Tuesday, 28 August 2018

The Letter of James: the most underrated book in the New Testament (a sermon)

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. …

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.   (James 2: 14-18, 26, NRSV)

Today, as the lectionary begins a series of five Sundays when one of the readings is from the Letter of James, my talk is on the topic “the Letter of James: the most underrated book in the New Testament”.

There are three important Jameses in the New Testament.

·        The first is James the son of Zebedee, and the brother of John.  He was one of the Twelve disciples, and part of a group of three (along with his brother John and with Peter) whom Jesus spent time with when he needed to relate to a smaller group of disciples than the Twelve.  This James became a martyr early in the book of Acts.

·        There’s another James, known as James the Less.  He’s the patron saint of people with low self-esteem.  He was also one of the Twelve. 

·        Then there is the James known as James the Brother of the Lord, or James of Jerusalem, or James the Just.  Early Christian writers assume that this James wrote the Letter of James.  He was the brother of Jesus.  For at least part of Jesus’ public life, James thought his brother had gone bonkers.  In the Book of Acts, however, James emerged as a significant leader in the Christian Church, particularly in the congregation at Jerusalem.  He engaged in major theological debates with Paul, of which we see evidence in the Book of Acts, in Paul’s letters, and in the Letter of James.

This letter was often a controversial addition to the New Testament.  The 16th century reformer Martin Luther called it an “epistle of straw” and doubted that it really belonged in the New Testament.  In many ways, this was because of Luther’s dependence in his own beliefs on the ideas of Paul and Luther’s reluctance to give much credence to any ideas that seemed to be in conflict with those of Paul, even if hey were found in the Bible.

For a while there was a theory that the Letter of James was based on a pre-Christian Jewish document, with a little bit of Christian language added in.  This theory is no longer really given wide acceptance.

The view now is that the Letter of James was the product of the early Jewish-Christian community in the first century of the Christian faith.  It reflects a Jewish style of spirituality and a very practical Jewish approach to personal and social ethics.  It presupposes a knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.  But, it does not give any attention to Jewish ritual practice.  All of this points to an origin in a Jewish-Christian community rather than among either non-Christian Jews or among Gentile Christians.

At the time it was written, the small Jewish-Christian communities within which, and for which, the letter was written were already very vulnerable, under pressure from two sides.
 
·        On one side, they were under pressure from the fact that, in the years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70, the Jewish faith was redefining its beliefs and practices with greater precision, so that it was able to survive and thrive without a Temple.  In particular, the Jewish faith was redefining itself in a way that did not include within the faith those who affirmed Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.

·        Similarly, following the success of the mission led by Paul to the Gentiles of Europe, Christianity was becoming far less a movement within Judaism and increasingly a Gentile religion appealing to the Greek and Latin speaking communities of the Roman Empire.

·        There was the beginning of the parting of the ways between the Christian and Jewish faiths.  And, at some points, this parting of the ways was bitter.  We see this bitterness particularly in some of the language of the Gospel of John.  In addition to becoming a Gentile religion, Christianity was tragically allowing an anti-Judaic perversion of its faith to develop.

The small Jewish Christian communities by whom and for whom the Letter of James was written saw themselves both as good Jews and as good Christians.  They did not want to participate in the parting of the ways, but it was forced upon them from both sides.  I believe that the rather improbable survival of this letter is a gift of God’s grace.

This letter in many ways represents James’s side of the robust theological argument he had with Paul.  It’s very important to note that the same New Testament contains both sides of the argument between Paul and James.  Just as Christians today have real diversity in our beliefs and our spiritualities, a similar diversity was present among the earliest generation of Christians.  The fact that this diversity is found in the New Testament itself tells us that this diversity is a good and healthy thing.

In many ways, when Paul and James argued the toss with each other about the relationship between faith and works, they may not have really been listening to each other.  In any event they had very different definitions both of “faith” and of “works”.

