Archive for the ‘John’s Gospel’ Category

Seeing and being seen

January 18, 2020

Epiphany 2 – 202

John 1:29-42

 Marian Free

In the name of God who sees who we are and what we can do. Amen.

When I was at school, I found English composition particularly difficult. In fact, the subject as a whole cause me a great deal of anxiety.  Other students seemed to have no trouble writing imaginative compositions, analysing Shakespeare or eloquently expressing what they thought this, or the other poet really meant. I really struggled. I felt that understood poetry in my gut, but I couldn’t get the words onto paper. I’d think that I had a reasonably good idea for a story but would not be able to execute it in the way that I wanted. My teachers were excellent and, for better or worse, a number of lessons have stayed with me. These include don’t start sentences with ‘and’ or with another word with which you’ve begun a previous sentence. In fact, try to use a variety of words to say the same or similar things. As a consequence, from Year 11 until I finished my PhD, Roget’s Thesaurus was my constant writing companion.

The author of the fourth gospel has no interest in such variety. As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions John is quite sparing in his vocabulary and therefore repetitive. He manages to write entire gospel using only 1,011 words. Words like to know and others like believe, love and light appear again and again in the gospel. Today’s reading from chapter 1 is a case in point. In the first section, John the Baptist says exactly the same phrase twice in succession: “I myself did not know him”. In the second section the word “remain” or “abide” is repeated five times – twice in relation to the Spirit’s remaining on Jesus at his baptism and three times in relation to John’s disciples who want to know where Jesus is remaining, who see where he is remaining and who remain with him for the day.

Given this, it is extraordinary to note the number of different verbs that the author of the fourth gospel uses for ‘to see’ in these fourteen verses. In English the verbs “see”, “look” and “behold” together appear ten times. In Greek five different verbs are used – βλέπω, (to see), ιδέ (look! Pay attention), θέαομαι (to gaze upon, to see with the eyes), οραω, (to see or perceive), and εμβλεπω (to gaze at the face, to consider). These are subtle differences but given the author’s reluctance to employ a vast array of words, one cannot help but wonder if there is some significance in the writer’s choice of these five. Why use five when conceivably one would do?

I want to hazard a guess that the choice of words is not an accident. The verb Θεαομαι is used twice. In the first instance, John sees (with his eyes) the Spirit descend on Jesus. On the second occasion, Jesus turns and gazes on two of John’s disciples who are following him. It is possible that this particular word implies a supernatural or a spiritual ‘seeing’. John sees what no one else sees or has seen – the Spirit of God. Seeing the Spirit of God enables him to recognise Jesus as the Son of God. Later Jesus turns and sees (with his eyes) John’s disciples. He doesn’t ask: “Why are you following me?” but, “What are you looking for?” His question suggests that he has seen that they are following him for a reason, that there is something that they want from him. His seeing is not superficial.  It appears to look into their hearts and to discern their purpose.

Another word, “εμβλεπω” also seems to hold a deeper meaning than is at first obvious. John sees Jesus and announces that he is the “Lamb of God”. He gazes at Jesus, considers who he is before bestowing a title that is unique and has no precedent. John’s is not a casual glance. It is a searching look, one that enables him to discern something about Jesus that no one else has noticed. The same verb is used when Jesus looks at Simon. He gazes on Simon’s face considering who Simon might really be and how he might be identified. Jesus gives Simon the name Cephas or Peter.

What is clear is that these two periscopes are about really seeing and about really being seen. John’s openness to the one who sent him (God) allows him to see the Spirit. Seeing the Spirit enables him to identify Jesus. A careful consideration of Jesus enables him to see and name Jesus as the “Lamb of God”. Jesus likewise sees, knows and names Simon.

Seeing and being seen are integrally related in our faith journey. They are two sides of the one coin. Unless we spend time gazing on God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – we may not truly see God and we may not recognise God for who God really is. It is impossible to have a real relationship with anyone whom we do not truly see. On the other side of the coin, we can be certain that just as Jesus knew who Simon was and of what he was capable, so God – Father, Son and Spirit – knows exactly who we are and what we can and cannot do. God sees past the image that we present to the world to the person beneath. God sees without judgement let alone condemnation. When Jesus named Simon the Rock, he knew that Simon (or Peter) would waver and fail. He named him anyway.

Seeing and being seen are two sides of the same coin, each equally necessary in this life of faith. Being in relationship requires an openness to God such that we can see God (not our idea of God) in the world around us, in the lives of others and in our own lives. It also means having the courage to accept that (for good and for ill) we are truly seen and known by God.

