Archive for the ‘Luke’s gospel’ Category

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.

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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.

Known and loved

March 30, 2019

Lent 4 – 2019

Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

Marian Free

In the name of God, whose love for us is not determined by what we do or don’t do, but is freely poured out on us all. Amen.

There is a wonderful movie based on the book The Joy Luck Club. The novel follows the lives of four Chinese women who, for quite different reasons, have fled China and found themselves in the United States. There they all marry and have children and form a strong familial bond such that their children could be cousins. We witness the children growing up and the competition between the mothers as the children excel at chess, at the piano, at school and then in the work place. On the whole, the off spring are noisy and self confident high achievers. One, June, does not fit the mould. At ‘family’ gatherings she stays in the background. June doesn’t want to compete with her cousins, she lacks their confidence and selfishness and is always putting the others before herself. At family gatherings it is June who takes the smallest portion of a choice dish and it is she who is to be found helping out with the cleaning up while the other cousins are chatting among themselves.

One evening June, who has made the choice to help her mother rather than sit with her cousins, bristles with resentment (at least as much as someone as sweet as June, can bristle). Even though she willingly helps out, on this particular evening she feels taken for granted. She complains to her mother who responds: “I see you. I see you taking the worst piece of crab when your cousins take the best. I see you looking after your aunties. I see you helping out. I see you.” “I see you.”

June had thought that her actions went unnoticed and that her mother preferred her more confident, higher achieving ‘cousins’, but all along her mother knew her and saw her. June’s quiet help had not gone unnoticed. Her gentle and unobtrusive presence was seen and valued. Knowing this is enough for June. Until now June hadn’t needed or sought reward for her behaviour, but this evening she want to know that she was not unappreciated or invisible. Her mother’s affirmation is sufficient reassurance. She knows that she doesn’t have to compete with her cousins. She understands that she is valued for who she is and that is enough.

I don’t know anyone who does not identify with the older son in today’s parable. Whether it is because we ourselves are an older sibling or whether our sense of justice is deeply offended at the father’s inexplicable generosity towards the son who squandered his inheritance we all sympathize with the older brother who is hurt and angry. After all, we think, he is the good son. He hasn’t rocked the boat. He has quietly, willingly and diligently done all that was expected of him. Why should the younger brother be rewarded and the older son ignored?

We feel this way because we fail to see is that like June, until now the older brother has not felt that he was missing out, or if he did, he had not talked it over with his father. He has simply, and presumably happily, been doing what was expected of him. He has been the dutiful son. He hasn’t sought a reward for doing what was right but, seeing the father’s generosity towards his brother, he becomes aware that he could have had more. Perhaps like June, he had always wanted some reassurance that his conforming to social norms was valued and that his work was not unseen. Or perhaps all along he has been desperate for his father to acknowledge and reward his good behaviour. He may even have been going above and beyond what was expected in a misguided attempt to earn his father’s respect. His resentment, hitherto unnamed and perhaps unrecognized comes bubbling to the surface when his brother- the one who has disgraced himself and brought shame to his family – appears to be being rewarded not for good behaviour, but for bad behaviour. He, the older brother, is the one who should have been rewarded. He is the one to whom the father should have paid some attention. His is the hard work that should have been recognized.

Sadly, like June, the older son hasn’t understood his father’s love for him. Like June he has failed to identify his need for affirmation and he is mistaken in his father’s regard for him. He has not been taken for granted. His readiness to do what was required has not been ignored. If only he knew it he already has everything that belongs to the father. If only he realised that father has not asked or expected him to make sacrifices or to go without. Quite unnecessarily, the older son has made a martyr of himself. He did not accept that his father’s love and regard were freely given and now, when he sees what he could have had, he seethes with resentment. His relationship with his father was based on the false understanding that his father’s love needed to be earned. This is why he simply cannot understand that his father could welcome back his brother without exacting some retribution or imposing some punishment. He has so misunderstood his father’s regard for him that no amount of pleading will get him to go inside to the party – further demonstrating his lack of comprehension of the nature of father’s love.

