices and desires, but transforms and channels them for its own overriding purpose: to produce desires which, in turn, produce profits.

The new 'Christmas' temples are neither pagan nor Christian but vast shopping centres like that at Chadstone in Victoria.  If you visit these temples you are strongly encouraged to participate in the worship of Capital.  The sound-systems spew forth sentimental 'carols' that evoke traditional religious feeling, but redirect that feeling toward buying.  Carefully prepared 'Christmas' pantomines are filled with elves, fairies and Father Christmases who have the power to grant one's every wish. Instead of encouraging worshippers to surrender themselves or their livelihoods to Christ or to those most beloved of Christ (the poor and marginalised), these rituals encourage consumers to buy gifts solely because either they or their loved-ones desire them. For Christmas is now almost exclusively about 'family' - the pilgrimage to far-flung family, spending time with family, spending money on family, feeding ones family - and all to the most hideous levels of excess.  Obcenely, to my mind, the multi-billion-dollar industry that provides Christmas wrappings, tree ornaments and decorations, is run almost entirely off the back of cheap- child- or slave-labour in vast manufacturing compounds found in China, India, Mexico and Bangladesh. 

The consumertide which is the modern Australian 'Christmas' allows no room for those spiritual disciplines associated with Advent, disciplines like prayer, waiting, and fasting - all of which are about NOT getting or having what you most desire. Indeed, what these disciplines traditionally inspired and encouraged was the transformation of human desire into the desire of God to bring light, love and hope to those in most need of such things. Consequently, Advent as Advent has been completely obliterated.  Advent has become simply another part of the consumertide that is 'Christmas', a season of feasting, buying, gift-giving, and sentimental storytelling about the importance of enirching ones own family. It is no longer about a disciplined waiting for the grace of God made known in Jesus. And this is increasingly the case not only in the many 'evangelical' protestant churches that have most always followed the deepest impulses of secularism, but also in the ecumenical churches that are supposedly committed to the disciplines preserved in the observance of the liturgical year. Even in these churches, Christmas very often arrives in the first or second weeks of Advent, with parties and carol-singing and nativity festivals as far as the eye can see.


I am personally committed to what is most old about Christmas: the story of a God who so loves us that God comes close to us in the fleshly humanity of Christ and so makes it possible for us to discern God's path to healing and redemption once more. For we are world that is mired in evil, brokenness, and misery, are we not?  And it is abundantly clear that we seem most helpless to do anything much about it ourselves precisely because it is we, ourselves, who are the source of all our problems.  Only a genuine devotion to the God who was in Jesus Christ can save us from such things, in my humble estimation.

It seems to me that Christians are therefore faced with a choice at Christmastide. Either to be carried along by the tide of consumerist desire or else to choose the disciplines preserved in the liturgical year. For these disciplines, if we listen and participate in them fully, teach us who the God of love is, who we are in that God's estimation, and what the world could be if we would only give ourselves over to God's desire, rather than our own.  And that, I submit, would make all the difference in the world.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reconciliation: personal reflections

This article first appeared in Gesher: the official journal of The Council of Christians and Jews (Victoria) 4/5 (2014): pp.16-19.
 The word ‘reconciliation’ bears witness to a contested space within Indigenous Australia. For many, if not most, reconciliation is precisely what is needed in the face of the historic injustices visited upon Aboriginal peoples by the invading colonists who came to these lands from 1788 onward. Reconciliation describes a process by which colonists acknowledge, in detail, their wrongdoing and then seek forgiveness for these misdeeds from Australia’s First Peoples. Importantly, for the proponents of reconciliation, absolution would not be automatic. It would be conditional upon Australia’s colonising peoples making concrete and measurable efforts to undo previous evils or, in the many instances where such undoing is impossible, to offer a just and proportional compensation for wrongdoing in ways that meet the approval of First Peoples.

However, some Indigenous Australians are not at all happy with the language of reconciliation. They rightly point out that reconciliation is a Jewish and Christian idea, an idea that arrived with the colonists and cannot, therefore, be regarded as neutral or benign. For some Aboriginal commentators, the language of reconciliation is part of the colonising apparatus that keeps First Peoples ‘down’, and it does so by forcing Aboriginal people to think about their future within an alien framework that is not really their own, a framework that puts not their own, but colonists’, interests at the centre. And what is the colonist’s prevailing interest, according to this account? It is the need to find absolution, a salving of conscience, a healing of the gaping wound that has been rent in the colonial sense of self through its multitudinous breakings of the Jewish and Christian law: ‘do not kill’, do not steal’, ‘do not covet’, ‘do not bear false witness’. To this way of thinking, the colonial motivation for justice with regard to First Peoples terminates not when Aborigines are satisfied that justice has been done, but when the ‘whitefella’ sense of guilt is expiated. And that, quite simply, is not good enough.

