The church to which I belong is going through a crisis: its membership is so diminished in numbers and income that it cannot any longer support the large number of constituent parish churches which provided Christian ministry throughout Scotland. Congregations are closing, uniting or being linked with others, and ministers of word and sacrament spread more thinly over the land. There are many causes for this, the most important of which is that not many citizens, especially not many under the age of fifty, are any longer believers; and even those sympathetic to faith show little desire to worship regularly or to support the church financially. The Church has responded honestly and creatively to this crisis, without however communicating to its members any focus of faithfulness other than participation in the re-ordering of local ministries. Perhaps it expects its local ministers to provide this.

I’ve asked myself, if at my advanced age (79) I have anything to offer the congregation to which I presently minister on Sundays. I think that some simple means of asserting individual and communal identity as believers, of living out that identity from day to day, and of imagining the future of faith, would be helpful.

My suggestion is that such a focus can be found in the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father, which has a number of advantages:

1. Almost all believers know it and use it.

2. It comes from Jesus.

3. It is a prayer, rather than a programme.

4. It is personal as well as communal.

5. St. Tertulian (b 165 AD) called it a “compendium of the Gospel.”

Obviously, all these advantages depend on how we pray it and how we understand it. I recommend that we pray it individually or with our families every day, and with our fellow believers once a week. But immediately there is an issue about what version of it we should use. Church tradition has selected the version found in The Gospel of Matthew chapter 6 verses 9-13, but then there is another question about what translation is best. Although older versions are well-known, it surely must be time to to use a modern one, or to alter our traditional versions to incorporate the results of modern scholarship. This is especially true of the familiar words, “ lead us not into temptation” where the modern meaning of “temptation” seriously misrepresents the Greek “peirasmon” which primarily means “testing” or “trial”. The best easily available modern version of the Prayer is the New Jerusalem Bible:

“Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the Evil One.”

It is right to keep the language of “debts” which is broader than that of “sins” or “wrongs.” “Daily bread” is an arguable translation, and “the bread we need” might be better. Other good translations can be found in the REB, GNB, NRSV. I consider the concept of testing or trial essential to the meaning of the prayer, linking it to Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, and to his own testing by Satan.

So, ok, we have a useable translation of the prayer. Our next move might be to invite churchgoers to study it over a period of 6 weeks, during which they would meet once a week using the study material provided while praying the prayer every day, feeding their experience of it into the study. Seeing that the prayer is Jesus’ gift to every disciple, it will be vital to encourage every person to contribute to the discussion, and to record contributions briefly in each study session.

SESSION 1 THE BIBLICAL CONTEXT

Gospel writers used sources of information about Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark and also a collection of the Saying of Jesus, probably in written form. They both freely made changes to their source material as they thought fit, and added other information from other sources.

Matthew was particularly concerned to set the ministry of Jesus in a Jewish context, and to depict him as promised by Holy Scripture and greater than the teachers and prophets who had gone before him. He often compares him to Moses, not least by dividing his gospel into five sections, in imitation of the Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses.

The Sermon on the Mount is a compendium of Jesus’ teaching placed by Matthew in a particular place and time. Probably his sources gave him the material and he invented an appropriate setting. He puts Jesus on a mountain because he wants to compare with Moses at Sinai, bringing the Law from God. Here Jesus brings teaching for the new people of God. Luke sets this teaching on a plain, because he wants to emphasise Jesus’ presence amongst the people. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is found at Luke 11:1-4, which is not part of the sermon on the plain. If you look you can see it only has 5 petitions, whereas Matthew has 7. It seems more likely that Matthew added to the source material than that Luke cut bits out. Matthew’s additions are a) your will be done etc. and b) save us from the Evil One, both of which explain the meaning of what goes before. The ending of the prayer in our usage- for yours is the kingdom etc. – does not belong to the original prayer in either gospel, but was added by the early church assemblies.

Jesus’ prayer draws from the Jewish Bible, as you might expect. The “name” of God was Yahwe, which was once used in prayer, but it became so holy that it could not be spoken at all. To do so was considered blasphemous. The kingdom or rule of God, was first of all Yahwe seen as ruler of the tribes of Israel when they had no king, then as the ruler of the king, and then gradually as the true ruler of the world. His kingdom is not a place, but an active persuasion towards justice, peace and goodness.

SESSION 2 THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel give no information about the author or the circumstances of its composition. Scholars have had to use a certain amount of guesswork to arrive at tentative conclusions. Mark’s Gospel refers to the destruction of the Jewish Temple and is therefore dated after 70 CE when the Romans put down a Jewish rebellion and destroyed their temple. Matthew used a copy of Mark, so his Gospel must be later than Mark’s. Scholars have guessed that Matthew was writing around 80 CE ( or between 75 and 85) for a Christian Assembly in Syria, and a more precise guess in unlikely to be made with the present evidence. The identification of the gospel writer with Matthew/ Levi the disciple of Jesus is almost certainly wrong, as this author relies on sources rather than on his own memories.

He was however, very likely, a Jew, writing at a painful time in the Jewish community, many of whom had been savagely expelled from its own lands by the Romans, leaving the centre of their faith, the Temple utterly destroyed. The Pharisee Teachers began to adapt their faith for use outside the holy land. They saw the Jews who worshipped Jesus as Messiah as a danger to their faith, and began to expel them from their synagogues. The anger of Jewish Christians at this treatment can be seen in the language Matthew uses to recount Jesus arguments with the Pharisees. Even families were divided.

The evidence available suggests that soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news about him began to gain new disciples, and also new communities of disciples in Israel itself and in the surrounding nations. The missionaries saw themselves as a new movement of Jewish faith, and with the missionary work of St Paul and others in Turkey, Greece and Italy, believers began to see themselves as a new sort of Judaism because they no longer awaited a Messiah but were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Stories of Jesus’ life were memorised and passed on to the growing number of Jesus’ Assemblies. The language of these assemblies was the common Greek spoken by most inhabitants of the Roman Empire. In that language they were called Christ- ians using the Greek word meaning anointed or Messiah. Judaism was a “permitted religion” in the Roman Empire, so as Christian assemblies became separate from their mother faith, they became subject to Roman suspicion and eventually persecution. It was at this time that the Gospels were written, providing a resource for the small communities of believers, to support and guide their lives.

SESSION 3 THE FORMAT OF THE PRAYER

The prayer is directed to OUR FATHER. Jesus called God “Abba,” an Aramaic word meaning “dear father”. In this prayer he invites his disciples to share his relationship with God.

The first three petitions deal with God’s business: his holiness, his rule, the doing of his will on earth. The children cry out passionately for the Father’s honour – this is true worship towards God and a separation from the unholy ones who rule on earth and demand that their will be done. It also continues Jesus’ announcement of God’s rule by word and action.

The other four petitions concern the shared life in God’s spirit of Jesus’ disciples. The Spirit is communion: lives open to each other as God’s life is open to them. The children pray for bread, for life’s necessities, because they see them as a gift; and they pray for OUR bread because they know it must be shared. The open table is a good symbol of Jesus’ ministry and of the first assemblies.

The forgiveness of debts is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching, which he likely took from the Jubilee legislation in Leviticus 25: every fiftieth year, debts were to be cancelled, slaves set free, land returned to its original owners. Jesus expressed this liberating Spirit in his identification with the poor, his affectionate opposition to the wealthy, his forgiveness of sinners, and his friendship with outcasts. So the children pray to share that Jubilee spirit as God’s forgiveness of their debt to him, and their forgiveness of what they are owed by others. They want to live in a climate of generosity.

But they remember that such generosity took Jesus to the place of testing, where he asked his father to let him avoid suffering and death, but was refused and died on the stake. Only in and through his death was he saved from the Evil One. So, knowing themselves not greater than their master, the children pray not to be put to the test. Perhaps by the time Matthew was writing, already some Christian Assemblies had been persecuted by the Empire, and knew that tests were real and terrible. Their prayer identifies them with Jesus – like him, they are weak human beings- but they may be able to follow him into hard testing, if they can trust in the God who through resurrection saved Jesus from the Evil One. This too is part of the shared life of the Spirit.

As I understand the prayer then, it seeks the honour of the Father, and the shared life of the Spirit. Believers in the Trinity may ask, what has happened to the Son? The Son is praying this prayer. It is Jesus who prays it and who gives it to his sisters and brothers so that they may pray it in his shoes. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to become one with Jesus and to stand before the Father in the confidence of being his children. So, yes, the prayer becomes trinitarian as it is prayed.

SESSION 4 BEING THE CHILD OF GOD

This is such an unusual idea that we should look at the Sermon on the Mount and see how its purpose is summed up in Matthew 5:45, as “so that you may be children of your Heavenly Father.” Here too Jesus invites people to stand in his shoes, by following his teaching. His relationship to God is not closed but open to all through the wisdom of his teaching and the power of his example.

