Archive for the ‘John’s Gospel’ Category

Wholly and unreservedly

June 3, 2017

Pentecost – 2017

John 20:19-23

Marian Free

In the name of God who enlivens and empowers us to do God’s will on the earth. Amen.

The third person of the Trinity is, in all but Pentecostal circles, the most neglected of the three. For a start, out of 52 Sundays each year we only dedicate one to the Holy Spirit. The Apostle’s Creed mentions the Holy Spirit only by name. The Nicean Creed describes the Holy Spirit in more detail, but both creeds include the Spirit with belief in the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. It hardly seems respectful, but it does illustrate the fact that the church as a whole becomes lost for words when trying to describe and express faith in something as indescribable as the Holy Spirit. God’s creative energy and power are visible in creation. Jesus lived and breathed as a human being, but the Spirit is elusive, vague and impossible to pin down or to define.

In the New Testament the Spirit is described both as breath and as fire or violent wind. At Jesus’ baptism the spirit appears as a dove. In Corinth the Spirit was discerned in the ways in which members of the community were gifted to speak in tongues, to prophesy or to teach. According to Galatians observers will recognize the Spirit through our love, gentleness, patience and long-suffering. Apparently the Holy Spirit can be wild and unsettling or tame and enabling.

In the church’s calendar we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (the Jewish Festival of Booths) fifty days after the Passover, or in our case fifty days after Easter. The scene for such remembrance is one with which we are very familiar – the rush of wind and the tongues of fire; God’s dramatic bestowal of the Spirit from heaven.

According to John’s gospel however, the conferring of the Spirit on the disciples is very different. The Spirit is given directly to the disciples by Jesus. It is not conferred remotely, dramatically or colourfully nor is accompanied by signs such as being able to speak in a multitude of languages. In John’s gospel the bestowing of the Spirit is, as you might expect, intimate and intensely personal, indicative of the union between Jesus and the disciples that has been the theme of our readings over the past few weeks. The giving of the Spirit brings to a conclusion Jesus’ mission and it brings to fulfillment the promises Jesus has made to the disciples almost since the beginning of his ministry.

Jesus has made numerous references to the Spirit. When he visits Jesus at night Nicodemus is told that he must be born of water and the Spirit. In the same chapter readers are told that the one whom God has sent – Jesus – will give the Spirit without measure. In the alternate gospel reading for today (Chapter 7) we read that those who believe in Jesus will receive the Spirit which will be like streams of water flowing out of the believer’s heart. At his final meal with the disciples, Jesus promises that the disciples will not be left orphaned by his going, because he will send “another Advocate” – the Spirit of truth who will continue to teach them and will remind them of everything that Jesus has said to them.

Jesus’ guarantees the Spirit as a quiet assurance that the presence of God that they have known through Jesus will not abandon them even when Jesus is not physically with them. He promises the disciples that the intimacy that they have shared with him will continue through the presence of Holy Spirit.

John’s time frame is quite different from that of the author of Luke/Acts. Whereas Luke divides the events after Jesus’ death into the resurrection (three days later), the Ascension (forty days later) and the coming of the Spirit (fifty days later), the author of John records the giving of the Spirit on the same day as the resurrection.

John provides us with a much more personal account of the conferring of the Spirit. There is no rushing wind, no tongues of fire and no terrifying, awe-inspiring visitation from heaven. Admittedly Jesus appears out of nowhere but having given the disciples proof that it is he, Jesus simply breathes on the disciples transferring his Spirit to them. In so doing Jesus is extinguishing everything that had made them distinct or separate from him. From this moment on their union with Jesus is complete. The role that God gave him to perform, Jesus now gives to them. As the Father sent him, so now he sends the disciples. Jesus does more than hand over the baton. He empowers the disciples to do everything that he has done (and more) (14:12).

These are the same disciples who fled when Jesus was arrested, denied him three times and abandoned him to face the cross alone. Weak, faithless and frightened, these are the people whom Jesus commissions to take his place. That the Spirit empowers them to rise to the challenge is demonstrated by the fact that despite being few in number, uneducated and unknown they were sufficiently effective that, two thousand years later we are here affirming the faith that they proclaimed.

Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives himself wholly and unreservedly to us – entrusting us to be the presence of God in the world. Jesus unites himself to us so completely that there should be no distinction between the Holy Spirit and ourselves. If there is any separation between us it is not because Jesus distances himself from us, but because we distance ourselves from him.

Jesus gives himself wholly and without reserve to us. What is it that prevents our giving ourselves completely and wholeheartedly to him?

If the Holy Spirit could inspire and enliven such a rag-tag group of people who had no resources, no education and no influence or power, imagine what the Holy Spirit could do with us!

 

 

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One with God or with each other?

May 27, 2017

Easter 7 – 2017

John 17:1-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us into union with God, with Jesus our Saviour and with each other. Amen.

