Archive for the ‘John’s Gospel’ Category

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.


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

A cause for offense?

August 25, 2018

Pentecost 14 – 2018

John 6:58-69

(Notes while on leave).

Marian Free

In the name of God who is disconcerting, challenging and confronting. Amen.

Speaking to a journalist from The Huffington Post about his work ‘Piss Christ’ the artist Andres Serrano stated: “The only message is that I’m a Christian artist making a religious work of art based on my relationship with Christ and The Church. The crucifix is a symbol that has lost its true meaning; the horror of what occurred. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to dead, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So if “Piss Christ” upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning. There was a time prior to the 17th century when the only important art, the only art that mattered, was religious art. After that, there were very few contemporary art pieces that were considered both art and religious, and “Piss Christ” is one of them.”

When the photograph ‘Piss Christ’ was displayed in Melbourne it was greeted with horror by members of conservative Christian groups who demanded that it be removed from the exhibit because it was disrespectful and offensive to the Christian faith. Even though Serrano is a Christian and even though the work was intended to make a powerful statement about the Christian faith, the protesters could not be appeased.

It is not the first time (and will not be the last) that theatre, literature or art has offended the sensibilities of good Christian folks. For example the musical Jesus Christ Superstar drew crowds of protesters when it was first performed in Brisbane for example.

Of course, the protesters believe that they are defending the Christian faith against attack, protecting it’s purity and it’s innocence. From their vantage point any story except their own is misleading and heretical and any presentation of Christ that dares to critique the domestication of the Gospel is seen as disrespectful and offensive. Those who are sensitive to the ‘offense’ believe that it is their task to defend the faith, to protect the image/the reputation of God.

From my vantage point there are two problems inherent in this way of thinking and behaving. The first is the presumption that God needs human beings to protect God’s reputation and the second is that this who are so offended seem to have forgotten how offensive and scandalous Jesus was. The Greek word ‘σκανδάλων’ (to scandalize, to cause offense) is used of Jesus on more than one occasion. Far from trying to maintain or conform to the status, Jesus appears to be constantly causing offense to the good religious people of the time. Jesus offends the Pharisees by breaking the Sabbath, eating with tax-collectors and, most seriously, by claiming to be one with God. His behavior is so scandalous that those who associate with him are threatened with expulsion from the synagogue and those who are so offended plot to kill him.

Scandal is at the heart of today’s gospel. Crowds, including the Pharisees and disciples, have been captivated by the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. They have been happy to have been caught up in the enthusiasm of the crowds that follow Jesus. However, as Jesus expounds on the meaning of the bread, as he reinterprets traditional views and challenges the crowds to have faith, their enthusiasm wanes. Following Jesus, they realise, will take effort on their part. It will require a depth of understanding and a willingness to change and grow. Many are not ready for this kind of commitment. They are not willing to challenge their cherished belief systems or to expose them to the scrutiny of a new teaching, a new day. Even the disciples complain that the teaching is difficult and many of them abandon Jesus.

The photograph ‘Piss Christ’ challenges all of us to consider how we have domesticated Jesus, to recognize the ways in which we have removed the scandal and the offense of the cross.

We follow a crucified Christ, a man who was condemned to death and executed as a common criminal, who scandalized the religious authorities and even his own followers, who was anything but a comfortable conformist.

The question we should be asking is not whether something offends us, but – whether by our godliness, our lifestyle, our passion for justice, our concern for the marginalized our tolerance and compassion – we are a source of offense to those around us.

Some things are beyond words

August 18, 2018

Pentecost 13 – 2018

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

In the name of God who who desires relationship not understanding. Amen

Many years ago I had the wonderful experience of preparing three young girls for their first communion. It is the tradition of the Anglican Church in Australia to admit the children (over the age of 7) of church going families to Holy Communion after a period of preparation. The theory is that receiving the Eucharist is a serious matter and that children should understand what is happening.

