The Jump Up, near Itjinpiri in the Pitjantjatjara Lands

One Man's Web

In the abstract of a scientific paper, or the engineering plans for a bridge, words are precise and their meaning is tightly agreed and defined.  One must rigorously exegete the text; that is, determine the unambiguous meaning of its author. The gospels are not such a literature. Here, we need to identify as much as possible what the author meant; that's the exegetical task. But we always bring ourselves and our own culture to a Gospel text. The art of reading the gospels is to avoid importing ourselves unduly so that we become eisogetes, those who read into the text, rather than those who bring insights out of the text.

And then there is the Gospel of John. The exegesis of John is very simple: Jesus shows us the Father; trust Jesus. But John desires us to bring ourselves into the text in a way the synoptic authors do not. His poetic text means to alert us to the experience of God, and to open us to the experience of God. He does not seek to define what this experience will be, but leaves us to take flight from his words to discover new heights of experience. So we come with all the necessary cautions about 'exegesis rather than eisegesis,' but eventually we must take flight into the endless skies of human experience, or John will remain obscure and our reading of him will be wooden. As Jesus said, "you will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father. [You will see things John never imagined.]" And when we see such things, we exclaim, "That's what he was talking about!"

Mine the poetry of John; dwell in it and muse upon it, and ears which have struggled with its strange cadence and imaginaire, will find a sudden clarity, and an affirmation of their experience of God... Read on >>>>

From the text: If we ignore the artificial chapter divisions in John, it is clear that blindness, and thieves and bandits, go together.

9:40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains. 10:1‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit... ...

There is something about human culture — the thief — which kills and destroys us, but Jesus comes to give life, and "more abundantly." The word for life is the same as the word Jesus uses in John 3:16... ...

But what this life will seem to be will depend upon our imagination. It will depend upon who we choose our models to be.

As a younger child, I imagined the fullness of life and being lay in being good. If I was good, I would have life. I was, of course, completely unconscious of how I came to this thought, but it was very clear to me by Grade 5 that "being good" worked for survival. As the whole class accused me of lying in order to deflect their own guilt in a certain matter— the consequences of this accusation were clearly going to be unpleasant— Mr Rosenthal, the Headmaster said, "I have never know Andrew Prior to tell me a lie," and believed me. My conversion was complete. Being good was 'salvational!' ... Read on >>>>

From the text:  When Thomas has Jesus come before him that evening, he is being invited upon the Way to Emmaus. He is being invited into the communal, journeying life of church, with its weekly Eucharist. Upon this journey, "beginning with Moses and all the prophets" Jesus will interpret to him "the things about himself in all the scriptures." ...

Thomas knows that you can be raised from the dead, "since Thomas had recently seen Jesus raise Lazarus." I note that Thomas is the only disciple specifically named in the story of Lazarus in John 11. This is meant to highlight the oddness that it is he, of all people, who later "doubts" the resurrection of Jesus... the key point is that in John's "imaginaire" – in the realm of his imagination – resurrection is not the problem it is for us today. Resurrection, as such, is not the problem he wants us to see.... Read on >>>

Jesus was raised from the dead. That's the blunt claim of Christianity. Either the disciples lied to us, or were deluded. Either Jesus who claimed he would be raised was raised, or he was deluded. Why would you base your life upon, and entrust your life to, something that was based in a lie or delusion?

We can call ourselves Christian and say there was no resurrection, but every time I do this, I seem to end up in a lesser life, a sad heroism in the face of futility and inevitable death. In this place I say death altogether to quickly and easily, just as Christians say resurrection too easily. Death means complete annihilation. The species and the planet will die, eventually, and perhaps sooner rather than later. Death means that I and you and everything anyone has ever done becomes... nothing.  I don't have the heroism to live despite the fact that it all comes to nothing— all of it and everything.

Yet neither, when I am honest about it, can my mind accept the physical resurrection of Jesus. I met my neighbour in Rundle Mall one day— he had died a few weeks before. My whole world began to tilt sideways in incomprehension and terror.  After a few seconds I realised it was one of those extraordinary 'almost-twins' we sometimes meet.  But the real thing? My rational mind cannot accept that such a thing can be.

But the church asks me to stand and proclaim, "He is risen!" How can I come to a place where I can do that with integrity?

