Archive for the ‘Luke’s gospel’ Category

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.’

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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.

Knowing our audience

January 26, 2019

Presentation of Christ in the Temple – 2019

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who has no beginning and no end. Amen.

Consciously or not, we all use rhetoric to ensure that our point of view is heard or that others are brought around to our way of thinking. The use of rhetoric in the modern world is perhaps most obvious in politicians and preachers whose futures may depend on their ability to sway their listeners. In ancient Greece rhetoric was highly prized and there were many schools of rhetoric and a vast number of books on the subject. Assessment in the subject was pass or fail. A student who had complete the course would be sent to their home town to give a speech. If they convinced their friends with their argument, they received a pass, if they did not, they failed. This was not as harsh as it sounds. The life of a philosopher was not an easy one.  They wandered around the countryside peddling their particular view of the world. Their success or failure depended entirely on their ability to command an audience and to persuade them that their arguments were valid. Success would ensure that they would have a bed for the night and food for the journey. It might even mean that they would secure a patron who would supply their every need.

Paul was a skilled rhetorician as were the gospel writers. In the first century the stakes were high. Those who followed Jesus were convinced that faith in him was the means to salvation, a source of liberation, peace and joy. They didn’t want to simply tell people about Jesus, they wanted their audiences to believein Jesus. It was not easy, they often came under attack and had to defend their faith. One way to do this was to demonstrate to their critics that the faith was rational, that it did not emerge in a vacuum but had a solid and respectable history. (In rhetoric terms this is known as an apology[1]– not in the sense of being sorry for something, but in the technical sense of mounting a defense.)

Luke uses this skill subtly, but to great advantage.

The third gospel is addressed to Theophilus who may be a high official in the Roman Empire, ora generic personage who represents Gentile (non-Jewish) readers. Either way, this and other clues suggest that Luke’s gospel was directed at a gentile audience. For example, in today’s gospel Simeon claims that Jesus is “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” and the Lucan Jesus is the Saviour as the world, not of the Jews alone[2]. Only Luke’s gospel includes the parable of the Good Samaritan and only in Luke do we have the account of the Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks. Luke’s inclusion of these stories ensures a receptive hearing among Luke’s gentile audience.

The author of Luke must do more than prove that Gentiles have a place in the faith. If he wants to convince people to give up their ancestral religions and practices to embrace faith in Jesus, he must also establish the credentials of the Christian faith – to demonstrate that this is not a religion that has sprung up from nowhere, but which has a deep and respectable place among the religions of the world[3]. Luke manages to weave these two goals seamlessly into his story.

Luke defends the gospel’s Jewish heritage in a number of ways. Unlike the other gospel writers, Luke begins and ends the gospel in the Jerusalem – the centre of the Jewish faith and worship. At the start we find Zechariah in the Temple when the angel appears to him and at the conclusion instead of returning to Galilee (as they do in the other gospels), the disciples remain in Jerusalem which is where Jesus appears to them. Zechariah and Elizabeth both come from long established priestly families and Mary and Joseph are shown to be pious Jews – Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day, presented at the Temple “when the time came for their purification”, and taken to Jerusalem every yearfor the festival of the Passover (2:41). It is on one of these occasions that Jesus stays behind in the Temple and impresses the teachers with his answers. More than in other gospels, Jesus is found teaching in the synagogues.

In this way, Luke makes it clear that the faith he propounds is not new and superficial but is connected to one that has a long and noble heritage. In other words, Luke’s gentile readers can trust what he is saying.

Our world is both less complex and more complex than that of the first century. In the first century, those who preached the gospel, did so against a background of multiple competing gods and philosophies and had to claim a place, indeed a priority among the religions and ideas of the ancient world. In our day, the panoply of gods has shrunk but there has been an increase in indifference, agnosticism, atheism, scepticism and even antagonism towards faith in general and the Christian faith in particular.

From the writer of Luke’s gospel, we learn that if we believe that our faith is worth sharing it is vital that we understand the context in which we preach. It is essential that we know our audience and how to engage and persuade them, that we understand our history and that we are equipped to tell our story convincingly and well.

