Someone asked me the other day whether I believe in life after death. In the sense of some kind of heaven envisaged by the biblical writers, definitely “No!”
Time is, however, such a mysterious and subtle concept that I have difficulty in getting my head around it. I am told, and have no reason to disbelieve, that light from our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda travels two million years at a speed of three thousand kilometres a second before it reaches our eyes. When we look at the smudge of light in the sky, we see it not as it is now but as it was two million years ago. And someone asks me whether I believe in life after death!
One thing of which I am certain is that everything is interconnected. To put it in the vernacular, we come from stardust and we return to stardust. As George Coyne says “no element in the universe, including ourselves, can be ultimately understood except in relation to the whole”. All of this leads me to surmise that every life lived on the planet is part of a timeless reality and as such has eternal significance.
Is there life after death? It depends on what you mean by life after death.
And in any event, for some obscure and irreverent reason I find myself thinking of and agreeing with the old saying: “Once a Knight always a Knight, but once a night is enough for me”.
I’m quite happy to settle for what is and what has been.
My Christmas Day Sermon – 2013 (Karen )
Just recently I went to Bali for my brothers 60th birthday. We initially spent a few days on Lembongan Island, a paradise just off the mainland which has great surf that my boys loved, and then went to Legion for the party with the rest of my family. The holiday was really great, but it was strange to be somewhere that did not have all the trappings of the Christmas season. Bali is basically a Hindu country, the people are gentle and peaceful and not the least bit interested in Christmas. They tried hard and the occasional restaurant had a small Christmas tree, or a few decorations but there were no Christmas carols being played in the shops, no reminders of how many days until Christmas and no pressure to buy presents for those lost aunts and uncles you may see once a year. In fact there was none of the commercialization of Christmas that might cloud the reason we celebrate it in the first place.
It was actually like a breath of fresh air on a very humid day. That’s because the reason for Christmas has pretty much been lost in western countries. I know that many would say that Christmas is a time of family, of plenty of food and presents and of communities sharing with one another. But it is not just about this, in fact it isn’t really even about a baby or a manger or a star or shepherds. It’s about a man called Jesus, who, regardless of how our society now depicts him, was actually incredibly faithful and brave, and his message very political and subversive. A message that we should all listen to carefully, because the message is just as relevant for today as it was 2,000 years ago. A message that has the potential to change how we and our society works and what we value.
Dominic Crossan is a New Testament scholar and Catholic priest who has spent all his life exploring the historical Jesus.
Crossan has dispensed with much of the baggage that is attached to the stories in the bible. Pared down, the whole bible, from Genesis to revelation is about justice, about establishing justice. Crossan believes Jesus came at a time and a place that needed justice and came from a Jewish tradition steeped in it. For him Jesus came at a time and a place offering an alternative vision of living, not elsewhere, not in another life, but in this life. He presented a stark choice to people, a choice between the Roman Empire and God’s kingdom. A kingdom of violence and hate or a kingdom of love, compassion and deep joy irrespective of race, religion, class, gender or age. But more importantly he challenged the Emperor himself, Caesar Augustus, who claimed to be Son of God and Lord of all. It was Jesus who revealed God, not Caesar, and that was treason. In the end it was inevitable that he was crucified, just as those who cry out for justice often are.
Crossan describes Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary who practiced non-violent resistance to the powers of injustice unto death. And in doing so he revealed most fully the creative and life giving presence of God in this world. It was a Kairos moment, a moment when things break in to change direction and to highlight new possibilities. This is the Jesus who stands before us today, not as a baby but as a man.
So what then do with the birth narratives?
We have to remember each year that the birth stories of Jesus are an amalgamation of stories written about him after his death. In fact the birth stories are quite late, and do not feature in all the gospels. Neither Mark nor John say anything about Jesus’ birth. Christmas day wasn’t even celebrated on the 25th December until the 4th century as a Christian counterpart to the pagan festival call Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable son. It marked the change when winter was defeated, the days would become longer and the light would increase. It seems actually rather fitting that this festival was chosen, as it represents the life of Jesus, who came when history was at its blackest for the Jewish people. He came in the least expected and least obvious place and shone the light of God into the darkness.
