Archive for the ‘Easter’ Category

God’s prayer for us

May 23, 2020

Easter 7 – 2020

John 17:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who holds us in prayer. Amen.

In life, and particularly in ministry, we have the privilege to meet some amazing people – people who challenge, confront and support us in our faith journey. Such encounters are very often humbling especially if we take the opportunity to be open to the lessons provided or to the care that is expressed in such meetings. The examples are myriad, but today I would like to share a couple that pick up the theme of today’s gospel – prayer. 

Many years ago, before I was ordained, I attended Parish planning days. On these occasions we were often divided into small groups to consider, among other things, the ways in which we practiced our faith. Anglicans are not very good at sharing such things, so it was extraordinary to be in a situation in which congregation members were willing to confide in each other. On not one, but two separate occasions, in two different parishes, I found myself in groups with women who were in their seventies or eighties (in other words with women whom I only knew as the elderly members of the congregation). I was deeply moved (and chastened) to hear that they rose at 4:00am in the morning so that they could pray without interruption. I was, and still am, struck by their discipline and by the importance that they placed on their faith and their prayer life.  (And on mornings such as this when it is only 12 degrees at 8:00am I am overawed by their resilience!)

I confess that I have not adopted their practice, but all these years later their rigor and discipline continue to call me to account. From time to time I find myself comparing my prayer life to theirs and being challenged to pray more and to pray more regularly.

A quite different, but equally humbling story relates to my first incumbency. During that time, I had the joy of meeting Ruby. Ruby was beautiful and wise and was only eight years old. She was the granddaughter of a parishioner. Her mother was an addict and her grandmother had to maintain a fine (non-judgmental) line in order to retain her contact with her granddaughter. I was fond of Ruby and concerned for her and her situation. So it was that I was completely blown away when her grandmother informed me that Ruby had set up a little altar in her bedroom and even more astounded to learn that, among other things, Ruby said a prayer for me every day!  It is impossible to tell you how moved I was by that knowledge. Knowing that Ruby was praying for me filled me with an overwhelming sense of being loved and held and supported. Whenever I felt underappreciated or overworked, I remembered Ruby’s prayers and regained my sense of perspective. 

John chapter 17 concludes Jesus’ farewell speech. In this section he moves from instruction and encouragement to prayer – not for himself, but for those who are close to him and by extension for those who will come to faith through them. In the face of his impending death Jesus expresses a sense of completion. Despite what lies ahead, Jesus is not anxious for himself. He knows that his relationship with God is clear and is assured. He sees his death as his glorification (or perhaps a confirmation of the glory that was his from the beginning). Jesus’ death might mark the end of his earthly ministry, but Jesus knows that that in itself was only a brief interruption to the existence that he has shared from the beginning with God and to which death will restore him.  

Jesus’ anxiety is not for himself or for his future, but for his disciples – those who have come to faith in him (and therefore to faith in God). Their earthly lives, which have been dramatically changed by their relationship with Jesus, will have to continue in the world without his physical presence to protect and defend them. Knowing that their faith in him has placed them in danger, Jesus prays for them, committing them to God’s care and protection. 

Interestingly, Jesus does not break off his conversation with the disciples in order to pray. He does not separate himself from them or adopt a pious stance (head bowed; hands clasped). He does not feel the need to go to the Temple to pray.  Instead he remains where he is, at the dinner table, surrounded – we must assume – by the empty plates, the cups and the leftovers. Jesus’ prayer – the only prayer recorded in John’s gospel takes place in the presence of his disciples who must surely notice that he is no longer addressing them, but God. This means that they can hear everything he says and the tone in which he says it. 

Because Jesus prays in their presence, the disciples are first-hand witnesses of Jesus’ love for them, his confidence in them, his desire that God should protect them from  harm and his firm belief that because they know him, they know God and that such knowledge is the key to eternal life. Jesus’ prayer assures the disciples that they already belong to God and that they share with Jesus his unity with God. I wonder how the disciples felt – not only to know that Jesus was praying for them, but to overhear the words of that prayer – to know that through Jesus’ prayer they were held and loved and supported – no matter what that future might hold.

Verse 20 tells us that Jesus’ prayer encompasses those who believe in him through the words of the disciples. Twenty centuries later, through the gospel we can eavesdrop on Jesus praying for us – not in private but for all the world to hear. We are so used to hoping that God will hear our prayer that perhaps we do not pay enough attention to God’s prayer for us.

Jesus is always overturning the tables, forcing us to rethink our ways of seeing the world, opening our hearts and minds to new possibilities. What does it mean that God is praying for us, for you?

How does it change your relationship to prayer, to God? 

