Archive for the ‘John’s Gospel’ Category

Holding Fast

April 7, 2018

Easter 2 – 2018

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who sets us free and holds us fast. Amen.

On at least three occasions when I have celebrated a Eucharist I have managed to omit the Confession. While that tells me that on those days I must have been I was distracted I am not particularly worried about the omission. Confession is a relatively late-comer to the Christian liturgical tradition. In the first centuries after Jesus those who had sinned made a public admission of their fault before the community. If they were seen to have committed a particularly heinous sin they were excommunicated – that is they were excluded (not from the community) but from communion. At that time, those whose were not baptised were dismissed before the Eucharist and those who had been excommunicated were dismissed at the same time. They were then publicly restored to the community at Easter at the same time as those who were baptised were admitted to it. This practice made the inclusion of Confession in the liturgy unnecessary.

While penitence, often in the form of sack-cloth and ashes, is a part of the Old Testament tradition and practice, we hear very little of it in the New Testament except in relation to Baptism. In the Middle Ages the practice of Confession became a private and secret thing. At that time There was a strong emphasis on sin and unworthiness and an increasing belief that our relationship with God was sufficiently tenuous that it had to be continually restored. In the late medieval times confession was made mandatory before communion.

The Anglican Reformers missed an opportunity to reconsider the place of confession. While many of the Protestant traditions abandoned the practice altogether, Cranmer retained a general confession as a part of all our services. Cranmer in fact added lengthy exhortations to be read the Sundays before Communion was to be offered – urging people to consider their lives and to repent of their sins so that they might be in a fit state to receive the sacrament.

I suspect that in part the emphasis on sin and the need for confession of same is based in part on a belief that Jesus gave the church the power to determine what was and was not able to be forgiven. There are two verses in our scriptures that have created this impression. The first is Jesus’ commission to Peter (which is also given to the disciples) in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The second occurs in today’s gospel: “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained.”

While those texts have been taken to understand that we, in the form of the church, can determine whether or not a person is forgiven, it seems to me that it takes a certain amount of arrogance to assume that Jesus gave to human beings – even human beings who believe in him, a privilege that the New Testament itself tells us belongs only to God (Mark 2:7) and which is an indication that Jesus is God. If we take it upon ourselves to decide who can, and cannot be forgiven we are, in essence, claiming that we, like Jesus are God.

So how are we to understand these two scriptures that have for centuries been understood to mean that we, mere human beings, have the wisdom to determine what can and cannot be forgiven?

In regard to the quote from Matthew the answer lies in the cultural context of Jesus’ words. When Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom and later empowers the disciples to bind and loose he was not giving them the authority to determine who would or would not be excluded from heaven. In the first century context he is simply giving to them the authority to decide which laws (not which sins) were binding for all time, and which laws (not which sins) could be dispensed with because they had reached their use-by date. The only relation between Jesus’ commission and sin, was that the disciples were empowered to decide that breaking a particular law was not a sin!

In John’s gospel, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Most English translations continue: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” However, the Greek reads quite differently. In the second clause the word ‘sin’ is absent. Translators have simply assumed that sin as the subject of the first clause can be read into the second. Sandra Schneiders points out that a better translation of the sentence would be: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven them; whomever you hold fast (or embrace) they are held fast”. She points out that “in the context of John’s Gospel it is hardly conceivable that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus. ”

Jesus does not empower us to determine what is unforgivable or suggest that we represent the mind of God on earth. Jesus is commissioning us to hold one another fast through thick and thin, to embrace one another with the sort of compassionate, understanding love that Jesus extends to us through all our doubts, our wilfulness and our failure to understand. Thomas’ questioning mind was not a cause for Jesus’ rejection, but an opportunity, an excuse for Jesus to reach out in love and to hold him fast. Jesus breathes the Spirit and commissions us – not to judge and exclude but to love and embrace.

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How to see Jesus

March 17, 2018

Lent 5 – 2018

John 12:22-30

Marian Free

In the name of God who through Jesus is no longer confined to one people and one nation, but can be known by all who seek God. Amen.

