Inviting others to meet Jesus

January 16, 2021

Epiphany 2 – 2021

John 1:43-51 (you might like to begin at 35)

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to into relationship with God and with each other. Amen.

Those of you who pay attention to detail will have noticed that our Gospel readings this year have changed from Matthew to Mark. According to the lectionary we are now in Year B. Throughout this year we will be reading from Mark’s gospel and hearing this author’s particular slant on Jesus’ life and teaching. Why then, you might ask, does today’s gospel come from the gospel of John? The answer is this. We have a three-year cycle which allows us to give one year each to Matthew, Mark and Luke. Because there is considerable overlap between the three Synoptic gospels, it is possible to manage one gospel a year. The lectionary omits at least some repetitions. For example, in Year A we read Jesus’ parable of the talents as recorded by Matthew but in Year C we do not read Luke’s account of the same parable. 

Mark is the shortest of the three synoptic gospels – 12 chapters shorter than Matthew in fact! This allows room for John’s gospel to be read in Year B – this year. During both Lent, and the season of Easter, we will be reading from the gospel of John. This allows us to cover all four gospels over the three-year period. 

John’s gospel is quite different from the Synoptic gospels as is very evident in today’s reading. I’m sure that if I asked you to tell me about Jesus’ calling of the disciples, you would repeat the story of Jesus’ walking by the lake and calling the fishermen – Peter and Andrew, James and John – from their fishing and you would remember that Jesus said that he would make them “fish for people”. If, however, John’s was the only gospel available to us, we would tell quite a different story. John’s version of events begins not with Jesus, but with John the Baptist Jesus doesn’t call people, they come to him and, having come to believe, bring others to Jesus. It is, as Jerome Neyrey points out, a pattern of evangelisation that is repeated four, if not five times in the gospel.[i]

Neyrey identifies the following pattern:

  • A believer in Jesus evangelizes another person (2) by using a special title of Jesus. (3) The evangelizer leads the convert to Jesus (4) who sees the newcomer and confirms his decision. (5) The conversion is sealed.

I am grateful for the insight, but I would word it differently.  A believer tells another person about Jesus (1) using a title that that person would recognise (2). He or she brings that person to Jesus who (3), in some way engages them (4) in such a way that they too come to believe (5). Whichever way you choose to look at it, John appears to be describing evangelism – bringing people to faith. 

The link to the article from which I have drawn this argument gives a fuller story, but in summary, the four/five examples are as follows.

John the Baptist (1), who has earlier recognised Jesus (Jn 1:34) draws the attention of two of his disciples to the “Lamb of God” (2). The disciples follow Jesus (3) and are convinced that the Baptist is right (4). They then become followers of Jesus (5).  In the second example, one of the original two, Andrew (1) finds his brother and tells him that they have found the “Messiah” (2). He brings Peter to Jesus (3). In this instance, Jesus’ acknowledges Peter and gives him a new name (Cephas) (4) which draws him into Jesus’ band of followers (5). Our third example is abbreviated. We are not told who finds Philip (Andrew or Peter) and Jesus is not given a title, but Philip’s discipleship is confirmed by Jesus – “follow me”.

Finally, at least in terms of those who become numbered among the twelve, is Nathaniel. Again, someone who already believes, in this instance Philip, (1) tells Nathaniel that “we have found the one about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote (2).” Despite Nathanael’s resistance, Philip brings Nathaniel to Jesus (3), Jesus engages Nathaniel in discussion (4) and promises him that he will witness extraordinary things thus affirming him as a member of the twelve (5).  

A further example of one person bringing others to faith is found in the account of the woman at the well who, having met Jesus, tells her community (1) about the “Messiah” (2). The community come to see Jesus for themselves (3), listen to Jesus (4) and come to faith for themselves (5).

John’s account of discipleship provides a model for evangelism or mission in every age – those who know and believe in Jesus, introduce their families, friends and communities to Jesus, using expressions that would lead them to understand who Jesus is. In turn, those who are introduced to Jesus come to faith themselves. 

If the church of the 21st century is shrinking rather than growing, perhaps it is because we have not learnt from John that we bring others to faith simply by bringing them to Jesus and letting him do the rest.

[i] John J. Pitch

Embracing our true humanity

January 9, 2021

Baptism of our Lord – 2021

Mark 1:4-11

Marian Free

In the name of Jesus our Saviour – fully human and fully divine. Amen.

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only son of God, 

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten not made,

of one being with the Father,

through him all things were made.

For us and our salvation,

he came down from heaven

was incarnate of the Holy Spirit, and the virgin Mary 

and became fully human.”