So what are the Christmas stories then, if not history? They are what many call parables, calling forth all they know of the life of Jesus found in the gospels. They weave together fantasy, mystery and reality to bring a message of love and hope for the world.
If we examine them with new eyes we will see that they reflect the gospel message in miniature. They challenge the Roman Empire. Jesus is seen as a defenseless baby whose family can’t find accommodation and when they do it is a stable with no bathroom. The poor shepherds of the hills are the ones who hear the message of his birth, rather than kings or rulers. There are lots of animals, not there for the children’s amusement, but to show that all of nature is included. We have in the story a woman, Mary, and the Magi, who are foreigners of varying age, and who come bearing gifts. In fact Jesus and Mary themselves are refugees escaping persecution. We see a powerful and ruthless King Herod, a threatening presence. And we have the angels singing about peace on earth and goodwill hovering over the whole scene, representing the God of all creation, of Jesus and the hope that this represents for all of us.
Beautiful, evocative and very subversive stories. They give rise to a different type of God, and a different type of Jesus than the world expects.
In Jesus the God of the universe is revealed in someone who actively worked for others, so that their lives would be better. In Jesus we see someone who, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described him, was a man for others. He taught and demonstrated that to find meaning in life one must learn to live for others. His teaching was and is universal and grounded in the indwelling spirit of God that guided his life. Lorraine Parkinson says it well, “although crafted 2000 years ago, in the 21st century Jesus’s teaching addresses not Jews only, or Christians only, or men only, or people living then only or rich only or poor people only. Instead it has resonance and compatibility with the lives of all human beings of all time.”
More than 600 years ago a male Catholic mystic, and theologian asked “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture”
So the question now for us all, is what to do with the message these stories represent, which is a little different from the message of the shopping malls and the cries of spend, spend, and spend. It is a time to entice people to see Jesus the man and his life and then see beyond Jesus to the God of the universe. To translate Jesus’ love and Gods presence into something concrete, into a different way of living.
The Church and the world is at a crossroads today. We are at another Kairos moment, a crisis hour, when new possibilities need to emerge out of the old. It marks a time to take back the voice and way of Jesus, and gather together as one for the sake of the world. Because make no mistake, in our time and culture we have dictators who rule with power and fear and who think they are God, we have governments who rule for the rich only, we have wealth concentrated with a few who hoard it like thieves, and a world where those who are poor are getting poorer. We have massive poverty in many countries and unending wars in others. Many of us ask, where is the humanity, where is the love and compassion. Where is the hope? Our hope lies in Jesus. The battle between the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God which looked lost at Jesus’ death is won anytime anyone of us follows his call to love one another. All those who love and include others, are displaying the universality of God’s spirit. It is this spirit which guides us to create a better more just world, a better more just society, a better more just community, and to love and respect one another in our day to day interactions
This is the promise and the provocative challenge of Jesus. For this kind of world is not only about personal peace of mind, tinsel, Christmas pudding and presents. It is also about peace and justice on earth for everyone.
As Jesus said, why do they call me lord, and do not the things that I say.
Today let us celebrate the Christmas season, because hope and light has come into the world. Let us follow that light in whatever way we can because it has the power to change and transform both us and our society.
Thanks to John Dominic Crossan and all those who seek to keep the message of Jesus alive.
It’s happened again – what I call “one of my conversion experiences”!
The first happened in the nineteen fifties in a fourth class carriage on the train to Allahabad after working with the Quakers in Calcutta. There were no seats in the carriage and I sat on the floor next to an Indian peasant who offered me one of the two small scones that were his meal for the day. I declined the gift on the grounds that his need was greater than mine. What an idiot – to refuse the great gifts that the poor have to give!
It happened again in the nineteen seventies in Timor when I was engaged in a food development programme. The story is too long to relate here but it ended with an apparent deaf mute saying to me in the clearest words “Thank you my brother” before walking off into the crowd.
