Wholly and unreservedly

June 3, 2017

Pentecost – 2017

John 20:19-23

Marian Free

In the name of God who enlivens and empowers us to do God’s will on the earth. Amen.

The third person of the Trinity is, in all but Pentecostal circles, the most neglected of the three. For a start, out of 52 Sundays each year we only dedicate one to the Holy Spirit. The Apostle’s Creed mentions the Holy Spirit only by name. The Nicean Creed describes the Holy Spirit in more detail, but both creeds include the Spirit with belief in the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. It hardly seems respectful, but it does illustrate the fact that the church as a whole becomes lost for words when trying to describe and express faith in something as indescribable as the Holy Spirit. God’s creative energy and power are visible in creation. Jesus lived and breathed as a human being, but the Spirit is elusive, vague and impossible to pin down or to define.

In the New Testament the Spirit is described both as breath and as fire or violent wind. At Jesus’ baptism the spirit appears as a dove. In Corinth the Spirit was discerned in the ways in which members of the community were gifted to speak in tongues, to prophesy or to teach. According to Galatians observers will recognize the Spirit through our love, gentleness, patience and long-suffering. Apparently the Holy Spirit can be wild and unsettling or tame and enabling.

In the church’s calendar we celebrate the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (the Jewish Festival of Booths) fifty days after the Passover, or in our case fifty days after Easter. The scene for such remembrance is one with which we are very familiar – the rush of wind and the tongues of fire; God’s dramatic bestowal of the Spirit from heaven.

According to John’s gospel however, the conferring of the Spirit on the disciples is very different. The Spirit is given directly to the disciples by Jesus. It is not conferred remotely, dramatically or colourfully nor is accompanied by signs such as being able to speak in a multitude of languages. In John’s gospel the bestowing of the Spirit is, as you might expect, intimate and intensely personal, indicative of the union between Jesus and the disciples that has been the theme of our readings over the past few weeks. The giving of the Spirit brings to a conclusion Jesus’ mission and it brings to fulfillment the promises Jesus has made to the disciples almost since the beginning of his ministry.

Jesus has made numerous references to the Spirit. When he visits Jesus at night Nicodemus is told that he must be born of water and the Spirit. In the same chapter readers are told that the one whom God has sent – Jesus – will give the Spirit without measure. In the alternate gospel reading for today (Chapter 7) we read that those who believe in Jesus will receive the Spirit which will be like streams of water flowing out of the believer’s heart. At his final meal with the disciples, Jesus promises that the disciples will not be left orphaned by his going, because he will send “another Advocate” – the Spirit of truth who will continue to teach them and will remind them of everything that Jesus has said to them.

Jesus’ guarantees the Spirit as a quiet assurance that the presence of God that they have known through Jesus will not abandon them even when Jesus is not physically with them. He promises the disciples that the intimacy that they have shared with him will continue through the presence of Holy Spirit.

John’s time frame is quite different from that of the author of Luke/Acts. Whereas Luke divides the events after Jesus’ death into the resurrection (three days later), the Ascension (forty days later) and the coming of the Spirit (fifty days later), the author of John records the giving of the Spirit on the same day as the resurrection.

John provides us with a much more personal account of the conferring of the Spirit. There is no rushing wind, no tongues of fire and no terrifying, awe-inspiring visitation from heaven. Admittedly Jesus appears out of nowhere but having given the disciples proof that it is he, Jesus simply breathes on the disciples transferring his Spirit to them. In so doing Jesus is extinguishing everything that had made them distinct or separate from him. From this moment on their union with Jesus is complete. The role that God gave him to perform, Jesus now gives to them. As the Father sent him, so now he sends the disciples. Jesus does more than hand over the baton. He empowers the disciples to do everything that he has done (and more) (14:12).

These are the same disciples who fled when Jesus was arrested, denied him three times and abandoned him to face the cross alone. Weak, faithless and frightened, these are the people whom Jesus commissions to take his place. That the Spirit empowers them to rise to the challenge is demonstrated by the fact that despite being few in number, uneducated and unknown they were sufficiently effective that, two thousand years later we are here affirming the faith that they proclaimed.

Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives himself wholly and unreservedly to us – entrusting us to be the presence of God in the world. Jesus unites himself to us so completely that there should be no distinction between the Holy Spirit and ourselves. If there is any separation between us it is not because Jesus distances himself from us, but because we distance ourselves from him.

Jesus gives himself wholly and without reserve to us. What is it that prevents our giving ourselves completely and wholeheartedly to him?

If the Holy Spirit could inspire and enliven such a rag-tag group of people who had no resources, no education and no influence or power, imagine what the Holy Spirit could do with us!

 

 

One with God or with each other?

May 27, 2017

Easter 7 – 2017

John 17:1-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us into union with God, with Jesus our Saviour and with each other. Amen.

