Sun 21 Oct
A short reflection on Mark 10:35-45
It tells a story about ambition and glory and misunderstanding. My suspicion is that the Zebedee boys were expressing what other disciples were feeling. And at least James and John were upfront about it.
They wanted to share in the leadership of the kingdom to come. And, while post-resurrection writings largely make this into a ‘heavenly kingdom’, for the first disciples the kingdom they believed Jesus the Messiah would lead them into was a this-world reality involving the overthrow of the Romans and their puppet kings and religious elite.
Of course, as Bill Loader[i] points out, if one views God and Jesus in power categories – like Father, King, Creator, Son of God, Messiah, etcetera – then that will affect how one views leadership; and vice versa. The Zebedees wanted leadership with power.
And I guess we all tend towards it. We all want a powerful God, a powerful saviour, and powerful leaders. We should not be surprised that James and John wanted to be powerful. Biblical tradition is laden with images of God in terms of such power.
It’s just that I don’t think the god revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus is that sort of God. That’s why I use a small lower case ‘g’ for Jesus’ god. Mark is presenting in this text today an image of Jesus not wanting to be a ruler, and not wanting the subservience it brings. Jesus did not want his followers to be servants and slaves to him, but friends.
The power categories of biblical tradition are replaced by the Jesus ethics and practice of unconditional compassion, unconditional hospitality, and unconditional mercy; and his determination to be true to these in the face of much opposition and much misunderstanding. This is how we followers of Jesus are to picture god.
Such a theology is almost unbearable – it survives with great difficulty. Images of power, triumph, defeat of foes, flood back to ‘rescue’ god from such vulnerability – and soon, after Jesus’ death, we see a risen Jesus mythology kitted out in all this regal, or in the Hebrew’s text today, priestly glory.
Mark confronts us with the absurdity of this claim of a vulnerable, suffering god revealed in the leadership of a vulnerable, suffering Jesus. And we, like our forebears before us will find this very difficult. Jesus’ call and example was not to avoid leadership, but to be and model a new kind.
A slightly longer reflection on General Assembly:
The leadership of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand gathered in Christchurch two weeks ago. It was meeting of elders and ministers of many different clans, with different theologies and often different cultures. We slept, ate, talked, and worshipped together over five days.
I use the word ‘clan’ deliberately to point to the heritage that shapes us:
strong localized independence, with tenaciousness and resilience.
a history of knowing poverty and marginalization, and the desire for justice.
a distrust of centralized authority, whether it be aristocrats, or bishops, or whoever.
a belief in education and its merits.
the mutuality of ministry that our denominational name points to: ministers and elders leading and working together.
Over the last two decades a conservative wave has swept over our church, with some 60% of parishes swimming with it. This has led to General Assemblies being sites of significant conflict, particular regarding the rights of gay and lesbian members. But the conflict spread out try to limit the plurality of our Church, to tarnish our ecumenical relationships, to undermine our tradition of informed and educated debate, and to mute our voice on most matters pertaining to social and eco-justice. Gradually over the last three assemblies I have seen some glimpses of hope in these regards.
So while many commissioners returned from General Assembly relieved at the lack of vitriol and glad for the gentle leadership of our Moderator, Fakaofo Kaio, the Assembly also needs to be assessed in terms of being true to our traditions.
Assembly worship is always revealing as the place that the Moderator displays his theology. In the morning devotions Fakaofo invited people from the different theologies of the church – two of whom Kerry Enright and Rose Luxford represented Progressive and Broad Church inclusiveness. Fakaofo is comfortable with diversity, theological and cultural.
However the main opening and closing services were very foreign to those of us from a Progressive perspective. God was always referred to as a literal being in male and hierarchical language. Jesus came in order to rescue us by means of a blood sacrifice, and to give us an entry pass to heaven. The music, prayers, and preaching all reflected this scenario. There was no attempt to make these main services reflected on the varied liturgies, theology and music across our Church.