Giving the Spirit room

May 16, 2020

Easter 6 -2020
John 14:15-21
Marian Free

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

The liturgical season of Easter lasts for seven weeks. The chocolate may have been eaten and the hot cross buns may have disappeared from the shelves until Boxing Day but the Church continues to affirm that Christ is risen and to reflect on what that means for those who follow him. Of course every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection but there is so much of Jesus’ life to remember we, concentrate our celebration of the actual resurrection during these seven weeks. Historically – at least according to the Book of Acts – the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples on the Jewish feast of Pentecost – fifty days after the Passover. The church adapted this pattern for its liturgical calendar – celebrating the resurrection on the Sunday following the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox (similar to the dating of the Passover) and maintaining the feast until the Sunday of Pentecost.

It is not surprising then that during the seven weeks, the lectionary readings should change their focus from the resurrection to the coming of the Hoy Spirit – the readings reflecting the movement from one feast to another.

As we identified last week, chapters 14-17 constitute Jesus’ farewell speech. Jesus, knowing that he was about to die and return to God, was doing his best to prepare his disciples for life in a world without his physical presence. Interestingly the focus of Jesus’ speech is not on his impending death or on the trauma that the disciples can expect in the next seventy-two hours. Jesus’ primary concern in this speech is not with death, but with life. Jesus looks to the future. In effect he is making it clear that message that he preached, the example that he gave and the miracles that he performed are not dependent on him. Amazingly, it seems that Jesus’ work will continue through the disciples and through the church that will come into being through them. Jesus’ goal here is to prepare the disciples for his absence and for the role that they will play in the future.

What becomes clear is that the disciples are not expected to do this alone. Jesus knows that the disciples will be bereft without him. Like a ship without a rudder they will be directionless – used to being led rather than being leaders. So Jesus is speaking to this situation when he says that he will not leave them orphans but will send them another advocate – the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ absence the Holy Spirit will lead the disciples into all truth, will teach them and will enable them to testify as Jesus has testified.

Jesus introduces the Spirit by telling the disciples that the Father will send them another Advocate. There are two confusing things about this statement. One is the word ‘advocate’ which in our context relates to one who takes our part – in the court, in relation to health care or in any other situation is which we might need another person to firmly state our case. Koester points out that John uses the word in the reverse sense. The Holy Spirit does not represent us to God, making the case for our salvation, rather the Holy Spirit continues Jesus’ work of representing God and God’s love to us. Jesus first, and then the Holy Spirit bring to us the truth of God’s love – love that requires nothing of us.Though we do not require representation in the heavenly court we may still need to be convinced that God’s abundant love will never be withdrawn. The Holy Spirit, (God’s Advocate) will come to the disciples – and to all who join their number – as a constant reminder of that love.

The Spirit is referred to as ‘another’ Advocate. In more ways than one, the Spirit continues the work of Jesus in and with the disciples. Jesus and the Spirit both come from and abide in the Father. As Jesus taught, revealed the truth, exposed sin and glorified God, so the Spirit will do the same and more. The Spirit will continue the work of Jesus and will make known the presence of the risen Jesus to the disciples and to the world.

Not only does Jesus assure the disciples that they will not be abandoned and promise ‘another Advocate’ he makes the even more extraordinary claim that the disciples ‘will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you’. The intimate relationship that Jesus shares with the Father will, he claims, be extended to include the disciples. Indeed, all those who believe in Jesus will share in the mutual indwelling of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus death and resurrection makes possible a relationship in which God (the Trinity) is in the believer and the believer is in God (the Trinity). It is as if the crucifixion dissolves the barriers between human and divine, just as in the life of Jesus the barriers between human and divine were broken-down.

Jesus is going to his death (and his glorification) and is returning from whence he came but the world is irrevocably changed as a result of his presence. Humankind have been assured of and been witness to the unconditional love of God as expressed through the incarnation. What Jesus has done will be continued through the work of the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Spirit, the disciples will be empowered to do the same. The world should be overflowing with the presence of God.

Isn’t it time we stopped getting in the way and gave more room to the Holy Spirit?

Together on the road

April 25, 2020

Easter 3 – 2020

Luke 24:13-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who walks beside us on the road. Amen.

The story of the road to Emmaus is one of my favourite Easter stories. Luke’s retelling captures my imagination and I feel as if I am walking with Cleopas and his companion (his wife?) trying to work out what had happened over the past few days. Even though I know the end of the story, I am caught up in their grief and confusion, their intrigue as to who the stranger might be and finally in their recognition of Jesus. As Luke tells the story, I am there on the road and at the table. I don’t immediately recognise who it is beside me but on reflection realise that I had known it was Jesus all along.