In the wrong hands the Bible – indeed any religious texts – can be dangerous. This is blatantly obvious at present as we live with the consequences of Islamic extremism. No faith is exempt from the misinterpretation or misuse of its holy texts. We have to acknowledge that over the centuries even Christian texts have been used in ways that are punitive and even abusive. Passages from the bible have at times been used to limit and oppress rather than to liberate and make whole. Witness for example, the centuries during which it was believed that the inequitable distribution of wealth was God’s design. The poor were poor because that was how God ordered the world – not because kings and nobles taxed them beyond their means. For centuries it was taught and believed (at least by some) that the bible sanctioned violence against women and that women who were beaten by their husbands should not only endure such violence, but that they should also forgive the perpetrator thereby being forced to collude in their abuse.

In the case of today’s gospel, the final half sentence: “That they may be one as we are one” was used as a weapon in the debate about the ordination of women. Those who supported such a move were accused of being divisive and of wanting to destroy the church. Indeed the insinuation was that in seeking change they were going against the express will of Jesus in John 17:11. It was both a powerful and a manipulative strategy, designed to unsettle those who supported the ordination of women, to appealing to their core beliefs and making them feel guilty for daring to suggest change. (Interestingly, the opponents of the ordination of women did not believe that by refusing to accept change it might have been they not the others who were causing division.)

John 17:11 has been used to support unity within the church and between the churches and a quick look at the website textthisweek suggests that this is the most common interpretation of this verse and the most common theme of sermons on this passage. However, if we examine the verse in its immediate context and in the context of the gospel as a whole, we will recognise that the prayer is slanted somewhat differently.

As we saw a number of weeks ago, a key theme of the Johannine gospel is that of the unity of the Father and the Son. Over and over again, the Johannine Jesus states that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. The union between Jesus and God is such that to know one is to know the other. Now we learn that Jesus is sharing with the disciples the union that exists between himself and God. Jesus prays that the lives of the disciples will be indistinguishable from that of the Father and the Son.

Chapter 17 is a part of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prepares the disciples for his departure and for life without him. After announcing that he is going away, Jesus encourages the disciples to live in him (as branches attached to a vine) and he promises to send them the Advocate – the Spirit of Truth. Now he prays – for himself and for them – beginning with an appeal to God that his role may be brought to completion. In John’s gospel the cross is not something to be avoided but to be embraced. It is on the cross that Jesus will be glorified, because it is here that his complete submission to God will be demonstrated, it here that he will be lifted up and from here that he will be able to hand over his spirit to his followers.

Death is merely the fulfillment of his mission: “Glorify me,” Jesus prays “with the glory that I had before the world existed”. As we learn in the very first verse of this gospel, Jesus and the Father have been united since before time began. Jesus continues by praying for the disciples. He prays that they union that he shares with God will not be shared with those who believe in him.

That Jesus is praying that the disciples will be one with himself (and therefore with God) is confirmed if we read to the end of the prayer. In verses 21-23 Jesus prays again: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The prayer concludes: “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” If the disciples are united to God in the same way that Jesus is united to God then, God will be known through them as God was made known through Jesus.

At the end of the Farewell Speech, Jesus commissions the disciples to continue his work in the world. As God sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends the disciples. As Jesus revealed the Father, so now the disciples have the responsibility of revealing both the Father and the Son. They cannot do this if they insist on asserting their individuality and on going their own way. The only way that the disciples can achieve union with God is if, like Jesus, they hand themselves over entirely to God and submit themselves completely to God’s will. By subsuming their own needs and individuality into the Godhead, they will allow God to be made known through them. Their union with God will in turn lead to unity with one another.

It’s all a matter of what we take as our starting place. If we begin by believing that God is insisting that we live in complete unity, we can end up chasing the wrong goal – focusing on ending our internal divisions rather than focusing on our union with God. If however we make it our primary goal to seek union with God, the end result will union with one another – in our Parishes, in our Dioceses and with the members of other churches.

 

Never alone

May 20, 2017

Easter 6 – 2017

John 14:15-21

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is with us and in us even in the moments of our darkest despair. Amen.

(Imagine the preacher bursting into song)

“Hallelujah! not as orphans,

are we left in sorrow now;

hallelujah! he is near us,

faith believes, nor questions how.”

 

For reasons unknown, this half verse of the hymn “Hallelujah! sing to Jesus”, resonated with my childhood self. While I knew all the words to “There was a green hill far away” it was the line “not as orphans” that would come to mind at unexpected moments and take me back to the safety and security of the gathered congregation of my youth and the experience of the assurance and comfort of my faith.

I have no idea why these words had such power. I was not (and at 60 years old am still not) an orphan. My life has been extraordinarily blessed. Even now I can say that I have known very little of the sorrow and loss that is an inescapable part of life.

So why, I wonder, did I feel such a strong connection with those words? I suspect that the answer lies in the very negative images associated with being orphaned. It conjures up images of children bereft of love being raised in children’s homes or worse seeking out some form of living on the streets. The phrase “being orphaned” leads us to imagine a life without the security of home and family and having to shift for ourselves with no protection from the harsh realities of the world.

So even though my family remained in tact, the promise of the words has given me the assurance that no matter what happens I will never, ever be alone. In all the circumstances I can have confidence that Jesus will be with me and will never abandon me.