The Nicean Creed, which we recite Sunday after Sunday, and which is the statement of faith for all orthodox churches, was born out of turmoil. In the fourth century there were many who considered themselves to be Christians but there was considerable disagreement as to exactly what this meant. Jesus had not spelled out creeds or doctrines, neither had he established any form of organisation for any church that might form to worship him. This left the ground wide open for interpretation – as even the New Testament testifies[1]. There were at this time disputes over the dating of Easter and the consecration of bishops, but the most significant and divisive issue related to the nature of Jesus. The gospels, in fact, the New Testament is silent on this point, meaning that a number of different opinions arose – Jesus was divine and only appeared to be human, Jesus was human but became divine at the resurrection and so on. As there was no central form of governance for the church there was no mechanism for resolving the question. Individual bishops held authority in the regions for which they were responsible, and their opinions usually held sway in the Dioceses. As a result, there was no universally held belief.

In 325CE, the major protagonists were Arius who insisted that Jesus was a created being and therefore did not exist from the beginning[2] and Athanasius who insisted that Jesus coexisted with God[3]. Their disagreement regarding the nature of Jesus impacted churches throughout the Empire.

Emperor Constantine, who, in response to a dream, fought and won the battle of Milvian Bridge in the name of the Christian God wanted to unite his Empire under this same God. He was troubled however, by the fact that the church itself was divided and did not create a suitable umbrella for the unification of the Empire. He called the bishops together at Nicea and insisted that they come to an agreement with regard to the nature of Jesus[4].

Legend has it that Constantine locked the bishops in to the hall and that one person was killed during the heated debate. Whatever the truth, in the end the Council sided with Athanasius’ view against that of Arius and drew up a statement of belief (Creed) that made it absolutely clear that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. 

Jesus’ baptism is one of the New Testament conundrums that face anyone trying to come to a conclusion regarding his true nature. Why would someone who is fully divine need to be baptised “for the repentance of sin”? It is a question that troubled even the gospel writers – Matthew has John the Baptist question Jesus’ need to be baptised and John fails to mention that Jesus is baptised. However, Jesus’ baptism is at the heart of the matter. Kavanagh points out (in agreement with Athanasius) that in order for humanity to be saved, Jesus – fully divine – had to be one with us in every sense[5]. In order to reclaim us, God had to fully identify with the human condition, to be one of us in every respect – including our propensity to sin. Only by being identical to us and yet entirely obedient to God, could Jesus redeem us from ourselves. Only by embracing the human condition could Jesus show us how to be fully divine.

Kavanagh actually says that it is the precisely fact that Jesus does not sin, that makes him fully human. Sin, he argues is our refusal to accept our humanity – our desire, like that of Adam to be God. Jesus’ full acceptance of our humanness reverses that trajectory and opens the way for us to become the people God created us to be.

For us, baptism is a different kind of reversal. It is an acceptance of our flawed humanity and an expression of our desire to be restored to our full humanity, which carries with it our full divinity. 

Though not explicitly stated, the gospels are full of hints that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. For him to be either one or the other would not have led to the redemption of the human condition. We are beneficiaries of the wisdom of the fourth bishops who wrangled their way to an agreed statement of faith. Sunday by Sunday, let us say the Creed with conviction and affirm as truth that Jesus who is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” did indeed “become fully human.”

[1] See for example the disputes recorded in Romans and Galatians.

[2] If Jesus came from God, he could not have pre-existed with God.

[3] If Jesus was not fully human, he could not save us.

[4] For one version of events see

[5] Kavanagh, John, SJ.

Including the outsider

January 2, 2021

Epiphany – 2021

Matthew 2:1-12

Marian Free

May I speak in the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

Teaching religious education in schools can be a challenge. One can no longer be sure of a w welcome and the children can be resentful because some of their classmates have permission not to be there. Some parents, while sending their children to classes, have nevertheless passed on a negative attitude towards religion. Even in a simpler time, children of a certain age would begin to ask questions – usually about the first two chapters of Genesis. In a class of nine-year olds, one could almost predict that as soon as the class became confident enough one child would ask: “Miss, what about the dinosaurs?” and another would pipe up with: “How can the whole world come from just two people?” In one sense, the answers are easy, but the trick, as I see it, is to answer the questions with integrity and in such a way that the children do not dismiss the whole bible and therefore the Christian faith. 

My solution was this. I would tell the class one of Aesop’s fables, usually the one about the hare and the tortoise[1] or of the lion and the mouse[2]. Then I would ask the children whether or not story was true. More often than not the children – wanting to please me – would say that the story is true. This would lead to more discussion as to whether or not animals can actually speak. Once we’ve sorted that out, I would ask if the story tells us something that is true to which the children respond that yes it does.

This makes it easy to explain that the bible tells us truths even if not all of it is historically factual. It means too that, having learned that one part of the bible is more story than fact, the children don’t reject the whole bible as just a story.

For centuries no one saw any need to argue for the veracity of every part of the bible. In fact, for centuries the bible was plumbed as much for its deeper, symbolic meaning as it was to pin down times and facts. The writers themselves were not concerned with being 100% historically accurate, but freely employed symbolism and used a variety rhetorical techniques to get our attention and to ensure that they got their message across. 

Ancient cultures, including that of the Mediterranean people, have “a very porous boundary line between reality and appearance, fact and impressions”[3]. Events are remembered as much for their meaning as for any other reason. 

