How to see Jesus

March 17, 2018

Lent 5 – 2018

John 12:22-30

Marian Free

In the name of God who through Jesus is no longer confined to one people and one nation, but can be known by all who seek God. Amen.

 Some time ago a friend of mine attended a play called: “A Clergy Wife.” He wore his clerical collar to make it clear that not all clergy were likely to be offended by the topic. After the performance he and his friend went backstage to speak to the star – English actor Maggie Smith. Maggie not only spoke to them but was delighted to hear that my friend thought that her characterization of the clergy wife was perfect. Maggie Smith is one of my favourite actors. I wish I had been the one to meet her, to shake her hand. Of course, even if I had attended the show and had the nerve to go back-stage, there would have been no guarantee that I would have had the same good fortune.

Many people who want to meet their heroes are disappointed. Music fans often wait for hours outside venues and hotels hoping to get at least a glimpse of their idols or, better still, a selfie or an autograph. More often than not their efforts go unrewarded. Monarchists are more likely to be successful. If they camp out early enough before an event and, if they find a spot against the barricades, the Queen or other Royal may shake their hand or have a few words as they walk past. Should that occur, the lucky person not only achieves their goal, but is able to bask in a certain amount of reflecting glory. Meeting/touching/having a photo taken with someone famous is a goal shared by a great many.

It is possible that this sort of phenomenon explains what is going on in today’s gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem as something of a hero – indeed as royalty. Crowds of people have greeted him shouting: “Hosanna, King of the Jews.” All kinds of people are trying to get close to Jesus – because they admire him and want to learn from him, or simply because their own status will be elevated if they are able to meet or speak with him. It is not at all surprising that “some Greeks” want to see Jesus. They might be curious, they might be hoping for a miracle or they might be sincerely expressing their faith in him. Whatever their motives Jesus’ response comes as something of a surprise.

As John records the event Jesus completely ignores their request. The Greeks speak to Philip, Philip speaks to Andrew and then both Philip and Andrew go to Jesus. So far as we can tell, Jesus is completely disinterested. He makes not response at all, but simply ignores the Greeks and goes into one of his many monologues. Is he simply being rude or is there more to the story?

As is often the case the context of this short encounter helps us to see what is really going on. In the verses immediately preceding today’s gospel we learn that it is the festival of Passover – that time of year when people from all over the known world flock to Jerusalem to observe the feast. Jesus too has come to Jerusalem for the Passover. It appears that his presence quickly becomes known. The crowds are ecstatic. They wave palms and proclaim that Jesus is the King of Israel. In response, Jesus finds a young donkey and sits on it, thus affirming their claim by enacting a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The reaction of the crowds cause disquiet for the Pharisees. They have wanted to put Jesus to death since the raising of Lazarus. They are afraid that the Romans will respond to Jesus’ popularity by “destroying their holy place and their nation”[1]. When the crowds react so enthusiastically to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the Pharisees complain: “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him”.

As if to prove their point, some Greeks (representatives of “the world”) ask to see Jesus.

Jesus’ reaction to their request is confusing. It appears to be completely unrelated to what has gone before. He doesn’t even acknowledge the request but instead states: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In John’s gospel both phrases are code. “The hour” is the hour of his death, the hour when he will be lifted up, when everything will come to fruition. From almost the beginning of the gospel Jesus has been claiming that his hour has not yet come (2:4, 7:20, 8:30). For that reason, until now, his opponents have been unable to lift a hand against him. Now it seems the time is right. Jesus has done what he came to do. If he dies now he will have achieved what he came to achieve. He can say: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

In John “being glorified” and “being lifted up” refer to the same thing – Jesus’ crucifixion. The cross for John is not a sign of defeat, but a sign of victory. It is on the cross that Jesus is lifted up – for all to see. It is on the cross that he is glorified. It is then, not now, that the Greeks will see Jesus for who he really is. It is then, not now, that Jesus will “draw all people to himself”. It is then, not now, that the world will come to understand Jesus’ relationship with God and will have an opportunity to come to faith.

The request of the Greeks goes unanswered because in this instance they represent not simply themselves but the whole world. They do not need to see Jesus now, because shortly they (the whole world will see him lifted up) and they, with the whole world will be drawn to faith in him.

Hero worship is one thing, but followers of Jesus have to understand that he is no ordinary hero, that his life (and therefore ours) will not follow a usual trajectory and that seeing Jesus through the lens of the cross is the only way to understand what it means to be his disciple.


[1] “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

Lent 5 – Children

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Banksia cone

Begin by showing the children seed pods that are easily opened and some that are not. Then show them a banksia flower (or cone if possible) and ask if they know what it is. Show the picture of the banksia cone (from Australian Stock photos). Explain that the banksia cone doesn’t open as easily as other cones. In fact it needs fire before it will open and allow the seeds to escape.

Fire is a terrible thing, it destroys everything in its path, but sometimes good things come out of it – all the old growth is cleared away making room for new trees to grow and plants like this banksia can shed their seeds and produce new plants.

Sadly, sometimes awful things happen, but if we trust in Jesus, the bad things in our lives will encourage us trust more in God. Hopefully they will make us stronger and better. If you are feeling that everything is too hard, remember that even though fire destroys everything it allows new things to grow and even though Jesus died, God raised him up again and God will raise us up, over and over and over again.

(Activity – give the children some black paper and encourage them to fill it with bright colours. Or make a pencil drawing of a banksia for them to colour in.)



No room for neutrality

March 10, 2018

Lent 4 – 2018

John 3:14-21

Marian Free

In the name of God who so loved the world, that God sent his Son to save it. Amen.

