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From being unknown to being known

July 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Satan falling from heaven

July 6, 2019

Pentecost 4 – 2019
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Marian Free

In the name of God who has power over life and death, good and evil. Amen.

“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Jesus’ response to the mission of the seventy is quite incredible. What was it about their actions that led Jesus to make such a pronouncement? No other gospel records the sending out of seventy disciples and no other gospel records Jesus’ dramatic, visionary exclamation. It is only in Luke that the seventy (some versions say 72) are, like John the Baptist sent out before Jesus to prepare the way for him. Interestingly, the commissioning of the seventy follows Jesus’ severe words about discipleship – “let the dead bury their own dead.” That means that those who remain understand the consequences of following Jesus. They must leave everything behind and there is no safety net.

When Jesus appoints the seventy, he gives them strict instructions as to where to go, what to pack and how to respond to rejection. The disciples are directed to take nothing except their faith to support them – no purse, no bag, no sandals. Unarmed, they are sent out as “lambs in the midst of wolves”. Now they have come back to Jesus. Not only have they have survived, they have also learnt that God is to be trusted! No wonder that they have returned with joy – amazed and elated by what they have achieved in Jesus’ name: “in your name even the demons submit to us!” The disciples are like a bunch of school children, bursting to share their adventures and successes with Jesus.

Underlying the Gospel of Luke is a cosmic battle between good and evil, between Jesus and Satan. The battle begins at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. Here Jesus has an apparently decisive victory over Satan. To Satan’s disappointment (and surprise), Jesus is not seduced by easy solutions, marvelous feats or by the promise of power. Jesus’ responses to Satan make it quite clear that he will serve God, and God alone, no matter what the cost.  Apparently, Satan is not convinced that the battle has been won, he still believes he has a chance to gain the ascendancy. He does not slink away with his tail between his legs (as he appears to do in the gospels of Mark and Matthew). Instead, we are told that he “departs from Jesus until an opportune time”. From Satan’s point of view, it is not over till it is over. As we will see, Satan appears again at the end of the story when he enters into Judas Iscariot who, spurred on by him, will betray Jesus to the chief priests and the offices of the Temple police. (Having failed to influence Jesus, Satan finds a weak link in Judas and possibly in the other disciples whom “he will sift like wheat”.)

Jesus proves more than a match for his adversary – he knows that the stakes are high, but nothing will prevent him from focusing on the task ahead. His exclamation in response to the disciple’s report on their mission may reflect Jesus’ confidence that, whatever happens to him, his mission will not fail. It is clear to him that the disciples have discovered their own role in the defeat of evil. Like Jesus, they have not succumbed to the temptation to rely entirely on themselves. From the way in which they report their experience it is obvious that the disciples understand that it is not by their own power or ability that the demons are cast out, rather is the power of Jesus’ name that causes the demons to submit. The disciples’ self-awareness and humility, their willingness to give credit where credit is due may give Jesus an assurance that his mission is in the right hands. Jesus can be sure that Satan will not regain his place in the world – even after Jesus’ death.

No wonder Jesus exclaims: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” It is a prophetic statement based on his new found evidence that the disciples are to be trusted, that they understand that God alone can defeat evil and that ministry in the service of God is not about self-aggrandisement, but about trusting in God and giving credit where credit is due.

In today’s world, in which the balance of power is shifting and in which self-centredness and greed appear to be gaining an upper hand, can we still be confident that the powers of evil have been defeated? Was Jesus prophetic statement misguided? Was his trust in we, his modern disciples, misguided? Are we tempted to rely on our own strengths to combat the power of evil or are we, like Jesus and the seventy, ready and willing to ignore our need for recognition and success so that we might truly submit to God and allow God to work through us so that evil does not and cannot get the upper hand?

May Jesus’ prophetic vision be as true now as it was when he proclaimed: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” and affirmed all that the disciples had done.

“Let the dead bury the dead”

June 29, 2019

Pentecost 3 – 2019

Luke 9:51-62

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to give our all, hearts, minds, souls and bodies. Amen.

The story of Father Rob Galea referred to in today’s Pew Bulletin is just one example of a convert who has carefully weighed up the consequences of becoming a Christian before taking the final step of faith.1 There are many well-known Christian thinkers and leaders who report that their coming to faith was costly or was met with a degree of resistance on their part. They have understood that giving one’s life to God is, as Father Rob recognized, a matter of complete surrender, a willingness to give up absolutely everything in order to place God at the center of one’s existence. Accepting Jesus is not a decision to be taken lightly – it could mean a complete change of direction, the relinquishing of wealth, relationships or intellectual objections to faith or, particularly in nations in which conversion is illegal, it could mean accepting martyrdom as the likely consequence of coming to Jesus.