No doubt this was Jesus’ intention when he spoke these words to the disciples when he prepared them for his departure. As we saw last week, the disciples are troubled and confused. They seem to be uncertain as to what they might do if Jesus leaves them. In response Jesus assures them that the connection that they have with them will not be broken even if he is not physically present with them. In today’s gospel, Jesus extends this idea by promising them that they will not be alone when he goes. He will send them the Spirit. Just as he (Jesus) abides in them, so the Spirit will abide in them. It will be, he promises, as if they never separated.

It is in the midst of this, the second unit in Jesus’ farewell speech, that Jesus assures the disciples that they will not be left as orphans. For Jesus’ listeners this would have been an emotionally charged statement. Orphans and widows were the most vulnerable members of Israelite society. There was no social welfare. There were no children’s homes. Widows and orphans were completely dependent on the goodness of others or entirely reliant on their own resources.

The strength of Jesus’ statement is increased by its position in this section of the speech. These seven verses have been structured in such a way that the short sentence about being orphaned falls right in the middle. What is more the sentences either side repeat the same ideas in reverse. That is, there are three ideas that are presented in parallel around the central idea that the disciples will not be abandoned[1]. (This is typical of the Farewell Speech in which the various units are made up of a “spiral of thought” in which the last idea is similar to the first and so on.)

In other words the section looks like this. It is framed by the notion that the love of Jesus and keeping the commandments go hand in hand (14: 15, 21). Within this frame is, first of all the idea that the disciples will be connected with Jesus forever (14:16 – through the Spirit, 14:20 – through the mutual indwelling of Jesus and within that again, the concept that the world will not be able to receive the Spirit or see Jesus (14:17, 14:19). Then in the very middle of this cluster of ideas is the promise that the disciples will not be orphaned.

The sub-text is clear, do not be afraid, do not worry, you will never, ever be alone.

In the midst of the trouble and turmoil of this world, we are promised – not that we will never come to harm – but that in our darkest moments, at the times when we feel that God is far from our reach, we have not and will not be abandoned. God is with us – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, Father, Son and Spirit. No matter what life throws at us we will not face it without God by our side.

“Hallelujah! not as orphans,

are we left in sorrow now;

hallelujah! he is near us,

faith believes, nor questions how.”

Words of comfort and security for a child, that remain a promise and assurance for the adult I have become. May they be for you a reminder of God’s presence that will never be withdrawn from you.

[1] John 14:15   “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18   “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

 

Gates – openings or barriers?

May 6, 2017

Easter 4 – 2017

John 10:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires only what is best for us. Amen.

The first ten verses in chapter 10 of John’s gospel are rather puzzling. Is Jesus the gate, the door or the shepherd? Is Jesus both the gate and the shepherd? How does Jesus’ being the gate relate to having life in abundance? Who are the thieves and robbers? Part of the difficulty in understanding this passage is that the lectionary gives us only a small portion of the picture. Properly speaking, today’s gospel belongs in a section of John that begins at 9:39 and that concludes at 10:21. This becomes clear when we see that the passage begins and ends with a commentary on blindness and a reference to the division among the Jews as to the identity of Jesus. The Pharisees and their supporters claim that Jesus is an imposter, but those who can see clearly, recognise Jesus as the one sent by God.

In the previous chapter, Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath. This caused the Pharisees to be incensed not only because Jesus had broken the Sabbath law but because they were in danger of losing their place in society and the influence that they exerted over the people. In order shore up their position they tried to discredit both the blind man and Jesus. Jesus cannot have come from God because they know nothing about him! From their point of view Jesus (and the man who was healed) are making claims that cannot possibly be substantiated. Even so, there is something about Jesus that represents a threat to their authority and to their role. This is why it is so important that they convince the blind man that Jesus is an imposter.

Despite their best efforts the man born blind refuses to be swayed by their bullying and their insults. It is clear to him that Jesus must be from God – otherwise he could do nothing. He declares that Jesus is God and worships him.

It is in this context of conflict and division that Jesus uses the imagery of shepherding to describe the difference between himself and the Pharisees. Indirectly, Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of deceiving the people and of trying to manipulate them into believing what they, the Pharisees, want them to believe. The Pharisees are not true shepherds but are thieves and robbers who seek, not to benefit, but harm them. They are standing in the way of the fullness of life that belongs people of God. They are stifling and confining them, instead of nurturing and freeing them.

Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with the image of a shepherd. In the Old Testament the bad shepherds are those thoughtless, uncaring leaders who abandon their flock to the wolves. In contrast to them, God is the Good Shepherd, and God will establish over the people of Israel “one shepherd, my servant David, who shall feed them and be their shepherd”(Ezek 34:23-24). By claiming for himself the title of Good Shepherd, Jesus is identifying himself as the “one shepherd” sent by God.

When the Pharisees fail to recognise Jesus as the one sent by God and try to persuade others to their point of view the people they reveal their blindness and their self-centredness. They are devious and untrustworthy, but the sheep are not so easily deceived. As the man born blind has demonstrated, the people, despite the intimidation of the Pharisees, recognise Jesus and willingly follow him. It is this – the fact that the people respond to Jesus – that demonstrates that he, not the Pharisees is the shepherd of the sheep.