St. Paul writes of people “growing up into the full stature of Christ,” and suggests that although no one person is fully capable of this, the Assembly of believers can be seen as Jesus’ body, each person a different organ with a special function. This too is stepping into Jesus’ shoes. Some questions may help an understanding of this idea:

I am me, how can I be The child of God?

I’m a serious sinner, how can I be The child of God?

I’m not very bright, how can I be the Child of God?

I can’t do miracles, how can I be The Child if God?

I don’t want to be like Jesus. Look what happened to him.

I’m more comfortable just being a follower. Isn’t that enough?

I’m gay, how can I be the Child of God?

Old fashioned religion was a bit more modest. Couldn’t I just be an ordinary half- convinced church member?

Can a child of God have fun?

The result of dealing with such questions might reassure us that the title Child of God” is meant for us. If so, that leaves a last question:

If you really believed you were a Child of God, what difference would it make to your life?

SESSION 5 BEING CHILDREN OF GOD IN WORSHIP AND OBEDIENCE

If we see how Jesus went about this we may be surprised by how traditional he was: attending pilgrim Feasts at the Temple in Jerusalem, and Synagogue worship on the Sabbath, as a means of honouring God, and opening himself to obey God’s teaching. In addition he studied the Bible, perhaps at the synagogue, which possessed scrolls of the Bible, and may have had a Rabbi/ Teacher who could assist understanding. Like the Rabbis, Jesus may have memorised large amounts of the Bible. For him, this was no dry as dust bible study but exposure to the will of his dear Father , his Abba, and an opportunity to honour him by sharing in communal worship, which was itself focused on understanding scripture and obeying it in odaily life.

Worship in Nazareth expressed Israel’s experience of being God’s child, its joys, its tests, its sorrows, its hope, above all its precious privilege. Worship among the first Christians did the same, but with a heightened sense of each disciple in the community being a child of God along with Jesus, the risen Master. Gathering together with Jesus was fundamental and the presence of Jesus was normally marked by bread and wine, with the memory of the last supper. It was a new meal with Jesus, attended by the children of God. In most cases, it would appear, this was also a real meal, shared by all. The separation of Sunday worship from Holy Communion is the ancient custom of the Church of Scotland, doubtless because its Calvinist founders wanted to avoid what they regarded as the superstition of the Mass. We should ask if perhaps the first believers were not right to see Holy Communion as the basic ordinary form of regular worship. Probably, when that first Assembly met, there were no distinctions, no minister/ priest, no deacon/ elder, no male or adult privilege; all were God’s children. By St Paul’s time there were different functions or roles, some could sing, some could organise, some could make a prophecy, and so on, but there were no differences of status. What would it mean to rebuild our weekly worship on that model? Certainly it would be a challenge to the enforced passivity of congregations and the privilege of ministers. I do not mean that there may not be a role for a trained, full-time minister – especially in the training of others- but this role should be seen as desirable for the wellbeing of the Christian Assembly rather than necessary for its very being.

Praying for God’s kingdom only makes sense in view of the Old Testament story of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the upshot of which is that God is always trying to persuade her human agents to rule for justice mercy and peace. God does not rule directly, but through judges, prophets and kings. Breakthroughs occur when a ruler like David or a prophet like Elijah acts faithfully as God’s agent. Jesus did not imagine that in the present age God would intervene to enforce her rule. Rather he emphasised the immediate availability of God’s persuasion and encouragement. Our prayer for the coming of the kingdom must be passionate but not credulous, childlike but not childish. It must be fuelled on the one hand by prophetic visions of God’s Rule, and on the other by our personal separation from the worldly powers that rule in defiance of God- a separation which is not easy because the persuasions of the Evil One are subtle and convincing. But this difficult separation is proof of our identity as God’s children with Jesus our brother.

Sometimes indeed we also have to separate our physical selves from all company, as Jesus did when he prayed alone. His instruction on personal prayer is very clear: it must not happen in public or in the midst of a worshipping group, but secretly where only God sees. We have to remove ourselves from every temptation to make a show of our faith. If our relationship with God is passionate it is also intimate. It is where we are delighted to be with the Father, who welcomes us, as he did Jesus, “you are my dear child; I am delighted with you.” This kind of prayer may be easier if we meditate on a Bible passage or the words of a hymn or prayer. Our speaking is not important, but our listening is vital. That doesn’t mean we expect to hear a voice, at least not in my experience, but rather that by attending with love we become conscious of who we are and what we are asked to do.

SESSION 6 THE SHARED LIFE OF THE SPIRIT

The second half of the Lord’s Prayer is about sharing the mutuality of God’s goodness. We pray for bread, that is for the necessities of life, because all that we are and have comes from God’s generous creation; and we call it OUR bread because the produce of creation is for all God’s children, which is to say, all living things, the complete ecosystem. Jesus refers to God feeding the birds, so our request for what we need in life is made with the complete ecosystem in mind. If our eating habits are destroying the ecosystem, we cannot pray this prayer. The life God shares with us is the life of all creation, as well as the life of the Scottish children who go to school hungry because their parents are poor. We cannot solve all injustice at once, but we can share what God gives as well as we can.

The extent of God’s sharing is seen in Jesus’ announcement of God’s forgiveness, which he offered with scandalous freedom. Yes, but as Jesus taught it, God’s forgiveness of our debts is a Trojan horse: once within our gates it attacks our selfish defences and demands that we employ it in respect of what we are owed by others. It includes wrongs and hurts and sins, and extends to any sort of debt. Of course if our neighbour owes us money we should expect to be paid- Jesus’ business must have been paid for joiner work -but if the debt is disabling them we must be ready to forgive. How much more ready we should be to forgive the trivial hurts of everyday thoughtlessness. The generosity of God, once received by us, won’t let us alone. But what about seriously evil actions, like child sexual abuse, torture or murder? Surely we are not expected to forgive these! We should explore the idea that God’s justice is one of the strategies of his forgiving love. Firstly, those who have done wrong must undergo a complete change of mind, before they can be forgiven: “change your mind and believe the good news,” Jesus says. God promises that forgiveness awaits the sinner, but it cannot happen without that change. Secondly, justice may involve a penalty. The rich young man has committed the sin of selfish enjoyment of wealth. Jesus loves him and wants him to have forgiveness but first he has to give up his wealth and become a disciple. If a person’s sin has broken human law, then they have to bear the right penalty, which in some cases may be necessary for a true change of mind. Oscar Wilde, reflecting on his fellow prisoners in Reading Gaol, wrote,

And thus we rust life’s iron chain/ degraded and alone./ and some men curse and some men weep/ and some men make no moan./ But God’s eternal laws are kind/ and break the heart of stone.

Ah, happy they whose hearts can break/and peace of pardon win!/How else may man make straight his plan/ and cleanse his soul from sin? / How else but through a broken heart/ May Lord Christ enter in?

We are not asked to forego justice but we are asked to share God’s forgiveness of us with those who have wronged us. As God’s children we live in God’s generosity.

But that generosity is threatening to those who enjoy power over others, who neither give, nor have compassion, but use moral, political or physical force for their own advantage. In Jesus’ case, the Jewish religious and the Roman political establishments were threatened enough by his gospel to cooperate in his death. The cost of offering God’s forgiveness is Jesus’ suffering and death on the execution stake. It is a goddamned lie that God imposed this suffering upon him; rather God suffered with him. Jesus experienced this as a test of his being the Child of God; and he prayed not to undergo this test. Earlier in his ministry he felt tested by Satan to regard his divine childhood as a means of privilege or to abandon it and seize the power that Satan could give him. These experiences explain why the prayer of Jesus asks God not to put us to the test. We are human children of God, not superheroes. Through the suffering of Jesus we become children of God, but we should not be any more confident of standing up to testing than he was. We may have to share his suffering, but like him, we should pray to avoid it.

God cannot control what happens to us, but can, by her persuasion in our hearts, by her sharing of her unconditional love, save us from the power of the Evil One, who wants us to deny that we are children of God and to become lovers of wealth, popularity, domination and violence. If we trust in our Abba we are saved from that, and God’s creative spirit, who raised Jesus from death, is promised to us also.

The first believers came to realise that the life-giving power seen in Jesus’ resurrection, had been active throughout his life, enabling him to attack the forces of death in his society, with courage, humour and wisdom. Children of God, therefore, are realistic about evil but optimistic that in partnership with God and each other, it can be overcome.

As children of God we enjoy the true wealth and splendour of life; the goodness of creation, the love and friendship of human beings, the joy of physical and mental activity, the building of true community, the fight for goodness in the world, and the hope of life beyond death. And we pray not be put to the test, but to be saved from the Evil One.