Most of us would agree that it feels as though the world is teetering on the edge of disaster. We feel distressed by Trump’s apparently erratic behaviour, by Kim Jong On’s threats of nuclear war, by the intractable nature of the war in Syria, by the civil war and famine in south Sudan and Yemen, by the rise of the ultra-right in Europe and by the grab for power by dictators in more countries than one. We are rightly distressed by the plight of refugees, the increasing gap between the rich and poor and by corruption and the misuse of resources by those in power. We feel helpless in the face of terrorism and are frozen in indecision when we think about the damage that we are inflicting on the environment.

The world seems to be falling apart and we feel powerless to stop it.

That, at least is one way of seeing the world.

It is possible to see the situation quite differently. On Tuesday[1] Radio National’s Big Ideas presented a lecture by Gregg Easterbrook – writer for the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. Easterbrook pointed out that despite what appears to be evidence to the contrary, there are good reasons for optimism. Worldwide, malnutrition and extreme poverty are at historic lows, he says, and the risk of dying by war or violence is lower than at any point in human history. Everywhere in the world people are living longer and healthier. Contrary to what we see daily in our news, the frequency and intensity of war in the last 25 years is 5% of the rate wars of the previous century. According to the United Nations malnutrition is at its lowest point ever.

And those are just a few of the statistics that Easterbrook produced.

The world is an interesting and challenging place. On the one hand we as humans are capable of inflicting unimaginable suffering in places like Syria, and on the other hand we have not only reduced the threat of nuclear war, but in the last few decades the world as a whole has reduced its spending on all things military. On the one hand, we as humans are capable of the most appalling abuse of our fellow human beings when we traffic them into sexual or other forms of slavery and on the other hand, we are capable of acts of utter selflessness when we risk our lives to prevent the spread of deadly diseases or to bring relief to victims of wars and natural disasters.

The future of the world is both hopeless and hopeful, the nature of humanity is both heroic and despicable.

“God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son.” The world of the first century was no less violent, corrupt or inequitable than the world of the twenty-first century. Humanity was as cruel, as greedy and as violent then as it is now. Despite this, despite all the reasons for pessimism, God remained optimistic. God saw the potential in God’s creation and risked everything to save it.

That is not to say that God was or is naïve. The presence of Jesus in the world was not benign – anything but. Jesus was not and is not a comfortable Saviour. Jesus was (and is) confrontational and challenging. His very presence was divisive because it forced people to declare their hands. As the presence of God in the world, Jesus shone a light on injustice, oppression, greed, cruelty and exploitation. Jesus’ love and compassion exposed the baseness and insensitivity of those around him. His generosity and selflessness made people uncomfortable with their own greed and self-absorption. No one wants to feel that they are less than perfect. No one wants to have their flaws opened to the light of day, visible to the scrutiny of others. (They would rather remain in darkness.)

The person of Jesus revealed the true natures of those with whom he came into contact. People were either drawn to or repelled by him depending on their openness to change or their desire to maintain the status quo, their self-awareness or their smug self-satisfaction; their willingness to surrender control or their determination to hold on to their independence. Those who shared Jesus’ love of God and love of humanity found in him a source of hope and strength. Those who sought only their own advancement and gain, saw in Jesus a threat to their way of life. Those who desired to create a world of justice and peace found in Jesus a sense of purpose and direction. Those who were happy with the world as it was saw in Jesus only chaos and disorder.

“God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 is not simply a comforting, comfortable verse that can be easily and blithely turned into some sort of simplistic Christian slogan. It challenges us to think about what it means to believe. The verses that follow tell us that unbelievers are those who do not want to have light shone on their selfishness, their meanness and their desire to dominate others. Unbelievers are those who are happy with the world the way that it is and do not want it to be saved.

Believing in Jesus means being committed ourselves to Jesus’ programme of loving the world. It means allowing both the good and the bad in us to be exposed to the light of God’s love and it means understanding that unless we allow ourselves to be changed we might be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

God so loves the world that, through Jesus he enlists our help to save it. There is no room for neutrality – we are called to make a decision to come into the light or to remain forever in the darkness.



[1] March 6, 2018, Radio National, Big Ideas.

Breaking the law/keeping the law

March 3, 2018

Lent 3 – 2018

Exodus 20, John 2:13-22, (Mark 11:15-18 )

Marian Free

In the name of God to whose greater wisdom, we must always defer. Amen.

Adrian Plass tells the story of a church that had decided to imitate the Salvation Army and go to the pub to meet local people. Hearing this Beth, an older member of the congregation, drew herself up in her chair and stated categorically: “I would never do that!” Plass looked at her at said: “Suppose that Jesus were to come through that door right now – today – and say: ‘Beth, I want you to come down to the King’s Head with me.’ would you go?” “I would not,” she responded. “But, Beth”, he persisted, “we’re talking about Jesus, the son of God, asking you personally if you would go with him. Would you not go?” “I have never set foot in a public house in my life, and I’m not about to start now,” she stated adamantly. “But if Jesus himself asked – “ “It’s a good witness,” interrupted Beth, “alcohol has never passed my lips and it never will.” “Okay”, Plass said, “Jesus doesn’t want you to actually drink anything intoxicating, he just wants you with him in the King’s Head and – “ Beth shook her head firmly: “No!” Plass continued, “Jesus, God himself, the creator of everything, the reason why we’re all here today – he comes in and he says, ‘Beth, I really need you to come to the pub with me today, so please, please make an exception, just for me.’ Would you go with him?” A tiny crack of uncertainty began to appear. “I suppose”, Beth said, “if he really did have a really, really good reason for asking, I might go.”[1]

Rules make everything clear do they not? They allow us to believe that there is right and there is wrong. As long as we do what is right we are OK. More than that, as long as we don’t break the rules we can feel safe. Beth thought she knew right from wrong, but the rules on which she based her life prevented her from seeing that there were other ways of viewing the world and her faith.