So – if you identify with the older son ask yourself this – are you doing things you would rather not do because you think you need to? Are you being a martyr in the secret hope that you will be rewarded? Do you have it in your head that you/we need to earn God’s love or approval? Is your relationship with God such that you do not yet understand that God is always reaching out to you and constantly inviting you to the party?

None of us are perfect, yet here we all are – being held and loved by God.

If we resent God’s generosity towards those we consider to be less deserving perhaps it is because we do not yet know and value God generosity towards and love for us.

Following God as if nothing else matters (updated for Lent 3)

March 23, 2019

Lent 3 – 2019

Luke 13:31-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who is our all in all. .

The mini series “The Cry” is a psychological thriller that moves between the past and the present in a way that is quite confusing and also terrifying. It begins with a courtroom scene is which a young woman is on trial. As the story unfolds we learn that the woman is a sleep-deprived mother of a child who refuses to settle. When the child disappears, our immediate thought is that the distraught woman had something to do with the disappearance and we leap to the conclusion that this is why she on trial. Our suspicion is confirmed (or so we think) when we discover that the child is not missing but dead. As the story vacillates between the past and the present we are taken on a tortuous journey during which the truth is gradually revealed. Only at the very end do all the pieces of the puzzle fit into place and we learn why it is that the woman is in the dock.

Writers, including script writers, use all kinds of techniques to pique our interest and to maintain our attention through the course of a story. Giving the audience or the reader a preview of what is going to happen is just one way of keeping them engaged, of maintaining the tension, or of building suspense.

Luke appears to be doing just this in the gospel and in particular in the five verses we have before us this morning. First of all a sense of imminent danger is created by the warning of the Pharisees who tell Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. This is followed by Jesus’ statement that a prophet cannot be killed outside Jerusalem. The threat posed by Herod and Jesus’ insinuation that he is going to Jerusalem to die intensify a sense of foreboding that has hung over this gospel since Simeon’s prophesy that Jesus would be a sword that would pierce Mary’s soul (2:35); since Satan departed to return at an opportune time (4:13); since the people of Nazareth threatened to drive Jesus over a cliff (4:29); since Jesus so infuriated the Pharisees that they discussed what they might do with him (6:11); and since Jesus’ obscure sayings about the Son of Man being killed and then raised.

We are so inured to story and so familiar with its happy ending, that we do not always hear the threat that lies just beneath the surface nor do we see the sword that hangs over Jesus’ head from the beginning. The reality of the resurrection deafens and blinds us to the way in which tension has been building throughout the gospel and is so evident here.

These five verses make it abundantly clear that Jesus is heading into danger. Twice Jesus mentions a three day time span: “today and tomorrow and the third day”, “today and tomorrow and the next day” which provide the reader with an ominous reminder of the passion predictions. Herod is planning to kill him and Jesus feels that he must go on to Jerusalem for it is there (and only there?) that the prophets die.

The reader cannot help but wonder why Jesus insists on continuing the journey. We find ourselves willing him to turn back, to change his stride and to stop antagonizing those who have the power to destroy him. Surely he has some sense of self-preservation!

It is clear that Jesus knows what is at stake and yet he will not be deterred. His response to the reports that Herod wants to kill him is that he still has work to do. The fact Jerusalem will not welcome him but will murder him is no reason for him to interrupt or to abort his journey, but only gives him cause to continue. He has a mission and a goal and not even the worst threat or the most dire of consequences will deflect him from this task. God’s call on his life is inviolable. For Jesus, life and death have no meaning if they are not in accord with God’s plan for him.

The massacre in Christchurch and other acts of violence perpetrated on the innocent, remind us that we live in a world that is filled with unforeseen risks and dangers and that even in our places of worship we are not safe from the horrors of irrational hatred. Christians in Egypt, in Nigeria and elsewhere have long been aware that the practice of their faith places them in great danger. Yet the threat of attack does not prevent them from engaging in corporate worship and the death of church leaders and even of family members does not weaken their faith let alone cause them to lose faith. God’s place in their hearts and God’s call on their lives is such that violence, hatred or disparagement have no power to distract them from what is at the core of their being.