In the brief paragraphs that follow, I should like to outline the way in which I, personally, have reconciled myself to the language of reconciliation. In doing so, I want my readers to know that I am a Trawoolway man from northern Truwunna (Tasmania) and that I was inducted by my parents and their community into the Baptist tradition of Christianity from a very young age. Since my childhood I have been keenly aware of a struggle, both within and without, between the British heritage of my Baptist beginnings and the Trawoolway instinct for cultural survival against almost overwhelming odds. The nature of that struggle has often changed over the years. There have been times when I felt that my Christian heritage was indeed the enemy of all in me that is genuinely Trawoolway, most often when the churchly institutions of Christianity steadfastly refused to recognise:

a) that I or my people are genuinely indigenous to this land: that we belong to this country, and the country belongs to us;

b) that I or my people are being, or have been, grievously mistreated or harmed through the ongoing violence of colonisation;

c) that churchly institutions participate, and have participated, in that mistreatment and harm;

d) that those same institutions therefore have a responsibility to make some kind of amends for the evils that have been visited upon my people.
Unfortunately, in my view, churchly institutions have made little progress on any of these fronts across my lifetime. Yes, fine words have been uttered in a very general way, especially by the Uniting Church to which I now belong. But I still experience the church as fundamentally racist at the level of day-to-day, concrete relationships. It is in the wake of that experience of racism that I most often consider resigning both my ordination and my membership in any form of denominational church.

At the same time, I have very often experienced the nascent Christianity into which I was inducted – represented, here, by its most fundamental language and imagination in Scripture and apostolic tradition – as the greatest ally I have in seeking to survive as Trawoolway in colonial Australia. (I reject the narratives of ‘post-colonialism’ outright, because the process of colonisation clearly continues apace, even as it becomes more circumspect and reflexive). Consider, for example, the Pauline notion that God chooses the ‘nothings’ of this world – literally those who do not exist as far as the dominant powers are concerned – to be God’s people and to ‘shame’ those who consider themselves wise and strong (1 Cor 1.26-31). As a person who has been repeatedly told throughout my life that I don’t exist (‘you are not Aboriginal, there are no Aboriginal Tasmanians left’) or that I don’t matter (‘you are Aboriginal, but that means that you are a drunk, a welfare cheat, a waste of space and resources who has nothing meaningful to contribute’) I find this notion deeply encouraging. Consider, also, Paul’s revolutionary teaching about the identity of God. God, we are told in Scripture, was ‘in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5.19). Yes, ‘in Christ’, a man despised, rejected, condemned to torture and crucifixion by the imperial powers of his world. In Christ, so the story goes, the creator of the universe exchanges his great power and position for that of a slave (Phil 2.6, 7), that God might come close enough to offer help and salvation to all who are slaves, that God might lift them from their servitude to the colonising laws of sin and alienation and make them, instead, free children of God (Rom 8.15-17). Again, as one who has experienced the enslaving power of colonists, I am encouraged by this message about a God who is not identified with such power but comes, instead, alongside the colonised offering help, support and ultimately the gift of liberation. In my darkest moments, when I find myself agreeing with my oppressors that I am nothing, no one, of no value to anyone or anything, this message can be the only thing between me and oblivion. In this sense, the message of God’s love that is at the heart of the Christian evangel is often the only thing that is able to rescue my Trawoolway self from the overwhelming racist power of church and society alike.

So how have I reconciled myself to the language of reconciliation, a language that the colonists brought with them from over the seas? By first recognising, frankly, that there can be no return to an existence or mode of indigeneity that is somehow free of colonial influence, that dreams of any such return are (somewhat paradoxically) generated by colonialism itself. And, then, by recognising the genuine power of the Christian gospel of reconciliation to make a positive difference to Indigenous people and not simply to our oppressors. And, finally, by recognising that the language of reconciliation in no way absolves colonists from shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to creating a just settlement for the First Peoples they have wronged. Indeed, as I will argue below, the language of reconciliation actually creates that responsibility. Allow me to expand on each of these claims in turn.

I recently attended a conference in Melbourne that billed itself as a discussion of the notion of sovereignty from ‘postcolonial’ and ‘theological’ perspectives. The only Australian Indigenous speakers at the conference were a Warlpiri elder and his son, both of whom are also committed Baptists. Following their presentation, which drew liberally from the language of reconciliation, they were berated with questions about why, as Indigenous people, they felt the need to draw upon the ‘language of the colonisers’ at all. Did they not see that the language of reconciliation was little more than an opiate given to Aboriginal people by the missionaries as something of a consolation prize for the stealing of their lands and cultures? Why did they not draw, instead, on purely Indigenous stories and traditions in order to maintain their noble identities as Warlpiri people over and against the oppressive language of the coloniser? I found it extremely difficult to listen to these questions and take them seriously because, from my perspective, such questions serve only to inscribe the mentality and methods of colonialism all over again. 

First, it is simply not possible to talk about a purely ‘indigenous’ language and tradition in contemporary Australia. The fact of contact between Indigenes and colonists over more than two hundred years has created new, more or less hybrid, narrative frameworks for the interpretation of Indigenous traditions. That is what contact does: it creates new traditions out of older traditions. And the traditions live on precisely because they are adaptable; they are able to respond creatively to new data, new voices, new narratives and meaning structures. Every living Indigenous culture in this country has adapted in this way. And every interpretation of older traditions – preserved, for example, in colonist’s journals and academic papers – are themselves examples and performances of these hybrid narratives of contact between Indigenes and colonists. All insistence about working from ‘purely’ Indigenous traditions – unpolluted by Western or Christian influences - is therefore not only naive but also deeply disrespectful of Indigenous people. It fails to recognise that it is precisely our ability to adapt and respond to colonial perspectives, to absorb them creatively into our own, that has made the difference between our surviving and not surviving.