There are a number of problems with believing that rules are fixed and immutable for all time. One is the presumption that it is possible legislate for all the things that really make us better people, a better society. In the letter to the Galatians Paul reminds us that there are no laws that can compel us to love, to be gentle, patient and kind. Such things come from inside a person and cannot be enforced by regulation. A second problem is this – it is simply impossible to draw up legislation to cover every possible eventuality. A man may pride himself on not being a murderer but by his actions and words may behave in ways that are soul-destroying for those around him. A woman may feel self-satisfied because she has never committed adultery but at the same time her words and actions may indicate that she has withdrawn her love from her husband. A third issue, as our common law illustrates, is that there are sometimes mitigating circumstances that lead a person to break the law. So for example, our law distinguishes between murder and manslaughter and accepts that years of abuse may drive a woman to the brink.

The money changers and stall holders in the Temple were doing nothing wrong – just the opposite. The Temple, unlike the church, was not a place in which liturgy was celebrated. Rather, it was primarily the place to which people came to make their offerings (as required by the law) to God. Without money changers and traders it would have been impossible for the Temple to operate as it was intended[2].

If the practice of exchanging money and the selling animals was necessary to the functioning of the Temple, how can we explain Jesus’ actions? The Old Testament quotes suggest that Jesus was not concerned that people were breaking the law. His actions were intended to be symbolic and prophetic, he was not quibbling about details; he was demonstrating that the whole system needed to be replaced.

Today we have heard the account as told by John. Interestingly Mark (and therefore Matthew and Luke) tells the story very differently. According to Mark, Jesus’ actions in the Temple occur in the very last week of his life, at the end of his ministry. The controversy that has dogged Jesus throughout his ministry has come to a head when he enters Jerusalem. It is in the Temple that his final confrontations with the authorities occur and it is here that they determine to kill him. When Jesus drives the people out of the Temple he combines quotes from Isaiah (56:7) and Jeremiah (7:11): “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Mark’s listeners would have heard behind these two quotes their original context. Isaiah is imagining the coming of the kingdom as a time when all peoples will flock to Jerusalem. Jeremiah is criticizing the people of Israel who had placed their trust in the superficial, outward signs of faith rather than in inward change and commitment to God. Marks’ readers would have recognised that Jesus was dramatically illustrating what he had been preaching from the beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Unlike Mark, John places the story at the very beginning of his gospel. Mark highlights Jesus’ preaching. John’s purpose is to illustrate the ways in which Jesus replaces the traditions and practices of Judaism. That is, ‘Jesus’ life, death and resurrection definitively fulfill the meanings of Temple, feasts and Torah’[3]. By driving the money changers and traders out of the Temple, Jesus is making the point that in him the sacrificial system has come to an end, there is no more need for the Temple and its practices because ‘his own self-offering will permanently fulfill the purpose of Temple sacrifice’[4]. In John, Jesus quotes from Zechariah (14:20-21). “Stop making my Father’s house a market place”. He is claiming an intimate relationship with God and, in effect, asserting that the Temple is his house, his body (a claim that is substantiated in the latter part of the reading). The Temple and its practices are no longer necessary, because it is in and through Jesus that the faith will move into the future.

After his death, Jesus’ disciples recall these words and connect them with Psalm 69:9 that also speaks of “my Father’s house”. “Zeal for my Father’s house will consume me.” Retrospectively they understand that this quote is prophetic in two ways – Jesus’ zeal for change led to his crucifixion and it was the authority’s zeal for the present practices and structures that led them to plot Jesus’ death.

Both Mark and John present a Jesus who recognises that the old ways have out-lived their usefulness and who, in the Temple dramatically illustrates the end of the old and the beginning of the new. We can be like Beth, firmly grounded in a rigid an unchanging law, or we can allow Jesus’ words and actions to continue to challenge our present circumstances. Jesus challenges us to see beyond the law to God who gave the law; to rely on God and God’s goodness rather than on a set of prescriptions; to grasp that it is impossible for any number of laws to make us perfect; and to place Jesus (not a set of regulations) between us and God because in Jesus all the barriers have been broken-down and we can relate to God as if face-to-face.



[1] Cabbages and Kings. Adrian Plass.

[2] The law stipulated that offerings had to be made for specific events and occasions such as when a male child was born or when the crops were harvested. Then there was the question of the Temple Tax. Roman coins carried the image of the Emperor with the designation ‘Son of God’. Even to carry such a coin was considered idolatrous, and using it to pay the Temple tax was impossible. In order for the Temple to function there needed to be people who could exchange Roman coins for Temple money and others to sell the pre-requisites for sacrificial practices.

[3] Denis Hamm word/hamm/html

[4] op cit

Whose side are you on?

February 24, 2018

Lent 2 – 2018

Mark 8:31-39

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. Amen.

Last week I suggested that Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was a means of preparing him for what was to come. The hostile environment, the privations and the encounter with Satan could be seen a foretaste of what Jesus could expect as he began his ministry as one who had been named the Son of God. From start to finish, Jesus will encounter misunderstanding, antagonism and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his own disciples. If he could withstand the difficulties that he faced in the desert, he (and God) could be comfortable that he would be able to survive the forces that would oppose him as he attempted to share the good news.