Cleopas and his companion were not Galileans (as were the twelve) so they had probably not accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem. Their hopes and expectations about Jesus were almost certainly based on their experiences during his week in the city. Along with many others, they would have been caught up in the excitement surrounding Jesus, impressed by his teaching and filled with the hope that he was the one who was to come. Jesus’ crucifixion and death had thrown all this into question, yet it seems that they had not completely lost hope but had waited in Jerusalem to see if he would be raised as he had predicted. (“It has been three days,” Cleopas says.)

Otherwise, why would they have lingered? Emmaus was only a couple of hours walk away and there was no need to remain in the city once the Passover festivities were over. Indeed, it might have been dangerous to stay if they could have been identified as followers of Jesus. Yet, they had remained.

It is clear that they had heard reports that morning, that the tomb had been found empty by the women (something that had been verified by Peter). They may have been reminded, as the women were, that Jesus would rise on the third day. This would explain why they delayed going home, leaving Jerusalem mid-afternoon instead of in the cool of the morning. If Jesus was alive (as the angels had said), surely they would hear of it and be able to see him for themselves. Finally, they can wait no longer and with heavy hearts they begin the journey home.

Even so, they cannot stop thinking about the events of the past few days. As they walk, they are absorbed in conversation, analysing what has happened, trying to make sense of it all and wondering how they could have been so mistaken as to think that this man who was crucified was the one sent by God to save them. It is no wonder that they do not recognise Jesus when he comes alongside them. Presumably they imagine that he is just another pilgrim returning home from the festival and they don’t pay him much attention. They were certainly not expecting to see Jesus. Three days had passed, and he hadn’t been seen alive and, if he was alive, there would have been no reason for them to have expected him to leave Jerusalem at least not without his disciples. What is more, Cleopas and friend may never have seen Jesus without the crowds and may never have had a close enough look to recognise him in the absence of his friends.

Never-the-less, they expect this stranger to be a mind-reader and they jump to the conclusion that if he had been in Jerusalem he must certainly be as concerned about the recent events as they were. Interestingly, though they are surprised at Jesus’ apparent ignorance, they are not at all surprised that he should have such a good grasp of scriptures and that he should be able to explain and to interpret Jesus’ death.

We are not told whether or not Jesus’ words convinced them that the Christ had to die, or whether his explanation provided them any comfort. After all, the stranger had not told them that Jesus was alive only that the Christ had to suffer and then enter his glory. The stranger’s interpretation might have gone some way in explaining the events of the past few days, but it will have told them nothing about the present or the future or the impact that Jesus would have on their lives or on the lives of others who had believed in him. They might have wondered what use was a Christ who died and entered his glory and how was it possible that  such a Christ could change anything and would that Christ make any difference in the long term or would he be, as he seemed, just a moment in history.

Cleopas and friend are still confused when they reach their home, but their sense of hospitality will not allow the stranger to continue his journey in the dark. They invite him to stay with them. At the meal table the stranger “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them”. In so doing he was repeating the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper when he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to the disciples. Only then do the two really see the stranger, and seeing him, recognise him and, recognising him, realise that they knew who he was all along.

In difficult and uncertain times, we too get caught up and become self-absorbed in our own troubles. We try to figure things out for ourselves, wonder what has happened and worry about the future. We can forget that Jesus is always with us, and often, it is only with hindsight that we understand that he has been walking beside us all the way.

It is now a full month since our last service together in the church and we have no idea when the lock-down will end or what the future will look like. As we travel our own paths in these strange times, let us pray that we will be attentive to the presence of Jesus, open to all that this experience has to teach us and eager to share with each other what we have learned when we are together again.

 

“Blind unbelief is sure to err”

April 18, 2020

Easter 1 – 2020
John 20:19-31
Marian Free

In the name of God whom Abraham confronted, with whom Jacob wrestled and with whom Job argued. Amen.

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I would like to say that I don’t want to contradict the gospel, but those who know me would know immediately that that was not true. So I will be honest and say that, however pious they sound, these words – purported to be the words of Jesus – are at best coercive and at worst abusive – especially when they are used to bully people into believing or to dismiss as unbelief questions or doubts in relation to faith.

