I love the romance of camel caravans trading across deserts and continents in Jesus’ time.
Travel was dangerous, but there were established routes. A caravan of camels, loaded with rich goods, would set out each day. They were guided by a ‘dragoman’; his job was to travel ahead of the caravan to find and prepare the night’s stopping place and return to the caravan and guide it in.
The stopping places were called ‘khans’, which is sometimes translated as ‘inns’, but these inns were nothing like today’s Holiday Inns. A ‘khan’ was a basic circular mud-brick wall enclosing a water supply and spaces for animals and people to sleep. Just places to stop along the journey.
According to Jesus, in his Father’s household, ‘there are many stopping places’. (John 14:2) Jesus compares himself to a dragoman, going ahead of the caravan and preparing each night’s stopping place (John 14:2-3). He returns day by day to guide us there.
Because we regularly read this passage at funerals, we often read it upside down. We think Jesus is telling us about a destination for the dead, a ‘room’ in his Father’s ‘mansion’. That may be true, but it is not the main meaning.
Being a Christian is not so much about the dead as it is about living on the Way. This is strength for times of anxiety, times like the present. The risen Jesus spurs us ‘not to be disturbed’ (John 14:1), because he walks with us on the Way. He prepares our stopping places for us every day (not just at the end of our lives) and guides us to them. He is not simply a companion on the Way: he is the Way (John 14:6)
The Good News is two-fold: Jesus has gone ahead to prepare us a place, so he is a knowledgeable companion, wise in the Way of living. He’s already been this way, through plague and pain. There is nothing that we face that he has not already experienced. Secondly, when we encounter Jesus, we encounter the Father. We don’t need to wait for the appearance of a shadowy God from heaven: God in person, in Jesus, already treads the Way with us.
We know the risen Jesus, both in every act of kindness done to us and accepted by us, and in every act of kindness we do to others. The Way is as simple, and as profound, as that, so ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ (John 14:1)
In the name of the living God + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The land where Jesus lived, the land of Palestine/Israel, consists of the Jordan Valley, which is a little bit green, and rocky hills and dry landforms. Jerusalem was the only city in Jesus’s day, so for the most part, there were no roads. Even the Roman road avoided Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan into Galilee in the northern extreme of the province.
The topsoil was thin, and there were always rocks that poked through the topsoil. If you weren’t watching, these obtruding rocks would trip you up. A rock like this was called a skandalon. We get the English word ‘scandal’ from this Greek word. A ‘scandal’ is something, like one of those rocks, that crops up unexpectedly and makes us stumble or fall. A scandal like the child abuse scandals can make us lose faith; we don’t trust the person involved anymore, we feel betrayed and we re-consider what we think of the person’s character.
In this morning’s epistle and gospel, scandals are there, but somewhat hidden in the English translation. We hear of ‘obstacles’ to faith. We hear how Jews are stopped from believing because the signs are wrong. Gentiles are stopped from believing because they don’t think Christian preaching measures up to their sophisticated world of philosophy. Or in the original Greek, the lack of proper signs is a skandalon, a scandal for Jews, the lack of wisdom is a skandalon, a scandal for Gentiles.
The signs were an obstacle for Jews believing. They indicated the wrong sort of Messiah; the Jews wanted a political or military Messiah, the sign of the cross indicates a Messiah for whom love and forgiveness were the winning combination, not defeat of the Romans and the unity of the Jewish nation.
The Gentiles looked for wisdom, the sort of wisdom they found in debates and complex philosophy. We know that the New Testament has depths of interpretation and meaning, but the Gentiles at the time heard only a simple and direct preaching of the cross.
Having tripped up on the issue of philosophy, the Gentiles then found other factors to be scandalised about. Christians appealed to the poor and weak, not to the masters and house-holders and the powerful. How could that make sense in a patriarchal world where the more power you had the wiser you were, and the wiser you were the more powerful? Women and slaves and children had little power. They could not possibly be wise, could they?
So the question Paul poses to us 2,000 years later is this: what is skandalon for us? What crops up unexpectedly to prevent you from believing, or believing more fully? For you, it could be – I know it is for some people – that the cross is a scandal. If Jesus was exterminated like a criminal, wasn’t that losing rather than winning? For you it could be, as it is for some people, that the cross is ugly, that Jesus’s people, tax-collectors and prostitutes, are not proper advertisements for God.
What obstacle do you trip over?
Let us turn to Mark’s Gospel where Jesus paints a picture of sin creating a skandalon. If your hand is a skandalon, cut it off. We don’t need much imagination to envisage our hand becoming a scandal; imagine the sins we can do with our hands – theft, murder, assault, fiddling our tax returns.