 Some time ago a friend of mine attended a play called: “A Clergy Wife.” He wore his clerical collar to make it clear that not all clergy were likely to be offended by the topic. After the performance he and his friend went backstage to speak to the star – English actor Maggie Smith. Maggie not only spoke to them but was delighted to hear that my friend thought that her characterization of the clergy wife was perfect. Maggie Smith is one of my favourite actors. I wish I had been the one to meet her, to shake her hand. Of course, even if I had attended the show and had the nerve to go back-stage, there would have been no guarantee that I would have had the same good fortune.

Many people who want to meet their heroes are disappointed. Music fans often wait for hours outside venues and hotels hoping to get at least a glimpse of their idols or, better still, a selfie or an autograph. More often than not their efforts go unrewarded. Monarchists are more likely to be successful. If they camp out early enough before an event and, if they find a spot against the barricades, the Queen or other Royal may shake their hand or have a few words as they walk past. Should that occur, the lucky person not only achieves their goal, but is able to bask in a certain amount of reflecting glory. Meeting/touching/having a photo taken with someone famous is a goal shared by a great many.

It is possible that this sort of phenomenon explains what is going on in today’s gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem as something of a hero – indeed as royalty. Crowds of people have greeted him shouting: “Hosanna, King of the Jews.” All kinds of people are trying to get close to Jesus – because they admire him and want to learn from him, or simply because their own status will be elevated if they are able to meet or speak with him. It is not at all surprising that “some Greeks” want to see Jesus. They might be curious, they might be hoping for a miracle or they might be sincerely expressing their faith in him. Whatever their motives Jesus’ response comes as something of a surprise.

As John records the event Jesus completely ignores their request. The Greeks speak to Philip, Philip speaks to Andrew and then both Philip and Andrew go to Jesus. So far as we can tell, Jesus is completely disinterested. He makes not response at all, but simply ignores the Greeks and goes into one of his many monologues. Is he simply being rude or is there more to the story?

As is often the case the context of this short encounter helps us to see what is really going on. In the verses immediately preceding today’s gospel we learn that it is the festival of Passover – that time of year when people from all over the known world flock to Jerusalem to observe the feast. Jesus too has come to Jerusalem for the Passover. It appears that his presence quickly becomes known. The crowds are ecstatic. They wave palms and proclaim that Jesus is the King of Israel. In response, Jesus finds a young donkey and sits on it, thus affirming their claim by enacting a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The reaction of the crowds cause disquiet for the Pharisees. They have wanted to put Jesus to death since the raising of Lazarus. They are afraid that the Romans will respond to Jesus’ popularity by “destroying their holy place and their nation”[1]. When the crowds react so enthusiastically to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the Pharisees complain: “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him”.

As if to prove their point, some Greeks (representatives of “the world”) ask to see Jesus.

Jesus’ reaction to their request is confusing. It appears to be completely unrelated to what has gone before. He doesn’t even acknowledge the request but instead states: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In John’s gospel both phrases are code. “The hour” is the hour of his death, the hour when he will be lifted up, when everything will come to fruition. From almost the beginning of the gospel Jesus has been claiming that his hour has not yet come (2:4, 7:20, 8:30). For that reason, until now, his opponents have been unable to lift a hand against him. Now it seems the time is right. Jesus has done what he came to do. If he dies now he will have achieved what he came to achieve. He can say: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

In John “being glorified” and “being lifted up” refer to the same thing – Jesus’ crucifixion. The cross for John is not a sign of defeat, but a sign of victory. It is on the cross that Jesus is lifted up – for all to see. It is on the cross that he is glorified. It is then, not now, that the Greeks will see Jesus for who he really is. It is then, not now, that Jesus will “draw all people to himself”. It is then, not now, that the world will come to understand Jesus’ relationship with God and will have an opportunity to come to faith.

The request of the Greeks goes unanswered because in this instance they represent not simply themselves but the whole world. They do not need to see Jesus now, because shortly they (the whole world will see him lifted up) and they, with the whole world will be drawn to faith in him.

Hero worship is one thing, but followers of Jesus have to understand that he is no ordinary hero, that his life (and therefore ours) will not follow a usual trajectory and that seeing Jesus through the lens of the cross is the only way to understand what it means to be his disciple.

 

[1] “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

Lent 5 – Children

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Banksia cone

Begin by showing the children seed pods that are easily opened and some that are not. Then show them a banksia flower (or cone if possible) and ask if they know what it is. Show the picture of the banksia cone (from Australian Stock photos). Explain that the banksia cone doesn’t open as easily as other cones. In fact it needs fire before it will open and allow the seeds to escape.