I could give many examples of the way in which this text is misused and abused. This is clearly illustrated in a story that I hope I haven’t already shared with you. Some years ago, I attended a conference on Spirituality, Leadership and Management. The keynote speaker devoted a large portion of his talk denigrating Christianity, while at the same time using the images of the Christian faith to expound his own theories of wholeness and life! Later that evening as I was wandering around the conference venue, I met another attendee, Jack, who asked me what I had thought of the speaker. I responded by saying something to the effect that I felt that it was unnecessary for him to be so disparaging of the Christian faith. Jack’s response took me completely by surprise. He explained that he had attended an Anglican Boy’s School and that as a teenager he had taken his faith very seriously. He was however confused by a number of things, in particular belief in a virgin birth. He finally plucked up courage to ask a teacher to explain. Instead of taking the question seriously or entering into discussion, the teacher simply responded that Jack had to accept the virgin birth as a matter of faith.

As he recounted this experience, Jack’s eyes filled with tears. He had been made to feel that his faith was inadequate. His question had simply been dismissed. The failure of his teacher to honour his question and to engage with his doubt had hurt him so badly that some 35 years later the hurt was still evident. Having been made to feel that his faith was not sufficient, Jack had simply stopped trying to believe. His tears were evidence that this loss continued to be a source of grief and that his exploration of other forms of spirituality had not (at that point) been able to fully mend the hurt or to fill the void.

I cannot recount this story without feeling angry on behalf of Jack and on behalf of all who, having found some aspects of the Christian faith challenging, confronting or simply improbable, were denigrated or silenced – usually as a result of ignorance, insecurity or, dare I say, a lack of faith on the part of the responder.

You will note from today’s gospel that Jesus’ response to Thomas’s incredulity is quite different from that of the teacher in Jack’s story. In Thomas’ absence, Jesus had not only appeared to the disciples, he had also shown them his hands and his side. In other words, he had offered them the very proof that Thomas sought, he had made it easy for them to believe. I’m sure that many of us can relate to Thomas’s disbelief. Someone who has been dead for three days doesn’t simply appear in a locked room! Thomas’ imagination simply could not encompass something so incredible – perhaps his friends had seen a ghost. He, like them had to see and touch in order for him to comprehend that Jesus was not dead but alive.

Jesus does not denigrate or dismiss Thomas’ questioning. He honours it. Not only does Jesus appear a second time, but he invites Thomas to see and to touch. Then Thomas does what the others have not – he acknowledges Jesus as his Lord and God – becoming the first of the disciples to do so.

To believe that God expects unquestioning faith and obedience is to misread both the Old and the New Testaments. When God threatens to destroy Sodom and all its inhabitants, Abraham dares to challenge that decision and when God appears to Jacob at night, Jacob wrestles with God till dawn. Moses has the impudence to tell God that destroying the Israelites will ruin God’s credibility in the eyes of the surrounding nations and Job questions why God would take away his family, his possessions and his dignity. Even the prophets have the nerve to challenge the wisdom of God’s decisions and Jonah in effect says to God: “I told you so.” In fact, as Sister Eileen Lyddon points out: “the Jews in the Old Testament questioned God frequently and vigorously.” Even Jesus has a moment (albeit brief) of wondering if God’s way was the only way.

God does not respond to these questions, challenges and doubts with anger or even with disappointment. God does not dismiss or disparage those who do not conform or those who refuse to accept God’s way blindly and without thought. God’s response to each (with the exception of the sulky Jonah) is one of acceptance and indeed of respect. God does not demand blind obedience and God does not scorn, denigrate or coerce. The opposite is true. Biblical evidence confirms that God honours the doubters, the questioners and the challengers. God is worn down by Abraham and finds a worthy match in Jacob. God heeds the challenge of Moses and God does not think any the less of the prophets for all their doubts, criticisms and questions.

God meets us where we are; encourages and affirms us and, as a result, draws from us not blind faith, but a relationship built on trust, respect and love. God comes to us and reaches out with scarred hands, hands that have fully identified with the human condition and in response we can only declare (without threat or coercion) that Jesus is indeed: “Our Lord and our God.”

The true victory is the cross

April 11, 2020

Easter Day – 2020 (Locked down due to Covid 19)

Matthew 28:1-11

Marian Free

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

“Those who want only God’s will want nothing for themselves, except to carry out God’s will for themselves and for others. But those who operate through their own wills leave no space for God”.[1]

In The Christian Century this week Richard Lischer wrote: “What Jesus offers this Holy Week is not an escape from loss but a better way of losing.” “Not an escape from loss, but a better way of losing.”[2] In other years and in other settings, we have approached Easter with a sense of joy and triumph. We have made it through Lent, spent time in solemn reflection on Maundy Thursday and especially on Good Friday. On Easter Day then we feel free to reflect not on the lessons of Lent or on the sufferings of Jesus but on the wonderful act of God in raising Jesus from the death.