No one can say for sure that the visit of the magi was an historic event, but that is not the essential point. The author of Matthew would no doubt have been utterly amazed for example, at the effort that has gone into identifying the star – including associating it with the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn that we witnessed recently. Matthew’s purpose here is to demonstrate Jesus’ place within Judaism and his role as the light to the Gentiles.

Historic fact or not, Matthew draws on a number of Old Testament allusions in his retelling. In Numbers 24 – the oracle of Balaam – we find all the elements in the account of the magi – the star, the journey to and from Egypt, the escape from a violent ruler and the vocation to be a light to the Gentiles. These same elements, as Matthew well knew, also provided an overarching view of Israel’s history – the centre of which was the liberation from Egypt. References to Bethlehem and quotes from the prophets further underline the significance of the child as does the prophetic hope for a ruler who will shepherd God’s people. The gifts from the travellers remind the listener of Psalm 72 in which the kings of Seba and Sheba offer gifts of gold to Israel’s king.  

If we had read on, we would have seen how Matthew further situates Jesus in the story of Israel when Joseph takes refuge in Egypt and brings Jesus out again.

For the early readers of this gospel, the account of the magi would have been redolent with meaning and would have placed Jesus in the centre of their story – but there is a twist. Israel’s story is not for them alone – it always looks outward and this is the case here. If we read the whole gospel in one sitting, as the author intended, we would at this point be remembering Matthew’s genealogy which takes Jesus all the way back to Abraham – the Gentile who became the father of the Jews and to whom God made a promise that all the nations in the world would find a blessing in him. 

In these first two chapters, not only does Matthew establish Jesus’ credentials as a Jewish saviour he also makes it quite clear that Jesus is also one who was promised as a light to the Gentiles. The magi, astrologers from the east, are the bridge between God’s promises to Israel and God’s initial promise to Abraham. They are the first clue, in this very Jewish gospel that faith in Jesus is not exclusive but is open people from every nation.

The inclusiveness of the gospel has often been lost on us. We the Gentile inheritors of Judaism forget that we began as the outsiders. Throughout the centuries we, the church, have instead taken it upon ourselves to decide who is in and who is out. We have made such decisions on the basis of people’s behaviour without having any regard for the depth or expression of their faith.

Jesus may indeed have received extraordinary visitors in his early years but let us not allow our wonder at the mystery of the story blind us to its deeper meaning that it is those without any connection to the historic faith who are the first to bow their knees to the child Jesus. In our day, the faith of those whom we have chosen to exclude may put our own to shame.



[3] Dennis Hamm, SJ, (I am indebted to Dennis Hamm for other elements of this text.

A powerless God

December 26, 2020

Christmas 1 – 2020

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

In the name of our upside-down God who defies our expectations. Amen.

I can’t imagine that there is anyone for whom 2020 has turned out the way that they expected. Among our acquaintances there are at least six people who had made plans to celebrate their 60th birthdays in style only to have them overturned. One friend planned a cruise and had thought she’d be in Monte Carlo for her birthday. Instead, having spent two weeks off the coast of Perth on board the cruise liner, s celebrated turning 60 while in hotel quarantine. 

No one, even in their wildest dreams, could have imagined a year like this in which plans have been 

thwarted, career trajectories halted or even over-turned, and families separated for months at a time. Who could have envisaged silent airports, empty supermarket shelves, and more sanitiser than we’d ever have thought possible? Turning away families from aged care and hospitals would have been unthinkable a year ago and yet circumstances have dictated that in some places families have not been able to sit with the dying or to attend their funeral. In Queensland, we have been extraordinarily lucky and still our lives have been turned upside down by job losses, business closures and restrictions on who we can or cannot visit, where we can go and how we can worship.

For ten months we have lived in a topsy turvy world in which our expectations have been proven to be unrealistic and in which planning has been impossible. We have found ourselves to be at the mercy of a virus over which we have had no control.

Not having control might be a novel experience for us, but for many it is a state of life – for those living in war zones, for refugees, those living below the poverty line and those who livelihoods are at the mercy of the weather.

It is human to long for certainty, to hope that things will improve, to believe that there is a God who turn the situation around. 

This longing is a characteristic of the prophetic books of the Old Testament, many of which were written during Israel’s time in exile. The Israelites yearn to return to their own land, to the way that things used to be and to having control over their destiny. 

At the turn of the millennia, the time of Jesus, the Israelites are in the home country, but they have been under the dominion of foreign powers for centuries. Once again, they are vulnerable to the whims of another nation. They looked forward to a redeemer (the one promised by the prophets) to restore of the nation to its former glory – the Roman colonists defeated, Temple worship reestablished under the historic priesthood, the land fruitful and a descendant of David on the throne. 

How differently things turned out. God’s redeemer did come among them, but in such a way that he was largely unnoticed and was completely unrecognisable. in fact, Jesus appearance was the reverse of everything that they had come to expect! There were no flashes of lightening, no violent upheavals of the heavens or of earth, no obvious trappings of authority  – just the whimper of a child in an insignificant town, a human infant, not an omnipotent being, a powerless son of a carpenter not a member of a ruling family

No matter how many times one reads Simeon’s speech and the account of Anna, the language jars. 

