Archive for the ‘Pentecost’ Category

Mutual indwelling – the Spirit in us

June 7, 2019

Pentecost – 2019

John 14:8-17

Marian Free

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t send me!

May 19, 2018

St Augustine – Pentecost, 2018

John 15:26-27

 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.  You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

Marian Free

In the name of God who will empower and direct us and who has already gone before us into the world. Amen.

The English Historian the Venerable Bede has provided us with a history of the English church from about 100 BCE to 731 CE. Even though he himself did not travel he was able to get others to bring him relevant information and documents. Among these were the letters from Pope Gregory to Augustine that give us a reasonably comprehensive idea of Augustine’s mission and of the concerns that Augustine raised. Those of us who regularly worship at St Augustine’s are familiar with the story. Pope Gregory (the Great) was intrigued by some blonde slaves whom he saw in the market. On learning that they were Angles (he heard the words as angels) he determined to send someone to the British Isles to convert them.

To that end Augustine and several other Benedictine monks were commissioned with the task. On reaching England they received a welcome from the King of Kent Ethelbert whose wife was already a Christian. Ethelbert gave the monks land on which to build their church and allowed them liberty to preach the gospel in his kingdom. The site on which the church was built became Canterbury Cathedral, the center of the Anglican Communion to this day.

There are a number of interesting facets to the story but my favorite is this – after the team set out they got cold feet, to quote Bede: “Having undertaken this task in obedience to the Pope’s command and progressed a short distance on their journey, they became afraid, and began to consider returning home. For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation of whose very language they were ignorant. They unanimously agreed that this was the safest course, and sent back Augustine … that he might humbly request the holy Gregory to recall them from so dangerous, arduous and uncertain a journey.”[1]Gregory refused this request and so they continued.

Their anxiety is not uncommon among those called to serve God. Moses at first refused God’s call (even though God appears in a burning bush!). The reasons – he was certain that Pharaoh would not listen to him and that the Israelites would not believe that God had sent him. When these excuses did not dissuade God, Moses argued that he could not do the task because he was not eloquent enough[2]. Jeremiah likewise argued that he could not speak well and he added to that that he was only a boy.[3]Gideon made the point that his tribe was the weakest in Israel and when God insisted that Gideon wasthe one whom he had chosen, Gideon asked for a sign. When God gave him a sign, Gideon, still refusing to believe that God could use him, asked God to repeat the sign![4]Jonah’s reaction to God’s call was the most dramatic and the most selfish of all. Jonah was so reluctant to respond to God’s call that he ran away, presumably believing that he could escape God.  Worse, when he finally did what God had asked and God spared Nineveh, Jonah sat under a tree and sulked.

If we are anxious or lacking in confidence when it comes to sharing the gospel, we are in good company. However, that does not let us off the hook. In today’s gospel Jesus commissions us to testify on his behalf. Through our baptism we are all called and commissioned as disciples to be God’s presence in the world. And still we hesitate. The reasons for our hesitation may be as many and varied as those of us who are present. Like Jeremiah we might think that we are too young (or even too old). Like Moses and Jeremiah we might be afraid that we will be unable to find the right words to say or that people won’t believe what we do say. Like Gideon we might need to be convinced that God really canuse us. Like Jonah we might simply think that God can do it all on his own and that God doesn’t need us or, like Augustine and his fellow monks, we might be terrified of the reception that we imagine awaits us.

The worst fears of Augustine’s monks were not realised. The reality was quite different from that which they had expected. Instead of a hostile reception, they received a warm welcome and were given freedom to pursue their mission and the resources to establish themselves and their community. Their obedience to the call of God resulted in blessings far more than they could have imagined because God had not asked them to do the impossible. God had gone before them to prepare the way, remained with them as their help and support and empowered them with the Holy Spirit so that they could do what needed to be done.

Almost certainly, wewill not be called to lead a company of people out of slavery to the Promised Land. Wewill not be asked to lead an army in battle or to call an entire city to repentance. We won’t be asked to go to an unknown land to people whose language we do not know. All that we are asked to do is to testify to the risen Christ and to Christ’s presence in the world, to share with others the comfort, strength and assurance that we experience because Christ is present in our lives. We are to trust that the Holy Spirit will equip us for that task and to remember that God will not ask us to do more than we can do, nor will God send us out on a mission that has no chance of success.

The examples of Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, Jonah and Augustine assure us that it doesn’t matter how old (or how young we are), how articulate we are, how wise and clever or how strong or brave we are. God can and will use us to make known God’s presence in the world.

[1]The Venerable Bede, Chapter 23.

[2]Exodus 3,4

[3]Jeremiah 1:4

[4]Read the story for yourself (Judges 6)

Pay attention

May 14, 2016

Pentecost – 2016

John 14.8-17

Marian Free

May the Spirit of God flow through us, enliven us, empower us and equip us for our mission in the world. Amen.

 

If we were traditionalists, next week on Trinity Sunday we would recite the Athanasian Creed. Together we would affirm such things as:

“The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate: and the Holy Ghost uncreate.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible: and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.

The Father eternal, the Son eternal: and the Holy Ghost eternal.”