Perhaps we have to think a little harder to imagine our eye becoming a scandal, but we know from other things Jesus said that it is not only what we look at, but how we look, that can be a scandal, an obstacle to our faith. Looking at others’ spouses sexually, with lust, looking at valuable property enviously, in other words using our eye to desire things that if we possessed them would be harmful to others and ruin ourselves – that can become a scandal.
But what is this second sort of skandalon? This is not being tripped up by our wrong expectations; this is being tripped up by our own sinful actions. Imagine someone using his hand to enter fraudulent details on the internet, then he feels guilty for stealing. He is tripped up looking at himself as a thief, as a sinner, as guilty. Uh-oh! He should cut off his hand, perhaps by restricting his internet access, then repent, repay the money and re-consider his desire to be ahead in money or material things. Otherwise he will slide into a hell of self-recrimination, self-loathing and become so self-absorbed that he is unable to be in relationship with others. The path to ruin is too easy a story to write.
Jesus makes us squirm by compelling us to ask ourselves what we trip over with the actions of our hand and our eye. What ruinous actions could be our obstacles to faith?
The gospel today gives three remedies for skandalon; three prescriptions for removing these obstacles to faith.
The first is accepting a cup of water because of our faith. If we can’t be kind to others, Jesus suggests we reflect on the kindness of others to us. What does that mean? How does that recall us to our Christian standards and believing? What does their kindness say about the possibility of Christ working through that person, and through ourselves?
The second is a little strange on the surface. Jesus says, ‘Have salt in yourselves.’ Don’t lose your saltiness. There is a cluster of good things, like salt, that we should take into ourselves that will restore us to faith.
Recall the fire, the sharp burning taste, that is in salt. Allow the fire of appropriate criticism to burn away our inclination to turn away from God. It may be a member of your family or a stranger in the street, but when someone criticises our actions, we should welcome it as from God himself.
Secondly, let the strangeness of the Gospel change us. We say we are trying to be more like Christ. The implication is that if we hear something in the Gospel or in the words of other Christians that seem strange, that may well be because it points to unfamiliar characteristics, unfamiliar because it is not yet part of us, but is part of the Gospel. Welcome the strangeness of the Gospel.
Thirdly, a little sprinkle of salt affects the taste of the whole meal. Let the Gospel spread through the whole of your life so that every aspect reflects the love of God.
Last Thursday we celebrated the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, a hero and mentor of mine. Francis grew up thinking the church then, 800 years ago, was a scandal. Its main focus was wealth and the power needed to protect that wealth. For example, there was a large Benedictine monastery up the hill from Assisi. When Benedictine property anywhere in the region was threatened, the monks would down their farming tools, their hoes and scythes, and pick up swords. Even the Pope had a large and busy army.
As a cloth merchant, Francis had experienced firsthand how bishops loved the finest cloth for their vestments! Many of the clergy were squeezing peasants for land rents and whatever other corruption with which they could enrich themselves.
The church then was a scandal. St Francis did three things: firstly, he embraced poverty as a way of life. This meant for him that he constantly experienced the generosity of others. Francis believed that when he experienced people’s generosity he was experiencing God’s generosity through them.
Secondly, Francis could be weird, screwy, pazzo as his fellow Italians said. From
eccentric dress to over-the-top acted parables, like spinning at a crossroads until you were dizzy to decide which way ahead. But there was gospel in his madness. In dressing down like the worst beggar, Francis reminds us of our constant concern about our appearance and what it says about ourselves. Not necessary in God’s kingdom.
In spinning at a crossroads for direction, Francis reminds us how little control we have over our own decisions. For him this points to the need for greater and greater trust in God.
Thirdly Francis was constantly doing little random acts of kindness, bidding people peace, smiling, listening, leaving behind little scraps of gospel wherever he walked, salting the world with hints of Jesus.
What we need to do to hear the gospel through the scandals will be different than Francis in the 13th century. But just like Francis, just like this morning’s readings we too need to:
Have salt in ourselves.
Allow the kindness of others to reveal Christ; and when other criticise, let that reveal Christ too.
Scatter little signs of gospel everywhere we go.
These are the ways to peace with God and with each other.
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Saint Mark. Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
[Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 NRSV]
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. … … …
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
For the Gospel of the Lord,
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s reading is like a three-course meal without the main course. The compilers of the lectionary obviously thought it is a good idea occasionally to have prawns au tire-bouchon and tiramisu, and no meat and veg in between!
The missing verses tell the stories of the feeding of five thousand, plus women and children, and Jesus walking on water. Both are important stories showing us a great deal more about who Jesus is. We could spend several sermons on each of those stories.