Just as they did not understand that they were blind, so now the Pharisees do not understand that Jesus is accusing them of being thieves and robbers. Jesus tries another image. He is, he says, the gate. it is through him that the sheep enter the security of salvation, and through him that they go out again to find pasture. Unlike the Pharisees who try to restrict and control the people by putting barriers in their way, Jesus opens the gate to free them to come and go as they please – to make up their own minds as to whom to follow.

Jesus continues this discourse by describing himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. At the conclusion of this section we return to where we began with the division between the people over the identity of Jesus. There are still those who believe that he has a demon and is out of his mind, but there are others who say: “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

When we have the whole picture, Jesus as both gate and shepherd makes sense. In the context of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus uses the familiar imagery of the shepherd and the sheepfold to make two points. He exposes the dishonesty and deviousness of the Pharisees – false shepherds who don’t use the gate, but who try to get to the sheep by stealth and who constrain others to their narrow views. Jesus is the true shepherd and he is the gate. As the gate, Jesus does not confine or restrict, but provides access both in and out – not only admitting the sheep into the security of the sheepfold but also freeing them to go out to seek nourishing and sustaining pasture.

The Good Shepherd can easily be distinguished from the false shepherd, because the Good Shepherd does not seek to benefit himself or to dominate or control in the name of God. The Good Shepherd knows us by name and has our best interests at heart. Jesus the Good Shepherd who is also the gate, does not seek to manipulate or to constrain but frees us to live life the full, to have life and to have it abundantly.

 

Living with the promise of the future not the guilt of the past

April 22, 2017

Easter 2 – 2017

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who sets us free from sin and death and who raises us to newness of life with and in and through Jesus Christ. Amen.

It should be obvious by now that I don’t believe that shame and guilt are characteristics of a Christian life. As I have repeated throughout Lent, I firmly believe that God loves us unconditionally and that in itself makes us people of worth.

Having said that let me be quite clear about two things. Firstly if we have wronged someone or done something that we should not have done, we must take responsibility for our actions and at that point feeling ashamed and/or guilty is absolutely justified (if not essential). Shame and guilt can become a problem if, having apologized to the offended person and to God we continue to feel bad about what we have done. A second proviso is this, if we have been treated in such a way that leads us to feel polluted, weak or shameful we must not add to those feelings a sense of guilt about not being able to shake such feelings. As we have belatedly learnt, victims of abuse may need more than a lifetime to overcome feelings of shame, despite the fact that they are not/were not at fault. To impose on such people an insistence not to feel guilty is to perpetuate the abuse.

In saying that shame and guilt are not characteristics of a Christian life I mean that we are not intended to carry around our wrongdoings or a sense of worthlessness, because God has already accepted and overlooked our faults. If we are weighed down by actions in our past we may not able to move forward and to get on with living the life that God intends for us.

Jesus’ resurrection assures us that we can leave the past behind and begin again. Knowing the power of the resurrection in our lives enables us to experience the life, joy and freedom that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes possible.

The message of the resurrection is twofold. Jesus’ resurrection opens for us the way to eternal life. What is more important in the present is that the resurrection of Jesus models for all believers the power of dying to our old life and rising to the possibility of a new beginning. As followers of the risen Christ we are encouraged to continually let go of the past – past behaviours, past sins, past sorrows – and to step into a new way of being, a new way of behaving, a new way of living.

If Jesus resurrection were not enough to convince us to leave the past behind and to move into the future, surely Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances confirm Jesus’ loving, forgiving nature and his willingness to overlook past mistakes and to look future possibilities. I don’t need to remind you that all the disciples failed Jesus and failed Jesus badly – betrayal, denial, abandonment. To make matters worse all, with the exception of Judas, had promised to remain true and even to die with Jesus. When it came to the point however, Peter who had assured Jesus that he would never deny him, did so three times. The disciples who had promised to remain even till death disappeared at the first sign of trouble. Jesus died alone, without the comfort of the twelve men who were closest to him.

Yet when Jesus appears to the disciples, he doesn’t mention their failures to support him nor does he express disappointment that they fled when the soldiers came and that even though they know he has been raised from the dead, they are still cowering in terror. Jesus does not hold the disciples to account, nor does he try to make them feel responsible. He does not reprimand them for failing to be true to their word. Jesus does not behave in a way that would cause them to squirm or speak to them in such a way as to humiliate or mortify them.

From Jesus’ point of view it is as though nothing untoward had ever happened, as if everything were as it was before his arrest. When Jesus appears to the disciples, his forgiveness and grace are expressed in four ways: he does not bring up the past; he offers the disciples peace; he commissions them to do his own work and he gives them the Holy Spirit! In other words, even though the disciples have demonstrated that they are completely and utterly untrustworthy, Jesus not only expresses his continued trust in them and in their abilities but he trust them and empowers them to continue the work that the Father sent him to do.In other words, Jesus makes this unlikely, unsuitable group of disciples his agents in the world because Jesus looks not to the past but to the future, Jesus sees not the disciples’ flaws but their potential.

As that old collect says: God who created us, knows of what it is we are made. God knows that we are weak and foolish and timid. God understands that we are likely to fail – not once, but over and over again and, not once, but over and over again God puts us back on our feet and allows us to start over.

This is what it is like with God. Once we have honestly faced up to what we have done, once we have admitted our fault to ourselves and to God, it is as if it never happened. We begin with a completely new slate, restored, whole and at peace with the world and with ourselves.

