Faith for stepping in the dark

A Conclusion of Placement Service was held for Jessica Morthorpe, First Third Specialist for the Metro West Region, on Thursday 10 December at All Saints Floreat Uniting Church. Ashley MacMillan delivered the following sermon.

So, I’m going to talk about faith… and Jess. But given that faith manages to make it onto the list of most mis-used words in the English language, I thought I should do some clarifying before I began.

Faith is often considered to be ‘belief without proof’, making faith just a subset of belief. Yet not only is this mistaken, it also makes faith just as boring as belief is. Belief refers to what you think is true. We have beliefs about thousands of things, some of these beliefs we hold no doubt about, such as my belief that that that the Earth revolves around the sun. Other beliefs are things that we acknowledge we may never be certain about, or that there cannot be an objective truth about, such as my belief that summer is the best season. In short, belief is a broad thing, and whilst it might be a significant thing, it’s also a bit of a boring thing. It is just a form of intellectual assent to an idea. Belief is passive.

The word ‘faith’ though stems from Latin, via old French through Anglo-french, and then into middle English, before finally landing in modern English, and it means ‘to trust’. Trusting is a step in the dark. There’s this game that I used to play as a kid, where you close your eyes, hold your arms straight at your side and let yourself fall backwards. The person behind you will catch you, but the trick is to not try and save yourself. The game is to trust them.Continue Reading

Naming God

Some feminist Christians have apparently abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity, in which God is known as ‘father, son and holy spirit’. Others still use these words, knowing that all human  language is symbolic and inadequate for naming God and that gendered words do not make God male.

However, the political and pastoral uses of an implied maleness in naming God have always affirmed and empowered men, in preference to women, in the church. How should that be weighed against the danger for the church in abandoning the doctrine?

Alternatives that name three functions instead of relations, for example ‘creator, Christ and companion’, can only be accessories, not central in doctrine or liturgy. Alternatives such as naming God  ‘mother’ and suggesting the spirit is female do not seem to find wide acceptance in ordinary congregational life. Perhaps they only create the same problem differently. Perhaps they founder  on the facts that Jesus was a man and that his naming God ‘father’ was very distinctive.

But the use that Jesus made of claiming God as his ‘father’ is equally distinctive, if less discussed. It had radical implications for him and his political and pastoral relations with others… which  were not good news for patriarchy.

According to Mark’s Gospel, unclean spirits recognised that Jesus was the son of God, but two important groups of people did not. Religious leaders accused him of sorcery, and Jesus’ own family  accused him of insanity. Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters attempted to restrain him (3:19b-22). And yes, this does mean real brothers and sisters; Mary’s other children. But where was  Joseph, who, we imagine, begat these other children? Surely it would take a father, the real authority in a first-century Palestinian household, to restrain a first-born son like Jesus, not younger brothers, or sisters or a mother? Continue Reading

On the road to Emmaus

Rev Dr Emanuel Audisho, multicultural ministry co-ordinator at the Uniting Church in WA, led the Bible study on Wednesday 15 July at the recent 14th Triennial Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, held in Perth. His study on Luke 24: 13-35 is below. In this study, Emanuel focused on the perspective from Middle Eastern culture. 

Station One: Travelling with Jesus in the 21st century

When Jesus ministered in Israel, he and his disciples walked everywhere. This was their only means of transport. Walking was the usual way of travelling in the Middle East at that time.

For the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, walking and talking was perhaps a means of managing their grief and distress. Many people today go for walks to manage stress but without Jesus walking can be lonely.

As they walked the two disciples discussed the events of the past three days. It is clear from Luke’s account that they didn’t understand all that had happened. They were disappointed. They told Jesus that they had hoped that the man who had been crucified would have been the one to redeem Israel v21. They also told him of the rumors of the Resurrection, but it seems that they found this too hard to accept.

Luke tells us that: “They were kept from recognising him.” v16. We can’t be sure why this should be so, but it is within God’s sovereign will to decide when and where and how he will reveal himself to his people.Continue Reading

Sharing life’s stories

It is somewhat unique for me to be asked to contribute to a theological spot. For the past 20-plus years, I have found myself in front of 1200 to 1500 students weekly, talking about our  spirituality. I have also spent time at camps, sport and in the chapel. The choice of words reflecting centuries of theological insight has little if any meaning in this setting. Perhaps some would  say, ‘that is because the words aren’t used enough.’

I’m not convinced. I think Jesus was faced with this same dilemma as he spoke to the foreigner, tax-gatherer, child or outcast each day.

The theme of this issue, being ‘beyond your circle’ prompts us to ask ourselves, ‘how do we relate to others?’ I believe it begins with simply being with them and listening. The gospel often refers  to Jesus knowing what ‘they’ were thinking and then responding. He spoke through story and chose his stories to carry a meaning that they could identify. More importantly, he cared  what they thought and understood. Jesus would speak and tell stories about their world because it was his own incarnation – he was born as one of us.

Our stories at Scotch College are about things that the students are familiar with and to which they can relate. It may be the story of Disney’s animation film, Big Hero 6, or Dido’s song, Life for  Rent. When a School Captain shares his reflections on the ANZAC legend and a student shares a letter written by a young man to his mother from the trenches at Gallipoli – seven days before he  dies – others begin to understand the different ways people sacrifice. Continue Reading

Let your light shine

For many of us, being a Christian is easy… on a Sunday, in a church building, in worship, in the company of other Christians, etc. Come Monday morning and the other days of the week,  however, and all of a sudden we’re afraid of who we are. Why is that?