In this season of Lent we are challenged to consider the distractions in our lives, the things that grab our attention, the things that inhibit or interfere with our relationship with God, the things that prevent us from truly heeding and responding to God’s call on and the things that reveal our timidity and our desire for self-preservation. Today’s reading provokes a number of questions: do we waver in our faith when the going gets rough? would we hold true to our course in the face of danger? would we turn aside if we thought our lives were at risk? Are our eyes firmly fixed on God or do we have one eye focused on what is going around us? How much do we trust God with life itself?

Our faith will almost certainly not cost us our lives, but that should not stop us following Jesus as if nothing else mattered.

One more chance

March 23, 2019

Lent 2 – 2019

Luke 13:1-9 (Some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who always gives us a second chance. Amen.

I have said many times before that the gospel writers have not captured Jesus’ words exactly in the places where and when he might have actually said them. By the time the gospels were being written Jesus’ sayings and parables had been circulating orally for decades. Almost certainly the stories were simply repeated out of context. (Remember what Jesus said about ..? Remember the story about the Samaritan ..? and so on.) Early believers were not so interested in Jesus’ life especially when those who knew Jesus were still alive. What that means is that when writer of Luke recorded his story of Jesus, he had available to him a collection of teaching material from which he had to create some order and which he had to insert into a chronological account of Jesus’ life. Sayings that appeared to have something in common were placed together but sometimes, as is the case today their positioning seems to our eyes to be quite random.

The first saying presents a picture of a God who is exacting and demanding. It suggests that any trauma or trouble in our lives is God’s judgement on our bad behaviour. (In our current context it would allow us to justify the massacre in Christchurch as a consequence of the ‘sins’ of those who were killed and injured.) Most of us would find this theology abhorrent. It presents an image of God that does not fit with the infant in the cradle or the victim on the cross.

It is well for us that this saying is balanced by the parable of the gardener and the fig. Those of us who have tried to grow fruit trees in this climate know how much work it can take and how disappointing it is when our tree produces nothing. Careful pruning, judicious fertilising and appropriate watering can be to no avail if, for example the weather is not right. Some of us will sympathize with the owner who, frustrated by the lack of fruit wants to replace the fig with something that will produce a yield. Not so the gardener who argues that the tree be given one more chance.

One more chance – this is more like the God who sent Jesus to an unworthy people. One more chance – God doesn’t demand perfection, nor does God wait until we are perfect until we receive the blessings that faith showers upon us. One more chance, then another and another. Over and over again God reaches out to us – frail and imperfect as we are – and says ‘one more chance’, ‘have another go’, ‘you can do it’.

The God in whom I believe, the God who came into a world that was far from perfect, is not remote and distant but close and reassuring. God ‘knows of what we are made’ and, over and over again, makes allowances for us.

God always gives us one more chance.

Lent is an opportunity, a gift from God to take that chance, to make changes in our lives such that by Easter we are in some way more faithful, more joyful or more at peace with the world. Year after year (if need be, day after day) we can take hold of the opportunity to change, to grow and to bear fruit such that albeit imperceptibly we reach the potential God has in mind for us.

One more chance – take it!

Following God as if nothing else matters

March 16, 2019

Lent 3 – 2019

Luke 13:31-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who is our all in all. .

The mini series “The Cry” is a psychological thriller that moves between the past and the present in a way that is quite confusing and also terrifying. It begins with a courtroom scene is which a young woman is on trial. As the story unfolds we learn that the woman is a sleep-deprived mother of a child who refuses to settle. When the child disappears, our immediate thought is that the distraught woman had something to do with the disappearance and we leap to the conclusion that this is why she on trial. Our suspicion is confirmed (or so we think) when we discover that the child is not missing but dead. As the story vacillates between the past and the present we are taken on a tortuous journey during which the truth is gradually revealed. Only at the very end do all the pieces of the puzzle fit into place and we learn why it is that the woman is in the dock.

Writers, including script writers, use all kinds of techniques to pique our interest and to maintain our attention through the course of a story. Giving the audience or the reader a preview of what is going to happen is just one way of keeping them engaged, of maintaining the tension, or of building suspense.