But today we are directed to the prawns and ice-cream, I think for good reason. The first section, the entrée, describes the busy apostles returning from healing and teaching, and telling Jesus the good news of their achievements. It then describes the crowd, so busy they had ‘no leisure even to eat’.
The apostles try to escape to a desert place by themselves, but the crowd walked faster than the sail-boat and arrived before the apostles.
There’s an expression, ‘compassion fatigue’, which you have probably heard. If you care for people, there’s a cost. If you are constantly caring for people, day in, day out, then you can become exhausted. ‘Compassion fatigue’ does not apply only to social workers. There are people in this congregation who care for an adult child with challenges, whether at home or living independently (the child, that is), and that’s a burden. There are people in this congregation who are at this church every day, meeting the people who come to the Op. Shop, caring about strangers. That’s a burden. There are people on the Manna & Mercy roster every week. That’s a burden.
I’m not complaining, or inviting you to, although sometimes a good whine is a healthy response. What I’m saying is that people care for others, all of us do, and it carries a cost. We get tired. We get burnout. Just like the people in this morning’s gospel, the few apostles and the many in the crowd. And sometimes we get to the point where we believe ourselves indispensable.
Jesus may be having a joke at our expense when he says that crowd were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. We all feel, as leaders, that we must be there for the sheep. Without us, who knows what would happen? But really?! most of us have been on Australian farms and we know about sheep without a shepherd. They’re fine. They can eat and drink and lie down to sleep on their own. They don’t need a full-time shepherd.
We get busy caring, and that’s good. But we must at least be aware of compassion fatigue.
I get the impression that the apostles were almost desperate in their search for peace and quiet!
The Jewish concept of ‘Sabbath’ can be helpful. We take it for granted that time is divided into weeks of seven days, but, historically, this seems to have been a deliberate innovation of the Jews.
A seven-day rhythm, with six days of work and one day of not working; six days of work and one day of rest.
You and I grew up when there was no Sunday shopping, no movies were shown, there was no football. It may have been easier back then to keep the work-rest rhythm, but even then, you needed the right attitude, the right reasons.
The Old Testament gives two reasons for Sabbath. Exodus says, ‘Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’ (Exodus 20:9-11)
In other words, we rest after working because God rested after working.
Deuteronomy gives a different reason. ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.’ (Deuteronomy 5:15)
We are not slaves. We are free to not work. Our freedom is a gift. Therefore we should keep the Sabbath as a way of showing our thanks to God.
To this day, Jews make a big thing out of Sabbath. They begin the holy day with a special meal on Friday night, gathering all their family. The men wear their yarmulke, the kippa, which reminds them that there is a God above. The women light candles, they bless God, they put aside all their work and their cares for 24 hours. If you are grieving for a loved one, mourning is put on hold for that time. Jews don’t work on Sabbath. Some Jews don’t even light fires on Sabbath, so that they don’t cook, they don’t turn on lights, they don’t start their motor car. They live within 100 paces of the synagogue so that the walk doesn’t count as work! But the point is not the detailed regulations, it is the spirit of Sabbath which is so important.
Sabbath is not about self-care. It is that, but it is much more. To take and enjoy the gift of Sabbath is to honour God.
My challenge for you this morning is to find or review your regular Sabbath practice.
There are excellent retreat places in WA. I would encourage you to stay several nights in the guest house at New Norcia, meet the monks, join in their daily prayers and bask in the atmosphere of prayer and retreat. Koora, out of Southern Cross, is a comfortable place literally in the desert, run by two Anglican clergy. Maybe an annual visit to a place like these, or St John of God Retreat House in Shoalwater could be part of your life.
Or just spend half an hour in the pews here, or in old St Mary’s when you are in Busselton. We take so much care to maintain these buildings, and that’s part of their purpose.
It’s no good going down to the beach and sitting there if all we do is think about the ones we care for, worry about what we need to do next. That’s not Sabbath!
It’s no good finding a place away from home to stay if we end up doing the same housework we do at home. That’s not Sabbath.
I remember my Mum doing all the housework on our farm, on her own, before mod. cons. She washed clothes in a copper and squeezed them through a washboard. She cooked for seven of us on a wood stove. She cleaned without an electric vacuum cleaner. Then every summer, Dad would take us all away on holiday to Busselton or Albany. Mum commented once that on all these holidays, she washed clothes, cleaned house and cooked without a break.
But I also remember Mum religiously dropping everything every Saturday to play sport. For Mum and Dad, tennis, and later bowls, became her Sabbath. She parked us kids somewhere appropriate for our age and made sport her means of being refreshed as carer.