It is difficult in times of relative comfort to really grasp the significance of loss and suffering that lie at the heart of the Christian faith, to forget that the Saviour of the World gave up absolutely everything in order to faithfully answer the call of God, that the resurrected Christ was only possible because of the crucified Christ.

This Easter, when we are facing the loss of social contact, the loss of being present at our Easter services, the loss of freedom and, for many, the loss of jobs, income and businesses, it is timely to reflect that at the heart of the Christian faith is not victory but surrender, not triumphalism but deep humility, not even of resurrection but of the dying that enables resurrection.

All of this is evident in Jesus’ life, who from the moment of his baptism began to let go of his own ambitions and desires and to place himself wholly at God’s disposal. Instead of relying on himself and his own resources, Jesus emptied himself thereby allowing God to work in and through him. In fact, as John’s gospel makes clear, Jesus’ true divinity is revealed on the cross, the place of Jesus’ greatest suffering is the place of his triumph. It is on the cross that Jesus fully realises his destiny, his complete submission to God. The resurrection is a confirmation of Jesus’ victory, it is not the victory itself.

This time of isolation and deprivation is not of our choosing, but it does provide an opportunity to explore our own willingness (or lack thereof), to follow Jesus’ example, to let go of our need to be in control, our desire to achieve something or to be someone. Instead of seeing the closure of our churches as a deprivation, we can see this moment as an occasion to let go of the props on which we rely and to allow ourselves to trust completely in the presence of God.

It is precisely circumstances such as these that – at their best – throw us on the mercy of God and force us to learn that it is when we give up everything that we gain more than we could ever imagine and that when we surrender our lives to God that God can truly work in and through us.

Have a Happy and Holy Easter and instead of being sad about what we do not have let us rejoice in the lessons that this Easter has to teach us.

Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection. We will gather once more and how much will we have to celebrate!


[1] Marguerite Porete, in The Flowering of the Soul: A Book of Prayers by Women, Ed Lucinda Vardey, Australia: Random House, 1999, 300.

[2] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-03/stripped-bare

One more time

May 4, 2019

Easter 3 – 2019

John 21:1-19 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals godself to us when we least expect it and when we most need it. Amen.

A trip to Israel is amazing. It is a beautiful country steeped in history. There you will come across a Canaanite altar that goes back 3,000 years before Jesus and a horned altar that makes sense of the horned altars of the Old Testament. You will encounter archeological sites that go back at least 1000 years before Jesus’ time and which have been built on over the centuries by different nations and cultures up until the present. The site of Capernaum with its ruins of homes that date from the time of Jesus helps us to put the gospel story into context and the Sea of Galilee is so vast that one can understand why the disciples might have been afraid when tempests arose.

That said, there is much that, for me at least, is a source of irritation or disappointment. I found it impossible to imagine the Israel of Jesus’ day in the towns and tourist sites that capitalize on their place in the gospel story and compete with each other for the tourist dollar. Christian denominations that vied with each other for attention were, for me, a source of deep shame and embarrassment. If visitors to the nation had been less keen to immerse themselves in the story they might ask themselves why both the Anglicans and the Catholics need such large churches in Bethlehem, why they have divided Capernaum into two parts, and why the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided between a number of Christian traditions.

On a lighter note, seeing a place at first hand had the tendency to burst the bubble of my imagination. Sites that loomed large in the gospel story did not have quite the same impact in reality. The Mount of the Transfiguration turned out to be a geological feature that I would have would called a hill; and the cliff that Jesus was ‘pushed’ to in Luke’s gospel was so far from Nazareth that it was hard to believe that even a huge crowd would have persisted in pushing Jesus over such a large distance.

What really surprised me and shattered my image of the story, were the fish. At the kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee we were served ‘St Peter’s fish’, which I took to be the fish of the miraculous haul recorded in both Luke and John. These fish (at least those cooked for lunch) were small – about fifteen cm long with very little flesh. It was hard to imagine even 153 of these fish being sufficient to make a net impossible to haul in as today’s gospel suggests and hard to imagine how many would be required to stretch to the nets to breaking point (Luke 5:6). But, as my grandmother used to say: “Why spoil the story for the sake of a little exaggeration?”

Why indeed? Whether here in John (after the resurrection) or in Luke (in connection with the calling of the disciples) the story is not so much about the fish as it is about recognition. In Luke’s telling of the story, the disciples have been fishing all night without success. When Jesus comes down to the shore they have left their boats and are cleaning their nets. Seeing the empty boat, Jesus asks Simon to put out from the shore so that he can more easily teach the crowds who have been pressing in on him. It is only when he has finished teaching that he tells the fishermen to try one more time which they do. This time the nets are so full they threaten to sink the boats. At this point Peter falls to his knees before Jesus and says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

As a result of the miraculous catch, Simon recognizes Jesus as Lord and, in the presence of Jesus’ goodness, becomes only too aware of his own sinfulness. The story of the fish is not just a miracle but it is an entry point to the story of Simon’s identification of Jesus’ true nature.