In the wrong hands the Bible – indeed any religious texts – can be dangerous. This is blatantly obvious at present as we live with the consequences of Islamic extremism. No faith is exempt from the misinterpretation or misuse of its holy texts. We have to acknowledge that over the centuries even Christian texts have been used in ways that are punitive and even abusive. Passages from the bible have at times been used to limit and oppress rather than to liberate and make whole. Witness for example, the centuries during which it was believed that the inequitable distribution of wealth was God’s design. The poor were poor because that was how God ordered the world – not because kings and nobles taxed them beyond their means. For centuries it was taught and believed (at least by some) that the bible sanctioned violence against women and that women who were beaten by their husbands should not only endure such violence, but that they should also forgive the perpetrator thereby being forced to collude in their abuse.

In the case of today’s gospel, the final half sentence: “That they may be one as we are one” was used as a weapon in the debate about the ordination of women. Those who supported such a move were accused of being divisive and of wanting to destroy the church. Indeed the insinuation was that in seeking change they were going against the express will of Jesus in John 17:11. It was both a powerful and a manipulative strategy, designed to unsettle those who supported the ordination of women, to appealing to their core beliefs and making them feel guilty for daring to suggest change. (Interestingly, the opponents of the ordination of women did not believe that by refusing to accept change it might have been they not the others who were causing division.)

John 17:11 has been used to support unity within the church and between the churches and a quick look at the website textthisweek suggests that this is the most common interpretation of this verse and the most common theme of sermons on this passage. However, if we examine the verse in its immediate context and in the context of the gospel as a whole, we will recognise that the prayer is slanted somewhat differently.

As we saw a number of weeks ago, a key theme of the Johannine gospel is that of the unity of the Father and the Son. Over and over again, the Johannine Jesus states that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. The union between Jesus and God is such that to know one is to know the other. Now we learn that Jesus is sharing with the disciples the union that exists between himself and God. Jesus prays that the lives of the disciples will be indistinguishable from that of the Father and the Son.

Chapter 17 is a part of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prepares the disciples for his departure and for life without him. After announcing that he is going away, Jesus encourages the disciples to live in him (as branches attached to a vine) and he promises to send them the Advocate – the Spirit of Truth. Now he prays – for himself and for them – beginning with an appeal to God that his role may be brought to completion. In John’s gospel the cross is not something to be avoided but to be embraced. It is on the cross that Jesus will be glorified, because it is here that his complete submission to God will be demonstrated, it here that he will be lifted up and from here that he will be able to hand over his spirit to his followers.

Death is merely the fulfillment of his mission: “Glorify me,” Jesus prays “with the glory that I had before the world existed”. As we learn in the very first verse of this gospel, Jesus and the Father have been united since before time began. Jesus continues by praying for the disciples. He prays that they union that he shares with God will not be shared with those who believe in him.

That Jesus is praying that the disciples will be one with himself (and therefore with God) is confirmed if we read to the end of the prayer. In verses 21-23 Jesus prays again: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The prayer concludes: “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” If the disciples are united to God in the same way that Jesus is united to God then, God will be known through them as God was made known through Jesus.

At the end of the Farewell Speech, Jesus commissions the disciples to continue his work in the world. As God sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends the disciples. As Jesus revealed the Father, so now the disciples have the responsibility of revealing both the Father and the Son. They cannot do this if they insist on asserting their individuality and on going their own way. The only way that the disciples can achieve union with God is if, like Jesus, they hand themselves over entirely to God and submit themselves completely to God’s will. By subsuming their own needs and individuality into the Godhead, they will allow God to be made known through them. Their union with God will in turn lead to unity with one another.

It’s all a matter of what we take as our starting place. If we begin by believing that God is insisting that we live in complete unity, we can end up chasing the wrong goal – focusing on ending our internal divisions rather than focusing on our union with God. If however we make it our primary goal to seek union with God, the end result will union with one another – in our Parishes, in our Dioceses and with the members of other churches.

 

Never alone

May 20, 2017

Easter 6 – 2017

John 14:15-21

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is with us and in us even in the moments of our darkest despair. Amen.

(Imagine the preacher bursting into song)

“Hallelujah! not as orphans,

are we left in sorrow now;

hallelujah! he is near us,

faith believes, nor questions how.”

 

For reasons unknown, this half verse of the hymn “Hallelujah! sing to Jesus”, resonated with my childhood self. While I knew all the words to “There was a green hill far away” it was the line “not as orphans” that would come to mind at unexpected moments and take me back to the safety and security of the gathered congregation of my youth and the experience of the assurance and comfort of my faith.

I have no idea why these words had such power. I was not (and at 60 years old am still not) an orphan. My life has been extraordinarily blessed. Even now I can say that I have known very little of the sorrow and loss that is an inescapable part of life.

So why, I wonder, did I feel such a strong connection with those words? I suspect that the answer lies in the very negative images associated with being orphaned. It conjures up images of children bereft of love being raised in children’s homes or worse seeking out some form of living on the streets. The phrase “being orphaned” leads us to imagine a life without the security of home and family and having to shift for ourselves with no protection from the harsh realities of the world.

So even though my family remained in tact, the promise of the words has given me the assurance that no matter what happens I will never, ever be alone. In all the circumstances I can have confidence that Jesus will be with me and will never abandon me.