Both are a terrifying prospect, but they lead to a deep and meaningful relationship that frees us to be ourselves and leads to the peace, joy and fulfillment that only a relationship with God can bring.

From being unknown to being knownm

July 20, 2019

The Feast of Mary Magdalene – 2019
John 20:1:18
Marian Free

God of boundless love whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

In the 7th century, Pope Gregory the First made the assertion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. He came to this conclusion by conflating Magdalene with Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ feet before his death. In turn, Mary of Bethany was confused with the unnamed ‘sinful’ woman of Luke who interrupted a dinner party in order to anoint Jesus’ head. The problem (apart from the fact that there is no reason to think that these three women are one and the same) is, that even if Magdalene could be proven to be the ‘sinful’ woman who anointed Jesus, we are not provided with a single clue that would allow us to draw a conclusion about the nature of that woman’s sin. There is nothing in our gospels, except perhaps the suggestion that Mary was a woman of independent means, to suggest that she was a prostitute. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, it has been almost impossible for Magdalene to shake that image and for centuries Mary has been depicted as a prostitute in art and in commentaries.

Indeed, our biblical evidence for Mary Magdalene is scarce. That said, she is mentioned by name on twelve occasions which is more times than any of the apostles are mentioned! She presumably came from Magdala and, according to Luke, she was one of the three women who provided for Jesus out of their own resources (8:2-3) and one from whom seven demons had gone out (cf Mark16:9). All four gospels agree that Magdalene was one of the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter Day and that with them she was commissioned to tell the disciples (who were men) that Jesus had risen. In John’s gospel, Mary’s role is even more significant. She goes to the tomb alone, and it is to Mary, and only Mary, that Jesus speaks and commissions. Mary’s place in the gospels then, and especially her position in the Gospel of John, implies that (whatever her demons may have been) she had a leadership role in the early community.

This view is supported by the position that Mary is given in the non-canonical writings – the most tantalising of which is the Gospel of Philip. In these books Mary’s closeness to Jesus is a cause of tension with other disciples – in particular with Peter. We read: “For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.

There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.

And the companion of the [Lord was?] Mary Magdalene. [He?] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [mouth?]. The rest of the disciples said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”

Here and elsewhere we are told that Mary is not only given information that is given to no other disciple, but that she is particularly intimate with Jesus. The closeness of the relationship between Mary and Jesus (both in the non-canonical writings and in today’s gospel reading) has led some scholars to speculate that Mary and Jesus were married. They suggest that the wedding at Cana was in fact the celebration of the marriage between Jesus and Mary. Why else, they ask, would Mary the mother of Jesus, take such an interest in the catering and presume to have authority to instruct the servants? (No one – even today – would presume to give orders to another person’s staff and a woman in the first century had no authority, let alone in the home of someone else.)

Magdalen’s role as the apostle to the apostles in John’s gospel and her significant place in the synoptic gospels, along with the references to Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip and elsewhere combine to suggest that Mary had a significant leadership role in the early community and a closeness to Jesus not extended to anyone else. It would have been easy for the gospel writers to exclude her from the story or to downplay her part in the resurrection appearances. By the time the gospels were being written the place of women in the Christian community was being substantially diminished (but that is a story for another day). The gospel writers could have easily named members of the twelve disciples as the first to see Jesus and as those who were commissioned to tell the others of the resurrection. That Mary retains this role in the gospels suggests that her position within the community and her contribution to the life of the community was such that the memory of her was still strong and that any attempt to write her out of the story would have been met with resistance.

Of course, we will never be able to properly separate fact from fiction or speculation from evidence, but there are some things that we can say with some certainty. Mary, who was possessed by seven demons, was set free. Having been set free, she not only followed Jesus, but she supported him financially. Alone, or in the company of others, Mary went to the tomb on Easter Day, and alone, or as one of three, she was instructed to proclaim the resurrection to the disciples. She journeyed from darkness to light, from exclusion to inclusion, from being unknown to being fully known, from being held captive to demons to being captivated by Jesus’ love and from being no one, to being the bearer of the good news.

Being in relationship with Jesus is life-changing. We too are brought from darkness to light, from the outside to the inside, from isolation to relationship, from captivity to freedom and ignorance to proclaimers of the gospel.

Faith is both a privilege and a responsibility. We are called into a relationship and sent out to share the good news.