Fire is a terrible thing, it destroys everything in its path, but sometimes good things come out of it – all the old growth is cleared away making room for new trees to grow and plants like this banksia can shed their seeds and produce new plants.

Sadly, sometimes awful things happen, but if we trust in Jesus, the bad things in our lives will encourage us trust more in God. Hopefully they will make us stronger and better. If you are feeling that everything is too hard, remember that even though fire destroys everything it allows new things to grow and even though Jesus died, God raised him up again and God will raise us up, over and over and over again.

(Activity – give the children some black paper and encourage them to fill it with bright colours. Or make a pencil drawing of a banksia for them to colour in.)

 

No room for neutrality

March 10, 2018

Lent 4 – 2018

John 3:14-21

Marian Free

In the name of God who so loved the world, that God sent his Son to save it. Amen.

Most of us would agree that it feels as though the world is teetering on the edge of disaster. We feel distressed by Trump’s apparently erratic behaviour, by Kim Jong On’s threats of nuclear war, by the intractable nature of the war in Syria, by the civil war and famine in south Sudan and Yemen, by the rise of the ultra-right in Europe and by the grab for power by dictators in more countries than one. We are rightly distressed by the plight of refugees, the increasing gap between the rich and poor and by corruption and the misuse of resources by those in power. We feel helpless in the face of terrorism and are frozen in indecision when we think about the damage that we are inflicting on the environment.

The world seems to be falling apart and we feel powerless to stop it.

That, at least is one way of seeing the world.

It is possible to see the situation quite differently. On Tuesday[1] Radio National’s Big Ideas presented a lecture by Gregg Easterbrook – writer for the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. Easterbrook pointed out that despite what appears to be evidence to the contrary, there are good reasons for optimism. Worldwide, malnutrition and extreme poverty are at historic lows, he says, and the risk of dying by war or violence is lower than at any point in human history. Everywhere in the world people are living longer and healthier. Contrary to what we see daily in our news, the frequency and intensity of war in the last 25 years is 5% of the rate wars of the previous century. According to the United Nations malnutrition is at its lowest point ever.

And those are just a few of the statistics that Easterbrook produced.

The world is an interesting and challenging place. On the one hand we as humans are capable of inflicting unimaginable suffering in places like Syria, and on the other hand we have not only reduced the threat of nuclear war, but in the last few decades the world as a whole has reduced its spending on all things military. On the one hand, we as humans are capable of the most appalling abuse of our fellow human beings when we traffic them into sexual or other forms of slavery and on the other hand, we are capable of acts of utter selflessness when we risk our lives to prevent the spread of deadly diseases or to bring relief to victims of wars and natural disasters.

The future of the world is both hopeless and hopeful, the nature of humanity is both heroic and despicable.

“God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son.” The world of the first century was no less violent, corrupt or inequitable than the world of the twenty-first century. Humanity was as cruel, as greedy and as violent then as it is now. Despite this, despite all the reasons for pessimism, God remained optimistic. God saw the potential in God’s creation and risked everything to save it.

That is not to say that God was or is naïve. The presence of Jesus in the world was not benign – anything but. Jesus was not and is not a comfortable Saviour. Jesus was (and is) confrontational and challenging. His very presence was divisive because it forced people to declare their hands. As the presence of God in the world, Jesus shone a light on injustice, oppression, greed, cruelty and exploitation. Jesus’ love and compassion exposed the baseness and insensitivity of those around him. His generosity and selflessness made people uncomfortable with their own greed and self-absorption. No one wants to feel that they are less than perfect. No one wants to have their flaws opened to the light of day, visible to the scrutiny of others. (They would rather remain in darkness.)

The person of Jesus revealed the true natures of those with whom he came into contact. People were either drawn to or repelled by him depending on their openness to change or their desire to maintain the status quo, their self-awareness or their smug self-satisfaction; their willingness to surrender control or their determination to hold on to their independence. Those who shared Jesus’ love of God and love of humanity found in him a source of hope and strength. Those who sought only their own advancement and gain, saw in Jesus a threat to their way of life. Those who desired to create a world of justice and peace found in Jesus a sense of purpose and direction. Those who were happy with the world as it was saw in Jesus only chaos and disorder.