The process involves families working through a book that explains the Eucharist – including the names for the liturgical garments and the Eucharistic vessels. The workbook requires a reasonable level of literacy and a knowledge of the Eucharist that many adults do not have. In this particular instance the children came from a disadvantaged family who lived in an impoverished part of the city. Their mother had recently abandoned them to live with someone else and their father was doing a valiant job of looking after them. Like many of the children in the area, the literacy skills of these three were poor to non-existent.

I was caught between fulfilling the requirements of the church and responding to the desire of these children to be fully included in the life of the Christian community. It was clear to me that their writing skills were not going to allow them to fill in the exercises in the book. It was equally obvious that the use of language like ‘chasuble’, ‘ciborium’ or even ‘font’ were so far beyond their capacity to comprehend or remember that we were not going to progress very far.

One Sunday as I was pondering the way forward I noticed, as the priest was saying the Prayer of Thanksgiving, that the three young girls had made their way to the front of the altar. There they were, standing in rapt attention to all that was going on before them. It was clear to me then, that they had intuited the significance of what was going on (perhaps more than any adult in the church). No amount of book learning would give them what their hearts already knew – that what was happening at the altar had a deep and profound meaning and that they wanted to share in that experience.

The whole of John Chapter 6 is a reflection on the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand. The arguments are circular, heavily dependent on an understanding of the Old Testament and an interpretation of the story of Israel in the wilderness. At times, as we have seen, Jesus is obscure and he does not always give direct answers. But Jesus’ teaching does not occur in a vacuum. The teaching is based on what the listeners have already experienced. They have eaten their fill of bread. Their their physical needs has been met. Jesus goes on to explain that being in relationship with him will satisfy their spiritual needs. Experience precedes understanding, the material precedes the metaphorical.

As Craig Satterlee points out: ‘Jesus is less concerned with getting people’s to understand than he is in getting them to eat.’ ‘He promises rather than instructs or explains.’ Jesus’ focus is on relationship first and foremost. Those who do not challenge Jesus are those who instinctively know and trust him. They are not worried so much about the intellectual details they simply see in and through Jesus a means to deepen their relationship with God and a way to enrich their life in the present that will at the same time ensure life for eternity. Jesus’ challengers will not understand no matter how he tries to explain himself.

As those children reminded me (and continue to remind me) some things are simply beyond words.

What we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know

August 10, 2018

Pentecost 12 – 2018

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God who stretches our minds and expands our imaginations. Amen.

Having been in Italy and finding myself in Geneva, I am conscious of the schisms created by the Reformation and the sometimes vast differences between the different arms of the Christian Church and of the passion with which members of different denominations hold (or held) to their truths. Arguments raged in my own tradition about whether to kneel for communion or to use the sign of the cross. There were some who died rather than renounce their position on particular issues and bishops who only two centuries ago went to jail for using candles as a part of the liturgy. Today, most of the animosity between traditions has disappeared. The ecumenical movement has led us to understand that the heart of our faith is the same even if some of the externals differ.

That is not to say that the churches have achieved unity – externally or internally. New issues have emerged that are at least as divisive as those of the past – the ordination of women and the marriage of same sex couples to mention two. Again, those on either side of the debate present their arguments with equal intensity and with equal conviction that it is they who are most faithfully interpreting the scriptures and the will of God.

Where we stand on these and other issues depends on many factors including our personal experience and the tradition in which we have been born and raised. Sometimes our opinion is formed or altered by our education or our exposure to those who differ from us – though it must be said that education and personal experience do not always challenge pre-existing views.

Our particular experience of church and of faith also impacts on the way in which we approach change. There is so much at stake that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change direction. To give a personal example, even though my sense of vocation was powerful and strong, there were moments when a verse from scripture made me waver, made me wonder if the opponents to the ordination of women did in fact have it right. My life’s experience and the teaching I had absorbed as a child were so deeply ingrained and so much a part of my understanding of salvation that it was hard to isolate the voice of the spirit from the accretions of practice and tradition.