Luke appears to be doing just this in the gospel and in particular in the five verses we have before us this morning. First of all a sense of imminent danger is created by the warning of the Pharisees who tell Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. This is followed by Jesus’ statement that a prophet cannot be killed outside Jerusalem. The threat posed by Herod and Jesus’ insinuation that he is going to Jerusalem to die intensify a sense of foreboding that has hung over this gospel since Simeon’s prophesy that Jesus would be a sword that would pierce Mary’s soul (2:35); since Satan departed to return at an opportune time (4:13); since the people of Nazareth threatened to drive Jesus over a cliff (4:29); since Jesus so infuriated the Pharisees that they discussed what they might do with him (6:11); and since Jesus’ obscure sayings about the Son of Man being killed and then raised.

We are so inured to story and so familiar with its happy ending, that we do not always hear the threat that lies just beneath the surface nor do we see the sword that hangs over Jesus’ head from the beginning. The reality of the resurrection deafens and blinds us to the way in which tension has been building throughout the gospel and is so evident here.

These five verses make it abundantly clear that Jesus is heading into danger. Twice Jesus mentions a three day time span: “today and tomorrow and the third day”, “today and tomorrow and the next day” which provide the reader with an ominous reminder of the passion predictions. Herod is planning to kill him and Jesus feels that he must go on to Jerusalem for it is there (and only there?) that the prophets die.

The reader cannot help but wonder why Jesus insists on continuing the journey. We find ourselves willing him to turn back, to change his stride and to stop antagonizing those who have the power to destroy him. Surely he has some sense of self-preservation!

It is clear that Jesus knows what is at stake and yet he will not be deterred. His response to the reports that Herod wants to kill him is that he still has work to do. The fact Jerusalem will not welcome him but will murder him is no reason for him to interrupt or to abort his journey, but only gives him cause to continue. He has a mission and a goal and not even the worst threat or the most dire of consequences will deflect him from this task. God’s call on his life is inviolable. For Jesus, life and death have no meaning if they are not in accord with God’s plan for him.

The massacre in Christchurch and other acts of violence perpetrated on the innocent, remind us that we live in a world that is filled with unforeseen risks and dangers and that even in our places of worship we are not safe from the horrors of irrational hatred. Christians in Egypt, in Nigeria and elsewhere have long been aware that the practice of their faith places them in great danger. Yet the threat of attack does not prevent them from engaging in corporate worship and the death of church leaders and even of family members does not weaken their faith let alone cause them to lose faith. God’s place in their hearts and God’s call on their lives is such that violence, hatred or disparagement have no power to distract them from what is at the core of their being.

In this season of Lent we are challenged to consider the distractions in our lives, the things that grab our attention, the things that inhibit or interfere with our relationship with God, the things that prevent us from truly heeding and responding to God’s call on and the things that reveal our timidity and our desire for self-preservation. Today’s reading provokes a number of questions: do we waver in our faith when the going gets rough? would we hold true to our course in the face of danger? would we turn aside if we thought our lives were at risk? Are our eyes firmly fixed on God or do we have one eye focused on what is going around us? How much do we trust God with life itself?

Our faith will almost certainly not cost us our lives, but that should not stop us following Jesus as if nothing else mattered.

How good, Lord to be here.

March 2, 2019

Transfiguration – 2019fullsizeoutput_133a

Luke 9:28-36

Marian Free

In the name of God, transcendent yet immanent, awesome yet comforting, distant and yet as close as a breath. Amen.

“How good Lord to be here!” Whenever I choose the hymn with which we began this morning, I think that we should sing it every week! How good it is to be here! You may not realise this, but Michael and I have now been a part of this Parish for over eleven years – eleven years. That is long enough for you and I to be comfortable each other, way past the time when I might do something unexpected or surprising. With some exceptions, we do the same things week after week, year after year. We sing more or less the same hymns and we have the same preacher. It would not be surprising if, after all this time, our weekly worship might just be “more of the same”. Not at St Augustine’s! One of the real joys of serving this community is that more Sundays than not, at least one person leaves the church saying something to the effect of, “that was wonderful this morning”. To which I reply: “It always is.”