How do we interpret the impatience Jesus sometimes shows when asked to heal someone, as when he says, How long will I be with you? I think it may be due to his conviction that God’s goodness is available to anyone who has faith. He sometimes says, Your faith has made you whole. Or he recognises the faith of the companions of the paralysed man who is lowered through the roof of a house, and proceeds to announce his healing. Faith, meaning trust in God’s goodness available in Jesus, allows the sufferer to cooperate with his/ her healing; to be, not the object of a miracle but the subject of a joint therapeutic action.

Certainly Jesus trusts in the availability of God, whose persuasive goodness is present in every event, but he knows that God needs active cooperation which is another way of saying faith or trust. Note that this trust is not the expectation that God will miraculously do it all, but rather the readiness to work with God. Often the very fact of the sufferer coming to Jesus shows that this work has begun. Often the work takes only a little time, but it must be shared.

This cooperative pattern is also seen with other forms of rescue by Jesus. Of the sinful woman who accosts him at a pharisee’s table, he says, “ Her great love shows that her many sins are forgiven” and he tells her, “Your faith has made you whole.” In a different instance, a rich young man refuses the difficult cooperation that God requests, and sticks with his wealth.

Jesus’ impatience – evident for example in his healing of an epileptic boy- can be attributed to the failure of people to play their part in healing. Jesus is seen by them as a magician who can do anything, while they remain passive. In this case Jesus’ disciples have tried to help but have failed. When the boy’s father asks him to help “if you can,” Jesus turns the words back on him, “If YOU can! everything is possible for the one who has faith.” The man replies in honest desperation, “I do have faith; help me where faith falls short!” Jesus has roused the man to be an active agent in healing, while he supplies what is lacking. Two faiths are better than one.

This cooperative work of rescue can be seen in the whole of Jesus’ ministry, with the exception of his murder on the cross. Here nobody shares his suffering, not even God. It is his faithfulness to the God who has (temporarily) abandoned him which establishes the greatest divine persuasion of all, the death and resurrection of Jesus. His lonely death pleads for the kind of trust which is ultimately shown in the disciples’ announcement of his resurrection. Even a risen Jesus cannot save the world on his own, but requires the assembly of trusting people, the church in every place and time.

It might seem that St. Paul with his rejection of human works in his teaching of God’s rescuing grace, rules out any notion of a cooperative salvation, but we should be clear that what he rules out are “the works of the Law” that is, the mixture of moral and ritual provisions of the Jewish Torah. Other forms of work are acceptable to him: “Work out your rescue with fear and trembling” Indeed Paul’s teaching about faith is similar to that of Jesus, involving a trustful cooperation with God, which includes human effort. Luther’s interpretation of faith in the writings of Paul is simply wrong, as is his complete rejection of human work as contributing to salvation. Certainly we can say that salvation is pure gift, as everything ultimately comes from God; but it does require to be actively received, cherished and worked out. The Greek word “pistis” usually translated “faith” can mean trust in a person or trustworthiness to a person. Paul means that loving trust in Jesus Messiah, leading to actions worthy of Him, is the right human response to Jesus’ love shown especially in his death on the execution stake. This trustworthiness according to Paul brings people into the shared life (communion) of the Holy Spirit, in which they share the labour pains of God’s perfect creation.

Again, although Paul attributes all power and all knowledge to God, the vocabulary he uses to describe divine actions and relationships point always to partnership. Of course one can affirm partnership while affirming God’s omnipotence by saying that God in his love lays aside omnipotence in order to rescue his human children. That is certainly a moving picture. But what about the God who lays aside his omnipotence in order to permit Auschwitz and the death of children from cancer? That is perhaps not so moving unless we mean being moved to rage and unbelief. I prefer the God of persuasion and partnership revealed in Jesus.

What if the part human imagination plays in the experience of God is grounded in the fact that God does not have existence in him/herself alone, but is as dependent on the universe as the universe is dependent on God?

The great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna taught that “All things have their being and nature through dependence on other things; and aside from this co-dependency there is nothing.” When he was challenged that this would mean that the Buddha and Buddha Truth were dependent on other things, he did not repent but boldly affirmed this to be the case. Something that has intrinsic existence in itself cannot learn and cannot love for these involve change.

Now Nagarjuna was talking about Buddha who is the enlightened human being rather than God, so Christian believers might find themselves agreeing with Nagarjuna in respect of all beings in the universe, while denying that his doctrine can apply to God, who is not of the universe at all. God may be IN the universe in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but is not OF the world and no worldly conditions apply to him/her. Except of course, as a glance at the hymn book will confirm, believers characterise God as omnipotent, just, merciful, loving. St. Thomas says that these words are applied to God by analogy, just as the Bible depicts God as sitting, rising up, coming down, and so on. We do not mean such words literally, but as human similes which can be applied to God because after all humans are made in “his image and likeness.” If however, God is indeed like human beings, if moreover he/she is to love her creatures, then she must surely be subject to the fundamental condition of all existence, namely what Nagarjuna called “dependent arising.” God may indeed be the creator of this universe, bringing order out of chaos and life out of no-life, but God becomes God in and through the process of creation, as indeed is the case in the Hebrew story of creation in Genesis 1: God is revealed as the universe is revealed; God has no life before creation. The event of God is just as much a singularity as the event of the universe.

So OK, can the story of this God be told?

God comes alive as his/her Spirit broods over chaos, and with one enabling word creates energy which flows out in all directions here and there becoming light, the same light which burns in the Sun and is shed onto its planets. God’s spirit is in the energy, the light, the stars, the sun, the planets the earth, always persuading the existing particles into events of greater complexity -proteins, amino acids, organic molecules, and with extra persuasion, a living cell; life in the oceans, on land, in the air, plentiful and free. Nothing made to do anything, all persuaded into growth and development. That meant accidents. Life destroyed in volcanic firestorms. Life wiped out in the wake of asteroid collisions. But life itself insatiably finding its way over obstacles and through extinctions, urged by the persuader present in every event. And yes, eventually, but not at all finally, the hairless ape, which would be the greatest accident and disaster of all, appeared. The creator continues through the long 6th day of his creation to struggle towards the 7th day in which there will be peace and perfection. He/she is sadder and wiser than when the world began. The life of Jesus is the saddest and wisest event in this struggle.

I don’t think this story is unbiblical. It’s true that this God is not omnipotent, but subject to the resistance of the universe, and especially of Homo sapiens. Curiously, although the Bible often speaks of an all-powerful and commanding God who cannot be resisted, its main narratives are full of resistance and the stubborn refusal of human beings to obey. They are also full of the splendid stories of partnership with God, the Abrahams, Isaacs, Jacobs, the Sarahs Rebeccas and Rachel’s who allow God to do things that would have been impossible otherwise. Once you start interpreting the Bible with the concept of a co-dependent God, it’s hard to stop because it fits so well.

The story of this God is always twofold: the response of the creation to God, and the response of God to creation.The metaphor of the Virgin birth of Jesus shows him as the perfect climax of this double story.

At the end of my second last blog, I described the Holy Spirit as the shared project of God and human beings to bring victory out of defeat by importing the ultimate perfection of the universe into the present time, by living tomorrow’s life today. This is of course linked to Jesus’ ministry of God’s kingdom, by means of which God’s future erupts into the present time. Indeed Jesus’ whole ministry is inspired by the Spirit which had descended on him in baptism. But long before Jesus, the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the creation story of Genesis, and in many of the oracles of the prophets.

The question arises: is the experience of the Holy Spirit the same before and after the earthly life of Jesus? It would seem impious to suggest otherwise, but then if the action and suffering of Jesus have added nothing to what Isaiah knew, that looks like a lot of bother for nothing. I had already characterised the Spirit as the persuasive action of God on the universe, on molecules and minds, but if Jesus is seen as the conclusive act of divine persuasion, surely something is thereby added to the Holy Spirit? The Nicene Creed may take account of this with its description of the Spirit “proceeding from the Father and the Son.” Well that’s the Latin version of the Creed. The Greek version does not have “and the Son” insisting that the Spirit takes life only from the Father. Somehow we want to honour the integrity of human experience of the Spirit throughout history while recognising the crucial place of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection in the experience of God. Yes. I meant that. God was changed by the event of Jesus: the suffering of God with Jesus opens up in the Father even greater depths of compassion, and in the Spirit a greater urgency to adopt human beings as children of God, like Jesus. In his letter to Romans Paul wrote of the same Spirit that Isaiah knew, but it is a Spirit who has learned to tell the human spirit that it is a child of God. Yes, God learns. If God loves, how can he/she not learn?