Talk of cultural or racial ‘purity’ is also, rather nakedly in my view, a reinscription of that ‘noble savage’/Garden of Eden fantasy so beloved of Romantics and Nazis alike. The perseverance of the fantasy into so-called ‘post-colonial’ times demonstrates just how powerfully the colonist needs to maintain the fiction that a ‘pure’ form of indigeneity is still possible. This fantasy has two basic functions. It first soothes colonial guilt by assuring the troubled conscience that the damage is not irreparable, the ‘pure’ has not, in fact, been irredeemably lost. At the same time, the fantasy also works to legitimate that familiar colonial strategy of dismissing or ‘disappearing’ – sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively (the effect is equally devastating in either case!) – all forms of the so-called ‘half-caste’ or ‘half-breed’. Half-castes (so-called) – whether constructed in cultural or biological terms – are deeply threatening to colonists because they imply a ‘muddying of the waters’ with regard to purist notions of identity, culture and vocation. Their presence, if acknowledged at all, signals the emergence of an alarming hybridity that deeply disturbs the ‘us and them’ dualism of the colonial psyche. It is a curious fact of colonial history around the world that colonists – usually from Europe – hate only one kind of people more than the ‘blacks’. And that is the ‘coloureds’. It is my observation that Second Peoples in Australia remain confused - routinely and predictably confused – by Aborigines like myself who do not fit their purist notions about what an Aborigine is. Second Peoples – whether their ancestry be European or Asian or whatever – are routinely confronted and offended by the fact that the vast majority of Indigenous people have fair skin and are clearly adept at living urban and suburban lives along with everyone else. In my personal experience, colonial masters are particularly offended by red-headed Aborigines who clearly know more about their traditions than they do themselves and are able to offer an alternative reading of the significance of those traditions from another place or viewpoint.

That brings me to my next point of reconciliation with the language of reconciliation: the genuine power of this narrative to make a positive difference, not only to oppressors, but also to Indigenous people. Against the critics of reconciliation who claim that the project is primarily about expiating ‘white guilt’ I want to say that reconciliation is actually about the truth, most of all - the telling of truth and the common ownership of that truth - by both First and Second peoples alike. The truth is this: that there can be no reconciliation, no coming together of First and Second Peoples to build a more just future, without a common ownership of the undeniable truth of what has happened in this country.

For many years – from the 1850s right up until the 1990s – the public imagination of this country was dominated by a great silence about the stealing of Aboriginal land, the long war between invaders and native warriors, the systematic attempts to destroy whole cultures and nations and the forced separation of Aboriginal children from their families. School children were taught that the land was largely ‘empty’ when white ‘settlers’ arrived and that the few natives who already lived here soon died out because of their stupidity and their failure to cultivate the land. Students were also taught that Australia was unique amongst European colonies because it had never known a war that was fought on its own soil. 

These narratives were taught to Indigines and colonists alike. But throughout this period First Peoples held on to their own histories, their own memories, their own versions of what had happened. Eventually our memories and tellings came to the attention of revisionist historians such as Manning Clarke, and later Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds. In their hands, the truth began to get out. It began to contest the false versions of history so beloved of those whose wealth and power had been founded on lies. As this truth is slowly owned by Second Peoples, as the injustices visited upon Indigenous peoples and the fact of our survival slowly become part of a common national narrative, a more genuine launching-place for a reconciled future comes into focus. For reconciliation begins, as the Johannine gospel says, with a confession of the truth (1 John 1.8). Without the recognition of that truth, there can be no freedom (John 8.32). For freedom, in this understanding, is ultimately about liberation from falsehood and lies – lies about oneself, about others, and about the identity of the divine. Whoever lives in falsehood is a slave to falsehood. But whomever is set free from falsehood by the arrival of the truth will be free to choose a new destiny (John 8.34-38).

Perhaps it is now clear why I feel compelled to argue that the language of reconciliation in no way absolves colonists from shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to creating a just settlement for the First People’s they have wronged. Indeed, as I have already intimated, the language of reconciliation actually creates that responsibility. For wrongdoing, in the language of reconciliation, creates a responsibility in the guilty party to provide satisfaction or recompense to the party that has been wronged. 

How did Jacob reconcile himself to Esau, the brother whom he had wronged by swindling him out of his inheritance? First he confessed to God that he was, in truth, unworthy of the good fortune that had come his way (Gen 32.10). Then he sent a very valuable ‘gift’ on ahead of him – a great flock of goats, sheep, camels, cattle and donkeys – along with a message that these were for Esau (Gen 32.13-21). When the two brothers finally meet Esau greets Jacob with words of forgiveness and grace, to be sure, but the story is structured in such a way as to highlight Jacob’s responsibility to offer – at least to offer! – some kind of compensation for what has clearly been stolen. A saying of Jesus in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount reinforces the point. If one attends the temple to be reconciled to God, one should not pretend that such reconciliation is going to be in any way real or effective if there is a matter outstanding between oneself and another. If you have wronged someone, Jesus counsels, you must first do whatever it takes to be reconciled with that person before you can pretend to seek the forgiveness of God (Matt 5.23, 24). 