What a privilege and joy to be part of a community that finds our regular, repetitive Anglican gathering uplifting and joyful! How good it is to be here!

Why is it so good? It is good I believe, because in this place and at this time, we are transported out of our day-to-day lives into an experience that is transcendent and transformative. From the moment we enter the church we are confronted by the beauty and grandeur of the building and of the windows. It is obvious that we are in no ordinary place. Even someone with no faith at all cannot fail to be overwhelmed by the soaring roof, the warm timbers and the glorious colours. St Augustine’s is magnificent but in no way is it imposing or unwelcoming. Many who see the interior for the first-time comment on the beautiful feeling that seems to emanate from the walls. We are blessed to worship in a space that is both transcendent and familiar, in which we are both filled with awe and made to feel at home.

How good it is to be here. While our corporate worship might be formal and uplifting it is also comfortable and relaxed. Individually and corporately, we experience the presence of God through our hymns, our readings and, of course, through the Eucharist. Our familiarity with the words and with the pattern of the liturgy does not blunt our awareness of what it is that we do, nor are we allowed to forget that the God whom we worship is both here with us and yet just beyond our grasp. Our worship is moving, uplifting, informative and joyful. It is comforting and reassuring as much as it is awe-inspiring.

Yet though we might be transported by the beauty of our surroundings or deeply moved by the experience of worship, we are also grounded and in touch with the world from which we have been drawn. This helps us to maintain the balance between the transcendent and the immanent (to use the technical terms), to remember who we are and who and what God is. We have to be careful that we are not so enchanted with the experience of God’s presence, not so caught up in the transcendence of the moment that we lose sight of our mission to the world. Our experience of worship may seem to take us to another dimension but that must not cause us to lose sight of the fact that God is as present in our day-to-day living as God is present in our “mountain-top” experiences.

In today’s gospel it is Peter who says: “How good for us to be here!” Peter, with James and John has accompanied Jesus up a mountain to pray. Before their very eyes, not only is Jesus transformed, but Moses and Elijah appear and speak with him. It is as if heaven itself has opened up and gathered the disciples in. Peter’s awe-struck response is to try to capture the moment, to freeze it in time so that he with James and John, can spend the remainder of their lives caught up in this extraordinary moment – never again to have to engage with the nitty gritty of everyday existence.

Peter has yet to understand the reality of Jesus’ ministry, a reality that will be played out in his own life of discipleship. To be a follower of Jesus, he will learn, is not to live one’s life on an exalted spiritual plane but to be fully engaged with the human experience. Peter will come to know that moments of transcendence such as this are not to be held on to, but are to inform and energise the mundane, difficult and sometimes dangerous day-to-day work of being a follower of Jesus.

This morning’s hymn ends: “How good, Lord, to be here, yet we may not remain; but since you bid us leave the mount, come with us to the plain.”

However good it is to be here, our call is to take our knowledge of God into the world, to fully engage with everyday realities, both good and bad. We come here week by week for our mountain-top experience. Consciously and deliberately we bring ourselves into the presence of God. For this one hour we focus intentionally on our relationship with God. In this time and place we allow ourselves to be inspired, fed and nurtured so that reinvigorated, renewed and transformed, we can go into the world and live lives that are infused with the presence of God and the knowledge of God’s presence.

Upside down, back-to-front Kingdom of God

February 23, 2019

Epiphany 7 – 2019

Luke 6:27-38

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks from us only what will serve our own sense of well-being and wholeness. Amen.

Some forty years ago there was a movie about the life of Jesus. It is so long ago that I cannot remember the name of the movie or on which gospel it was based. I do remember two things. One, the language used in the film was that of the King James Bible which sounded clumsy and archaic. The second is the way in which the movie portrayed Jesus teaching the parable of the sower. Time has probably clouded my memory somewhat, but as I recall, Jesus was speaking as he walked through a crowded market. What that meant was that those who heard the beginning of the parable didn’t hear the ending and those who heard the ending had no idea how the parable began. The image jarred at the time, and it jars now as I recall it. The gospel writers don’t describe Jesus walking and talking. Mark depicts Jesus teaching from a boat. In Matthew’s gospel the bulk of Jesus’ teaching occurs in the Sermon on the Mount and in Luke Jesus’ teaching is presented in the Sermon on the Plain and during the journey to Jerusalem. Whenever Jesus is teaching, he appears stationary.

