Life-giving, all-embracing Trinity

May 26, 2018

Trinity Sunday – 2018

John 3:1-17 (The gospel set for the day – not the starting point for this reflection)

Marian Free

In the name of the Trinity – boundless and abundant love, creative and life-giving force, all-giving and endlessly welcoming. Amen.

I have just started reading the novel, Gone Girl. The story seems to be about the disappearance of a young woman who has reluctantly moved with her new husband from New York to an uninspiring town in the mid-west. The novel is written from the point of view of the young woman, Amy, and her husband, Nick. Amy and Nick each have an opportunity to tell their side of the story. This means that while the readers are engaged in the investigation into Amy’s disappearance they are, at the same time, given a glimpse into the unraveling of what had appeared to be a perfect relationship – brought about by differing expectations and by different experiences of family.

Human relationships can be messy, complex and destructive, threatened by insecurity, damaged by carelessness and undermined by unrealistic expectations. The inability of some to form mutually respectful relationships is exposed not only in families, but also in communities, nations and the world as a whole. It is only too obvious that our world is not an harmonious place in which people rejoice in difference and seek the well-being of others. Our fractured and broken world is a place in which competition rules and in which suspicion and fear cause people to look inwards, protecting what is theirs and creating boundaries between themselves and those whom they believe threaten our security and our comforts.

Richard Rohr suggests that the Trinity provides the answer to the problem of relationships with each other, within communities and between the nations of the world. A greater understanding of the relational nature of God – Father Son and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier might, he suggests, help us to relate better to God and more importantly to one another. He points out that the Trinity is a much-neglected aspect of our theology. The concept is difficult to explain, and most clergy are grateful for the fact that the Trinity is celebrated only once a year rather than on every Sunday of every year. Rohr quotes Karl Rahner who states: “Christians are, in their practical lives, almost mere ‘monotheists’. We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”

When I first read that quote, I thought that Rahner was right. I wondered how many of us would be truly distressed if we discovered that God was one and not three at all. We might even be relieved to learn that we no longer had to struggle with the conundrum of a threefold God.

On reflection though, it seemed to me that while we may not be able to articulate the meaning, most of us do relate to God who is three but is also one. God as Trinity is something we know intuitively. Over the course of a lifetime the Trinitarian God becomes part of our DNA. Though we tend to use shorthand when we pray – God, Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, we simply assume that when we pray to one we pray to all, when we relate to one we relate to all.

The problem – if there is a problem – is that because we take for granted the threefold nature of God, we may not take the time to reflect on the meaning of the Trinity and to consider what it really means to engage with God who is Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver and we (and perhaps the world) are the poorer for this. Perhaps, if we make an effort to struggle with the relational nature of the threefold God, we will be better equipped to share that mystery with others. If we really grasp what it means to worship a threefold God we might discover that the Trinitarian God is a model for all relationships and a solution to all the problems of our fragmented world.

Last year on this day, I read you the poem that is in the Foreword of Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance. I confess that I haven’t read the book to its end, but what I have read has been life-changing and faith-renewing. Rohr has helped me to know God in a new way and my faith is enriched by that knowing. In fact, I don’t think that I am over stating it if I say that I feel that I have found my way to the heart of the Trinitarian God. Rohr has helped me come to grips with the Trinity in a way in which all my academic study did not – indeed could not.

I have come to see that God who is three is relational. God relates to Jesus who relates to the Spirit who relates to God, who relates to the Spirit who relates to Jesus, who relates to God in an outpouring of love that flows from one to another and back again. A constant stream of love that in turn creates an atmosphere of love that cannot help but flow outward from the threefold God to the world – drawing the whole world into a loving and welcoming embrace. The love that each person of the Trinity has for the others is complete and without reserve. Nothing is held back, each person of the Trinity is totally open to the other members of the Trinity. Each person of the Trinity is completely vulnerable – having given everything of themselves to the other persons.

In their love for one another, the members of the Trinity create an energy that is life-giving and dynamic, a creative force that drives and empowers all that is good in this world. God in relationship is generous, self-giving and abundant. God in relationship is not remote and disinterested, but is fully engaged and participatory. God in relationship is fully immersed in the world and invites us to fully immerse ourselves in God. God who is relational has no boundaries, but welcomes us into the very heart of the Trinity that we might be caught up and held in the stream of love that flows between the three. The threefold God is not afraid that our presence (or the presence of anyone else) will contaminate their divinity, but rather has absolute confidence that our being in relationship with God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier will serve to enhance and enrich that relationship and our relationships with one another.

The Trinity models the love that can be the salvation of the world – love that heals and sustains, love that delights in the other, love that gives itself entirely without losing anything of itself and without seeking anything in return, love that embraces difference, love that seeks the well-being of the other and love that refuses to exclude anyone from that love.

God who is one could be aloof and alone. God who is two could be self-contained – each focussed wholly on the other. God who is three is other-centred, inclusive, life-giving and welcoming. The Trinity, God who is three invites us all to be a part of this loving community, to allow ourselves to be loved and to give ourselves in love and in so doing, to contribute to the healing of the world.

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Don’t send me!

