Archive for the ‘John’s Gospel’ Category

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.

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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.

Jesus-fruit

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.

 

 

God’s choice and ours

April 21, 2018

Easter 4 – 2018

John 10:11-18

Marian Free

 In the name of God who calls us to give ourselves completely and who in Jesus, gives Godself entirely to us. Amen.

In the BBC News magazine recently there was an article about young Indian men who are kidnapped and forced to marry young women in a neighbouring state. The bride’s parents take such extreme action to ensure that their daughters can be married to someone of a similar caste to their own. Two men were interviewed. The first commented that he had no choice. Several years and a couple of children later he has made peace with his situation. The second man said that he would not accept the situation and that he was not living with, let alone sleeping with the woman that he had been forced to marry. In both cases the men believed that if they were to try to escape they would have been killed.

We often hear people say that they had no choice – drug mules claim that they had no choice except to carry the drugs  because their family would be killed. Men working in Hitler’s labour camps insist that they had no choice but to obey orders or they would join the prisoners in the gas chambers and climbers who leave colleagues on the mountain state that had they stayed both would have died.  In fact in most cases there is a choice – the choice between life and death and to be fair, in such situations most of us would choose life.

We often justify making an unsatisfactory choice by claiming  that “it was the lesser of two evils”. While that may be true, it ignores the fact that there is often a third – if very unpalatable choice – the choice to refuse to choose. The choice to be excluded, derided, discredited and yes, sometimes the choice to die – the sort of choice that Jesus made.

John’s gospel is very much about making choices. The Jesus of John’s gospel chooses to challenge the law and the law makers when he could have quite easily chosen to conform to the norms of the time. He chooses to expose himself to criticism and ridicule instead of trying to fit in. He chooses to be confrontational and divisive, challenging and difficult when he could have placated, comforted and reassured. He chooses to be obtuse when he could have been direct. He chooses to heal on the Sabbath when he could have healed the sick on any day of the week. He chooses to antagonize the leaders of the Jews when he could have engaged them in debate. Above all, he chooses to die and he chooses when to die.

Early in the gospel, when things becomes uncomfortable in Judea or when the Jews threaten to kill him in Jerusalem, Jesus retreats to Galilee or across the Jordan. In the end, despite the dangers of returning, Jesus chooses not to avoid Jerusalem and certain death because he has heard that his friend is ill.

In today’s reading from John 10 Jesus states not once, but five times, that he will lay down his life (for his sheep). This is not some attention-seeking device on Jesus’ part, but a deliberate decision. Jesus makes a choice, not to avoid death, but to face it head on. Jesus makes it clear that he is not at the mercy of the Jewish leaders or anyone else who would take his life. He is not subject to the whims of the political and religious authorities. Jesus is completely in control: “no one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”  Jesus chooses to give his life that others might live and he does so out of love.

In choosing to give himself completely, Jesus models God’s choice – God’s choice in the first instance to give us free will and then to accept the consequences. God’s choice to bear the pain and heartache of watching us make the wrong decisions. God’s choice to sit back and watch us harm ourselves and others. God’s choice to allow us to destroy the planet. God’s choice to endure the grief of not intervening when we get things so terribly wrong.

Jesus models God’s choice to keep on believing in us – hoping that we will at last come around and trusting that eventually we will get it right. Jesus models God’s choice to keep on loving us despite all that we do to give God reason not to love. Above all, Jesus models God’s choice to give Godself willingly and joyfully for the well-being and the salvation of the entire world.

In modelling God’s choice, in laying down his life for us, Jesus models a way for us to make our own choices. Jesus challenges us to ask ourselves whether we act out of self-interest: protecting our reputation, securing our wealth, ensuring our own safety and comfort, and holding on to our own lives whatever the cost to others or, whether we are prepared to follow Jesus to the end by acting selflessly, caring little for what others think of us, sitting lightly with our possessions, letting go of our need for security and having more concern for the well-being of others than for ourselves. In other words, would we have the courage to choose to die (figuratively or literally) so that others might live?

 

 

 

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.

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!

 

 


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