Ours is a great story, a transformative story. Our task is to understand those among whom we find ourselves so that we can tell that story in ways that are compelling and convincing and that show that we have taken the trouble to know those to whom we speak.

 

 

[1]It is not a recent publication, but Guerra’s book provides a comprehensive discussion of apologetic and its use in the New Testament. Guerra, Anthony J. Romans and the apologetic tradition: The purpose, genre and audience of Paul’s letter.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, SNTS 81.

[2]This become even more obvious in Luke’s second volume: The Book of Acts in which the gospel spreads in concentric circles from Jerusalem to Rome (the end of the world).

[3]Matthew, who we believe is writing for a largely Jewish audience, establishes the faith’s credentials by demonstrating the ways in which the life of Jesus fulfils OT prophecies.

Jesus – truly one with us

December 29, 2018

Christmas 1 – 2018

Luke 2: 41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God whose human existence was real and gritty, not superficial and sanitized. Amen.

Prior to the 1960’s there were no such things as shopping malls in Queensland. All the department stores were in the central city so, when it came to Christmas shopping, it was to the city that my mother took us so that we could spend our pocket money on gifts for each other. On one such occasion – I think I was about five years old – I became separated from my mother. I have no recollection of being anxious or frightened. What I do remember, is that when my mother found me, I was safely ensconced on a trestle table that was being used by a group of women to sell Christmas craft. Then, as now, society in general took it upon itself to take responsibility for children in such situations. The primary goal being to care for the child and to reunite the child with his or her parents as expeditiously as possible..

There are societies, those of the New Guinea highlands and our own indigenous culture for example, in which children are the responsibility of all the members of the community. Mothers can let their children roam free confident that everyone will see it as their responsibility to keep the children safe. The sort of ownership and personal responsibility that we feel for our children would be unknown. I’ve been told of an Australian family who, having come to Townsville from Darwin for a funeral, arrived home without one of their children. Instead of being mortified that a child had been left behind, or angry that the child had stayed behind, this family was utterly confident that the child was safe, would be well-looked after and would rejoin them at the next opportunity. (Thankfully, The Department of Children’s Services understood that this was a cultural practice and took no action against the family whose child was reunited with them as soon as it was feasible.)

It is against this sort of background that we have to read the account of Jesus in the Temple. Mary and Joseph were not careless parents who had failed to check on their child’s whereabouts when they left Jerusalem. No doubt they had travelled from Nazareth with a group of friends and relations to attend the feast. When it was time to return home, they would have simply trusted Jesus to have joined the group when everyone was ready to leave – after all he was nearly a man. They would have assumed that he was with cousins or friends whose parents would have treated him as one of their own. In this context there was no need for them to look for their son until the evening when, presumably, he would have joined his immediate family for dinner. Only then did they begin to worry.

Luke, at least in the beginning of the Jesus’ story, does not allow us to forget that this is an account of a real human situation. Jesus belongs to a real family that has the same hopes and dreams, the same flaws, the same irritations and the same anxieties. It is intriguing that across the four gospels we have only one story of Jesus’ childhood and it is the story of a rebellious teenager, or at the very least, of a young man testing his limits – letting his parents know that he is now an adult who can make his own decisions and that he has a vocation to fulfill in which they have no part. His stinging response to Mary’s anxious reproach is to wonder why his parents did not expect him to be in h

‘his Father’s house’. It is the sort of exchange that might occur in any modern household with teenage children.

Later accounts of Jesus’ birth like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas could not cope with such a messy, earthy, ordinary human start to Jesus’ life. For example, in some accounts, just prior to Jesus’ birth, time stands still, midwives appear apparently out of nowhere, the cave is unnaturally lit – by both the child and by Mary’s face. Mary experiences no birth pangs and the child is born completely clean. The birth does not affect Mary’s virginity and the hand of the skeptical midwife withers. In the History of Joseph the Carpenter, the family are taken into the home of a brigand. There, Jesus is bathed and his bath water bubbles up into a foam. The brigand’s wife keeps the foam and uses it to heal the sick and the dying. As a result the family become rich. In these later accounts not only is Jesus’ birth attended with miracles, the escape to Egypt is facilitated by the miracle of a spider’s web and the young Jesus performs miracles and even strikes dead a child who offends him! These later writers could not bear to think that the child Jesus was any less powerful, capable or wise than the adult Jesus.