Perhaps we can lean a little on the Pauline phrase, “the communion of the Holy Spirit.” In Greek this is koinonia, a word taken from the cultural and commercial life of the Greek cities. Enterprises with several partners were a koinonia. People who belonged to religious, philosophical or artistic clubs were a koinonia. Paul used it of the life that believers shared with each other and with God. The writer of the First Letter of John writes that the purpose of his letter is that the recipients may have koinonia with the senders who have koinonia with the Father and his son Jesus Christ. Something that faithful people might have looked for in the world to come, a common life with God, is said to be available now, to all. The life of the Holy Spirit is characterised in the last three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: shared daily bread, shared forgiveness of debts, shared deliverance from evil.

This last petition is well placed to remind the one who shares a common life with God, that temptation towards evil is still possible, in fact very much possible for people who believe they are united with the Most High. The name of this basic temptation is arrogance – remember the garden of Eden? Human beings may imagine that they are such privileged creatures that the other creatures don’t really matter as much. But if the Spirit cooperates in the birth of every child, acts as the finger of God in every healing, and raises the murdered Jesus to new life, it must understand the process of every molecule, the life of every cell, and incorporate in its koinonia the planet and all its living things. It has been active in the creation of all forms of spirited dust from viruses to vaccines, from cabbages to kings. The communion of the Holy Spirit includes the ecosystem of the universe. All life and all the bases of life are holy.

This truth has been evident to some Eastern religions, especially Jainism and Buddhism for centuries, while Christians have been deceived by bad theology, bad humanism and bad science into thinking that homo sapiens is all that matters. The idiot Mr. Musk was quoted the other day defending expeditions to Mars because we’ll need to live there when we’ve made the earth uninhabitable. In all honesty I have to admit that the Bible and the Christian tradition, lacking any profound insight into non- human life , have been an obstacle rather than an encouragement to ecological awareness. A reformed trust in an all- inclusive Holy Spirit may lead to a wholesale reformation of Christian thinking.

The foregoing blogs are only an initial attempt at grasping the sort of story told by Mark’ Gospel. All the groundwork – the history, sociology, anthropology, economics, politics and culture of the society in which it was written are missing from my account, although some amounts of all of these have fed my understanding over the years of my study of this text.

Q. So, wouldn’t it be better to start with these basics rather than rushing into the kind of theological overview I have given. Surely that overview may need altered by the results of these other disciplines?

A. Yes, it may need alteration, but some grasp of the extraordinary story which Mark told, is necessary in advance of using these disciplines more thoroughly, if only to guide that use and make it fruitful. So, for example, my overview reveals that this text is not an eyewitness account of Jesus’ life and death, but rather a narrative meditation on the memory of Jesus held by the author and the community of faith to which he or she belonged.

I do not need therefore to use the resources of history to discover factual evidence for every event in the narrative. It is irrelevant whether or not Pilate had the custom of releasing a political prisoner at Passover time, since Mark is using a typical folktale motif – the choice of which prisoner to be released- to show the determination of the Jewish leaders that Jesus should be killed. If we found out from historical sources that Pilate did in fact have this custom, that would add to our knowledge of Pilate, but would not make it more certain that Mark’s story is factual, because any sensible person who reads it, knows that it is not primarily a factual report.

Yet historical study is necessary to show that it does contain some factual material: the fact of Jesus’ life and its location; the period of time and the social conditions in which he lived; the faith of the Jewish people and its institutions; the geography of Galilee and Jerusalem; the Roman Empire and its administration of Galilee and Judaea; the politics of the occupied territories; the language of Jesus as different from the language of the Gospel; the fact of slavery; the economics of these areas; their climate and ecology; the teaching, healings and death of Jesus; the existence of his disciples as a group. And much more. Enough to show that although the Gospel is not a factual report, neither is it a theological fantasy with a wholly imagined hero, based on an extreme form of Judaism.

Q. Another question is why I permitted myself the freedom of re-imagining Mark’s story. Surely that involves an illegitimate leap from the language of the first century into that of the twenty first? As if we could mean the same thing by the word “God” as Mark meant. And why adultérate Mark’s imagination by mine?

A. If the leap is impossible, there is no point in reading the Gospel as it would remain a mere time capsule, opaque to our understanding. And if imagination was necessary for Mark’s understanding of Jesus, it may also be true that mine is essential to my understanding of Mark, and may be useful to others, provided I do not try to conceal it. One of the debilitating assumptions of the worship of the Church of Scotland is that the mere reading of Scripture is meaningful to the congregation. Yes, a sermon follows which may assist such understanding, but often by that time the reading itself will have been forgotten. A good translation can assist the transfer of meaning from text to people, but often the clearer the translation the more opaque the text which is rooted in another time, place and culture. Attempts to overcome this problem by forms of scripture which are frankly paraphrase rather than translation are unsuccessful because they limit the scripture to the skill and honesty of one paraphraser. But a re-imagining of scripture based on the best practice of Christian scholars is a reasonable task for clergy in the reformed churches. Mark needs many others like me to make his/her imagination comprehensible to twenty first century readers.

Q. You don’t need to be a Marxist to see that theological ideas however imaginative belong to the ideological superstructure of a communal event of which the lives of particular persons in a particular society are the material basis. Given that God cannot be seen, the reality of what he/she does must somehow be evident in what people say and do and suffer. Yet my re-imagining of Mark takes very little account a) of the people who participated in the ministry of Jesus, especially the Galilean disciples, or b) the people from whom Mark learned the story of Jesus forty years after that ministry.

A. I agree with this objection: the people of Galilee, those who encountered him and those who followed him; the people of Jerusalem who participated in the events of the last period of his life before his murder; the Pharisees, Sadducees, priests and High Priest; the Roman officials and soldiers; all these need attention, as we cannot understand the story of the Gospel without them.

Then there are simple but vital pieces of historical information: what is a denarius? What was the average daily wage of a Galilean peasant? How was the fishing trade organised in Galilee? What was a “carpenter”? How does crucifixion kill you? Familiarisation with such matters is also necessary for interpretation.

I can only plead that I have studied all or most of these matters over the years, and do not feel I need to detail them in this series of blogs. Those who want this kind of information could usefully read The Historical Jesus, a Comprehensive Guide by Gerd Theissen, Fortress Press.

Q. Usually scholars interpret the tearing of the temple curtain in one of two ways: as signifying an end to the temple worship for those who trust in the crucified Jesus; or as signifying a new open access to the heart of God. I suggest that it signifies the rending of the partnership of God and Jesus, meaning it is one with his cry of abandonment. How can I be sure I’m right, given especially that Jesus was quoting a psalm which ends with trust in God?

A. Let’s remember that one of these events did not happen – the tearing of the curtain – and that the other may have, but who would have heard it? So this is how Mark imagined Jesus dying, and therefore the details are his. I think he means the cry to be one of abandonment. Luke supplied details which end with an expression of trust; Mark could have done so. The curtain is a more difficult matter. As it screened the Most Holy Place it can be interpreted as the interface between humanity and God, a symbol of the relationship of God and Jesus. But yes, the tearing of it can be seen as a symbol of revelation, of the un- concealment of God. Such a meaning seems to contradict the cry of Jesus, whereas my interpretation, that it symbolises the state of abandonment would be more appropriate. Perhaps it could be seen as the tearing apart of the flesh of Jesus to reveal his divine holiness? That might chime with the response of the Centurion,”Surely this man was a son of God!” I want to focus on the reality of the abandonment, which I see as central to Mark’s understanding of the murder of Jesus. I am aware that in all probability Mark had access to an account of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem concluding with his death, which may have been written or memorised and spoken. Some of the details he used may have been in that account, but the choice of detail remains his.

I wonder if my interpretation of the resurrection in Mark is totally honest. I say that I am following Mark, who gives no detail about the resurrection. That’s true, but I also should have stated that I start from the conviction that no “supernatural” events happen in this world. So corpses blasting their way out of tombs is not on my list of possible happenings. But even when I believed that the resurrection happened much as recounted, I nevertheless thought it disappointing that after trying to save the world through a human being, God intervened by force majeure to rescue Jesus and defeat the powers of evil. After all, presumably he could have just solved all the problems of the world by supernatural action, and saved Jesus the trouble. My interpretation doesn’t rule out divine action in the divine sphere, where God takes Jesus into Godself forever, while leaving his disciples to be persuaded of his resurrection by his life and death. The nature of that persuasion can be seen in Paul’s description of the appearance of the risen Jesus to him: “it pleased God to reveal his son in me.” For Paul this risen life fills all worlds, but is manifested in him and other believers. There is something in Paul’s experience of himself, which he calls, “messiah in me,” but equally he writes of “ growing into the full stature of Messiah, and of belonging with others to the “body of Messiah”, in which believers comprise the organs and limbs of the body. The risen Jesus is wonderfully greater than his followers but not separate from them. Their imagination of him still matters.