We owe it to God, we owe it to ourselves to try to accept the peace of the risen Christ and to aim to live each day with the promise of the future, not the guilt of the past.

Feet – dirty, calloused, smelly, caressed, loved

April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday 2017

 Marian Free

In the name of God who stoops to wash our feet. Amen.

Feet come in all shapes and sizes. There are large feet and petite feet. There are smooth feet and calloused feet. Feet that have seen a lot of hard work and feet that have led a reasonably charmed existence. Toes can be long or short, crooked or straight, misshapen or not. Feet in sandals are prone to get dirty. Feet in shoes are likely to be sweaty (and sometimes smelly). For these and other reasons, many of us don’t like our feet to be exposed. We are uncomfortable about allowing others to see what we consider to be imperfections or defects, we feel uncomfortable about anyone seeing them, let alone touch them.

It is an enormous privilege to be able to wash the feet of another person. It is an action of intimacy and touch that demands confidence, trust and humility on the part of the one who is willing to allow their feet to be seen and held and caressed with water and with towel. It demands that the recipient of the washing allow themselves, or at least their feet, to be exposed.

When Jesus takes a towel and washes the feet of the disciples, we are for the most part tempted to emphasise his humility, his willingness to serve – and certainly that is how John interprets the action. Peter’s response however shows the other side of the equation. It would seem that despite his discipleship, Peter has not yet learnt what it means to accept Jesus’ love. He is not willing to believe that a central aspect of faith in Jesus means receiving the gifts that Jesus has to offer. He does not understand that what is required is not the humility of thinking oneself unworthy, but the humility of accepting that unworthy though he may be, that does not put him outside the reach of Jesus’ love. Peter is self-conscious and uncomfortable with the intimacy that a relationship with Jesus involves.

He represents all those of us who do not believe that we are loveable and therefore cannot believe in God’s love for us.

Throughout Lent I have challenged you to consider how much God loves you, to believe that if God thinks you are worthy of God’s love that it must be true, and to understand that in the warmth of God’s love we can allow even those parts of ourselves of which we are most ashamed, to be completely exposed and laid bare.

Knowing ourselves loved frees us to give ourselves wholly to God.

If like Peter we are still holding something back, perhaps now is the time to ask ourselves what it is and why we are holding on.

 

Intercessions

Loving God,

On this night, Jesus took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, demonstrating that nothing was beneath his notice, and no one unworthy of his love. Give us a true sense of our worth, that we may see worth in others and so build a world of compassion, tolerance and love.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Holy God,

On this night Jesus demonstrates true humility and a willingness to serve. May we your church have a sense of proportion as to our own importance and truly understand what it means to serve the world around us.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Gracious God,

On this night Jesus washed the feet even of Judas who was about to betray him. Help us to love and accept the unloved and unlovable – even those who do us wrong.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Comforting God,

On this night, Jesus gave himself completely into your hands. Enable us to trust in you in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Eternal God,

On this night Jesus began a journey from life to death, a journey that became a journey from death to life. Give to us the same confidence in your guiding hand, that we may submit entirely to your will, and knowing that we are already yours, enter with joy our eternal rest.

Accept our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray.

Our Father in heaven…

So easy it seems hard

April 1, 2017

Lent 5 – 2017

John 11:1-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who love us beyond our wildest imagining. Amen.

“If only” must be among the saddest words in the English language. They express regret, disappointment, a certain dissatisfaction with the way things are and a yearning for things to be different. They suggest an unwillingness to accept that life is beyond our control and that it includes the good and the bad. They represent a failure to live in the present and a striving for what is probably an unrealistic and ideal future. Or, as in the case of today’s gospel, “if only” expresses a desire that God would behave in the way that we expect.

There are, as is often the case with John’s gospel, a number of things going on in today’s gospel. Jesus’ life is in danger. The Pharisees have been trying to stone him, which means that for Jesus to be anywhere in Judea, let alone near Jerusalem, is extremely dangerous. According to John Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem. Apparently while there he chooses to say with his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whose home in Bethany is only a couple of miles from the city. The siblings are more than friends with Jesus. They share an intimacy that would allow Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet and to wipe them with her hair, and that gives the women courage to tell Jesus that “the one whom you love is ill.” Not only are they close friends, but Martha and Mary have confidence in Jesus’ ability to bring about healing.

When Lazarus becomes ill, they send a message to Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t come. The sisters don’t have the advantage that we have. They don’t hear Jesus’ discussion with the disciples. What they know is that a friend who loves them not only doesn’t come, but fails to even to send a word to explain the delay. One imagines that the sisters are disappointed and confused by Jesus’ behaviour. His failure to honor their friendship and to come to their aid must have taken them by surprise.

No wonder both women reproach him when, long after Lazarus has died, Jesus finally turns up. “Lord if only you had been here our brother would not have died,” they say. We could have been saved this trouble and this grief – “if only you had been here.” Their confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal is unchanged. They simply do not understand why he would choose not to save their brother.

The reaction of the women is often overshadowed by the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, or overlooked because of Martha’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but it is important to notice the reproach and to recognise that, despite their friendship and love, the women are not afraid to let Jesus know that they feel he has let them down. It is probably because the sisters know Jesus so well that they feel free to tell him just what they think.