Today’s gospel takes a great leap forward from Jesus’ baptism and temptation. What that means is that we have not been following Mark’s story line and so we have not seen the way in which the tensions between Jesus and his opponents build and develop. We have not been privy to the threats against Jesus’ life that began as early as chapter 3.

To bring you up to speed then: after Jesus’ baptism he is driven into the wilderness where he is tested or tried out by Satan. During the course of his ministry the demons confront him, the leaders of the church challenge and criticize him, his family are concerned that he is mad and now we discover that Peter, one of Jesus’ inner circle, is among those who would oppose or even prevent Jesus’ mission. So serious is Peter’s misunderstanding that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan or the adversary.

Today’s passage, with the one that precedes it, is the climax of Mark’s gospel. In the verses immediately preceding those we have just read, Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They respond: “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ.” Peter has spoken the truth, but what follows demonstrates that Peter knows and understands only half the truth. His understanding of the Christ is limited. It has been conditioned by the cultural expectations of his time and, despite the fact that he has been with Jesus since the beginning, his experiences have not impacted on his expectations.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus is very reluctant to make his identity public. Jesus is well aware that he will fail to meet the hopes of many of the people. He knows that those who were expecting God to send someone to restore the glory of Israel – politically, economically, spiritually – will be seriously disappointed. Jesus does not reveal who he is because he knows that he will be misunderstood. Contrary to the popular thought, Jesus will not be a Christ who will lead the people to a triumphant victory over Rome. He is not a Christ who will restore the purity of the Temple worship. Jesus is neither a warrior nor a high priest.

So, when Peter declares him to be the Christ, Jesus’ qualifies Peter’s declaration with a description of the future that he, as the Christ, can expect. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter has so misunderstood Jesus’ ministry that he is shocked to the core by Jesus’ revelation and so validates Jesus’ belief that he will be misunderstood. In fact, Peter is so shocked that he immediately tries to convince Jesus that he is mistaken.

If Peter’s declaration that Jesus’ is the Christ is the climax of the gospel, then Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction is the other side of that fulcrum. The stakes are high – as is demonstrated by the strong language that is used in this passage. “Epitimaō” the word that is translated as “rebuke” in our versions of the New Testament, means “to overcome with a powerful word”. It can be used to demonstrate the way in which Jesus exercises power over the demons and over the natural elements. In other words it is used in the context of the fierce battle between the demons and the divine. On Peter’s lips it could be translated, “Shut up! Don’t say such things!” On Jesus’ lips, as the text makes clear, it suggests that Jesus understood Peter to be taking the side of the demonic forces that opposed Jesus. Jesus’ response is to tell Peter to go away. A better translation of “Get behind me, Satan,” is: “Depart behind me Satan” (in other words, “Get out of my sight, you have no place alongside the divine”). Not surprisingly, this is the same language used by Matthew when Jesus casts out demons. Jesus banishes Peter not only because he so spectacularly fails to understand but also because he has the arrogance to presume that he knows better than God what lies ahead. In that moment Peter has shown himself to be on the side of Jesus’ opponents who want to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny.

The language of this passage tells us that this is not a simple disagreement between Peter and Jesus but “a life-and-death clash between the divine and the diabolical”.[1]

This brief interchange between Jesus and Peter shows how much is at stake if we fail to truly grasp who and what Jesus is, if we try to contain Jesus through simple and well-worn categories or if we think that we know better than God. Jesus’ crucifixion is proof-positive that God acts in ways that we do not expect and that we cannot comprehend. The cross throws into relief all our false ideas, our hopes and expectations. Jesus is not all-powerful and all-knowing, but vulnerable and subject to misunderstanding. Jesus’ life, ministry and ultimately Jesus’ death forces us to continually rethink our ideas about God – who is not triumphant, who does not exert God’s will over us and who shows in high relief the distinction between the divine and its opposite.

Jesus is not and will not be who or what we expect. So let us not make Peter’s mistake of assuming that we know and understand, but rather suspend our certainty so that we can learn from Christ who and what he is.





[1] C. Clifton Black, Lent 2 2018.

Children of God, beloved and special

February 17, 2018

Lent 1 – 2018

Mark 1:9-15

Marian Free


In the name of God who strengthens us and equips us for all the good and the bad that we might be asked to face. Amen.

Did you notice something missing from today’s gospel? You might have been expecting to hear the details of the three temptations – turning stones into bread, jumping off a cliff and worshipping Satan. These specific details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness (listed by both Luke and Matthew) are missing in Mark’s gospel. They are apparently of little consequence for Mark as he pushes on to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. Probably because Mark’s account is so stark, the lectionary writers have included Jesus’ baptism in today’s gospel. This creates an interesting juxtaposition: baptism followed by temptation, public repentance followed by private battles within, a declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, followed by Jesus being driven into the wilderness.

If we read the account of the baptism on its own without understanding the consequences it becomes a wonderful affirmation of Jesus. Though Jesus alone sees and hears, the events that accompany Jesus’ baptism are quite extraordinary. The heavens are literally torn apart, the Spirit descends as if a dove and Jesus hears the voice of God from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It must have been both an inspiring and terrifying moment. Jesus heard God assuring him that he was doing the right thing and that his relationship with God was of the highest order, Father and Son.

Why then does the Spirit (note: not the devil) immediately drive Jesus out into the wilderness – that godless, inhospitable and unforgiving place – to be tempted by Satan and threatened by wild animals? To experience both physical and spiritual adversity? At first sight, it seems to be back-to-front. Doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus would want to repent after a time of reflection and temptation? Doesn’t make more sense for Jesus to be tested before God tears apart the heavens and sends the Spirit upon him? Doesn’t it seem that it would be more prudent for God to have been certain that Jesus was ready the task before he took the radical step of affirming him as God’s Son? I wonder, what would have happened if Jesus had failed the test? Could God take the Son thing back?