No doubt this was Jesus’ intention when he spoke these words to the disciples when he prepared them for his departure. As we saw last week, the disciples are troubled and confused. They seem to be uncertain as to what they might do if Jesus leaves them. In response Jesus assures them that the connection that they have with them will not be broken even if he is not physically present with them. In today’s gospel, Jesus extends this idea by promising them that they will not be alone when he goes. He will send them the Spirit. Just as he (Jesus) abides in them, so the Spirit will abide in them. It will be, he promises, as if they never separated.

It is in the midst of this, the second unit in Jesus’ farewell speech, that Jesus assures the disciples that they will not be left as orphans. For Jesus’ listeners this would have been an emotionally charged statement. Orphans and widows were the most vulnerable members of Israelite society. There was no social welfare. There were no children’s homes. Widows and orphans were completely dependent on the goodness of others or entirely reliant on their own resources.

The strength of Jesus’ statement is increased by its position in this section of the speech. These seven verses have been structured in such a way that the short sentence about being orphaned falls right in the middle. What is more the sentences either side repeat the same ideas in reverse. That is, there are three ideas that are presented in parallel around the central idea that the disciples will not be abandoned[1]. (This is typical of the Farewell Speech in which the various units are made up of a “spiral of thought” in which the last idea is similar to the first and so on.)

In other words the section looks like this. It is framed by the notion that the love of Jesus and keeping the commandments go hand in hand (14: 15, 21). Within this frame is, first of all the idea that the disciples will be connected with Jesus forever (14:16 – through the Spirit, 14:20 – through the mutual indwelling of Jesus and within that again, the concept that the world will not be able to receive the Spirit or see Jesus (14:17, 14:19). Then in the very middle of this cluster of ideas is the promise that the disciples will not be orphaned.

The sub-text is clear, do not be afraid, do not worry, you will never, ever be alone.

In the midst of the trouble and turmoil of this world, we are promised – not that we will never come to harm – but that in our darkest moments, at the times when we feel that God is far from our reach, we have not and will not be abandoned. God is with us – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, Father, Son and Spirit. No matter what life throws at us we will not face it without God by our side.

“Hallelujah! not as orphans,

are we left in sorrow now;

hallelujah! he is near us,

faith believes, nor questions how.”

Words of comfort and security for a child, that remain a promise and assurance for the adult I have become. May they be for you a reminder of God’s presence that will never be withdrawn from you.

[1] John 14:15   “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 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. 18   “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

 

A relationship that endures

May 13, 2017

Easter 5 – 2017

John 14:1-14

Marian Free

In the name of God in whom and with whom we abide both now and for eternity. Amen.

Some images stay with you forever don’t they? One that comes back to me from time to time is that of the actor Kris Marshall curled up in a baby’s cot sound asleep. Now Kris must be about six-foot tall so it is hard to believe that his character fit in the cot, let alone fell asleep, but it was a convincing enough image. The scene I am referring to comes from a British sitcom, My Family about the family of Ben Harper a dentist who is married to Susan who is a control freak who can’t cook. They have three children: dopey Nick (played by Kris Marshal), shallow Janey and clever Michael. Nick has no sense of direction and no career path. Janey is at University but is more interested in boys than study and Michael, who is much younger, is at school and is the intellectual of the family.

In the programme that I am recalling, Nick has moved out of home and Susan and Ben have been fighting over who will use his room and for what. Before they come to any agreement (which was unlikely anyway) Janey announces that she is pregnant.

From Susan’s point of view it is quite clear that now there is no question – Nick’s room must be turned into a nursery. Nick is devastated by the news. The room that he has decorated to his bizarre taste represents more than just a physical space. It’s black painted walls, black furniture and bedding are all a part of his identity. As long as the bedroom remained his bedroom there was a place for him to come home to. Irrationally, he feels that a part of his life is being taken away from him. All the warmth, security and sense of belonging that he associates with that room will disappear if it is redecorated and given over to someone else. Despite his protests, Susan is unmoved. The black paint is stripped, the black furniture removed and the black bedclothes are sent away. Susan spends the day happily painting and Ben spends the day struggling to assemble the flat pack cot.

The next morning, when Susan comes in to admire her handiwork and to complete the redecoration there, curled up in the cot, is Nick – making one final claim on his space and his place in the family. I suspect that it is because he seems so vulnerable that the image has stayed in my mind for so long.

For those who are lucky enough to have a room of their own, it can take on a special significance – it can be a place to escape to, a place in which to express oneself without fear of criticism or a place in which, surrounded by things a person loves, a place of safety.

It is no wonder that John 14 is such a popular reading and that it is the reading chosen more often than not for a funeral. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” or as it was once translated “in my Father’s house there are many rooms.” For those of us who have had happy homes, this image appeals to our comfortable memories and provides assurance for the future and for those for whom home has never been a happy place, it is an image that holds the promise of a home that is warm, safe and secure.

The first century was vastly different from the modern world. Most families lived in one or two room homes. A room of one’s own was a luxury that only the very rich could afford. Jesus’ followers would never have known what it was to have a space that was one’s very own so it is striking that Jesus should use this image to describe the heavenly realm as a house.