Both the Old Testament and the New are populated with real people who have real feelings and real failings, both of which are essential to their relationship with God. When we read the bible we don’t get the sense that the various characters on the pages are trying to be something that they are not. We are not given the impression that if a person is less than perfect that God will have nothing to do with them. We learn that from Abraham to Martha and Mary, those who are close to God, those who have a strong relationship with God have no problem in either being themselves or in letting God know exactly what they think. Abraham takes God on when God threatens to destroy Sodom, Moses suggests that God will look foolish in the eyes of the nations if God destroys Israel, the woman at the well was not afraid to tell Jesus that it was the Samaritans, not the Jews, who were the true believers, and Martha and Mary have no qualms in greeting Jesus with a reproach.

These characters have one thing in common – an open and honest relationship with God/Jesus – a relationship in which they are not afraid to tell God/Jesus exactly how they feel, in which they are comfortable to have their doubt and uncertainty, their frustration and disappointment exposed for all to see. They didn’t care if they appeared foolish or uncertain and they had no problem letting God/Jesus know just what they thought. When they were face-to-face with God/Jesus, they were not overcome with embarrassment, self-consciousness or shame. They were comfortable enough in their relationship with Jesus to have their flaws and doubts laid bare.

Over the past four weeks we have met characters who, in conventional terms have been anything but model Christians, let alone perfect human beings. Nicodemus is timid and uncertain, the woman at the well had had five husbands, the blind man came to faith only in stages and Mary and Martha reproached Jesus for being late. During this time, we have observed people who were not confident that Jesus was who he said he was, whose self-interest led them to misunderstand what he said, who took their healing for granted and who scolded Jesus for not responding in a timely manner.

We learn from these characters that if we want our relationship with God/Jesus to grow, it is important that we are completely honest – about ourselves (our strengths as well as our weaknesses), about our questions, our doubts and yes, even about our anger and disappointment. We can take the lead from those in the bigger story that it is not only OK, but that it is healthy to enter into debate with God, to voice our concerns and express our frustration. Our relationship with God is like any other relationship. It cannot grow if there is dishonesty, fear and anxiety, but only if there is openness, respect and trust.

My hope is that this Lent you have learned something of God’s boundless love for you, that you have gained confidence to be yourselves – knowing that God’s love will not be withdrawn – and that you understand that the best relationship with God is one that is honest and true, one in which nothing is hidden and in which we are so sure of our place in God’s love that we are not afraid to let God know what we think, to ask the difficult questions and even, as did Martha and Mary to question God’s reaction (or lack of action) in regard to issues that we think are important.

Being a Christian has nothing to do with being good and everything to do with being in a relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. It is only because it is so easy that it sometimes seems so hard

There are none so blind as those who will not see

March 25, 2017

Lent 4 – 2017

John 9:1-41

Marian Free

In the name of God who opens our eyes so we might know God. Amen.

By and large people believe what they want to believe – often despite evidence to the contrary. At least 10 years ago, Andrew Denton produced a documentary called: “God is on our side”. It was a report of a conference that is held annually in the Southern States of the USA. I found it all rather disconcerting. A major part of the gathering was the marketing of Christian artifacts books, pictures and movies a central theme of which was the “rapture” the belief that when Christ returns the dead who are to be raised, will join the living in a rapturous ascent to heaven, while everyone else is thrown into hell. Most frightening however, was the preacher who was addressing an auditorium filled with at something like 5-10,000 people and who proclaimed Cold War style that Russia intended to invade Israel. Those who attended were lapping up this out-dated and fear-inspiring version of the state of the world as if it were real. Books that supported the preacher’s argument were available for sale, reinforcing the “truth” of the matter. For those who accepted his authority, his reality became their reality.

Social media promised to make the facts more readily available to more people. It is increasingly evident that social media can be employed equally effectively to promote “fake” news. Many people who have no other source of information will believe what they are told, or what they read – especially if it is on the news, in the newspapers or spoken by someone in a position of authority.

As the old proverb goes: “There are none so blind as those that will not see.”

There are several layers of blindness in today’s gospel – the physical blindness of the man who is healed and the metaphorical blindness of almost every one else in the story. The disciples are blinded by tradition or folklore – physical deformity is evidence of sin. The man’s neighbours are blinded by the information that they currently have – the man whom they knew was blind – the man in front of them is not – he cannot be the same person. The Pharisees are blinded by their fear of change, and their desire for power. If people are allowed to believe that Jesus comes from God, their influence will be severely diminished. Finally, the parent’s of the once-blind man are blinded by the anxiety that if they claim to understand their son’s healing, they will be thrown out of the synagogue. Even the man born blind takes some time to fully comprehend the implications of receiving his sight.