And now it has happened again, this time in the Commonwealth bank. Two days before Christmas I took to the bank an ice cream container filled with my small change for the year. The practice started when my beloved expressed her displeasure at my change always being emptied on the dressing table at the end of the day. The Commonwealth Bank at Innaloo has a coin counting machine. As I stood in the queue I overheard a guy about two places behind me in the queue saying to a bank officer that he had his wallet stolen and he wanted to get $25 out of his account to celebrate the season with his mates. He spoke loudly in a very simplistic way. During the conversation I heard him say “I come from an abusive family”. When I had made my deposit I walked past him, and without a word of a lie he very pleasantly said “Have a good Christmas, officer”. At the time, I took no great notice of the odd remark, and I have not the slightest idea what the guy looked like.
The next morning, as is my wont, I opened up the devotional daily readings of Frederich Buechner entitled “Listening to Your Life” – a book that I can thoroughly recommend. It was Christmas eve and the reading was about the ghost of Christmas. Buechner related the occasion when he went to the Papal mass in Rome on Christmas Eve in Rome and how the Pope seemed to be looking into the crowd for someone in particular. It impressed Buechner greatly. “I felt I knew who he was looking for… the person at that very moment crouched in some doorway against the night, or leading home some raging Roman drunk, or waiting for the mass to be over so he could come in with his pail and his mop to start cleaning up that holy mess.” Or perhaps waiting in a queue in a bank and saying to a self righteous Minister “Have a good Christmas, Officer.”
I wish the experience had been more palatable but that really is the nature of the game. The truth is not always pleasant to experience. I agree with Buechner that “it may well be a post Christian age that we are living in but … I think he has come to haunt us more and more until there is scarcely a place any longer where, recognised or unrecognised his ghost has not been seen.”
And, seeing it was Buechner who was involved in my latest “conversion” experience”, let me conclude with his words, some of the most significant and striking words about Christmas time.
“What do we do with the legends of the wise men and the star, the shepherds and the angels? Do we dismiss them as fairy tales? Only if we are fools do we do that . Whether there were ten million angels or just the woman herself and her husband, when that child was born the whole course of history was changed….. It is impossible to conceive of how differently world history would have developed if that child had not been born….. The birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it….. This is the central truth that Matthew and Luke are trying to convey in their accounts of the Nativity…. a truth which no language or legend seemed too extravagant to convey.… Western culture with all institutions and Western Man’s whole understanding of himself and his world was born that day.”
The Christmas stories are not a spectacular series of miraculous events that happened 2013 years ago. Christmas is about Mary saying “Be it unto me according to your word” – even if that word comes in the Commonwealth Bank in the year 2013.
Many Christians see the virgin birth as literally true. I do not. I see it as a figure of speech used in those days to describe the greatness of a person. It is important, however, to recognize that I do not seek to change anyone’s mind. I seek only to share how I see the virgin birth. One of the things I treasure about our Wembley Downs Congregation is that we do not always agree.
“………. In the New Testament there are the parables of Jesus and parables about Jesus. The Christmas stories of shepherds and angels and a virgin birth are parables about Jesus. To claim that they are historic events is to miss the point completely and to distort the scriptures.
Take for example the story of the virgin birth.
Paul was the earliest of the Christian writers. He put pen to paper in the fifties and makes no mention of an extraordinary birth. The Gospel of Mark, the earliest and primary record of the Christian faith, was written in the seventies and has no Christmas stories. John’s gospel likewise has no birth stories. It is in Matthew and Luke, who wrote in the eighties and nineties, that we find the story of the virgin birth. In other words, the stories about wise men and a star, shepherds and angels and a virgin birth appeared about eighty years after the birth of Jesus and are not to be regarded as historical fact. . They were stories introduced into the Christian tradition late in the first century. For eighty years after the birth of Jesus they were of no importance to the followers of Jesus. The question we face is “What is their importance for us today?”
I would suggest that they are of great importance, not as historical stories of what happened in the year dot, but as parables and stories which are designed to hit home “like an arrow to the heart” – as A.M. Hunter describes the purpose of a parable. They are parables about Jesus.
Stories of a virgin birth were common in those days and ranged throughout the world, from Krishna in India to Horus in Egypt. The idea was particularly common in the Graeco-Roman world. The Greek God Dionysus was conceived by a bolt of lightning from Zeus, and Alexander the Great was said to be born of a virgin. More importantly, the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus who lived at the same time as Jesus was also believed to be born of a virgin, and the relevance here is of huge importance. Caesar Augustus’ titles included Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Saviour of the World”. There was, as has often been pointed out, an imperial theology in the Roman Empire. “You worship the Gods, you go to war, and with their assistance you are victorious”. The four elements of Roman theology were religion, war, victory, peace.