So – perhaps we should not be so hard on the hapless ‘Jews’ who are Jesus’ opponents in John’s gospel. As we saw last week, Jesus’ communication could be confusing at best and obtuse at worst. Furthermore, he was taking traditions that had been held for generations and turning them upside down. In today’s gospel we hear Jesus claiming that he is to the Jews what the manna was to their ancestors. In fact he is asserting that he is much more. Using the language that God used to identify himself to Moses, Jesus claims: ‘I AM’. ‘I am the bread of life.’ ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Jesus, whom everyone in his audience knows to be the son of Joseph, is now insinuating that he is God. As God he is able to guarantee life eternal to those who believe. It is an extraordinary claim for which Jesus’ listeners are completely unprepared. Nothing in their past experience, nothing in their religious practice, nothing in their tradition or teaching could have led them to expect the outrageous claims that Jesus is making. It really is not surprising that they found what he had to say difficult and incomprehensible.

Perhaps the question that we should ask ourselves is not why Jesus’ opponents did not believe, but ‘what was it that enabled at least some to believe?’

Complacency and self-satisfaction can be the enemies of a deep and authentic engagement with the divine. They can give us a false sense of what should be and make us blind and deaf to what really is. We cannot, and will not, ever know a fraction of what there is to know about God.

Instead of arguing over trivial and superficial issues perhaps we as believers should unite in a concerted effort to suspend all our certainties and be caught up in the great adventure that is a relationship with God – Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver – who is ultimately beyond all our efforts to comprehend and who will always be beyond our grasp.

A glimpse of the great unknown

August 4, 2018

Pentecost 11 – 2018

John 6:21-35 (Notes while on leave)

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires to open our eyes to new ways of seeing and our hearts to new ways of being. Amen.

The following is a short extract from the Mad Hatter’s tea-party (In Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol)

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said, in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked. “There isn’t any,” said the March Hare. “Then it wasn’t very civil for you ” said Alice angrily; “to offer it.” “It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,” said March Hare. “I didn’t know it was your table,” said Alice; “it’s laid for a great many more than three.” “Your hair wants cutting,” said Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, this was his first speech. You shouldn’t make personal remarks!” said Alice with some severity; “it’s very rude.” The Hatter opened his eyes wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.” “I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud. “You mean that you think you can find the answer to it.” said the March Hare. “Exactly so,” said Alice. “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “At least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing you know.” “Not the same thing a bit,” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” “You might just as well say,” added the March Hare that, “I like what I get’ is the same as ‘I get what I like’!”

Little of Alice in Wonderland makes logical sense. The characters constantly talk past each other, providing answers that bear no relation at all to the question asked. Absurdity rules. Lewis invites us to suspend our rational minds and to simply allow the story to carry us along – not to try to make sense of it.

In real life we hope, expect even, that our conversations with others will be logical and consistent. We say, or ask something of another with the clear expectation that we will be heard and responded to appropriately. Most of us find it terribly frustrating to ask a question and to be given a response that does not relate to the question in the slightest or to be talking about something and have our conversation partner go off in another direction without even acknowledging what we have said.

It makes us feel diminished and undervalued. Yet, this is just the sort of communication (or lack thereof) that marks the Jesus of John’s gospel. Over and again Jesus appears to thwart an apparently genuine attempt to understand who he is, or what he is up to. Even for the reader it is frustrating.

In today’s gospel for example, Jesus’ response to the crowds seems to be deliberately obtuse. So what is going on? Ginger Barfield summarizes the conversation, or what is presented as conversation.

“Verses 25-27: The crowd wants to know when Jesus came to the other side of the lake. Jesus’ answer is a convoluted response about their not seeing the signs but being filled with food. It dissolves into something about working for food that endures for life.

Verses 28-29: The crowd wants to know what they can do to work God’s work. Jesus’ response is about believing rather than working.

Verses 30-33: The crowd asks for a sign from Jesus so they can believe. Jesus comes back with a proclamation about “My Father” and bread that gives life.

Verses 34-35: The crowd demands (rather than asks for) the bread. Jesus claims to be the bread (egō eimi the bread of life).”

The reason for Jesus’ obtuseness appears to be that the crowds have approached Jesus with the wrong expectations. They have asked the wrong questions. They want to make Jesus conform to their known categories and Jesus wants them to see that God is doing something new and different.