We are not going to be using that Creed on Trinity Sunday, and today, being Pentecost, we are not going to preach on the Trinity. “And yet there are not three eternals: but one eternal.” Instead, our focus is on just one member of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit. It is interesting isn’t it, that while we proclaim a Trinitarian faith – Father, Son and Spirit – the last of these sometimes seems to be the poor cousin. God the Father is invoked in prayer and is always a part of our consciousness, Jesus is front and centre through our proclamation week by week of the gospel, but the Spirit is given only one day each year on which to shine. Only one Sunday out of fifty-two is set aside to pay attention to the third person of the Trinity.

To be fair, this doesn’t mean that preachers necessarily need to ignore the Spirit on the remaining fifty-one Sundays, but it does mean that it is easy to overlook. Unless we or our Parish have been influenced by the charismatic movement, or unless we belong to a church with a more Pentecostal bent, we are unlikely to name the Spirit on a regular basis and less likely to attribute a role to the Spirit in our daily lives.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is our English heritage. Anglicans tend to be reserved and non emotive. We keep ourselves to ourselves and by and large consider our faith to be a private matter – not something that we need to be constantly putting on show. (It is taken as a given that others hold the same or similar beliefs to ourselves.) Another reason is the Spirit itself. Of the three persons of the Trinity, the Spirit is the most illusive, the hardest to pin down. It is relatively easy to comprehend and to speak about God – the creator of the universe. Most of us have some conception of God as a force for life and love that is beyond description, but which has become so much of human experience that everyone knows what we mean.

Jesus is made real by the gospels and the fact that we have concrete stories of his life and examples of his teaching on which to base our understanding and build our relationship with the second person of the Trinity.

Karoline Lewis[1] speaking for Lutherans says: “the Spirit is the ‘shy member of the Trinity’”. Apparently, Lutherans too, can allow the Spirit to fade into the background of their awareness. Lewis suggests that like anything else in our lives – playing an instrument, running a race, we have to practice if we want to achieve a level of competence or excellence. When it comes to the Spirit, she says, we have to practice paying attention. If we are expecting to see/feel/experience the work of the Spirit, then we have to practice being conscious of the Spirit’s role in the world and in our lives. We have to teach ourselves where and how to look for it.

So where and how do you experience the Spirit in your life? When were you last actively conscious of a Spirit-event, a Spirit-idea or a Spirit-emotion? How did you recognise the moment? What caused you to label it as inspired?

If we are awake to it, we will discover the Spirit in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of moments in our lives. Think for example of those moments when an answer to a problem came to you “out of the blue”, those times when you were moved deeply by a piece of music, a stunning view, an act of love, or those times when someone said just the right thing at the right time. Call to mind those occasions when things just “fell into place” or when you knew for certain that you were making the right decision for yourself or for your family. Remember those times when you were sure that you were not strong enough to face a difficult decision or situation only to discover that your fear was unfounded and that you had all the courage that you required.

Sometimes, the action of the Spirit is public and dramatic such as it was on the first Pentecost after the resurrection. People from all traditions are moved to speak in tongues, find that they have the power to heal or are raised to great heights during worship. But for a great many of us the Spirit works quietly and subtly – nudging us forward, revealing new truths, drawing us into a deeper relationship with God, opening our eyes to the wonder of the world around us and giving us a strength that we never imagined that we could have.

To neglect the Spirit is to overlook the way in which God is a constant presence and guide in our lives and to deny ourselves the wonder and privilege of seeing God in both the extraordinary and ordinary moments of our days.

The Spirit is God’s gift to us. That gift can remain dormant, unopened, or it can unleash wisdom, wonder, courage, joy and so much more if only we would learn to pay attention and to recognise something that we already have.

[1] Working Preacher

Gospel Truth?

May 23, 2015

Pentecost – 2015

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who has entrusted us with God’s very word. Amen.

Occasionally I watch an Australian crime drama set in the 1920’s: “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”. If you are unfamiliar with the programme, Miss Fisher is apparently an independently wealthy woman turned private detective. Phryne (yes, that is her name) has a personal assistant named Dotty. Dotty, under Phryne’s tutelage, assists her employer in the art of detection. Both women are unusually independent and intrepid for their time and place and both take risks that even today some of us would consider foolish. One of the on-going sub-plots is a growing affection between Dotty and a junior Police Officer, Hugh. Like most men, then and now, Hugh is protective of Dotty and would prefer that she keep herself out of danger.

When I caught up with the show last week I discovered that Dotty and Hugh are engaged. Dotty is a practicing Roman Catholic so Hugh needs to adopt Catholicism before they can be married in the Catholic Church. At first, Hugh is hesitant, but his enthusiasm grows when he discovers that a Catholic wife must obey her husband. (Remember it is the 1920’s!) Having clarified with the priest that he has understood this aspect of the faith correctly, Hugh becomes much more engaged in the process. An obedient wife, he thinks, will have to take his concerns and his cautions seriously, an obedient Dotty will stop taking risks and stop engaging in amateur sleuthing.

Unfortunately for Hugh, Dotty is not to be so easily restrained. In a private conversation with the priest, she happens to mention that Protestantism has a lot to offer – implying that if the priest insists on her obedience, she will leave his congregation for another. Poor Hugh is completely nonplussed when, at their next meeting, the priest points out that of course, times have changed, and that in the modern world one needn’t take the obedience clause absolutely literally!

