Archive for the ‘John’s Gospel’ Category

Mutual indwelling – the Spirit in us

June 7, 2019

Pentecost – 2019

John 14:8-17

Marian Free

In the name of God whose Spirit of truth informs and enlightens every generation anew. Amen.

I’d like to begin a little differently this morning. I invite you to spend a minute thinking about the times when you have known or felt the Holy Spirit acting in your life. Perhaps it was a warmth that you felt when speaking with a fellow-Christian, maybe an “aha” moment or an insight into something that had previously puzzled you or even a quiet assurance that God was with you. The experience may have been a dramatic revelation or a quiet certitude. Maybe nothing comes to mind, in which case you might like to think about your expectations about the Spirit and how you might come to recognize the presence of the Spirit in your lives.

 

It may not surprise you to know that I love to teach. Whether I am teaching Religious Education to School children (Primary or Secondary) or the Letters of Paul to University students or the Book of Acts in a Parish Bible Study I believe that it is a privilege to be allowed to teach. Not only do I gain new insights from my research and preparation, but I also am given new and exciting insights from those whom I presume to teach. People of all ages have come up with angles on the bible, on prayer and on other topics that sometimes had not even crossed my mind. This past six months have been particularly exciting. The students in my class at the College were so engaged with the Letters of Paul that they kept interrupting to share with the class an idea that had occurred to them based on what they had already learned. The Parish Bible Study has been similarly stimulating. Participants are not afraid to offer their own perceptions or analysis of the passage that we are studying, shedding a light on the reading that the commentary had not offered. This, I believe, is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. Our faith, and the interpretation of that faith is not static as if God, having sent Jesus, decided that God’s work was done! The Word of God is the Living Word and through the Spirit, it speaks anew to every generation who must make sense of it in their own time and in their own place.

It is tempting, on Pentecost Sunday, to focus on the reading from Acts and the very dramatic visual and aural appearance of the Spirit. However, that is only one account of the presence of the Spirit in the early church. The author of John’s gospel gives us a much more subtle, but perhaps more relatable description of the Holy Spirit and its presence in the disciples. The intimate connection between Jesus and the Father, is extended to us through the Holy Spirit, who with them dwells in us.

This morning’s passage is part of Jesus’ farewell speech in which Jesus is preparing the disciples for his absence. Jesus responds to Philip’s request to be shown the Father by reminding Philip that if Philip has seen Jesus, he has seen the Father. (It’s an interesting choice of reading for a Sunday on which we focus on the Holy Spirit, but an important one as we will see). This intimate relationship between Jesus and the Father is one that absorbs the attention of the writer of the fourth gospel. The word “Father” appears 125 times in John’s gospel, 11 of which are found in these verses. If we look closely, we can see that John spells out the relationship between the Father and Jesus in a number of different ways. In today’s gospel seeing the Father is the same as seeing Jesus (8-9). The Father and Jesus dwell reciprocally in each other (10-11). This reciprocal in-dwelling is the reason why Jesus’ words carry so much authority: they are the Father’s works (10-11). Jesus will do whatever the disciples ask, because that will give glory to the Father (13). Jesus will ask the Father to send the paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to the disciples (15). (Osvaldo Vena, workingpreacher.org June, 9, 2019)

This intimacy between the Father and Jesus is expressed by the language of in-dwelling or being in the other. Jesus says: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” and “The Father dwells in me.”

The word abide in or dwell in translates the Greek word μενω(menō) which is used in this sense twelve times in the gospel. John uses it to describe a relationship in which the two (or more) members become as one with each other. It is the language used in Jesus’ parable of the vine in which we are to picture such a deep connection between the branches (us) and the vine (Jesus) such that unless the branches dwell in the vine they will wither and die. Cut off from the source of life they cannot survive. The word μενω refers to “an inward, enduring personal communion” and is used by John to describe a variety of relationships – primarily that between the Father and the Son but also the relationship between the disciples and Christ (14:4) and between the Spirit and the disciples. “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(14:17).

In other words, through the Spirit the deep connection between the Father and Jesus is extended to the disciples including ourselves! Verse 23 expresses this sentiment even more forcefully: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Jesus assures the disciples, and therefore us, that God the Father, the Son and the Spirit of Truth will abide with us forever!