The story of the man born blind takes a long circuitous route. He does not come to Jesus seeking to be healed. In fact it is only because the disciples ask Jesus about him that Jesus restores his sight. There is no suggestion that the man had faith, nor that his cure led to faith or caused others to believe. Not is there any suggestion that the man is surprised. He appears to take his newfound sight for granted. Those who knew him are surprised, so surprised in fact that they refuse to believe that it is the same man whom they knew as a beggar. The Pharisees on the other hand are threatened by Jesus’ power. They try to persuade the man that Jesus cannot possibly be from God implying that his power comes from elsewhere. Their antagonism has the opposite effect from that which they intended. Their assault on the once blind man and their disapproval of Jesus pushes the blind man to think about what has happened and to come to his own conclusion about Jesus – surely he is a prophet. In the face of such negativity, the man begins to understand the implications of his healing. It was not a random event but had a purpose and a meaning. Not only has the man received his physical sight, he is gaining insight and coming to faith.

When the Pharisees fail to intimidate the man, they take on his parents. Unlike the neighbours they recognise and own the man as their son, but they refuse to enter into any debate as to the person who healed him. To suggest that Jesus is from God would lead to their being thrown out of the synagogue. Finally the Pharisees attack the blind man one more time and when he refuses to give up what he has learned they throw him out of the synagogue. It is only then that Jesus seeks him out and reveals himself to him.

Over the course of the story, the man’s sight and his insight have been gradually sharpened. Despite opposition, he has held on to his sense of self, discerned the self-interest that led to the false teaching and the blindness of the Pharisees and has gradually discovered that Jesus the healer, is Jesus the prophet, is Jesus the Son of Man. He has learned the truth about Jesus because he was not bound by tradition, limited by what he thought he knew, not determined to maintain his place in the world and not imprisoned by the fear of what others might do to him. His openness to the truth gave him courage to hold his ground in the face of opposition and his willingness to learn brought him to faith. He has gained his sight in more ways than one.

As today’s gospel illustrates, God is patient. God will reveal the truth at a pace at which we are able to grasp it. God will give us courage to stand against those who would mislead and confuse us and will in time bring us to fullness of faith.

Lent is love. God’s story includes the timid, the questioning and those who come to believe one step at a time. No matter what holds us back – “fear or doubt or habit”[1] God will open our eyes and give us time and space to find our way to the truth and to take our place in the story that is without beginning or end.

 

 

[1] To quote hymn writer Elizabeth Smith.

Dignity and worth

March 18, 2017
Chester Cathedral

Jesus and the woman at the well.

Lent 3 – 2017

John 4

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whose eyes we have infinite worth, no matter what our life-style, our choices or our achievements. Amen.

During the week I read the extraordinary story of Bhenwari Devi an Indian woman from a low-caste potter Kumhar community. In 1992, at dusk, while Bhenwari and her husband were working in the fields, five men from the higher Gujjri caste (the most affluent and influential in her village) attacked them both. Two of the men attacked her husband and restrained him, the other three took turns in raping Bhenwari. As the news over the past year has informed us such attacks are not unusual. In India women and girls of a lower caste and especially untouchable women and girls are often raped and sometimes killed by those who come from a higher caste background, sometimes in retaliation for a perceived slight, and sometimes just because they are there. The shame and stigma associated with sexual crimes make it difficult for women such as Bhenwari to speak about their experience or to seek justice. Their gender and their lowly position in society only serve to exacerbate the situation.

When Bhenwari reported the rape, she was accused of lying. Her assailants told police that there had been a dispute but that the pair were not attacked. The police did not take the assault seriously, did not give her a thorough examination until the next day and ignored her cuts and bruises. Because she reported the crime, Bhenwari was seen to have brought shame on her community. She and her husband were shunned by their neighbours, who would not sell them milk or buy their pots. Their own families did not invite them to family weddings. For twenty-one years Bhenwari took her battle to the courts and while justice may have eluded her, her case has seen the government introduce legislation to prevent further such cases.

I’ll leave you to read the rest of the story for yourself[1].

It can be difficult for someone to hold their ground in the face of so much opposition, especially when they feel disadvantaged by gender, race, creed or their position in society. Even in relatively affluent and educated countries such as our own, there are those whose voices are more respected and those whose opinions hold little to no weight – the poor, those with a disability, victims of domestic violence to mention just a few. It takes courage and confidence to refuse to let such factors be a reason to stay silent.

In today’s gospel we meet a woman who would not be silenced. Like many of the New Testament characters, the “woman at the well” has no name. Never the less we know a great deal about her. This woman is triply disadvantaged. She is a member of the despised Samaritans, she is female and, probably because of her sexual activity, she is ostracised by her community – (which is why she is at the well in the middle of the day). Coming to the well at this time allows her to escape the censure and derision that would be levelled at her if she came earlier when most of the villagers would be gathering water for their families.

On this particular day though she cannot avoid Jesus. Jesus ignores all the social norms that would prevent him from speaking to the woman and he asks her for a drink. The woman is shocked, but not overwhelmed. She challenges Jesus: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” As the conversation continues the woman refuses to let her cultural disadvantages hold her back. She questions Jesus, confronts him on questions of faith (where one should worship) and finally is so convinced that Jesus is the Christ that she convinces her fellow villagers – those who despise and condemn her – not only to believe in Jesus but to persuade him to delay his journey for two more days.