I wonder how many of us have had this experience or whether, as those who have never known a time when we did not believe, really understand the cost of discipleship.

“Let the dead bury the dead.” Verse 51 begins a new section in Luke’s gospel. These apparently harsh words reflect Jesus’ awareness of what lay ahead of him. Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem”. Luke is making it clear to us that this is no ordinary trip, it requires both determination and resolution. Jesus is not going to Jerusalem because he wants to, but because he must. He knows that what lies ahead of him is not recognition and acclamation, but rejection, suffering and death and he is anxious that those who want to follow him understand the dangers that they will face and be prepared to take the risks that discipleship him will entail. If Jesus’ would-be followers are not fully committed, they will be disappointed. Worse, they will be wasting their time. They might just as well stay at home because if they do not understand the costs now, they will be completely at a loss when things turn bad. Jesus knows that those who will last the distance will be the people who really grasp the world-shattering nature of his mission and his message. They are the ones who will be ready to sacrifice everything, even their lives, to be a part of Jesus’ project to change the religious and social culture of which they are a part.

After Jesus’ death the lives of his disciples will be radically changed – in ways that at this point they cannot even begin to imagine. “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus is saying: “do not come with me if you do not think that you will make the distance.”

Jesus’ words, harsh as they sound to us, should not be unexpected. Earlier Jesus had warned the disciples of his impeding suffering and death. He has informed them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” Those who follow Jesus must understand the consequences of discipleship – there is no glory to be had, only acceptance of the call and a willingness to do or to endure whatever lies ahead.

Those who are willing to give up everything and follow Jesus are not abandoned or left to their own devices. According to Luke, Jesus uses the journey to Jerusalem to teach the disciples, to prepare them to continue his mission after he has gone. For the next ten chapters – up until his arrival in Jerusalem – Jesus will share with the disciples his radical understanding of God and of the relationship between God and God’s people.

Jesus’ will undermine their traditional views of God with parables like the forgiving Father; he will expose the rigidity and hypocrisy of the Pharisees; he will remind them that earthly possessions are temporary; he will challenge them to remain focused and to expect his return at any given moment; he will demonstrate in word and action that it is the intention of the law, not the letter of the law that is important; he will overturn concepts of honour and shame; he will shock them with positive stories about the Samaritans and negative stories about the rich; he will confront their narrow views as to who is and who is not included in God’s kingdom; and he will dare them to use their gifts to the very best of their abilities. In other words, he will open their eyes to a new way of seeing and equip the disciples to teach the good news as he understands it.

At the same time, Jesus will give the disciples confidence to carry on his mission. He will empower them to do all that he can do and declare that even the demons will submit to them. Jesus will give the disciples courage to endure whatever difficulties they might face – reassuring them that even the hairs on their head are counted and letting them know that if they are brought before the courts the Holy Spirit will give them the words to say.

From now until the end of November, we will travel with Jesus and the disciples towards Jerusalem. We, with the disciples will be challenged to see the world as Jesus sees it, we will be formed for ministry and prepared to face whatever difficulties may lie before us.

Today we have a moment to stop and think: “Do we really understand the cost of God’s call on our lives?” “Have we really committed ourselves to follow where ever it is that God will lead us?” and, if push comes to shove; “Will we put our hand to the plough and not look back, no matter what temptations lie behind and no matter what difficulties lie ahead?”

Father Rob Galea stands out because he is Maltese, a singer, and he lifts weights. He explained to Meredith Lake on the ABC that his decision to be a Christian was not one that he took lightly. He had to ask himself whether he was able to surrender everything – his music (which to that point had been his means of earning an income and which had given him a degree of renown across the world), marriage and family (which included breaking up with his girlfriend of 4 years whom he had hoped to marry) and anything else that God might be asking him to give up as part of this vocation. In the end, Rob felt that in order to have the relationship with God that he desired, he was willing to give up anything and everything.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Words cannot express

April 20, 2019

Easter Sunday – 2019

Luke 24:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God, who is always just beyond our comprehension. Amen.