Mutual indwelling – the Spirit in us

June 7, 2019

Pentecost – 2019

John 14:8-17

Marian Free

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The word abide in or dwell in translates the Greek word μενω(menō) which is used in this sense twelve times in the gospel. John uses it to describe a relationship in which the two (or more) members become as one with each other. It is the language used in Jesus’ parable of the vine in which we are to picture such a deep connection between the branches (us) and the vine (Jesus) such that unless the branches dwell in the vine they will wither and die. Cut off from the source of life they cannot survive. The word μενω refers to “an inward, enduring personal communion” and is used by John to describe a variety of relationships – primarily that between the Father and the Son but also the relationship between the disciples and Christ (14:4) and between the Spirit and the disciples. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you(14:17).

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

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

 

Unity not uniformity

June 1, 2019

Easter 7 – 2019

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the whole picture

May 18, 2019

Easter 5 – 2019

John 13:31-35

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One voice among many

May 11, 2019

Easter 4 – 2019

John 10:22-30 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.

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

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

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

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

One more time

May 4, 2019

Easter 3 – 2019

John 21:1-19 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals godself to us when we least expect it and when we most need it. Amen.

A trip to Israel is amazing. It is a beautiful country steeped in history. There you will come across a Canaanite altar that goes back 3,000 years before Jesus and a horned altar that makes sense of the horned altars of the Old Testament. You will encounter archeological sites that go back at least 1000 years before Jesus’ time and which have been built on over the centuries by different nations and cultures up until the present. The site of Capernaum with its ruins of homes that date from the time of Jesus helps us to put the gospel story into context and the Sea of Galilee is so vast that one can understand why the disciples might have been afraid when tempests arose.

That said, there is much that, for me at least, is a source of irritation or disappointment. I found it impossible to imagine the Israel of Jesus’ day in the towns and tourist sites that capitalize on their place in the gospel story and compete with each other for the tourist dollar. Christian denominations that vied with each other for attention were, for me, a source of deep shame and embarrassment. If visitors to the nation had been less keen to immerse themselves in the story they might ask themselves why both the Anglicans and the Catholics need such large churches in Bethlehem, why they have divided Capernaum into two parts, and why the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided between a number of Christian traditions.

On a lighter note, seeing a place at first hand had the tendency to burst the bubble of my imagination. Sites that loomed large in the gospel story did not have quite the same impact in reality. The Mount of the Transfiguration turned out to be a geological feature that I would have would called a hill; and the cliff that Jesus was ‘pushed’ to in Luke’s gospel was so far from Nazareth that it was hard to believe that even a huge crowd would have persisted in pushing Jesus over such a large distance.

What really surprised me and shattered my image of the story, were the fish. At the kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee we were served ‘St Peter’s fish’, which I took to be the fish of the miraculous haul recorded in both Luke and John. These fish (at least those cooked for lunch) were small – about fifteen cm long with very little flesh. It was hard to imagine even 153 of these fish being sufficient to make a net impossible to haul in as today’s gospel suggests and hard to imagine how many would be required to stretch to the nets to breaking point (Luke 5:6). But, as my grandmother used to say: “Why spoil the story for the sake of a little exaggeration?”

Why indeed? Whether here in John (after the resurrection) or in Luke (in connection with the calling of the disciples) the story is not so much about the fish as it is about recognition. In Luke’s telling of the story, the disciples have been fishing all night without success. When Jesus comes down to the shore they have left their boats and are cleaning their nets. Seeing the empty boat, Jesus asks Simon to put out from the shore so that he can more easily teach the crowds who have been pressing in on him. It is only when he has finished teaching that he tells the fishermen to try one more time which they do. This time the nets are so full they threaten to sink the boats. At this point Peter falls to his knees before Jesus and says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

As a result of the miraculous catch, Simon recognizes Jesus as Lord and, in the presence of Jesus’ goodness, becomes only too aware of his own sinfulness. The story of the fish is not just a miracle but it is an entry point to the story of Simon’s identification of Jesus’ true nature.

John places the account of the miraculous haul at the very end of his gospel, but here too recognition is the central point. A group of despondent disciples tire of sitting around and decide to go fishing. All night they fish with no success. In the morning a ‘stranger’ on the beach urges them to put down their nets one more time. This time there are so many fish that they cannot haul in the net. Then John identifies the stranger as the risen Jesus and Peter, (despite the fact that he had denied and abandoned Jesus), is sufficiently excited to see Jesus and sufficiently confident that Jesus will not reject him that he leaps out of the boat in order to be the first to reach him.