The absence of somewhere to stay, the insalubrious surroundings of a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the teenager stretching his wings in the Temple are all reminders that we should not isolate Jesus from his very human beginnings or elevate him to the position of a superhuman being. Luke’s Gospel could not spell it out more clearly – Jesus is fully human, fully immersed in the messiness of human existence, susceptible to the same desires as any other human being and subject to some of the same fears. Luke brings Jesus down to earth, reminds us that in Jesus God fully immersed godself in the mundaneness of human existence and that despite being God, Jesus was not insulated from the reality of being one of us.

Jesus/God knows what it is to be one of us and shows us that it is possible for us, mere human beings, to become as he is. We just have to believe that this frail human body with all it’s complexities and this weak, indecisive mind is capable of great and extraordinary things. One of the messages of Christmas is that Jesus became one of us so that we could become one with him. Let us celebrate our human existence and try to live it to it’s full, divine potential.

Sleeping through Christmas

December 24, 2018

Christmas-2018

Luke 2:1-20

Marian Free

May the child in the manger open our eyes to see God’s presence in unexpected places and in unlikely people. Amen

Our Christmas cards and our imaginations give us a romanticized view of shepherds in first century Palestine. This view is enhanced by images of God as shepherd, and of David as the shepherd king. The reality was in fact quite different. In the time of Jesus shepherds were social outcasts, classed together with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers and camel drivers. Theirs was an occupation for which there was no respect. They had no land of their own and their work kept them away from home at night which meant that they were unable to protect the honour of their wives and daughters (if indeed they could afford to have a family). What is more, because they grazed their flocks on land that did not belong to them they were considered to be thieves. In fact many of them were thieves. They were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy – dishonored and despised – certainly not the sort of people you would welcome into your home or seek to associate with. Yet it was to the shepherds that God revealed the birth of Jesus, it was the shepherds who were the first to respond and to see Jesus and it was the shepherds who were the first to spread the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Extraordinary as all that is, it is consistent with Luke’s view of the world that God would chose a woman of no social status or wealth to bear God’s son, that the son of God would be born in a stable and that God would reveal Godself to a disreputable group of shepherds with no social standing whatsoever. What is even more extraordinary and inexplicable is that, despite the cacophony of a multitude, an army of the heavenly host and the glory of the Lord that attended them, no one else saw or heard anything.

The townsfolk of Bethlehem might be excused for not noticing Jesus’ slipping into their midst, but how could they have been blind and deaf to a sky illuminated by the heavenly host singing praises to God? It almost defies belief. In this instance, God’s presence is not subtle or discrete, but bland at and obvious. Even so the presence of God goes unnoticed by all except a bunch of disreputable shepherds, who not only notice but who act on what they have seen and heard. What is more, having seen for themselves that the what the angel had told them was true, they spread the word and caused amazement to all who heard them.

Christmas is layered with sentimentality – the hay in the stable is clean, the shepherds are respectable, Jesus is worshipped. Beneath the sentiment however, we find rejection, apathy, blindness and even outright hostility (if we add Matthew’s version of events).

Only the angels greet Jesus with the appropriate fanfare and even then no one notices. The great irony of the gospel is that God is fully present among humankind and only a few people (and then not the ‘religious people’) even recognize that God is there.

It is easy for us to fall asleep, to allow ourselves to be complacent– satisfied with our relationship with God, confident that we know right from wrong and certain that we would know Jesus when he returns. The problem is this – if we fail to pay attention, if we stop noticing what is going on around us, if we begin to take God and God’s presence for granted we will find that we, like our first century brothers and sisters are blind and deaf to what is really happening around us. We will miss God’s presence in the unusual, the underestimated and even in the disreputable. We will fail to see God in the manger and God in the cross,

Let us not be like those who, not only through Jesus’ birth, but who failed to be stirred to wakefulness by a whole choir of angels.

Listen, process, change, share

December 22, 2018

Advent 4 – 2018

Luke 1:39-45

Marian Free

In the name of God who overwhelms us with goodness and love. Amen.