Your Sabbath should be regular, planned, and have an element of ritual. It is important that you put yourself in a different place where you cannot be reached, physically or emotionally, by the ones you care for.
Maybe a regular movie, or reading fiction, can be elements of your Sabbath. Certainly, a holiday like a cruise can be an annual Sabbath where you are physically cut off from the ones you care for, and others care for you.
So, go and find a desert place, a Sabbath rest, and leave the worry about the sheep to the Good Shepherd.
When we untangle all the busy-ness of the first half of this morning’s Gospel, the coming and going of apostles and many others, we find an invitation to be refreshed by God in our caring.
God knows, like Jesus, we will be back in the fray again soon enough. So we come to the dessert, the tiramisu, the pick-me-up. We imagine people all over the region rushing to bring their sick to Jesus. We know that feeling. But there’s a little detail in the tiramisu that stands out to me. The sick could ‘touch the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.’ (Mark 6:56) Scholars believe this ‘fringe’ is the leather strap Jesus, a good Jew, used to tie his tefillin, the little prayer boxes, on to his forehead.
The healings, it seems, happened because Jesus prayed habitually. In other words, Jesus was conscious of God working through him, and this enabled him to heal many.
We aren’t Jesus. Again, this is a little hint not to care for others in our own power. We may not wear the tefillin, but we should wear the habit of daily prayer, and remember that our power to care is not really ours. It is God, working through us. And that is a matter for thanks. That’s the sweetness in the dessert.
This post originally appeared in my Advent 2015 blog.
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He’s the Twin. In Aramaic the name Ta’oma means ‘Twin’, and so in the Gospels Thomas gets the Greek nickname Didymos “Twin”. But whose twin is Thomas?
Some say he had a twin sister Lydia. But to be remembered only as ‘The Twin’, is it possible that Jesus was Thomas’ twin? There is certainly a tradition that claims Jesus and Thomas were twins. Maybe even identical twins, as didymos also means ‘double’.
Thomas could have been Jesus’ double. It’s an intriguing possibility. It may explain why of all the disciples, Thomas was prepared to say, ‘Let us also go [to Jerusalem], that we may die with him.’ (John 11:16). Thomas certainly wanted to stick close by Jesus, even when he didn’t understand where that would lead. ‘Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” ‘(John 14:6)
And the need for physical closeness to his twin was also apparent when he reached to verify his physical reality after the resurrection. The gospel-writer never refers to him as ‘Doubting’, but always calls Thomas ‘the Twin’ (John 20:24) when Thomas cries out ‘My Lord and My God!’ (John 20:28).
Twins have a special bond, closer than that of most siblings. We can learn from Thomas to also be twins of Jesus, at our best prepared to share his road, but also feeling safe enough to share our bafflement, ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Lord, can it be really you?’ Above all, to wonder that the One to whom we are so intimately bound can also be ‘My Lord and my God!’
What a twinning!
Imagine that you are the twin of Jesus. What characteristics do you have in common? How can you keep close to your twin?
What baffles you about Jesus? What are some aspects of following Jesus that make no sense to you?
Many of us have been Christians for a long time. Does our familiarity with Jesus make it hard to see him as ‘Lord and God’ and therefore to be filled with awe before him?
Use Thomas’ words ‘My Lord and my God’ as your prayer.
I heard of a priest who was asked recently, ‘Do you ever have moments of doubt about your Christian faith?’ The priest replied, ‘On some days I have moments of faith.’
I am intrigued by atheists who seem to think that if they can knock one argument out from under a Christian, they will have of necessity knocked the person off their Christian stool. Comedian Ed Byrne, for example, talking to agnostics, ‘If you haven’t heard God speak to you in a sunset or a beautiful landscape by the time you’re 40, you’re an atheist.’ His assumption appeared to be that just one thing could make the difference between being a Christian or not.
I experience being a Christian not as a series of skittles to be knocked over, but as a tightly tangled skein of meaning-making, experiences and fellowship. Included among my persuasions are doctrines, ethics and aesthetics, the ever-fascinating engagement with the Bible, my identity and my incorporation into particular parts of Christ’s Church.
So atheists sometimes try to win the argument by asking what I would believe it were proved that some bones were definitively identified as the remains of Jesus. The empty tomb is only one little part of my believing, so, depending on the day, my answer is either a confident argument from logic, ‘It will never happen’, or an answer from conviction, ‘It would make no difference to my foundational belief.’
Some Christians trip over philosophical wires by trying to solve the puzzles of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. What does it mean to call God a Trinity? The Prophet Mohammed was one person for whom the doctrine of the Trinity disproved Christian faith. He founded a new religion with monotheism front and centre. Five times a day, his followers now proclaim the Shahada, ‘There is no God but Allah.’