Chapter 14 begins what we call Jesus’ farewell speech. In the previous chapter John describes Jesus’ last supper with the disciples. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, announced that one of the assembled few will betray him and Judas has gone out into the night. No doubt the disciples were already feeling a little confused and uncertain when Jesus announced not only that he was going away, but also that the disciples would not be able to go where he was going. Their relationship with Jesus has provided a sense of security and a feeling of belonging. Now this has been placed at risk. Jesus is going somewhere and they will not be able to follow.

It is little wonder that Jesus seeks to reassure the disciples that they still have a place with him: “I go to prepare a place for you,” he says. Their sense of belonging and their feelings of warmth and security are dependent, not on bricks and mortar, but on the relationship that they have with Jesus, a relationship that will not be broken or changed by his going away.

One of the dominant themes of John’s gospel is that of dwelling or remaining or abiding. The Greek word μενω (remain, dwell, abide) occurs 40 times. Jesus abides in the Father and the Father abides in the Son. Jesus says to his disciples: “abide in me as I abide in you”. In this gospel dwelling or abiding doesn’t refer to a physical space, but rather to a relationship that is so intimate and so intense that it can only be described as mutual indwelling. It is a relationship that is so close and so personal that Jesus can claim that to see him is to see God. The relationship is so intense that one cannot be separated or distinguished from the other. This is the relationship that Jesus offers to the disciples – they are to be one with him as he is one with God. They need not fear his going away because what unites them transcends time and space and knows no separation either now or in the future.

It is easy to imagine, like Nick, that our security is dependent on a particular space or a particular group of people. Jesus challenges us to see beyond the purely material to the spiritual and to find there a sense of wholeness, meaning and well-being that is not reliant on the things of this world and which endures for all eternity.

 

Gates – openings or barriers?

May 6, 2017

Easter 4 – 2017

John 10:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires only what is best for us. Amen.

The first ten verses in chapter 10 of John’s gospel are rather puzzling. Is Jesus the gate, the door or the shepherd? Is Jesus both the gate and the shepherd? How does Jesus’ being the gate relate to having life in abundance? Who are the thieves and robbers? Part of the difficulty in understanding this passage is that the lectionary gives us only a small portion of the picture. Properly speaking, today’s gospel belongs in a section of John that begins at 9:39 and that concludes at 10:21. This becomes clear when we see that the passage begins and ends with a commentary on blindness and a reference to the division among the Jews as to the identity of Jesus. The Pharisees and their supporters claim that Jesus is an imposter, but those who can see clearly, recognise Jesus as the one sent by God.

In the previous chapter, Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath. This caused the Pharisees to be incensed not only because Jesus had broken the Sabbath law but because they were in danger of losing their place in society and the influence that they exerted over the people. In order shore up their position they tried to discredit both the blind man and Jesus. Jesus cannot have come from God because they know nothing about him! From their point of view Jesus (and the man who was healed) are making claims that cannot possibly be substantiated. Even so, there is something about Jesus that represents a threat to their authority and to their role. This is why it is so important that they convince the blind man that Jesus is an imposter.

Despite their best efforts the man born blind refuses to be swayed by their bullying and their insults. It is clear to him that Jesus must be from God – otherwise he could do nothing. He declares that Jesus is God and worships him.

It is in this context of conflict and division that Jesus uses the imagery of shepherding to describe the difference between himself and the Pharisees. Indirectly, Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of deceiving the people and of trying to manipulate them into believing what they, the Pharisees, want them to believe. The Pharisees are not true shepherds but are thieves and robbers who seek, not to benefit, but harm them. They are standing in the way of the fullness of life that belongs people of God. They are stifling and confining them, instead of nurturing and freeing them.

Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with the image of a shepherd. In the Old Testament the bad shepherds are those thoughtless, uncaring leaders who abandon their flock to the wolves. In contrast to them, God is the Good Shepherd, and God will establish over the people of Israel “one shepherd, my servant David, who shall feed them and be their shepherd”(Ezek 34:23-24). By claiming for himself the title of Good Shepherd, Jesus is identifying himself as the “one shepherd” sent by God.

When the Pharisees fail to recognise Jesus as the one sent by God and try to persuade others to their point of view the people they reveal their blindness and their self-centredness. They are devious and untrustworthy, but the sheep are not so easily deceived. As the man born blind has demonstrated, the people, despite the intimidation of the Pharisees, recognise Jesus and willingly follow him. It is this – the fact that the people respond to Jesus – that demonstrates that he, not the Pharisees is the shepherd of the sheep.

Just as they did not understand that they were blind, so now the Pharisees do not understand that Jesus is accusing them of being thieves and robbers. Jesus tries another image. He is, he says, the gate. it is through him that the sheep enter the security of salvation, and through him that they go out again to find pasture. Unlike the Pharisees who try to restrict and control the people by putting barriers in their way, Jesus opens the gate to free them to come and go as they please – to make up their own minds as to whom to follow.

Jesus continues this discourse by describing himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. At the conclusion of this section we return to where we began with the division between the people over the identity of Jesus. There are still those who believe that he has a demon and is out of his mind, but there are others who say: “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

When we have the whole picture, Jesus as both gate and shepherd makes sense. In the context of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus uses the familiar imagery of the shepherd and the sheepfold to make two points. He exposes the dishonesty and deviousness of the Pharisees – false shepherds who don’t use the gate, but who try to get to the sheep by stealth and who constrain others to their narrow views. Jesus is the true shepherd and he is the gate. As the gate, Jesus does not confine or restrict, but provides access both in and out – not only admitting the sheep into the security of the sheepfold but also freeing them to go out to seek nourishing and sustaining pasture.