What this means is expanded in the remainder of Jesus’ farewell speech. Jesus tells us that Holy Spirit will teach us everything (14:26) especially those things that Jesus was unable to say when he was still with us (16:12) and that through us the Holy Spirit will testify on Jesus’ behalf (15:26,27). The Spirit of truth will guide us into all truth (16:13). Jesus’ teaching did not end with him. Through the Spirit in us Jesus’ word is made real to and for every generation. The Living Word is not fossilised or imprisoned in time and space, but through the Spirit that lives in us is revealed in new and exciting ways speaking the truth to a world that is vastly different.

 

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Unity not uniformity

June 1, 2019

Easter 7 – 2019

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into union with Godself and with one another. Amen.

Ten days ago Archbishop Phillip shared with us the letter sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion. The letter urged all Anglican Bishops to attend the Lambeth Conference in 2020. Archbishop Justin Welby acknowledged the differences of opinion that led a number of conservative Bishops to organize their own conference in 2008, but encouraged them to attend the next Lambeth Conference to ensure that their point of view was heard. Already four Primates of the Anglican Church have announced their intention not to attend. Last Sunday the ABC news reported that a large proportion of the Uniting Church was planning to secede from the Uniting Church Conference citing in particular the Conference’s making same sex marriage a matter of conscience for individual ministers. During the same time period in New Zealand a group of Anglicans formed their own, separate Diocese under the umbrella of the GAFCON and for at least a decade, Anglican Bishops have been ordaining clergy in Dioceses that are not their own, and parishes have been aligning themselves with Dioceses to which they do not geographically belong.

All over the world, and in a number of denominations, the church is being torn apart by differences of opinion – primarily over the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage but also in relation to the role of women and the interpretation of the bible. Claiming the high moral ground, the conservatives argue that the liberals have compromised the gospel, a gospel that they believe demands that we adhere to clear, unchanging moral guidelines. Liberals, on the other hand, claim that the gospel demonstrates God’s inclusive love and point to Jesus’ willingness to break the rules to make that love a reality in the lives of those who were marginalized, excluded or limited by those rules.

The issues on which we differ are not always clear cut, but are complicated by such things as local culture, history and the ownership of property. The world wide Anglican communion, which has held together since the Reformation, is now straining at the seams.

Today’s gospel comes towards the end of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prays for the disciples who must carry on in his absence. Jesus prays that the disciples will be protected from the ‘evil one’ but more importantly he prays that the disciples might be one, as he and the Father are one: ‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:20,23). Unity among the disciples, in fact among believers generally, is so important that Jesus repeats the prayer within six verses.

‘May they be one as you and I are one, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ In Jesus’ mind unity is a prerequisite of mission. A unified community is itself a witness to Jesus and Jesus’ union with God. A unified community does away with the need to proclaim dogmas, to demand adherence to a code of behaviour or to insist on one or another interpretation of scripture. Unity among believers is sufficient evidence of the presence of Jesus among them and of the union between Jesus and God. According to this point of view, creative outreach programmes, exciting, modern music and Bill Graham style evangelism campaigns would all be redundant if those who profess to believe in Jesus could only live in unity with one another.

The question then becomes: “what is unity?” Is it uniformity or is it mutual respect? My money is on the latter. It seems to me that scripture is anything but prescriptive and, even if it were, none of us are able to travel in time back to the first century to learn exactly what Jesus said or what the various writers of the New Testament meant when they recorded Jesus’ sayings. We can’t ask Paul to explain his ideas, nor can we really get an accurate sense of what it was like to be a believer in first century Palestine or the eastern Mediterranean.

Unity is not related to the minutiae of Christian practice but to the broader picture of faith. What Christians have in common is our absolute confidence in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, in the risen Jesus who is present with us and in the Holy Spirit who directs and inspires us. It is our relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – that unites us. This being the case, we do not have to force others to think in exactly the same way as we do rather we, and they, could learn to trust that we are all doing our very best to submit our lives to the God who revealed Godself in Jesus and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who is the perfect example of obedience and faithfulness.

If the different parts of Christendom learned to trust and respect each other, to believe that we are all in our own way striving to develop our relationship with the risen Christ, trying to be open to the presence of God and anxious to align ourselves with the direction of the Holy Spirit, the antagonism between the warring factions would diminish and even disappear.