Bhenwari and the woman at the well are examples of people who, despite their disadvantages, their place in society and the ostracism by their communities have been able to maintain a sense of self-worth and a sense of dignity. Jesus doesn’t see race, gender, religion or morality. He sees a worthy debating partner. Despite their circumstances and their standing within their own communities, the woman at the well and Bhenwari have a strong sense of their own worth and refuse to be cowed and intimidated, by those who would shame, condemn and exclude them.

We, of all people, should know our own worth. After all, didn’t Jesus die for us proving once for all God’s boundless, unconditional love and that we are worthy of that love?

Lent is love. The unbelieving, timid Nicodemus is given a place in God’s story and the despised and ostracised Samaritan woman is given a voice. The stories of their encounters with Jesus remind us that there is no standard that we have to reach to take our own place in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people. It remains for us to believe in God’s love for ourselves, which in turn enables us to believe in ourselves and to understand that if God overlooks our shortcomings, then we also ought to overlook our shortcomings. Above all, it means that God’s opinion of us matters more than the opinion of those around us and that we should not allow our lives or our faith to be determined or limited by self-doubt , by our position in the world or by the attitudes of others.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-39265653

Imperfect though we are, we are part of God’s story

March 11, 2017

Lent 2 – 2017

John 3:1-17

Marian Free

In the name of God overlooks all our shortcomings and believes that we have the potential to develop and grow. Amen.

As I said at Rodney’s farewell, none of us will forget Christina the Astonishing – who rose from her coffin and ascended to the ceiling of the church because she couldn’t stand the stench of human sin. Our hagiographies (our stories of saints) are filled with examples of apparently ordinary people who do extraordinary things or who bravely endure unbearable suffering. Think of Joan of Arc who not only led the armies of France in the 100 year war against England, but who with great courage faced being burned at the stake for heresy. Or of Francis of Assisi who gave up comfort, wealth and security to live a life of poverty. Or of Catherine of Alexander whose torture on a cartwheel gave the name to a whirling firework.

In our own time we have the examples of Mother Teresa who gave up everything and who untiringly worked with and for the poor and abandoned on the streets of India. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who saw the evil of the Third Reich and chose to risk his life to confront it. May Hayman and other New Guinea martyrs who chose to stay with their communities in the face of the Japanese advance in WWII rather than return home. Or Janani Luwum who was murdered by Idi Amin simply because he was an Anglican Archbishop.

While some of us might aspire to reach such exalted heights or believe that if it came to it that we would be prepared to give ourselves, our lives for our faith, most of us I suspect do not think that we will come anywhere near the deeds and courage of these and many other holy men and women.

The good news is that we do not have to be perfect to be part of God’s on-going story. We will encounter a number of characters during Lent who will prove that to be true. Nicodemus who is too afraid to meet Jesus openly, the woman who has had five husbands, the parents of the blind man, and the sisters of Lazarus who thought that Jesus had left his visit too late. These flawed, timid, unbelieving people have made it into the story of Jesus, into our Holy Scriptures despite, or perhaps because they are not perfect.

In John’s gospel Nicodemus is the first flawed person whom we meet. He is a leader of the Pharisees – a member of that sect within Judaism that placed weight on the oral tradition when it came to the interpretation of the law. There is a great deal of ambiguity in the account of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, but a few things stand out. In John’s gospel, the Pharisees are depicted as the enemies of Jesus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night that is at a time when no one can see him. We can’t be sure if this is because he is curious, or afraid or whether he has come to challenge or outsmart Jesus on a point of law or to learn from him. What we do know is that Jesus doesn’t turn his back.

Another element to the story is the imagery of night and darkness both of which are important symbols for the author of John’s gospel. If we read to the end of the chapter this becomes blatantly clear. Jesus says: “All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (3:21) In John’s gospel as elsewhere night symbolises “unbelief or the wrong kind of belief” and darkness (the opposite of light) represents the forces that oppose Jesus.

That Nicodemus comes at night suggests that he opposes Jesus or at the very least is an unbeliever. Apparently, he cannot see beyond the superficial, he is blinded by what he thinks he knows. He is stuck , he knows that there is something different about Jesus but his own training and expectations do not allow him to see what it is ,nor do they allow him to really comprehend what Jesus is saying.

This does not mean that Jesus rejects him or refuses to speak to him. Jesus sees not the timorous, unbelieving Nicodemus, but the potential for growth and understanding. The double meanings in Jesus’ conversation are intended to open Nicodemus’ eyes, to help him to see the distinction between the purely earthly and the spiritual. Like all of us, Nicodemus can choose to turn his life over to Jesus, to begin on a fresh page, to enter into a spiritual existence. Jesus does not judge or condemn Nicodemus, he does not refuse to engage in conversation and most importantly he does not dismiss or deride him, instead Jesus gives him the opportunity to see the world from another point of view.

Jesus does not reject or dismiss Nicodemus and we can be sure that he will not reject or dismiss us.

Last week we learned that love liberates us to be truly ourselves. Today we discover that we do not have to be perfect to be a part of God’s story. When we know that we do not have to be flawless we are set free to accept ourselves as we really are. If we accept who we really are, we can be authentic, stop pretending and recognise that we have nothing to hide. This in turn will enable us to let go of feelings of inadequacy or a lack of self-worth. We will discover that this in itself is healing and will create a more honest and open relationship with God that will deepen our faith and lead to our being born from above..


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