Do you remember tumbling in the door after school bursting with news of the day? Or bringing home a special purchase eager to share your pleasure with whoever might be there? Or waiting anxiously for a partner to return from work so that you can tell them the amazing news about your infant’s triumphs during the day? When we have good news we can’t keep it to ourselves. Somehow the joy is intensified by the sharing of it. We also have a need to share bad news, but then we are hoping that the pain will be lessened if someone else knows how we are feeling.

Mary has news. She may not really know if it is good news or bad news. It is certainly momentous news, news that she simply can’t keep to herself. If Luke is to be believed, on hearing the angel’s words, Mary sets out at once for the hill country to share the news with Elizabeth. We will never know exactly why she does this. It is possible that Mary wants to avoid the prying eyes, snide suggestions and pointed questions that will surely meet her if she remains at home. Mary might be worried by the censure of her extended family and the potential for violent attack if her story is not believed. Elizabeth lives far enough away that Mary could find refuge until things settle down at home. Furthermore, Mary can expect if not a warm welcome, at least some understanding from her cousin who, like her, has experienced what God can do, and whose news was, almost certainly, met with suspicion at worst and confusion at best.

Perhaps Mary needs time to process the news, to work out what it means to be pregnant. Her body will have begun to change – tender breasts, morning sickness, aversion to certain foods and a longing for others. In a small village Mary may know what the other women go through and not be surprised by the changes, but for her the pregnancy is unexpected and she may not be entirely ready. We have to imagine that Mary will also need to process what it means to be the mother of the Son of the Most High, who “will inherit the throne of David”. Unlike us Mary does not know the end of the story. Who knows what is going through her mind. Does she imagine that the child will be a mighty warrior who will wage war against the Romans or that in the same miraculous way that she became pregnant, her child will simply find himself crowned king? Is her mind filled with images of royal palaces, power and wealth or is she simply curious as to what this all might mean for her?

It is equally possible that Mary, filled with amazement and joy wants to share that feeling with someone who will really understand, someone who, like her, has had the most extraordinary experience of God. Their age difference melts away. God has blessed the one with a long-awaited child and the other with a totally unexpected child. Both children have a role to play in the coming of God’s kingdom.

All that is simply speculation we don’t know what Mary thought or why she raced off to see Elizabeth. Luke’s beginning is designed to set the scene for what is to come – John’s place in the story, Jesus’ Jewish credentials and the place of the Holy Spirit in the coming of the Kingdom. Luke wants us to know that the angel speaks to Mary and Mary responds – by saying ‘yes’ and by sharing the news.

If we pay attention we will know that God speaks to us in many and varied ways. Sometimes the news will be momentous and at others times a gentle nudge. We may be asked to move beyond our comfort zone, to take on a difficult task or simply to let go of a behaviour or attitude that is preventing our growth.

When God asks something of us we need time to think about how the change in our life might impact on or affect those around us. We might wonder what others will think of us and whether we have the courage to pursue the course. We will probably need time to process the impact a change of direction will have on our lives and to consider what changes we need to make in order for it happen and we will want to share the news with a trusted friend or a spiritual director – if not with the whole world.

Advent challenges us to be alert to God’s presence and to be ready to respond.

Listen, process, change, share.

Wake up – before it is too late

December 15, 2018

Advent 3 – 2018

John 3:7-18

Marian Free

You snakes, you brood of vipers! What are you doing here? Is this your insurance policy against death? Do you presume that coming to church will save you from the wrath that is to come, that your baptism alone makes you right with God? Not so! Faith does not consist of outward observance, sticking to the rules or belonging to the church. Your whole lives need to be turned around. You must turn your back on the world and worldly things and give yourselves entirely to God. God is not taken in by externals. God knows the state of your hearts. God can discern the godly from the ungodly.  You must do all that you can to be counted among the godly for God is surely coming and God will know whether you are sincere or whether your faith is purely superficial. Repent and believe in the gospel!

