Holding Fast

April 7, 2018

Easter 2 – 2018

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who sets us free and holds us fast. Amen.

On at least three occasions when I have celebrated a Eucharist I have managed to omit the Confession. While that tells me that on those days I must have been I was distracted I am not particularly worried about the omission. Confession is a relatively late-comer to the Christian liturgical tradition. In the first centuries after Jesus those who had sinned made a public admission of their fault before the community. If they were seen to have committed a particularly heinous sin they were excommunicated – that is they were excluded (not from the community) but from communion. At that time, those whose were not baptised were dismissed before the Eucharist and those who had been excommunicated were dismissed at the same time. They were then publicly restored to the community at Easter at the same time as those who were baptised were admitted to it. This practice made the inclusion of Confession in the liturgy unnecessary.

While penitence, often in the form of sack-cloth and ashes, is a part of the Old Testament tradition and practice, we hear very little of it in the New Testament except in relation to Baptism. In the Middle Ages the practice of Confession became a private and secret thing. At that time There was a strong emphasis on sin and unworthiness and an increasing belief that our relationship with God was sufficiently tenuous that it had to be continually restored. In the late medieval times confession was made mandatory before communion.

The Anglican Reformers missed an opportunity to reconsider the place of confession. While many of the Protestant traditions abandoned the practice altogether, Cranmer retained a general confession as a part of all our services. Cranmer in fact added lengthy exhortations to be read the Sundays before Communion was to be offered – urging people to consider their lives and to repent of their sins so that they might be in a fit state to receive the sacrament.

I suspect that in part the emphasis on sin and the need for confession of same is based in part on a belief that Jesus gave the church the power to determine what was and was not able to be forgiven. There are two verses in our scriptures that have created this impression. The first is Jesus’ commission to Peter (which is also given to the disciples) in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The second occurs in today’s gospel: “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained.”

While those texts have been taken to understand that we, in the form of the church, can determine whether or not a person is forgiven, it seems to me that it takes a certain amount of arrogance to assume that Jesus gave to human beings – even human beings who believe in him, a privilege that the New Testament itself tells us belongs only to God (Mark 2:7) and which is an indication that Jesus is God. If we take it upon ourselves to decide who can, and cannot be forgiven we are, in essence, claiming that we, like Jesus are God.

So how are we to understand these two scriptures that have for centuries been understood to mean that we, mere human beings, have the wisdom to determine what can and cannot be forgiven?

In regard to the quote from Matthew the answer lies in the cultural context of Jesus’ words. When Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom and later empowers the disciples to bind and loose he was not giving them the authority to determine who would or would not be excluded from heaven. In the first century context he is simply giving to them the authority to decide which laws (not which sins) were binding for all time, and which laws (not which sins) could be dispensed with because they had reached their use-by date. The only relation between Jesus’ commission and sin, was that the disciples were empowered to decide that breaking a particular law was not a sin!

In John’s gospel, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Most English translations continue: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” However, the Greek reads quite differently. In the second clause the word ‘sin’ is absent. Translators have simply assumed that sin as the subject of the first clause can be read into the second. Sandra Schneiders points out that a better translation of the sentence would be: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven them; whomever you hold fast (or embrace) they are held fast”. She points out that “in the context of John’s Gospel it is hardly conceivable that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus. ”

Jesus does not empower us to determine what is unforgivable or suggest that we represent the mind of God on earth. Jesus is commissioning us to hold one another fast through thick and thin, to embrace one another with the sort of compassionate, understanding love that Jesus extends to us through all our doubts, our wilfulness and our failure to understand. Thomas’ questioning mind was not a cause for Jesus’ rejection, but an opportunity, an excuse for Jesus to reach out in love and to hold him fast. Jesus breathes the Spirit and commissions us – not to judge and exclude but to love and embrace.

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Not an ending – a beginning

March 31, 2018

Easter Day – 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Marian Free

 In the name of God who turns darkness to light, sorrow to joy, death to life. Amen.

 When something significant happens – a natural disaster, a mass shooting, the visit of a member of the royal family – not only does everyone know about the event but nearly everyone has an opinion on the matter. A certain amount of notoriety attaches to those who were close to or involved in the event and at the same time, those who were affected by what has happened need to talk about it because they have been so traumatized by it.

Why then does Mark’s gospel end on a note of silence. The women (who have seen the empty tomb and been told that Jesus has been raised) “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Silence is an inauspicious start for what was to become the Christian faith. Silence is an inappropriate response for something as extraordinary and unexpected as the resurrection. Silence and fear detract from Jesus’ victory over death, and silence defies the young man’s explicit instruction: “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

There are a number of explanations for Mark’s terse and unsatisfactory ending – and I will come to them – but first let me take a step back. Those of you who followed the gospel in the pew bibles will be saying to yourselves: “but the gospel doesn’t end at verse 8.” If you look closely though, you will see that the second half of verse 8 is headed “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and verses 9-20 “The Longer Ending”. The problem is that there are no original copies of the gospels, the earliest manuscripts that we have come from the fourth century and these are copies of copies of copies. Significantly, the oldest copies of Mark end at verse 8, that, plus the fact that this is such a difficult reading has led scholars to believe that the original gospel ended here.