If we read Matthew 5:14-16 we will do well to remember that Jesus told us: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father  in heaven.”

As followers of Christ this is what we are: ‘the light of the world’.

In John Chapter 1 we are told that “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

This ‘true light’ is Jesus, and ‘his coming into the world’ we celebrate at Christmas time.Continue Reading

Why did Jesus die?

Why did Jesus die?

Many of you will immediately respond (wondering why I ask the question) “He died for my sins.”

But I’d suggest that we Christians need to stop and think about this a while, for at least a couple of reasons.

Firstly, if you respond with this answer when asked what is Easter all about by someone who is not ‘churched’ what would they make of it? What do you actually mean? “Jesus died for my sins” is actually a shorthand phrase for a lengthy theological account that many of us would have trouble explaining.

But secondly, as the billboard outside St Lukes, Auckland says “Jesus did NOT die for our sins.”

We actually know very little about the death of Jesus. We do know that he was crucified, probably around the Passover, in Jerusalem, by order of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. It’s not much, but it tells us something significant about Jesus and why he was killed. It tells us that his executioners were Roman, not Jewish. It tells us that his crime was sedition against the Roman state. It tells us that he was regarded by his executioners as a peasant nobody who had the temerity to challenge the Roman ‘peace’.Continue Reading

How Jesus failed: Truth from the mouths of enemies

‘Let’s go back in time and listen to the voices who mocked Jesus. Hard though it is, let’s hear what they said against him and  uncover what it actually means.

Political failure

“Are you the King of the Jews?” asked Pontius Pilate. Did he really want to know, or was he hurling out one of those sick  jokes that come up among soldiers? He could not see a man with an army. His followers, all disappeared by now, are all  ordinary folks and broken people. Is he going to rule the world with that lot?

Pilate thinks a king would gather to himself  unanswerable power, but Jesus does not really give him much of an answer. Political failure? Today, the lasting truth is that  Pilate is gone and the risen Jesus rules billions of souls.

We broken souls have been the bearers of the news of real enduring glory. Continue Reading

Bring down your walls this Christmas

‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho…and the walls came tumbling down!’

This song and the story have been in my head since the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The stories about these walls are different: the Jericho wall was built to protect its inhabitants and to keep intruders out; the Berlin wall was built to stop East German people leaving their country en masse.

The stories about these walls are also similar: they were both brought down without violence, by people power, by persistent trust in a future that could be better than the present, by faith, as the Hebrews author puts it.

Yes, Jericho was invaded after the walls crumbled and its population butchered, but that is not the point. The point is that walls can be brought down – no matter how long, high, big or strong they are. The point is that when they do come down, there is reason for celebration.Continue Reading

Seeking God’s shalom for the world

For followers of Jesus, when it comes to speaking up for the rights of the marginalised, our voice should be as bankable as the presence of dreadlocks and bongo drums at a G8 rally. Proverbs 31:8-10, Psalm  82:3, Isaiah, 1:17 and Luke 4:18-19 are just some of the Bible verses that make our responsibility clear. However, in my opinion, it is not the verses that are compelling, so much as the vision for life that lies  behind them.

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests that in the pages of the Hebrew scriptures we see God’s chosen people, the Israelites, constantly faced with ‘either or’ decisions. In other words, they  can live according to the standards and values of the world around them or they can live according to God’s alternative reality – life with God at the centre where justice, humility and mercy are valued. This alternative vision for life finds its full expression in the person of Jesus. He demonstrates what life to the full looks like; life with God at the centre which he invites us to join in. This is the crux of the  Gospel. American theologian, Ron Sider says, “The vast majority of New Testament scholars today, whether evangelical or liberal, agree that the central aspect of Jesus’ teaching was the Gospel of the  kingdom of God.”

We don’t talk about kingdoms much these days, so the term can lack meaning, but the concept is pretty straight forward. A kingdom literally means a ‘king’s domain’ – it’s where the king’s values, attitudes  and ways of doing things hold sway. So what does God’s domain look like? The short answer to that question is, shalom. Continue Reading

The fullness of life in the hardest of soils

‘I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance’. (John 10.10)

‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.’ (John 1.1)

What is it about what we know of Jesus’ life that some of the closest people around him made these sorts of claims? That he ‘gave life’; that his ways among people were ‘lifegiving’? And of  course within this, remembering that some of the more powerful and influential people around him experienced him as death-dealing. One of the most poignant and paradoxical stories of Jesus’ life as a life-giver is the story of his time in the wilderness – a place symbolically devoid of life – and the spiritual and physical  challenges he faced there. The stories depict Jesus emerging from there ready for ‘life’. These truths or wisdoms now forged deeply within his soul, undergirded a way of life by which he  ‘gave life’. These were not easily come by.

Is it possible that in the place of death-dealing wilderness, Jesus learned the secrets of ‘life-giving’? Contemplating the profound questions of  sustenance, the nature of relationship and spirit? Are these the questions we must contemplate when considering what might be life-giving for our souls, and where and how we search  for that? And what might come from ways of being in our spirits, being in our relationships and being in the world that are life-giving? Continue Reading