“It was amazing. I can’t tell you how fantastic it was! You just had to be there!” I imagine that most of us have used those words or heard those words after an extraordinary experience – a brilliant sunset, an exceptional performance or an extraordinary athletic feat. There are times when words are simply not enough to express the wonder of what we have seen or experienced. We want to share the event with our friends and acquaintances, but we know that whatever language we use will be inadequate because the experience was simply indescribable. There are times too, when we know that even if we could find the words, what we are trying to describe might be beyond the comprehension of those with whom we are sharing. If they were not actually there, they will not understand that the Bach (for example) was performed in a way that was so sublime that it had to be heard to be believed, or that the sunset had that extra something that set it apart from all other sunsets – a certain something that although it was clear to the observer was also allusive; or that the trapeze artist performed a feat that excelled anything that had been seen before, a movement, a gesture that set it apart.

All of these events – sunsets, performances, athleticism – are all within the realm of ordinary experience. Our audience might not grasp the subtle differences that we are trying to share, but they will have seen a sunset, heard a musical performance or witnessed an exceptional athletic feat. These are more or less every day occurrences. People have something against which to measure them – their most amazing sunset, the performance that most moved them or an act of athleticism that impressed them.

This is not the case with Jesus’ resurrection. Before the women arrived at Jesus’ tomb no one had had an experience of someone rising from the dead, there was no prior reference point against which to measure the experience, no previous event that could be used as a base point to describe this event. Besides which, Jesus had not only been well and truly dead when he was taken down from the cross, but he had been in the tomb for two days and two nights. There could be no mistaking the fact that Jesus was dead and entombed.  Furthermore, a huge stone had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb so that no one could enter, and the dead could certainly not leave.

Not unreasonably, on that first Easter day, when the women came to the tomb they were expecting to complete the burial preparations for Jesus, to tend to his battered body. The last thing that they expected was to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Still, there were words for that, possible explanations that would make sense of the empty tomb. They could report that the found the tomb empty. They could speculate that grave robbers had rolled the stone away.

The problem was how to explain what happened next. What words did they have to describe the appearance of the two men in dazzling clothes who asked why they were looking for the living among the dead?” How could the women convince the apostles of their own newly formed conviction, albeit based on Jesus’ own teaching, that Jesus had risen from the dead?

It is no wonder that the apostles did not believe them. Who would? Resurrection from the dead was completely outside their experience, men in dazzling clothes simply did not materialise from out of nowhere. The apostles thought that the women’s words were “an idle tale” not only because the women did not have the words to explain what had happened, but because they had no reference point against which to measure the description of events. Resurrection of the dead, at least resurrection to life in the present was utterly beyond their comprehension. No matter how articulate Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women were, it would have been nearly impossible for them to report the situation in any way that could be comprehended, let alone believed.

During the course of this week, I have spent a great deal of time trying to think of something/anything that might come close to what these women saw and experienced. The miracle of childbirth, the terror of an earthquake, the awe felt in the presence of something extraordinarily beautiful – but nothing I can think of comes close. I can’t imagine anything in our own experience that might compare with the experience of the resurrection. Nothing this earthly is as explosive, as earth-shattering, as mind-blowing or as transformative as the resurrection. Nothing can capture what it must have been like that first Easter Day, when a group of women discovered that Jesus was not dead, but alive. No amount of words would be enough.

And yet, here we are, in church on a Sunday morning in the middle of a long weekend, attesting to the truth of the story those women told. Just as something convinced the women that Jesus was alive, so too, something intangible and inexplicable has persuaded us that Jesus not only lived and died, but that after death he was raised to life. Something that is beyond our explanation tells us that Jesus is alive, present with us in ways that are very real and yet very hard to put into words.

We are here because the resurrection is not an historic event, but a lived experience, a present reality, because Jesus once raised from the dead lives forever.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Life and death are one

April 20, 2019

Good Friday – 2019

On Death
Kahlil Gibran
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

The poet recognises, as we sometimes do not, that death is a part of life. Death is a daily reality, albeit one that more often than not we tend to ignore. Because we ignore our ultimate death, we fail to recognise that death is all around us – in the negativity that eats away at us and through us eats away at the world, in the caution that limits our growth and restricts our experience, in the self-centredness that holds us apart from others and makes us seek what is not our own, in the griefs that bind us to the past and in the gradual deterioration of our physical bodies.