If that is the case, t is not surprising that the later copiests added to Mark’s ending. They would have found the lack of resurrection stories unsatisfactory and they would have wanted to find a way for Mark’s gospel to line up with the other gospels. The longer ending, for example, includes a reference to Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (Luke) and the commission to proclaim the good news to all the nations (Matthew). It also contains disturbing “proofs of faith” that do not seem to go back to Jesus– “they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”

So why does the author of Mark leave us hanging? Why are we left with fear and silence rather than victory and joy?

There are a number of suggestions as to why this might be. One is that those for whom the gospel was written already know the ending. They know too that the story does not end with Jesus’ resurrection, but continues in their own lives and through the experience of the gathered community. Jesus’ is alive in their midst, they themselves are the proof enough of the resurrection. The author of Mark knows that the story is far from over. It is possible that he is challenging his community – the believing community to take their place in the story, to move the story forward. In some ways the resurrection is just the beginning of the story. In fact, Mark appears to set us up for an open-ended close from the start:

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God”. The suggestions is that gospel as written is not the whole story rather it sets the scene for a story that is just beginning[1].

Another perspective suggestion is that the women find the tomb empty because Jesus has better things to do. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t wait around for the disciples to come and process the resurrection, to chat with him, to eat with him. Jesus gets on with what he has to do and leaves a messenger to remind the disciples (in this case the women) of something that he said while he was still alive – that they were to meet up with him in Galilee where it all began. They are to go back to the beginning, but they go back as people who are profoundly different from the people that they were at the start of their discipleship. Having experienced the ending, the disciples are sent back to the beginning from where they will be able to see the story with fresh eyes. The contradictions and confusion that they experienced during Jesus’ ministry will, hopefully, now make sense to them. With any luck they will now understand that Jesus’ suffering had a purpose and that his vulnerability was in fact a strength[2].

Yet another explanation for the abrupt ending is that while Mark is well aware of the importance of the resurrection for the story and for the disciples, he is equally conscious that the ambiguity that attended Jesus’ ministry will continue in the lives of believers. That is, despite the resurrection, the believing community will experience suffering and rejection. Like Jesus they will be misunderstood and sought out for the wrong reasons.

Then again, Mark might just be chiding the community (through the women) for their lack of faith. Three times Jesus has explicitly predicted his death and resurrection and three times the disciples showed by their response how little they understand. Now, three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, the women come to the tomb expecting to find a body when they had been promised a resurrection. It is possible that Mark is challenging the community for whom he writes to maintain an openness to the possibility that God will do the unexpected so that, unlike the women, they will not be caught by surprised, they will not be traumatized and confounded when God does not meet their expectations and they will trust that God will do what God has promised to do.

Centuries later the ending of Mark’s gospel presents us with a mystery – a mystery with a purpose. It asks us to consider:

Do we understand that we are part of the ongoing story of the gospel?

Are we able to accept and to live with the contradictions of the gospel – that it is in service and through suffering that we draw close to and are formed in the image of God?

Are we aware that as followers of Jesus life will not always be easy and that we can expect the same treatment from our contemporaries as he received from his?

Do we trust that God will do what God has promised to do?

Finally, have we locked God into one version of the story or are we alert, open and expectant – ready for God to do God’s next new thing?

Mark’s gospel does not end tidily because there are no tidy endings. Indeed the story of Jesus has not and will not come to an end.

 

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

[1] David Lose. Working Preacher

[2] Lance Pape, Working Preacher

Life and Death – two sides of one coin

March 31, 2018

For the Good Friday Liturgy, go to that page.

Kahlil Gibran – On Death

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 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.

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.

Reflection

It is easy to think that Good Friday is all about dying and indeed we do focus on Jesus’ gruesome death and the events that led up to it. Today is a sombre and sobering day when we are forced to face our own role in the death of Jesus – our daily betrayals, our luke warm faith and our love of all things worldly. It is also the day when we are brought face-to-face with the potential consequences of standing with the oppressed and the marginalised, of challenging unjust structures and of confronting the love of power.

It is also a day of contradiction – the cross revealing in stark relief the ignorance and foolishness of humankind in regard to all things Godly. We begin to understand that life and death go hand in hand – they are two sides of the one coin. Without life there is no death, without death we do not really know life. Death throws life into perspective, helps us to appreciate the gift that it is, challenges us to value and to use the life that we have, encourages us to make the most of every minute.

Life that acknowledges death tries to make the most of every moment – to grasp with both hands the good and the bad, to embrace the future rather than to hold on to the past, to have half an eye on eternity rather than being bound to this earthly existence.

Life and death are aspects of daily existence. Every moment we can choose life or death – we can choose to behave in ways that are life-enhancing or life destroying. We can choose to hold on to those things that are familiar and comforting but which are stultifying and limiting, or we can let go and embrace a future that is uncertain and full of potential and opportunity.

Do you fear death? Are you afraid of letting go of those things that are familiar and comforting?

As the poem suggests, death and life go hand in hand. Through our daily deaths (to fear, anxiety, greed and hate) we free ourselves to embrace life more fully.

All our little deaths, free us to live more fully, more authentically,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loving our bodies – Maundy Thursday

March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday – 2018

Some thoughts and prayers

Marian Free

In the name of God who loved us enough to take on human form. Amen.