When Paul spoke about faith, he was referring to a bedrock trust in the love, grace, and generosity of the Living God.  James tended to use the word “faith”, not in Paul’s terms, but in terms of a list of beliefs, a lifeless and loveless orthodoxy.  “Do you believe in this … and this … and this … and this?  If so you’re OK.  It not, you’re in trouble … eternal trouble.”  So it made perfect sense, then, for Paul to place greater value on faith in the life of the people of God than James did, as he had a much more positive and healthy definition of “faith” than James. 

Similarly, though, when James spoke about works, he referred to actions in our lives which reflected the love of God to others in a very practical way.  Paul used the word “works” to speak of the sort of religious “busy-work” that can be found in the life of any religious community, including Christianity (and, yes, including the Uniting Church, and including each of our three parent denominations).  So it made perfect sense, then, for James to place greater value on works in the life of the people of God than Paul did, as he had a much more positive and healthy definition of “works” than Paul. 

The problem was that the two of them were not really listening to each other.

The good news is that both James the practical Christian disciple and Paul the visionary Christian mystic had their writings included in the same New Testament.  If we had the writings of either of them, but not both, our faith would be much poorer and much less balanced.

But there’s a big downside to James.  He saw Christianity essentially as a branch of Judaism and was very apprehensive about the outreach to the Gentile world in which Paul was engaged.  Had James’ view prevailed, both Christianty and Judaism would have been much the poorer for it.  It was tragic that the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity was as bitter as it was (and, historically, the vast bulk of the blame for this bitterness must be laid squarely on Christian shoulders).  Nevertheless, it was essential for the positive future of both faiths that they became independent of each other. 

The following centuries were a highly creative time for both faiths:
 
·        Christianity developed its understanding about the nature of the Incarnate Christ, both fully divine and fully human, and about the nature of God as Trinity.

·        Judaism developed its understanding about how the community would live and worship without a Temple or a sacrificial system; a faith with an emphasis on study, on lifestyle, and on ethics.

These creative tasks would have been much harder for both faiths if James had his way and Christianity remained a branch of Judaism.

Still, James the brother of the Lord … James of Jerusalem … James the Just … is regarded as a saint of the Christian Church.  This shows us the great and liberating good news that God doesn’t require us to be right all the time.

I believe that the Letter of James is the most underrated book in the New Testament.  In our lessons over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to have an opportunity to hear some of James’ perspective on the practicalities of Christian faith.  Sometime, please take the opportunity to read all of this short letter in one sitting.  It will take you less than half-an-hour.  It will open your horizons to the practicality of a significant mind within the life of the early Christian church

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. …

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.  

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

A welcome to the 25-millionth Australian

On the TV news a few minutes ago, they said something about your arrival later this evening, probably around 11:00 p.m. or so.  They're not sure yet if you're a newborn baby or a newly-arrived immigrant. 

In any event, to use an all-purpose Australian greeting, "G'day!"

If you're a baby, I don't know whether you're:
  • Tarquin or Charlotte from Toorak (or whatever happens to be your state's Toorak), or
  • Will-yum or Maree-uh from Gagebrook (or whatever happens to be your state's Gagebrook).
If you're an immigrant, I don't know whether you're:
  • Maeve from Ireland,
  • Ahmed from Bangladesh,
  • Hosea from Tonga, or
  • Mercy from South Sudan.
But, in any event, welcome.  It's great to have you around.

If you're new in this country, like Maeve or Mercy, let me tell you that most people in this country are pretty decent.  I've lived in this country since 1980 and I'll let you know that there will be a few people who'll try to give you a hard time because of your accent, or because of the colour of your skin, or because of your religion.  Don't judge the rest of us on the basis of a few idiots (even when they happen to be idiots who sit in Parliament or read the news on TV).  Most of us will agree with you that these "professional bigots" are not the driest wine in the cellar, or the spiciest curry on the menu; and that they're a few elephants short of a zoo, a few salamis short of a deli, and a few tenors short of a choir.  (By the way, in case you haven't realised, I've just introduced you to some useful Australian idioms.)

And that goes just as well for you if, like Tarquin or Will-yum, you're not only new in this country but new in this world.  Most people are pretty decent.  Having lived in this world since 1953, I'll tell you that a big part of growing up is learning which people are worthy of your trust and which ones are not.   Get that one right, and the rest becomes a lot easier.