Whether it is recognition of the divinity of the earthly Jesus or the reality of the risen Jesus, it is success after a night of struggle, a surprise catch after fruitless effort, that opens the disciples’ eyes to the divine presence that has urged them to give it one more try.

When we are tempted to give up, when the night is too long or the task seemingly impossible, we can remember the catch of fish, believe in the risen Christ, give it one more try, and discover that Jesus was there all the time.

One more time

May 4, 2019

Easter 3 – 2019

John 21:1-19 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals godself to us when we least expect it and when we most need it. Amen.

A trip to Israel is amazing. It is a beautiful country steeped in history. There you will come across a Canaanite altar that goes back 3,000 years before Jesus and a horned altar that makes sense of the horned altars of the Old Testament. You will encounter archeological sites that go back at least 1000 years before Jesus’ time and which have been built on over the centuries by different nations and cultures up until the present. The site of Capernaum with its ruins of homes that date from the time of Jesus helps us to put the gospel story into context and the Sea of Galilee is so vast that one can understand why the disciples might have been afraid when tempests arose.

That said, there is much that, for me at least, is a source of irritation or disappointment. I found it impossible to imagine the Israel of Jesus’ day in the towns and tourist sites that capitalize on their place in the gospel story and compete with each other for the tourist dollar. Christian denominations that vied with each other for attention were, for me, a source of deep shame and embarrassment. If visitors to the nation had been less keen to immerse themselves in the story they might ask themselves why both the Anglicans and the Catholics need such large churches in Bethlehem, why they have divided Capernaum into two parts, and why the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided between a number of Christian traditions.

On a lighter note, seeing a place at first hand had the tendency to burst the bubble of my imagination. Sites that loomed large in the gospel story did not have quite the same impact in reality. The Mount of the Transfiguration turned out to be a geological feature that I would have would called a hill; and the cliff that Jesus was ‘pushed’ to in Luke’s gospel was so far from Nazareth that it was hard to believe that even a huge crowd would have persisted in pushing Jesus over such a large distance.

What really surprised me and shattered my image of the story, were the fish. At the kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee we were served ‘St Peter’s fish’, which I took to be the fish of the miraculous haul recorded in both Luke and John. These fish (at least those cooked for lunch) were small – about fifteen cm long with very little flesh. It was hard to imagine even 153 of these fish being sufficient to make a net impossible to haul in as today’s gospel suggests and hard to imagine how many would be required to stretch to the nets to breaking point (Luke 5:6). But, as my grandmother used to say: “Why spoil the story for the sake of a little exaggeration?”

Why indeed? Whether here in John (after the resurrection) or in Luke (in connection with the calling of the disciples) the story is not so much about the fish as it is about recognition. In Luke’s telling of the story, the disciples have been fishing all night without success. When Jesus comes down to the shore they have left their boats and are cleaning their nets. Seeing the empty boat, Jesus asks Simon to put out from the shore so that he can more easily teach the crowds who have been pressing in on him. It is only when he has finished teaching that he tells the fishermen to try one more time which they do. This time the nets are so full they threaten to sink the boats. At this point Peter falls to his knees before Jesus and says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

As a result of the miraculous catch, Simon recognizes Jesus as Lord and, in the presence of Jesus’ goodness, becomes only too aware of his own sinfulness. The story of the fish is not just a miracle but it is an entry point to the story of Simon’s identification of Jesus’ true nature.

John places the account of the miraculous haul at the very end of his gospel, but here too recognition is the central point. A group of despondent disciples tire of sitting around and decide to go fishing. All night they fish with no success. In the morning a ‘stranger’ on the beach urges them to put down their nets one more time. This time there are so many fish that they cannot haul in the net. Then John identifies the stranger as the risen Jesus and Peter, (despite the fact that he had denied and abandoned Jesus), is sufficiently excited to see Jesus and sufficiently confident that Jesus will not reject him that he leaps out of the boat in order to be the first to reach him.

Whether it is recognition of the divinity of the earthly Jesus or the reality of the risen Jesus, it is success after a night of struggle, a surprise catch after fruitless effort, that opens the disciples’ eyes to the divine presence that has urged them to give it one more try.

When we are tempted to give up, when the night is too long or the task seemingly impossible, we can remember the catch of fish, believe in the risen Christ, give it one more try, and discover that Jesus was there all the time.

Peace, peace, peace

April 27, 2019

Easter 2 – 2019

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of the Prince of Peace, who bestows on us that peace that the world cannot give. Amen.