That said, while those who were present would have been able to hear the beginning and the end of the story, if Jesus teaching consisted of a string of sayings such as we have in today’s gospels, I imagine that the crowds would have scratched their heads and wandered away in confusion. Just as Jesus almost certainly did not walk as he taught, so too, it is unlikely that he stood up before a crowd and presented a series of unconnected aphorisms such as we find in today’s gospel. The gospels indicate that Jesus was a good teacher. He able to gain and hold the attention of the crowds who surrounded him, and he taught in such a way that many came to understand that he was the anointed one. No proficient teacher would include such diverse and unconnected material in one lecture as we have before us today.

Love your enemies, give your coat and your shirt, don’t complain if someone takes away all your goods, lend to those who can’t pay you back, forgive, don’t judge and give generously. No doubt, over the course of his ministry Jesus said a number of things in a variety of different contexts – over meals, as he and the disciples walked along and at times when Jesus was teaching a crowd. He may have been responding to a question from the disciples, commenting on the behaviour of the Pharisees, making an observation or simply repeating Old Testament wisdom. What is almost certain is that Jesus didn’t say all of these things at the same time.

After Jesus’ death, his followers will have recalled and repeated Jesus’ teachings. At some point, and being anxious to keep Jesus’ memory alive, someone has gathered his sayings together and created some sort of order. For example, today’s gospel suggests that the collator of the material has grouped similar sayings together – the sayings about non-resistance are placed with sayings about love of enemies, the saying about being merciful is connected with that about not judging and the saying about giving more than what is asked is put in the same context as that of giving abundantly.

This means that we don’t have to insist that the sayings in this morning’s gospel fit together neatly nor do we have to worry about their relationship one to one another.

Like the beatitudes which on the surface are counter-intuitive, the sayings reverse our usual way of thinking. Jesus insists that poverty, grief and persecution are to be seen as a blessing not as an affliction, that they are life-giving and not soul-destroying. Jesus goes on to demand that we live in ways that are counter-cultural, non-reciprocal, non-judgemental, selfless and generous. In other words, we are to behave in ways that are contrary to our natural instincts and which have the potential to set us apart from the society in which we live. Like it or not, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to give to those who can give us nothing in return, to refrain from retaliation, to forgive and not to condemn.

Contrary to expectation, applying these values to our lives does not leave us impoverished, down-trodden, taken advantage of or abused – just the opposite. Self-sacrifice, love of those who do not love us and generosity towards others rewards us in ways we cannot begin to imagine. If we live according to these principles, we will discover that instead of being small and petty, jealous and judgemental, we become expansive and open-handed, gracious and understanding. We are not called to make sacrifices for the sake of sacrifice. We are called only to let go of those things that limit us and to relinquish those things that have us in their power. God does not make demands that are burdensome and life-denying. God seeks only our well-being, our development and our wholeness. Indeed, when we learn to graciously accept what life throws at us and when we focus more on others than on ourselves, our world-view is enriched and enlarged, our anxieties are diminished, our hearts are expanded and our sense of satisfaction with our lives and our place in the universe is increased beyond our imagination.

In the upside down, back-to-front kingdom of God what we give up is more than compensated for by what we get back.

Try again

February 9, 2019

Epiphany 5 – 2019

Luke 5:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who challenges us to go our of our depths to see who, with the help of Jesus, we can be. Amen.

The most popular attraction in Israel is, perhaps surprisingly, a first century fishing boat. The boat in question was discovered by two brothers from Kibbutz Ginnosar who used to trawl the shore of the Sea of Galilee looking for artifacts. On one such occasion they discovered the outline of a boat. The story of raising and preserving the boat is fascinating and, thanks to the care taken with it’s restoration, we have an almost complete boat from the time of Jesus. It could hold up to fifteen men and their catch. The one located and preserved at Ginnosar had been repaired on many occasions during the course of its life and archeologists have identified a huge variety of timbers that, over time have been used to repair the boat. While the archeological significance of the discovery is immense and adds a great deal to our understanding of the craft of boat building in the first century, the discovery has the added weight of giving us a truer idea of the sort of vessel into which Jesus might have climbed in today’s gospel.