Anyway, Ahmed (or is that Maree-uh), thinking both about your life in this country and your life on this planet, may I share with you that great Australian greeting:  "Have a good one."

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Child safety talk

For the past few weeks, I was working part-time for my Presbytery, contacting some congregations on child safety-related issues while the relevant staff member was taking some leave.  For those interested, here's a sample of my talk to the congregations.

***

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about child safety here with your congregation. 

Earlier this year, I began serving as the Child Safety Contact Person for the [xxx] and [xxx] congregations.  More recently, I’ve been asked to contact a number of other congregations about this issue on behalf of the Presbytery while [xxx] is on leave.

I’m sure each one of you (like me) is horrified (and – to use language I would have used in my student days - absolutely "grossed out") at the fact that some adults sexually abuse children and adolescents. 

I’m sure that each one of you (like me) is offended at the fact that some of these people use churches and other faith communities as settings where they locate and groom potential victims.

I’m sure that each one of you (like me) wants to get our response to this issue right, and to get it right the first time, so we don’t get bogged down in some of the bizarre responses to this issue by churches we sometimes see reported in the media, particularly recently, including here in Tasmania.

Different churches found their problems of child abuse taking shape in different ways, according to the culture of each denomination.  (And I don’t particularly want to waste your time commenting on the problems of other denominations.)

The vulnerable point for us, in our Uniting Church setting, is found in the fact that, up until the mid-‘70s, our three parent churches had absolutely brilliant programmes for children, adolescents, and young adults.  These programmes died out for demographic reasons outside our control (which I won’t go into now). … It’s really not our fault. … But most of us still feel really, really guilty about it.  

So, when someone comes along and says, “I just love working with kids.  In fact, I’m just a big kid myself.  I’ll do your children’s ministry for you, I'll do it from scratch if necessary, and I can do it by myself, without anyone else's help,”: our response has often not been to check the dude out and see if he’s kosher.  Instead, we just say to ourselves, “Oh, isn’t he lovely???” 
 
If you don't remember anything else I say this morning, remember this:  If someone shows a “king of the kids” mentality when working (or seeking to work) with young people in a church, our alarm bells need to go off.

People who try to groom potential abuse victims are really trying to groom three groups of people:

1.     They’re trying to convince the child or young person to think, “Here’s an adult who really understands me … more than my teachers, … more than my parents, ... definitely more than that joker in the pulpit.”

2.     They’re trying to convince the parents to think, “Here’s someone who is on my side as I try to raise this child.”

3.     They’re trying to convince the church or other organisation where they’re grooming their victims that they’re really an asset, and that anyone who’s raising uncomfortable questions about them has lost the plot (and probably has a seriously dirty mind on top of it all).

Where do we go from here? 

An important first step is to adopt the Uniting Church's Code of Conduct for child safety.

An important next step is to appoint a Contact Person for Child Safety. 

A few more things need to happen.

Firstly, we need to make key people aware of what needs to happen in the rare (and let me emphasise this, very rare) circumstance of a complaint or a potential complaint.

Secondly, we need to promote the Working With Children cards among all those working with kids and all those who are up front whenever children are present in worship.

On the subject of the Working With Children cards. 

·        You do have to fill out an application.  It can be an involved process.  But help with the application process is available if you want help.

·        There is a cost involved.  (It’s cheaper for volunteers than for people working with kids in their “day jobs”.)  Nevertheless, you shouldn’t have to pay it yourself.  If you’re reluctant to ask the congregation to pick up the tab (and morally I believe the congregation should pick it up), there is some Presbytery money set aside for children’s ministry than can cover it.

There will be a training session for key members of congregations.  The next session in our area is on [xxx] at [xxx].

In all this, we have three types of congregations:

1.     There are those with larger numbers of kids, where the programme for them is fairly organised and formalised.

2.     There are those with fewer kids, where the programme for them is smaller and more casual.

3.     There are those where the only times children are present are for special occasions such as a Christmas carol service, or when a child is visiting grandparents for the school holidays.