So, while the language of reconciliation clearly invokes the possibility of forgiveness as a way through to a lasting peace, the granting of forgiveness is very often conditional: conditional upon a recognition in the guilty parties that they have indeed done wrong, and that those parties therefore have a responsibility to make recompense for what has been stolen or destroyed.[1]
  Let me conclude with a challenge for the Jewish and Christian leaders who will read this article. Can any of you say, out of the truth that whispers deep in your hearts, that you have truly taken responsibility for the wrongs your synagogues, churches and congregations have visited upon the First Peoples of this land? Have you acknowledged your part in stealing land, removing children, and destroying culture? Have you acknowledged, and do you take responsibility for, the ongoing effects of these injustices in the form of disproportionately high levels of Indigenous poverty, incarceration and mental illness? Furthermore, have you made apology to the people so affected – not in that general rhetorical way so beloved of politicians and CEOs – but face-to-face, neighbour-to-neighbour? Finally, have you demonstrated to the people you have wronged that you are serious about seeking recompense and justice for them, so that they may have a chance to create a better future? Have you asked them what form that recompense should take, genuinely asked them? For the history of do-gooders in this country unfortunately suggests that such asking – and the careful listening for a guiding response that is part of any genuine partnership – rarely happens on the ground. Instead, it is the colonists who decide what form the compensation should take, and when, and how. Your response to these questions will make all the difference to whether reconciliation really has a chance in Australia, or whether it does not. My prayer, as always, is that the veil of ignorance might be torn from all our eyes (2 Cor 4.4). Only then will reconciliation have a chance.

[1] Elsewhere I have explored in detail the relationship between what has been called the ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional’ dimensions of covenant-making in the Jewish and Christian traditions. I am aware that unconditional forgiveness very often creates the possibility for a just response in the wrongdoer. My intent in this essay is not to exclude that possibility outright, but simply to argue that whatever the motivation toward just compensation, recompense is always part of the settlement phenomenologically. See Garry J. Deverell, The Bond of Freedom: vows, sacraments and the formation of the Christian self (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster Press, 2008) pp. 124-127.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Same-sex 'marriage'?

Having agreed to represent the ‘no’ case in this forum about same-sex ‘marriage’ in the church, it is unfortunately necessary to outline, in brief, what I do NOT mean to say when I say ‘no’. That is best done, perhaps, with a little auto-biography.

My thinking about this whole issue began way back in 1989 when I was a University student in Hobart. At that time, I was the co-founder of a large and very active University group of centre-left Christians called ‘Students in the Way’. One of our number, Tony, came to me one day in some distress to confess that he was sexually attracted to men. Having been converted to a form of Pentecostal Christianity a few years earlier, and having been raised in a deeply working-class Anglo-Irish household, Tony was all-at-sea about the conflict between what he felt and what he believed. Together we began an exploration into faith and sexuality, beginning with the writings of the prominent Anglican poet, WH Auden, about his life-long relationship with the composer, Christopher Isherwood.

Three years later, now a candidate for ordained ministry with the Baptist Union of Tasmania, I researched and wrote a longish paper at Whitley College entitled ‘Pastoral Care of Homosexual Christians’ in which I explored what Scripture, theological tradition and the social-sciences would suggest we do and say in response to people like my friend Tony. My basic conclusions were five-fold:
  1. that Scripture is completely silent about sexual relationships between consenting adults of the same gender; 
  2. that the texts appearing to condemn homosexual relationships are actually condemning other behaviours – cultic prostitution, a lack of hospitality to strangers, pederasty and paedophilia, for example; 
  3. that most historic Christian theology simply reinscribed these misreadings over and over; 
  4. that more recent Christian theology was trying to begin again with the whole issue, starting not with specific proof-texts but with the nature of God as a trinity of love, and the character of the church as a baptised and covenanted people called to imitate and reflect this love by way of myriad forms of vowed relationships; and 
  5. that monogamous homosexual unions between consenting adults might well represent one of those legitimate covenants of godly love. 
 A short version of the exegetical section of this paper was published in a Baptist newspaper in that same year, along with another paper I had written on Indigenous land rights. The immediate result of these publications was my dismissal as a candidate for ordination with the Baptist Union of Tasmania and the onset of a longish period of clinical depression.

A few years later, in 1997, I found myself an ordained Uniting Church minister in a Tasmanian provincial city. The local forms of Christianity were dominated then, as now, by a form of ‘frontier’ evangelicalism – sometimes Puritan, sometimes Brethren, sometimes Pentecostal – that roundly condemned any form of sexuality that was not heterosexual. Local Christians often wrote letters to the editor to expression their hatred of gay, lesbian or transgendered people. In the second year of my ministry, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper declaring that homosexual people were loved by God and therefore welcome in my church. What followed was a deluge of letters – mostly from detractors – and several delegations from other church leaders asking that I repent of my sin and publish a retraction of what I had written. More positively, a number of gay men got in touch with me, along with the co-ordinator of a local Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays group (PFLAG), and we were able to start a support-group for gay Christians in which a great deal of healing took place. Unfortunately, a number of key members on my own Church Council didn’t really want to know about it, and I found myself increasingly alone in this ministry. Finally, after a couple of years, a number of stressors came together and I found myself in the middle of yet another period of significant clinical depression, and was forced to resign my placement.