The Good Shepherd can easily be distinguished from the false shepherd, because the Good Shepherd does not seek to benefit himself or to dominate or control in the name of God. The Good Shepherd knows us by name and has our best interests at heart. Jesus the Good Shepherd who is also the gate, does not seek to manipulate or to constrain but frees us to live life the full, to have life and to have it abundantly.

 

Second-guessing God

April 29, 2017

Easter 3 – 2017

Luke 24:13-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who alone knows all things. Amen.

Too often, we make up our minds about people and situations without having all the facts at our disposal. For example, many of us (myself included) feel that we are in a position to make statements about the present political situation in the United States and elsewhere, about the war in Syria or about the housing crisis in Australia. Using information that we glean from news sources, radio or TV programmes or from our own experience, we confidently utter what we believe to be truths even though we do not necessarily know the complexities of the situation. Truth be told we would probably find it difficult to engage in social conversation if we hadn’t formed some sort of opinion on these issues. With any luck our conversation partner might add some further information that helps us to rethink our position or to engage in some proper research around the issue so that we are properly informed.

We do the same with people don’t we? Sometimes we form an opinion on the basis of only half the story. When someone behaves in a way that we don’t expect or that doesn’t meet with our approval, we can be quick to form a judgement about him or her. On closer acquaintance with the person we may learn something about their background and history that not only explains their behaviour, but that also challenges our first impression and forces us to rethink our opinion.

Cleopas and his companion (his wife? have made up their minds about the recent events in Jerusalem. They are returning home from the festival of the Passover – despondent and confused. So much has happened over the past few days and, try as they might they cannot make sense of it. Based on their preconceptions, they had come to believe that they knew who Jesus was and what he might mean for Israel. Although (unusually) we have the name of one of the pair, we know very little about them. Apparently they, with thousands of others, have been in Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. Given that they know the disciples, it is possible that they themselves were already members of Jesus’ circle. At the very least they had been drawn into the excitement and anticipation that attended Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. They had been caught up in the things that he had said and done over the past few days. Along with many in the crowds they had believed that Jesus was “the one who was going to redeem Israel”. But all their hopes and expectations were dashed when, on the eve of the Passover, Jesus was put to death in the most horrible and unexpected way.

Now they do not know what to think. They are ill equipped to interpret Jesus’ violent and shameful death. Even though there are reports that Jesus has risen they are returning home as planned assuming that the story has ended – that Jesus was not “the one”. Their life, they believe will go back to the way it always was and they will continue to wait for a Redeemer.

Cleopas and his companion leave Jerusalem and begin walking the seven miles to their home. As they walk they revisit the events of the last few days, trying to make sense of what had happened. How could something that began so well end so badly? How could it be that something that appeared to be so certain came to nothing – worse than nothing? What could it possibly mean? Where was God in all of this?

The pair is so caught up in their own thoughts that they don’t pay attention when someone catches up and begins to walk with them. They certainly don’t recognise the person as Jesus. The stranger recognises their grief and draws them out. Using the scriptures he explains that the events of the past few days make perfect sense in the context of Moses and the prophets. More than that the idea of a suffering Messiah is perfectly consistent with God’s purpose and will.

It is not clear whether or not the two are comforted or reassured by Jesus’ words, but he has said enough that they seem anxious to continue the conversation when night falls and Jesus makes as if to walk on further. When they are at table and Jesus breaks the bread they finally see that it is the risen Jesus who has joined them. At last all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Once they have seen for themselves that Jesus really has risen from the dead, everything else becomes clear, the words of scripture begin to make sense. Jesus’ death was not the end that they had thought it was! They had drawn the wrong conclusion – everything had happened just as it was supposed to. God had acted in history as Moses and the prophets foretold. Jesus was the Redeemer of Israel! Even though it is now evening, Cleopas and his wife leave for Jerusalem at once so that they can share the good news with the remainder of the disciples.

Having all the information enables us to make sense of the world around us. It helps us to put events into perspective and to make intelligent judgments about current affairs as well as about the people we encounter.

When things trouble us, when the world does not make sense, it is important not to jump to conclusions, not to believe we can work things out for ourselves and most importantly, not to second-guess God. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we will be able to find meaning in events that at first didn’t make sense. Sometimes we will be given or will find information that fills in the details that were missing and that helps us to put the pieces of the puzzle together. At other times we will simply have to keep going with our lives, believing that Jesus will draw beside us as a source of strength and meaning.

Only God has the whole picture. Hard as it is, there are times when we will have to put all our trust in God, believing that God will pull us through and that at some point – in the near or distant future – we will at least come to understand the rich tapestry of joy and sorrow, tragedy and triumph that makes up our lives.

 

Living with the promise of the future not the guilt of the past

April 22, 2017

Easter 2 – 2017

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who sets us free from sin and death and who raises us to newness of life with and in and through Jesus Christ. Amen.