In each case, though, the Uniting Church is committed to the safety of each of these kids, however often or however rarely they show up, and however organised or however casual the programme offered for them.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

“How many are out now?”

“How many are out now?”

For most of us, over the past few days, when that simple question was asked, no further clarification was needed.

“How many are out now?” referred to the twelve boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach, trapped underground in a cave near Chiang Rai, Thailand.

There was a loud collective gasp of relief which seemed to be heard around the globe as the last of the Wild Boars were out of the cave.

Well done to all the Thai and international participants in the rescue efforts. 

There were moments of tragedy in the rescue.  A volunteer diver (a former Thai Navy SEAL) died in the process of trying to assist the boys.  The Australian doctor who cared for the team after they were found in the cave learned soon after getting out of the cave about his father’s death.

Nevertheless, there was a strong affirmation of our shared humanity in this whole experience.

People of widely differing faiths prayed for the same group of kids.  The same God heard the various prayers, whatever the faiths of those praying.

It was a point of interest that the boys in the Wild Boars team included some stateless refugee children from the country known as Myanmar by its government (and as Burma still by many of its people).  This is an interesting idea:  Giving refugee children the opportunity to play soccer and to explore caves (even with the risks involved) sounds like a much better idea than locking them up to demonstrate just how hairy-chested the politicians can be.

Anyway, how many are out now?

All thirteen.

You little beauty!!!

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Book Review: A Genuinely Theological Church

Here's a book review that I wrote for the July issue of Crosslight.  Now that the paper has been distributed, here it is on my blog as well.

*** 

Geoff Thompson, A Genuinely Theological Church:  ministry, theology and the Uniting Church, Reservoir:  Uniting Academic Press, 2018.

reviewed by Bob Faser.

I hope you didn’t groan when you saw the title of Geoff Thompson’s book, A Genuinely Theological Church.  I’m afraid that “theology” has become a bit of a “dirty word” in some sections of the Uniting Church. 

In some UCA circles, whenever the “T-word” (theology) is mentioned, it’s common to see many people looking rather tense, as if they assume an all-in brawl will soon follow.  Thinking of the theological brawls our church has experienced over the decades since Union, particularly over “the Four Bs” (Baptism, Bishops, Biblical Interpretation, and Bedroom Ethics), this tension is understandable.

At the very least, Dr. Thompson has given us a book with a provocative title.

This book has had its genesis in some recent changes in the education, training, and formation for the UCA’s specified ministries (ordained and otherwise), to the extent where some Synods are now operating according to significantly different models of ministry formation than others. 

In examining this situation, Dr. Thompson has broken two persistent taboos within the UCA that have long needed to be broken. 

·        The first is the taboo against admitting that the ethos of the UCA varies according to the region of Australia in which we happen to be located. 

·        The second is the taboo against admitting that whichever of the UCA’s parent churches with which we identify (if any) still has a profound impact on our understanding of the UCA (and of the Christian faith more generally). 

By breaking both of these taboos, Geoff Thompson has done us all a service.

Dr. Thompson continues with an exploration of the theological vocation of the UCA in a cultural context he describes as “post-secular”, “post-liberal”, “post-colonial”, and (drawing on contemporary politics) “post-truth”.  He concludes with a consideration of ministry education in a “post-Christendom” age.

This is a brief book, but an important one.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”: a sermon (Mark 5:21-43)

My talk is at least partly based on a quote that’s sometimes attributed to a former Beatle, the late John Lennon:  “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”  (Actually, he wasn’t the first person to say it.  The quote was around for a few years before that, but Lennon used the quote in his song “Beautiful Boy”, celebrating the birth of one of his sons.  But even though someone else said it first, almost everyone now attributes the quote to John Lennon.)

Anyway, whoever said it first, it’s a good quote:   “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”   I’ll get back to it in a few minutes.

Our gospel lesson tells us about a time when Jesus was interrupted in the middle of doing something important – to do something else which was equally important.

Jesus was asked by a man named Jairus to see his daughter, who was ill and on the point of death.  Jesus agreed and went with Jairus to his home to see the little girl. 