Bodies are interesting things – they come in a myriad of shapes and sizes. They can be strong and straight or twisted and misshapen. They can function as we hope and expect or they can rebel and resist. They can be well and whole or they can be eaten away by age, cancer or degenerative disease. They can attract or repel. They are extraordinarily resilient and yet easily broken.

By and large our bodies serve us well, yet many of us have an ambivalent attitude towards them – they are not thin enough, muscular enough, pretty enough. We wish that one bit or another were smaller or larger, smoother or prettier.

Our ambivalence towards our bodies is demonstrated in the way we respond to those whose bodies are damaged, disfigured or aged. We turn our heads away. We are reluctant to touch or to hold those whose skin is not smooth and unblemished, whose limbs are not straight and strong.

God has no such problem with the human form or its functioning. None of the considerations that cause us anxiety or dismay, held any fear for God when God in Jesus chose to inhabit our human form. The one who created us, showed absolute confidence in God’s creation – risking everything to be born and to live as and with us.

Nor did Jesus show any dismay or distaste for the bodies of others. He was not afraid to touch and be touched– touching the blind, the lame and the leper, allowing himself to be touched by the woman with a hemorrhage, the women who anointed him, and ultimately those who flogged him and nailed him to the cross.

At the Last Supper, Jesus did what no self-respecting person would do – he took on a role reserved for a slave. Kneeling before his friends, he took in his hands their dirty, calloused and cracked feet, tenderly touching, washing and wiping them.

The Incarnation is all about bodies – our bodies and God’s body.

Imagine God in human form. Imagine your body as God’s body. Imagine God stooping to wash your feet, touching you caressing you, loving you in all your physicality.

 

Maundy Thursday Intercessions

Loving God, who in Jesus was not afraid to take for Godself human form, open our eyes to see you in the wounded and dispossessed, in the despised and ill-treated, the refugee and the prisoner. Seeing you in others may we reach out in love and strive to build with you a world of justice and peace.

Word made flesh.

Hear our prayer.

 Servant God, may we as your church reach out to the marginalised and distressed in our own communities. May we never seek to meet our own needs, but only the needs of others.

Word made flesh.

Hear our prayer.

Jesus our friend and companion, help us to reach out to those who never experience the gentle, loving touch of another – children abandoned by parents, children, the disabled and the aged cared for in institutions in which there is often not enough love to go around, those whose damaged or deformed bodies cause us to turn our gaze away, and all whose age, frailty or disability confine them to a life of loneliness.

Word made flesh.

Hear our prayer.

Wounded God, bind up the broken hearted, support those who struggle, comfort those who mourn, heal those who are stricken in body, mind or spirit and hold in your loving arms, those who are dying.

Word made flesh.

Hear our prayer.

Jesus, who faced death with fortitude if not courage, give us the grace to accept our own frailty and mortality and to understand that death is the gateway to something so much more.

 

 

 

How is your relationship with Jesus?

March 24, 2018

Palm Sunday – 2018

Mark 14:1 – 15:27

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks us to retain an openness to the world around us so that we don’t mistake Jesus for a trouble-maker and miss him altogether. Amen.

We interrupt this bulletin to bring you some breaking news. Police have called for back up to quell a potential riot in the small regional town of Woiwoorung. Crowds from all over the region have descended on the town for the annual music festival. The usual levels of excitement and anticipation are threatening to spill over into mob behavior with the arrival in town of one Jesse Bunda. Jesse, a young indigenous woman, is well-known to police. She is a controversial figure who has been attracting crowds wherever she goes. Jesse has been spreading the message that the regional authorities are inefficient and corrupt. She has been suggesting that those who live beyond the town have the power to take things into their own hands to create better lives for themselves.

Some people are drawn to her and almost as many are disturbed by her presence, her actions and her words. The authorities in particular are wishing that she simply would fade away. As we speak, the police have the situation in hand, but they are worried that there might be a stand-off between Jesse’s supporters and those who see themselves as the brunt of her criticism.

At this moment the streets of Woiwoorung are continuing to fill with people. They are spilling out of their homes and businesses, from the pubs, the shops and the school just to catch a glimpse of the person who is causing such a stir. There is so much excitement in the usually quiet town that people are climbing on to cars and the backs of trucks. They are calling out, waving clothes and branches – doing whatever they can to catch Jesse’s attention. The populace is wondering whether Jesse will dare to speak here – here in front of the authorities of whom she has been so critical. Until now the influential people of the town have, of course, known about Jesse and what she has been doing, but they had thought of her as a harmless eccentric whose influence would die out as quickly as it had grown. They were completely unprepared for today’s reaction.

Our reporters on the ground tell us that it is almost impossible for the local police to see what is going on. At any moment things might turn ugly especially if those who support the status quo decide to take on those who are challenging it.

Keep watching as we bring you the latest developments.

It is easy for us, from the perspective of our comfortable, middle-class Anglicanism, to think of Jesus as a benign and comforting figure, to forget that in his day he was difficult, confrontational and divisive. As much as there were people who welcomed him and his message, there were those who viewed him with anxiety and suspicion – even with alarm. Almost from the start of his ministry Jesus angered and offended the leaders of his day – the Pharisees, the scribes and the priests. Jesus blatantly broke the Sabbath law and presumed to forgive sins – something that was God’s prerogative. He called the Pharisees hypocrites and told parables that implied that the authorities were greedy and corrupt. And the people he mixed with – well no decent, law-abiding person would have been seen dead with them, let alone have eaten with them or, worse still, included them among their companions. Those in authority could have been forgiven for thinking that he was inciting insurrection – after all the crowds seemed to hang on his every word and at any moment they could have turned against them. Jesus was provocative, disruptive and troublesome. No wonder that those charged with keeping the peace wanted to subdue and restrain him. No wonder they wanted to get rid of him.