As with many of the accounts in our gospels, the story of the miraculous catch can be read in a variety of ways and on many different levels. We can notice the difference between this version of Peter’s call and that of the author of Mark, or we can compare the story with the post-resurrection catch of John’s gospel. Time could be spent comparing Peter’s reaction to Jesus with that of the prophets who, in the presence of the divine, recognize their limitations and frailties and protest their unworthiness. What did Jesus teach from the boat and what does it mean to ‘catch people alive’ we might wonder? Why does Peter address Jesus as ‘master’ before the catch and as ‘lord’ after the catch? And why does Luke use the language of ‘catching people alive’ (or enthralling them) when Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus commissions the first disciples to ‘fish for people’.

These eleven verses, that on the surface recount the call of Peter, James and John, are filled with meanings and nuances that are both obvious and subtle. It could take hours for us to unpack the various complexities of the scene!

Today, I’d like to explore the possibility that the the story of the miraculous catch is a metaphor for our own time, that Jesus urges us to try again when we have lost hope and when feel that we have done all that we can.

We live in an age in which many of have grown weary of trying to win people for Christ and in which too often we fall into despair at the decline in church attendance and at our our inability to prevent the church’s slide into irrelevance. It is a time in which religion is often used to defend conservative values at the cost of compassion and to the detriment of the gospel message of love and in which the political and social landscape is undergoing great change. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the hopelessness of our situation and to simply give up.

Peter, James and John were, according to Luke, professional fishermen. They owned their boats and were in a business partnership. Almost certainly their fathers were fishermen before them and from an early age they would have understood the lake and the times at which the fish were most likely to be running. After an unfruitful night they would have been tired and frustrated and possibly anxious about the loss of revenue and in no mood to have another go. There would have been no reason for them to respond to a tradesman from Nazareth who knew nothing of the ways of fish or of the sea. Yet Jesus’ word is authoritative enough to persuade Peter to go back to the deep and to try one more time. He is rewarded with a catch so large that it begins to break the nets and Peter is forced to call for help.

The world of Peter was no more benign or settled than our own. Peter, James and John were not carefree fishermen, plying their trade and selling their catch. Rome overshadowed all their lives. The state would have demanded that they pay a tax or a levy for the right to fish and Rome’s representatives may have demanded a proportion of the catch. Life would have been difficult and the conditions oppressive and there would have been no reason to imagine that the situation was about to change. Tomorrow would be more of the same, but the certainty of their lives, hard as they were, would surely have more allure than the uncertainty of trusting in let alone following Jesus.

Jesus approached fishermen who were disillusioned and tired and he told them to try one more time. He ignored Peter’s protestations that he was a sinful man and without so much as a ‘by your leave’ he assured Peter that from now on he would hold people enthralled.

Many of us in the church are exhausted and disheartened. We feel that we have done all that we can to bring about growth in our congregations. We are conscious too, that collectively we are tainted by scandal, blemished by the compromises we have made and held in scorn because we have been unable to change and adapt.

When we feel that we have reached the limit of our reserves, Jesus comes to us, takes his place with us and says: ‘Try again. Take heart, go out once more into the midst of a world that is complex and hostile. Throw out your nets one more time. You will be amazed at what I can do with you – sinners that you are. Don’t be afraid, with me you will hold people enthralled.’

Spoiling for a fight?

February 2, 2019

Epiphany 4 -2019

Luke 4:21-30

Marian Free

In the name of God who challenges cultural norms and who asks us to see the world in a different way. Amen.

The movie Once Were Warriors depicts in very graphic terms a family caught in a cycle of violence, unemployment and neglect. It could be about any society but in this instance it is about a Maori family – hence the title. The husband loses his job, the wife is abused and, partly as a consequence of the dysfunction in the family, a son ends up in jail. There is worse, but I will spare you that. One particularly confronting scene is that in which the wife goads the husband until, unable to bear it, he lashes out at her.