“God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 is not simply a comforting, comfortable verse that can be easily and blithely turned into some sort of simplistic Christian slogan. It challenges us to think about what it means to believe. The verses that follow tell us that unbelievers are those who do not want to have light shone on their selfishness, their meanness and their desire to dominate others. Unbelievers are those who are happy with the world the way that it is and do not want it to be saved.

Believing in Jesus means being committed ourselves to Jesus’ programme of loving the world. It means allowing both the good and the bad in us to be exposed to the light of God’s love and it means understanding that unless we allow ourselves to be changed we might be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

God so loves the world that, through Jesus he enlists our help to save it. There is no room for neutrality – we are called to make a decision to come into the light or to remain forever in the darkness.

 

 

[1] March 6, 2018, Radio National, Big Ideas.

Breaking the law/keeping the law

March 3, 2018

Lent 3 – 2018

Exodus 20, John 2:13-22, (Mark 11:15-18 )

Marian Free

In the name of God to whose greater wisdom, we must always defer. Amen.

Adrian Plass tells the story of a church that had decided to imitate the Salvation Army and go to the pub to meet local people. Hearing this Beth, an older member of the congregation, drew herself up in her chair and stated categorically: “I would never do that!” Plass looked at her at said: “Suppose that Jesus were to come through that door right now – today – and say: ‘Beth, I want you to come down to the King’s Head with me.’ would you go?” “I would not,” she responded. “But, Beth”, he persisted, “we’re talking about Jesus, the son of God, asking you personally if you would go with him. Would you not go?” “I have never set foot in a public house in my life, and I’m not about to start now,” she stated adamantly. “But if Jesus himself asked – “ “It’s a good witness,” interrupted Beth, “alcohol has never passed my lips and it never will.” “Okay”, Plass said, “Jesus doesn’t want you to actually drink anything intoxicating, he just wants you with him in the King’s Head and – “ Beth shook her head firmly: “No!” Plass continued, “Jesus, God himself, the creator of everything, the reason why we’re all here today – he comes in and he says, ‘Beth, I really need you to come to the pub with me today, so please, please make an exception, just for me.’ Would you go with him?” A tiny crack of uncertainty began to appear. “I suppose”, Beth said, “if he really did have a really, really good reason for asking, I might go.”[1]

Rules make everything clear do they not? They allow us to believe that there is right and there is wrong. As long as we do what is right we are OK. More than that, as long as we don’t break the rules we can feel safe. Beth thought she knew right from wrong, but the rules on which she based her life prevented her from seeing that there were other ways of viewing the world and her faith.

There are a number of problems with believing that rules are fixed and immutable for all time. One is the presumption that it is possible legislate for all the things that really make us better people, a better society. In the letter to the Galatians Paul reminds us that there are no laws that can compel us to love, to be gentle, patient and kind. Such things come from inside a person and cannot be enforced by regulation. A second problem is this – it is simply impossible to draw up legislation to cover every possible eventuality. A man may pride himself on not being a murderer but by his actions and words may behave in ways that are soul-destroying for those around him. A woman may feel self-satisfied because she has never committed adultery but at the same time her words and actions may indicate that she has withdrawn her love from her husband. A third issue, as our common law illustrates, is that there are sometimes mitigating circumstances that lead a person to break the law. So for example, our law distinguishes between murder and manslaughter and accepts that years of abuse may drive a woman to the brink.

The money changers and stall holders in the Temple were doing nothing wrong – just the opposite. The Temple, unlike the church, was not a place in which liturgy was celebrated. Rather, it was primarily the place to which people came to make their offerings (as required by the law) to God. Without money changers and traders it would have been impossible for the Temple to operate as it was intended[2].

If the practice of exchanging money and the selling animals was necessary to the functioning of the Temple, how can we explain Jesus’ actions? The Old Testament quotes suggest that Jesus was not concerned that people were breaking the law. His actions were intended to be symbolic and prophetic, he was not quibbling about details; he was demonstrating that the whole system needed to be replaced.