I imagine that you are pleased that I don’t begin every Eucharist by attacking your sincerity, your faith or your behaviour. You will be equally pleased to know that I believe that you are here because you want to acknowledge your dependence on God, express your gratitude for all that God has given you and, in the company of those who share your faith, worship God and deepen your understanding of and your relationship with God. In truth I do not question your authenticity, nor would I dare to cast aspersions on your behaviour.

John the Baptiser had no such qualms. He was very happy to attack the crowds who came to him seeking to be baptised. It didn’t concern him that those who came to him were not the religious leaders but ordinary people, including soldiers and tax-collectors most of whom would have travelled a considerable distance, across sometimes difficult terrain, to seek baptism from this wild man on the banks of the Jordan. How could he question their intentions? The only reason that anyone would have come all this way into the wilderness would be to repent and to seek John’s baptism for forgiveness.

Yet, instead of welcoming the crowds, John attacks them. He challenges their sincerity and suggests that they have come to him out of a sense of self-preservation rather than from a genuine sense of remorse and a desire to change.

But the crowds are sincere. They do not stamp away in high dudgeon, offended by John’s insinuations. Instead they hold their ground and engage John in conversation: “What should we do?” ask the crowds. “What should we do?” ask the tax-collectors. “What should we do?” ask the soldiers. Their desire to turn their lives around is real, John’s rudeness and insolence will not deter them. Because they stay, because they seek to know more, John is forced to accept that their desire to repent is authentic. Their questions demonstrate that the crowds (including the tax-collectors and soldiers) understand that intention must be accompanied by action and that repentance is meaningless unless it is lived out in changed behaviour. “What should we do?” they ask.

And how does John respond? He tells the crowds: “Don’t do just enough – do more than enough.” To the soldiers and the tax-collectors he says: “Don’t use your position to take advantage of others or to treat them badly. Don’t behave in the ways that others expect you to behave – surprise them by refusing to act according to the norm.” To everyone he says: “Don’t conform to the world around you, conform instead to the values and demands of the kingdom. Demonstrate in your lives that you belong to another world, that you belong first and foremost to God.”

It is easy to relegate the story of John the Baptist to history, to believe that his words, his attack on insincerity and hypocrisy belongs to his time and place – to the ingenuous, to the hypocrites and to the unbelievers of the first century. But to make that assumption would be a mistake. John speaks to the crowds, to those who have sought him out. John is addressing people who, like you and I, are trying to do the right thing and to live out their lives faithfully and true. John’s assault on the crowds is like a test. It is intended to shock them into thinking about their lives and to examine their motives. Do they mean what they are doing or is their presence at the river only for outward show? Are they there because they really intend to change or are they there for the circus that is John’s strange appearance and behaviour?

In our age his words challenge us to ask ourselves similar questions. Does our outward behaviour truly represent the state of our hearts? Do we do things for show or because we really mean them? Do we do just enough or do we go over and above to serve God and serve our neighbour?

“You brood of vipers!” the voice of John the Baptist is a wakeup call for us all. In the time before Jesus comes again, John insists: “Don’t take God for granted. Don’t imagine that just because you keep the Ten Commandments and go to church that your place in the kingdom is guaranteed. Don’t allow yourself to think that just because God has set you apart that God can’t and won’t choose others. Examine yourselves and ask whether or not you need to turn your life around.”

Advent is a wakeup call. It is reminder that we cannot afford to be complacent and that we cannot make assumptions about what God will and will not do. It is an invitation to rethink our relationship with God and to ask ourselves whether or not it is in the best shape possible.

Wake up! Repent! Advent is here! Jesus is coming! Are you ready??