You see then, I hope, that my saying ‘no’ to the church’s blessing of same-sex ‘marriage’ has nothing to do with a hatred of gay people or a belief that same-sex relationships are somehow more sinful or unethical than any other form of sexual relationship. On the contrary. I have bled – bled! - for my belief that gay, lesbian and transgendered people are loved by God, the God of Jesus Christ, and that they are therefore invited by God to participate fully and completely in that community of the baptised that is Christ’s body, the church. I say ‘yes’ to baptism for these brothers and sisters, and therefore ‘yes’, to their participation in the Eucharist, and ‘yes’, again, to their ordination! Yet, for all this, I find that I cannot say ‘yes’ to the ‘marriage’ of same-sex couples by the church. Why? Well, that is what I would like to talk to you about now.

In order to think through the significance of same-sex unions in relation to marriage or, more fundamentally, the covenant of baptism and the Christian life as a whole, we need first to think God. In the Christian tradition, God is a trinity of three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These persons are not to be thought, as the post-Enlightenment mind usually does, as individual body-selves who are single in themselves, already possessing a meaning, identity and vocation which is somehow prior to their togetherness or sharing in community. No, these persons are always already who and what they are by virtue of their relationship. They become themselves – each with their specific identities and vocations – by virtue of an eternal dance of mutual giving and receiving. This means that, for Christians, God is neither theon (an undifferentiated One), nor polytheon (many Ones). God, for Christians, is a Trinity, a communion or covenant, simultaneously one and many: one becoming many through an act of eternal donation, and many becoming one through an act of eternal receiving. In God, then, giving and receiving, being host and being guest, are one and the same. All of which is to say that God is Love. Crucially for our purposes tonight, this Love, precisely because it is love, both transcends and enlarges its boundaries through two fundamental movements: creation and redemption. The cosmos and the creatures of the cosmos, including human beings, therefore come into being as God’s free others by an act of divine love. And they are forever called back from the more tragic or alienated manifestations of that free otherness by that same love. This is a love that both creates and reconciles. A love that, crucially for Christians, revealed itself most uniquely and intensely in one Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Palestinian Jew who happens to be a man.

This incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, this Love-become-flesh, is deeply significant for our purposes tonight. It teaches us, first, that we should never seek to understand God apart from God’s humanity in Jesus Christ, including God’s gender and God’s sexuality. It also teaches us that we should never seek to understand humanity apart from our divinity in Jesus Christ, apart, that is, from our high calling to give flesh to divine love in all of our relating, communing and covenanting. With regard to God this means, first, that while God cannot be reduced to a single gender (man, woman, intersex or whatever) our experience of God in both flesh and symbol may be properly and legitimately gendered. God may be encountered, in other words, as man, woman, intersex etc. And God may be imagined and spoken about in these terms as well. It also means that while God’s love cannot be collapsed into the categories of human desire or sexuality, our experience of God’s love in both flesh and symbol may be properly and legitimately sexual. God may be encountered, in other words, as a love expressed in sensual, sexualized, longing. And God may be imagined and spoken about in these terms as well.

If we turn, then, to the implications of the incarnation for thinking the significance of human being, we might first say this: that our different genders may tell us something about the way in which God’s love is manifest. Just as divine love may be imagined across the differentiation of familial or gendered terms – a Father for a Son and a Mother-Spirit, a Son for a Father and a Mother-Spirit, a Mother-Spirit for a Father and a Son (for example) - so the love of human beings across different genders or familial relations may bear or manifest something of this othering character of divine love. That is why the writer to Ephesians says that the love between a man and a woman within the covenant of marriage can tell us something about the sexualised love of the (male) Christ for the (female) church. Divine love, the writer is telling us, has to do with the coming together of unlikeness into a bond characterised by mutual submission, here imagined in terms of the sexual difference that makes for a marriage.

But now we approach the nub of the problematic before us this evening. If the other-focussed love of God can become clearly manifest in that mutual submission of a man and a woman that we traditionally call marriage, can it also become clearly manifest in the love of a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, or whatever? Some, like Karl Barth and Robert Jensen, say ‘no’ or, at least, ‘not in its fullness’. For them, homosexual love is too much like narcissism – the love of a self for itself, its own image, its own likeness – and not enough like the differentiated and ‘other’-centred love of God within the Trinity or of the Trinity towards its other in creation. Homosexuality therefore erases the difference and makes it monadic. My own view is different. While the love of a man for a man or a woman for a woman may not be able to manifest the other-centred love of God in gender terms, it can certainly do so in other ways: different personalities, different life experiences, different body-shapes, different minds and emotions, different families and tribal allegiances, all coming together across the gulf of their differences to make a new union, and therefore a new covenant that is capable or manifesting God’s renewing, creating, reconciling love.