From time to time I find myself asking: “If Jesus were among us today, would I recognise him (or her)? Would I find Jesus challenging and disturbing or comforting and reassuring? Would I try to protect the status quo or would I join Jesus in challenging structures and norms that had become unwieldy and unhelpful? Would I have the courage to own up to and let go of my hypocrisy?” The answer is, “I don’t know.” I can only hope that I have not created a Jesus who makes feel comfortable and secure and that I am able to retain an openness to who Jesus might have been and who Jesus might be if he were to appear in front of me today.

We should never be so comfortable in our faith that we do not allow our ideas to be challenged. We should never be so complacent that we allow ourselves to think that we know all there is to know and we should never simply assume that we alone are on the side of right.

Two thousand years ago, those who thought they knew who and what to expect called for Jesus to be put to death. Let us hope that we do not make the same mistake.

How is your relationship with Jesus? Would you know Jesus if he were right in front of you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to see Jesus

March 17, 2018

Lent 5 – 2018

John 12:22-30

Marian Free

In the name of God who through Jesus is no longer confined to one people and one nation, but can be known by all who seek God. Amen.

 Some time ago a friend of mine attended a play called: “A Clergy Wife.” He wore his clerical collar to make it clear that not all clergy were likely to be offended by the topic. After the performance he and his friend went backstage to speak to the star – English actor Maggie Smith. Maggie not only spoke to them but was delighted to hear that my friend thought that her characterization of the clergy wife was perfect. Maggie Smith is one of my favourite actors. I wish I had been the one to meet her, to shake her hand. Of course, even if I had attended the show and had the nerve to go back-stage, there would have been no guarantee that I would have had the same good fortune.

Many people who want to meet their heroes are disappointed. Music fans often wait for hours outside venues and hotels hoping to get at least a glimpse of their idols or, better still, a selfie or an autograph. More often than not their efforts go unrewarded. Monarchists are more likely to be successful. If they camp out early enough before an event and, if they find a spot against the barricades, the Queen or other Royal may shake their hand or have a few words as they walk past. Should that occur, the lucky person not only achieves their goal, but is able to bask in a certain amount of reflecting glory. Meeting/touching/having a photo taken with someone famous is a goal shared by a great many.

It is possible that this sort of phenomenon explains what is going on in today’s gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem as something of a hero – indeed as royalty. Crowds of people have greeted him shouting: “Hosanna, King of the Jews.” All kinds of people are trying to get close to Jesus – because they admire him and want to learn from him, or simply because their own status will be elevated if they are able to meet or speak with him. It is not at all surprising that “some Greeks” want to see Jesus. They might be curious, they might be hoping for a miracle or they might be sincerely expressing their faith in him. Whatever their motives Jesus’ response comes as something of a surprise.

As John records the event Jesus completely ignores their request. The Greeks speak to Philip, Philip speaks to Andrew and then both Philip and Andrew go to Jesus. So far as we can tell, Jesus is completely disinterested. He makes not response at all, but simply ignores the Greeks and goes into one of his many monologues. Is he simply being rude or is there more to the story?

As is often the case the context of this short encounter helps us to see what is really going on. In the verses immediately preceding today’s gospel we learn that it is the festival of Passover – that time of year when people from all over the known world flock to Jerusalem to observe the feast. Jesus too has come to Jerusalem for the Passover. It appears that his presence quickly becomes known. The crowds are ecstatic. They wave palms and proclaim that Jesus is the King of Israel. In response, Jesus finds a young donkey and sits on it, thus affirming their claim by enacting a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The reaction of the crowds cause disquiet for the Pharisees. They have wanted to put Jesus to death since the raising of Lazarus. They are afraid that the Romans will respond to Jesus’ popularity by “destroying their holy place and their nation”[1]. When the crowds react so enthusiastically to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the Pharisees complain: “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him”.

As if to prove their point, some Greeks (representatives of “the world”) ask to see Jesus.

Jesus’ reaction to their request is confusing. It appears to be completely unrelated to what has gone before. He doesn’t even acknowledge the request but instead states: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In John’s gospel both phrases are code. “The hour” is the hour of his death, the hour when he will be lifted up, when everything will come to fruition. From almost the beginning of the gospel Jesus has been claiming that his hour has not yet come (2:4, 7:20, 8:30). For that reason, until now, his opponents have been unable to lift a hand against him. Now it seems the time is right. Jesus has done what he came to do. If he dies now he will have achieved what he came to achieve. He can say: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

In John “being glorified” and “being lifted up” refer to the same thing – Jesus’ crucifixion. The cross for John is not a sign of defeat, but a sign of victory. It is on the cross that Jesus is lifted up – for all to see. It is on the cross that he is glorified. It is then, not now, that the Greeks will see Jesus for who he really is. It is then, not now, that Jesus will “draw all people to himself”. It is then, not now, that the world will come to understand Jesus’ relationship with God and will have an opportunity to come to faith.