I don’t have to tell you that in the Anglican tradition many things that were once held to be sacrosanct have been softened or even abandoned. It is almost impossible to believe that only fifty years ago people who were divorced could not be remarried in an Anglican church, children of parents who were unmarried were refused baptism and women were not admitted to holy orders. The debates that accompanied these changes were often fierce and uncompromising because those who opposed change found support for their position in the Bible and were unable to see things any other way.

It is tempting to think that there is such a thing as “gospel truth” but the reality is vastly different. What was “true” four thousand years ago for a nomadic Middle Eastern tribe cannot always be applied in a digital, technological twenty first century world. No one today would take all of the Old Testament literally. Medical science has come to the conclusion that circumcision can be detrimental rather than beneficial. The development of refrigeration means that the health risks of eating shellfish have been significantly reduced and I think that I am safe in saying that none of us believes that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death.

Even Jesus did not seem to think that the rules and regulations of the Old Testament were immutable. Where the Old Testament counselled: “love your neighbour and hate your enemy” Jesus taught “love your enemy”. Where teh Old Testament demanded “an eye for an eye”, Jesus said: “Do not resist an evildoer”. Where the Old Testament allowed divorce and remarriage Jesus claimed this to be adultery[1]. Just as Jesus did not feel utterly bound by the Old Testament, later New Testament writers did not feel obliged to follow absolutely the teaching of earlier writers. Colossians and Ephesians, then the Pastoral letters seriously altered Jesus’ and Paul’s inclusive view of the role of women. And over time societal values change. Both Jesus and Paul took slavery for granted, something that we find abhorrent today.

It is impossible (when human writers are concerned) to be completely dispassionate and not to allow one’s own views to permeate what is written. It is equally impossible to imagine that someone writing four or even two thousand years ago could envisage and therefore write comprehensively for a situation so far removed from their times as ours. Our scriptures – Old and New – have a great deal to say about love, forgiveness and compassion and about the care for the weak and vulnerable, but they have nothing to say about climate change, genetic modification or IVF. On many of the issues of our time, we are left to our own devices. Rightly or wrongly God expects us to work through the ethical issues of such things as stem cell research and to come up with answers that are right and just. Rightly or wrongly God has given us responsibility to determine how far we should take genetic engineering and other medical advances.

Because nothing stays the same and few things are true for all time, God has given us minds to use and hearts to feel. Far more importantly God has blessed us with the Holy Spirit. Three years were not nearly enough for Jesus to prepare the disciples and thus the church for every possible eventuality. He does not leave them/us unresourced but promises to send the Spirit who then, as now will guide them/us in all truth.

God who sent Jesus, Jesus the sent one, and the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent empower us (the church) to think and act as God the Trinity would act. It is an awesome responsibility and one that requires of us a union with God – Father, Son and Spirit – such that their mind is our mind and that decisions that we make are in accord with decisions that they would have us make. In a complex and ever-changing environment, God has entrusted us not only with God’s word, but also with the power and the resources to interpret that word across time and space.

History has shown that time and again we have abused that trust, yet God has not withdrawn it. In our time and place let us demonstrate that we are worthy of God’s confidence and whatever the cost, let us give ourselves entirely to God, Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit so that all our decisions are wise, compassionate and just and consistent with God’s desires for us and for the world.

[1] Albeit to protect women from arbitrary abandonment.

“People can’t talk about God from the outside”

May 18, 2013

Pentecost – 2013

John 14:8-17, Romans 8

Marian Free

In the name of God whose Spirit moves within us so that we might know God as we are known by God. Amen.

There are so many books in the world that I tend to read most books only once. However, there are some exceptions, some (to me) iconic books that I return to time and again. Sometimes I re-read them in their entirety because the story is just so imaginative or moving and sometimes I just dip in and out looking for that brilliant idea or expression that made a difficult concept much clearer to grasp. One such book is called Mister God This is Anna[1]. It is the story of an unlikely friendship between a nineteen year old boy, Fynn and a five year old girl – Anna.  Their lives collide, when late one foggy night, Fynn sees Anna sitting alone on a grating down by the docklands in the East End of London. Fynn sits beside her and offers her his hotdog. Initially hesitant, Anna gradually loosens up, laughs and plays, finally deciding that Fynn loves her.

At ten thirty, it is time to go home. Fynn asks Anna where she lives. She announces that she lives nowhere, she has run away. She flatly refuses to tell him where she lives and absolutely refuses to be taken to the cop shop. On being asked about her parents she states firmly that her mother is a cow and her father is a sop. She is, she says, going to live with Fynn. It is late and so Fynn takes her home with him. At home the whole household is awoken by their arrival and they busy themselves preparing a bath for what is – after three days on the streets – a very dirty little girl. It is only when Anna’s clothes are removed and she is sitting naked on the table that Fynn understands why she cringed in fear and whimpered piteously when she accidentally blew sausage in his face while blowing out his match. It is clear that she had expected him to thrash her for the perceived offence. She is used to being beaten – her whole little body is bruised and sore.