No one truly knows the mind of God and it is the utmost arrogance for any of us to presume that it is we, not someone else who has the first claim on God’s truth. Instead of trying to prove that we are right and that others are wrong, perhaps it is time that we started to mind our own business, to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ and to allow others to do the same. If our primary focus was our relationship with God -Earth-maker, Pain-bearer and Life-giver – we might stop worrying abut what others do and do not believe and use the time and effort to concentrate on ourselves – on our own behaviour, our own attitudes and our own weaknesses. If our central concern was the building up of our own faith, we would not be obsessively concerned with externals – who can marry whom or who can be ordained – but with the deeper issues of vulnerability, humility and our dependence on God.

Jesus prayed that we might be one so that the world might believe through us. If we seek to draw others to the faith we must find a way to end factionalism, to cease competing as to who is right and who is wrong, and to seek, not uniformity, but the unity that comes from our shared faith in the Triune God revealed by our Saviour and Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Seeing the whole picture

May 18, 2019

Easter 5 – 2019

John 13:31-35

Marian Free

In the name of God when loves us and calls us to love each other. Amen.

You probably know the story of the six blind men and the elephant. One had hold of the tail and insisted that it was a piece of rope. Another reached his hands around a leg and thought it was a tree. A third grabbed an ear and declared that it was a fan and so on. Because they were unable to see none of them had a complete picture of what was before them and each believed firmly in their own experience and denied the possibility of any other answered . To take another example. Imagine that you are traveling with companions in a foreign country and are invited to share a meal with a local family who have slaughtered a beast in your honour. Because you are guests you are served the choicest parts of the animal – the eyes, the heart, the skin. None of you taste the tender, juicy meat and leave with a firm belief that that particular animal is one that you never want to eat again. Having tasted only a part, you have no appreciation for the whole.

If our experience of something is only piecemeal it is easy to mistake a part for the whole or to come to the wrong conclusion based on only a fraction of the information. We know this to be true and yet this is how we often read our bibles. Again and again we return to the passages and stories that are familiar and comforting to us and we fail to see them in their proper context thereby missing the wider implications and the subtleties within the passage. Unfortunately this is what happens in our Sunday readings. Few of us have the time or the attention span to listen to a gospel in its entirety, so it is served up to us in bite size pieces which do not allow us to hear the whole story.

Such is the case this morning, our reading makes little sense on its own, because it belongs within the wider context of chapter 13 which in turn is belongs to Jesus’ farewell speech (13-17). The few verses that we have before us this morning make little sense. There are three (even four) sub-stories. ‘When he had gone out,’ refers to Judas’ leaving the group to hand Jesus over – an act that Jesus sees as a decisive and maybe essential part of his story: ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified’. In John’s gospel Jesus’ death is not seen as a defeat but as a victory. It is the cross, not the resurrection that is the place of Jesus’ glorification. Jesus then warns the disciples that he will be with them only a little longer before giving them instructions as to how to live in his absence.

The complexity of the passage explains why preachers (including this one) focus on the last two verses: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

If we begin at the beginning we see that the context of Jesus’ words is a Passover meal. We are told that Jesus knows that the end is near. (In fact we learn that he has foreknowledge not only of his death but of how his disciples will act in the next 24 hours). Despite this ‘Jesus, having loved his own, loved them to the end’. One way that Jesus demonstrates this love is that he leaves the table, takes a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus washes the feet of Judas whom he knows is soon to betray him. He washes the feet of Peter whom he knows will shortly deny him and he washes the feet of the remainder – all of whom will desert him when he needs them most. When he returns to the table Jesus explains that his behaviour is an example for them to follow. Jesus’ love is demonstrated by service, by humbling himself and putting the needs of others before his own. Before he commands his disciples to love, Jesus shows them how it is done.

On his last night on earth, Jesus thinks not of himself, but of his friends. He continues in chapters 14-17 by preparing them for his departure, assuring them he is going ahead to prepare a place for them, letting them know that they would not be left alone, teaching them how to live together and instructing them on the nature of love. ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down their life for their friends’ (15:13). ‘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’ (14:21).

Jesus knows what the future holds and he knows the caliber of those whom he has chosen. In his final hours he chooses not to accuse them or to remonstrate with them. Instead Jesus demonstrates his love for them – love that recognizes but overlooks their collective and individual frailties. By his own behaviour at the meal and on the cross, Jesus shows the disciples what it is to love.