The request of the Greeks goes unanswered because in this instance they represent not simply themselves but the whole world. They do not need to see Jesus now, because shortly they (the whole world will see him lifted up) and they, with the whole world will be drawn to faith in him.

Hero worship is one thing, but followers of Jesus have to understand that he is no ordinary hero, that his life (and therefore ours) will not follow a usual trajectory and that seeing Jesus through the lens of the cross is the only way to understand what it means to be his disciple.

 

[1] “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

Lent 5 – Children

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Banksia cone

Begin by showing the children seed pods that are easily opened and some that are not. Then show them a banksia flower (or cone if possible) and ask if they know what it is. Show the picture of the banksia cone (from Australian Stock photos). Explain that the banksia cone doesn’t open as easily as other cones. In fact it needs fire before it will open and allow the seeds to escape.

Fire is a terrible thing, it destroys everything in its path, but sometimes good things come out of it – all the old growth is cleared away making room for new trees to grow and plants like this banksia can shed their seeds and produce new plants.

Sadly, sometimes awful things happen, but if we trust in Jesus, the bad things in our lives will encourage us trust more in God. Hopefully they will make us stronger and better. If you are feeling that everything is too hard, remember that even though fire destroys everything it allows new things to grow and even though Jesus died, God raised him up again and God will raise us up, over and over and over again.

(Activity – give the children some black paper and encourage them to fill it with bright colours. Or make a pencil drawing of a banksia for them to colour in.)

 

No room for neutrality

March 10, 2018

Lent 4 – 2018

John 3:14-21

Marian Free

In the name of God who so loved the world, that God sent his Son to save it. Amen.

Most of us would agree that it feels as though the world is teetering on the edge of disaster. We feel distressed by Trump’s apparently erratic behaviour, by Kim Jong On’s threats of nuclear war, by the intractable nature of the war in Syria, by the civil war and famine in south Sudan and Yemen, by the rise of the ultra-right in Europe and by the grab for power by dictators in more countries than one. We are rightly distressed by the plight of refugees, the increasing gap between the rich and poor and by corruption and the misuse of resources by those in power. We feel helpless in the face of terrorism and are frozen in indecision when we think about the damage that we are inflicting on the environment.

The world seems to be falling apart and we feel powerless to stop it.

That, at least is one way of seeing the world.

It is possible to see the situation quite differently. On Tuesday[1] Radio National’s Big Ideas presented a lecture by Gregg Easterbrook – writer for the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. Easterbrook pointed out that despite what appears to be evidence to the contrary, there are good reasons for optimism. Worldwide, malnutrition and extreme poverty are at historic lows, he says, and the risk of dying by war or violence is lower than at any point in human history. Everywhere in the world people are living longer and healthier. Contrary to what we see daily in our news, the frequency and intensity of war in the last 25 years is 5% of the rate wars of the previous century. According to the United Nations malnutrition is at its lowest point ever.

And those are just a few of the statistics that Easterbrook produced.

The world is an interesting and challenging place. On the one hand we as humans are capable of inflicting unimaginable suffering in places like Syria, and on the other hand we have not only reduced the threat of nuclear war, but in the last few decades the world as a whole has reduced its spending on all things military. On the one hand, we as humans are capable of the most appalling abuse of our fellow human beings when we traffic them into sexual or other forms of slavery and on the other hand, we are capable of acts of utter selflessness when we risk our lives to prevent the spread of deadly diseases or to bring relief to victims of wars and natural disasters.

The future of the world is both hopeless and hopeful, the nature of humanity is both heroic and despicable.

“God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son.” The world of the first century was no less violent, corrupt or inequitable than the world of the twenty-first century. Humanity was as cruel, as greedy and as violent then as it is now. Despite this, despite all the reasons for pessimism, God remained optimistic. God saw the potential in God’s creation and risked everything to save it.

That is not to say that God was or is naïve. The presence of Jesus in the world was not benign – anything but. Jesus was not and is not a comfortable Saviour. Jesus was (and is) confrontational and challenging. His very presence was divisive because it forced people to declare their hands. As the presence of God in the world, Jesus shone a light on injustice, oppression, greed, cruelty and exploitation. Jesus’ love and compassion exposed the baseness and insensitivity of those around him. His generosity and selflessness made people uncomfortable with their own greed and self-absorption. No one wants to feel that they are less than perfect. No one wants to have their flaws opened to the light of day, visible to the scrutiny of others. (They would rather remain in darkness.)

The person of Jesus revealed the true natures of those with whom he came into contact. People were either drawn to or repelled by him depending on their openness to change or their desire to maintain the status quo, their self-awareness or their smug self-satisfaction; their willingness to surrender control or their determination to hold on to their independence. Those who shared Jesus’ love of God and love of humanity found in him a source of hope and strength. Those who sought only their own advancement and gain, saw in Jesus a threat to their way of life. Those who desired to create a world of justice and peace found in Jesus a sense of purpose and direction. Those who were happy with the world as it was saw in Jesus only chaos and disorder.

“God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 is not simply a comforting, comfortable verse that can be easily and blithely turned into some sort of simplistic Christian slogan. It challenges us to think about what it means to believe. The verses that follow tell us that unbelievers are those who do not want to have light shone on their selfishness, their meanness and their desire to dominate others. Unbelievers are those who are happy with the world the way that it is and do not want it to be saved.