If we fail to understand that life and death are one, we will resist the transformative deaths that are part of our every day existence  – the little deaths that lead to growth – the death of self that leads to an openness to others and to the world, the sloughing off of the baggage (resentment, sorrow, anger) that we have carried for too long, the death of longing that leads to dissatisfaction, the death of ambition that causes us to compare ourselves with those around us and the signs of ageing that urge us to slow down and to become more contemplative, more aware of the world around us. All these little deaths prepare us for that final death which frees us from all the restraints of our human condition so that we might live forever.

When we fail to recognise that life and death are one, we separate death from life and we give to death the power to terrify, enthral and enslave us.

Life and death are one.
Jesus defied death’s power and challenged death’s powerful grip over life. Jesus’ victory over death is our victory over death. When death no longer has a hold on us we can accept, even welcome, our daily deaths knowing that they set us free to really live and that they prepare us for a life that endures forever.

Life giving God, when life seems bleak and empty
Let us trust that you will make all things right.

Liberating God, breathe your love and goodness into a world of death and destruction, terror and desperation, aggression and greed. Give hope to the hopeless, courage to the fearful and comfort to those who despair. Help us to build a world in which peace and justice reign, in which all have enough to eat, access to adequate health care and education and freedom to achieve their true potential.

Living God, pour out your blessing on your church throughout the world, especially in such places where her existence is threatened and in which the safety of worshipers cannot be assured.

God of love, be with all those who are marginalized by virtue of their race, their gender or their sexuality, all those who are made or feel that they do not belong because they do not fit what we define as the norm.

God who shared our human existence, stand with the sick and the suffering that they may find assurance in your presence and trust you with their future.

Jesus who conquered the power of death, help us to find life in death and death in life and through all our little deaths to be transformed into your image and worthy of your eternal kingdom.

How will you die?

April 20, 2019

Maundy Thursday

 

In the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

 

How will you die?

Some time ago I heard the story of a nurse – I think she was the nurse nicknamed “the rose of no-man’s land”. This woman was a nurse on the battle front during World War 1. During lulls in the fighting she would venture into no-man’s land to try to help the wounded. It was during one such foray that she was captured by the Germans who thought that she was a spy. She was condemned to death. The night before she died she received a visit from a local priest who reported that after they spoke she asked to sing “Abide with me”. I cannot sing that hymn without thinking of her and of her courage and faith in the presence of death.

 

How will you die?

As a priest, I have journeyed with many people who have known that they were dying. Some fight death every inch of the way, believing the modern myth that cancer/heart disease of other terminal illnesses can be defeated if only we fight hard enough. Others, and hear I think of two young mothers, both of whom know that they will die before they see their daughters reach school, who are pragmatic and accepting. While there is life, they will live as well as they can, but they know that life will be short and that it is better to live within the constraints that they face, to enjoy their husband and their child rather than to be constantly desiring that things would be different.

 

How will you die?

I have heard from hospital chaplains that there are some for whom death is more drawn out and difficult than it need be, because they carry within them unresolved issues that they are either too stubborn to face or too incapacitated to deal with.

 

How will you die?

Whether you are young or old or somewhere in between, it is important to recognise that ultimately death cannot be avoided and to consider how we might face death. Will we hold back because we still have things to do? Will we feel afraid because we haven’t learned to trust in God’s loving forgiveness? Or will we be able to make peace with the situation because we have no regrets and because we are confident that death for us is not the end?

 

How will you die?

On the night before he died, Jesus did not spend time wallowing in regret, nor did he take the opportunity to run away. Jesus was not afraid that he had not lived up to an imaginary standard that God might have set, but sufficiently confident in his relationship with God that he trusted God as much in death as he had in life.

On the night before he died, Jesus ate a meal with his friends. Instead of worrying about himself, Jesus thought only of them. He knelt before them and washed their feet, he encouraged them to love one another, he told them what to expect and assured them that they would not be alone.

On the night before he died, Jesus was ready, at peace with God, with himself and with the world.

 

How will you die? It is never too late to make peace with God, with yourself and with the world.

 

Intercessions:

 

God of life and death, breathe life and peace into situations of horror and trauma. Be a presence for good in places of despair. Give hope to all those for whom life is a daily struggle.

 

God of life and death.

Hear our prayer.

 

Holy God, help us to so trust in you that we may confidently face any difficulties in this life and meet death without fear.

 

Holy Trinity, draw us deeper into communion with you that our lives may be one with the community of love that unites you Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

 

God who is immersed in human suffering, teach us not to fear illness and mortality, but to graciously accept the frailty of the human form.

 

Jesus who conquered death, bring us daily to newness of life. May we be so transformed by our little deaths, that at the last we are ready for our final journey from life to death to life eternal.

