There is no one righteous, not even one.
This First Impressions (19/11/2018) reads the gospel text for the Sunday of Christ's Reign in the light our recent synod and seeks to place us in the wider story of salvation. I write deeply aware that at many levels I am extraordinarily privileged, and avoid much of the pain experienced by my sisters and brothers. You will note that I refer to verses either side of the set reading.
You can listen here.
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
The Gospel: John 8: 31-40
Note that in this text, the words the Jews are a translation of οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, the Ioudaioi. You will see that I use both Jews and Ioudaioi.
The Ioudaioi replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ 32(This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Ioudaioi. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ After he had said this, he went out to the Ioudaioi again and told them, ‘I find no case against him. 39But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ 40They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a bandit.
My first response to the text
In that kingdom by which God creates and fulfils the world
we are not permitted to put anyone to death.
Even when our attempts to establish a kingdom, a way of being human
can find no case against a person
we are unable to prevent their death.
We cry for the powers to release us,
to release the children of the Father
for bar Abbas means "son of the father"
and yet we kill him.
We destroy the humanity we are trying to become.
The only way out of this constant ambush of our best efforts
and the constant failures of our deepest desire for life
is to enter a kingdom which is not of this world.
That does not mean that we become otherworldly or disengaged; we can only live here.
It means that we submit to an entirely different reality.
We learn to see the world anew.
We are re-formed.
To say that Jesus is King is not to state a deducible truth of the kind "a = b."
To say that Jesus is King is nothing remotely like a change of Prime Minister,
nor like the pledging of loyalty to a new monarch ascending the throne,
for these things mean nothing;
they do nothing to change our humanity.
That is, we can be told they are so, but they affect our humanity no more than they affect the humanity of the remote station owner or the wandering nomad who does not hear for weeks or months that such a thing has happened.
They do not touch that being which is us.
To ask if Jesus is king, for ourselves,
which is what Pilate does not do,
is to open our deepest being to Jesus' reality and culture
and to be re-formed.
The rhetorical instinct of the preacher in me wants to say
"to be re-formed even to the cellular level,"
and I wonder if this might be true:
that to live in the different reality of God,
the different way of seeing the world and being in the world,
is so fundamental as to affect the expression of our genetic make-up.
To ask if Jesus is king
is to ask if the man hanging upon the cross is not a substitute
chosen by God as a diversion of wrath
so that we escape our just deserts—
that old travesty of the gospel that is formed and perverted
by our imagination that God is like us,
and kills as we do,
so that even justice and love
is founded upon killing—
No, to ask if Jesus is king
is to commit to seeing that the power which underlies the universe,
and which brings all creation— and us— to fulfilment,
refuses to kill, cannot kill,
but loves and gives and forgives.
It is to see that this upside down and ridiculous structure
is the truth of our reality.
This is the power...
this ridiculous powerless power
is the power which has brought us into being
and the power which sustains us to this second.
And of course, we cannot see that at all.
It is ridiculous to think that the man hanging on the cross,
the man destroyed by the instrument of oppression and terror
is the embodiment of the power which gives all things being and life.
We cannot see it or deduce it;
we can only be formed by it.
We can only submit to it,
beginning in faith and trust,
and be changed by it even at the cellular level,
so that one day
perhaps for an hour,
or for a second or two,
perhaps more frequently,
we will know that this is truth.
And see that we have been made new.
And see a new world called the Kingdom of God.
What underlies my perceptions in this half poem?
Firstly, Kingdom: A kingdom is a realm of power; a reality. The kingdom of Israel, or any other nation, or even only a small isolated tribe, is the reality in which we, its people, live. It in-forms us how reality and power work, and it forms us and creates us in the image of that power. And it works to blind us to other understandings.
I said God creates and fulfils: Creation is not something which finished in Genesis. The creation is ongoing; we are co-creators. Everything we do creates and informs the reality/kingdom/creation in which we live. God entrusts us... with creation. Genesis 1:28 says "God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." That dominion can form for good, or it can kill so constantly in its greed, that it places our survival as a species at risk, as it re-forms the world and alters the shape of the biosphere on which we depend. In the long arc, the actions of a synod meeting contribute to the creation or to the destruction of our world.
The text says we are not permitted to put anyone to death: The Ioudaioi themselves recognise God's desire to create, not kill. They long for this to be a reality. Their statement is not a submission to Roman law and an acknowledgement of its supremacy. This is merely the surface of the text. John is inviting us to recognise, with them, with the Ioudaioi, the deep reality of God and of God's creation even as they are doing the very thing they desire not to do. This could go down as one of the saddest verses in scripture.