It should be obvious by now that I don’t believe that shame and guilt are characteristics of a Christian life. As I have repeated throughout Lent, I firmly believe that God loves us unconditionally and that in itself makes us people of worth.

Having said that let me be quite clear about two things. Firstly if we have wronged someone or done something that we should not have done, we must take responsibility for our actions and at that point feeling ashamed and/or guilty is absolutely justified (if not essential). Shame and guilt can become a problem if, having apologized to the offended person and to God we continue to feel bad about what we have done. A second proviso is this, if we have been treated in such a way that leads us to feel polluted, weak or shameful we must not add to those feelings a sense of guilt about not being able to shake such feelings. As we have belatedly learnt, victims of abuse may need more than a lifetime to overcome feelings of shame, despite the fact that they are not/were not at fault. To impose on such people an insistence not to feel guilty is to perpetuate the abuse.

In saying that shame and guilt are not characteristics of a Christian life I mean that we are not intended to carry around our wrongdoings or a sense of worthlessness, because God has already accepted and overlooked our faults. If we are weighed down by actions in our past we may not able to move forward and to get on with living the life that God intends for us.

Jesus’ resurrection assures us that we can leave the past behind and begin again. Knowing the power of the resurrection in our lives enables us to experience the life, joy and freedom that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes possible.

The message of the resurrection is twofold. Jesus’ resurrection opens for us the way to eternal life. What is more important in the present is that the resurrection of Jesus models for all believers the power of dying to our old life and rising to the possibility of a new beginning. As followers of the risen Christ we are encouraged to continually let go of the past – past behaviours, past sins, past sorrows – and to step into a new way of being, a new way of behaving, a new way of living.

If Jesus resurrection were not enough to convince us to leave the past behind and to move into the future, surely Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances confirm Jesus’ loving, forgiving nature and his willingness to overlook past mistakes and to look future possibilities. I don’t need to remind you that all the disciples failed Jesus and failed Jesus badly – betrayal, denial, abandonment. To make matters worse all, with the exception of Judas, had promised to remain true and even to die with Jesus. When it came to the point however, Peter who had assured Jesus that he would never deny him, did so three times. The disciples who had promised to remain even till death disappeared at the first sign of trouble. Jesus died alone, without the comfort of the twelve men who were closest to him.

Yet when Jesus appears to the disciples, he doesn’t mention their failures to support him nor does he express disappointment that they fled when the soldiers came and that even though they know he has been raised from the dead, they are still cowering in terror. Jesus does not hold the disciples to account, nor does he try to make them feel responsible. He does not reprimand them for failing to be true to their word. Jesus does not behave in a way that would cause them to squirm or speak to them in such a way as to humiliate or mortify them.

From Jesus’ point of view it is as though nothing untoward had ever happened, as if everything were as it was before his arrest. When Jesus appears to the disciples, his forgiveness and grace are expressed in four ways: he does not bring up the past; he offers the disciples peace; he commissions them to do his own work and he gives them the Holy Spirit! In other words, even though the disciples have demonstrated that they are completely and utterly untrustworthy, Jesus not only expresses his continued trust in them and in their abilities but he trust them and empowers them to continue the work that the Father sent him to do.In other words, Jesus makes this unlikely, unsuitable group of disciples his agents in the world because Jesus looks not to the past but to the future, Jesus sees not the disciples’ flaws but their potential.

As that old collect says: God who created us, knows of what it is we are made. God knows that we are weak and foolish and timid. God understands that we are likely to fail – not once, but over and over again and, not once, but over and over again God puts us back on our feet and allows us to start over.

This is what it is like with God. Once we have honestly faced up to what we have done, once we have admitted our fault to ourselves and to God, it is as if it never happened. We begin with a completely new slate, restored, whole and at peace with the world and with ourselves.

We owe it to God, we owe it to ourselves to try to accept the peace of the risen Christ and to aim to live each day with the promise of the future, not the guilt of the past.

Do your worst. I still love you.

April 15, 2017

Easter – 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who no matter what we do never, ever gives up on us. Amen.

I can still remember the television footage of the moment when the father of Scott Rush first met his son in the prison in Bali. Scott you will recall had been arrested with eight others for attempting to bring a 1.3 kg of heroin into Australia. I imagine that at the moment of Scott’s arrest his parent’s lives will have been completely turned upside down. Their son who had had the advantages of a comfortable upbringing and had attended a good private secondary school was now facing a lengthy jail term, if not death, in a country whose culture and legal system are very different from our own. Scott’s parents Lee and Chris had had to drop whatever they were doing to fly to Bali. No doubt they incurred considerable disruption and expense in the process, not to mention the anxiety and fear that would have attended the news of their son’s arrest. Imagine the embarrassment and shame – visiting Bali as parents of a drug smuggler, facing their friends and acquaintances at home and being exposed to intense media interest.

Media reports suggest that Scott was a drug user who was already known to police and who was wanted in Australia on an outstanding warrant for stealing nearly $5000 from an Australian bank. While he may have been caught up in something bigger than he realised, he was no innocent.