Believing in Jesus means being committed ourselves to Jesus’ programme of loving the world. It means allowing both the good and the bad in us to be exposed to the light of God’s love and it means understanding that unless we allow ourselves to be changed we might be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

God so loves the world that, through Jesus he enlists our help to save it. There is no room for neutrality – we are called to make a decision to come into the light or to remain forever in the darkness.

 

 

[1] March 6, 2018, Radio National, Big Ideas.

Breaking the law/keeping the law

March 3, 2018

Lent 3 – 2018

Exodus 20, John 2:13-22, (Mark 11:15-18 )

Marian Free

In the name of God to whose greater wisdom, we must always defer. Amen.

Adrian Plass tells the story of a church that had decided to imitate the Salvation Army and go to the pub to meet local people. Hearing this Beth, an older member of the congregation, drew herself up in her chair and stated categorically: “I would never do that!” Plass looked at her at said: “Suppose that Jesus were to come through that door right now – today – and say: ‘Beth, I want you to come down to the King’s Head with me.’ would you go?” “I would not,” she responded. “But, Beth”, he persisted, “we’re talking about Jesus, the son of God, asking you personally if you would go with him. Would you not go?” “I have never set foot in a public house in my life, and I’m not about to start now,” she stated adamantly. “But if Jesus himself asked – “ “It’s a good witness,” interrupted Beth, “alcohol has never passed my lips and it never will.” “Okay”, Plass said, “Jesus doesn’t want you to actually drink anything intoxicating, he just wants you with him in the King’s Head and – “ Beth shook her head firmly: “No!” Plass continued, “Jesus, God himself, the creator of everything, the reason why we’re all here today – he comes in and he says, ‘Beth, I really need you to come to the pub with me today, so please, please make an exception, just for me.’ Would you go with him?” A tiny crack of uncertainty began to appear. “I suppose”, Beth said, “if he really did have a really, really good reason for asking, I might go.”[1]

Rules make everything clear do they not? They allow us to believe that there is right and there is wrong. As long as we do what is right we are OK. More than that, as long as we don’t break the rules we can feel safe. Beth thought she knew right from wrong, but the rules on which she based her life prevented her from seeing that there were other ways of viewing the world and her faith.

There are a number of problems with believing that rules are fixed and immutable for all time. One is the presumption that it is possible legislate for all the things that really make us better people, a better society. In the letter to the Galatians Paul reminds us that there are no laws that can compel us to love, to be gentle, patient and kind. Such things come from inside a person and cannot be enforced by regulation. A second problem is this – it is simply impossible to draw up legislation to cover every possible eventuality. A man may pride himself on not being a murderer but by his actions and words may behave in ways that are soul-destroying for those around him. A woman may feel self-satisfied because she has never committed adultery but at the same time her words and actions may indicate that she has withdrawn her love from her husband. A third issue, as our common law illustrates, is that there are sometimes mitigating circumstances that lead a person to break the law. So for example, our law distinguishes between murder and manslaughter and accepts that years of abuse may drive a woman to the brink.

The money changers and stall holders in the Temple were doing nothing wrong – just the opposite. The Temple, unlike the church, was not a place in which liturgy was celebrated. Rather, it was primarily the place to which people came to make their offerings (as required by the law) to God. Without money changers and traders it would have been impossible for the Temple to operate as it was intended[2].

If the practice of exchanging money and the selling animals was necessary to the functioning of the Temple, how can we explain Jesus’ actions? The Old Testament quotes suggest that Jesus was not concerned that people were breaking the law. His actions were intended to be symbolic and prophetic, he was not quibbling about details; he was demonstrating that the whole system needed to be replaced.

Today we have heard the account as told by John. Interestingly Mark (and therefore Matthew and Luke) tells the story very differently. According to Mark, Jesus’ actions in the Temple occur in the very last week of his life, at the end of his ministry. The controversy that has dogged Jesus throughout his ministry has come to a head when he enters Jerusalem. It is in the Temple that his final confrontations with the authorities occur and it is here that they determine to kill him. When Jesus drives the people out of the Temple he combines quotes from Isaiah (56:7) and Jeremiah (7:11): “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Mark’s listeners would have heard behind these two quotes their original context. Isaiah is imagining the coming of the kingdom as a time when all peoples will flock to Jerusalem. Jeremiah is criticizing the people of Israel who had placed their trust in the superficial, outward signs of faith rather than in inward change and commitment to God. Marks’ readers would have recognised that Jesus was dramatically illustrating what he had been preaching from the beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Unlike Mark, John places the story at the very beginning of his gospel. Mark highlights Jesus’ preaching. John’s purpose is to illustrate the ways in which Jesus replaces the traditions and practices of Judaism. That is, ‘Jesus’ life, death and resurrection definitively fulfill the meanings of Temple, feasts and Torah’[3]. By driving the money changers and traders out of the Temple, Jesus is making the point that in him the sacrificial system has come to an end, there is no more need for the Temple and its practices because ‘his own self-offering will permanently fulfill the purpose of Temple sacrifice’[4]. In John, Jesus quotes from Zechariah (14:20-21). “Stop making my Father’s house a market place”. He is claiming an intimate relationship with God and, in effect, asserting that the Temple is his house, his body (a claim that is substantiated in the latter part of the reading). The Temple and its practices are no longer necessary, because it is in and through Jesus that the faith will move into the future.