Yesterday I was listening to Saturday Extra on the ABC. Even though it was off topic, Geraldine Doogue could not help sharing something that she felt was the most extraordinary piece of news. Apparently, South Korea has built new hiking tracks which take walkers up the hills and to the edge of the de-militarized zone. These tracks are to be called ‘Peace tracks’. That said, hikers will need to be accompanied by several armed soldiers and they themselves will be equipped with bullet proof vests and army issue helmets! For most, if not all of us, the equipment would be suggestive of anything but peace.

Last year we marked then100th Anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which exacted such a toll on Germany that is could be said that the cost of peace was the Second World War. The 2nd of September, 1945 is the date on which WWII officially ended, but that date does not accurately reflect the end of various conflicts that continued throughout Europe for decades as a result of the hostilities. ISIS has been defeated in Syria – in the sense that it no longer has control over any territory but the recent acts of terror in Sri Lanka are clear evidence that ISIS is far from being a spent force.

All this begs the question: What is peace? Is it the defeat of the known enemy? Is it the reclamation of lost territory? Is it the complete cessation of hostilities or simply the end of hostilities between the major players? Does peace require the humiliation of the vanquished or the payment of reparation? In most cases peace does not mean the settling of differences, nor does it mean reconciliation. At best, the end of war signals resentment and distrust – I remember returned soldiers who absolutely refused to buy anything Japanese such was the depth of feeling of those who had suffered at their hands. On the other hand, within decades, if not years, the past is forgotten as economic interests forge new relationships with those who once were the enemy.

Peace on the world stage is a very different beast from the inner peace that faith offers. We speak of “being at peace with ourselves and with the world”. By which we mean being content with who and what we are and with the situation in which we find ourselves.

Three times in today’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples and to Thomas: “Peace be with you.” Frank L. Crouch suggests that each time Jesus uses the words they have a slightly different meaning. My interpretation is different from his, but it is helpful to speculate on what Jesus might mean by repeating the phrase.

It is hard to imagine the scene. The disciples fled in fear when Jesus was arrested and now, even though they have heard reports that Jesus has risen, they are in hiding for fear that they will be arrested and killed as known associates of Jesus. They are still in Jerusalem and have locked the doors to give them some sense of security. I imagine them huddled together, going over the events of the last three years and in particular the events of the last week. What did it all mean? What should they do next? How could they safely leave Jerusalem? Who could they trust?

Suddenly, despite the locked doors, Jesus appears in their midst. Instead of recriminations he offers them peace. “Peace be with you.” There is no need to berate yourselves for what you did and did not do. The past is the past. There is no need to be anxious or afraid, I am with you. In the midst of their confusion and fear, Jesus offers peace. Now that they know that Jesus is not holding their cowardice against them, the disciples do not need to dwell on the past. Now that they are confident that Jesus is alive, they can have confidence that, whatever the future holds, God will bring them safely through. In other words, they can be at peace with themselves and at peace with the world.

A second time Jesus says: “Peace be with you.” This time the peace that Jesus offers is less comforting and more challenging. Having reassured the disciples that they still have their place among his followers, Jesus tells them that he is commissioning them to carry on his work. The disciples’ relationship with Jesus has been restored, but the story does not end there. The peace that Jesus offers now provides reassurance. Jesus’ confidence in them extends to his confidence that he can send them to continue his mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus cannot promise the disciples that the road ahead will be smooth, but he gives them peace – the knowledge that they can and will manage whatever difficulties confront them.

Finally, Jesus says: “Peace be with you” when he appears to the disciples a second time – for the benefit of Thomas. Peace is offered not just to Thomas but to all the disciples. Perhaps this time Jesus is addressing tension within the group – after all Thomas was not able to believe that the others had seen Jesus. Perhaps this third time, Jesus is gently chiding the disciples and reminding them of the prayer that he had uttered in their presence before he died: “that they may all one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us that the world may believe” (17:21).

Restoration, challenge, command – the peace that Jesus offers is all these things. When we feel that we have let Jesus down, he will come to us and let us know that all is right. When we are unsure what to do next, Jesus will nudge us in the right direction. When our relationships with each other are stretched Jesus will remind us of the command to love one another.

Jesus offers the peace that the world cannot give – a peace that quietens our nerves and reminds us that God does not abandon us though we might abandon God and a peace that gives us courage to step out in faith in response to God’s call. In return Jesus asks us to be at peace with one another so that the world seeing our unity with one another, may see in us the unity between Jesus and God and so come to believe.

Giving our all and receiving so much more

April 6, 2019

Lent 5 – 2019

John 12:1-8

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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