The release at the Passover: (John 18:38-40) Please note that many Bibles place a paragraph mark, and even a heading, between "What is truth?" and "After he had said this..." This dramatically breaks apart the meaning of the text. "What is truth?" is a question being asked of the gathered crowd as much as it is of Jesus; indeed Jesus is the question.
We are being re-formed and thereby saved from the ambush of death, and from the enslavement to being the ones who bring death. Might our release at the Passover be that the great horror of death is not that we die, for that is a mere consequence of a creature who, for now, has their being grounded in a biological creation. The great horror of death is that we kill, and cannot escape living in ways that lead to killing.
The King of the Jews: This is the sign posted upon the cross in all the languages of the world. It may be this which rescues the gospel from a racist damning of "the Jews." For we will worship, by following, and by being formed and informed by, the King of the Jews who is hung on a cross. We are of the Jews, in the sense of being God's people. We are not Ioudaioi; Ioudaioi was but one limited and partial expression of being of God's people, even in Jesus' and John's time.
I said in a previous post that "Pilate does not understand that he is not interviewing Jesus ... but that he is being interviewed by Jesus. Jesus is actually asking him, 'What is truth?'" Jesus is asking him— and us— if he is Jew or Ioudaioi, one who chooses the life of God's people, or one who chooses death. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20) As Jesus is "handed over" the crowd who represent us all choose to be Ioudaioi. (John 19:13-16)
Pilate "said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ 15They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ " And at that point, Jews become Ioudaioi, as can we. "The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ 16Then he handed him over to them to be crucified." At that point, Matthew 27:25 says "Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’" and, as until now, our hold upon our humanity slipped again from our bloodied and wet hands.
There is no one righteous: This First Impressions is inevitably a reflection upon the divided and, at times brutal, meeting of our Presbytery and Synod these last few days. I desire that those not from my part of the world would keep reading, because what we have lived through provides a window through which to reflect upon original sin, grace, and salvation.
The implication of what I have said so far about our failed humanity is that no one is righteous; not one. (You can read this in Romans 3:10-12, where Paul is quoting Psalm 14:1-3) Our formation in violence, by violence, means that we are all compromised. This violence is our original sin. The Kingdom of God is at hand or come near. It is not yet a reality to which we have been able, and enabled, to fully submit ourselves. We are all a part of the failure, and of the glory, of the synod meeting.
So, despite the extraordinary skill, grace, compassion, and patience of the Moderator— I am in awe of this woman, and her faithfulness— and despite the same things, and an even more comprehensive grasp of our procedures, on the part of the Interim General Secretary, we were all, even they, one more local failure of humanity. We all in the grip of the original sin of violence. It is ever present, and ever threatening our reconciliation with each other.
For context, Australia is a land of occupation. This fact, and its accompanying racism which informs and forms us is still hotly disputed and unrecognised across the nation. The Uniting Church has been one of the country's leaders in its calls for justice and its commitment to covenant with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. Despite all our failings and divisions, we are deeply committed to this covenant.
Here is the dynamic of our meeting— an interpretation. The processes laid down in The Manual for Meetings, and our deep desire to follow the Christ, meant that we constantly rejected our tendency to violence. We "kept the lid on," slowed things down, and constantly sought to conciliate and engage, despite continual individual failings. And our failed humanity— our not yet humanness— meant we continued to exude the violence by which we have been formed, whether that be in the calling of LGBTIQ+ people "demon possessed"— fortunately not in the plenary sessions— or in my growls of increasing frustration barely held in check by the frequent dig of my partner's elbow. We are none of us righteous, not even one.
There are some signal events I would like to highlight to illustrate this.
A speaker stood to raise a point of order, to make a personal explanation. It was a deep, humble, and comprehensive apology, which must have taken enormous courage and humility. And yet so formed am I by violence, that, like others to whom I have spoken, I felt an internal battle between amazement and cynicism, and between love and rejection. God forgive me that even as I was moved to tears, a part of me looked for the political strategy behind his words. The unreleased and un-rescued part of us does not want healing or salvation. Our deepest formation is simply to want our own way to ensure our own survival.