Seeing the whole picture tells us not only where our passGe fits in the gospel as a whole, but helps us to interpret Jesus’ meaning. Jesus commands his disciples to love as he has loved, with a love that is humble and non-judgemental and that is self-sacrificial to the point of death. Jesus’ love of the disciples is a love that is shared by the Father and a love that will ensure that even in his absence Jesus will be a present reality.

As the poet Leunig says: ‘Love one another, it is as easy and difficult as that.’

One voice among many

May 11, 2019

Easter 4 – 2019

John 10:22-30 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who demands nothing more than that we respond to God’s love. Amen.

I make no secret of the fact that I revel in the academic study of the scriptures and that the discovery of patterns, the uncovering of clever writing styles and the revelation of contradictions excite and energise me. A more comprehensive understanding of the gospels – why they were written and for whom, the techniques used by the authors to pique our interest and to ensure that we the readers see the teachings of Jesus in the way that they want us to – answers my questions and helps to deepen my faith and my relationship with Jesus and with the God who lies behind the texts.

I know that my enthusiasm is not shared by everyone and that some of you would prefer me to keep it straight forward. That said, I believe (Or perhaps I hope) that you continue to indulge me because you know that underlying my scholarly interest is a passion for the gospel and a deep and sincere conviction that at its heart faith has little to do with how we interpret the bible, with how we worship or with the doctrine of the church. What lies at the centre of my faith is not a question about who said what when, or whether Mark’s retelling is more authentic than Luke’s but my relationship with the God who created us, Jesus who redeemed us and the Spirit who enlivens us. I am convinced that at its core faith is an absolute confidence in God’s love for each one of us and a willingness to accept that love no matter how undeserving we might feel.

Relationship is central to John’s gospel – Jesus’ relationship with the Father, Jesus’ relationship with the disciples and the disciples’ relationships with each other. Over and over Jesus proclaims that he and the Father are one (10:30 eg) and he urges the disciples to be one as he and the Father are one (17:11). It is Jesus’ unity with the Father that enables him to do the things that God does (3:35, 5:19f, 10:38 eg) and to speak the words God would speak (3:34). Jesus unity with God is reflected in Jesus’ unity with the disciples (14:20) who will not only do the things that Jesus does but will do greater things (14:12).

We enter into relationship with God (Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier) by responding to God’s call. Throughout John’s gospel there is an emphasis – not on doing the right thing, or behaving in a prescribed way – but by hearing and responding to Jesus’ voice (5:24f). This is an image that Jesus returns to in chapter 10 in which he describes himself as the Good Shepherd. He claims: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.’

My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.

In today’s world there are many distractions and many competing voices. Even those of us who claim to follow Jesus can find it hard to focus on Jesus when there are so many other things clamouring for our attention – families, careers, social media and advertising. Even our church membership, volunteer work and other ‘worthy’ pursuits can prevent us from truly hearing and responding to Jesus’ voice. Changing values challenge our certainties. Different cultures and faiths can blur the clarity of our vision and make the edges of our beliefs more fluid.

Even within our scriptures there are voices which distract and detract from the message that relationship is at the centre of faith. It is possible to read scripture in such a way as to see God as a retributive, demanding judge who demands that we behave in a way that will earn God’s approval rather than hearing the voice of God crying out for us to be in relationship in with God.

The doctrines of the church present another set of voices that can confuse and distract from this core idea of relationship – God’s with us and ours with God. We can spend inordinate amounts of time trying to understand the Doctrine of the Trinity instead of seeing it for what it is – a description of relationship – the relationship between God the Creator, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – a relationship which we are called to enter so that as the lives of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier are indistinguishable from each other, so our life is indistinguishable from that of the Trinity.

In the midst of all these clamouring and competing voices, there is one that calls us to himself – to life in the present and life in the future. May we who claim to be Jesus’ sheep hear his voice amid the competing voices of the world and follow wherever he may lead.

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.

Giving our all and receiving so much more

April 6, 2019

Lent 5 – 2019

John 12:1-8

Marian Free

In the name of God who longs that we give God all that we are and all that we have. Amen.

You may or may not have realized that there are a number of different accounts of Jesus’ being anointed by a woman. Mark’s account (Mk 14:3f) (which is followed quite closely by that of Matthew) tells us that Jesus, having arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover, is spending the evening in Bethany. He is sitting at table at the home of Simon the leper. While he is there a woman comes in from the street and pours a jar of costly ointment over Jesus’ head. Some of the disciples are angry and scold the woman. They ask why the ointment was wasted when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus responds that they always have the poor with them and comments that the woman has anointed his body for its burial.