Two things help us to make sense of the order of events as they are presented. The first is the parallel between Jesus’ experience and that of Israel. Before God led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, God declared that Israel was God’s Son. God thus affirmed the status of Israel and, through the cloud and the fiery pillar, God provided proof that God would provide for them and would never desert them. Yet, despite such assurance, Israel grumbled against God and relied on their own resources to the extent of making their own gods thus demonstrating that they had little to no faith in God’s promises.

When Jesus is declared to be God’s Son and led into the wilderness he places his trust entirely in God, he refuses to rely on his own resources or to put God to the test. As a result Jesus is able to withstand the privations of the desert and as a result is “ministered to by the angels”. Jesus did what Israel could not – he believed not that God would spare him from trouble, but that when trouble came his way he could rely on God to provide the strength to see him through.

We better understand the order of events when we remember that throughout Jesus’ ministry, he will face hostility and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his disciples. Jesus’ journey, once begun, will lead only to suffering and the cross. At Jesus’ baptism then, God gives Jesus the resources that he will need for whatever lies ahead – the absolute assurance that he is God’s Son and the implied assurance that, whatever lies ahead, God will be with him. The wilderness is a sign of what is to come. Jesus begins his ministry with the endorsement of God’s love and approval ringing in his ears – an endorsement that sustains him in the wilderness and throughout the challenges and threats that dog his ministry.

At our Baptism we are told: “the promises of God are signed and sealed for us.” And we are assured of the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are not empty words, but gifts to sustain us through thick and thin. They are gifts that assure us that God will be with us every step of the way: sustaining us, encouraging us and equipping us to face whatever dangers, griefs or hardships that might come our way.

Lent, our time in the wilderness, need not be a time of self-flagellation, a time of reminding ourselves how far we fall short or a time of stressing about what we need to do to be holier or kinder, more loving or more patient. Lent can be a time of letting go, a time for reminding ourselves that we can place our trust completely in God, that we can rely on God to be there in our times of need and that we can trust God to hold us up when we feel that we can go no further.

No one can predict what life will throw at us. The question is not whether we will have wilderness experiences, but whether our confidence in God is sufficient to see us through. May this Lent be for us all a time to renew our trust in God, to make peace with the lives that we have and to believe that whatever happens God has, waiting for us, an eternity that is beyond our capacity to imagine.

Lent is liberation

February 14, 2018

Lent is Liberation

Ash Wednesday – 2018

Marian Free

 In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

 Last night a few of us gathered to share fellowship and pancakes. The discussion drifted to the question of Lent and what one should give up. There followed a time of sharing our ideas and our practices – giving up and taking up. I was somewhat taken aback when my husband took up his glass of bubbles and suggested that he could take up having a drink and reflecting on his relationship with God. On reflection I realised that there was no reason why this should not be included as a Lenten discipline. If the goal of Lent is to deepen our relationship with God and to reflect on our lives and our shortcomings, then it is important to become less straight-laced and to allow people to think outside the box!

As I further reflected, it occurred to me that a theme for Lent this year could be: “Lent is Liberation”. Lent is liberation from the possessions that chain us and from the feelings that prevent us from moving forward. In this new light, the readings set for today support this view.

Lent is liberation from selfishness and greed, liberation to bring joy and peace and hope to others – that in turn brings joy and peace and hope to ourselves.

Lent is liberation from all the negativity in our lives and liberation to recognise the goodness around us, the possibilities that exist and God’s presence in anything and everything. Paul – that expert in reversal – captures this idea when he reminds that being poor we make many rich, being unknown we are known, and dying yet we live.

Lastly Lent is liberation from hypocrisy, egoism and self-centredness, all that desires the focus to be on ourselves.

Lent is the absolute liberation, joy and wonder of being ourselves – unfettered, unmasked, wanting for nothing but totally content in and reliant on our relationship with God.

May you have a fruitful and constructive Lent.

In Jesus, heaven and earth meet

February 10, 2018

Transfiguration – 2018

Mark 9:2-9

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose presence is revealed in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Amen.

“Thin places” are those places that were identified by the ancient Celts as sites where the barriers between humans and gods were particularly porous. Such sites were believed to be endowed with a particular sort of energy that was strong enough to be felt. In the United Kingdom such thin places were/are often associated with geographic boundaries or crossing places of one kind or another. Islands such as the Island of Iona – cut off from the land and sometimes invisible thanks to fog – were considered thin places. Fog itself and low hanging clouds which mysteriously hide a place from view give an air of mystery to glens and mountain peaks which in turn led to their being seen as places where the boundaries between heaven and earth were not only thin, but could on occasions be broken to allow passage between one world and the next.

The notion of ‘thin places’ is responsible for the practices that are associated with Halloween. It was believed that at that time of the year the barriers between this world and the next were opened up and that at that time the dead rose to trouble the living. Hugh bonfires were built to scare off the spirits and food and drink were prepared so that the spirits would be appeased and would not spoil the crops.

A Google search reveals that the idea “thin places” has been popularised in recent times by those seeking (or indeed having) spiritual experiences in “thin places” – old and new. An article in the New York Times offers travel advice regarding the author’s concept of places in which one might have encounters that unsettle and that challenge a person’s view of the world and of themselves. A blog entitled “Thin Places” offers tours of the “thin places” in Ireland.

When Augustine arrived in England he noticed that particular sites were popular with the locals. He wrote to Pope Gregory seeking guidance. The Pope responded that rather than abandoning such sites Augustine should capitalise on their popularity. Glastonbury Abbey being one such place. The “thin places” of the Celts became places of worship for the Christians in Britain.