And so the frustration slowly cracked us open until a speaker questioned the integrity of the Business Committee. The Moderator named the clear implication: the speaker was questioning her integrity. In our released humanity, we were able to reject what I take to be not the personal animosity of the speaker but the manifestation of the crowd, the mob, the Ioudaioi, which John shows us. There was at that moment an invitation to crucify the Moderator. We saw her as a possible scapegoat. I emphasise: not the speaker, but the crowd; the whole of us. And that speaker, and the rest of us, turned away— repented— of the urge; we stopped. And the Christ wept because although none of us are righteous— not one— we had all sought to make him King.
Those present know that we abandoned the issue which was at the heart of our division. The rules and regulations, far from hijacking us or restricting us, as some thought, kept us safe, and gave us opportunity to decompress, reconsider, re-pray, and we will return later and ... may ... re-concile.
So we went on to other issues. And close to the end of that last day, in the discussion over the adoption of a Day of Mourning to be held each Sunday before Australia Day, a view was expressed which seemed to have been formed decades earlier, and never changed. I was appalled. I was outraged, and the elbow was ignored. There was a growing rumble across the whole gathering, and shouted points of order. We raged. We had finally found our scapegoat: one individual, a bit different from us all, weak and unable to fight back— expendable. And finally, both sides who had been struggling with each other the whole three days found a perverse unity as their outage exploded. There is no one righteous. Not even one.
What happened next is for me the signal, single most hopeful event of the entire Synod:
To her eternal credit, the Moderator ruled the person out of order and directed them to return to their seat. She did not cast them out of the meeting. Firm, shocked, she did not descend to the anger and derision many of us were expressing.
She apologised to First People members and visitors; she prayed for them. She left the chair and went to the Elder in the front row.
And to his eternal credit, in the several minutes it took me to pull myself together, and to manage the courage to ask at the microphone if there was care being given to the other victim of our sinfulness, one of the chaplains of Synod had already sought him out.
We managed to interrupt the cycle of violence. We managed to forestall the death. But those present also know that our rejection of the violence— our interruption— was only partial. There followed a great calm, that seemingly miraculous peace which follows the selection of an innocent victim and brings us together. They were as innocent as us all, and as guilty as us all, for no one is righteous, not one. The following and concluding worship was joyful and impassioned just as it always is after the scapegoat is killed.
We celebrated Eucharist, and only the next meeting of Presbytery will tell if were acknowledging the innocence of the Victim, or if we were basking in the relief of finding a scapegoat.
There is no one who is righteous, not even one. I tell you this story not as an exercise of theological analysis, but from deep personal experience. As the old racist language and its expression of Empire began in that incident, I erupted in the rage which had grown in me throughout the meeting. Do you see that my love for the Pitjantjatjara people of the First Peoples who loved and nurtured me as a young man— properly revolted, was hijacked by sheer rage? I know that what I say is true because, as a child, I was the victim, the scapegoat. As all this unfolded, I was shaken to my core because I could see that it was happening all over again, only to someone else. My being was shaken before I realised what I was seeing. I was in the crowd. This is what we do. This is what we must reject.
All our theology is partial. Using theology to define and build fences around holiness and grace is, by definition, in error. We can only love and let ourselves be re-formed by that love, and by the love of the Christ we follow. What will happen if we of the majority sexualities, who are so favoured and entitled by the "traditional view" of marriage, insist that it be maintained to the exclusion of others, when even the secular and "god-less" nation of Australia can see the injustice of this use of sex and gender to define others as less, and exclude them?
What will happen, if we insist on that, is that we will begin the cycle of violence all over again because we are insisting we must win, have our way, be right. And all that begins the process of finding someone else to kill in order to keep our view of the world safe. In that environment, Jesus would rather let himself be killed than build one more Empire or Church which will kill others.
It is in the ones rejected that we find the Christ. If we demonise and exclude LGBTIQ+ people, we reject the Christ. And as much as we have excluded and demonised the speaker of a racist theology, we have rejected the Christ. If we are to be Christ-ian, it does not mean that we must abandon our conviction, held with as much integrity as we can muster, that marriage is between a man and a woman, or even our conviction that this is "a matter vital to the life of the church." It means that we must allow that other folk are equally convicted, with integrity, that the covenant relationship of marriage is simply between two people. The Assembly has discerned that both views are valid. I can rephrase this: The Assembly has discerned that both groups of people— all people— are worthy of life. To choose otherwise is to begin again the long devolution into violence and death; there is an unavoidably binary choice here between being of God's people or being Ioudaioi.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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