And into this world comes Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean peasant who calls into question the existing system and is called by his disciples , King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Son of God, Redeemer, Saviour of the world, Prince of Peace. Do you get it? Jesus of Nazareth constituted a new way of life, a new way of living vis a vis the existing way of life. And it was evidenced by the titles attributed to him. The claim to be conceived by God was part and parcel of the claim that he, not Caesar, was conceived by God , that he, not Caesar, was the Son of God, Prince of Peace, the Saviour of the World etc.
And here is the really staggering thing: it is still true today. The situation is the same! As Jim Wallis so strikingly puts it “The call to discipleship, the call to follow Jesus, demands a fundamental break with the dominant values and conformist patterns of the majority culture…..Christians must begin to understand that lives lived under the Lordship of Jesus will at this point in our history necessarily put us at odds with the leading assumptions of the cultural mainstream, the dominant institutions of political and economic power and the paralysing conformity of the church”.
That’s what Christmas is about! A new way of life found in Jesus of Nazareth – the way to fullness of life.
The virgin birth has nothing to do with sex. It has everything to do with politics and contemporary culture, both in the first century and the twenty first century! ……”
On the day we say goodbye to Nelson Mandela, a man who as Desmond Tutu said, was Christ like in his actions, it seems appropriate to look at both Mandela but also others who have been found at the crossroads of life. When it would be easy to turn away and seek the easy option these people have turned towards the injustice in order to change it.
I thought it might be good if they came and said a few words themselves.
The first person of course is Nelson Mandela. We hear him at this trial in 1964 before being incarcerated for 27 years in South Africa. A voice from a man calling for the renewal and resurrection of a nation, who became a president.
Above all my lord,
“We want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.
But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy…..
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
Oscar Romero is present with us.
Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador, and spiritual leader for all Catholics in El Salvador. During his time the poor suffered the most. Romero spoke out against the soldiers and the government who were attacking the poor. Romero believed that the church needed to work to change the government because the government was going against the teachings of Jesus. He used his sermons to call for peace.
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”
In the sermon just minutes before his death, killed by those who were threatened with his message Archbishop Romero reminded his congregation of the parable of the wheat.
“Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grains of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies. We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us. I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadoreans, even those who are going to kill me”.
We hear from Martin Luther King.
Arrested over 20 times for preaching racial equality King was the youngest man to receive the Nobel peace prize. He was assassinated in 1968.
His speech “I have a dream” speech, was given on the centenary of Abraham Lincolns emancipation proclamation in 1963 at the end of a march on Washington for jobs and freedom. 210,000 people gathered at the Washington memorial and marched to the Lincoln memorial. Let us hear some of the last parts of the speech from him.
“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And on that day all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!””
Oh look, Desmond Tutu is also here
For decades Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been a voice of principle, an unrelenting champion of justice and a dedicated peacemaker. He has bridged the gap between black and white in South Africa, firstly as a courageous opposer of the destructive system of apartheid and then a tireless worker in the years following when South Africa tried to become a nation for all.
“Many people think that Christians should be neutral, or that the Church must be neutral. But in a situation of injustice and oppression such as we have in South Africa, not to choose to oppose, is in fact to have chosen to side with the powerful, with the exploiter, with the oppressor…. The Church in South Africa must be the prophetic church, which cries out ‘Thus say the Lord’, speaking up against injustice and violence, against oppression and exploitation, against all that dehumanizes God’s children and makes them less than what God intended them to be… For my part, the day will never come when apartheid will be acceptable. It is an evil system and it is at variance with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why I oppose it and can never compromise with it – not for political reasons but because I am a Christian
The only way we can be human is together! The only way we can be free is together! The only way we can ever be secure is together!. That is the logic of God’s creation.”
We are at the crossroads, at a watershed moment in our story as people in a world full of love but also full of violence and hate.
At this watershed moment who do we belong to, which path do we choose? As this Christmas approaches I continue to choose the way of Jesus, a way shaped by compassion and justice. But I know it is not everyone’s way. Whatever your path today it is good to be reminded that love will always defeat evil, it just sometimes takes a very long time. And it calls for us all to respond.
After hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech that August day in 1963, the crowd of 250,000 sang “We Shall Overcome.” Here is a link to Bruce Springsten’s version.
Telephones today are a very advanced form of technology around which our lives revolve. It is easy to forget that there was a time when they didn’t exist. Someone invented it. Someone saw beyond what is to what could be. Someone saw the potential of a different way of doing things.
Alexander Graham Bell is the person attributed to having the vision, and here’s a question for you. What were the first words spoken over the telephone? I have always understood them to be the words of Bell to his assistant “ Watson, I need you”.
For me personally they have been very significant words. I have seen them as a call from the future, a call from what some of us refer to as “God”. My working definition of God at the moment has nothing to do with some kind of all powerful heavenly being determining whether we will go to heaven or hell. God for me is the dynamic urge to fullness of life – an urge within every living creature, and one that I have related to in terms of the first words over the telephone.
The words have led me into some odd places, food development in south east Asia, aboriginal settlements, prisons (both as a an outside worker and a four day inmate after a demonstration) war zones and many other odd places.
The last mentioned of these illustrates the point well. On my return from Iraq and the Shock and Awe bombing, people kept asking me why a sensible person like me would do such a stupid thing. I had difficulty in answering them. My eleven year old grand daughter had no such trouble and wrote in a school essay “My grandpa is going to Baghdad to comfort the Iraqis while the Americans bomb them. You may think he is nutty but I am proud of him. He does what is right and he does it for other people not himself. On the day he left he had every TV station apart from Channel 7 interviewing him. When he left we were all very upset. Poor grandma will have to live on her own for six weeks or maybe forever. I love grandpa very much and I hope he will return”. I loved the bit about being interviewed. Eat your heart out Channel Seven!
What was the reason for me going to Iraq? If I am honest I would have to say that it was because of the first words spoken over the telephone. Nothing more, nothing less – simply “Watson, I need you!” It was simply a matter of call and response.
What brings all this to mind? I learned yesterday that “Watson, I need you” weren’t the first words spoken over the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t even invent the telephone! It was invented by an Antonio Meucci and we have no idea what were the first words spoken over the telephone.
At my age it’s a bit late to go back to the drawing board. I think I’ll stick with the fable and keep listening. It has certainly led to an interesting life with very few regrets.
One of my work colleagues died a couple of weeks ago after a short battle with a brain tumour. He was only 63. His funeral was on Thursday and was surprising conducted by his son Alex. Alex is not a celebrant or trained in any way for this sort of thing, but it was a very moving experience. Peter was an individual with very different ideas to me. We worked together, in fact job shared for a number of years when my boys were small. He was everything that I wasn’t which led to many heated discussions in the lab we shared. Yet as time went on we both mellowed, started to see the other person’s point of view and became friends.
I visited him as he was slowly deteriorating, and I was overwhelmed by the love and care his children were providing. His daughter had come back from the UK with her two young children to look after him, while his son and other daughter did as much as they could. Together with Peter’s mother who is still alive, they never left him alone or without company throughout the last months of his life.
The funeral was unique in that it never mentioned God, Jesus, or an afterlife. In fact there were no religious overtones whatsoever. There was love, laughter, a slide show, a limerick and a recognition that Peter tried very hard to make a difference in peoples lives. Even with a divorce and some separation from his children, he seems to have achieved what he set out to do.
As a person of faith I didn’t actually miss a lot of the supernatural, slightly weird stuff that can be found in many funeral services. I have helped take some myself and often feel uncomfortable with what is expected and do not go down that path. In the end however I do believe there is a divine presence in the whole of creation underpinning life, including our own. This presence is revealed in the love we show, the forgiveness we display, the compassion we feel and the joy we share. We see it revealed in Peter’s life and those around him. And I believe it is a presence he will be forever connected to.
While Peter would probably laugh at what I have just written, or we could have a bit of a heated discussion about it, maybe Rob Bell has it right when he says of our lives….
We are both large and small,
Strong and weak,
Formidable and faint,
Reflecting the image of the divine,
And formed from dust
Perhaps that’s something we could agree on!