We would expect Simeon to say: “the rising and the fall” of many and to read that Anna prayed: “day and night” in the Temple. Those would be the usual figures of speech. What Simeon does say is “the fall and the raising” and Anna is said to pray “night and day”. This reversal of what we expect to hear turns out to be a sign what is to come. Jesus may be the “salvation prepared in sight of all peoples” and a “light to the Gentiles” but his life will play out in a very different way. He will be opposed instead of being welcomed. Instead of restoring the institutions of Israel, Jesus will be perceived to be undermining them. Rather than supporting and affirming those in positions of authority, Jesus will expose their hypocrisy and self-centredness and, as a consequence his life will be demanded of him. 

Despite the longings and hopes of the Israelites, Jesus will not be an interventionist Saviour. He will not lead armies or expel the Romans. He will not bring down the corrupt priests who rule the Temple and control the Sanhedrin nor will he denounce tax-collectors, prostitutes and other sinners. From the start he will be a disappointment and he will fall before there is any rising as Simeon predicts. There will be suffering not triumph. Jesus will serve not govern and those with most to lose will seek to destroy him.

“Fall and rising”, “night and day” – the unusual phraseology of this passage alerts us to the fact that this story is not going to go the way we expected. From the beginning to the end of Jesus’ life, our upside-down God confounds, confronts and challenges expectations. Jesus does not, in any way, conform to the image of one who was to redeem Israel. He has not come to judge – not even the Romans and the collaborators. He is anything but powerful and influential and he undermines rather than upholds the religious establishment.

God, in Jesus is utterly at the service of the poor and the marginalised. God in Jesus models how to bring about change and transformation in others. God in Jesus is vulnerable to the fears and desires of those who do not want anything to stand between them and their craving for status and power. 

In fact, Jesus’ life (and death) is a stark reminder that God is powerless against human greed, ambition and selfishness. 

If the world is to change, we have to change. We have to cede our need for control, our desire for power and our yearning for material things. We have to acknowledge our own complicity in and responsibility for the inequities and injustices of this world and with Jesus align ourselves to the powerless, the vulnerable and marginalised. We must fall before we rise, experience night before day and, in immersing ourselves in the suffering of the world find the power that leads to the transformation of the world.

Standing in solidarity

December 24, 2020



I wonder what you would do if you were God?

Some people would like to punish all the bad people in the world.

Some would like to stop the wars and cure all the disease.

We wonder why God doesn’t do these things.

God is full of surprises. God comes to earth as a tiny baby and lives alongside us.

God shares all our good times and all our bad times. God shows that God care for us and understands us.

God knows that this is how the world will change – not by waving a big stick and threatening to punish us, and not simply by making the bad things go away. God knows that if we change the world will change.

We will change the world if we learn from Jesus. If we learn to try to understand other people, if we are sad with them and happy with them. If we show other people that we care they will change and the world will change!

We need to let the baby Jesus be a part of our lives. Jesus will change us and we will then be able to change the world.

Christmas – 2020 Midnight

In the name of God who does not force us to conform to God’s will, but who enters our world in solidarity with us. Amen.

It might surprise you to know that I’m one of those people who thinks that they know how to solve the problems of the world – well now that I’m older I settle for slightly less ambitious goals. But I do still think I know better than some people. For example, there is a part of my brain that believes that Trump would not have won the election four years ago if only I had been able to share my brilliant insights with Clinton and her team. They would have stopped trying to confront irrational ideas and instead focused on the fears and anxieties that Trump was latching on to. Needless to say, I have no credentials to back up my ideas and no contacts in the US who could have passed them on! On a smaller and more local level, I feel that I have the solution for the new businesses in the street.  So, when I observe a new business owner sitting expectantly in an empty store or barber shop, I think to myself: if only they had had a grand opening and given everyone a free drink or if only they had offered the first ten customers a free haircut or shave. Of course, I’ve never run a business let alone started one from scratch, but believe you me, I think I know what would work. In fact, you wouldn’t believe how many amazing ideas I have to share with an unsuspecting world! 

I suspect that there are times for all of us when we imagine that we could do a better job – than government departments, than schoolteachers, than employers and corporations – maybe we even think we can do a better job than God.

We’ve all heard people say: “Why does God let that happen?” “Why does God allow corrupt governments to flourish?” “Why is there evil in the world?” A part of us expects an omnipotent God to break into the world brandishing a big stick and putting all to rights. When the world seems to be going awry, we long for an interventionist God who will impose God’s will and will bring an end to poverty, war and disease. 

But God does not conform to our expectations or behave as we might want. Instead of forcing God’s will on us, instead of dramatically and violently entering our world to punish the wicked and to put everything to rights, God surprises us by joining us in our struggles, by taking on human form and by showing us how it is really done, how change and transformation really happen – not by force, but through love, not by being over- bearing, or even by being right, but by being present with us and in us and living in solidarity with us through all our triumphs and all our failures.