Speaking truth to power

December 8, 2018

Advent 1 – 2018

Luke 3:1-6

Marian Free

In the name of God who is not separate from, but fully engaged with world. Amen.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, ardent sports fans argued that politics and sport had nothing to do with each other – a point of view that failed to see that politics ensured that the majority population of that nation were excluded from representing their country. Similarly, we are often told that the church should not be involved with politics – that is the church should refrain from commenting on or critiquing government policies even when they disadvantage the poor and the vulnerable. The argument is usually raised when the the church speaks uncomfortable truths to power. I’m not a sociologist or a social historian but my superficial, uneducated observation suggests that, in recent times, the waters have become very muddied and confused on this score . If I were to put a finger on the reasons I would suggest that the wider public are disappointed with and disaffected by politics as it is currently playing out. I offer two examples. With regard to the question of refugees we have, on liberal side of the equation, those who feel strongly about off-shore detention and who, when the church takes action, as for example with the Sanctuary movement, are all too willing to support the church’s stand and challenge government policy in this area. With regard to gay marriage the government seems anxious to try to appease the more conservative members of the community and branches of the church by trying to enshrine in law the freedom to not employ gay teachers. In other words on some issues the community supports the church’s interference in politics and on the others the government appears to accept the interference of the church.

In reality it is impossible to separate church and politics. For one thing we live in a society which, while increasingly secular (and even anti-religion), has been formed and shaped by the Judea-Christian tradition. For another, the church has a clear imperative to speak out against injustice and corruption. It is equally foolish to believe that the church itself has not been shaped and influenced by the community – social and political – in which it finds itself. For example, it was Christian women who led the struggle for the vote and later it was a changing attitude to the role of women that led to the church admitting women to the ordained ministry. Rubbing shoulders as we do, living side-by-side means that (at least for the present) the state influences the church and the church influences the state.

The impact of the political situation on the emerging faith was not lost on the author of Luke’s gospel. From the very beginning of the gospel Luke provides us with the the political and religious context in which the Christian faith emerged. He tells us that the story is set in the time of King Herod and he makes sure that we are aware of the Jewish pedigree of Elizabeth and Zechariah – both members of priestly families going back even to Aaron. The reader, (in particular Theophilis), is to infer that this is a story set in the heart of Judaism and in the shadow of the empire. As we begin the story proper the situation is spelled out even more clearly. Luke tells us that it is the “fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Lk 3:1).

Apparently Luke does not believe that the story of Jesus cannot be told in isolation. It has to be understood against the political and religious currents of the time. Luke’s lengthy introduction to the story of John not only alerts the reader to the fact John and Jesus are “players on the world stage” but also creates an air of foreboding. The Emperor was known to be cruel and unpredictable – a person so insecure in his position that he destroyed anyone me whom he deemed to be a threat. Tiberius was also the Emperor who had exiled the Jews from Rome in 19CE. Pilate, Tiberius’ representative in Judea, also had a reputation for cruelty and oppression. Herod, as we know, was the ruler who would order John’s beheading. While Philip and Antipas were more benign figures, the effect of the long list of rulers is to show how thoroughly Judea is under the power of Rome. Finally, the high priest, though a representative of the faith, was himself was a Roman appointment – answerable to the Empire.

It is in this hostile political environment that the lives of John and Jesus will be played out. Vulnerable leaders with a tenuous grasp of power will do all within their means to stifle and destroy any hint of opposition and John and Jesus will forfeit their lives by refusing to conform. Speaking the truth to power will cost them both their lives.

We who follow in Jesus’ footsteps must not abrogate our responsibility to promote the values of the kingdom, to take the side of the poor and the oppressed and to question laws that are unjust and we must acknowledge that our freedom to worship and to live lives consistent with our faith may be challenged and even curtailed by unsympathetic powers.

Centuries ago Luke recognized that it was impossible for people of faith to exist in isolation. We are affected by and must recognize and work within the constraints and protections of our political, social and religious context.

The end is nigh

December 1, 2018

Advent 1 – 2018

Luke 21:25-38

Marian Free

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

Many years ago, long before I was ordained, I met Leanne. Leanne was about 20 years older than I, worshipped at the same church and was a member of the Bible Study group. Sadly, Leanne suffered from depression. Despite treatment and medication, she could never shake the feeling that she was worthless and unlovable. One day Leanne told us the following story. On one particular day Leanne’s mother was coming to visit. Leanne was excited, but she knew that her mother had exacting standards. She spent the whole day ensuring that the house was spotless and baking delicious things for her mother to eat. The hour arrived and knowing that everything was ready, Leanne ran out to greet her mother. Imagine how deflated she felt when, instead of reciprocating her excitement and joy, her mother simply said: “What on earth are you doing outside with your apron on?”