••••

I remember we went to a one day match between Australia and New Zealand. The ground was packed, the weather was glorious, and colleagues we met there had brought with them, as a treat, as something truly Australian for her, an exchange student from Switzerland. But she sat with us, mystified and then completely bored, reading a book. When we all stood— thousands of people— to applaud someone who'd made their fifty, she looked at us with complete incomprehension, clearly concluding Australians were crazy, and went back to her book.

Cricket is something like resurrection.  Outside of its context and culture, resurrection is incomprehensible, and even crazy.... Read on >>>>

Passover is celebration of what has happened: an ancient life-giving and nation-defining moment of salvation. The Passover was also, and is now, hope for the future. It is re-enactment and remembering in the hope of better life, despite the cruelty of Empire. Just so, Easter is a celebration of what has happened: a celebration of an ancient, life-giving event, which defines a people of God, and saves them. And Easter is hope for the future. It is re-enactment, and remembering of our hope for a better humanity despite the cruelty and failures of Empire, and despite our own many personal failures. So as we enter Jerusalem this week, for what do we hope, and how do we act as life parades before us?

On the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem just prior to Passover. He does not walk in, as a Passover pilgrim would, and should. He rides in as a king. But not as the king of an Empire, on a warhorse; he rides humble on a donkey. The crowds know and do not know, see and do not see, what this means. In Jericho the crowd rebukes the blind men sitting by the Way (kathēmenoi para tēn hodon[i]) – two men they imagine cannot possibly see anything– when those men call him "Son of David." But the crowd shouts "Hosanna to the Son of David," on the way into Jerusalem. The crowds are not only fickle (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, Davies p341) but unseeing, and uncomprehending.

The irony in Matthew's telling of the story is savage. Davies says

in the Talmud, 'outside the wall of Bethphage' means 'outside Jerusalem',
[Bethphage] was therefore ritually part of the Holy City. (p343)

So at the place where the Messiah will stand to rescue Jerusalem— Matthew says Bethphage is "at the Mount of Olives," the place where

when the lord will become King over all the Earth... his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives— (Zechariah 14:9, 4)

at that place and time, Matthew already tells us the city is a house of unripe figs. (The meaning of Beth-phage). And then, in the city, Jesus finds the 'fig tree' of Israel and its temple lacks any fruit at all. (Matt 21:12-14, 19) ... Read on >>>>

Reflections from a pastor who is himself afraid.

"Why on earth have we panicked over toilet paper?" we wonder. To be sure, shortages of rice and flour and oil have followed, but why did it all begin with toilet paper? In his book UncleanMeditations on  Purity, Hospitality,  and Mortality, (Available on Kindle)  Richard Beck explores the role of disgust, cleanliness, and purity in our being human. Impulses of disgust, cleanliness, and purity, are a response to the fear of death.

Purity and cleanliness establish boundaries around us. We still sometimes say that "cleanliness is next to godliness," which gives it all away. Early purity laws were not about hygiene and microbiological cleanliness as we understand it today. They were about being right with God, which had a lot in common with being right with the tribe. In fact, in order to be right with the god, you had to be right with the tribe. So following purity rituals, the rituals of washing and cleanliness and boundaries, had the deep psychological role not only of keeping nasty stuff out of our mouths, or keeping us out of danger in other ways, but also of marking us as belonging. And when you belong, then you are far less at risk of being the one chosen as the scapegoat, and ending up being killed, or driven out, and dying.

In this sense, cleanliness which is again very suddenly and seriously about the keeping of rules, is about being right with 'God,'  where 'God' is the ruling behaviours of our culture here and now. And whether we see this 'God' through a religious lens or not; that is, whether or not we think God actually exists beyond ruling behaviours, doing the right thing by that which is 'God' to us, promises us a life lived long in the land. That, of course, is the language and promise of Deuteronomy. Toilet paper betrays the obvious thing about us in the days of Covid-19: we are afraid. Death is at the door. So our deep instinct— we who are, after all, not very far from our primitive ancestors— our deep instinct is to be 'clean'; hence, toilet paper, which promises us in some dimly seen but deeply felt sense to wipe away our fear.

Death is always at the door, but we mostly manage to ignore it, and pretend it won't come today or anytime soon. In Covid-19, death has suddenly broken through our defences; death could come next week. Indeed, it is uncomfortably likely that it will have a shot at us. John 11 can be read as a text about how to live in the face of death.... Read on >>>>

Listen

I was there.

I'm fresh back from 800kms pedalled over three days, with two of those headed into 30 to 40 kmh  winds. The apocalyptic image of an old abandoned church keeps floating into my vision, and I hear echoes of gospel lyrics. I thought that this morning I would read John 9, and then get some more sleep.  But I realise I was there, and now I'm wide awake, and shaking.

20200317worldsend2John has a few inaccuracies of course. Details can develop in the telling. It was no anonymous man who had been blind from birth, it was a woman, a friend of mine, who realised her blindness, and started asking questions at church... Read on >>>

Listen here

I am sick. The mysterious blend of body, and something else that makes us... us, has refused to work. The body is fine, but relating to other people, especially people who need things from me, is difficult.

If I sit down with a sheet of paper, I can draw circles— six of them— to describe some contributing factors to this illness. Circles one and two have some obvious similarities, although the events they describe are widely separated in time. The third circle bears no relation to either of them, but has a lot in common with the issue I've labelled circle six. And circles six and two do have some connections.

There are moments when these connections feel very speculative; I wonder if I imagine them. Yet, as I said to my doctor, all my pastoral experience suggests I'd be a fool to ignore them; somehow, they are working together to 'gum up the works' that is me. She signed me off for more sick leave without hesitation; she knows a couple of these same circles...

Experience suggests that if I insist on drawing hard and firm lines of the "a = b + c" variety between the circles on my page, which represent the  oddly connected events in my life, I will not get well. Healing comes from swimming among the not-quite-definable connections and images, and letting mind and brain and spirit do what they do, which is march in their own dimension, at their own pace, in ways we can only glimpse.

We do this all the time; it is how we function to be us. It's just that being sick makes it much more visible. This normally invisible process is how we live and grow and become more fully human— or not...

Which brings us to the Gospel of John. John uses a surface narrative of the Jesus tradition— in this case, the story of meeting a woman at a well— and crafts it to invite us, even to provoke us, to enter into deep water which will drag us under, drown us, remake us, and, finally begin to slake our thirst for life. If we will only enter in. If we will only drink... He draws circles and invites us to swim between, and be found... Read on >>>>

I have a friend who lives with a chronic health issue. They traverse a litany of medical incidents which range from small, irritating interruptions, through to life threatening emergencies which sneak up without warning. I fear that one day I shall find they have run out of luck, perhaps having dismissed one more ache or pain, not having realised it was a warning of something worse. I'm twenty years older. If you require a 65 year old to ride a thousand kilometres over the weekend, I'm interested. I'll even volunteer for another trip the next weekend.

Despite all their physical ailments, my friend hurtles through life: full of energy, creative, charismatic, seemingly inexhaustible; they are an extrovert's extrovert. Me? At some point I do not choose, and can rarely predict, the brain says, "No. Stopping now." And it does. For weeks. And longer. I can't read my bank statement— well, I can, but I can't make sense of it to know if I need to pay money. Urgent tasks, even a simple phone call, are suddenly insurmountable. Life closes in on me; I sit or I ride. People, and the demands of people, are too much. This introvert's introvert becomes even more withdrawn. Words disappear, energy fades, sleep stops— despite the exhaustion.

Another friend grew up in the most appalling circumstances. Once, when we were talking, they mentioned something a parent had done to them, quite casually, in the way we might remember something we saw riding home yesterday evening, and mention it at tea. I had to stand up and walk around for a couple of minutes; nothing surprises me anymore, but sometimes I am shocked. That friend lives with the consequences of a lifetime of abuse. I've never understood how they can still be alive; we both nod to the saying, "as much good luck as good management." And yet they have an energy and zest for life which I envy. Another friend lived almost two decades in a refugee camp. I've sat with them and felt as if I were within an Orthodox icon, sitting next to the Madonna herself. From where does such peace come?

Grace means that God cares for the four of us, and everyone else besides. Everyone who has ever lived. We say God is omnipotent, it's one of the key doctrines. It doesn't mean that God intrudes into our biological reality and arranges things for our convenience. (As Ogion said to Ged, magic always has a side effect somewhere else.) Omnipotence means Grace— that great love of God revealed in the Son— will not be denied. The four of us, with all our peculiarities, and all other people, will be brought to fullness of being. No one will be excluded. No one will escape. God will out-wait all of us.

And so we endure our weaknesses. We revel in that which brings us joy. We love. We wait. And life continues.

Andrew Prior (2020)

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