In using Mark’s gospel as an imaginative account of Jesus’ murder, I realised that his narrative of that murder is the key to the whole of his story of God’s persuasion of human beings in the life of Jesus; and although this story is only one of many in the New Testament, I want to look at it more comprehensively, to begin rewriting the story of God.

The first verse of Mark’s gospel is notoriously slapdash in its syntax:

“Beginning / origin/ foundation/ of the joyful message of Jesus messiah, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet…..

There is no punctuation in the Greek MSS so it’s not clear whether the opening sentence ends after Messiah or continues into the reference to Isaiah. It is clear however that Mark is emphasising the first word. He wants to remind the reader of that other beginning which is the first word in the Book of Genesis, which signals the mysterious start of God’s creation of the universe. He is saying that the ministry of Jesus is part of that creative movement of God, indeed, a decisive part.

A little later, in the baptism of Jesus, Mark tells us that at that moment, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart ( the Greek verb is schizo as in schizophrenia). The Genesis story tells that God made a vault to separate the realm of the universe from the realm of God. Mark is saying, in language borrowed from the Hebrew Bible that all separation of God from his creation is abolished in the mission of Jesus.

Mark shows us the dove of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, settling on Jesus, while God’s voice recognises Jesus as his/ her dear son. Then “immediately” as Mark insists, the Holy Spirit drives(!) him out to be tested by Satan, the enemy of God and power of evil. This phase of creation involves battling the power of evil. How quickly and vividly Mark establishes the theology of his gospel!

God is the creator God who is still at work making a universe of which he/she can say, that it is good. In pursuit of this goal God recognises Jesus as the dear son and rips open the vault of heaven to send the Holy Spirit upon him.

Jesus who is called Messiah, ie anointed person, is God’s dear child, God’s human partner in the battle against evil. Jesus does not separate himself from other human beings but comes with sinners seeking a new start in baptism.

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God with the universe and its creatures. It’s dovelike shape is a reminder of its brooding presence over the waters of chaos in Genesis, a telling image of God’s persuasive love. It is the available God, present in every event, but especially present to Jesus, who is uniquely responsive to it.

Let’s not say that from the beginning of Mark’s gospel we have a doctrine of the Trinity, but rather that we have a vivid articulation of the dimensions of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

At the risk of ridicule let me imagine God, as the One in whose womb the universe is being born. Jesus is the child God has made already before the programme started, as the model for all things. The Holy Spirit is the life God shares with her children, through the health of her own body. The pregnancy is menaced by disease, so the Holy Spirit actively persuades the universe towards life, and Jesus plays the role of good physician. When disease strikes the physician, clearly we have a crisis. The key to this clumsy metaphor is that just as a woman does not have access to her own womb, so God the mother/ father does not have direct access to creation, because God respects the creation’s own processes of growth.( freewill).

Mark goes on to depict Jesus as teacher and healer, who in both activities battles for life against death. Evil and death are linked powers in Mark’s view, infecting not only bodies but minds and doctrines. When he teaches that the Sabbath was made for human beings and not the reverse, he tackles the deadening power of religion on scriptural law. The same power can be seen today in the conservative insistence on what Leviticus says about homosexual acts. Jesus’ principle of interpretation is that all rules are intended for the benefit of human beings. For life and not for death. That is to say that scriptures must be interpreted in the light of the Holy Spirit, the life God shares with people. When the religious leaders estimate that Jesus’ healings are enabled by the power of evil, Jesus warns them that if they badmouth the spirit, because they do not value its gift of life, it may not be available to them to prompt their own escape from death. The same principle is announced when Mark shows him dealing with a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. When conscious that he is being observed by religious leaders, he asks, Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil? To rescue life or to kill? Actual, ordinary life, the gift of the creator, is the touchstone of his teaching and healing. Of course we may say he is also concerned with the quality of life, but he is disturbingly unconcerned with what some would define as quality, when he forgives sins almost casually and provides physical health.

What are the evil spirits against whom he acts so decisively? Elsewhere I have analysed these as a combination of personal damage and social prejudice. Leprosy as such is physical damage but the society’s fear of the disease and rejection of the sufferer is social prejudice which makes the sufferer feel unworthy, to the extent that they find it hard to believe that anyone cares. As when the leper says to Jesus, If you want to….you can make me clean. Or there is the damage done to the demon-possessed man from Gerasa, by the Roman conquest, who gives his name as Legion. The brutality of Roman conquest is matched by the fear of his community, to leave him afflicted. Jesus has the courage to do battle for the man’s life, but in order to do so, he has to enter the conflicted realm where evil has power and may damage him. His willingness to put himself at risk is a measure of his trust in the efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

Evil is no-creation or un-creation, the embrace of chaos as a tool for gaining power over the forces of the universe and over the bodies and minds of living creatures. It is ultimately self-destructive, but it lives a parasitic existence on the back of those it seduces, terrorises and torments. Mark represents this evil principally in diseased people whom Jesus heals, and in the powerful religious leaders whom he opposes. The corrupt court of Herod who almost literally consumes his people, and the equally corrupt government of Pilate are other possessed bodies.

Evil is only manifest in human arrogance, wealth, malice, hard-heartedness, lies and cruelty, so Mark leaves it open whether it has an origin beyond humanity. The Satan, the enemy of God, may as easily be a product of human evil as its cause. Evil is happy to maintain the kind of secret hegemony it exercises in the Israel that Jesus challenges, but once challenged, once exposed by the demonstration of goodness, it reveals itself as a vicious killer.

But the crucial moment of revelation is the moment of Jesus’ dying, when he is separated from the presence of the father/ mother God, because the Holy Spirit is no longer active but suffering. What is happening here? Mark tells us with the sign of the temple curtain torn asunder ( Greek schizo, as in the baptism story) that here the heart of God is revealed as ready to suffer out of love for his/her human son, and for the universe through him. At the same moment evil is revealed as a busted flush because with all its force it cannot compel allegiance from a human being, even when the human being feels abandoned by God. In face of the sorrow of God and of God’s child, evil is shown up as brutal and impotent. The exposure of the human/divine partnership reveals limitless resources of love; the exposure of evil reveals it as bankrupt.

This is the point where the reasonable reader says, Come on, in spite of all your rhetoric, Jesus is dead, snuffed out, nailed down, kaput, yes? So we may give him a sort of spiritual superiority to the powers of evil, but not victory, if we want to keep,our feet on the ground. In the real world the result is Sanhedrin +Romans 1: Jesus+ God 0.

Even from a perspective of worldly realism, we may question this alleged result. Has it not often been the case that the example of the martyred leader has given courage to the apparently defeated forces of justice so that they rally, persist and finally win? The persuasive power of the martyr, which shares in the persuasive love of God, cannot be safely ignored by the worldly powers that killed him/her.

But from the perspective of God there is more to say. We left God suffering the death of Jesus, the Holy Spirit rendered inept by Jesus’ acquaintance with grief. And God the father/ mother, in whom we live and move and have our being also suffered the same event. But to suffer is to receive, and to receive is to take into oneself, and to be taken into the self of God is to find life if you want it or death if you don’t. In this suffering, therefore, in this grieving love, Jesus finds again the life he has always shared with God, and evil people find the death which is their true desire. And the life of Jesus, no longer circumscribed by earthly limits, is unlimited in its scope and joy: the son is with the father, the child is with the mother.

But this is not yet the resurrection, since it leaves the human beings whom Jesus loved out of the picture. They are left simply with what they saw or heard of Jesus: that he died painfully opposing the powers of evil, out of love for God and the world. If the veil has been torn away, what they can see is a dead body on a stake. The question is: Is that enough? Can they believe that this is nevertheless a victory, and not a skin -of -the -teeth victory but an overwhelming conquest of evil and death? The answer is, they can, as they decide to continue Jesus’ ministry. No jiggery-pokery with tombs, no visions beyond those often seen by mourning people, are given to them. Perhaps it took months, assisted by Jesus prophecy that he would meet them again in Galilee, the place of the “beginning” where the doing of God’s persuasion in the world has to start again and again.

Mark gives no stories of Jesus’ appearing; only the enigmatic empty tomb and the command to keep the rendezvous with him. What we know is, eventually they announced the resurrection. They were persuaded and believed they could persuade others. The stories of Jesus appearing to individuals and groups are skilled narrative versions of this fundamental faith: persuaded by Jesus’ life and death, they believed he was alive in God, victorious over evil. So of course his tomb is empty, of course his most faithful followers, women, experience him as alive, of course his presence is felt in the discussions they had about his mission and death, of course he offers forgiveness and re-employment to Peter and all his shaky disciples. Yet it’s important that all this comes from facing the terrible silence of God that Jesus faced in his dying. God must not give them sneaky evidence of the truth. Out of their disappointment, their rage at injustice and the doers of it, their continuing loyalty to Jesus’ as the true ruler, out of their guts, they must imagine it for themselves; then it is resurrection, in which God and human beings give strength to each other and can celebrate with each other as partners in victory.