Wholly God’s

April 13, 2019

Palm Sunday – 2019
Philippians 2:5-11
Marian Free

In the name of God whose Son frees us from death and opens the way to eternal life. Amen.

You all know the story. God creates Adam. God puts Adam in a garden. God gives Adam everything in the garden – exceptthe fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The snake tells Adam that the reason that God doesn’t want him to eat the fruit is because he would become like God – implying at the same time that God has misled Adam. When Adam realises that he will not die but will become “wise” he decides that being like God is worth the risk of eating the forbidden fruit. He eats the fruit. God finds out (of course!). Adam and Eve are banished from the garden. Instead of a life of peace and ease they are both punished with lives of pain and toil. As it records in Genesis 3: ‘Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’. As a consequence of eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam was refused access to the tree of life and so all human beings who came after him became subject to mortality.

You will notice that I refer to Adam and not to Eve. This is because, as we can see from the letters of Paul, that at least in first century Judaism, Adam (not Eve) was given responsibility for the “fall”. Paul understood that it was through Adam that sin and death came into the world and that ever since all humanity have shared in Adam’s fate.

Paul’s letters reveal that he was convinced that the consequences of Adam’s action had been reversed in Jesus’ life. Jesus’ obedience contrasted starkly with Adam’s disobedience. Jesus’ refusal to claim equality with God completely reversed Adam’s desire to be like God. Death may have come to all through Adam. Life is made available to everyone through Jesus.

Paul explores this theme in a number of places. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul claims: “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (1 Cor 15:21,22) Paul’s discussion in Romans 5 makes a similar point: “if, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (5:17). In other words, Paul believes that Jesus has undone the damage caused by Adam’s disobedience. Adam created a breach between humanity and God that led to death. Jesus has repaired the damage done, brought us back into the ideal relationship with God and given us access to eternal life.

The hymn that formed our reading from Philippians today is based on that understanding. For those who know the story of Adam, it is quite clear that Jesus’ behaviour is the opposite to that of Adam. Both were created in the image of God but whereas Adam sought equality, Jesus did not. Adam rejected servanthood, but Jesus embraced the role that he saw to be his. Adam who desired to be like God was found in human likeness but Jesus “who was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited”. In his desire for self-aggrandisement Adam exalted himself. On the other hand Jesus, who was entitled to be arrogant, humbled himself. Adam was disobedient unto death. Jesus was obedient unto death. As a consequence of their actions, Adam was condemned by God and Jesus was exalted by God[1].

This hymn, which may in fact pre-date Paul, not only compares Adam with Jesus but also provides the model for Christian living. If Adam is the model of human existence before Jesus, Jesus is the model for Christian existence in the present. Jesus’ “obedience unto death” informs us that only if we empty ourselves of all desires and all ambitions can we be filled with God. Only if we are aware that we are not and never will be God, will we be willing and free to submit to God’s greater wisdom and direction. Only if we make ourselves completely God’s can God’s will be done in us.

Jesus’ life and death are an apparent contradiction. The one who is God behaves as the servant of God. The one who need never die, submits to death.

Those who follow Jesus must live out this contradiction. We must learn that, contrary to our natural inclination it is by not trying that we win the kingdom, it is by not striving that we attain life eternal. As soon as – like Adam – we think we can achieve goodness, holiness, wisdom or any other god-like characteristic by our own efforts, we demonstrate that we have placed our trust not in God, but in ourselves. When we acknowledge our limitations, we understand that a life directed by God is infinitely more satisfying than any life that is determined by our own choices and when we really believe that God knows us better than we know ourselves, we will have the confidence to trust God with life itself. It is not the things of this world that will meet our deepest needs, but only those of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus (who was God) did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, we who are not God, should not place our trust in ourselves, but give our lives wholly to God who gives Godself wholly to us. Then, filled with the presence of God, we like Christ can be the God’s presence in the world.

[1]See further Malina and Pilch. On the letters of Paul. 307.

Authenticity

March 9, 2019

Lent 1 – 2019

Luke 4:1-15

Marian Free

In the name of God who, in Jesus, became totally vulnerable and totally accessible. Amen.