‘One God in three persons’ makes less sense for our times because of the philosophical assumptions at the time the Creeds were written. Faith that God is one in three is always faith, however, and Christians can choose simply to believe it, or like Catherine La Cugna or Karl Rahner in the 20th Century devise completely new philosophical pre-suppositions for the doctrines of Trinity.
Other Christians recite the Creed each Sunday, ‘We believe in One God’ – the Trinity – as a statement of the historical faith of the Church. This is the Church and its beliefs in which I choose to belong, even while holding lightly to the details of these dogmas.
I have many moments of not believing or understanding how Jesus Christ can be completely human and completely divine: there are just too many paradoxes in the doctrine to contemplate at once. However an atheist who shows me how irrational this belief is will not therefore persuade me out of being a Christian.
Bedrock to my faith is the person of Jesus, yet many atheists join me at the core of acclaiming Jesus as a provocative teacher of good living, although some atheists try to make Jesus interchangeable with other gurus and guides. I do stick to the uniqueness of Jesus. This comes partly from my ongoing fascination with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Many atheists find they can reject Christian faith without reading the Bible. I find its books more and more intriguing as I read them, whether it’s unravelling the insights of Wisdom literature or attempting to interpret the Book of Revelation.
As I read the Gospels, I find more and more to surprise me. In the ‘Good Samaritan’, Jesus tips the world of loving upside down. Unlike his peers, Jesus calls us loving outsiders as equal a duty as loving our families. Another surprise: Being a neighbour is not so much about those whom I can help, but about who I allow to be neighbourly to me.
Much of my experience of being a Christian comes from the Church which has shaped me, paid for my theological education, and which continues to give me support. Just this fortnight with my wife away, I am experiencing the practical help of the local congregation bringing me meals. Of course, such do-gooding is not limited to Church people, but the fact that it is Church people living out charity as part of their faith reinforces my Christian identity too.
I cannot undo my experiences. I have discovered God in the music of Olivier Messaien. I can try to explain it away in psychological terms, but nothing can change what Messaien has revealed to me.
There are days when I try to persuade myself out of faith, but it can’t be done, I don’t think, because my faith is too vigorous a garden and grows by weeding and digging out old growth. One-punch atheists don’t get the complexity of religious faith as they believe it is a single flower.
I offer this short piece as one flower of my thinking as a Christian.
Lorraine Parkinson, Made on Earth: how the gospel writers created the Christ, Richmond, VIC: Spectrum Publications, 2016.
Online: Paperback $49, Kindle $11.99
Reviewed by Ted Witham
For some years, I’ve held lightly to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. It’s not that I wish to demote the importance of Jesus, which was the purpose of the original dogma. It’s more that a pre-modern conception of divinity does not do justice to the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth actually connects me with the sacred world.
Lorraine Parkinson’s new book Made on Earth helps me on my journey of belief by adding to the ways in which I can articulate my unease about Christology. She systematically works through the gospels in the order of their writing – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – to show how the message of Jesus about the kingdom was deliberately transformed into a message about the identity of Jesus as the expected Messiah.
Lorraine Parkinson is a retired ordained minister in the Uniting Church based in Victoria, and is in demand as a speaker for meetings of progressive Christians around Australia.
She tells the story crisply of how the infancy narratives appear to have been added to Matthew and Luke inventing the idea of Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thereby being God’s Son. She reveals how the life of Jesus was fitted into the typology of Moses or Elijah to further the argument for Jesus’ more than human status. The gospels
were a sermon to persuade readers that Jesus had transcended Judaism and that his followers needed to distinguish themselves from the Jews.
She makes a plea for ‘progressive Christians’ to turn back to the original teachings of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus as the one Messiah has led to a church that
relies on fear (making sure you are right with God so you can enter the afterlife),
that promotes anti-Semitism (the Jews are depicted as Christ-killers), and
that ends up as Christendom (the Church as a new Roman Empire focused on power).
Returning to a simple reliance on the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus will invigorate individual followers of the Way of Jesus and remove the weight of having doctrinal commitments to a divine Christ.
She asks us to remember that the Gospel writers were ordinary human beings who believed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Her arguments here appear to be based on common sense alone and I would have liked her to wrestle with the theology of inspiration a little more deeply. As followers of Jesus, understanding God’s truth and how we know it is an important issue.
This book is dangerous. It emits a whiff of heresy. I admire Lorraine Parkinson’s honest courage in questioning the 3rd and 4th Century interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel. We need prophets to show the way forward for followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and Made on Earth is an important step on that path.