That partnership in which human beings share God’s ability to create liberation out of a sorrowful defeat, gives them a present into which they dare to import the promise of God’s future; they can live tomorrow’s life today. This is called the gift or shared life of the Holy Spirit, who is constitutive of the Assembly of Christian believers.

Yes, this is my imagination of Mark’s imagination of Jesus, except I have missed out much of his rich picture. But I have tried to be faithful to his strange truth. In my next blog I will attempt a critique of what I have written.

The gospels name two groups of people as responsible for the murder of Jesus:

1. The religious leaders of the Jewish people

2. The Roman imperial administration under Pontius Pilates.

With regard to 1. It is reasonable to remember that probably by the time the gospels were written, the Jewish Temple had been destroyed by the Romans and the synagogue Jews and the Jesus Jews had separated in enmity. It seems likely that the picture given of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and their legal experts (scribes) by the gospel writers may have transferred the open enmity experienced in their own times back into the time of Jesus and explained it as a quarrel about the nature of the Torah, the Law of God, as well as Jesus’ claim to be an authoritative interpreter of it. Modern examinations of Pharisaic teaching and Jesus’ teaching cannot find the differences which would have justified such antagonism or the very negative depiction of the Pharisees given in Matthew Mark and Luke, far less the depiction of those called Judaeans in the gospel of John.

Of course religious antagonism is not always rational; and the challenge of Jesus to the authority of established teachers and leaders may have been the root of it. If Jesus insisted on his own unique authority as much as the gospels show him doing, then we may understand why any traditional religious community might oppose his apparent arrogance. Matthew depicts him as a teacher of radical wisdom, Mark as a revelation of God’s goodness, Luke as prophet of truth, John as the announcer of a divine love available only to those who believed in him, and all of them as the Messiah/ Son of God. It seems likely that someone remembered in those ways would arouse suspicion and enmity from established religious leaders, namely the chief priests, as well as the teachers of the holy law and supporters of local synagogues, namely the Pharisees.

My judgement remains however that because of subsequent open enmity between followers of Jesus and the Jewish synagogues, we cannot wholly trust that the content of gospel passages involving the Pharisees is free of distortion. This places question marks against accusing the Jewish religious establishment of the major rôle in the murder of Jesus.

To understand why he was murdered it may make sense to start with the fact that the Roman authority put him to death as a messianic pretender. The Romans had some experience, and were to have more, of Jewish religious leaders who engaged in jihad against their rule. They understood that the claim to fulfil messianic prophecies, and to be sent by God to announce his kingdom, could result in open revolt which would cost Roman lives as well as Jewish. They almost certainly had a network of informants who would report on any local religious movement that might cause trouble. Pontius Pilatus did not need Jewish leaders to tell him about Jesus; he had his own information.

The Roman suspicion of Messiahs would have been shared by the Chief Priests, who feared the terrible damage caused by revolts to the lives of their people and to the continuation of the Temple cult. Indeed the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the ultimate dispersal of the Jewish people in 135CE were caused by Messianic revolts. Given the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire, sensible leaders counselled an acceptance of its rule provided it did not encroach on their religious activity. The High Priests also would have had their informants, who may have characterised the Galilean rabbi as messianic and dangerous.

The above analysis suggests that whereas the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution may be generally accurate, the specific detail given by each may be more imaginative than historical. They give no sources for the information they convey. At the time of Jesus’ arrest, it is probable that none of the followers of Jesus were eyewitnesses of his trial ; and that few saw his crucifixion. They give, in any case, somewhat irreconcilable accounts, as they do of the resurrection. My conclusion is that although we must deal with the gospels as holy writ, we must interpret their witness to Jesus’ murder as theological rather than historical, as imaginative story rather than reportage. Of course there will have been a historical memory of what happened to Jesus, built from personal involvement and details sourced from soldiers, slaves and other participants. But we are not given this. Rather we have four different imaginative versions whose aim is to communicate the divine reality of the historical event. I propose to look at the Markan account which influenced all the others.

There are quotations from the Hebrew Bible in Mark’s version, -such as from Daniel chapter 7 re the Son of Man, and Psalm 110 re Jesus at God’s right hand – which by are important; but beyond these there are whole stories from that Bible which influence the whole of Mark’s story of Jesus’ murder:

1. Passover. This association is given by the narrative of the Passover meal. Originally the blood of a lamb smeared on Jewish houses meant that God’s spirit who killed the first-born of the Egyptians passed over the Jewish families. Certainly some believers saw Jesus as the sacrificial lamb whose blood protected them from the wrath of God. It’s possible that Mark saw the murder of Jesus as terrible parody of the Passover, in which Jewish people murdered the eldest son of God. Beyond the specific connections however there is the fact that the murdered Jesus is seen as leading his people in a new exodus, into a new covenant.

2. Covenant. Jesus spoke of his blood as being of the new covenant. The Mosaic covenant was accompanied with the blood of oxen, while the people committed themselves to the laws of God while God promised to bless the people and lead them to a good land. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant by which God would write his laws on his people’s hearts, and forgive their sins. The book of Hebrews which may have been written by the time of the gospels speaks of Jesus’ blood, given once and for all as a sacrifice to God, being effective in establishing a new and greater covenant with God.

3. The suffering servant. The songs of the suffering servant are found in Isaiah chapters 40-55, the so-called “second Isaiah.” They are meditations on an ideal servant of God, who incorporates elements of great leaders and prophets, along with the history of Israel itself. Chapter 52:13 – 53: 12, speaks vividly of “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” whose suffering brings others healing and peace with God. Details of this song, such as the silence of the servant, his being led like a lamb to the slaughterhouse, and his tomb being with the rich, are influential in all narratives of Jesus’ murder. The servant took upon himself the sins of others, although it is emphasised that he was not being punished by God, but brutalised by human violence. God, seeing his sacrifice, loads on to him the sins of others and forgives them. The influence of this profound chapter is evident throughout all the New Testament witness to Jesus.

4. Psalm 22. Individual lines are significant to Mark, like its opening cry of abandonment which Mark puts on the lips of Jesus, and those about the division of his garments. But it is the lonely desperation of verses 1-21 upon which he focuses. Like the psalmist, Jesus is in terrible pain and bodily indignity. Like the psalmist is is cruelly mocked. Like the psalmist he trusted in God, only to find himself in this extremity. Doubtless the Psalmist’s praise of his rescuing God was also noted by Mark, but he chose not to use it in his story. The fact that the cry of abandonment is Jesus final utterance in the gospel indicative of Mark’s strange and astonishing theology; how can this be good news?

5. The pattern of Jesus’ healing, set out in Mark’s gospel. Mark is rigorous in establishing this pattern: 1. Jesus encounters need. 2. Jesus enters into a place of danger/ taboo/ evil /death. 3. Jesus heals the needy person(s). This is a distinctive pattern, seen for example in the healing of Jairus’ daughter where Jesus literally enters a place of death, breaking the social taboos, and raises a child to life. “Time to get up,” he tells her. Mark intended his narrative of Jesus’ murder to reveal the same pattern, on a vaster scale. His death and resurrection say to humanity, “Time to get up.” Because this theme is Mark’s own we may reckon it as the one he intended to be most significant for the understanding of Jesus’ death.

I now want to resume my earlier imagination of Jesus as the one in whom God is human. He was able to discern in any event which he encountered, the persuasive presence of God, and by his own faithful response, to reveal that presence as good news for people. In God he consciously lived and moved and had his being. The pattern imagined by Mark mentioned above is shown by the gospel writer to be part of Jesus’ battle against evil, which is also God’s battle. God cannot perfect his world without human partnership because God has given human beings the power of free will. Jesus is the one who understands what Paul calls the weakness and foolishness of God. The German theologian murdered by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, also understood: God is weak in this world, he said, so he gets pushed out of the world onto the cross.

In his healing ministry, Jesus constantly sides with the weakness of God, entering the places owned by the “strong man” Satan, boldly channelling God’s persuasive goodness, putting his own reputation and sometimes his own safety at risk for the sake of the suffering person. In these events Jesus is already and always the crucified Lord.