While the terminology of “thin places” had its origin among pre-Christian religions, the notion of there being times and places in which God might be encountered has its roots deep within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Genesis for example Adam and Eve are said to walk and talk with God, Abraham argues with God and Jacob wrestles all night with God. Later, Moses speaks to God face-to-face and Elijah sees God pass by. In the tradition of Israel, mountaintops shrouded in cloud were particularly significant as it was on Mount Sinai that Moses spoke directly to God.

Jesus’ Incarnation represents God breaking into the world in a dramatic and novel way, tearing down the barriers between sacred and mundane, bringing together in Jesus’ own self the human and divine. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke reveal Jesus’ nature through their accounts of Jesus’ birth, but Mark reveals this mystery only gradually – first to Jesus’ disciples and then to all.

The readers of the Gospel know the secret of Jesus’ identity because they are exposed to the new reality from the very start of Mark’s account. At Jesus’ baptism, Mark tells us, the heavens were torn asunder and a voice spoke from heaven. The tearing of the heavens and the voice of God are, in this instance, for Jesus alone (and in time for those reading Mark’s gospel). Mark suggests that though the disciples are in the presence of the divine (Jesus), they don’t seem to be aware of Jesus’ true nature. On many occasions they reveal that they do not understand, they are afraid even when Jesus is present with them and Jesus has reason to chide them for their lack of faith.

At the climax of the gospel, Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ (8:29) but his refusal to accept that Jesus will suffer demonstrates that he really doesn’t get it, he cannot yet see beyond the material and physical to the spiritual and immaterial. Six days after Peter’s declaration about Jesus he is taken, with James and John: “up a high mountain apart, by themselves”. Here once more heaven is opened, but this time there are witnesses. The figures of Moses and Elijah are seen not only by Jesus, but by the three disciples who not only witness Jesus’ heavenly transformation, but who also are enveloped in a cloud in which they hear the voice of God speaking directly to them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” It is as if Jesus recognises that the disciples need to be shaken out of their old ways of thinking, they need to be confronted with something amazing and inexplicable that will challenge their certainties and open them to the presence of God in their midst.

Just as Moses had a direct experience of God on the mountaintop so now, centuries later, do these three tentative, timid disciples encounter God and hear God’s voice. The veil between heaven and earth has been drawn aside for this one moment in time revealing to them the nature of Jesus and the nature of Jesus’ relationship with God. The divine and the human met together in one person, the eternal breaking through into the temporary changing forever the nature of our existence.

In Jesus, God is always with us. Talking about “thin places” is just one way to express the truth that throughout our lives we meet God in extraordinary places and in extraordinary ways, in the sacred and in the profane, in the natural world and in the people who cross our paths. Such experiences might take place in a Cathedral or on a busy street, when we are transfixed by an amazing view or moved by extraordinary poverty, when we are uplifted by a piece of beautiful music or the laughter of a child. If we are open to the presence of God in the world around us we will recognise these moments as in time and place where heaven and earth meet. If we allow God to meet us in this way our lives will be richer, our joy fuller and our faith deeper. Like Jesus, we will be transformed into what we are really meant to be.



Praying for a miracle

February 3, 2018

Epiphany 5 – 2018

Mark 1:29-39

Marian Free

In the name of God who brings us to newness of life and calls us into service. Amen.

For the last eighteen months or so, I have been praying for a miracle. A young woman of my acquaintance has terminal cancer. The best that the medical community can do is to delay the inevitable. To that end Mary, who gave birth to her child shortly before the cancer was diagnosed, is enduring endless surgery and chemotherapy in the hope that she might live long enough to see her child go to school. I have been praying for a miracle – hoping against hope and against all evidence to the contrary that somehow the cancer can be reversed, that the damage to this Mary’s body can be sufficiently healed that she can watch her child grow to adulthood, that her child can have a mother and her husband a wife. I am praying for a miracle because I believe in miracles not because I expect a miracle or understand what a miracle is or when a miracle happens. I am certain that God acts in this world in ways that we cannot begin to understand, but I am equally certain that we cannot control or manipulate God or force God to do our will. So I am praying for a miracle, but I am also praying that my friend will know the presence of God in her life as she faces whatever future lies ahead of her.

It is true that the gospels record instances of Jesus’ healing all kinds of injury and ailments. There is even evidence that Jesus raises the dead. Jesus quite clearly responds with compassion to those in need and we can be confident that he was able to perform miracles. In reporting Jesus’ miracles the intention of the gospel writers is more complex than simply presenting Jesus as one miracle worker among many. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ healing are multi-layered and are intended to expose more than the surface event. Today’s gospel reading, in particular the account of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, is an example of the complexity of Mark’s story-telling and an indication that his intention is not so much to reveal Jesus as a healer but to point to the deeper meaning of Jesus’ ministry and purpose.

Reading the story in isolation fails to do it justice. Mark skillfully works into this account for example, that the occasion is a Sabbath day (Jesus has just been in the synagogue where he has cast out a demon). In these verses, we see that Jesus moves between public and private spaces – synagogue, house, crowds, wilderness and towns in Galilee. At the same time Jesus’ fame is spreading and this serves to increase the tension not only between Jesus and the sources of evil, but also between Jesus and the authorities.

At the heart of today’s reading is the healing of Jesus’ mother-in-law. All the elements of this story are important. The one healed is a family member. She has a fever – something that in the first century could lead to death. As a result of her illness the woman is no longer able to function in the way that she normally would. She is unable to play her role in society. The woman is at risk of dying, restricted in what she can do and her social interactions have been significantly curtailed.