After his death, Jesus’ disciples recall these words and connect them with Psalm 69:9 that also speaks of “my Father’s house”. “Zeal for my Father’s house will consume me.” Retrospectively they understand that this quote is prophetic in two ways – Jesus’ zeal for change led to his crucifixion and it was the authority’s zeal for the present practices and structures that led them to plot Jesus’ death.

Both Mark and John present a Jesus who recognises that the old ways have out-lived their usefulness and who, in the Temple dramatically illustrates the end of the old and the beginning of the new. We can be like Beth, firmly grounded in a rigid an unchanging law, or we can allow Jesus’ words and actions to continue to challenge our present circumstances. Jesus challenges us to see beyond the law to God who gave the law; to rely on God and God’s goodness rather than on a set of prescriptions; to grasp that it is impossible for any number of laws to make us perfect; and to place Jesus (not a set of regulations) between us and God because in Jesus all the barriers have been broken-down and we can relate to God as if face-to-face.

 

 

[1] Cabbages and Kings. Adrian Plass.

[2] The law stipulated that offerings had to be made for specific events and occasions such as when a male child was born or when the crops were harvested. Then there was the question of the Temple Tax. Roman coins carried the image of the Emperor with the designation ‘Son of God’. Even to carry such a coin was considered idolatrous, and using it to pay the Temple tax was impossible. In order for the Temple to function there needed to be people who could exchange Roman coins for Temple money and others to sell the pre-requisites for sacrificial practices.

[3] Denis Hamm liturgy.slu.edu/2LentB030418/the word/hamm/html

[4] op cit

Whose side are you on?

February 24, 2018

Lent 2 – 2018

Mark 8:31-39

Marian Free

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

Last week I suggested that Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was a means of preparing him for what was to come. The hostile environment, the privations and the encounter with Satan could be seen a foretaste of what Jesus could expect as he began his ministry as one who had been named the Son of God. From start to finish, Jesus will encounter misunderstanding, antagonism and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his own disciples. If he could withstand the difficulties that he faced in the desert, he (and God) could be comfortable that he would be able to survive the forces that would oppose him as he attempted to share the good news.

Today’s gospel takes a great leap forward from Jesus’ baptism and temptation. What that means is that we have not been following Mark’s story line and so we have not seen the way in which the tensions between Jesus and his opponents build and develop. We have not been privy to the threats against Jesus’ life that began as early as chapter 3.

To bring you up to speed then: after Jesus’ baptism he is driven into the wilderness where he is tested or tried out by Satan. During the course of his ministry the demons confront him, the leaders of the church challenge and criticize him, his family are concerned that he is mad and now we discover that Peter, one of Jesus’ inner circle, is among those who would oppose or even prevent Jesus’ mission. So serious is Peter’s misunderstanding that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan or the adversary.

Today’s passage, with the one that precedes it, is the climax of Mark’s gospel. In the verses immediately preceding those we have just read, Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They respond: “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ.” Peter has spoken the truth, but what follows demonstrates that Peter knows and understands only half the truth. His understanding of the Christ is limited. It has been conditioned by the cultural expectations of his time and, despite the fact that he has been with Jesus since the beginning, his experiences have not impacted on his expectations.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus is very reluctant to make his identity public. Jesus is well aware that he will fail to meet the hopes of many of the people. He knows that those who were expecting God to send someone to restore the glory of Israel – politically, economically, spiritually – will be seriously disappointed. Jesus does not reveal who he is because he knows that he will be misunderstood. Contrary to the popular thought, Jesus will not be a Christ who will lead the people to a triumphant victory over Rome. He is not a Christ who will restore the purity of the Temple worship. Jesus is neither a warrior nor a high priest.

So, when Peter declares him to be the Christ, Jesus’ qualifies Peter’s declaration with a description of the future that he, as the Christ, can expect. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter has so misunderstood Jesus’ ministry that he is shocked to the core by Jesus’ revelation and so validates Jesus’ belief that he will be misunderstood. In fact, Peter is so shocked that he immediately tries to convince Jesus that he is mistaken.

If Peter’s declaration that Jesus’ is the Christ is the climax of the gospel, then Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction is the other side of that fulcrum. The stakes are high – as is demonstrated by the strong language that is used in this passage. “Epitimaō” the word that is translated as “rebuke” in our versions of the New Testament, means “to overcome with a powerful word”. It can be used to demonstrate the way in which Jesus exercises power over the demons and over the natural elements. In other words it is used in the context of the fierce battle between the demons and the divine. On Peter’s lips it could be translated, “Shut up! Don’t say such things!” On Jesus’ lips, as the text makes clear, it suggests that Jesus understood Peter to be taking the side of the demonic forces that opposed Jesus. Jesus’ response is to tell Peter to go away. A better translation of “Get behind me, Satan,” is: “Depart behind me Satan” (in other words, “Get out of my sight, you have no place alongside the divine”). Not surprisingly, this is the same language used by Matthew when Jesus casts out demons. Jesus banishes Peter not only because he so spectacularly fails to understand but also because he has the arrogance to presume that he knows better than God what lies ahead. In that moment Peter has shown himself to be on the side of Jesus’ opponents who want to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny.