Mark’s narrative of the arrest, trial and murder of Jesus reveals the same pattern in the greatest detail. The whole event of the murder and the resurrection is imagined by the author as a new Passover in which Jesus is the willing victim who is slaughtered so that the power of death may pass by his people. His is the blood of a new covenant, a new intimacy between God and his people. He is the suffering servant acquainted with grief upon whom the evil of the world in unloaded. He is the one who trusted God and becomes a worm, not a person.

The narrative emphasises the willingness of Jesus, even against the desire of his own soul, to model the persuasion of God. The ease with which worldly powers can do their will is shown in the Sanhedrin, the Roman Governor , the crowd and the soldiers. They do the talking, they make decisions, they act, while Jesus is silent; subject to their decisions, he suffers. The scriptures witness to the fact that this kind of suffering is all too common in the lives of those whom have served God. It has always been very easy to refuse the persuasion of God, to kill the protester, torture the opponent, bomb the rebels, rape the wives of the foreigner, crucify the disturber of your peace. Jesus is silent as God is silent before the inexorable pressure of religious and political power. This takes courage, of which Mark wants us to know that Jesus is capable, while Peter is not. Staying with the persuasion of God is not a walk in the park. He above all retained his humanity while his torturers lost what little of it they possessed.

So can Jesus defeat the evil to which he is subjected, by maintaining his bond of love with God? If he can show that bond as unbreakable in the face of evil and death, then surely he will have won a victory. But Mark has respect for the power of evil; he refuses to show Jesus as a stoic hero untouched by his suffering. “My God,” he howls “why have you abandoned me?” The persuasive presence of the father is not any longer experienced by Jesus in his moment of most need. What is this? What use is a God who cannot even give emotional succour to his beloved son who is being murdered? Is not this a profound disgrace? Luke recognised this and gave Jesus more trusting words before he died. Mark gives the reader a hint: the curtain in the temple which separated the holy area from the holy of holies is torn apart at the moment of Jesus’ dying, just as the heaven was torn open at the moment of his baptism. God, the eternal one is torn open in the mission and suffering of his beloved son. God is not active at Jesus’ side because he is suffering with him; he also is weak and wounded. In this moment when their partnership is torn apart, when their lives are shredded, they are most completely united in their suffering. In case we haven’t picked up the clue, Mark adds the testimony of the centurion, that this man is a son of God, which reminds us of what God said to Jesus at his baptism, You are my dear Son; I am delighted with you. Jesus, God’s son refuses to be separate from the persuasive love of the father, while the father refuses to be separate from the agony of the son. Together they deprive evil of its power. Together they share a life undefeated by evil and death. This is the shared life, the communion of the Holy Spirit, the life of God’s future, in which “those who endure will be rescued”

Yes, this goes bit beyond Mark, but not much. I am imagining Mark imagining Jesus.

I had promised to deal with the murder and resurrection of Jesus, but before I do so I want to define more clearly what I mean by responding to God’s persuasion in the events of the world. To assist with this I have referred to the parable of the Judgement found in Matthew chapter 25:

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.32 Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. 36 I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?’

40 “The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[c] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’

45 “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Some think Jesus is saying that God’s appointed King is present in the “1east important of his brothers” who must therefore be served by believers. There’s is truth in this, but it ignores one important detail: the righteous don’t know they are serving the king; they are just serving the least important! It may be that those who make a fetish of “serving Christ in the poor” are in danger of ignoring the subtlety of Jesus’ parable, and failing to engage with their unimportant brothers and sisters, since ordinary kindness is better than religiously motivated charity.

This example suggests how we should understand the doctrine that God is persuasively present in all worldly events. S/He is not to be understood as a divine addition to their worldly reality, but as a divine incarnation in them: they are, if we wish to notice it, the presence of God; the more they are themselves, the more they are God. The pair of starlings who have nested in my neighbour’s eves, bringing forth their chicks in spite of the efforts of the neighbourhood cats, speak to me of God, not because of some added spiritual dimension but because of their robust and glittering starling-ness, their care for their nestlings as well as their winged aggression against intruders. Gerard Manley Hopkins understood:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

When God became incarnate in Jesus, s/he’d had some practice.

The gospel of Jesus tells me that I am a beloved child of the creator God. In the book of Genesis, the presence of the Creator in every aspect of the creation is noted when God sees that each created thing is “good.” The creator’s goodness is present in all creatures; each in its true identity is an instance of God. If I abandon my sins, I can find my true self, my divine identity, and become capable of discerning this identity in others. Jesus is not just an example of how I should act, but a model of what I should be. His story continually inspires me to feel the persuasion of God in every event of my life.

At the same time, the Spirit of the Creator who will perfect the creation, who will make sure that nothing except evil itself is lost and whose compassion will embrace all his imperfect children, this Spirit meets me from the future, enabling me even now to experience aspects of the perfection s/he has planned for me. But not for me as an isolated person, rather as open to the shared life of all creation, to the just polity of all creation, to the beloved community, of which the Christian Assembly is called to be a foretaste.

I can, if I wish, live in constant appreciation of the marvellous and varied beings of the world, as in Hopkins’ phrase, they “go themselves.“

Except I can’t. And that’s due to my evil and the evil of others. Now it’s time to write about the murder of Jesus.

In my last blog I distinguished between Jesus and other good people by the constancy with which Jesus saw and responded to the persuasion of God in the events of the world. Am I saying that the difference between me and the Son of God is only a matter of degree? That Jesus is just a tad better than the average decent person? Because that would certainly run counter to the evidence of the Bible.

Well no, I don’t think that way, although it’s worth remembering that according to John’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples that they would do even greater things than he had done.

I think of Jesus as unique, in the way that every event in the universe, like the life of a person or the successful building of a starling’s nest in my neighbour’s eaves, is unique. Each event is unique in its apprehension of previous events, in its creative use of them. In the case of Jesus, firstly we have to allow ourselves to be led by the gospels of Matthew and Luke in their pointing to Jesus’ genetic inheritance on the one hand, and his faith inheritance on the other.

The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are different and cannot, in spite of the witness of Christmas cards and Sunday School narrative, be successfully aligned. Still they have some common elements:

1. Jesus was born, as human beings are, from a woman. Although his conception is said to be virginal, his life in the womb and his birth were normal.

2. Although Joseph is sidelined by the Holy Spirit, the genealogies of Jesus trace the male line from him, back to Abraham via King David, indeed back to Adam in the case of Luke. These are Messianic genealogies, although Luke especially wants to emphasise his inheritance as “son of God”

Jesus was unique because of his genetic inheritance from Mary – and Joseph, because the narratives want to have it both ways: Mary’s conception is virginal but Jesus is a son of David. The usual means of human evolution are not set aside, but with the addition of the Holy Spirit’s action, bring about the birth of Jesus. Any conception is an event which in my thinking involves the persuasive presence of God. As it happens, that was also the traditional Jewish view of conception, so we can understand Matthew and Luke as defining Jesus’ birth as Normal Plus. This aspect of Jesus uniqueness is his genetic inheritance from his forebears, via his parents, made new ( with God’s help!) in his body.

Another aspect of Jesus’ uniqueness is the story of faith which he inherited as a Jewish child, through his familial tradition of faith. Ancient prophecies were part of this. We are used to seeing how Matthew uses prophecy to characterise Jesus as Messiah, how Luke uses them in a slightly different way, but we should also reckon with Jesus own knowledge of the prophetic tradition, gained from his parents and his community, and how he may have applied these to himself and his mission. In fact we should broaden this out to include Jesus’ knowledge of the whole Jewish inheritance of faith, as he encountered it. The events of Jesus’ encounter with that tradition are also instances of the persuasive presence of God. Nobody ever interpreted that tradition as authoritatively and as creatively as Jesus. What astonishing intimacy with the tradition allowed him to say, “You have heard that they were told, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But now I tell you, Do not resist those who wrong you…”! We only have the result of Jesus’ study of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings of the Hebrew Bible, and the traditions of interpretation built up in the synagogues. His parables and replies to question and argument reveal how thoroughly he had made his people’s wisdom his own. Every new discovery he made is a creative event in which he responded to God and continued to develop as a child of God. We can also say that God also, in sharing Jesus’ life, learned more about what a human child could be. Can we say that God developed through Jesus? Yes we can and must.

I am saying that Jesus was unique as all human beings are unique by nature and by nurture. But I am also saying that God had been begetting Jesus his son over millions of years of genetic evolution, and through the hundreds of years of the Jewish heritage of faith. Jesus is especially a product of that process begun when God’s persuasion found a human response in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

So no, Jesus was not merely a tad better than me: he was full of God. I am going to pause here before I write about Jesus’ murder and resurrection.

“So if Jesus was somehow God, how do you imagine him? Classical theologians talked about two natures in one person, but surely that’s just a bit of gobbledegook?”