When Scott’s parents arrived at the jail surrounded by TV cameras, they didn’t remonstrate with Scott. They didn’t say: “why have you done this to us?” or “what were you thinking?” They didn’t reproach him for humiliating them or berate him for being so foolish. At what must have been an extraordinarily difficult moment, Scott’s mother Chris said to the journalists who crowded in on them: “I love him”. When his father Lee comes face to face with Scott for the first time, he says, as I recall: “you’re a good boy.” “I love him.” “You’re a good boy.” In the eyes of the world, in the eyes of every parent whose child has become addicted to drugs and especially in the eyes of the Indonesian legal system, Scott was anything but “a good boy”. To his father however, he was and remained “a good boy”.

Drugs – the addiction, the temptation to make vast amounts of money with relatively little effort – show humanity at its worst. Vulnerable people are taken advantage of, dealers use violence or threats of violence to protect their patch, to extract money for debts and to prevent people from breaking free of the habit. Addicts turn to crime and sometimes to aggressive behaviour to pay for their next fix. It is a dark and shadowy world that I am glad to have no part of. Scott might have only been on the fringes of that world, but he was part of it. Yet his father can say: “You’re a good boy”.

The events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion depict humanity at its worst. The disciple who for reasons unknown sells his teacher and friend for thirty pieces of silver, the remaining disciples who promise to be with Jesus even to death, but who abandon him and deny him, the priests who fabricate evidence against him, the solders who mock him, the governor, swayed by the crowd who refuses to do what he knows is right, the lynch mob who bay for Jesus’ death, the crowds who revile him and the soldiers and fellow criminals who taunt him. An innocent man is condemned to torture and death in order to preserve the status quo and to please the crowds.

The story might have ended there. The body of Jesus sealed in a tomb and guarded by soldiers. After all that the people (friend and foe alike) had done, God might simply have thrown up God’s hands in horror and washed God’s hands of an ungrateful and uncaring humanity. God had sent Jesus into the world to save the world, instead God watches humanity spurns the gift, as Jesus endured first betrayal, then trumped-up charges and finally an excruciating death. Imagine for a moment, God’s having to watch humanity behaving in such a debased, immoral and cruel way. Such behaviour would try the patience and love of the most loving and forgiving parent.

One might be excused for thinking that God had done enough for God’s people. God chose them from among all the nations, sent Joseph to Egypt to save them from the famine, brought them out of Egypt when they were no longer welcome and remained loyal and loving despite their waywardness, their lack of confidence in God’s power to save and protect, their failure to listen to the prophets and their chasing after other gods. As a last resort God came among them as one of them in the form of Jesus but they responded by murdering him and with him all hope of salvation. If at that point, God had decided that enough was enough no one would have thought that God was being unreasonable or vindictive. If God had walked away from creation in despair most would think that that was what humanity deserved. Yet God remained steadfast, God did not withdraw God’s love but instead raised Jesus from the dead. In effect God said to the world: “you’re a good boy, you’re a good girl – I love you.”

“I love you. You have done your worst, but I love you. You have shown yourself to be weak, disloyal, fickle and cruel and yet I still love you.”

“I still love you.” The most sure and certain proof of God’s love for us is the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection assures us that no matter what we do, no matter how far we stray, God’s boundless endless love will never be withdrawn.

Humanity can do its worst, but God’s love will always triumph.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

 

 

Placing our life into the hand of God

April 13, 2017

Good Friday – 2017

Marian Free

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.

 

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before. I shall say it again,

Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way of dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker

Good Friday – 2017

Marian Free

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

“Wait without hope for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.”

At first glance, Elliot’s poem expresses a view of life that is bleak, desperate and hopeless. “Hope is hope for the wrong thing, love is love for the wrong thing. You must go by the way wherein there is no ecstasy, by the way of ignorance, the way of dispossession.” The poem expresses sentiments that are completely at odds with message of the culture of today. In popular culture, in our magazines and on our televisions we are bombarded by stories of people who insist that anyone can achieve anything as long as they set their minds to it. Popular culture gives the impression that a person’s future is entirely in their own hands – they just have to have a positive attitude, believe in themselves or work hard enough.

Elliot, a Christian, knows that the reality is very different. The poem expresses an understanding that ultimately we have very little power to determine the course of the future. All of us, rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable are subject to the instability of the planet, the frailty of our bodies, the ever-present threat of disease, the carelessness of others, the cynicism of politicians and the greed of those who seek to enrich themselves at the expense of others. In reality each of us has very little control over every aspect of our lives. The only certainly, the only still point in a world that is beyond our ability to direct is God. God alone knows how the future will turn out, God alone can see us through whatever this temporary, unpredictable life has to offer.

Ironically, the only way to achieve anything meaningful and eternal is to surrender control, to cede all power to God, to allow God to determine and direct our path, to trust that God will bring us through to wherever it is that we are meant to be. Only by surrendering ourselves completely to God will we discover the direction in which we are intended to travel. Only when we give ourselves completely to God will we be sure that we are hoping for the right thing, loving the right thing. Only a life totally aligned with God can be a life that is truly godly.