We will not change others or the world through force, but we might just bring about change them by standing alongside others, coming to understand their struggles and their fears and by demonstrating compassion and understanding. 

It is only when we open ourselves, to the God who enters the world silently and unobtrusively, to the God who arrives among us in a cradle and who stands in solidarity with us, that our lives will be transformed and through us the whole world.

Being God’s presence in the world

December 19, 2020

Advent 4 – 2020

Luke 1:26-38

Marian Free

In the name of God, in whom we live and breathe and have our being. Amen.

In the movie series Aliens, ghastly face-hugging creatures incubate their young in the bodies of humans. When the young are ready to be born, they burst out of their hosts – in the process killing them. It is a gruesome and disturbing image but can be relegated to the realm of science fiction. Back on this planet, nature has all kinds of examples of one species using another to their own advantage. For example, the fig that uses a host tree to give it support but which eventually suffocates the tree or the mistletoe that uses the tree to gain water and to assist with photosynthesis and which can gradually take over the tree such that it unrecognizable. Some relationships are one-sided as in the case of epiphytes which provide little to the tree on which they grow but which gain support, moisture and nutrients from being attached to the tree. Not all relationships are predatory or self-seeking. There are many examples of symbiotic relationships in the natural world – relationships that are mutually beneficial and in which neither partner loses anything of itself. The clown fish finds shelter among the anemone and at the same time produces nutrients that feed the anemone and frightens away potential predators. The heron eats the pests that bother cattle feeds itself while providing relief to the cow.

Even the human body is a complex ecosystem relying on a variety of tiny bacteria which are necessary for our survival. We the host, support them and they in turn maintain our health.

Pregnancy could be seen as a one-sided relationship. The foetus not only depends on the mother for everything – oxygen and nutrients, but he or she also relies on her to protect it from harmful substances and events. An unborn child can cause discomfort, swelling and even serious illness. Women who welcome their pregnancy bear these inconveniences with varying degrees of good humour. Pregnancy is an extraordinary experience. Almost from conception the intruder makes its presence known in morning sickness and through swollen nipples. Before long the bearer becomes aware pressure on various organs but also of movement and hiccups – the very real signs of a life-form within. Mother (and father) wait with bated breath to meet the child they have created and then they spend a lifetime in awe that watching that child grow and become their own selves.

Mary’s pregnancy, amazing as it is, can be seen as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Mary’s “yes” to God indicates an openness to God’s presence in her life and her acceptance of the pregnancy shows a willingness to bring Jesus to life in the world. 

Our task is no less awesome. God asks to be a part of our life and our “yes” is a commitment to bring Christ to birth in the world. As it did for Mary, our agreeing to bring Jesus to birth entails having the courage to cede control to God, to be unconcerned as to what others might think of us and not caught up with the values of the world. It means allowing the presence of God to totally infuse our lives. It means letting go of our egos and of our human limitations and frailties so that God can truly inspire and direct everything that we do. In saying ‘yes’ to God we discover that we lose nothing but gain everything. 

Like pregnancy, the experience of allowing God to take up residence in us may involve some discomfort and some emotional disquiet. Having said ‘yes’ to God we may find that there are some aspects of our lives that are harder to give up than others. (We might be able to let go of our attachment to material things, but not to our hurts or to our ambitions.) It won’t always be smooth sailing and we may want to turn back when the going gets too hard. There may be times when we resent or resist the gentle or not so gentle urging of God to do or be something different. But if, to quote Augustine: “We let go and let God”, we will become more fully alive, more authentic, more like the God whom we have welcome to live within us.

Throughout Advent and the weeks prior, we have rediscovered that Advent is all about being prepared, about readiness. The theme of Advent revolves around the letting down of our barriers and of our opening ourselves to God and to God’s presence in us. Above all Advent encourages us to give to Christmas its true meaning in our lives being a part of God’s entering the world and of allowing God to enter us.

The orthodox have a saying: “Jesus became human so that humans might become gods.” It is a profound and difficult statement which challenges us to become more like Jesus – fully human and fully divine – something that is impossible unless with Mary, we find the courage to say: ‘yes’ to God. It is only when we say a wholehearted, ‘yes’ that we discover our true destiny as God’s presence in the world.

Both Advent and Lent focus our minds on our true purpose as Christians – to let go of our own ambitions and to seek that true union with God that is both our purpose and goal.

With or without an angel, God is seeking our cooperation to be part of the Incarnation. Are you ready?

Being absorbed into God

December 12, 2020

Advent 3 – 2020

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Marian Free

In the name of God Earthmaker, Painbearer, Lifegiver. Amen.

Those of us who love to garden will know that sometimes the soil is so hard that water just runs off the surface. In order to prepare the ground for planting (or even for watering) we need to soften the soil to allow the water to penetrate and to saturate the dirt. All cooks know that there are a number of techniques to mix two different ingredients. It is impossible for example to mix sugar into a hard, cold lump of butter, but if the butter is softened the two ingredients can be mixed into a consistency like whipped cream. To make pastry though, the butter is better cold, and it is rubbed into the flour with one’s hands until the mix looks like crumbs. Oil and vinegar need a brisk stir to combine but adding oil to an egg mixture has to be done slowly and patiently or the two ingredients will separate, and the aioli ruined.