This is a real challenge. The Nicene Creed simply asserts that Jesus was/ is “very God of very God, begotten not made,” and the Chalcedonian Creed (451CE) emphasises that Jesus shared the “substance of God and the substance of humanity, two natures without separation or confusion.” Although the creeds are part of the story of how the church imagined Jesus, they are mainly prohibitions of wrong imaginings, and perhaps, in Chalcedon, of all imagining: “don’t try to imagine Jesus, because he is essentially unimaginable. Just accept the formula.”

The controversies about the nature or natures of Jesus arose out of the biblical witness to Jesus on the one hand, and the use of the Greek philosophical terms “physis” (nature) hypostasis ( substance/ person) ousia (being) logos (word/reason). In particular the difficulty was in asserting of Jesus that he had both human nature and divine nature. This difficulty is not biblical. The bible never says that Jesus has either divine or human nature, but uses a variety of expressions to refer to his sharing human and divine life. Jesus, a real human being, shares as a human being in God’s life, so much so that he can be called Lord, Son of God; and it can be said that he shares the “abundance” of God. He can also be depicted doing things which are considered impossible for human beings, raising the dead, stilling storms, rising physically from his tomb. Certainly, however, no division of natures is alleged. Was his forgiveness of the weeping woman in Luke 7 any less “divine” than his stilling of the storm in Mark 4? It is enough to say that with the help of what now would be viewed as magical realism, the Gospels are able to tell a convincing story of a man who is the action and the suffering of God. They deal with events, with what happened, and with the character of the person through whom they happened. This also true of the more reflective language of St. Paul, who writes of the “crucified messiah” who “loved me and gave himself for me” – he is still dealing with character and events: “he humbled himself and was obedient even to the point of death, his death on the cross.” Even when Paul talks of him as raised to the highest place above, as Lord over creation, he is still depicting a cosmic drama in which Jesus wins a victory. The language of the Bible is the language of human history, of what happened and why; of what was done and by whom; of what was felt or understood; of what the main actors were like, how they acted and spoke and suffered; of what emerged from events. Of course, natures, substances, being and reason may be deduced from such language, but it may not be a successful endeavour.

The Jesus’ narratives of the Bible are part of two larger narratives about God:

1. The battle of God’s goodness against evil

2. The ongoing story of God’s creation of a perfect universe.

In both of these stories the people of Israel have an important role, as God cannot win his battle and achieve perfection without the cooperation of humanity, of which Israel is the chosen prototype. The narrative of Israel as God’s partner is an important sub- narrative of the two major narratives. The story of Jesus is presented in the Bible as a critical although not final turning point in all these narratives.

There is a great difference between the movement of these narratives and the static determination of divine and human natures in the person of Jesus. This has often been recognised in the history of Christian theology, to the extent that “narrative theology” is an accredited field of study. Its practitioners suggest that rather than jumping out of the story into theology, we develop a theology by entering more deeply into the story, as becoming part of the story is the best way of finding the truth of Jesus, God and the world.

I want to agree with that while disagreeing with its disengagement from larger issues of truth. Yes, imagining the story of Jesus as part of the story of God can be life-changing, but only if I insert my own story, the story of my life, into his. But if I do so honestly I have to recognise that I do not live in the time of the Bible authors; I do not speak their languages or share their culture; the society of which I am part is blessed with knowledge which they did not possess, in the sciences and especially in our discovery of the universe and its evolution. So, if I imagine myself as part of the Biblical story, it has to be a total re-imagining of it which engages with questions of its continuing relevance and truth. In other words, although the answers given by the questioning Greek believers of the 4th and 5th centuries may not be acceptable to me, the questions they put to the Biblical narrative remain relevant, and can guide my questions and my re-imagining today.

They remain relevant but they must be supplemented by contemporary questions and not just those of my own culture, but of other cultures too, for unlike the ancient Greeks I do not see other cultures as barbarous, but as a shared civilisation. It’s a tall order, but that’s what makes it THEO- logy, reasoning about the One who is not us, rather than IDEO- logy, reasoning about the priorities of my party, nation or church.

An example may help, the story of the man afflicted by a legion of evil spirits, from Mark chapter 5.

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.[a] And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus[b] asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits[c] begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus[d] to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus[e] refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

This story is set in the Decapolis, the area of the ten towns developed by the Greek conquerors of Palestine, which were viewed as foreign territory by pious Jews. Like the rest of Israel it was at that time under Roman rule. The key to the story is when the evil spirits name themselves as Legion. In effect they say, We are the Roman Army. This poor man has allowed the violent Roman conquest to enter his soul, so that he is continually brutalised. A superior powerful culture has made him into a self-harming victim.

Jesus’ lack of fear and his therapeutic questioning leads the man to acknowledge the “spirit” by which he is oppressed, so that he can be healed. The request of the legionary spirits to enter pigs is a kind of manga comedy, where the evil ends up where it belongs in unclean animals. The reaction of the townspeople shows how much they are complicit with the rule of Rome, but the witness of the healed man shows how the fight against global wrongs starts locally.

Can I insert myself in this story? Yes. When I was young I was oppressed by fear of violence at home and at school. A culture I saw as superior made me ashamed and stupid. In that condition I did many things which harmed myself, as well as sometimes others. I took me years into adult life to be able to name the afflicting spirits, while admitting their influence. The persistent counter-influence of Jesus, along with the love of my wife and friends, helped me do this.

In my varied ministries I have seen how the very poor people of the UK are subjected to the violence of destitution by a class of people who imagine themselves as superior, even when engaged in the so- called caring professions. The self-harming of the poor, through alcohol, drugs, and crime, is an obvious result. I confess that I was only seldom able to help them name their oppressor, and to find healing. Churches in such areas often imagined themselves to be superior to these victims.

The hymn writer Fred Pratt Green got it right:

In conflicts that destroy our health/ we diagnose the world’s disease. / Our common life declares our ills./ Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

That question reminds us that Jesus is depicted by Mark as in many other stories as an unremitting agent of life who will not be complicit with violence and death. He does nothing spectacular but he frees the man from these evil spirits. Mark is saying, This is God’s goodness. The same sort of story had been told in the Hebrew Bible, for example, in the healing of Naaman by Elijah. The goodness of God is as quiet and persistent as the questioning of Jesus or the water of Jordan on the leper’s skin.

This is an important way of talking about God, but is it true? It seems to me unarguable the neither of these two healings took place as narrated. Rather, an author is imagining an improbable human being in whom God is revealed as present and compassionate.

The small communities of the early church also knew the power of the legions, along with the overwhelming cultural power of the Roman Empire. They hoped that by naming the oppressive spirit and trusting in the goodness that is Jesus, they might be freed from fear and self-harm and liberated to speak of what God had done for them.

Enough! The world of this story, the world of the Bible, is a world of events. Nature is not a background to events but is itself a series of events which involve human beings. This sits well with the world as defined by modern quantum physics as an infinity of events, some very large like the explosion of a black hole, some unimaginably small. Some people of faith and wisdom are able to perceive the presence of God in certain events, such as cataclysms, or sacred groves or the actions of great rulers, but Jesus is depicted as one who cherished each and every event, ready to find in it the possibility of creative goodness, which he called Abba, father. He imagined the process of the world in this way. Only the possibility is given, for God will not force it. The entities involved in the event have to respond, as Jesus did. This responsiveness may belong as much to particles and viruses as to human beings.

This way of thinking points to a universe of ceaseless happenings in each one of which the persuasive goodness of God is present. “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Heavenly Father” “In him we live and move and have our being.” We deny these as often as we affirm them, but Jesus on earth is the small life which was never without The Father, the man who always lived and moved and had his being in God.

1. I am imagining God as the persuasion towards perfection in every event of the universe.

2. This persuasion issues from the origin of the universe and from its future culmination, for God is the first and the last.

3.Jesus of Nazareth is both the revelation and the embodiment of this persuasion in a particular time and place, in his life and his death on the execution stake. He is the true but not finished expression of God’s goodness. He was not an automaton with a son of God implant, but a real human being who believed himself to be God’s child, a faith put in question by his death and answered by his resurrection, that is, by his disciples’ imagination of the risen bodily life he shares with God. Did God make a difference to Jesus? Yes, in all his living and especially in his resurrection. Did Jesus make a difference to God? Yes, assuredly God is different because the life of Jesus became part of God’s own life.

4. Life shared with other creatures in the persuasive goodness of God is called life in the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit differ from God the Father? By being the shared life of God and his son, God and his children. It is the venturesome partnership (Greek: koinonia) in which God is happy to work with human beings.

5. This is my imagination of Jesus the Son of God. It does not mention evil, sin, heaven and hell. So it is not a creed but a faith working towards articulation.