John places the account of the miraculous haul at the very end of his gospel, but here too recognition is the central point. A group of despondent disciples tire of sitting around and decide to go fishing. All night they fish with no success. In the morning a ‘stranger’ on the beach urges them to put down their nets one more time. This time there are so many fish that they cannot haul in the net. Then John identifies the stranger as the risen Jesus and Peter, (despite the fact that he had denied and abandoned Jesus), is sufficiently excited to see Jesus and sufficiently confident that Jesus will not reject him that he leaps out of the boat in order to be the first to reach him.

Whether it is recognition of the divinity of the earthly Jesus or the reality of the risen Jesus, it is success after a night of struggle, a surprise catch after fruitless effort, that opens the disciples’ eyes to the divine presence that has urged them to give it one more try.

When we are tempted to give up, when the night is too long or the task seemingly impossible, we can remember the catch of fish, believe in the risen Christ, give it one more try, and discover that Jesus was there all the time.

One more time

May 4, 2019

Easter 3 – 2019

John 21:1-19 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals godself to us when we least expect it and when we most need it. Amen.

A trip to Israel is amazing. It is a beautiful country steeped in history. There you will come across a Canaanite altar that goes back 3,000 years before Jesus and a horned altar that makes sense of the horned altars of the Old Testament. You will encounter archeological sites that go back at least 1000 years before Jesus’ time and which have been built on over the centuries by different nations and cultures up until the present. The site of Capernaum with its ruins of homes that date from the time of Jesus helps us to put the gospel story into context and the Sea of Galilee is so vast that one can understand why the disciples might have been afraid when tempests arose.

That said, there is much that, for me at least, is a source of irritation or disappointment. I found it impossible to imagine the Israel of Jesus’ day in the towns and tourist sites that capitalize on their place in the gospel story and compete with each other for the tourist dollar. Christian denominations that vied with each other for attention were, for me, a source of deep shame and embarrassment. If visitors to the nation had been less keen to immerse themselves in the story they might ask themselves why both the Anglicans and the Catholics need such large churches in Bethlehem, why they have divided Capernaum into two parts, and why the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided between a number of Christian traditions.

On a lighter note, seeing a place at first hand had the tendency to burst the bubble of my imagination. Sites that loomed large in the gospel story did not have quite the same impact in reality. The Mount of the Transfiguration turned out to be a geological feature that I would have would called a hill; and the cliff that Jesus was ‘pushed’ to in Luke’s gospel was so far from Nazareth that it was hard to believe that even a huge crowd would have persisted in pushing Jesus over such a large distance.

What really surprised me and shattered my image of the story, were the fish. At the kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee we were served ‘St Peter’s fish’, which I took to be the fish of the miraculous haul recorded in both Luke and John. These fish (at least those cooked for lunch) were small – about fifteen cm long with very little flesh. It was hard to imagine even 153 of these fish being sufficient to make a net impossible to haul in as today’s gospel suggests and hard to imagine how many would be required to stretch to the nets to breaking point (Luke 5:6). But, as my grandmother used to say: “Why spoil the story for the sake of a little exaggeration?”

Why indeed? Whether here in John (after the resurrection) or in Luke (in connection with the calling of the disciples) the story is not so much about the fish as it is about recognition. In Luke’s telling of the story, the disciples have been fishing all night without success. When Jesus comes down to the shore they have left their boats and are cleaning their nets. Seeing the empty boat, Jesus asks Simon to put out from the shore so that he can more easily teach the crowds who have been pressing in on him. It is only when he has finished teaching that he tells the fishermen to try one more time which they do. This time the nets are so full they threaten to sink the boats. At this point Peter falls to his knees before Jesus and says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

As a result of the miraculous catch, Simon recognizes Jesus as Lord and, in the presence of Jesus’ goodness, becomes only too aware of his own sinfulness. The story of the fish is not just a miracle but it is an entry point to the story of Simon’s identification of Jesus’ true nature.

John places the account of the miraculous haul at the very end of his gospel, but here too recognition is the central point. A group of despondent disciples tire of sitting around and decide to go fishing. All night they fish with no success. In the morning a ‘stranger’ on the beach urges them to put down their nets one more time. This time there are so many fish that they cannot haul in the net. Then John identifies the stranger as the risen Jesus and Peter, (despite the fact that he had denied and abandoned Jesus), is sufficiently excited to see Jesus and sufficiently confident that Jesus will not reject him that he leaps out of the boat in order to be the first to reach him.