May 19, 2018

St Augustine – Pentecost, 2018

John 15:26-27

 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.  You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

Marian Free

In the name of God who will empower and direct us and who has already gone before us into the world. Amen.

The English Historian the Venerable Bede has provided us with a history of the English church from about 100 BCE to 731 CE. Even though he himself did not travel he was able to get others to bring him relevant information and documents. Among these were the letters from Pope Gregory to Augustine that give us a reasonably comprehensive idea of Augustine’s mission and of the concerns that Augustine raised. Those of us who regularly worship at St Augustine’s are familiar with the story. Pope Gregory (the Great) was intrigued by some blonde slaves whom he saw in the market. On learning that they were Angles (he heard the words as angels) he determined to send someone to the British Isles to convert them.

To that end Augustine and several other Benedictine monks were commissioned with the task. On reaching England they received a welcome from the King of Kent Ethelbert whose wife was already a Christian. Ethelbert gave the monks land on which to build their church and allowed them liberty to preach the gospel in his kingdom. The site on which the church was built became Canterbury Cathedral, the center of the Anglican Communion to this day.

There are a number of interesting facets to the story but my favorite is this – after the team set out they got cold feet, to quote Bede: “Having undertaken this task in obedience to the Pope’s command and progressed a short distance on their journey, they became afraid, and began to consider returning home. For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation of whose very language they were ignorant. They unanimously agreed that this was the safest course, and sent back Augustine … that he might humbly request the holy Gregory to recall them from so dangerous, arduous and uncertain a journey.”[1]Gregory refused this request and so they continued.

Their anxiety is not uncommon among those called to serve God. Moses at first refused God’s call (even though God appears in a burning bush!). The reasons – he was certain that Pharaoh would not listen to him and that the Israelites would not believe that God had sent him. When these excuses did not dissuade God, Moses argued that he could not do the task because he was not eloquent enough[2]. Jeremiah likewise argued that he could not speak well and he added to that that he was only a boy.[3]Gideon made the point that his tribe was the weakest in Israel and when God insisted that Gideon wasthe one whom he had chosen, Gideon asked for a sign. When God gave him a sign, Gideon, still refusing to believe that God could use him, asked God to repeat the sign![4]Jonah’s reaction to God’s call was the most dramatic and the most selfish of all. Jonah was so reluctant to respond to God’s call that he ran away, presumably believing that he could escape God.  Worse, when he finally did what God had asked and God spared Nineveh, Jonah sat under a tree and sulked.

If we are anxious or lacking in confidence when it comes to sharing the gospel, we are in good company. However, that does not let us off the hook. In today’s gospel Jesus commissions us to testify on his behalf. Through our baptism we are all called and commissioned as disciples to be God’s presence in the world. And still we hesitate. The reasons for our hesitation may be as many and varied as those of us who are present. Like Jeremiah we might think that we are too young (or even too old). Like Moses and Jeremiah we might be afraid that we will be unable to find the right words to say or that people won’t believe what we do say. Like Gideon we might need to be convinced that God really canuse us. Like Jonah we might simply think that God can do it all on his own and that God doesn’t need us or, like Augustine and his fellow monks, we might be terrified of the reception that we imagine awaits us.

The worst fears of Augustine’s monks were not realised. The reality was quite different from that which they had expected. Instead of a hostile reception, they received a warm welcome and were given freedom to pursue their mission and the resources to establish themselves and their community. Their obedience to the call of God resulted in blessings far more than they could have imagined because God had not asked them to do the impossible. God had gone before them to prepare the way, remained with them as their help and support and empowered them with the Holy Spirit so that they could do what needed to be done.

Almost certainly, wewill not be called to lead a company of people out of slavery to the Promised Land. Wewill not be asked to lead an army in battle or to call an entire city to repentance. We won’t be asked to go to an unknown land to people whose language we do not know. All that we are asked to do is to testify to the risen Christ and to Christ’s presence in the world, to share with others the comfort, strength and assurance that we experience because Christ is present in our lives. We are to trust that the Holy Spirit will equip us for that task and to remember that God will not ask us to do more than we can do, nor will God send us out on a mission that has no chance of success.

The examples of Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, Jonah and Augustine assure us that it doesn’t matter how old (or how young we are), how articulate we are, how wise and clever or how strong or brave we are. God can and will use us to make known God’s presence in the world.

[1]The Venerable Bede, Chapter 23.

[2]Exodus 3,4

[3]Jeremiah 1:4

[4]Read the story for yourself (Judges 6)

Immersed in the world

May 12, 2018

Easter 7 – 2018

John 17:6-19

Marian Free

In the name of God whose Son draws us into relationship with God, with himself and with each other. Amen.

Marking assignments is an interesting task. In the process one learns a lot about the different ways in which people think. For example some students compartmentalise their material under sub-headings arguing every point separately before bringing the thesis together as a whole. Others write in a linear fashion, beginning at point A and moving consecutively through their argument to a conclusion at point B. Still others don’t appear to have any particular order or structure – all the details of the argument might be there but they are mixed together in a way that obviously makes sense to the writer but can be harder for the reader to disentangle[1].