My difficulty with the idea of same-sex ‘marriage’ is not, therefore, primarily about the notion of same-sex love. I am very happy for the church to bless the love of a man for a man and a woman for a woman, especially if such love self-consciously intends to imitate the unconditionality of God’s love in the form of an open-ended and irrevocable covenant-for-life. My difficulty is with the use of the term ‘marriage’ to describe such a covenant. For marriage, it seems to me, has a specific meaning and reference that has remained constant, for the church, over its entire history. It is a union of covenantal love, for life, across the gendered difference between a man and a woman in which children may be born of their sexual union and raised in an atmosphere of trust and love. Now, let me be clear at this point. I agree with those commentators who say that the social forms of marriage have changed dramatically over time and according to perceived cultural and economic needs. The earliest Christian teachers – including both Jesus and Paul - were deeply critical, indeed, of certain forms of marriage and family, specifically those that were conceived in patriarchal and economic terms alone, those in which women and children were seen as little other than the possessions and chatels of their husbands and fathers. Both Jesus and Paul wanted to reimagine the family as a commonwealth under the motherly fatherhood of God, in which all people (and not simply the members of one’s own family or clan) were called to love one another as sisters and brothers, and to look out for each other’s interests in a spirit of sacrificial love. Neither of them forbade marriage and family in its more tribal sense. But they worked and preached towards its reform, calling always upon the experience of God’s love in Christ as its ongoing criteria and norm. The Johannine community made its own contribution to this reform through a theology of friendship.

My point is this: that while the church has indeed sought to reform marriage and change its specific social and economic forms over time so that they are more covenantal in the specifically Christian sense, the two basic features of marriage I mentioned before have NOT changed. The bond of a man and a woman for life, and an openness to procreation and the care of children through their sexual union. And while we are gathered tonight to discuss the possibility that these basic markers of Christian marriage might be changed, can I suggest that the very fact that we must place the adjective ‘same-sex’ before the term ‘marriage’ in our title bears witness to the linguistic and cultural fact that marriage is NOT, in the Christian imagination, a same-sex union. Nor, in my view, can it bear the pressure of such a dramatic change in its meaning without, at the same time, ceasing to be itself. It will forever resist our attempts to do so. In the same way that I will perhaps forever resist the reduction of my racial identity to that designation ‘Caucasian’ when, in fact, I have an Aboriginal heritage.

Why insist on the possibility of procreation, and therefore on heterosexuality, as a defining component of marriage? Because there is something in the symbolism of procreation – even where this is not in fact possible in specific cases, on medical or other grounds – that bear witness to the essential fecundity of God as the sole creator of life itself. God creates out of nothing, humans do not. And yet the capacity built into heterosexuality to be fecund at a fundamental biological level – to imitate the creator God in bringing forth life – remains a permanent sign in creation of the continuing work of the Creator. The Christian tradition has always argued that being that sign is a unique and special feature of the married vocation.    

Another way to elaborate on this is to insist on a fundamental difference between creativity in general and pro-creativity. Creativity in general has to do with our 'natural' gifts or training: it is a capacity to act upon the material realities at hand with the power of our minds and hearts in order to mould or call forth a new form from materials already given us. Creativity in general is therefore about the human power to make things, and this can be understood theologically as an imitation of the creative power of God. Creativity, in this sense, is a vocation for everyone who makes things. It is not unique. It is a vocation in which almost anyone can share.

Pro-creativity, on the other hand, is certainly NOT about this human capacity to make things through the power of our minds or hearts. No human being, no matter how clever, ingenious or in love they are, can create a new human life. We know this is true, deep in our hearts, for we all know people who have tried to create a life for many years - consulting fertility specialists, IVF doctors and relational psychologists along the whole heartbreaking way - and yet, in the end, have simply had to accept that none of these interventions can deliver a child. Children are not products of human creativity or ingenuity, even though they are fashioned from our own genetic material. Children, in theological terms, are quite simply a gift from God. And gifts cannot be produced or made. Gifts can only be received.

This, then, is the unique and special vocation of a heterosexual relationship: not that heterosexuality, in and of itself, can create life, but God has chosen to give life - to GIVE life, you understand - uniquely and specially through a heterosexual pairing. That is not the whole story, of marriage, of course. But it is a key dimension of the definition Jews and Christian have worked with for millenia.

Let me suggest, very briefly and inadequately, an alternative approach to blessing same-sex love. What if we were to see baptism – and not marriage - as our basic covenantal rite, the ritual that most adequately proclaims and makes manifest the covenantal vows we make with God, and God with us, the ritual that actually constitutes us in our identity and vocation as God’s people, the church, the body of Christ? What if we were then to see marriage as only one of the many possible ways in which Christians might seek to give bodily expression to the baptismal covenant, a way which emphasises the love of God across gender and familial differences? What if we were to imagine other rituals, others ways of life, which seek to build on the foundations of the baptismal covenant, but in legitimately equal and different ways? Like the vows of the celibate monastic, or of the order of hermits, or of priests – each with their covenanted forms of Christian love and community? What if we could imagine the committed and covenanted love of same-sex couples in the same way, another legitimate form in which the vows of baptism can be extended and given concrete form and expression? What if same-sex covenants could be performed not with a ‘marriage’ ritual – a ritual which is historically and theologically oriented toward the two characteristics of heterosexual union that I talked about earlier – but with a ‘communion’ ritual that is more in keeping with the particular character of same-sex relationships? I think it is possible to imagine. Indeed, I have been privileged to witness one or two that ritualised such unions very well - without, that is, at any point drawing upon the language or symbolism of ‘marriage’ as the church has consistently defined it.