For a while there was a trend among writers and journalists to write searingly honest accounts about parenthood. Articles and columns were written, and books published by new parents, mostly mothers, who took it upon themselves to debunk the myths around parenthood. As I remember most of the authors were people who came to parenting later in life. They had established careers, bought homes and developed reasonably comfortable lifestyles and patterns of existence. None seemed to expect the enormous disruption that a new born child would bring. They had been led to believe all the positives – the flood of love that threatens to overwhelm you and the delights of watching as your child reveals her personality. They had bought “sales talk” of being able to establish a routine, the ability to work around baby’s naptime and the notion that if you do everything right your beautiful baby will fit right into your lifestyle!

When confronted with the reality of babies who don’t settle, whose crying interrupts dinner with friends and who refuse to settle into any sort of fixed pattern, such writers discover that their lives are completely upended and that, among other things, continuing their writing is near impossible. As a consequence of their surprise and unpreparedness they put pen to paper to share their experience and to prepare any other unsuspecting parents-to-be.

(At least this is how I imagine the events that lead to the articles.)

In some way the authors of these biographies felt that their families, their friends and society at large had undersold the difficulties of child-rearing, had put on a positive face despite the difficulties they themselves had confronted and had created an image that a baby would only enrich one’s life and that any down-sides were easily managed if only one used the right techniques.

I can understand how such false views are perpetrated and, if I am honest, I can own my own part in creating an image of trouble-free parenting. As a first (and second) time mother I attended my local playgroup with a number of my peers. Topics of conversation included sleeping through the night, potty training, and other riveting topics. In that situation, in which everyone else seemed to be succeeding at parenting, I found it difficult to admit that my elder child was not yet toilet trained and that my younger child screamed for two hours after every feed, no matter what I did. In that situation, observers could have been excused for believing that I was coping with motherhood and that my children were behaving in the same way as the other children in the group. Of course, unknown to me, there may have been another mother in my group who had difficulties of her own. If I had had the courage to be vulnerable and imperfect, I would have given her permission to acknowledge her own frustrations and concerns.

In the poem “Ash Wednesday” T.S. Elliot prays:

“Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood”

“Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood.” Elliot recognises that self-deceit, self-delusion is an impediment to authentic relationships. Deception leads to hurt, mistrust, confusion and even anger. As long as we endeavour to hide our real selves and our real experiences, no one will trust us with theirweaknesses and we build a society based not on the truth, but on a collective myth which results in everyone is trying to be someone whom they are not.

Honesty and authenticity inspire trust, allow others to be vulnerable and create relationships which give permission for each person be open and transparent about their own struggles and imperfections. In situations of trust we can share with each other our difficulties in parenting, our anxieties in the work place or even the violence of our spouses. The world would be a better place if we broke down the images of perfection that we try to create and, by being vulnerable ourselves, make a space in which others can own their imperfections.

When we feel that we have to put on a face, when we are tempted to create a positive image of ourselves or to “be strong” in the face of adversity, we do well to remember that Jesus was open to his weaknesses. After forty days of isolation and fasting all kinds of ideas came to him. After all, he was the Son of God! There was nothing that he could not do! He could turn stones into bread, jump off a cliff with no fear that he would come to harm OR he could use his God-given power to rule the world! Whether we attribute these ideas to an external power (Satan) or to Jesus’ own thought processes, they tell us that Jesus was open to temptation and, though he resisted, he was not so perfect that such ideas did not occur to him. He was vulnerable either to Satan’s influence, or to his own desire for recognition or power. That the story of the temptations is recorded, tells us that Jesus had made it known. Jesus was not afraid to let others know that he too had moments of vulnerability and weakness.

It was Jesus’ humanity that made Jesus so easy to relate to – he got tired, he was frustrated with the disciples’ lack of understanding and he was infuriated by the practices of the Pharisees. In turn the disciples felt free to be themselves – confused, foolish and seeking to be first.

Jesus’ relationship with the disciples and theirs with him was authentic and real. Jesus was fully himself as were the disciples. Neither thought less of the other for having human failings and fears, doubts and confusions.

“Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood.” Self-deceit not only damages and limits our relationships with one another, it also restricts our personal development and constrains our spiritual growth. As long as we delude ourselves as to who and what we are, we make it impossible to have a relationship with God that is meaningful and real, impossible to learn from our mistakes and impossible to realise our full potential.

This Lent, may we have the courage to relinquish our fear of being exposed, may we trust God and those around us with our true selves and create relationships with God and with one another that are honest and real, life-giving and life-sustaining and in so doing grow into our true selves and enable others to do the same.

 

Upside down, back-to-front Kingdom of God

February 23, 2019

Epiphany 7 – 2019

Luke 6:27-38

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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