Despite all their efforts, Anna never tells the family where she comes from and she simply will not go to the cop shop. So it is that Anna joins this warm, welcoming family. Anna is bright, curious, unconventional and engaging and her relationship with God, which is what draws me back time and again to the book, is direct, personal and insightful. For example, when the parson asks her why she doesn’t go to church, she responds: “Because I know it all!” “What do you know?” “I know to love Mister God and to love people and cats and dogs and spiders and flowers and trees,” and the catalogue went on, “- with all of me.” (33)

Another time, Anna is pondering the nature of love, especially God’s love. She fills Fynn with despair by claiming: “Mister God doesn’t love us. I love Mister God truly, but he don’t love me!” Fynn needn’t have feared. Anna has not lost her innocent faith, she has simply taken it to a different level. “No he don’t love me, not like you do, it’s different, it’s millions of times bigger.” “People can only love outside and can only kiss outside, but Mister God can love you right inside and Mister God can kiss you right inside. Mister God can know things and people from the inside too. So you see Fynn, people can’t talk about God from the outside; you can only talk about Mister God from the inside of him.” (40-43)

It is an extraordinarily profound insight, one that – had Anna been versed in the Bible – could have come straight out of Paul’s letter to the Romans or from the gospel of John, yet stated with such simplicity and such clarity that it needs little further explanation. God’s love is incomprehensible, God can only be known through the presence of God in us and our being in God.

It seemed to me that this was a useful way to think and speak of the Holy Spirit, who to my mind is the most elusive, the most difficult member of the Trinity to describe.

Few of us have felt the Spirit as a violent, rushing wind or seen it as tongues of fire. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen the Spirit descend like a dove. We imagine that we can see God the Creator in the world around us. We can come to know about Jesus’ life and teaching through the words of the Gospels. The Holy Spirit is much harder to pin down because the Spirit has to be experienced, to be felt by us and to be known in us and in our lives. The Holy Spirit moves within and among us.  At our best, the Holy Spirit informs, inspires and directs us. It is the Holy Spirit who fills us with the knowledge and love of God and who is, in fact the presence of God dwelling within us.

In John’s gospel the presence of the Holy Spirit is expressed in this way: before he departs, Jesus tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will abide with them and in them. The in-dwelling Spirit will take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to them. The Holy Spirit will teach them all things and remind them of all that Jesus has taught. The Holy Spirit, who is indistinguishable from Jesus, who in turn is indistinguishable from God will make a home within the disciples – will indeed “know them from the inside out”, and help them to know God from “the inside of God.”

Paul too claims that the Spirit of God dwells in those who believe. In Romans he says that the Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies and bear witness with our spirit that we are children of God. “Those who live according to the Spirit, set their minds on the Spirit,” Paul says. (8:6) What is more, the “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints, according to the will of God.”(8:26-27)

The Holy Spirit then, is God dwelling within us, enlivening us, revealing God’s love to us, reminding us of all that Jesus taught us, enabling us to be children of God, searching our hearts and speaking to God for us. To use Anna’s insight, the Spirit who is God knows us from the inside out and the inside of God enables us to speak about God.

If we are open and willing, we will learn that the Holy Spirit fills us with the presence of God, so that we can know and talk to God from the inside, because through the Holy Spirit God is already inside us. God who has already given us everything through Jesus Christ, gives us this one thing more – God’s own self as an integral part of our being, an essential part of our lives – that is how we know the Holy Spirit, through the Holy Spirit knowing us.


[1] Fynn. Mister God this is Anna.  London:William Collins and Sons Co Ltd, 1974.

Taking risks, trusting God

November 10, 2012

Pentecost 24

Mark 12:38-44    http://bible.oremus.org

Marian Free

 In the name of God who sees all things. Amen.

 I’ve been re-watching the TV series Scrubs  – a comedy which follows four young doctors as they begin their working life. One of the things that I like about the programme is that the characters are so complex and therefore believable. In fact, most of the characters are quite seriously flawed.  For example, Elliot, one of the young doctors, is totally neurotic and incredibly insecure about her looks and about her medical skills. She constantly worries about what other people think about her. In one episode she begins going out with a nurse. The relationship begins quite well but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. A major problem is that Elliot is trying so hard not to let Paul know how crazy she is, that she continues to put up barriers which means that the relationship remains superficial. It is only when she lets her guard down and allows Paul to see the real Elliot that they can move forward.

The sanest and most secure of the four interns is Chris Turk, known as Turk. Turk is in love with Carla who thinks she knows how everyone else should run their lives and has no hesitation in sharing her thoughts with them. On one occasion – despite Turk’s advice – she tells a senior doctor that he shouldn’t be getting back together with his ex-wife because they are no good for each other. When she is proven to be wrong, she sees herself clearly for the first time and is surprised that instead of being insightful as she has always thought, she is bossy and interfering. As a consequence she falls into despondency and tells Turk that never again will she tell anyone what to do. His response is wonderful. He says: “Yes you will, and it doesn’t matter because I love you.” It doesn’t matter because I love you.