No wonder Leanne struggled to believe that she had value. Throughout her life she had been made to feel that she had failed to meet her mother’s expectations. This left her feeling that no matter how hard she tried she was never going to be good enough. When I heard the story, I wanted to hold Leanne for as long as it took for all that negativity to be erased. I imagined the child, the growing girl, the young woman and the now middle-aged person before me, always trying and never succeeding, to be the person whom her mother expected her to be. No wonder she suffered from depression. No wonder Leanne struggled to believe in herself. All her life she had been held in the balance and found wanting.

For some Christians, this is how it is with God. They have been brought up to believe that God is watching and judging everything that they do; that God is somewhere with a set of scales measuring them against an impossibly high ideal. Sadly, a great number of people who claim to be Christians cannot believe that they are lovable, and they certainly cannot believe either that God is love or that God loves them. 

I know that on another occasion I told you the story of a beautiful, gentle man who, in his eighties, could not sleep at night because he was so afraid of dying. He was sure that something he had done in the distant past meant that God had withdrawn God’s approval and love. When he was a child, his well-meaning grandmother had drummed in to him the eternal consequences of bad behaviour. As he drew nearer to his death, he was certain that whatever it was that he had done in the distant past would send him to the fires of hell.   

Can you imagine going through your whole life not knowing how much God loved you? Can you imagine living in terror of God, believing that it was God’s desire and intention to destroy you if you failed to meet God’s expectations? Can you imagine spending a life-time trying to achieve some unrealistic standard of perfection in order to be loved, or to avoid being punished? I can’t. I can’t think why you would bring a child into the world in order to berate and belittle that child. And I can’t conceive of God the creator bringing humankind into being simply to satisfy some egotistical need to dominate or to be feared.

Ideas about an all-powerful, all-demanding God do not emerge from a vacuum. They are developed from imagery of the end-time such as that in today’s gospel, especially verse 34: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly”. And in 1 Thessalonians 3:13: “May you be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

It is all too easy, for those who are so inclined, to build a picture in which God is relentlessly demanding, unyielding and unforgiving. To do that, one also has to ignore the texts in which God is endlessly compassionate, accommodating and forbearing. One has to close one’s mind to the story of creation in which God declares humankind to be “very good”. Above all, one has to forget that in Jesus God gave Godself completely and unreservedly to and for those who had done nothing to deserve such a gift and who continue to be undeserving.

Not that I would suggest for one moment that we ignore or gloss over the vivid descriptions of Jesus’ return, or of the time of judgement. Those of us who know ourselves to be secure in God’s love must be warned from time to time that we should not take that love for granted. Those of us who have long since stopped expecting Jesus’ return need to be reminded that God will come and at a time when God is least expected. Those of us who have fallen into a cosy, comfortable relationship with God have to be pulled up short so that we do not forget that the Creator of the Universe is all-powerful, almighty and awe-inspiring. 

Today’s readings are not necessarily meant to stun us into shocked terror or to keep us in a state of heightened alertness and anxiety. But they do serve a purpose. They prevent us from falling into error, they stop us from having a narrow view of the God of the universe and they challenge us to respond with gratitude to God’s overwhelming goodness and love.

This Advent let the promise of Jesus’ return pierce the numbness and the complacency born out of centuries of Jesus’ non-appearance. 

Let it increase the anticipation, the confidence that Jesus’ coming willshatter the peace, explode the norms and reveal the world for what it really is.

Let Jesus’ coming shake us out of our comfort zones and remind us that God is so much more than our limited minds will ever be able to imagine.

God, the God who loves us so much more than we can ever desire or deserve, is an awesome, terrifying God in whose presence we will fall to our knees in holy fear. 

God willcome. Let us not be lulled into a false sense of security, but make sure that we are ready for an event that might just disturb the whole cosmos and at the very least will shake us to our core.

What matters is that Christ has risen!