Whether it is recognition of the divinity of the earthly Jesus or the reality of the risen Jesus, it is success after a night of struggle, a surprise catch after fruitless effort, that opens the disciples’ eyes to the divine presence that has urged them to give it one more try.

When we are tempted to give up, when the night is too long or the task seemingly impossible, we can remember the catch of fish, believe in the risen Christ, give it one more try, and discover that Jesus was there all the time.

Peace, peace, peace

April 27, 2019

Easter 2 – 2019

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of the Prince of Peace, who bestows on us that peace that the world cannot give. Amen.

Yesterday I was listening to Saturday Extra on the ABC. Even though it was off topic, Geraldine Doogue could not help sharing something that she felt was the most extraordinary piece of news. Apparently, South Korea has built new hiking tracks which take walkers up the hills and to the edge of the de-militarized zone. These tracks are to be called ‘Peace tracks’. That said, hikers will need to be accompanied by several armed soldiers and they themselves will be equipped with bullet proof vests and army issue helmets! For most, if not all of us, the equipment would be suggestive of anything but peace.

Last year we marked then100th Anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which exacted such a toll on Germany that is could be said that the cost of peace was the Second World War. The 2nd of September, 1945 is the date on which WWII officially ended, but that date does not accurately reflect the end of various conflicts that continued throughout Europe for decades as a result of the hostilities. ISIS has been defeated in Syria – in the sense that it no longer has control over any territory but the recent acts of terror in Sri Lanka are clear evidence that ISIS is far from being a spent force.

All this begs the question: What is peace? Is it the defeat of the known enemy? Is it the reclamation of lost territory? Is it the complete cessation of hostilities or simply the end of hostilities between the major players? Does peace require the humiliation of the vanquished or the payment of reparation? In most cases peace does not mean the settling of differences, nor does it mean reconciliation. At best, the end of war signals resentment and distrust – I remember returned soldiers who absolutely refused to buy anything Japanese such was the depth of feeling of those who had suffered at their hands. On the other hand, within decades, if not years, the past is forgotten as economic interests forge new relationships with those who once were the enemy.

Peace on the world stage is a very different beast from the inner peace that faith offers. We speak of “being at peace with ourselves and with the world”. By which we mean being content with who and what we are and with the situation in which we find ourselves.

Three times in today’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples and to Thomas: “Peace be with you.” Frank L. Crouch suggests that each time Jesus uses the words they have a slightly different meaning. My interpretation is different from his, but it is helpful to speculate on what Jesus might mean by repeating the phrase.

It is hard to imagine the scene. The disciples fled in fear when Jesus was arrested and now, even though they have heard reports that Jesus has risen, they are in hiding for fear that they will be arrested and killed as known associates of Jesus. They are still in Jerusalem and have locked the doors to give them some sense of security. I imagine them huddled together, going over the events of the last three years and in particular the events of the last week. What did it all mean? What should they do next? How could they safely leave Jerusalem? Who could they trust?

Suddenly, despite the locked doors, Jesus appears in their midst. Instead of recriminations he offers them peace. “Peace be with you.” There is no need to berate yourselves for what you did and did not do. The past is the past. There is no need to be anxious or afraid, I am with you. In the midst of their confusion and fear, Jesus offers peace. Now that they know that Jesus is not holding their cowardice against them, the disciples do not need to dwell on the past. Now that they are confident that Jesus is alive, they can have confidence that, whatever the future holds, God will bring them safely through. In other words, they can be at peace with themselves and at peace with the world.

A second time Jesus says: “Peace be with you.” This time the peace that Jesus offers is less comforting and more challenging. Having reassured the disciples that they still have their place among his followers, Jesus tells them that he is commissioning them to carry on his work. The disciples’ relationship with Jesus has been restored, but the story does not end there. The peace that Jesus offers now provides reassurance. Jesus’ confidence in them extends to his confidence that he can send them to continue his mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus cannot promise the disciples that the road ahead will be smooth, but he gives them peace – the knowledge that they can and will manage whatever difficulties confront them.

Finally, Jesus says: “Peace be with you” when he appears to the disciples a second time – for the benefit of Thomas. Peace is offered not just to Thomas but to all the disciples. Perhaps this time Jesus is addressing tension within the group – after all Thomas was not able to believe that the others had seen Jesus. Perhaps this third time, Jesus is gently chiding the disciples and reminding them of the prayer that he had uttered in their presence before he died: “that they may all one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us that the world may believe” (17:21).