It is not always easy to be open and honest about ourselves or to ourselves. Especially when we are young we worry what others think about us, afraid that they will not like us if they see us as we really are. We put up defensive barriers to keep people out or we act out roles in the hope that we will fool people into believing that we are clever or brave or whatever it is that we think we are not but that we should be. On the other hand we may be genuinely blind to parts of ourselves and recognising our faults can be painful process. However, as our fictional stories remind us, if we take the risk that we will be accepted and that others will continue to love us even if we are opinionated or timid, insecure or bossy, we will stop being afraid to be who we are. Our lives will be freer and fuller because we will no longer be wasting time hiding our true selves, worrying that others don’t like us or beating ourselves up because we fall short of our own expectations. What is more, when we love ourselves and allow ourselves to be loved for who we are, it is then that we can begin to be transformed into the person we would like to be.

For at least the past 1,000 years, members of the church in England have begun their worship with the following words: “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden ..”  Week after week, year after year, we say what is perhaps the most terrifying prayer that we will ever utter. That is, every time we come to the Eucharist, the first thing that we do is to acknowledge that before God our very souls are laid bare. The secrets of our hearts, our hidden longings, our anger, disappointment, pettiness and resentment are exposed to God’s sight. There is nothing that God does not know about us and no place in which to hide.

I sometimes wonder that we can pray these words so blithely, that we don’t cringe under our pews or fall to our knees in fear. Surely few of us can bear that sort of scrutiny! And yet we are here, and once again, with heads held reasonably high, we have spoken the words which remind us that all that we are – the good, the bad and the ugly – is known to God. We are able to pray these words because for us they are not terrifying. Our faith not only allows us we have faith to see ourselves as God sees but also informs us that God loves us as we are.

These two factors – self acceptance and the knowledge of God’s unconditional love – are at the heart of the faith experience. More than that, these are the ingredients of an authentic life and an authentic faith – a life lived without falsehood and pretence and a relationship with God and with others that is utterly and sometimes, horribly real.

You might notice that Jesus’ harshest condemnation is reserved for hypocrites. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus rages and rages against the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus says over and over again. And today, Jesus criticises the scribes who are more concerned with appearance and status than they are with God. They hope that their long robes and long prayers will hide their lack of compassion and their self-interest. The have failed to understand that they can hide nothing from God and that a real relationship is an honest relationship.

God doesn’t want a relationship with our public self, a relationship that is limited by obstacles that are put up, games that are played, or falsehoods that are perpetuated. God wants a relationship with our real self – that part of us that is scarred and imperfect. God wants us to trust him that however frail, however flawed we are God’s love will never, ever be withdrawn.

We can’t fool God, so there is really no point in trying. However embarrassing, however humiliating, however nasty our real self is – that is the self that God had a hand in creating, the self that God loves and the self with which God wants to be in relationship.

Opening ourselves to another can be a terrifying and risky thing to do, but the reward is a deep and authentic relationship in which all barriers are removed and we can be our true selves. The widow trusted God with everything  she had– maybe we can trust God with everything that we are.

When it gets too hard do you wish to go away?

August 19, 2012

Pentecost 12

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

 In the name of God – source of life, wisdom and joy. Amen.

 “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus’ question to his disciples in verse 67 catches us by surprise. These are the people with whom he has chosen to share his mission, his most private moments. In their turn, they have chosen to follow him despite what others might think. Why would they now want to go away? Today’s gospel helps us to understand the lead up to Jesus’ question. In fact, we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 6 to see how the tension builds to the point where some disciples leave Jesus and Jesus is forced to ask the remainder if they too wish to leave. The author of John’s gospel records the account of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walking on the water as do the other three gospels. According to the author of John, the crowds which have been following Jesus, discover that he is on the other side of the lake and pursue him. This provides Jesus with an opportunity to challenge their self-centredness and to elaborate on his role and his mission.

Jesus perceives that the crowds are primarily interested in what he can do for them – provide food, heal the sick and so on. These signs, while important, are not the real reason that Jesus is here. He challenges those who have followed to seek the deeper meaning of Jesus’ presence among them. Bread sustains the body for a limited time. Jesus asks his listeners to consider the sort of food that will sustain them in the present and more importantly for eternity. He asks them to look beyond their physical needs for sustenance and to seek the food that endures – the spiritual food that sustains the soul. This is the food that he provides to those who seek it.

As part of this argument, Jesus claims to be the ‘bread of life’. We are so familiar with this concept that it can be difficult for us to understand how such a discussion could create the sort of offense that would cause some of Jesus’ disciples to abandon him and Jesus to ask if others too wish to go away. Jesus as the ‘bread of life’ provides us with strength and courage, spiritual nourishment and support.  Perhaps if Jesus had left the argument there his disciples would have remained with him. However, Jesus has claimed to be the bread from heaven which endures forever – unlike the manna in the wilderness which sustained the Israelites in the present, but which was unable to give them eternal life. Among his listeners would have been those who would have heard Jesus’ suggestion that he was more important than – in fact that he had superseded Moses.