Today we have heard the account as told by John. Interestingly Mark (and therefore Matthew and Luke) tells the story very differently. According to Mark, Jesus’ actions in the Temple occur in the very last week of his life, at the end of his ministry. The controversy that has dogged Jesus throughout his ministry has come to a head when he enters Jerusalem. It is in the Temple that his final confrontations with the authorities occur and it is here that they determine to kill him. When Jesus drives the people out of the Temple he combines quotes from Isaiah (56:7) and Jeremiah (7:11): “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Mark’s listeners would have heard behind these two quotes their original context. Isaiah is imagining the coming of the kingdom as a time when all peoples will flock to Jerusalem. Jeremiah is criticizing the people of Israel who had placed their trust in the superficial, outward signs of faith rather than in inward change and commitment to God. Marks’ readers would have recognised that Jesus was dramatically illustrating what he had been preaching from the beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Unlike Mark, John places the story at the very beginning of his gospel. Mark highlights Jesus’ preaching. John’s purpose is to illustrate the ways in which Jesus replaces the traditions and practices of Judaism. That is, ‘Jesus’ life, death and resurrection definitively fulfill the meanings of Temple, feasts and Torah’[3]. By driving the money changers and traders out of the Temple, Jesus is making the point that in him the sacrificial system has come to an end, there is no more need for the Temple and its practices because ‘his own self-offering will permanently fulfill the purpose of Temple sacrifice’[4]. In John, Jesus quotes from Zechariah (14:20-21). “Stop making my Father’s house a market place”. He is claiming an intimate relationship with God and, in effect, asserting that the Temple is his house, his body (a claim that is substantiated in the latter part of the reading). The Temple and its practices are no longer necessary, because it is in and through Jesus that the faith will move into the future.

After his death, Jesus’ disciples recall these words and connect them with Psalm 69:9 that also speaks of “my Father’s house”. “Zeal for my Father’s house will consume me.” Retrospectively they understand that this quote is prophetic in two ways – Jesus’ zeal for change led to his crucifixion and it was the authority’s zeal for the present practices and structures that led them to plot Jesus’ death.

Both Mark and John present a Jesus who recognises that the old ways have out-lived their usefulness and who, in the Temple dramatically illustrates the end of the old and the beginning of the new. We can be like Beth, firmly grounded in a rigid an unchanging law, or we can allow Jesus’ words and actions to continue to challenge our present circumstances. Jesus challenges us to see beyond the law to God who gave the law; to rely on God and God’s goodness rather than on a set of prescriptions; to grasp that it is impossible for any number of laws to make us perfect; and to place Jesus (not a set of regulations) between us and God because in Jesus all the barriers have been broken-down and we can relate to God as if face-to-face.

 

 

[1] Cabbages and Kings. Adrian Plass.

[2] The law stipulated that offerings had to be made for specific events and occasions such as when a male child was born or when the crops were harvested. Then there was the question of the Temple Tax. Roman coins carried the image of the Emperor with the designation ‘Son of God’. Even to carry such a coin was considered idolatrous, and using it to pay the Temple tax was impossible. In order for the Temple to function there needed to be people who could exchange Roman coins for Temple money and others to sell the pre-requisites for sacrificial practices.

[3] Denis Hamm liturgy.slu.edu/2LentB030418/the word/hamm/html

[4] op cit

If we truly trust God, we can trust God with our doubts

January 13, 2018

Epiphany 2 – 2018

John 1:43-51 (Some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose shoulders are broad and who will not turn a doubter away. Amen.

My father did not tell many jokes and those he did tell, he told over and over again. One that I particularly remember was about an Irishman named Paddy. Paddy was a Council worker who was working with a group of men on a road outside a village. It was a hot day and at lunchtime the group sent Paddy into the village to buy some beer. Paddy got to the pub and ordered the beer. The publican asked where he was going to put it. Paddy thought for a minute, took off his hat and said: “Put it in here.” The publican filled the hat, but there was not enough room for all the beer. He asked Paddy where he would put the rest. “No problems,” said Paddy as he swiftly turned the hat over so that the remaining beer could be poured into the crown of the hat. Walking very carefully so as not to spill the beer, Paddy made his way back to his workmates. Seeing the beer in the crown of Paddy’s hat, his astonished workmates asked him if that was all that he got for the money they had given him. “Of course not,” said Paddy, as he turned his hat over once again.

Of course, today we are careful not to cause offense and we avoid making jokes that are based on country of origin, gender and hair colour or any other stereotype. In the past though every nation and subgroup had their jokes about other cultures or sub-cultures. (Apparently if you were in France you would tell my Father’s joke but substitute a Belgian for an Irishman and so.) One of the ways that we use to set ourselves apart or distinguish ourselves from others is to demean or to make jokes about them. If Irishmen/Belgians/New Zealanders are foolish then by inference the person telling the joke is not.