What is it that causes some people to spoil for a fight? Why would one person try to so antagonize another that the other would respond with force? I can only guess that in this case the woman was trying to expose her husband’s weakness. That she seemed to think that if she could get him to hit her it would prove to them both that he was less than a man. In other words it was her way of putting him down and perhaps of building herself up. He beat her because his masculinity was threatened. Ironically, by using violence he proved her right.

There are all kinds of reasons why people deliberately antagonize another. One is to prove moral superiority. Another is just the opposite – if a person can get someone to attack them (verbally or otherwise) it reinforces their own low-esteem. They can think: “Of course they would attack me – I’m worth nothing more.” People who are very sensitive to criticism are always on the defensive. They are spoiling for a fight because that they feel that if they can get in first, they will have the upper hand in any argument that results. Someone who is angry might be looking for a fight just in order to release the tension that has built up inside them. If they have been put down or criticized by someone they might pick a fight with the next person they see in order to release the anger they feel or to restore their own sense of worth.

Others provoke fights in order to demonstrate their own strength in comparison to someone else. (I think for example of the shortest boy in my year at high school. He was forever egging on the taller boys so that he could engage them in battle and show that, even if he was small, he was at least as strong or as tough as they.) Similarly, someone with low self- confidence might try to prove themselves to their friends by seeming to take on someone else. Some of us may have been in the uncomfortable situation of having a complete stranger call out: “Hey, what are you looking at?” when we didn’t think we were looking at anything at all.

A rash response to a perceived threat or a desire to big-note oneself in front of one’s friends can have tragic results – especially if the person concerned is under the influence. So called ‘one punch’ attacks are usually brought on by someone consciously or unconsciously looking for a fight.

What, you might wonder, does any of this have to do with today’s readings?

If you look or listen carefully you will notice an apparent disconnect between what the people say of Jesus and his response to them. In verse 22 we are told that all “the people spoke well of Jesus and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his tongue.” Jesus’ response though is not one of quiet pleasure – just the opposite. He goes on the attack. He says: ““Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

What has caused this outburst from Jesus? Is he, as it appears, spoiling for a fight?

To solve the problem of Jesus’ harsh reaction we have to seek the help of social scientists .

The highest form of social currency in first century Mediterranean society was that of honour. Honour was something that was bestowed by birth and could only be increased by taking honour from another (by putting them to shame). One’s honour had to be protected at all costs.

This appears to be the issue here. Jesus is not spoiling for a fight – but he senses that his listeners just might be and he tries to cut them off at the pass. You see, Jesus hears what we do not. He understands that the words of praise are qualified by a subtle attack: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they ask – simple words that contain an underlying anxiety,

Jesus’ honour, his place in his community, was determined by that of his father, and by extension the community to which he belonged. The cultural norms of the time dictated that Jesus should follow in his father’s footsteps and that he should not seek to change his place in the world. No wonder Jesus’ self identification as a prophet causes great consternation in his home town. Jesus’ claim to more honour than that which is his due inevitably diminishes the honour that is available to his fellow villagers – an increase in his status leads to a reduction in theirs. In a world in which honour is a limited and precious resource this is in fact a matter of life and death.

Jesus’ apparently unwarranted aggression may in fact be evidence that Jesus wishes to avoid the fight that his listeners want to bring on. This view is reinforced by Jesus’ refusal to fight back when they attempt to drive him over a cliff. Indeed the remainder of the gospel will demonstrate most vividly that, rather than seek status honour for himself, Jesus does those things which bring him into disrepute. He mixes with outcasts and sinners and submits to the most shameful of deaths.

Here, at the start of his ministry, he refuses to give his listeners satisfaction. He will not contend with them for honour. In life and in death Jesus will show that the kingdom of God operates according to different standards and measures a person’s place in the world by different norms.

Jesus will not be drawn into the narrow confines of their way of thinking, he will not be controlled by the restrictive cultural norms of his day. He slips through the crowd who threaten him and goes on his way proclaiming the good news of a kingdom that is not governed by human limitations.


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