If that claim were not confronting enough, Jesus makes the even more disturbing claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this brad will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Not only is the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood utterly repulsive, it is impossible for Jesus’ audience to grasp such a difficult and distressing concept. Many of them know Jesus, they know his mother and his father. They know that he is a human being like themselves – how can he say that he has come down from heaven? It is impossible for them to even begin to conceive that it is possible, let alone necessary for them to consume this man’s flesh and blood if they are to have eternal life! No wonder many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him! They say: “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”

They have failed to understand that Jesus, through this dramatic and uncomfortable language, Jesus is asking his followers not to physically eat him, but to become one with him, to allow him to become so much a part of them that it is as if they are indeed one flesh and blood. Eating and drinking are metaphors for this complete unity. In some way faith is a process of somehow absorbing Jesus into our lives and allowing our lives to be absorbed into that of Jesus.

Eating and drinking are strong images, but they are not totally unfamiliar. We say to children: “I could just eat you!” We don’t mean that literally, we just mean that we love them so much that we don’t want to be separated from them. This is the sort of relationship that Jesus is asking his disciples (and us) to have with him.

It is at this point that Jesus asks those who remain: “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Peter responds: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter, who so often fails to understand, who so often gets it wrong has cut to the core. He may not always understand what Jesus has to say, but he knows what Jesus means – to himself and to the world. Peter may not really understand Jesus’ teaching at this point, but he is sure of one thing – that there is nowhere that he would rather be, nowhere else that he would receive the sort of spiritual guidance that he has found in Jesus. He knows that in the present and in the future, it is his relationship with Jesus that has opened the doors of heaven.

I suspect that it is the same for us. There may be times when we do not understand – when scripture seems too difficult, when the events of our lives or the lives of others seem inexplicable – but we with Peter know that Jesus is the means to eternal life. We have thrown in our lot with Jesus, and nothing in this life or the next will separate us.

 

 

 

 

Knowing Jesus – being part of the story

July 28, 2012

Pentecost 9

John 6:1-21

Marian Free

In the name of God who is the end of all our stories. Amen.

 There is a wonderful movie called “When Harry met Sally”. It is about two graduates who share a ride to New York, separate, meet again, separate and finally admit that they want to spend their lives together. I watched the movie again recently and was reminded that one of Harry’s habits was that he liked to read the end of a book first. He couldn’t stand the suspense of waiting until the end to see how everything worked out, so he would read a few pages at the beginning and then turn to the end before going back to where he had left off.

When I first saw the movie I couldn’t believe that any one could spoil a good read by jumping ahead in that way. However, I have to acknowledge that there are times when I’ve been compelled to ask someone whether or not a book ends well because the suspense is too much for me. I don’t want to know the ending exactly, but I do want to prepare myself to know if, for example, the central characters are going to completely damage their relationship or whether they eventually get it together. If I know that it is all going to end well, then I can cope with the stresses along the way! I have to confess that on one occasion it took me several weeks to read the end of a book, not because I was anxious about the ending, but because I had guessed what the ending was going to be and knew that it would spoil the whole book!

For most of us, knowing the end of a story spoils our enjoyment of it. In fact, reviewers now have an expression: “here comes the spoiler”‘ which acts as a warning for us to stop listening, watching or reading because the end of the story is about to be revealed.

John’s Gospel should perhaps come with such a warning. Throughout John’s gospel we are given a glimpse of the community in the present – the risen Jesus, the Jesus known by believers in the present – makes his presence known in the gospel as much, if not more than, the Jesus of history. This is because the author of John, unlike the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke, writes from the perspective of a community which understands the historical Jesus as a result of knowing the risen Christ. Jesus is understood and taught from the perspective of those who know the risen Jesus. That is, the end of the story determines the way in which the story is told. That is not to say that the communities of the other gospels did not know the risen Christ and that they did not read that knowledge back into the story as they told it. It just means that they wrote their gospels from a different perspective. The writers of the Synoptic Gospels knew the end of the story but they wrote, by and large, as if they did not.

The account of feeding of the five thousand occurs in all four gospels. In fact in some gospels there are two accounts of miraculous feedings – the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. Likewise in all four gospels the account of Jesus’ walking on the water is attached to the feeding of the five thousand.

John’s account has some marked differences from the other three. His detail of where the event occurred is more specific. He tells us that the Passover was near – a symbol that is associated with Jesus’ death. In John two disciples, Philip and Andrew, are mentioned by name. The emphasis in John is on the abundant provision of bread rather than the miracle itself. After the feeding, the disciples choose to go on ahead while Jesus withdraws by himself. There is a strong wind, but the disciples are more frightened of Jesus than they are of the storm.

A number of other factors in John’s re-telling stand out. These are what lead scholars to believe that the story is being interpreted in the light of the present situation – that of a community which knows the risen Christ. For example, in John’s account Jesus is completely in control. He is not trying to escape the crowds and they don’t reach the spot before him. It is Jesus, not the disciples who notices the hunger of the crowds and he doesn’t send the disciples to buy food to feed them.

In John’s gospel, Jesus sees the crowds coming, takes the initiative and asks Philip where they can buy bread. However, he does not expect an answer, because he already knows what he is going to do. The Jesus of John doesn’t waste time. As soon as he sees the crowds coming he wonders about feeding (not teaching) them. After they are fed, the crowds declare Jesus to be the prophet who is to come into the world. All this is in contrast with the other gospel writers who emphasize Jesus’ compassion, have Jesus teach and heal before the crowds are fed, and who stress the fact that the disciple’s misunderstand the meaning of the bread.