In first century Palestine, a person might tell jokes about the Galileans – those unsophisticated yokels from up north who knew little to nothing of the real world. That helps us to understand Nathanael’s response to Philip. Nathanael reports that: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” To which Nathanael replies: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nathaniel can be forgiven his skepticism. Nazareth was, archeologists think, a village of 2-300 people (and no I didn’t leave off a zero). Nazareth consisted of 40-60 families at the most. These families lived in limestone caves that dotted the hillsides (and which form warrens under modern-day Nazareth). It was extremely unlikely that anyone of any note would emerge from such an environment – let alone the long-expected Christ. Nazareth was close to many significant Roman cities including Sepharis. Nathaniel came from Bethsaida which like Capernaum was a fishing village whose residents lived in stone homes, not holes in the ground. From his point of view Nazareth, and anyone who came from Nazareth was not deserving of any attention.

Undeterred by Nathaniel’s disbelief, Philip insists that Nathaniel come and see Jesus for himself. Instead of berating Nathaniel for his doubt, Jesus commends him for his honesty – “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

There is a tendency among some Christians to believe that doubt is the antithesis of faith, that doubt suggests disbelief or a failure to truly trust in God. Those who doubt sometimes feel guilty or are made to feel guilty by those who claim certainty. Others (afraid that any form of doubt will bring the castle of belief tumbling down) hold on to their certainty in the face of evidence that contradicts all that they hold dear. They dare not ask questions or allow others to ask questions for fear that that will lead to other questions. Their confidence in God and in themselves seems to be insufficient to allow even the smallest doubt to put a chink in their armour.

The results of a closed, unquestioning faith are manifold. People who cannot or will not ask questions are sometimes left holding conflicting ideas in tension, are forced to defend positions that science has proved to be untenable or are placed in a situation that can both stultifying and stagnant. Their faith cannot grow in part because it is too weak to withstand the rigor of challenge.

Perhaps what is worst of all is that those who are too anxious to question their faith demonstrate, not their trust in God, but their fear of God. They hold on to a belief that God demands unquestioning loyalty and obedience. They are afraid that at any sign of doubt God will cast them out of God’s presence. This attitude leads to an unhealthy and often dishonest relationship with God. Someone who is afraid to question God may bury his or her discontent (because one can’t question what God does or doesn’t do), accept the unacceptable without demur (because it is God’s will) and explain away any inconsistencies with platitudes that may or may not provide real satisfaction (because everything has to be accepted on faith). This attitude can lead to a relationship with God that is constrained and limited and which, as a result, fails to benefit from the sort of relationship that benefits from honesty, from robust discussion and seeking to grow through exploration.

Jesus’ reaction to Nathaniel’s doubt demonstrates that rather than dismissing those who ask questions, Jesus/God embraces and responds to them. From the time of Adam and Eve, through Abraham, Moses and the prophets, God has made it clear that God seeks to be in a strong, honest and real relationship with God’s people. God has broad shoulders and is not easily offended or put out – certainly not to the extent of casting people off. Nathaniel’s reaction to Jesus’ acceptance was to recognise Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus’ reaction to Thomas’s doubt was to provide him with the answer that he sought. Thomas’s reaction was to worship Jesus as: “Lord and God”.

Like human relationships, our relationship with God must be built on mutual trust, a willingness to say what we think and the sort of confidence in each other that allows us to work through any difficulties.

If we truly trust God, then we must know that we can trust God with our doubts.

 

 

Wholly and unreservedly

June 3, 2017

Pentecost – 2017

John 20:19-23

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

One with God or with each other?

May 27, 2017

Easter 7 – 2017

John 17:1-11

Marian Free

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Never alone

May 20, 2017

Easter 6 – 2017

John 14:15-21

Marian Free

 

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

(Imagine the preacher bursting into song)

“Hallelujah! not as orphans,

are we left in sorrow now;

hallelujah! he is near us,

faith believes, nor questions how.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hallelujah! not as orphans,

are we left in sorrow now;

hallelujah! he is near us,

faith believes, nor questions how.”

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

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

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

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

 

Gates – openings or barriers?

May 6, 2017

Easter 4 – 2017

John 10:1-10

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

April 22, 2017

Easter 2 – 2017

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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