The language of this passage tells us that this is not a simple disagreement between Peter and Jesus but “a life-and-death clash between the divine and the diabolical”.[1]

This brief interchange between Jesus and Peter shows how much is at stake if we fail to truly grasp who and what Jesus is, if we try to contain Jesus through simple and well-worn categories or if we think that we know better than God. Jesus’ crucifixion is proof-positive that God acts in ways that we do not expect and that we cannot comprehend. The cross throws into relief all our false ideas, our hopes and expectations. Jesus is not all-powerful and all-knowing, but vulnerable and subject to misunderstanding. Jesus’ life, ministry and ultimately Jesus’ death forces us to continually rethink our ideas about God – who is not triumphant, who does not exert God’s will over us and who shows in high relief the distinction between the divine and its opposite.

Jesus is not and will not be who or what we expect. So let us not make Peter’s mistake of assuming that we know and understand, but rather suspend our certainty so that we can learn from Christ who and what he is.

 

 

 

 

[1] C. Clifton Black, workingpreacher.org. Lent 2 2018.

Children of God, beloved and special

February 17, 2018

Lent 1 – 2018

Mark 1:9-15

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who strengthens us and equips us for all the good and the bad that we might be asked to face. Amen.

Did you notice something missing from today’s gospel? You might have been expecting to hear the details of the three temptations – turning stones into bread, jumping off a cliff and worshipping Satan. These specific details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness (listed by both Luke and Matthew) are missing in Mark’s gospel. They are apparently of little consequence for Mark as he pushes on to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. Probably because Mark’s account is so stark, the lectionary writers have included Jesus’ baptism in today’s gospel. This creates an interesting juxtaposition: baptism followed by temptation, public repentance followed by private battles within, a declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, followed by Jesus being driven into the wilderness.

If we read the account of the baptism on its own without understanding the consequences it becomes a wonderful affirmation of Jesus. Though Jesus alone sees and hears, the events that accompany Jesus’ baptism are quite extraordinary. The heavens are literally torn apart, the Spirit descends as if a dove and Jesus hears the voice of God from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It must have been both an inspiring and terrifying moment. Jesus heard God assuring him that he was doing the right thing and that his relationship with God was of the highest order, Father and Son.

Why then does the Spirit (note: not the devil) immediately drive Jesus out into the wilderness – that godless, inhospitable and unforgiving place – to be tempted by Satan and threatened by wild animals? To experience both physical and spiritual adversity? At first sight, it seems to be back-to-front. Doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus would want to repent after a time of reflection and temptation? Doesn’t make more sense for Jesus to be tested before God tears apart the heavens and sends the Spirit upon him? Doesn’t it seem that it would be more prudent for God to have been certain that Jesus was ready the task before he took the radical step of affirming him as God’s Son? I wonder, what would have happened if Jesus had failed the test? Could God take the Son thing back?

Two things help us to make sense of the order of events as they are presented. The first is the parallel between Jesus’ experience and that of Israel. Before God led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, God declared that Israel was God’s Son. God thus affirmed the status of Israel and, through the cloud and the fiery pillar, God provided proof that God would provide for them and would never desert them. Yet, despite such assurance, Israel grumbled against God and relied on their own resources to the extent of making their own gods thus demonstrating that they had little to no faith in God’s promises.

When Jesus is declared to be God’s Son and led into the wilderness he places his trust entirely in God, he refuses to rely on his own resources or to put God to the test. As a result Jesus is able to withstand the privations of the desert and as a result is “ministered to by the angels”. Jesus did what Israel could not – he believed not that God would spare him from trouble, but that when trouble came his way he could rely on God to provide the strength to see him through.

We better understand the order of events when we remember that throughout Jesus’ ministry, he will face hostility and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his disciples. Jesus’ journey, once begun, will lead only to suffering and the cross. At Jesus’ baptism then, God gives Jesus the resources that he will need for whatever lies ahead – the absolute assurance that he is God’s Son and the implied assurance that, whatever lies ahead, God will be with him. The wilderness is a sign of what is to come. Jesus begins his ministry with the endorsement of God’s love and approval ringing in his ears – an endorsement that sustains him in the wilderness and throughout the challenges and threats that dog his ministry.

At our Baptism we are told: “the promises of God are signed and sealed for us.” And we are assured of the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are not empty words, but gifts to sustain us through thick and thin. They are gifts that assure us that God will be with us every step of the way: sustaining us, encouraging us and equipping us to face whatever dangers, griefs or hardships that might come our way.

Lent, our time in the wilderness, need not be a time of self-flagellation, a time of reminding ourselves how far we fall short or a time of stressing about what we need to do to be holier or kinder, more loving or more patient. Lent can be a time of letting go, a time for reminding ourselves that we can place our trust completely in God, that we can rely on God to be there in our times of need and that we can trust God to hold us up when we feel that we can go no further.

No one can predict what life will throw at us. The question is not whether we will have wilderness experiences, but whether our confidence in God is sufficient to see us through. May this Lent be for us all a time to renew our trust in God, to make peace with the lives that we have and to believe that whatever happens God has, waiting for us, an eternity that is beyond our capacity to imagine.


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