John’s concern in re-telling the story is less with the miracle itself and more with the question of the identity of Jesus. Even though they get it wrong, the recognition of Jesus by the crowds is an important part of the story. The crowds identify Jesus not just as a miracle worker, but as the prophet who is to come into the world. Mistakenly, they seek to make him king, but he is not the sort of king that they expect.

At the same time, the multiplication of the loaves provides an opportunity for teaching  – something that is a common feature in John’s gospel.  The Jesus of John doesn’t teach and heal the crowds and then feel obliged to feed them because he has kept them so late. In John the crowds are fed first. The miracle of the feeding provides the illustration and sets the scene for the teaching that is to come. (For the remainder of this very long chapter, Jesus will explain the meaning of the bread, claim to be the bread of life and demand that people identify completely with him by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In fact, as we will discover the teaching is so difficult that it separates the Jesus’ true followers from those who just want what Jesus can do for them.)

As in Matthew and Mark, John’s account is followed by Jesus’ walking on the water. Again there are a number of differences in John which suggest an interpretation by the post-resurrection church. Two features stand out – Jesus comes to the disciples (as he does after the resurrection) and the key to the story is the recognition of Jesus by the disciples (they don’t mistake him for a ghost). When Jesus walks towards the boat the disciples are terrified, but when they know it is Jesus, they try to get him to come into the boat with him.

Their recognition of Jesus also serves to separate the disciples from the rest of the world. The disciples recognise Jesus for who he is, whereas the crowds see him as they want to see him. The crowds judge Jesus by worldly not other-worldly categories, they can see him only in earthly terms. The disciples know the deeper, spiritual significance of Jesus, and understand that as a result of such knowing they are set apart as the community that follows in his name.

Like the gospel writers, we too know the end of the Jesus’ story. Like the community for whom John’s gospel was written, our lives and our understanding of Jesus are determined as much by the Jesus who is present with us, as they are by our knowledge of the historic Jesus. The story of the historical Jesus is essential for our understanding of our faith, but it is the risen Jesus who informs, teaches, challenges and guides all that we do in the present.

Our present is the end of the story so far, our past is already a part of the story, and our future will determine how the story is told. In fact our future may determine whether or not the story continues to be told.

May we live in such a way that the story known through us is a story which is filled with the transforming power of the risen Christ in our lives.

(I am indebted to L.Th. Witkamp “Some Specific Johannine Features in John 6:1-21.” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 40 (1990) 43-60. for some of the ideas above.)

June 24, 2012

Pentecost 4

Mark 4:35-41

http://bible.oremus.org/ 

A Reflection

Marian Free

In the name of God who is present with us in all life’s circumstances. Amen.

 A soldier was captured by his enemies and tossed into a prison cell. He knew that in the morning he would be tortured, even killed. As he tossed and turned, he remembered the words: “Do not be anxious for the morrow.” With those words ringing in his ears he fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.

In today’s gospel, the disciples are in a boat with Jesus. As is common on the Lake of Galilee, a violent storm suddenly arises, tossing the boat on the waves, filling it with water and terrifying the disciples. Despite the fact that Jesus was in the boat with the disciples, they were unable to relax and to trust that everything would be OK. They cried out in anguish and accused Jesus of not caring about what might happen to them.

Jesus’ response to the storm is quite different. Even though the boat was being hurled around on the waves, and the storm raged about him Jesus was able to sleep unperturbed (that is, until he was woken!). Throughout his life and especially towards its end, Jesus demonstrated a trust in God that was unshakeable – even in the most awful of circumstances. In the face of extreme temptation in the desert, Jesus’ trust in God was steadfast. In the face of severe criticism from the leaders of the establishment, Jesus held firm. Confronted with the most terrible form of torture and death, Jesus never wavered in his resolve. Throughout it all, Jesus remained confident that God was with him and that God would never abandon him.

In comparison, the disciples seem to have learned nothing from their time with Jesus. As Jesus rests, oblivious to the storm and to the concerns of his friends, they fret and worry about their future, crying out in fear and terrified that they would perish.

How like the disciples many of us are. Despite our claims of faith our comfortable recitation of scripture like the 23rd Psalm, many of us waste time and energy worrying about things which may or may not happen. Too many of us are so focussed on the future that we fail to enjoy the present. Instead of placing our trust solely in God, we toss and turn in the face of life’s difficulties. We rely on our own abilities instead of having confidence that God will see us through.

For a few minutes, think of life as a boat in which God is holding you safely. When the storms rage around you, do you like Jesus place all your trust in God? Are you able to place your life completely in God’s hands? Are there anxieties and worries that you can lay to rest today?

You might like to spend some time reflecting on the sentences of scripture below. I find the two prayers useful for when I wake in the morning and before I go to sleep. (At least at those two points in the day) I make myself aware that I have chosen to place my life in God’s hands.

Scripture and prayers to remind you to trust in God

A prayer of St Francis:

Lord help me to live this day quietly, easily,

to lean on your great strength trustfully, restfully,

to wait for the unfolding of your will patiently, serenely,

to greet others peacefully, joyfully

to face tomorrow confidently, courageously.

Psalm 4:8

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;

for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;

Psalm 91

God will cover you with his pinions,

and under his wings you will find refuge;

Psalm 121

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in

from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 131

I have  calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother,

Isaiah 49:16

I will not forget you

See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.