Combining two different substances requires a change in both. Dry soil absorbs water, sugar dissolves and butter become creamy, flour and butter become crumbly and oil can transform eggs into a creamy dressing. In each case the original ingredients give up something of their own characteristic in order to make something new. Few people eating a cake, or a pastry see a lump of butter and a pile of sugar or flour. What they see and taste is the finished product.  

The butter, the soil, the sugar have no say in what we do to them. They cannot object to our treatment or maintain their integrity in the face of our spades, our spoons and our fingers. They must simply submit to being manipulated and changed. Or, to put it in a positive light, they, having no will or ego, are open to being altered and reshaped to create something new and wonderful. They allow their barriers to be broken down so that another substance can enter and integrate and transform them.

We have seen over the last five weeks that biblical passages that at first seem harsh, violent and unforgiving can be viewed in a different light – one that is gentler, more compassionate and life-changing. Read in a particular way, the parables of the young maidens, the talents and the sheep and goats along with the warnings of John the Baptist can create a religion of fear, one in which we live with uncertainty – never knowing whether or not we have done enough to please or to satisfy God. The violence of the Old Testament imagery is likewise capable of creating terror in the hearts of the faint-hearted. If God’s coming is going to be associated with the tearing of the heavens and the upheaval of the natural environment, it is hard to be anything but anxious and on edge.  

Over the last five weeks, I have come to see that these texts which urge us to “be ready” to “be prepared” can be seen in a different light. That is, they are not insisting that we look at our exterior lives, but at our interior lives. They are not demanding that we simply change our behaviour by focussing on the external, but rather they are encouraging us to consider how our thoughts, attitudes and inclinations might cause us some discomfort should God return. God, who is love, is not wanting us to respond from a position of fear, but from a position of security and confidence. God who sent Jesus to a world that was far from perfect, longs for us to believe that we are loved and, being safe in that love, to open ourselves to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Last week, I suggested that readiness for the coming of God among us might involve breaking down the barriers of pride, independence or embarrassment that separate us from God. Today I would like to take that one step further. Having removed the barriers that prevent an honest and trusting relationship with God, we must allow the Holy Spirit free range to transform, renew and reshape us. In order to be truly one with God, we must abandon our sense of self, let go of our need to be in control and rid ourselves of anything that restricts God’s ability to enter and direct our lives.

John the Baptist relinquished everything that prevented his being united with and used by God – his dependence on outward appearance, his pride and his ambition. He stripped himself of all distractions – taking himself into the desert and relying on the bare necessities for survival. His longing for, and his preparedness for the coming of God in Jesus was demonstrated by his willingness to be used by and for God. He had given up any struggle to be separate or distinct and had allowed himself to be fully absorbed into God.

The Christ whom John announced has come into the world. How is the world to know that unless through us, unless we make ourselves fully open and available to God’s presence in us, unless we allow the Holy Spirit to infuse every part of our being?

As St Teresa of Avila said: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

How can the world know the presence of Christ in the world if we are not prepared to lose ourselves in God? 

In some sense, the coming of God is terrifying and violent. It has the potential to upend our lives, to lay bare our inner lives and to change our direction. Are you ready?

Held by God for eternity

December 5, 2020

Advent 2 – 2020

Mark 1:1-8

Marian Free

In the name of God “who is casting down the barriers” and coming in love to claim us. Amen.

There is an event from my childhood that comes back to haunt me from time to time. It is only a small thing, but it taught me a big lesson. Like many families, ours had a nightly ritual of ‘goodnight’ kisses. If we had taken ourselves to bed and our parents had not come in to say ‘goodnight’, my sister and I would call out in a sing song voice; “Mummy and Daddy, come and kiss us!” It was a comforting routine and one that assured us that parents would come, that we were important to them. One night, I think it was when I was about eleven, mum came in as usual. Whether it was because we had guests I don’t know, but I do remember that my eleven-year-old self insisted that I was too big for goodnight kisses. I can’t quite recall my mother’s face, but I think there was an element of surprise and maybe disappointment. To her credit, in this as in other matters, she didn’t press me, and the kisses ceased from that point. 

I often wonder if mum was sad that I had ended that routine but of course, the person who suffered most was myself. Through my own actions I had cut myself off, not only from the nightly routine, but from expressions of parental affection. I had created a barrier that was hard to break through. I had put an end to one way in which my mother could show her love for me. 

There are all kinds of reasons why we lock people out. Mine was apparently a belief that nightly kisses were for babies. There are some people have been so badly hurt that they build up barriers between themselves and others. If they don’t let anyone in, they think they can’t be hurt. Others put up barriers because they don’t think they are good enough or clever enough to warrant attention or affection. Still others refuse help because they want to assert their independence or because they fear that their independence will be compromised if they display any weakness. 