Restoration, challenge, command – the peace that Jesus offers is all these things. When we feel that we have let Jesus down, he will come to us and let us know that all is right. When we are unsure what to do next, Jesus will nudge us in the right direction. When our relationships with each other are stretched Jesus will remind us of the command to love one another.

Jesus offers the peace that the world cannot give – a peace that quietens our nerves and reminds us that God does not abandon us though we might abandon God and a peace that gives us courage to step out in faith in response to God’s call. In return Jesus asks us to be at peace with one another so that the world seeing our unity with one another, may see in us the unity between Jesus and God and so come to believe.

Words cannot express

April 20, 2019

Easter Sunday – 2019

Luke 24:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God, who is always just beyond our comprehension. Amen.

“It was amazing. I can’t tell you how fantastic it was! You just had to be there!” I imagine that most of us have used those words or heard those words after an extraordinary experience – a brilliant sunset, an exceptional performance or an extraordinary athletic feat. There are times when words are simply not enough to express the wonder of what we have seen or experienced. We want to share the event with our friends and acquaintances, but we know that whatever language we use will be inadequate because the experience was simply indescribable. There are times too, when we know that even if we could find the words, what we are trying to describe might be beyond the comprehension of those with whom we are sharing. If they were not actually there, they will not understand that the Bach (for example) was performed in a way that was so sublime that it had to be heard to be believed, or that the sunset had that extra something that set it apart from all other sunsets – a certain something that although it was clear to the observer was also allusive; or that the trapeze artist performed a feat that excelled anything that had been seen before, a movement, a gesture that set it apart.

All of these events – sunsets, performances, athleticism – are all within the realm of ordinary experience. Our audience might not grasp the subtle differences that we are trying to share, but they will have seen a sunset, heard a musical performance or witnessed an exceptional athletic feat. These are more or less every day occurrences. People have something against which to measure them – their most amazing sunset, the performance that most moved them or an act of athleticism that impressed them.

This is not the case with Jesus’ resurrection. Before the women arrived at Jesus’ tomb no one had had an experience of someone rising from the dead, there was no prior reference point against which to measure the experience, no previous event that could be used as a base point to describe this event. Besides which, Jesus had not only been well and truly dead when he was taken down from the cross, but he had been in the tomb for two days and two nights. There could be no mistaking the fact that Jesus was dead and entombed.  Furthermore, a huge stone had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb so that no one could enter, and the dead could certainly not leave.

Not unreasonably, on that first Easter day, when the women came to the tomb they were expecting to complete the burial preparations for Jesus, to tend to his battered body. The last thing that they expected was to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Still, there were words for that, possible explanations that would make sense of the empty tomb. They could report that the found the tomb empty. They could speculate that grave robbers had rolled the stone away.

The problem was how to explain what happened next. What words did they have to describe the appearance of the two men in dazzling clothes who asked why they were looking for the living among the dead?” How could the women convince the apostles of their own newly formed conviction, albeit based on Jesus’ own teaching, that Jesus had risen from the dead?

It is no wonder that the apostles did not believe them. Who would? Resurrection from the dead was completely outside their experience, men in dazzling clothes simply did not materialise from out of nowhere. The apostles thought that the women’s words were “an idle tale” not only because the women did not have the words to explain what had happened, but because they had no reference point against which to measure the description of events. Resurrection of the dead, at least resurrection to life in the present was utterly beyond their comprehension. No matter how articulate Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women were, it would have been nearly impossible for them to report the situation in any way that could be comprehended, let alone believed.

During the course of this week, I have spent a great deal of time trying to think of something/anything that might come close to what these women saw and experienced. The miracle of childbirth, the terror of an earthquake, the awe felt in the presence of something extraordinarily beautiful – but nothing I can think of comes close. I can’t imagine anything in our own experience that might compare with the experience of the resurrection. Nothing this earthly is as explosive, as earth-shattering, as mind-blowing or as transformative as the resurrection. Nothing can capture what it must have been like that first Easter Day, when a group of women discovered that Jesus was not dead, but alive. No amount of words would be enough.

And yet, here we are, in church on a Sunday morning in the middle of a long weekend, attesting to the truth of the story those women told. Just as something convinced the women that Jesus was alive, so too, something intangible and inexplicable has persuaded us that Jesus not only lived and died, but that after death he was raised to life. Something that is beyond our explanation tells us that Jesus is alive, present with us in ways that are very real and yet very hard to put into words.

We are here because the resurrection is not an historic event, but a lived experience, a present reality, because Jesus once raised from the dead lives forever.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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.


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