Let me conclude by pointing out that what state authorities and legislators does with the deliberations of Christian churches on this matter is entirely up to that state. The state enjoys the right to completely ignore what churches say, and that is their prerogative. But we, as Christian churches – if we are still, in fact, Christian churches - need to think these things through in the light of our own unique and apostolic teaching. We may not simply capitulate to what others conclude simply because it is popular or expedient to do so. For we are called to be a ‘peculiar people’, followers of Jesus, whether that bodes well for us in the eyes of the watching world or not. Peace be on you all.

This paper was given at forum on same-sex ‘marriage’ which took place at Williamstown Uniting Church on September 11, 2013. Sincere thanks go out to Peter Weeks and Avril Hannah-Jones, my co-panelists, for the care and cordiality with which they met me on this occasion.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Peace be with you

John 20.19-31

This morning’s gospel tells the story of what happened immediately following the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary of Magdala. That very evening, we are told, the remaining disciples of Jesus had regathered in a house near Jerusalem, and they have the doors locked out of fear that they will be arrested as known associates of their treasonous leader. Suddenly the risen Jesus appears amongst them saying ‘Peace be with you!’ As evidence that it is indeed Jesus, and not some kind of imposter or ghost, Jesus shows them the wounds of his crucifixion. The disciples, John tells us, were overjoyed to see the Lord.

Again Jesus says to them ‘Peace be with you!’ But now he adds ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ and breathes upon them the power we know as the Holy Spirit. In this power, he gives them a unique mission: to forgive sins as God had already forgiven their sins through the words and actions of his Son.

The final part of the story is about Thomas, who was not present when all of this occurred. Thomas had apparently doubted what the others had told him about Jesus’ appearance amongst them. So when the disciples gather again on the following Sunday Jesus appears to them all again, this time, it seems, with a special message for Thomas. ‘Peace be with you’ he says again, and invites Thomas to touch his wounds and believe as the other disciples believe. Thomas then makes the famous confession of faith in Jesus, ‘My Lord, and my God!’ ‘Because you have seen me,’ Jesus says, ‘you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe’. And then John, the gospel writer, makes it clear what Jesus means by this. ‘These words are written,’ he says, ‘that you, my readers, will believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God and that, believing, you may have life in his name’.

Now, as we gather here this morning for our final service as the St Columba’s congregation, this story would both comfort and challenge us. For it contains within it the comfort and challenge of the risen Christ himself, a Jesus who is as alive and present today - here with us - as he was for the disciples in the story.

I want you to notice, first of all, that Jesus twice appears to his disciples as they gather together on a Sunday. And what does he do when he appears? Well. He does three things. First, he blesses them with the peace and forgiveness of God. Second, he shows them that he, the very one who was tortured and crucified, has risen a new kind of body, a body of flesh and blood that bears the marks of his crucifixion, and yet it able to pass through locked doors in order to encourage and to bless. Third, breathing the Holy Spirit upon them, he gives them the very same mission he had received from his father: to forgive sins and declare the peace of God.

To a first-century audience, to John’s first audience, this is all code. It is a code that seeks to answer the question ‘where may we find life and hope when I feel abandoned and afraid?’ For that, we believe, is precisely what John’s first hearers felt. They were a small group of Gentile Christians who were no longer, it seems, welcome to worship God at their local synagogue. Because of their faith in Jesus as messiah and Son of God, they had finally been expelled. And in the wake of the Roman Empire’s first wave of anti-Christian persecution, they felt very much alone and without shelter. So, when John has Jesus appear to the disciples behind locked doors on a Sunday evening, he is seeking to address the very real and visceral concerns of his first audience. John is showing them where to find life and hope in the midst of their fear and despair. You find such things, he says, in the Jesus who greets you when you gather together as one body for Sunday worship.

For look at how John’s structures the story he tells about Jesus’ appearances to the disciples. He structures it like a first-century worship service. First there is a liturgy of gathering, a gathering of disciples from their immediate experience of alienation and even persecution. It is there that the risen Christ meets them with his first words: ‘Peace be with you’. This greeting immediately communicates to those gathered that God is on their side, that God is amongst them in Christ to heal and reconcile all the pieces of their broken lives; that while many others may have pushed them away and abandoned them, God himself has done no such thing. In Christ, God has brought them near and renewed the broken covenant so that they could ever more be God’s sons and daughters, heirs forever, with Christ, of all the blessings God had given his people from time immemorial.

Then there is a liturgy of word and sacrament, in which Christ reveals to them himself: a body broken and destroyed by the actions of evil men, and yet risen as a sign that evil will never have the last word, that the power of God’s Spirit is more powerful than the power of death. This is a word that is able to encourage everyone who feels that the broken pieces of their lives can never be brought back together, that broken minds, hearts and bodies can never be restored. This is a sacrament, an embodied story, by which the power of the risen Christ to renew hearts and minds and bodies that were dead is taken into the body that is now his church, so that even the deadest and most broken of congregations can be revived, raised, to give God glory and to serve the world for which Christ died.