I’m sure that we all know or have known people who push us aside, who refuse to be helped or who will not let anyone show affection to them. The problem is, that such people, like my younger self hurt themselves more than they hurt others and they become even more isolated and alone, less able to acknowledge – to themselves and to others – that they might need help or that they would in fact benefit from care and affection.

I suspect that the same can be said of some people’s relationship with God. That is, there are those who think that they won’t ever be good enough for God so they push God away, refusing to believe that God could love someone like them. Some have been so hurt by the church (or its officials) or taught that God is punitive and cruel that they are quite unable to open themselves to love of any kind, let alone the love of God. Still others simply don’t want God to cramp their style. They refuse to let God in because they are afraid that if they do, they will have to give up behaviours that are incompatible with a relationship with God. And there are those who feel they need to keep God at a safe distance because they do not want to admit that they need the love and support that God can give. To them a relationship with God would be a sign of weakness, an indication that they could manage on their own. 

Pushing God away damages us more than it damages God. God, like my mother, will not force anyone to accept affection and support against their will, and those who know God and who deliberately lock God out of their lives will inevitably miss out on the warmth, encouragement and confidence that comes from knowing oneself loved by God. 

In today’s gospel John the Baptist quotes Isaiah: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Isaiah continues: “make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain” (Is 40:3). Isaiah is assuring the people that their time of desolation has come to an end and is urging them to ensure that they remove any barriers that would prevent God’s return. John the Baptist makes the same plea: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. One difference between the two is that John’s call for repentance (literally turning around) suggests that the barriers he is thinking of are the barriers of our own making and rather than the physical barriers envisaged by Isaiah. 

Advent is a time of preparation, a time to ensure that we are ready for God’s return – whenever and however that will be. We can make ourselves ready by polishing up the outside, by doing good works and practicing ‘holiness’. We can fret about whether we are good enough or whether we have done enough. Or we can look at ourselves and our lives. Are there parts of our lives from which we have locked God out? Have we built up protective barriers – so that we won’t be disappointed In God or so that we won’t be exposed as inadequate? Is there anything at all that prevents us from resting in God’s love?

Are we fearfully preparing to be judged, or confidently waiting for God to take us in God’s arms for all eternity?  

Living with the tension

November 28, 2020

Advent 1 – 2020

 Mark 13:24-37

Marian Free

May I speak in the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

What is it that keeps you awake at night? Is it a fear that someone is going to break in? Or perhaps you are tossing and turning because you have so much to do? Maybe you are anxious about a future event and are lying awake going through a variety of possible scenarios. Pain or ill -health may be robbing you of sleep or was it just something you ate?

I once met someone who was afraid to sleep in case he died during the night. Jim had been raised by his very conservative, Evangelical grandmother who had literally put the fear of hell into him. Whether she had done this as a means to control him or because she was genuinely concerned for his salvation is irrelevant. The end result was that Jim, though he believed in God and was in church every week, lived in terror. This beautiful, faithful man felt that he had done something that was so unpardonable that God would condemn him for all eternity.[1]

Jim’s grandmother came from a particular tradition – one that emphasized condemnation over love, judgement over compassion and control over freedom.

To be fair, while I don’t hold that view of faith, I can see how the Bible can be used to support it. As we have seen over the past three weeks, the parables of the wise and foolish maidens, of the talents and of the sheep and the goats, could all be used to paint a picture of a harsh and exacting God – who will shut the door in our face, throw us into outer darkness or send us to eternal punishment if we don’t conform to God’s exacting standards or if we are simply inattentive. Those parables, today’s gospel and much of the Old Testament can be used to present God as a terrifying being whose high standards are impossible for us to reach.

The problem with this view is that it emphasizes the negative at the expense of the positive and views the Bible through a particular lens that allows the reader to ignore or to discount any other way of looking at scripture. It fails to take note of the fact that, despite the fact that God (through the prophets) expresses frustration and anger God invariably relents and God never, ever stops believing in God’s people. This is why Jonah sits and sulks under a tree – God didn’t destroy Nineveh. It is why God pleads with the people to return to God. It is why God persists with a recalcitrant people and it is why God, through Hosea says, “How can I give you up O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger. (Hos 11 1:9)

A God whose sole focus (and pleasure?) is to try to catch us out in wrong doing is not a God who would expose Godself to the malevolence of this world or who would risk everything to save us. God didn’t enter this world by tearing apart the heavens and creating cosmic and earthly disruption. God didn’t sit in judgement on the evil, the ignorance and complacency that characterized the first century. God in Jesus didn’t use punitive means to ensure our conformity or to command our respect. God in Jesus came in love in the hope that love would inspire love. God in Jesus went to the cross to demonstrate what love looked like.

Today’s gospel looks forward in time to Jesus’ return and uses Old Testament imagery to envisage upheaval and terror. The parable exhorts us to ‘keep alert’, ‘be on the watch’ and to ‘keep awake’. It could be used to feed our anxieties about judgement or but I suggest, especially in light of the the reflections of the last three weeks that we see it as a warning not to become complacent, not to take God (or salvation) for granted and as an encouragement to strengthen our relationship with God such that nothing could could come between us.

Advent is a time of contrast. We are called to prepare ourselves both to look back in awe that God should deign to become one of us and forward in expectation that God will come at the end of time and will call us to account. During Advent, we are reminded that, as Christians, we are called to live in creative tension – holding together the knowledge that God loves us unconditionally and the awareness that with that love comes responsibility to live up to that love.  We are to be over awed by the might and power of God and filled with awe that God should lay all that aside to become one of, one with us. We are to strive to be one with God while remembering that God understands and forgives all our shortcomings.

‘Keep alert’, ‘be on the watch’, ‘keep awake’. It would be awful if Jesus were to return and we failed to notice, or if we had paid so little attention to our relationship God that we were uncomfortable in God’s presence or if by our indifference we had forgotten the importance of God’s presence in our lives.

Advent provides an opportunity for us to set things straight, to restore the balance in our lives and in our relationship with God and to learn once again what it is to live with the tension of a God who is utterly beyond comprehension and who, at the same time is completely familiar.

[1] Fortunately, I was able to dismantle his negative view of himself and God and for his last few years he was at peace.

Getting the relationship right

November 21, 2020

The Reign of Christ

Matthew 25:31-46

Marian Free

May I speak in the name of God who gives us everything that we might give God our all. Amen.

My sister used to work for Family Services. It was a traumatic experience for someone who had just left university. Every Sunday lunch she would regale us awful stories – her way of dealing with the stress. Needless to say a number of her stories have stayed with me.  One relates to a young boy who was placed in a foster home in January. Somehow his foster parents discovered that Santa had never been to his home. His mother has always said that he had been too naughty. His foster parents were so sad to hear his story that, even though Christmas was long gone, they organized the local Rotary to bring Santa to their home just for this child.

Parents use a variety of techniques to discipline or control their children  – corporal punishment, coercion, persuasion, rewards, positive reinforcement, behaviour modification and so on. A certain amount of discipline is necessary. A child who knows what the boundaries are is likely to feel more secure and a child who understand that some things and some situations are dangerous will be better able to keep out of trouble. Whether we like it or not, we are all part of the wider society and we need to understand how to get along with other people and how to respect the law and the rights and needs of others. At its best, discipline encourages a child to be their best self and to get along with others. Few of us make perfect parents, but I am sure that those of us who have had the opportunity to be parents have done our very best to raise happy, confident children.

Unfortunately, there are some for whom discipline too easily slips into control. There are parents who say such things as, “if you don’t do what you are told I won’t love you”, “if you don’t behave I’ll leave you on the street”. A child raised in such circumstances would live in a state of constant anxiety, never knowing what behaviour might lead to the threatened punishment or when their parent’s love might be withheld. Instead of feeling valued and growing into mature and happy people, they would always be insecure, always trying to please their parents in order to earn their love.

Young or old, we all respond much better if we know that we are valued and loved by our parents.

Sometimes the Bible appears to  present God as a demanding and hard to please parent, one who says! “If you don’t behave I won’t love you.”  I have known many people who have not been taught to believe that God loves them unconditionally and live in constant fear that they have done something to displease God. In reality there is no impossibly high standard that we have to reach in order to earn our entrance into heaven. Nor is God watching every detail of our lives in order to catch us out so we can be punished. Instead God is urging us on from the sideline, conscious of our frailty but willing us to be our best selves.

Today’s gospel, indeed the gospels of the last two weeks, could easily be used (indeed have been used) to support the view of a harsh and unforgiving God. If you do not have enough oil the door will be locked, if you haven’t appreciated and used God’s gifts you will be thrown into outer darkness. It seems clear if you don’t reach the bar, God won’t have a bar of you!

I’d like to put the three parables into context. All our gospels were written at least 40-50 years after Jesus’ death. By this time those who knew Jesus would have died and it is possible that the second generation of believers would also have also died. The initial enthusiasm for the faith would have waned and the believing community would no longer be able to rely on the shared excitement of the original believers to shape behaviour and to draw new converts to the faith. At such a time the church would have been looking at new ways to get members and new ways of encouraging members to hold on to the faith.

There is considerable evidence within Matthew’s gospel to suggest that the community, having left behind the first flush of enthusiasm is looking for ways to encourage people to stay and ways to draw others in. What better way to put the ‘fear of God into people than to threaten believers and non-believers alike to an eternity of punishment. Of all the gospel writers none does a better job at this than Matthew. Only Matthew, for example has the parable of the wise and foolish maidens and the sheep and the goats.

Let me make it clear. I do believe that I/we will one day have to answer to God for our lives on earth and let me tell you, that will be close enough to hell for me.

It is easy to think that God is harsh and unforgiving, but the parables of the wise and foolish maidens, the talents and the sheep and the goats may be pointing in another direction. They may be challenging us to ensure that our relationship with God is so strong and secure that we always have something in reserve, have the confidence to use our gifts and the desire to support and encourage others.

If you put your relationship with God first, everything else will fall into place.

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