St Luke’s for at least a couple of decades now has aligned itself with the Progressive movement of faith. In terms of worship, inclusive words and silence matter. Sometimes worship is formal, sometimes not. Sometimes traditional hymns with new language are sung, and sometimes contemporary songs with new language are sung, and occasionally old hymns with old language. We are committed to keep moving, keeping experiencing with worship and prayer. Ethics, social and political justice, the questioning of old beliefs, the deconstruction and reconstruction of metaphors for god, historical Jesus scholarship… all are part of our ethos. But we don’t cater for everyone. We – along with some dozen other churches across the country – are on one end of the Presbyterian worship and theological continuum.
At Assembly there were four small but significant events regarding ecumenism. First was an address by former Moderator Ray Coster regarding the World Council of Churches, and the Central Committee on which he serves. Secondly, there was an apology by the Anglican Archbishop Philip Richardson to the PCANZ for the lack of Anglican commitment to ecumenism in recent years; which led to a reciprocal apology for our lack of commitment to the same. Thirdly we passed, without dissent, a commending of the Accra Confession [adopted by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches]. This confession has a strong social justice component. And lastly we passed the proposal pertaining to the strong anti-Roman Catholic clauses in the Westminster Confession [although this proposal was watered down to a ‘see (those statements) in their historical context’].
All these four are gentle shifts away from the dogmatism of a previous conservative unbending agenda. You may remember that in 2014 St Luke’s brought a proposal to General Assembly pertaining to the Belhar Confession – which is very similar to the Accra – and it quickly was dismissed by the Assembly majority without any real debate.
Our ability to debate in an educated and meaningful way still needs work. The best example of our struggle with this was the report by the Doctrine Core Group on the End of Life Choice Bill. That group, led by Dr Stuart Lange, brought a polemical paper stating a position against any form of assisted dying. Unlike previous doctrine papers which consider a variety of views before offering an opinion, the members of the Core Group did not even seem to know that other Christian views existed on this subject. It was woefully inadequate.
Ignorance on the subject showed up in Dialogue Groups, as did discomfit with some of the language in Dr Lange’s paper. I and others managed to make a number of amendments. The statement that should have been communicated to the media was that the majority of Assembly opposed the End of Life Choice Bill, but on the broad and general subject of euthanasia and assisted dying the Assembly made no ruling. The debate on the floor of Assembly was very muted, with only me speaking against the reasoning of Dr Lange, and then – given the 2 minute time frame – not very adequately.
On issues of social and ecological justice, there was some headway made. The proposal pertaining to our negative impact on the environment was strongly approved, notably with the support one of the leaders of Affirm [an ultraconservative grouping] Similarly the proposal for a Te Reo Commissioner to assist parishes and presbyteries passed without dissent.
However the proposal to study David Gushee’s book Changing our Minds – which in effect was asking people of a conservative persuasion to consider reading an alternative opinion on LGBT involvement and rights in our Church – was quickly defeated. For us to make any headway as a denomination we will need to be able to hear and read the scholarship and opinions of each other.
The state of Te Aka Puaho is also sobering. Whilst the Moderator of Te Aka Puaho, Merina Rakuraku, sat at the head table alongside Fakaofo, there was no discussion or input from Te Aka Puaho on the many social and church issues facing our country. There was also no acknowledgement of the closing of Turakina College. Rather than being seen as our bicultural partner and teacher, and being resourced as such, Te Aka Puaho seems to be treated as a poor little presbytery that struggles to stand on its own feet. Frankly we need a revolution is this regard, and it was one of the issues foremost in my mind when I invited our Moderator Fakaofo to visit us at St Luke’s next year.
I like going to General Assembly. I like the variety of people and perspectives. I like meeting new people and, importantly, building alliances around issues of common concern [regardless of theological difference].
I began this sermon with a short reflection on the leadership of Jesus revealed in the text of Mark 10. It raises the question in relation to General Assembly about the leadership of the whole Church. If our understanding of the leadership of Jesus, and the god he revealed, is characterised by the vulnerability arising from compassion, hospitality, and mercy, then where is the leadership of our Church [I’m talking about all church members here and across Aotearoa New Zealand] in terms of the huge issues of our time – like the Anthropocene, like poverty, like war, like racism, like patriarchy, like the health of the most vulnerable – what are we doing, what are we saying, and what might we do.