Finally there is a liturgy of mission in which the now encouraged and joyous disciples are blessed with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who raised the dead Jesus to life. Here they are sent out, beyond their locked doors, into the smeared and broken world, now ready to speak and enact Christ’s mission of forgiveness and reconciliation to all who would look for such things.

The message here is clear, and it is the same message that Luke shared with his own church through the story of Emmaus: that the church meets the risen Christ, the source of all life and hope, when it gathers together for worship. What John is saying – to both his own congregation, and to ours all these years later – is this. If you, as an individual Christian, are feeling lost and confused, bewildered or doubting like Thomas the double-minded, get thee to worship! If you, as a congregation of Christians, are feeling beaten up or abandoned, forgotten by those whom you had looked to for blessing, shelter, or protection, get thee to worship! For in worship you will meet the risen Christ and he will heal and renew the faith you need to face the world once more, no matter how hostile and godless that world may appear to be. In worship you will receive from Christ a power that is able to forgive your most awful persecutors, a power than can turn even the worst of enemies into friends.

Now, I want to close with some brief reflections on what this all means for this congregation of St Columba right now, as you worship together for the last time.

First, let me repeat what I said to you on that first Sunday after we had heard the news that this building would be sold. That there is no doubt, in my mind, that the Synod has committed a grave sin here. The church which is supposed to encourage and support local congregations, the church which in its Basis of Union says that the congregation is nothing less than ‘the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ’ has, by closing this perfectly viable worshipping congregation, betrayed its own fundamental faith and doctrine. For it is in the worshipping congregation – the gathering of Christian disciples to encounter Christ in word and sacrament - that the church receives both its identity as Christian community and the power it needs to carry out its mission. A church that closes down worshipping congregations in order to preserve programmes that do not include the gathering of the church around word and sacrament will very soon cease to be a church. Such a church will very soon become, as a senior leader in another church observed in a recent conversation – little more than a property trust or a secular charity.

Second let me say, by way of affirmation, something about the undeniable vitality of worshipping here at St Columba’s. I can testify, from my own experience, that this congregation is indeed a place in which the risen Lord Jesus Christ may be encountered. As many of you know, at the times in my life when you invited me to join you here for a time, I came to you somewhat disillusioned, broken and depressed. What I found here was a group of Christians who were committed to worshipping God - to struggling with Christ in the Scriptures, and sharing with him in the healing sacrament of his body and blood. I found, too, a community that had allowed itself to fundamentally formed by this worship of Christ, a congregation in which mutual care and love for each other took first priority. A congregation that looked beyond itself to care, also, for those whom Christ loves in the wider community. A congregation that was not afraid to offer a prophetic critique when it was needed, when either church or state begin to neglect those whom Christ loves. Hear me now, my friends. The joy I found while worshipping with you here I will treasure for ever. For Christ has reached out to me here. He has forgiven my many sins, he has blessed me with peace, he has given me the power to go on in the life-long calling to be his disciple. Because of all this, St Columba’s is one of the few congregations of which I can truly say that I encountered, therein, a Jesus who is alive and real and made fully flesh.

Finally, allow me to say something about your future. Although it is true that you have suffered because of the sin of others, please don’t hang on to the hurt you feel for ever. Hear the word of Jesus to all his true followers: ‘If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’. There is a mystery here. Christ has given his disciples the power of forgiveness, of healing, of reconciliation. Therefore, if we forgive those who hurt us they are indeed forgiven. If we do not, they are not forgiven. So please, in considering the sins of the Synod, consider first your own sins and Christ’s treatment of them. If Christ’s first word to us all is one of peace and of blessing, if Christ was prepared even to die on a cross to show us how much we are loved by God, surely those of us who know this grace deep in our hearts can also forgive the sins of a Synod. The church is far from perfect. If the history of the church shows us nothing else, it shows us this! But neither am I perfect. Or, I suspect, any of you. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone! So if you are struggling, still, with the hurt of what has occurred, I encourage you to get yourself to church, to worship, to a wrestling with Jesus in word and sacrament, that you may received from him the power not only to heal yourself, but also the power to offer this healing to those who have hurt you.

So, the congregation of St Columba’s is now to be concluded. But the church of Jesus Christ lives on. For Christ is present wherever his church gathers to listen to his word and celebrate his sacraments. If you want to find the Christ who is alive, who has overcome the sting of sin and death, if you want this Christ to share his power for life and for hope and for joy with you, get thee to church! That church can no longer be the congregation of St Columba’s. But it can be some other church.

I’d like us to conclude by saying a prayer together, a prayer attributed to St Columba, for whom this church is named:
O Lord, grant us that love which can never die, which will enkindle our lamps but not extinguish them, so that they may shine in us and bring light to others. Most dear Saviour, enkindle our lamps that they might shine forever in your temple. May we receive unquenchable light from you so that our darkness will be illuminated and the darkness of the world will be made less.
Glory be to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as in the beginning, so now, and forever more. Amen.

This homily was preached at the final worship service of the Uniting Church congregation of St Columba's, Balwyn, on April 27 2014, also the date of the congregation's 90th anniversary.