Messages of Hope

Month: September 2019

Handle with care

Published / by Sandy

A ministry colleague, Rev Steve Koski, has been posting thoughtful reflections on Facebook. His reflections offer great insight into our human condition, arising from his own experiences of life, love and loss. Here is one of his recent posts which resonated with the experiences of so many living with difficult situations.

Behind the shiny surface we present to one another, everyone has a story. It is not our strength that unites us. It is our vulnerability. Life is hard. Damn hard. If you feel like life is hard it is not because there’s something wrong with you or you are doing it wrong. The hard truth is that life is just hard.
The Psalmist said in Psalm 31, “I am a broken vessel.” Me too. We should all wear stickers on our foreheads that say – FRAGILE. HANDLE WITH CARE.
I hear often, “I’d come to church but I know I’d just cry. I will return when I can pull it together.”
This makes me so sad because our church community should be the place you feel free to cry; the place you feel safe to be vulnerable; the place you don’t have to wear a mask or pretend everything’s OK when it’s not; the place where you can trust you won’t be shamed for simply being human.
Imagine belonging to a community where you don’t have to put on a brave face or put up walls.
Imagine belonging to a community where you don’t have to feel ashamed or feel any expectations that you should have it all together.
Imagine belonging to a community where you hear, “You? Me too.”
Imagine belonging to a community where you are reminded you are made in the image of God’s goodness and you are loved beyond comprehension.
Imagine belonging to a community where “where does it hurt?” is asked more often that “what do you think?”
Imagine a community of healers where you can trust your fragility will be handled with care.
A starting point for such a community is to treat your own fragility with tenderness and care. Jean Vanier wrote, “We don’t know what to do with our own weakness except hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist. So how can we welcome fully the weakness of another if we haven’t welcomed our own weakness.” Sometimes the person who is in greatest need of our alms of kindness is ourselves. Handle yourself with care today.
(Rev Steve Koski was Minister at Brougham Place Uniting Church in the 90’s, and is now in ministry in Bend, Oregon, USA. I visited Steve a couple of years ago and was inspired by his ministry)

A new cosmology

Published / by Sandy
Starry Night Over the Rhône (detail), Vincent van Gogh, 1888,
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4

September is celebrated as ‘Season of Creation‘ in many churches, where creation and the Creator is celebrated, and we commit ourselves to a ministry of healing Earth, partnering with Christ for the whole of creation.
Richard Rohr reflects on a ‘new cosmology’:
When I was growing up, the common perception was that science and religion were at deep odds with one another. Now that we are coming to understand the magnificent nature of the cosmos, we’re finding that many mystics’ spiritual intuitions are paralleled by scientific theories and explanations. All disciplines, arts, and sciences are just approaching truth from different perspectives. The modern and postmodern mistake is that they only take one or no perspective seriously.

It’s easy to imagine the delight St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) found by turning skyward. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano (1185–1260), wrote: “he often overflowed with amazing, unspeakable joy as he looked at the sun, gazed at the moon, or observed the stars in the sky.” [1] Thomas Aquinas also intuited the deep connection between spirituality and science when he wrote, “Any mistake we make about creation will also be a mistake about God.” [2] Inner and outer realities must indeed mirror one another.

Ilia Delio, a Franciscan sister and scientist, observes how our view of the universe and God has been evolving. [3] During the Middle Ages, a key period of development for Christian theology, the universe was thought to be centered around humans and the Earth. Scientists saw the universe as anthropocentric, unchanging, mechanistic, orderly, predictable, and hierarchical. Christians viewed God, the “Prime Mover,” in much the same way, with the same static and predictable characteristics—omnipotent and omniscient, but not really loving. God was “out there” somewhere, separate from us and the universe. The central message of Christianity – incarnation – was not really taken seriously by most Christians. In fact, our whole salvation plan was largely about getting away from this Earth!

Today, we know that the universe is old, large, dynamic, and interconnected. It is about 13.8 billion years old, and some scientists think it could still exist for 100 trillion years. The universe has been expanding since its birth. Our home planet, Earth, far from being the center of the universe, revolves around the Sun, a medium-sized star near the edge of a medium-sized galaxy, the Milky Way, which contains about 200 billion stars. The Milky Way is about 100,000 light years in diameter.

Furthermore, it is one of 100 billion galaxies in the universe. We do not appear to be the center of anything. And yet, by faith we trust that we are.
Delio writes:
We’re reaching a fork in the road; two paths are diverging on planet Earth, and the one we choose will make all the difference for the life of the planet. Shall we continue our medieval religious practices in a medieval paradigm and mechanistic culture and undergo extinction? Or shall we wake up to this dynamic, evolutionary universe and the rise of consciousness toward an integral wholeness? [4]

We are called to make the paradigm shift to an utterly new cosmology and worldview. I believe, even unbeknown to themselves, many are leaving organized Christianity now because these two cosmologies no longer coincide.

[1] Thomas of Celano, The Life of Saint Francis: The First Book, chapter 29. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1 (New City Press: 1999), 250.
[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, II.3.1, II.3.6.
[3] See Ilia Delio, CONSPIRE 2014: A Benevolent Universe (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), MP4 video download.
[4] Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Orbis Books: 2013), xxii-xxiii.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 169.