April 14, 2018

Easter 3 – 2018

Luke 24:36b-48

Marian Free

[1]

                           Four not one

In the name of God who, through Jesus, raises us to newness of life and empowers us with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Semester I am teaching a subject entitled the Synoptic Gospels. The course entails looking at the first three gospels to try to discern what each author is saying and why they chose to order their material in a particular way. We ask: what was it about the author’s own experience and the needs of his community that led him (we are fairly surely that the gospels were written by men) to construct the story of Jesus in the way that they did. The question of four gospels is one that has led skeptics to deny the validity of the gospels and pious believers to come up with a variety of different explanations for the differences. An explanation that I was given as a teenager was that if four different people witnessed something (a traffic accident for example) they would all report the story somewhat differently. Each eyewitness would have observed the scene from a different point of view and would have come to their own decisions as to what happened.

In reality it is unlikely that any of the evangelists were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.[2]We believe that the earliest gospel to be written was the gospel of Mark and that it dates to the late 60’s or early 70’s. Matthew and Luke were probably written in the next decade. Until then the early believers had been happy to use the Old Testament as their scriptures and to rely on oral tradition (and maybe the letters of Paul) as their source for the teachings of Jesus. (In fact there were some like Papias who believed that the oral tradition was more trustworthy than anything that could be written down because it was “first –hand”).

At around the time Mark’s gospel was written there were a number of differing forces that led to a desire to capture the stories of Jesus in a more permanent way. The Christian movement was becoming more and more dislocated from its roots with the destruction of the Temple and the spread of the faith into a Gentile environment. The death of the first generation of believers gave an added urgency to the task of capturing Jesus’ story. It was felt that a record should be made while there was still some connection to Palestine and before the memories became more than second-hand.

For the first forty years after Jesus’ death years, the stories of his life and teaching circulated orally. They would have been told differently by different story-tellers and have been given different emphases depending on the context in which they were told. (It is remarkable that we have only 4 gospels and not 400!)

It is not surprising then that we have several different accounts of the resurrection. Mark’s gospel (as we saw on Easter Day) leaves us up in the air telling us only that the women saw Jesus but were too afraid to tell anyone. According to Matthew the women see Jesus at the tomb and are sent to remind the disciples to return to Galilee where Jesus commissions the disciples to make disciples of all nations. Luke has a number of resurrection stories that allow the author (through Jesus) to use scripture to explain Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Despite these differences there are a number of consistencies. In all three gospels women go to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week and find it empty. In all three instances a messenger speaks to the women and tells them that Jesus has risen. The messengers also give the women a mission. They are to remind the disciples either to go to Galilee or to remind them of what Jesus said when they were in Galilee. In all three gospels Mary Magdalene is one of the women who was at the tomb on that morning. In other words, at dawn on the first day of the week, two or three women one of whom was Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. A heavenly messenger informed them of Jesus’ resurrection and tasked them with taking a message to the men. As a consequence of their experience and possibly of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples Jesus’ followers were convinced that he was alive – so convinced that they began to spread the message far and wide until a small movement begun in an insignificant part of the empire, spread throughout the entire world.

As an academic I am fascinated by the differences between the gospels, It excites me to try discover the motivations of the authors, the needs of the communities, the cultural setting of the first century, the distinct emphasises of each gospel, the particular message that the author is trying to get across and the unique picture of Jesus that they are trying to paint. In the end though, none of that matters. Whether there is one account of the resurrection or several. I’m not particularly concerned to know whether Jesus entered locked rooms, ate broiled fish or walked to Emmaus. What is important to me is that on that first day of the week, something happened that convinced not only the women who saw, but the men whom they told, that Jesus was not dead but alive and that as a result their lives were so dramatically changed that within two decades a movement had formed around the risen Christ and had spread beyond the bounds of Palestine to as far as Rome. What matters to me is that two thousand years later women and men are still convinced that Jesus has risen and they know their lives to be enriched, empowered and transformed as a result of that knowledge.

We don’t need to explain the differences or similarities in the stories told by the gospel writers, nor to we have to justify to others the fact that there is not one, but that there are four accounts Jesus’ life and teaching. We all have our own resurrection stories to tell. Let’s tell our story with such passion and conviction that what happened on that first day of the week will continue to inform and transform the world.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

 

 

 

[1]This cartoon was sent to me via email, so unfortunately I can’t acknowledge the source.

[2]Only about 25% of the population lived beyond their mid-twenties.


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