Matthew makes a only couple of small changes – in his account all the disciples are angry, but they do not scold the woman.

Luke uses similar elements to tell the story in a very different way (Lk 7:36f). Whereas Mark, followed by Matthew and John puts the account at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Luke places it much earlier in his narrative. In his version, Simon the leper becomes Simon the Pharisee and the woman is identified as a sinner. In Luke’s re-telling, the Pharisee has invited Jesus to eat with him. As they eat, a woman comes in off the street. She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. Then she anoints and kisses Jesus’ feet. According to Luke the disciples have no part to play in the narrative. It is Simon the Pharisee who reacts negatively to the woman’s actions. Simon is not offended by the waste of money, but by the fact that Jesus (who must surely know that the woman is a sinner) is allowing her to touch him.

Despite his obvious concern for the poor elsewhere, Luke does not quote Jesus saying about the poor. Instead, Luke uses the account to teach about forgiveness.

The story of the woman who anoints Jesus is (unusually) found in all four gospels. In John’s gospel the setting (like that of Mark and Matthew) is in Bethany – immediately before the Passover. John however, places the account in the home of Jesus’ close friends – the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It is Mary, not a stranger off the street, who takes the costly ointment and uses it to anoint Jesus’ feet. As with the sinful woman of Luke’s gospel, Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. In John, it is only Judas who thinks that the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor.

If we leave aside Luke’s account, it is interesting to note that it is the extravagance of the anointing that causes offense in Mark. Apparently, the disciples are not worried that the woman is behaving in a way that, even in the twenty first century would cause onlookers to squirm – only that the ointment could be sold and given to the poor. We have no way of knowing if this reflects their attitude to possessions in general, a genuine concern for the poor or whether they resent the fact that the woman/Mary can afford such a gift or if they are anxious that her extravagance shows up their frugality or meanness.

John’s telling of the story, though brief, is redolent with meaning. It lies between the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ own death. The fragrance of the ointment contrasts with the stench of Lazarus’ body and Mary’s action prefigures Jesus’ foot washing at the last supper.

What has challenged interpreters throughout the centuries is not the differences between the accounts or the symbolism of John’s version but rather the meaning of Jesus’ words: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Does this mean, as many have suggested, that we have no responsibility for those who, for whatever reason are less fortunate than ourselves? Or does it mean that Jesus is telling us that we should not use the poor as a means to an end – to draw attention to ourselves or to demonstrate our generosity? Or does it, as Janet Hunt reflects , ask us to consider where our priorities lie? In other words, are we, like Mary, able to focus not only our resources but our time and our energy entirely on Jesus or are we constantly distracted by other “important” or “worthy” tasks – by the poor whoever they may be.In other words, do we convince ourselves that our inattention to prayer, our failure to set aside time to be with God is justified because what we are doing instead – visiting the sick, minding our grandchildren, cleaning the church – is another way of showing our commitment to our faith.

“You always have the poor with you.” There is always time to be of use to our family and friends, to provide solace, company and assistance to others. Putting Jesus first does not rob them of our attention or our time, but rather it makes our care for them more focused and more meaningful. Making time for Jesus, giving ourselves to Jesus first and foremost ensures that we have the reserves to give ourselves more fully to those in need and it means that we are not using their needs as an excuse not to look after ourselves and after our relationship with God.

When Mary takes the ointment and anoints Jesus’ feet, she is thinking only of Jesus and is giving herself completely to him. It is not that other things, other people do not have a claim on her, but for this moment she is totally focused on him. Other demands, on her time and her resources, will still be there when she is done and she will see to them then.

The distractions in our lives – even those that seem praiseworthy or commendable – will not vanish if we put God first and, if we put God first, the praiseworthy and commendable will be even more so. Those whom we seek to serve will be better served by one who, having been restored in God’s presence can give themselves even more freely and even more generously.

Love unearned

January 19, 2019

Epiphany 2 – 2019

John 2:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God whose generosity is poured out freely and abundantly on the deserving and the undeserving. Amen.