Jeremiah 28:11

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD,

plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Matthew 6:34

Do not worry about tomorrow,

for tomorrow will have enough worries of its own.

From the New Zealand Prayer Book (Compline            It is night after along day.

What has been done is done;

what has not been done has not been done.

let it be.

Thank God for God’s presence with you in all the circumstances of your life.

Let us pray:

In this storm tossed life

   give us the courage to face the obstacles that lie before us

      the confidence to trust in your love for us

          and the faith to know that you will never abandon us. Amen.

Deciding where you stand

June 9, 2012

Pentecost 2 – 2012

Mark 3:20-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks us to look beyond the obvious to what lies beneath and to discover the presence of God in unlikely places. Amen.

I wonder what you noticed, or what stood out for you in today’s Gospel. Was it the fact that Jesus’ family thought that he was mad? Or was it the accusation that Jesus belonged to Beelzebul? Are you puzzled or even feeling anxious about the mysterious and unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit – if you don’t know what it is how can you be sure that you won’t break it or that you haven’t already broken it? Perhaps it was the last section that leapt out at you – Jesus’ apparent rejection of his family.  It is possible that something completely different had significance for you this morning. I have only listed those things that have remained in my memory. There is so much in this short passage that it is easy to become distracted by just one small part of it. Of course, we will all have heard this reading so many times before that we are familiar with each of its component parts. However, at different times, different phrases or sub-sections will have caught our attention.

There is a lot of apparently disparate information in these few verses, but the fact that the passage is book-ended by comments about Jesus’ family indicates that the material has been deliberately placed together to make a point or to draw out a lesson. Living at a time so distant from the writing of the text, we are at a disadvantage when it comes to interpreting it. Not only does Mark seem to have gathered together a number of distinct sayings and events, but the way in which he has done so also creates some confusion in the reading. The elements of this passage do not fit easily together. For example, the criticism about Jesus casting out demons by Beelzebul is out of context. Jesus has not performed an exorcism in the immediate past. There are other anomalies – Jesus’ family appears out of nowhere, disappears and reappears without explanation. The scribes come all the way from Jerusalem simply to accuse Jesus of being a servant of Satan.

None of this matters to the author of Mark who has structured this section of the gospel very carefully. A clue to its meaning occurs in the previous verses. Immediately before this passage Jesus has chosen his disciples. Of the twelve, Judas, the one who will hand Jesus over, is the last to be named. Coming on the heels of Jesus’ controversy with the authorities, and their threat to destroy Jesus, the mention of Judas is ominous, especially when it is followed by an accusation that Jesus is a servant of Satan!

The author’s intention, it seems, is to demonstrate not only that Jesus is in conflict with the authorities of his day, but also that he is at the centre of a battle with the forces of evil which hold the world in their thrall. The situation is so serious that even Jesus’ own family do not understand him or what he is doing.

In this section of the gospel, the pivotal point is the parable of the binding of the strong man. In direct contradiction to the accusations of the scribes, Jesus makes the claim that rather than being the tool of Satan, he, Jesus will be the cause of Satan’s downfall and defeat. When Jesus casts out demons he demonstrates that he is not on the side of, or servant to Beelzebul, instead he is the means by which Satan will be bound and his dominion brought to an end.

The point is tightly and succinctly argued. In response to the accusation that he is casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, Jesus points out that this would be ridiculous. If this were indeed the case, it would demonstrate that the powers of evil were divided against each other and would fall. In fact, Jesus points out, so far from being on the side of evil, he will be the means by which evil is destroyed. So in trying to discredit Jesus, the scribes have succeeded only in discrediting themselves. By refusing to recognize him, by identifying Jesus with Satan, the scribes have committed the one sin for which there is no forgiveness – the sin against the Holy Spirit. They have succeeded in identifying themselves, not Jesus, with the forces of evil. In so doing, they have put themselves beyond the reach of God. They have placed themselves outside the extent of God’s love. In this way they, not God, have chosen where they stand. That is, they have taken a stand against God.

According to this version of events, Jesus’ family have also chosen where they stand. At the beginning of the passage they have gone out to seize him. Now they are standing outside (outside the house and outside Jesus’ mission) and they are calling him to join them. In the first instance they, like the scribes, demonstrate their failure of imagination. Instead of recognising the good that he is doing, they accuse Jesus of being “out of his mind”. As the scene closes, they are depicted as calling him away, distracting him from his mission from the task that God has given him. In this way they are making it clear where they stand. They stand for the status quo, for the current situation in which the world is in Satan’s clutch. They are not yet ready for the defeat of Satan and the inauguration of God’s kingdom.

In the end, this is what today’s gospel is about. Where do we stand? On whose side are we – that of God or that of the world? Are we so firmly grounded in this world that we cannot see or feel the presence of God? Are our imaginations so limited and so poor that we think that anything out of the ordinary is necessarily bad? Are we so concerned to be seen in a good light that we spend our time trying to discredit others? Are we so rule-bound that we refuse to allow for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the world?

It comes down to this: Do we want Jesus to be more like us, or are we wiling to find out what it means to be more like Jesus?


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