These are the truths that Jesus’ life reveals. As the Son of God, Jesus could have done anything, been anyone. Jesus could have ruled the world, sought glory, riches and power. Instead Jesus chose to surrender himself completely to God, to do only those things that he believed were of God. So completely did Jesus trust in God’s direction that he endured the shame of arrest and trial, the indignity of flogging, the torment and pain of the cross, the emptiness of death and the uncertainty of where it would all end.

Only complete and total surrender “to the way wherein there is no ecstasy”, brought Jesus to where he was truly meant to be. Jesus’ surrender of himself led to his victory over death – not only for himself but for each one of us. The horror of the cross was transformed to the joy and triumph of the resurrection.

We cannot know what lies ahead. We do know that we can trust God.

Let us, with Jesus, surrender control, step into the unknown and place our lives completely and utterly into the hand of God.

 

Intercessions

God whose Son surrendered himself entirely into your hands, open the eyes of all who “hope for the wrong thing” – those whose desire for power and control, for wealth and security disempowers and impoverishes others. Help us and all humankind to surrender ourselves entirely to your will so that the world might become a place in which all people live in freedom and peace and in which all have an opportunity to reach their full potential.

God in whom we trust. Hear our prayer.

God who turns despair to hope, defeat to victory, death to life, give to your church such confidence in you that it will not fear for its future or seek to protect its position in the world, but to understand “that the faith and the love and the hope are in the waiting”. May we surrender our desire for certainty to the knowledge that all things are in your hands.

God in whom we trust. Hear our prayer.

God whose love for us knows no bounds, give us the skills we need to be bearers of that love to others – especially to those who betray and abandon us, who hurt us and let us down. May the dispossessed and powerless experience the life-giving power of your love.

God in whom we trust. Hear our prayer.

Jesus who became vulnerable even to death, support and uphold all whose lives are beset by illness and strife, give courage to the dying and hope and confidence to the living.

God in whom we trust. Hear our prayer.

Jesus who took “the way in which there is no ecstasy”, give us the courage and confidence to surrender ourselves wholly to you, that we with you might pass from death to life eternal.

Accept our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…

Feet – dirty, calloused, smelly, caressed, loved

April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday 2017

 Marian Free

In the name of God who stoops to wash our feet. Amen.

Feet come in all shapes and sizes. There are large feet and petite feet. There are smooth feet and calloused feet. Feet that have seen a lot of hard work and feet that have led a reasonably charmed existence. Toes can be long or short, crooked or straight, misshapen or not. Feet in sandals are prone to get dirty. Feet in shoes are likely to be sweaty (and sometimes smelly). For these and other reasons, many of us don’t like our feet to be exposed. We are uncomfortable about allowing others to see what we consider to be imperfections or defects, we feel uncomfortable about anyone seeing them, let alone touch them.

It is an enormous privilege to be able to wash the feet of another person. It is an action of intimacy and touch that demands confidence, trust and humility on the part of the one who is willing to allow their feet to be seen and held and caressed with water and with towel. It demands that the recipient of the washing allow themselves, or at least their feet, to be exposed.

When Jesus takes a towel and washes the feet of the disciples, we are for the most part tempted to emphasise his humility, his willingness to serve – and certainly that is how John interprets the action. Peter’s response however shows the other side of the equation. It would seem that despite his discipleship, Peter has not yet learnt what it means to accept Jesus’ love. He is not willing to believe that a central aspect of faith in Jesus means receiving the gifts that Jesus has to offer. He does not understand that what is required is not the humility of thinking oneself unworthy, but the humility of accepting that unworthy though he may be, that does not put him outside the reach of Jesus’ love. Peter is self-conscious and uncomfortable with the intimacy that a relationship with Jesus involves.

He represents all those of us who do not believe that we are loveable and therefore cannot believe in God’s love for us.

Throughout Lent I have challenged you to consider how much God loves you, to believe that if God thinks you are worthy of God’s love that it must be true, and to understand that in the warmth of God’s love we can allow even those parts of ourselves of which we are most ashamed, to be completely exposed and laid bare.

Knowing ourselves loved frees us to give ourselves wholly to God.

If like Peter we are still holding something back, perhaps now is the time to ask ourselves what it is and why we are holding on.

 

Intercessions

Loving God,

On this night, Jesus took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, demonstrating that nothing was beneath his notice, and no one unworthy of his love. Give us a true sense of our worth, that we may see worth in others and so build a world of compassion, tolerance and love.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Holy God,

On this night Jesus demonstrates true humility and a willingness to serve. May we your church have a sense of proportion as to our own importance and truly understand what it means to serve the world around us.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Gracious God,

On this night Jesus washed the feet even of Judas who was about to betray him. Help us to love and accept the unloved and unlovable – even those who do us wrong.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Comforting God,

On this night, Jesus gave himself completely into your hands. Enable us to trust in you in good times and bad, in sickness and in health.

God of grace. Hear our prayer.

Eternal God,

On this night Jesus began a journey from life to death, a journey that became a journey from death to life. Give to us the same confidence in your guiding hand, that we may submit entirely to your will, and knowing that we are already yours, enter with joy our eternal rest.

Accept our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray.

Our Father in heaven…


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