Tony Campolo a psychologist, pastor, public speaker and author travelled a lot in the course of his work. Changes in time zones would mean that there were times when he was wide awake when the rest of the world was asleep. On one such occasion he was looking for somewhere to have breakfast at 3:30am. After wandering around he found a rather seedy diner and ordered a coffee and something to eat. While he was eating, the door opened and in came several noisy and provocative prostitutes who made Campolo feel very uncomfortable and out of place. When the women had sat down one announced to the others: “Tomorrow’s my birthday!” To which the response was something to the effect of: “ Bully for you. What do you expect us to do about it?” After a while the first woman responded: “I don’t expect anything but, you know, I have never had a birthday party.”

After they had left, Campolo asked the man behind the counter whether the women came there every night – particularly whether the one whose birthday it was came every night. “That’s Agnes,” the man responded. “Why do you want to know.” Campolo explained that he wanted to throw a party. The man was so impressed with the idea that he insisted that he, not Campolo, provide the cake and his wife offered to do the cooking for the party. Somehow word got around the streets and at 3:15am the next day the diner was crowded with prostitutes. When Agnes walked in everyone shouted: “Happy Birthday!” Agnes, whose life had never been celebrated, burst into tears .”

Compare that story with a true story from my own experience. “Sarah”, also a prostitute, came to faith at a Billy Graham crusade in 1994. The counselors at the crusade put Sarah in touch with her local church which is where I met her. Sarah was open both with the Rector and myself about her profession. She was also honest about the fact that she felt that she couldn’t give up the work until she had paid off a drug debt of $5,000. Interestingly, her conversion experience had enabled her to give up drinking, smoking and drug-taking, but $5,000 does not come from thin air. Such was Sarah’s integrity that she would not be baptized until she had given up the work.

One afternoon Sarah rang me in deep distress. Her psychologist – himself a Christian and a pastor – had accused Sarah of not being committed to Christ because she had not stopped working. I was completely floored. This beautiful, honest person whose personal background had been one of neglect and abuse, was being told that she hadn’t really turned her life around, that she was not sincere in her faith because she was still working. Her psychologist hadn’t offered to pay her drug debt or promised to protect her when the enforcers turned up for payment nor had he validated what she had already given up or affirmed her integrity in delaying baptism.

Sarah was in a state of utter despair and it took the best part of an hour for me to begin to undo the damage this man had done and for her to feel reassured that she was on the right path and that God had not rejected her.

Two Christian psychologists, who were also pastors, responded to the prostitutes in two completely different ways revealing two completely different understandings of the gospel. Campolo saw past Agnes’ profession and recognized her loneliness and alienation. He responded to her with generosity and love. The second man could not see beyond Sarah’s profession and so responded with meanness and condemnation.

These two men represent the different attitudes and responses of the church to those who do not fit the mould of a ‘good’ Christian. Both may feel that they have the love of God in their hearts but one doles out that love sparingly and only to people whom he considers deserving of that love. He believes that compassion and forgiveness must be earned and that a person must achieve a particular standard in order to be acceptable to God. His view of God’s kingdom is that it only includes the worthy and that he is in a position to determine who is and who is not worthy to belong. The other, who is from what is perhaps a more conservative Christian tradition obviously reads the Bible in such a way as to understand that God’s love is expansive and inclusive, that it cannot be earned but is poured out in equal measure on the deserving and the undeserving alike. The first demanded that Sarah change in order to earn God’s love, the latter showed God’s love to Agnes without condition.

Over and over again, in his teaching and in his actions, Jesus demonstrates that God’s love is poured out on those who do nothing to deserve it and that God delights in showing that love. The lost sheep is not reprimanded, the lost son is not castigated. When the lost are found they are not made to do penance. God doesn’t wait until they have redeemed themselves, instead from the moment they are found there is a celebration, a party – not only on earth, but also in heaven.

When Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, he doesn’t say, “Go and make reparation, then come follow me.” He doesn’t demand that Zacchaeus stop collecting taxes. He simply says: “Come down. I’m going to have dinner with you.” The thief on the cross was not asked to repent but assured of his place in paradise.

God’s love is not doled out sparingly or meanly in response to what we (and others) do or do not do. God’s love is lavishly bestowed on those who have not done, or cannot do, anything to deserve it including ourselves. God does not wait till we are good enough and God holds nothing back – there is more than enough bread for those who need to be fed and more than enough wine to ensure that the wedding party does not come to an abrupt end.

Like the bread on the mountainside or the wine at the wedding, God’s love is not measured and limited but vast and abundant. It is withheld from no one, ourselves included.