If the gospels were student papers, as an examiner I would put John’s gospel into the last category. In this gospel the language and themes circle around and repeat themselves while at the same time moving forward to some new idea or insight. This is perhaps best illustrated by the images of the shepherd and the vine. Both contain more than one image (shepherd and gate, vine and abiding). These images somehow entwine together and get to the place for which the author is aiming, laying down one’s life for the sheep, and laying down one’s life for one’s friends but are difficult to disentangle without damaging or oversimplifying the meaning. Further, the imagery that relates to Jesus in chapter 10, is extended to the disciples in chapter 15, so the theme of an earlier part of the gospel is carried forward to later section. Similarly, at the conclusion of the discussion about the shepherd, the Jews accuse Jesus of having a demon. In chapter 15 Jesus warns the disciples that if the world has hated him, it will also hate them.

Another characteristic of John’s gospel that is obvious in today’s gospel is the density of the material – the number of ideas or themes that are contained in a few verses. Several words that John uses in very specific ways are found together but they are so enmeshed that it is impossible to separate them.  Yet knowing the meaning of each is important to our understanding of the passage as a whole. Making today’s reading more complex still is that these themes have been woven in and out of the gospel from the beginning. Expressions such as “the world”, “the truth”, “being one” and “being hated” have already been introduced and the author of the gospel expects that we will be familiar with his use of these terms and that we will know what he means when he uses them in this context.

For these reasons, it is my contention is that the fourth gospel is better experienced than dissected. When it is read as a whole, in one sitting, the various themes coalesce enriching and enhancing each other. The words echo through the text as they are repeated over and over again. Gradually they simply sink into the consciousness and understanding of the reader who understands their meaning without any need for explanation.

Our reading today is a portion of the prayer that concludes Jesus’ farewell speech (13-17). In preparing the disciples for his departure, Jesus demonstrates servant leadership, reassures the disciples that they will not be left alone, insists that they remain connected to him and assures them that they will receive the Holy Spirit. Finally Jesus prays – for himself, for the disciples and for those who will come to faith through the disciples. Having prepared the disciples for his imminent departure he now makes it clear through this prayer that he expects that his mission will not conclude after he goes away but will be extended through the mission of the disciples and the mission of those whom they bring to faith. The disciples are ideally suited to this task – they have “kept Jesus’ word” (17:6) and believed that “God sent Jesus” (17:8). As Jesus (through his life) glorified God, so now Jesus is glorified through them. As God sent Jesus, so now Jesus sends the disciples.

Jesus is ready to pass the baton and the disciples are ready to pick it up but Jesus believes that when he is gone they will need protection and he prays that God will further equip them. Jesus knows that the faith of the disciples has set them apart from the world. They no longer really belong, just as Jesus did not belong. This places them at risk of being misunderstood as Jesus was misunderstood, and of being mistreated as Jesus was mistreated. Until now Jesus has put himself between the disciples and the world, now he hands that responsibility over to God. He asks that God will protect them from the world.

Jesus also asks God to sanctify the disciples – to make them holy. He prays that God will “sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth”(17:17). Jesus is not asking God to bestow some esoteric piety or purity on the disciples. Rather, Jesus is asking God to bestow on the disciples the sort of holiness that he himself exemplified, a holiness (sanctification) that comes from knowing the Truth and having the courage to share God’s word (Word) and which results in being immersed in, and willing to die for, the world.

Like the remainder of the gospel, the prayer is multi-layered. The “word” that the disciples have is both the word that Jesus spoke and Jesus himself. The “world” is the place Jesus came to save and the world that is hostile to Jesus. Above all though, the prayer is multi-layered because it addresses not only those who were present but also all the generations since who have come to faith.

When Jesus prays for the disciples, he prays for us – that we who claim to know him may be so sanctified that we too will immerse ourselves in the world, sharing the truth and spreading the word no matter how costly that might be.

 

 

[1]Of course, I may be revealing that my thought processes are more linear. Those who think in a different way may find my style too spare, too direct.

It’s not what we do, but what God does through us

May 5, 2018

Easter 6 – 2018

John 15:9-17

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose love knows no bounds. Amen.

Most of us know the story of the ill-fated attempt by Captain Robert Scott to reach the South Pole and how his team died when they were just 11 miles short of the food depot. Until relatively recently, Scott was held responsible for the failure of the expedition and for the deaths of his companions. However research by the University of Cambridge and the Scott Polar Research Institute has revealed evidence that those under his command bear a large part of that responsibility. Had those left to run the base camp followed Scott’s directions the endeavour would have had quite a different outcome and lives would not have been lost. Written evidence has emerged that confirms that Scott left instructions that, had they been followed, would have given himself and his companions every likelihood of surviving the return journey.

It appears that not only were Scott’s orders ignored, but a series of mistakes by the men he had left in charge created the circumstances that led to his death. Those left behind had been charged with sending the dog sleds out to meet the returnees at a point beyond the food depot. Instead, a decision was made to send the sleds only as far as the depot. If there was any responsibility on Scott’s part, it may have been that he left the ship’s surgeon in charge of the base camp rather than someone with more experience, knowledge and leadership skills. Atkinson, the ship’s surgeon, made a number of poor decisions, one of which was to use men from the base camp to unload supplies from the ship which left them too tired to leave as scheduled. Another was to send an inexperienced scientist with poor navigation skills to the food depot[1].

A successful mission requires a team of people who are equally committed, have, between them, the appropriate skills and who are willing to work together for a common goal rather than seek their own aggrandisement.

If a good team is required for a mission to be successful, it begs the questions as to why Jesus chose the people he chose to be his disciples.

It doesn’t matter which gospel we read; one thing is absolutely clear – the disciples, those whom Jesus chose, failed him completely. The disciples consistently misunderstand Jesus and his purpose. They try to thwart his mission, they question his ability, they demonstrate their lack of trust in him, they are unable to use the powers that Jesus gave them, they compete with each other and seek their own glory and, ultimately, they betray, desert and deny him. Any way you look at it the disciples whom Jesus chose were not only the most unlikely of choices, but they were also the least trustworthy and the least likely to further his mission.

The point is that their imperfections do not matter. Jesus wasn’t trying to create a team that would reach great heights or astound the world with new discoveries.  Jesus was trying to create a team that would experience the oneness that he shared with the Father, a team that rather than doing anything amazing would allow him to do great things through them. The very vulnerability and frailty of the disciples is potentially their strength. If they are able to recognise their imperfections they may realise that to achieve anything they must and allow God to work through them.

Today’s gospel is a continuation of last week’s in which Jesus urged the disciples to be connected to him as branches to a vine. The theme of abiding is made even more explicit today– abiding in the vine/abiding in Jesus is to abide in God’s love.  Jesus does not ask his disciples to aspire to greatness or to aim to achieve wonderful things. All that Jesus asks is that they abide in his love. Just as it is their connection to the vine – not anything that they do – that results in fruitfulness, so abiding in Jesus will enable them to bear fruit that will last.

When we try to put these words into practice, we must be careful not to turn them around. It is vital that we do not confuse fruitfulness with anything that we do. Trying to achieve goodness or aiming to bear fruit through our own efforts and our own actions will lead to failure. We will fail because in the very act of trying to do things on our own we prevent God’s working in and through us. By acting on our own we separate from the source of love and goodness that alone produces the fruit that comes from being in and being directed by God.

It is hard to grasp that it is not what we do but what God does that matters. It is difficult to comprehend that God expects no more and no less than that we allow ourselves to be loved by God. It is easy to misunderstand Jesus’ reference to commandments as a command to do something and to forget that Jesus gives us only one command and that is to love one another. In today’s gospel, the only command that Jesus gives is to abide, to abide in his love.

Being passive recipients of God’s love allows God’s love to flow through us to the world. Opening ourselves to the love of God shown through Jesus empowers us to be God’s presence in the world. We cannot make God’s love known unless we first know God’s love, we cannot be God’s presence in the world unless we are deeply and intimately connected to God.

Like the disciples we may be unlikely and unworthy recipients of God’s love but God loves us none the less. All that is required of us is that we accept that we are loved, to open ourselves to that love, to trust in that love and like Jesus, allow that love to flow through us to the world.

 

[1]The Telegraph, April 28, 2018.

Jesus-fruit

April 28, 2018

Easter 5 – 2018

John 15:1-8

Marian Free

 In the name of God who if we allow God enlivens and empowers us to be God’s presence in the world. Amen.

Some time ago I watched a movie set in a vineyard in Italy. The vineyard had been in the family for generations and they took great pride in vines that were grown from an ancient rootstock whose history was lost in time. Into this scenario came a young American who swept the daughter off her feet. His being American was bad enough, but the fact that he knew nothing grapes made him anything but welcome. One night a lamp that had been lit to protect the vines from the frost fell over and it before long before fire rage through the vines.

Luckily it the young man woke up and valiantly tried to save the vines. When he saw that the fire had completely taken hold, he raced to the top of hill from which he wrenched an ancient rootstock and thus ensured that the grape would survive, the vineyard endure and that his place in the family was firmly cemented

In the course of preparing for today’s sermon I did some research into viticulture, in particular the rootstock for grapes. I was unable to find anything that told me whether or not the rootstock of grapes indeed survived for generations, but I did learn that very few grapes are grown from 100 percent vinifera rootstock. Apparently most grapevines today are grown from vinifera vines that have been grafted onto a phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Phylloxera is an aphid that saps the roots of certain root stocks and in particular that of the vinifera.

The thing is, that grapes like most fruits have been grafted onto roots that improve the health, the fruit-bearing capacity and the growth of the plant. In the case of grapes a grower chooses a rootstock that will give the results that he or she is seeking. The roots, in others words, play an important role in supporting and promoting the growth of the plant, they determine the strength and vigour of the plant, the way in which it puts out its branches, how well the plant will fruit, when the fruit will ripen and how it will taste.

When Jesus uses the image of a vine in today’s gospel he is not only drawing on a familiar agricultural image, he is also alluding to the many references to vines and vineyards in the Old Testament. Israel is often depicted as a vine carefully planted by God. More often than not the image is a negative one – that of an unfruitful vineyard that earns God’s wrath. By claiming to be the truevine, Jesus is asserting that in his person hefulfils the role in salvation history that until then had been played by Israel. In other words belonging to Israel is no longer the sole means of salvation. Jesus himself has replaced Israel. Belonging to Jesus (being one with Jesus) is from now on the way to achieve salvation.

Jesus makes an even more outrageous claim. In using the terminology “I AM” (the bread of life, the living water, the true vine), Jesus is using the language that God used for Godself. In other words, Jesus is insisting that he is God, a claim that is substantiated throughout the fourth gospel as Jesus tells the crowds that he and the Father are one, that those who have seen him have seen the Father and so on.

In chapter 15, we learn that Jesus’ unity with the Father is something that not only we can share but that we must share. If we abide in Jesus, he will abide in us. If we are connected to the vine, then we are one with the vine – the life-giving power of Jesus will flow through us nourishing and sustaining us and enabling us to bear fruit that is consistent with being one with Jesus.

The rootstock is important. We cannot be part of just any vine, any plant. It is not enough to bear fruit that is similar to or tastes the same as fruit that is produced by being connected to the Jesus vine. Jesus insists that we be united to him so that we might bear the fruit that results from a deep and abiding connection to him. Only if we are connected to the vine that is Jesus will we bear fruit that is the presence of God in the world.

It is important to note that in this instance at least, bearing fruit is passive, not active; bearing fruit results from our simply being in the vine, bearing the fruit that comes from being attached to the rootstock and not from any active striving on our own part. Bearing fruit has no connection with what wedo and everything to do with what Jesus does with us.  Jesus himself says that he can do nothing on his own, but only what the Father does through him (8:28 – a liberal interpretation). Weknow God through Jesus words and actions, because Jesus allows God to work and speak through him. The world will know Jesus through our words and actions only if we allow Jesus to work and act through us.

If we strive to do our own thing, if we are always pulling away from the vine, if we make the mistake that we know what to say and how to act, then the world will only see us. We will lose our connection with the source of our life and be so ineffective that nothing that we do will bear fruit. If on the other hand, we strive to abide in Jesus and to allow Jesus to abide in us, then as the vine feeds the branches so the presence of Jesus will feed us, and as the fruit of the vine tells us what sort of grape it is, so the fruit that we bear will tell the world that Jesus is working through us.

Bearing fruit is not what we do but what we are – branches on the vine that is Jesus, Jesus who is God.

 

 

God’s choice and ours

April 21, 2018

Easter 4 – 2018

John 10:11-18

Marian Free

 In the name of God who calls us to give ourselves completely and who in Jesus, gives Godself entirely to us. Amen.

In the BBC News magazine recently there was an article about young Indian men who are kidnapped and forced to marry young women in a neighbouring state. The bride’s parents take such extreme action to ensure that their daughters can be married to someone of a similar caste to their own. Two men were interviewed. The first commented that he had no choice. Several years and a couple of children later he has made peace with his situation. The second man said that he would not accept the situation and that he was not living with, let alone sleeping with the woman that he had been forced to marry. In both cases the men believed that if they were to try to escape they would have been killed.

We often hear people say that they had no choice – drug mules claim that they had no choice except to carry the drugs  because their family would be killed. Men working in Hitler’s labour camps insist that they had no choice but to obey orders or they would join the prisoners in the gas chambers and climbers who leave colleagues on the mountain state that had they stayed both would have died.  In fact in most cases there is a choice – the choice between life and death and to be fair, in such situations most of us would choose life.

We often justify making an unsatisfactory choice by claiming  that “it was the lesser of two evils”. While that may be true, it ignores the fact that there is often a third – if very unpalatable choice – the choice to refuse to choose. The choice to be excluded, derided, discredited and yes, sometimes the choice to die – the sort of choice that Jesus made.

John’s gospel is very much about making choices. The Jesus of John’s gospel chooses to challenge the law and the law makers when he could have quite easily chosen to conform to the norms of the time. He chooses to expose himself to criticism and ridicule instead of trying to fit in. He chooses to be confrontational and divisive, challenging and difficult when he could have placated, comforted and reassured. He chooses to be obtuse when he could have been direct. He chooses to heal on the Sabbath when he could have healed the sick on any day of the week. He chooses to antagonize the leaders of the Jews when he could have engaged them in debate. Above all, he chooses to die and he chooses when to die.

Early in the gospel, when things becomes uncomfortable in Judea or when the Jews threaten to kill him in Jerusalem, Jesus retreats to Galilee or across the Jordan. In the end, despite the dangers of returning, Jesus chooses not to avoid Jerusalem and certain death because he has heard that his friend is ill.

In today’s reading from John 10 Jesus states not once, but five times, that he will lay down his life (for his sheep). This is not some attention-seeking device on Jesus’ part, but a deliberate decision. Jesus makes a choice, not to avoid death, but to face it head on. Jesus makes it clear that he is not at the mercy of the Jewish leaders or anyone else who would take his life. He is not subject to the whims of the political and religious authorities. Jesus is completely in control: “no one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”  Jesus chooses to give his life that others might live and he does so out of love.

In choosing to give himself completely, Jesus models God’s choice – God’s choice in the first instance to give us free will and then to accept the consequences. God’s choice to bear the pain and heartache of watching us make the wrong decisions. God’s choice to sit back and watch us harm ourselves and others. God’s choice to allow us to destroy the planet. God’s choice to endure the grief of not intervening when we get things so terribly wrong.

Jesus models God’s choice to keep on believing in us – hoping that we will at last come around and trusting that eventually we will get it right. Jesus models God’s choice to keep on loving us despite all that we do to give God reason not to love. Above all, Jesus models God’s choice to give Godself willingly and joyfully for the well-being and the salvation of the entire world.

In modelling God’s choice, in laying down his life for us, Jesus models a way for us to make our own choices. Jesus challenges us to ask ourselves whether we act out of self-interest: protecting our reputation, securing our wealth, ensuring our own safety and comfort, and holding on to our own lives whatever the cost to others or, whether we are prepared to follow Jesus to the end by acting selflessly, caring little for what others think of us, sitting lightly with our possessions, letting go of our need for security and having more concern for the well-being of others than for ourselves. In other words, would we have the courage to choose to die (figuratively or literally) so that others might live?

 

 

 

What matters is that Christ has risen!

April 14, 2018

Easter 3 – 2018

Luke 24:36b-48

Marian Free

[1]

                           Four not one

In the name of God who, through Jesus, raises us to newness of life and empowers us with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Semester I am teaching a subject entitled the Synoptic Gospels. The course entails looking at the first three gospels to try to discern what each author is saying and why they chose to order their material in a particular way. We ask: what was it about the author’s own experience and the needs of his community that led him (we are fairly surely that the gospels were written by men) to construct the story of Jesus in the way that they did. The question of four gospels is one that has led skeptics to deny the validity of the gospels and pious believers to come up with a variety of different explanations for the differences. An explanation that I was given as a teenager was that if four different people witnessed something (a traffic accident for example) they would all report the story somewhat differently. Each eyewitness would have observed the scene from a different point of view and would have come to their own decisions as to what happened.

In reality it is unlikely that any of the evangelists were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.[2]We believe that the earliest gospel to be written was the gospel of Mark and that it dates to the late 60’s or early 70’s. Matthew and Luke were probably written in the next decade. Until then the early believers had been happy to use the Old Testament as their scriptures and to rely on oral tradition (and maybe the letters of Paul) as their source for the teachings of Jesus. (In fact there were some like Papias who believed that the oral tradition was more trustworthy than anything that could be written down because it was “first –hand”).

At around the time Mark’s gospel was written there were a number of differing forces that led to a desire to capture the stories of Jesus in a more permanent way. The Christian movement was becoming more and more dislocated from its roots with the destruction of the Temple and the spread of the faith into a Gentile environment. The death of the first generation of believers gave an added urgency to the task of capturing Jesus’ story. It was felt that a record should be made while there was still some connection to Palestine and before the memories became more than second-hand.

For the first forty years after Jesus’ death years, the stories of his life and teaching circulated orally. They would have been told differently by different story-tellers and have been given different emphases depending on the context in which they were told. (It is remarkable that we have only 4 gospels and not 400!)

It is not surprising then that we have several different accounts of the resurrection. Mark’s gospel (as we saw on Easter Day) leaves us up in the air telling us only that the women saw Jesus but were too afraid to tell anyone. According to Matthew the women see Jesus at the tomb and are sent to remind the disciples to return to Galilee where Jesus commissions the disciples to make disciples of all nations. Luke has a number of resurrection stories that allow the author (through Jesus) to use scripture to explain Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Despite these differences there are a number of consistencies. In all three gospels women go to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week and find it empty. In all three instances a messenger speaks to the women and tells them that Jesus has risen. The messengers also give the women a mission. They are to remind the disciples either to go to Galilee or to remind them of what Jesus said when they were in Galilee. In all three gospels Mary Magdalene is one of the women who was at the tomb on that morning. In other words, at dawn on the first day of the week, two or three women one of whom was Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. A heavenly messenger informed them of Jesus’ resurrection and tasked them with taking a message to the men. As a consequence of their experience and possibly of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples Jesus’ followers were convinced that he was alive – so convinced that they began to spread the message far and wide until a small movement begun in an insignificant part of the empire, spread throughout the entire world.

As an academic I am fascinated by the differences between the gospels, It excites me to try discover the motivations of the authors, the needs of the communities, the cultural setting of the first century, the distinct emphasises of each gospel, the particular message that the author is trying to get across and the unique picture of Jesus that they are trying to paint. In the end though, none of that matters. Whether there is one account of the resurrection or several. I’m not particularly concerned to know whether Jesus entered locked rooms, ate broiled fish or walked to Emmaus. What is important to me is that on that first day of the week, something happened that convinced not only the women who saw, but the men whom they told, that Jesus was not dead but alive and that as a result their lives were so dramatically changed that within two decades a movement had formed around the risen Christ and had spread beyond the bounds of Palestine to as far as Rome. What matters to me is that two thousand years later women and men are still convinced that Jesus has risen and they know their lives to be enriched, empowered and transformed as a result of that knowledge.

We don’t need to explain the differences or similarities in the stories told by the gospel writers, nor to we have to justify to others the fact that there is not one, but that there are four accounts Jesus’ life and teaching. We all have our own resurrection stories to tell. Let’s tell our story with such passion and conviction that what happened on that first day of the week will continue to inform and transform the world.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

 

 

 

[1]This cartoon was sent to me via email, so unfortunately I can’t acknowledge the source.

[2]Only about 25% of the population lived beyond their mid-twenties.

Holding Fast

April 7, 2018

Easter 2 – 2018

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who sets us free and holds us fast. Amen.

On at least three occasions when I have celebrated a Eucharist I have managed to omit the Confession. While that tells me that on those days I must have been I was distracted I am not particularly worried about the omission. Confession is a relatively late-comer to the Christian liturgical tradition. In the first centuries after Jesus those who had sinned made a public admission of their fault before the community. If they were seen to have committed a particularly heinous sin they were excommunicated – that is they were excluded (not from the community) but from communion. At that time, those whose were not baptised were dismissed before the Eucharist and those who had been excommunicated were dismissed at the same time. They were then publicly restored to the community at Easter at the same time as those who were baptised were admitted to it. This practice made the inclusion of Confession in the liturgy unnecessary.

While penitence, often in the form of sack-cloth and ashes, is a part of the Old Testament tradition and practice, we hear very little of it in the New Testament except in relation to Baptism. In the Middle Ages the practice of Confession became a private and secret thing. At that time There was a strong emphasis on sin and unworthiness and an increasing belief that our relationship with God was sufficiently tenuous that it had to be continually restored. In the late medieval times confession was made mandatory before communion.

The Anglican Reformers missed an opportunity to reconsider the place of confession. While many of the Protestant traditions abandoned the practice altogether, Cranmer retained a general confession as a part of all our services. Cranmer in fact added lengthy exhortations to be read the Sundays before Communion was to be offered – urging people to consider their lives and to repent of their sins so that they might be in a fit state to receive the sacrament.

I suspect that in part the emphasis on sin and the need for confession of same is based in part on a belief that Jesus gave the church the power to determine what was and was not able to be forgiven. There are two verses in our scriptures that have created this impression. The first is Jesus’ commission to Peter (which is also given to the disciples) in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The second occurs in today’s gospel: “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained.”

While those texts have been taken to understand that we, in the form of the church, can determine whether or not a person is forgiven, it seems to me that it takes a certain amount of arrogance to assume that Jesus gave to human beings – even human beings who believe in him, a privilege that the New Testament itself tells us belongs only to God (Mark 2:7) and which is an indication that Jesus is God. If we take it upon ourselves to decide who can, and cannot be forgiven we are, in essence, claiming that we, like Jesus are God.

So how are we to understand these two scriptures that have for centuries been understood to mean that we, mere human beings, have the wisdom to determine what can and cannot be forgiven?

In regard to the quote from Matthew the answer lies in the cultural context of Jesus’ words. When Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom and later empowers the disciples to bind and loose he was not giving them the authority to determine who would or would not be excluded from heaven. In the first century context he is simply giving to them the authority to decide which laws (not which sins) were binding for all time, and which laws (not which sins) could be dispensed with because they had reached their use-by date. The only relation between Jesus’ commission and sin, was that the disciples were empowered to decide that breaking a particular law was not a sin!

In John’s gospel, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Most English translations continue: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” However, the Greek reads quite differently. In the second clause the word ‘sin’ is absent. Translators have simply assumed that sin as the subject of the first clause can be read into the second. Sandra Schneiders points out that a better translation of the sentence would be: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven them; whomever you hold fast (or embrace) they are held fast”. She points out that “in the context of John’s Gospel it is hardly conceivable that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus. ”

Jesus does not empower us to determine what is unforgivable or suggest that we represent the mind of God on earth. Jesus is commissioning us to hold one another fast through thick and thin, to embrace one another with the sort of compassionate, understanding love that Jesus extends to us through all our doubts, our wilfulness and our failure to understand. Thomas’ questioning mind was not a cause for Jesus’ rejection, but an opportunity, an excuse for Jesus to reach out in love and to hold him fast. Jesus breathes the Spirit and commissions us – not to judge and exclude but to love and embrace.

Not an ending – a beginning

March 31, 2018

Easter Day – 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Marian Free

 In the name of God who turns darkness to light, sorrow to joy, death to life. Amen.

 When something significant happens – a natural disaster, a mass shooting, the visit of a member of the royal family – not only does everyone know about the event but nearly everyone has an opinion on the matter. A certain amount of notoriety attaches to those who were close to or involved in the event and at the same time, those who were affected by what has happened need to talk about it because they have been so traumatized by it.

Why then does Mark’s gospel end on a note of silence. The women (who have seen the empty tomb and been told that Jesus has been raised) “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Silence is an inauspicious start for what was to become the Christian faith. Silence is an inappropriate response for something as extraordinary and unexpected as the resurrection. Silence and fear detract from Jesus’ victory over death, and silence defies the young man’s explicit instruction: “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

There are a number of explanations for Mark’s terse and unsatisfactory ending – and I will come to them – but first let me take a step back. Those of you who followed the gospel in the pew bibles will be saying to yourselves: “but the gospel doesn’t end at verse 8.” If you look closely though, you will see that the second half of verse 8 is headed “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and verses 9-20 “The Longer Ending”. The problem is that there are no original copies of the gospels, the earliest manuscripts that we have come from the fourth century and these are copies of copies of copies. Significantly, the oldest copies of Mark end at verse 8, that, plus the fact that this is such a difficult reading has led scholars to believe that the original gospel ended here.

If that is the case, t is not surprising that the later copiests added to Mark’s ending. They would have found the lack of resurrection stories unsatisfactory and they would have wanted to find a way for Mark’s gospel to line up with the other gospels. The longer ending, for example, includes a reference to Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (Luke) and the commission to proclaim the good news to all the nations (Matthew). It also contains disturbing “proofs of faith” that do not seem to go back to Jesus– “they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”

So why does the author of Mark leave us hanging? Why are we left with fear and silence rather than victory and joy?

There are a number of suggestions as to why this might be. One is that those for whom the gospel was written already know the ending. They know too that the story does not end with Jesus’ resurrection, but continues in their own lives and through the experience of the gathered community. Jesus’ is alive in their midst, they themselves are the proof enough of the resurrection. The author of Mark knows that the story is far from over. It is possible that he is challenging his community – the believing community to take their place in the story, to move the story forward. In some ways the resurrection is just the beginning of the story. In fact, Mark appears to set us up for an open-ended close from the start:

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God”. The suggestions is that gospel as written is not the whole story rather it sets the scene for a story that is just beginning[1].

Another perspective suggestion is that the women find the tomb empty because Jesus has better things to do. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t wait around for the disciples to come and process the resurrection, to chat with him, to eat with him. Jesus gets on with what he has to do and leaves a messenger to remind the disciples (in this case the women) of something that he said while he was still alive – that they were to meet up with him in Galilee where it all began. They are to go back to the beginning, but they go back as people who are profoundly different from the people that they were at the start of their discipleship. Having experienced the ending, the disciples are sent back to the beginning from where they will be able to see the story with fresh eyes. The contradictions and confusion that they experienced during Jesus’ ministry will, hopefully, now make sense to them. With any luck they will now understand that Jesus’ suffering had a purpose and that his vulnerability was in fact a strength[2].

Yet another explanation for the abrupt ending is that while Mark is well aware of the importance of the resurrection for the story and for the disciples, he is equally conscious that the ambiguity that attended Jesus’ ministry will continue in the lives of believers. That is, despite the resurrection, the believing community will experience suffering and rejection. Like Jesus they will be misunderstood and sought out for the wrong reasons.

Then again, Mark might just be chiding the community (through the women) for their lack of faith. Three times Jesus has explicitly predicted his death and resurrection and three times the disciples showed by their response how little they understand. Now, three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, the women come to the tomb expecting to find a body when they had been promised a resurrection. It is possible that Mark is challenging the community for whom he writes to maintain an openness to the possibility that God will do the unexpected so that, unlike the women, they will not be caught by surprised, they will not be traumatized and confounded when God does not meet their expectations and they will trust that God will do what God has promised to do.

Centuries later the ending of Mark’s gospel presents us with a mystery – a mystery with a purpose. It asks us to consider:

Do we understand that we are part of the ongoing story of the gospel?

Are we able to accept and to live with the contradictions of the gospel – that it is in service and through suffering that we draw close to and are formed in the image of God?

Are we aware that as followers of Jesus life will not always be easy and that we can expect the same treatment from our contemporaries as he received from his?

Do we trust that God will do what God has promised to do?

Finally, have we locked God into one version of the story or are we alert, open and expectant – ready for God to do God’s next new thing?

Mark’s gospel does not end tidily because there are no tidy endings. Indeed the story of Jesus has not and will not come to an end.

 

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

[1] David Lose. Working Preacher

[2] Lance Pape, Working Preacher

Life and Death – two sides of one coin

March 31, 2018

For the Good Friday Liturgy, go to that page.

Kahlil Gibran – On Death

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;

and like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.

Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Reflection

It is easy to think that Good Friday is all about dying and indeed we do focus on Jesus’ gruesome death and the events that led up to it. Today is a sombre and sobering day when we are forced to face our own role in the death of Jesus – our daily betrayals, our luke warm faith and our love of all things worldly. It is also the day when we are brought face-to-face with the potential consequences of standing with the oppressed and the marginalised, of challenging unjust structures and of confronting the love of power.

It is also a day of contradiction – the cross revealing in stark relief the ignorance and foolishness of humankind in regard to all things Godly. We begin to understand that life and death go hand in hand – they are two sides of the one coin. Without life there is no death, without death we do not really know life. Death throws life into perspective, helps us to appreciate the gift that it is, challenges us to value and to use the life that we have, encourages us to make the most of every minute.

Life that acknowledges death tries to make the most of every moment – to grasp with both hands the good and the bad, to embrace the future rather than to hold on to the past, to have half an eye on eternity rather than being bound to this earthly existence.

Life and death are aspects of daily existence. Every moment we can choose life or death – we can choose to behave in ways that are life-enhancing or life destroying. We can choose to hold on to those things that are familiar and comforting but which are stultifying and limiting, or we can let go and embrace a future that is uncertain and full of potential and opportunity.

Do you fear death? Are you afraid of letting go of those things that are familiar and comforting?

As the poem suggests, death and life go hand in hand. Through our daily deaths (to fear, anxiety, greed and hate) we free ourselves to embrace life more fully.

All our little deaths, free us to live more fully, more authentically,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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