Jesus responds by taking her hand (as he does in many other healing stories) and raising her up. The Greek word translated as ‘lifted’ is in fact the word for ‘raised’. This word appears in a number of healing stories and, of course, points forward to Jesus own resurrection. As a result of Jesus’ actions the fever leaves the woman (as the demon left the man in the previous story). Restored to health and life, the woman ‘serves’ those who are present.

It is this last that is most misunderstood. Some have tried to theologise or explain away this part of the story. Others are concerned that the woman is being returned to the domestic sphere (being kept in her place as it were). What we see however is that Mark’s account of the healing conforms to the pattern that is generally used for miracle stories: the healer touches the person – who is cured instantly and who then acts in such a way that it is clear that they have been healed. The woman’s service then is an indication that she has been cured – she is doing what women do – it is also more than that. The Greek word ‘diakonos’ means to serve food or to wait on tables. (It is from Acts 6 and the choice of Gentiles to serve at tables that our ministry of the diaconate has emerged.) Mark then may be intending to suggest that Peter’s mother-in-law is exercising a form of ministry or discipleship. The word ‘diakonos’ is used for discipleship in Mark 9:33-37 and 10:43-45 and of the women who followed Jesus in Mark 15:41. Jesus’ own ministry is described in terms of service. It is possible then, that rather than confining Peter’s mother-in-law to the domestic sphere, Mark is opening up possibilities for ministry and discipleship.

For the author of Mark’s gospel miracles have a significance in and of themselves but more important is their significance for our understanding of Jesus’ mission and of our response to that mission.

I will continue to pray for a miracle, but I will do so as I have: aware that Mark reports on the miracles of Jesus, not so much as events of themselves but as a sign that Jesus can raise people from lives that are deadening into lives that are fulfilling, that Jesus restores the lost to their families and their communities and gives meaning to their existence and that those who have been raised from death to life respond through discipleship and service. Above all when Jesus raises the sick to wholeness, he is pointing forward to his own resurrection and to the assurance that no matter whether we are healed or not in this life we will all, with Jesus, be raised to life eternal.

(I am indebted to Cynthia Briggs Kettridge for some of these ideas and to Ben Witherington III for the reminder about the structure of miracle stories The Gospel of Mark a Social-Rhetorical Commentary.)

Don’t push God away

January 27, 2018

Epiphany 4 – 2018

Mark 1:21-28 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God to whom one day we must answer. Amen.

There is a very powerful movie about the civil war in Sierra Leone – Blood Diamond. One of the sub-plots is that of a boy of 10 who is kidnapped by the opposing forces and forced to fight and kill. He like many other young boys is drugged, beaten and forced to carry out all kinds of atrocities. Amazingly, the boy’s family somehow survived the raid on his village and eventually made it to a refugee camp. Although they feared the worst, the family never stopped looking for their son. Even when they had an opportunity to leave the country to be resettled elsewhere they would not be moved determined that they were not going to leave their son behind. By some miracle the Red Cross managed to locate the boy who, by then had escaped (or been freed by) his captors.

The scene in which the father and son are reunited is heart-wrenching. Instead of running into his father’s open arms, the child holds back. He is embarrassed and ashamed. Even though he was forced to fight, in the presence of his father he feels tainted, unworthy. All that he has done, the drug taking, the killing and the cruelty stand between him and his father’s goodness. In the presence of his father, he feels exposed, he sees himself as he believes that any person would see him – an immoral, heartless killer. He is overwhelmed by feelings of shame and guilt. He knows what he has done and he cannot accept that anyone, even his father could overlook such heinous crimes.

So he stands aloof, awkward and embarrassed. It is only when his father steps forward, takes him in his arms and assures him of his love that the child begins to melt, to believe that there might be a future in which the past is left behind. The future may not be easy, the past may be difficult to forget, but the child has taken the first step to wholeness and healing.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Like the child in the story, the demons felt exposed under Jesus’ gaze. Somehow, when no one else knows who Jesus is, the demons, recognising Jesus’ pure goodness, know that he is ‘the Holy One of God’. To them this is not a good thing. Of all people Jesus, they knew, could see through them, could see the darkness they inhabited, the evil they had committed and of which they were capable. Like the child, they are uncomfortable. They don’t like to be exposed, they don’t want or need to have their nature or their deeds brought to light. Unlike the child though, the demons are comfortable as they are. While they might find Jesus’ presence uncomfortable and disconcerting, they do not want to be set free, they want to be left to their own devices. Jesus nature is the direct opposite of theirs and makes the contrast between good and evil even more stark. Jesus’ presence is an irritant, a reminder of who and what they are. Because they do not wish to be restored, because they want to remain unchanged and unchallenged they see Jesus, not as a healer, but as one who destroys.

The reaction of the demons poses, I believe, a challenge for us. Are there aspects of our lives of which we are ashamed? Do we have thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors that of which we are ashamed or, at the very least self conscious. Are there times when the generosity, goodness or love of another makes us feel mean or nasty or lacking in love and compassion? Are the times when in the presence of another we feel that the worst of our nature is exposed, revealed for all to see? Are there times when we feel that our very being is under threat because we are challenged to give up anger, resentment or bitterness? If there are times when we feel less than perfect, less than worthy of others’ good opinions: do we cringe with embarrassment? Or do we wish they they (the person who has engendered such feelings) would go away so that we didn’t have to see our weaknesses exposed (even to ourselves)? Do we prefer to be unchanged and unchanging rather than do the hard work or dealing with our failings and being no only a better person but a more productive member of society?