Powerlessness is power

November 24, 2018

Christ the King – 2018

sJohn 18:33-37Marian Free

In the name of God who in Jesus demonstrates that true power and authority lie in service and not in domination. Amen. 

It is not difficult to observe that the balance of power in the world is shifting. The United States is increasingly looking inward, relinquishing at least to some extent its role as a mediator, peace-keeper and influencer on the world stage. At the same time China, through its belt-road, its aid programme in the Pacific and through the purchase of property and land beyond its borders is ensuring that its role in the world is being vastly enhanced. Elsewhere, ISIS which is suffering military defeat and the loss of territory has unleashed an ideology whose effects and violence extend far beyond its geographic reach and its direct control. For those who have grown up in a reasonably stable world, the current political situation is unsettling and disturbing. We have grown used to power being wielded by one nation and do not know what the world will look like if power is exercised by another government or nation.

Power according to Max Weber is the ability to exercise one’s will over others (Weber, 1922). Sociologists point out that, “power affects far more than personal relationships; it shapes larger dynamics like social groups, professional organizations, and governments. Similarly, a government’s power is not necessarily limited to control of its own citizens. A dominant nation, for instance, will often use its clout to influence or support other government or to seize control of other nation states[1].” Power is sought and secured by individuals, companies or nations who wish to demonstrate their “status”; to gain control over resources – physical, geographic or technological; to exercise control over people and the actions of people; to amass wealth or even to build their own self-esteem.

Power is usually gained by force and therefore must be maintained by force. Those who are disempowered by the actions of another person or another state rarely cede what is theirs willingly or graciously. In order to maintain their power over others the “victor” must use force and/or the threat of punishment to ensure submission and obedience.  

In the first century, the chosen method of suppression was crucifixion. Anyone who threatened or was seen to threaten the supremacy of Rome was publicly crucified in the belief that such an horrific death would deter others from challenging the conquerors.

Today’s gospel is all about power[2]– its exercise, illegitimacy and its ultimate futility. At his trial before Pilate, Jesus demonstrates most fully what he has been trying to impress upon the disciples – that power overothers is ephemeral and temporary and that it is based on a false premise – the assumption that the person exercising power is in some way superior to those enslaved to his or her rule. For Jesus true power, legitimate power, power that is lasting, is the opposite of the worldly view. Real power, Jesus preached – (and now demonstrates in his life) – lies in service. Enduring power comes not from lording it over others but from raising them up. Empowering others, giving them a sense of their own worth, draws from them loyalty and respect that cannot be bought and that certainly cannot be enforced. 

Only a person who is secure in themselves and who does not feel the need to prove anything to anyone, can put themselves last and others first, can face false accusations and not feel a need to defend themselves and can endure cruelty and abuse without losing anything of themselves. Such a person can, from their own position of strength (not power), draw out of others their strengths and their gifts and enable others to develop and grow and to reach their full potential. Those who are thereby affirmed and encouraged know themselves to be blessed and enriched. In turn they acknowledge the gift and the one who so generously bestowed it with a deep sense of gratitude, a desire to please and a loyalty that cannot be bought or enforced. 

Power that derives from service need not be enforced, because it is power that is not desired or sought or enforced but bestowed by those who understand how much they owe.

Pilate does not and cannot understand Jesus because Jesus does not conform to the world with which Pilate is familiar. Jesus does not play the games that Pilate plays – he has no need to compete, no desire to prove himself to others, no longing for recognition. In Pilate’s eyes Jesus is a conundrum. He is accused of claiming to be a king, yet he submits to the indignity of arrest and trial and makes no effort to defend himself. Pilate, who is constantly needing to assert himself and his authority is at a loss. In fact, Pilate is powerless. By refusing to be cowed and by refusing to contest the charges brought against him, Jesus deprives Pilate andhis accusers of their power over him.

Today we affirm that Jesus is king – but Jesus is a king like no other king – a king whose power comes from his empowering others, from putting himself last and others first and whose absolute trust in God ensures that he can remain true to himself in the worst of circumstances. 

Would that we all had such confidence in ourselves and such faith in God that we, like Jesus, would have no need to assert ourselves, that we would seek the well-being of others before our own and that we would have the faith to face the worst that life had to offer without complaint and without a struggle. Then, and only then, would there be balance in the world, accord between all peoples and a peace that endured.


[1]https://courses.lumenlearning.com/sociology/chapter/power-and-authority/

[2]As becomes clear in 19:10-11


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