Now, there’s one interesting thing about Jairus.  Mark describes Jairus as being either one of the “leaders of the synagogue” or one of the “rulers of the synagogue”, depending on the translation you’re using.  In the original Greek, the word used for Jairus and his colleagues was archisynagogus. 

To be an archisynagogus, didn’t mean that Jairus was a rabbi or anything like that, but a lay member of the congregation with a lot of responsibilities around the place. 

·        It may have been that no one else could be bothered doing anything, so “Good ol’ Jairus’ll do it”.   

·        Or it may have been that Jairus really liked being the bloke in charge of things and didn’t want to share the responsibilities.

Mark doesn’t really tell us, but the tone in which he tells the story gives the feeling that Jairus was a decent bloke.  (And that’s the thing about archisynagoguses:  ministers tend to complain and joke about the bad ones (I know I do!), but many archisynagoguses are good people, like Jairus.)

Anyway, from my almost 39 years of experience in ministry, I know that one of the keys for a minister to survive in ministry is how the minister relates to the Jairuses and the other archisynagoguses in the congregations.

Anyway, Jesus, and Jairus, and the disciples were on their way to Jairus’s house to check out how the little girl was doing when … something else happened.  A woman suffering from a debilitating gynaecological ailment decides that all she needed to do was to touch Jesus’s clothing and she’d be healthy.

That’s what she did.

Voila!  That’s what happened.

Jesus has a bit of a conversation with the lady and then it’s back on the road. 

By the time they get to Chez Jairus, the child had died.  While it’s touch-and-go for a while, Jesus does his thing.  By the end of the story, the kid was alive, awake, healthy, and eating lunch.

Meanwhile, the lady whom Jesus encountered on the road was starting to get on with her life again.

And, as we’re reminded in the song, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”   

Friday, 22 June 2018

"Is anybody there? Does anybody care?": a sermon (Mark 4:35-41)

I don’t know if anyone else here is familiar with the musical 1776.   Being a history tragic, I particularly enjoy it, as I’ve enjoyed it ever since I saw it on stage in New York City when I was in high school.  The musical is based on the political wheeling-and-dealing leading up to the United States Declaration of Independence in the year 1776 (and thus the title).

One of the great musical and dramatic moments of 1776, is a scene at a time when all the various political issues and all the wheeling-and-dealing are up in the air.  The musical’s central character John Adams is alone on stage and he poses the question (to his fellow-politicians, to his fellow-citizens, to future generations, to God, and to anyone who would listen) “Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?”

For any person of faith, whatever the faith, this pair of questions is the central religious question:  “Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?” 

And the two questions go hand-in-hand.  Even though the writer Kurt Vonnegut once had a character in one of his novels who was the founder of a religious sect called The Church of the Utterly Indifferent God, very few people would want to worship a god whom they believed was “utterly indifferent”.

Therefore, in today’s Gospel lesson, when the disciples woke Jesus up, during a wild storm on the lake while they were all in a small fishing boat, and they said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”, they were asking Jesus the single most profound religious question of all:  “Don’t you care?”

“Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?”

In many ways, the second part of the question is the primary question.  I believe a god who doesn’t care is worse than no god at all.  There would be very few people wanting to sign up to become part of The Church of the Utterly Indifferent God, … and rightly so.

“Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?”

At one extreme of the faith spectrum are those who worship a god so remote as to be totally removed from the concerns of our human life in any shape or form, a god who is completed uninterested in the welfare of people.

At the other extreme of the faith spectrum are those who worship a god who’s a bit of a bully, a god who will send people off to be fuel for an eternal BBQ just for getting their theology wrong (just as some politicians will deliberately mistreat vulnerable people to get cheap votes from the underbelly of the electorate).

In each of these images of God, is a sense of an “Utterly Indifferent” god who, when asked “Don’t you care?”, will blithely answer “Not really.”

For many people out there in our wider community, the prevalence of these two images of God is a principal reason for their disbelief in any god, in any form.

 “Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?”

All major faiths worship the God who cares about human well-being.  As Christians in particular, we worship a Jesus-shaped God, God who took human form to demonstrate the divine compassion.

“Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?”

The answer of the Gospel is “Yes!