(The Pilgrim 9.30am community worship during September is focussed on Season of Creation)

Unscrambling Jesus

Published / by Greg Elsdon

Unscrambling Jesus 

by Sean Winter [first published in June 2015]

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Jesus Seminar. Readers of Crosslight may have heard of this convocation of scholars who famously, over a period of several years, took a vote on each of the sayings of Jesus to establish whether or not he actually said them. Using a grading system that ranged from red-letter confidence (‘Yes, that’s Jesus!’) through to black-letter scepticism (‘There’s been some mistake’) the work of the Seminar achieved notoriety and influence.

The notoriety was understandable. Only one of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospel of Mark was judged to be authentic in the sense that ‘Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it’ (Mark 12:17 to be exact). Many of the sayings of Jesus, including large chunks of the Sermon on the Mount, were put into the category of ‘Jesus did not say this’.

Populist, conservative outrage at such audacious claims aligned with more sober scholarly challenges to the methods and results of the Seminar’s deliberations. But its key advocates had a knock down argument up their sleeve: we have found the real Jesus, based on the consensus of critical scholars, so it’s about time that the Church, and Christian faith and practice, caught up and changed.

In this way the Seminar’s influence grew and, in the words of its founder and greatest proponent, Robert Funk, people began to wonder what it might mean to ‘liberate the gospel of Jesus from the Jesus of the gospels’.

The Seminar’s careful and critical scholarly work was designed to prompt a ‘revamp’ of our understanding. Christian faith should become an ethical, not a credal, affair. Christian life should be focussed on imitating Jesus. Jesus himself must be ‘demoted’ from his place within Christian theology.

These are important claims, which, if followed to their logical extreme, would indeed require a new reformation in which the contemporary Church’s relationship to its own history and tradition undergoes a radical renegotiation.

It is only right that, in this 30th anniversary year, I declare my hand in relation to this bold, adventurous and radical move.

I believe that it is basically bunk, but not for the reasons that you might suspect.

My own view is that there is no part of the Jesus tradition for which we can draw the conclusion that ‘Jesus said it’. There are no red-letter sayings of Jesus, within or outside of the New Testament gospels. This is a conclusion borne not of a radical scepticism about the historical reliability of the gospels. It is rather the result of noticing some fairly basic facts about the gospels.

First, they were written in Greek. Although Jesus may have possessed some rudimentary knowledge of Greek, the consensus is that he taught in the common language of first century Palestine, Aramaic. With the exception of a word here or there (the most significant being Jesus’ cry from the cross in Mark 15:34) the gospels preserve translations of the sayings of Jesus. And then, as now, translation always involves a level of interpretation.

Second, recent New Testament scholarship has shown us that it is about as difficult to separate out ‘authentic’ words of Jesus from ‘inauthentic’ words as it is to unscramble an omelette.

Scholars used to think that they had a set of especially sharp tools that would enable them to cut away the dying flesh of the Church’s tradition, thus saving the life of the real Jesus for the benefit of his followers. They called these tools ‘criteria for authenticity’. I used to use them myself. I now realise that they were about as useful for finding Jesus as a scalpel is for eating eggs and bacon: you can try, but you are really missing the point.

The reason we know this is because we now better understand the way that human memory works. Memory is also the work of interpretation from the outset. If you don’t interpret it, you won’t remember it. And so it becomes entirely possible that in the gospels, we find words that Jesus didn’t actually say that preserve some kind of accurate historical memory, and vice-versa. The gospels provide us with translated memories of the sayings of Jesus.

Third, the gospels are not documents that are at all interested in telling us ‘what Jesus actually said’. They cannot lead us to the past because they were never intended to. What the gospels provide for us is an indication of the impact that Jesus made upon the memories of his earliest followers, and of the impact of those memories on subsequent communities of Christian disciples.

If we take these aspects of the gospels seriously we find ourselves having to say that the only Jesus we have is the remembered Jesus. We can continue to call that Jesus ‘historical’, I suppose, but ‘historical’ here can mean little more than ‘Jesus as he was remembered and understood by those who believed that God had raised him from the dead’.

We get closest to this Jesus not by trying to get behind or beyond the witness of the gospels and not by stripping away the theological convictions the first generations held about his relationship to God and saving work.

In the words of one recent scholar ‘the historical Jesus is not veiled by the interpretations of him. He is most available for analysis when these interpretations are most pronounced.’

All of which is to suggest that we can best celebrate the anniversary of the Jesus Seminar by returning to the gospels and exploring what kind of person, with what kind of message and, crucially, what kind of relationship to God, might generate these memories and these interpretations.

To answer that question might be to see more clearly the ways that the memory of Jesus can be preserved in the Church today.

Rev Dr Sean Winter is currently the Academic Dean, Co-ordinator of Studies in New Testament, and Associate Professor within the University of Divinity. He teaches across a range of New Testament subjects, is involved in the formation of candidates for ordained ministries within the UCA and speaks regularly at conferences, churches, and other events within and beyond the Uniting Church.