These are important questions because they not only impact on the quantity of our life in this world, but they most certainly impact of our life in the next.

I do not have special insight into the day of judgement. With regard to what happens after death I am as ignorant as the next person. But, I do believe that both in the present and at our death we must answer to God for all that we have done and been in this life. If at the moment of death I must stand in the presence of God and under the scrutiny of God’s gaze, I would like to be prepared. That is, I would like to see myself (now) as God sees me. I would like to trust in God’s unconditional love to the extent that I can allow the real me to be exposed. Having allowed myself to be exposed I hope, with God’s help, to allow myself to be transformed and while I do not for one minute expect that I will achieve any degree of perfection in this life, I hope that between now and then I will trust God enough to have no secrets, that I will know what God will see when we come face-to-face. I will know too, that like the father in ‘Blood Diamond’, that God who sees me with all my flaws will love and welcome me just the same.

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Mark 1:21-28

The demons cannot bear the scrutiny of Jesus’ gaze. We all have to stand in the presence of God. It is important to be prepared, to see ourselves as God sees us, to trust that God’s love is such that however unjustified that love will not be withdrawn, to be ourselves and allow ourselves to be transformed.

(Thoughts to be published in full when internet allows)


Free to follow

January 20, 2018

Epiphany 3 – 2018
Mark 1:14-20
Marian Free

In the name of God who redeems and liberates us, but who always allows us to chose our own way. Amen.

I don’t need to tell you that by their very nature cults are insidious, abusive, controlling and soul destroying. In most cases they are established by individuals who are seeking to somehow empower or prove themselves by gaining control over others, usually under the guise of having some deep wisdom or spirituality to impart. Followers are often drawn in by a leader’s charisma or their own insecurities. These insecurities are then played upon to the extent that the followers will do whatever the leader suggests – abuse their children, engage in sexual acts with minors, murder the innocent or take their own life. Once they have fully embraced the “values” of the cult, members will try to convince others to join the group – the group grows and the cycle continues.

The Moonies for example, seem to target the lonely and the vulnerable (often young people traveling alone) and then use forms of mind-control (lack of sleep, suggestion, manipulation, drugs) to convince them that the cult has the answers to all life’s problems. They make it clear that if a member questions the teaching or the methods used to persuade others to belong that their own salvation is at risk.

It can become very hard to leave a cult. Those who have previously subscribed to the teaching can find it extremely hard to admit that they were wrong. If they leave the group they will almost certainly lose contact with their families and their friends. They will hav no form of social support and very likely, as a result of their time out of the world, will have no means of economic support. In some instances cult members are become so convinced of the rightness of the cult, or made to feel that outside the cult they are damned that no amount of rational argument will persuade them that they are better out than in.

In Australia, the cult known simply as The Family administered LSD in its purest form to teenagers in order both to subdue them and also to gain information from them that made it easy to manipulate them. It also allowed cult leaders to bend the youngsters to their will. With the collusion of doctors, nurses, social workers and lawyers, its founder Anne Hamilton-Byrne was able to “adopt” new born children and to whisk them away from hospitals without going through the proper channels. These children grew up believing that Anne was their biological mother.

What was it that made educated, professionals follow? What was it about Anne and her husband that led such people to behave in ways that were not only illegal, but that were also contrary to the ideals and codes of their professions? What hold did Anne have over educated professionals that they could justify to themselves their collusion in child abduction and in the shocking abuse of the children in their care?

What is it that makes people follow? What draws them to a particular person or set of beliefs? What leads them to forsake the norms of their society, to abandon friends and family and to accept as normal behaviors that are controlling and abusive? I’ll leave the psychologists to answer that.

It is interesting to note just how different Jesus’ approach is to that of those who establish cults. To begin with, Jesus has no intention of forming a cult (or even a sect within Judaism). Jesus’ goal is to proclaim the good news, to announce the Kingdom of God and to encourage people to ‘repent’ (turn their lives around). Jesus does not target the vulnerable, the lonely or the distressed. In fact the opposite is the case. Those whom he heals are free to continue living as they have before. (Neither the Syrophonecian woman nor the Roman centurion are urged to convert though both were in a very distressed state when they sought Jesus help.) Jesus doesn’t need followers to affirm him, to enrich him or to cover up his insecurities. Jesus’ goal is to empower and enrich others, to enable them to live life to the full. Jesus is confident enough and secure enough in his own person that he doesn’t need to resort to manipulation or subterfuge to gather followers or to subject them to his will.

Today’s version of the calling of the first disciples is quite different from that of John’s gospel that we heard last week. The call of the fishermen is the one with which we are more familiar. There was something about Jesus. Whether you take today’s account or John’s account, Jesus appears to have been able to inspire and energize others, to draw them out of themselves to their true calling. Without any attempt to pressure, without resorting to making them feel guilty, Jesus inspires Peter and Andrew, James and John to leave everything and join him in his task. Rather than take anything from them Jesus, as we shall learn, empowers his followers to do what he does. Instead of taking all the glory and power for himself Jesus shares not only his ministry, but with it the ability to teach, to heal, to cast out demons.

Rather than focusing on himself and placing himself at the centre of his movement, Jesus always and continuously points away from himself towards God.

It is true that many have used Jesus and his teaching to engender guilt, to manipulate others and to subject them to their will, but the true Jesus, the one whom we see in today’s gospel, has no need of coercion, does not seek power over others and nor does he induce feelings of worthlessness. The true Jesus recognises the strengths and weaknesses of his disciples, accepts them for who they are and frees them to be his voice in the world. The true Jesus knows us, accepts us and uses us to be his presence in the world.

%d bloggers like this: