Archive for the ‘Apostles’ Category

What does it take to be number among the disciples?

June 24, 2017

 

 

Pentecost 3 – 2017

Matthew 10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who notices a sparrow fall and who has numbered the hairs on our head. Amen.

You no doubt know that there are tricks to public speaking that are used to gain and to keep the attention of the audience. In the first century only about 1% of the population was able to read, so the gospels were not written to be read, but to be heard – (often in just one sitting). The gospel writers did not simply pull together a life of Jesus. The gospels and their component parts are very carefully structured in such a way as to ensure that their listeners would be gripped by the story and continue to focus on what they were hearing. Because few people could write, it was equally important that the stories about Jesus’ life and teaching were told in such a way that they would be remembered.

We heard last week that the author of Matthew’s gospel carefully structured Jesus’ teaching into five sermons or discourses each of which contained material that had a similar theme. Within at least two of these discourses is an internal structure that aims to unify and emphasise a central theme.

The technical term for this structure is a chiasm. In simple terms a chiasm is the repetition of ideas in reverse around a central theme. A chiasm is used for emphasis and for clarification. It serves to draw attention to the central point that is the focus of the passage and which gives meaning to the whole. One way to think of it is an arched bridge. The footings on either side are the same and the spans on either side mirror each other and hold up the central arch. A simple example of a chiasm is found in Luke chapter 4 – Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth. Jesus stands up, receives the scroll, unrolls the scroll, reads the scroll, rolls up the scroll, hands back the scroll and sits down[1]. The reading of the scroll and its content is the central point surrounded by actions in reverse order.

Matthew 10 is an example of a much longer chiasm. The chapter is complex and repetitive, but it begins to make sense when we see that Matthew draws his material together around a central point. The use of a chiasm bolsters and supports this key point in the same way as the footings and spans support the arch of a bridge.

The best way to understand what I am saying is to see what it looks like in practice.

After Jesus calls and names the disciples, the following structure unfolds

A. vv 5-15: The sending out of the disciples: how they should travel and find hospitality; how to respond to acceptance/non-acceptance

B. vv 16-23: Prediction of persecution; being brought before the courts, inner-family betrayal and encouragement in the face of these.

C. vv 24-25: This is because they can expect to be treated in the same way as Jesus.

 D. vv 26-31: Exhortation: “Have no fear.” They are worth so much to God that they can depend on God. (In this        section the disciples are told 4 times that they need not be afraid.)

         C’. vv 32-33: If they confess Jesus on earth, he will confess them.

     B’. vv 34-39 Division in families is to be expected; family loyalties must take  second place to the following of Jesus.

A’. vv 40-42 Those who welcome them will be richly rewarded because they are actually welcoming the risen Lord who is sending them, and ultimately the one – God – who send him[2].

Seen in this light, it is relatively easy to see that the central point around which the remainder circles is the exhortation not to be afraid. At the extremes we have comments about the disciples being accepted or not. The second and second last point warn of divisions (even within families) and the third and third last point stress a believers relationship with God to whom, the centre assures them they are of such value that God knows even the hairs on their head.

It is important to remember that this gospel is, as I mentioned last week, being written after the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. It is a time of change and trauma, a time in which both Jew and Christ-believing Jews are trying to work out and to establish their identity in a new and vastly different environment. For those who believe in Jesus there is the added confusion and pain associated with the increasing intolerance of difference and exclusion that is directed towards them from their fellow Jews. This may well have extended to their expulsion from the synagogue. What this means is that those who consider themselves to be the disciples of Jesus are being increasingly isolated from their ancestral faith, from their fellow Jews and ultimately from their families and their friends. Ideas of acceptance and rejection and division even among families would have been extremely pertinent.

These words, addressed to the Twelve in the gospel, must have brought great reassurance and comfort to those who were experiencing the very things that Jesus predicted. To understand that they were just as likely to be rejected as to be accepted, to know that they their experiences united them to the one whom they followed, that their loyalty to him would be repaid by his to them and above all to be reassured that they had no need to fear because they were so valuable to God would have helped them not only make sense of their experiences, but would have given them the courage to stand firm in their faith and to continue to proclaim the gospel in the face of any and all difficulties.

The sort of fear that must have gripped these first Christians, may be matched by those in places such as Egypt and Nigeria today in which simply holding the faith is enough to place one in mortal danger. To know that their persecution is part and parcel of being a disciple must surely give them strength. To know how precious they are to God must help them to understand that there are worse things than death.

We who have no knowledge of such terror and who practice our faith in security and comfort must ask ourselves why it is that we do not draw attention to ourselves, why it is that we do not illicit a negative reaction from those around us. Is it because we have accommodated ourselves so well to our surrounding culture that we no longer stand out as being different? Have we watered down our faith to the point where it is no longer offensive to non-believers? Or is it just that we avoid conversations in which awkward questions might be asked or in which we might be asked to defend our point of view?

Whatever the reason, it is important to consider (20th century disciples of Christ) whether we are so far removed from the situation of the first disciples that Jesus’ instructions and words of encouragement mean nothing to us, or whether we have removed ourselves so far from the risks and dangers of discipleship that we can no longer really call ourselves disciples.

What does discipleship really mean and what will it take for us to be numbered as one?

 

 

[1] The longest and most complex chiasm is the entire book of Revelation.

[2] Adapted from Byrne, Brendan, Lifting the Burden – Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today. NSW, Australia: St Paul’s Press, 2004, 87.

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Thirsting for God’s word

July 20, 2013

Pentecost 9

Amos 8:1-12

Marian Free 

Loving God, give us such a thirst for your word that we may read, learn and inwardly digest it and so share it with others. Amen.

I wonder how well you know your Bibles – the word of God. There are some things that you will know well and others that you may not know at all. For example, I am sure that if I asked you how many gospels there were you would all say “four” and that if I asked you to name Jesus’ disciples that you would be able to name at least three. Similarly, I am guessing that you could tell me the first line of the 23rd Psalm and that most of you would know where to look for the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. How would you go though if I asked you to explain why the four gospels differ from each other? How many of Jesus’ parables would you be able to repeat? Do you know in which book of the Bible you would find Satan in the court of heaven? In which book of the New Testament would you find the Golden Rule? And where in the Old Testament would you find the expressions: “How the mighty have fallen” or “keep me as the apple of your eye”[1]?

Many of the churches in this Diocese are participating in an audit that has been developed to measure the health of the church. A key finding of “The Natural Church Life Survey” is that across the Diocese, our knowledge of the bible is very poor. The central document of our faith, the book which records our stories and tells us how God has been a part of human history, is, for many of us, a book which remains largely unknown.

This is a pity for a number of reasons, most of all because the Bible is God’s love letter to humanity. We discover in its pages the story of creation’s propensity to turn away from God and the story of God’s patience which, over and over again, overlooks all our failings and shortcomings and continually restores us. The bible is filled with words of wisdom and comfort to encourage and sustain us – to give us guideposts along the way and to tell us something of the love and presence of God.

Just to give you a few of my favourite examples: Psalm 56:8 tells us that God keeps all our tears in a bottle. Isaiah and Revelation insist that God will wipe away all our tears (Is 25:8, Rev 21:4). In John’s gospel Jesus says: “I have come that you might have life and have it in abundance” (10:10. Elsewhere he says that all the hairs on our head are counted (Luke 12:7). God’s love continues to be poured out on us no matter how little we have done to deserve it.

The list is endless. From the proclamation in Genesis that God created humankind and it was very good, to the promises of heaven in Revelation, the Bible constantly affirms our worth in God’s eyes and God’s love for us – no matter how far we stray or how much we let God down.

On the other hand, the bible is a very human book and its pages expose the very worst of human nature. Between its covers you will find accounts of fratricide, genocide, infanticide, murder, adultery, rape and betrayal. There is no escape in our holy book from the reality of human existence and its potential for and propensity to sin. There is no glossing over or white washing the behaviour of even our most revered biblical heroes – with the exception of Jesus, they are all as flawed as we are.

The reading from Amos today is one of those bleak passages which discourage many from reading the Bible and the Old Testament in particular. This is one of the reasons that it is important to know our Bibles. We have to remember the context in which such accounts were written. In the time of Amos, the people of Israel had abandoned God, they were oppressing the poor and engaging in dubious and dishonest trading practices. Amos is expressing God’s frustration and sorrow at such a situation and God’s distress that the people no longer pay any attention to God’s word. God’s anguish is such that he threatens to withdraw the word from them in order that they should hunger and thirst for it, that they should long to know God again.

So we do an injustice to the text if we don’t take the trouble to understand its historical context, but we also judge it unfairly if we do not read it in the light of the whole book. If we persist to the end of the book of Amos, we see a different story – God does not remain angry, but relents:

9: 13 The time is surely coming, says the LORD,

when the one who ploughs shall overtake the one who reaps,

and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;

the mountains shall drip sweet wine,

and all the hills shall flow with it.

14             I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,

and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;

they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,

and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.

15             I will plant them upon their land,

and they shall never again be plucked up

out of the land that I have given them,             says the LORD your God.

The book of Amos was written in and for times very different from our own, but it can still speak to us. We are living in an increasingly multi-cultural and secular society which means that it is our responsibility to keep the word of God alive – to ensure that it is known not only to us but to generations to come. We may not experience a famine of “hearing the words of the Lord”, but the world at large does. It has less and less opportunity to engage with God and with God’s word. For that reason, it is incumbent on us to know and to share what and why we believe, to know our story so well that we can tell it to others, to be so enthusiastic that others will thirst to hear more.

I would like to end today with a challenge for you to begin to read the bible for yourself. Don’t set your target too high, begin with something that is manageable. Decide for example to read the bible for just five minutes a day or to read your way through one book of the bible. Develop your curiosity, ask questions: “What does the bible say about ….” Where can I find the parable of the Good Samaritan? What verse or what Psalm would I suggest to a friend who was going through a difficult time? Where would I find passages that talk about God’s limitless love? Give it a go and see what you can discover.

Let us be those who so know God’s word that we are able to make it known, those who so thirst for the word of God that we are ourselves equipped to slake the thirst of others and so familiar with the word, that it is like our second nature.


[1] The differences in the gospels relate to the writer’s intent, the community for which they were written and to other reasons which I can’t go into here. In the Book of Job, Satan plays an important role in the heavenly court. The Golden Rule is found in Luke and Matthew (6:31, 7:12). ‘How the mighty have fallen” is part of David’s Lament for Saul and David in 2 Samuel 2:19,27 and “keep me as the apple of your eye” comes from Psalm 17:8.

Raising up people to lead

October 27, 2012

Pentecost 22 (Simon and Jude)

Luke 6:12-16

Marian Free

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

From quite early on, readers of the Bible have noticed the differences between the four gospels and there have been a number of attempts to resolve the differences. Human beings do this for at least two reasons. Firstly, as the Bible is the holy text of the Christian faith, many people are uncomfortable with the idea that there is not ONE story about Jesus. (This is exacerbated by the fact that the existence of multiple accounts can be a source of embarrassment in the face of external criticism.) Secondly, it seems that the human mind is uncomfortable with and wants to resolve the differences.

One of the earliest responses to the “problem” was to conflate the four to create an integrated account, that is to use all four gospels to create one single version. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t allow us to explore and value the different approaches of the writers. Other responses have been to come up with explanations for the differences between the gospels. For example, a popular explanation has been to compare the gospels writers with witnesses to say – a car accident. As each witness will remember and report in different ways, either because of what they saw or the perspective they brought to it, so it is with the gospels. The difficulty with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account the community which told and re-told the stories or the ways in which the stories were transmitted.

The gospels as we have them were not written down until about thirty years after the death of Jesus. In the meantime the community which formed in Jesus’ name repeated the stories of his life, the stories he told and the things that he did. Given that people met in separate groups and in different places it is more extraordinary that the accounts are so how similar than that they have differences.

What happened it seems is that each community told and re-told the stories that captured the imagination of its members or which were important for its communal life. So for example, a community that was experiencing persecution – as is sometimes supposed of the community for whom Mark wrote – may place different emphases on the stories from a community which is not experiencing persecution.

Today’s gospel comes from the Gospel of Luke. An important thing to know about the writer of Luke is that he wrote two books – the gospel and the book of Acts. Luke’s primary concern was to write a history of the church from tis beginning in Jerusalem to its reaching the centre of the Roman Empire. For Luke then, the Gospel is something of a prologue to the story of the early church. More than the other gospels then, Luke has his mind not on the life of Jesus but on the formation of the faith community which comes after his death and resurrection. This information is particularly important as background for today’s gospel – Jesus’ choice of the twelve apostles.

If you were to read the accounts of the choosing of the twelve apostles in Matthew, Mark and Luke you would discover some significant differences between the three. All are agreed that Jesus chose twelve from among those who were following him and  all precede the account with the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John and of Matthew (Levi). Mark and Luke  agree in situating the choice of the twelve on a mountain. However, while in Mark and Matthew the twelve are equipped for mission – authorised to proclaim the message, heal the sick and to cast out demons – in Luke they are not. Perhaps the most important difference is that in Luke Jesus chooses the twelve after spending a night in prayer.

By his placement of the account, his inclusion of Jesus’ prayer and his naming of the twelve as Apostles, Luke is setting the scene for his second book – the Acts of the Apostles. The Apostles are to play an important role not only as Jesus’ off-siders during his lifetime, but also as leaders of the early church. The second verse of Acts affirms this. Before Jesus is taken up into heaven he instructs, through the Holy Spirit the Apostles whom he had chosen. We are also told that the early community devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. “With great power the Apostles gave testimony to the resurrection to the Lord Jesus.” Not only this but Acts tells us that the Apostles performed many signs and wonders among the community.

In the Gospel, Luke is establishing the authority of the twelve, making it clear that their role in the emerging community was conferred by Jesus himself. The Apostles are, in Luke’s mind, the direct heirs of Jesus’ and legitimate leaders in the early church. They will not only continue Jesus’ work and teaching, but will guide the believers through the difficult time of forming community, raising up leaders, facing persecution and imprisonment and working out how to respond to the increasing number of non-Jews who are moved to faith by the Holy Spirit. It is the seriousness of their task which causes Jesus to spend the night in prayer before setting the twelve apart. The teaching which follows their selection – the sermon on the plain – will provide guidance for the community. Jesus’ teaching will provide guidelines for living together and for relating to the world.

The choice of the twelve is a very serious decision. Their role, according to Luke, will be not only to carry on the mission of Jesus in his absence, but to build on it and to ensure that through those who come to believe, a community will be formed which will ensure the continuity of Jesus’ work and message.

Luke’s history may be idealized and formulaic, but whatever else it does, it places the Apostles firmly at the centre of the emerging church and as it does so ensures that the church is in safe hands – hands that have been chosen and set apart for the task by Jesus himself. Through the Apostles the emerging community was steered through its early difficulties and teething problems into a distinct and lasting expression of faith which became the church which exists to this day.

Jesus’ wisdom in sharing the burden of leadership and his vision and foresight in providing leaders for the future ensured that his message was not lost but continued to spread and grow. Let us pray that leaders continue to be raised up so that the gospel may continue to be shared, faith communities be formed and strengthened and individuals be encouraged and built up. Amen.


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