As you would expect, the differences between Alice in Wonderland and the fourth gospel are many, not least of which is the determination of Lewis Carrol that Alice should have no moral, should ‘do no manner of harm to the reader’s mind’. The author of John’s gospel has a clear and definite intention – that those who read it will come to believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that through believing they may have life in his name” (20:31). Alice is light-hearted nonsense, John is absolutely serious. Lewis just wants us to suspend reality and to enter the fantasy. Jesus wants us to abandon our fantasies and to open our eyes to the truth that is revealed through him. For this reason Jesus’ responses are designed to tease the listeners minds out of their conventional way of seeing towards a new and very different reality.

By providing indirect answers to the questions asked not the crowd, Jesus hopes to provide a disconnect that will encourage them to re-think their experiences, let go of their previous expectations and to see what is being on right in front of them.

Two thousand years have calcified our way of seeing and understanding Jesus. Many of us are locked into narrow, conventional and comfortable images of the Christ. The challenge of John’s gospel gospel remains the same: to break through our limited and restricted constructs and to open ourselves to a new and startling reality. To release the stranglehold that tradition and habit have placed on our minds and to liberate us to receive the Christ in the fullness of Christ’s divinity and power, through him to gain a glimpse of the great unknown that is God.

Enough and more to spare

July 28, 2018

Pentecost 10-2018

John 6:1-21

(Notes while on leave)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose giving is never measured or constrained, but lavish and extravagant. Amen.

We are told that there is enough food in the world to feed all the people in it yet each day hundreds of thousands of people go to bed hungry and thousands more die because the world’s resources are not evenly distributed. Just this month I heard that one third of the catch of fish from the Mediterranean is wasted. That’s an enormous amount. Think of the people who could be fed with the two thirds that is simply discarded . It is equally distressing to realise that a majority of people in the Western world throw out around a third of the fresh food that they purchase every week and that that figure doesn’t take into account the food that restaurants and supermarkets are forced to throw out every day – good food that cannot even be given to the homeless or the hungry.

There must be dozens if not hundreds of ways to reduce waste and to ensure that the food that is produced is more equitably distributed. In France, for example, supermarkets are now prevented by law from throwing out food that someone would be grateful to eat. Elsewhere individuals and organizations are doing what they can to source ‘unsaleable’ fresh food and to give it to those in need. It is a great tragedy that we live in a world in which one person dies of hunger or of a hunger related cause every ten seconds and in which first world countries are facing an obesity epidemic. Something is just not right.

There was a time when scholars and others tried to make sense of Jesus’ miracles. In the face of a rational, scientific world they came up with explanations as to what really happened when Jesus healed the lame, cast out demons and fed the 5,000. It was suggested that the feeding of the 5,000 could be explained in this way – even though the boy had only five barley loaves and two small fish his act of generosity meant that every one present was shamed into producing food that they had kept hidden. In the end there was plenty to go around. The problem with this approach is twofold, in a world in which food was scarce it does not account for what was left over and further it says more about humanity than it does about divinity. It turns a miracle story into a morality story making it a reflection on human selfishness.

I don’t know what happened on that day nor do I really care to know. What I do know is that the feeding of the 5,000 is a reminder once again of God’s unlimited, unbounded and unearned generosity. God withholds nothing and always (as the collect says) gives us more than we need or deserve. God never gives barely enough or just enough. God always gives more than enough. God gives in abundance such that there is plenty to go around and more to spare. What is more, God is not diminished but enlarged by every act of generosity.

The more we hold things to ourselves the poorer and meaner we become. In my experience generosity always leads to abundance and that we ourselves are richer, not poorer for what we give away. In fact generosity works both ways – the other ends us with more than enough and we ourselves are not impoverished by the giving.

If we, like God, gave in abundance and held nothing back, we might discover that there is plenty to go around and more besides.

Immersed in the world

May 12, 2018

Easter 7 – 2018

John 17:6-19

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

May 5, 2018

Easter 6 – 2018

John 15:9-17

Marian Free


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]The Telegraph, April 28, 2018.


April 28, 2018

Easter 5 – 2018

John 15:1-8

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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