Posts Tagged ‘discipleship’

What does it take to be number among the disciples?

June 24, 2017

 

 

Pentecost 3 – 2017

Matthew 10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who notices a sparrow fall and who has numbered the hairs on our head. Amen.

You no doubt know that there are tricks to public speaking that are used to gain and to keep the attention of the audience. In the first century only about 1% of the population was able to read, so the gospels were not written to be read, but to be heard – (often in just one sitting). The gospel writers did not simply pull together a life of Jesus. The gospels and their component parts are very carefully structured in such a way as to ensure that their listeners would be gripped by the story and continue to focus on what they were hearing. Because few people could write, it was equally important that the stories about Jesus’ life and teaching were told in such a way that they would be remembered.

We heard last week that the author of Matthew’s gospel carefully structured Jesus’ teaching into five sermons or discourses each of which contained material that had a similar theme. Within at least two of these discourses is an internal structure that aims to unify and emphasise a central theme.

The technical term for this structure is a chiasm. In simple terms a chiasm is the repetition of ideas in reverse around a central theme. A chiasm is used for emphasis and for clarification. It serves to draw attention to the central point that is the focus of the passage and which gives meaning to the whole. One way to think of it is an arched bridge. The footings on either side are the same and the spans on either side mirror each other and hold up the central arch. A simple example of a chiasm is found in Luke chapter 4 – Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth. Jesus stands up, receives the scroll, unrolls the scroll, reads the scroll, rolls up the scroll, hands back the scroll and sits down[1]. The reading of the scroll and its content is the central point surrounded by actions in reverse order.

Matthew 10 is an example of a much longer chiasm. The chapter is complex and repetitive, but it begins to make sense when we see that Matthew draws his material together around a central point. The use of a chiasm bolsters and supports this key point in the same way as the footings and spans support the arch of a bridge.

The best way to understand what I am saying is to see what it looks like in practice.

After Jesus calls and names the disciples, the following structure unfolds

A. vv 5-15: The sending out of the disciples: how they should travel and find hospitality; how to respond to acceptance/non-acceptance

B. vv 16-23: Prediction of persecution; being brought before the courts, inner-family betrayal and encouragement in the face of these.

C. vv 24-25: This is because they can expect to be treated in the same way as Jesus.

 D. vv 26-31: Exhortation: “Have no fear.” They are worth so much to God that they can depend on God. (In this        section the disciples are told 4 times that they need not be afraid.)

         C’. vv 32-33: If they confess Jesus on earth, he will confess them.

     B’. vv 34-39 Division in families is to be expected; family loyalties must take  second place to the following of Jesus.

A’. vv 40-42 Those who welcome them will be richly rewarded because they are actually welcoming the risen Lord who is sending them, and ultimately the one – God – who send him[2].

Seen in this light, it is relatively easy to see that the central point around which the remainder circles is the exhortation not to be afraid. At the extremes we have comments about the disciples being accepted or not. The second and second last point warn of divisions (even within families) and the third and third last point stress a believers relationship with God to whom, the centre assures them they are of such value that God knows even the hairs on their head.

It is important to remember that this gospel is, as I mentioned last week, being written after the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. It is a time of change and trauma, a time in which both Jew and Christ-believing Jews are trying to work out and to establish their identity in a new and vastly different environment. For those who believe in Jesus there is the added confusion and pain associated with the increasing intolerance of difference and exclusion that is directed towards them from their fellow Jews. This may well have extended to their expulsion from the synagogue. What this means is that those who consider themselves to be the disciples of Jesus are being increasingly isolated from their ancestral faith, from their fellow Jews and ultimately from their families and their friends. Ideas of acceptance and rejection and division even among families would have been extremely pertinent.

These words, addressed to the Twelve in the gospel, must have brought great reassurance and comfort to those who were experiencing the very things that Jesus predicted. To understand that they were just as likely to be rejected as to be accepted, to know that they their experiences united them to the one whom they followed, that their loyalty to him would be repaid by his to them and above all to be reassured that they had no need to fear because they were so valuable to God would have helped them not only make sense of their experiences, but would have given them the courage to stand firm in their faith and to continue to proclaim the gospel in the face of any and all difficulties.

The sort of fear that must have gripped these first Christians, may be matched by those in places such as Egypt and Nigeria today in which simply holding the faith is enough to place one in mortal danger. To know that their persecution is part and parcel of being a disciple must surely give them strength. To know how precious they are to God must help them to understand that there are worse things than death.

We who have no knowledge of such terror and who practice our faith in security and comfort must ask ourselves why it is that we do not draw attention to ourselves, why it is that we do not illicit a negative reaction from those around us. Is it because we have accommodated ourselves so well to our surrounding culture that we no longer stand out as being different? Have we watered down our faith to the point where it is no longer offensive to non-believers? Or is it just that we avoid conversations in which awkward questions might be asked or in which we might be asked to defend our point of view?

Whatever the reason, it is important to consider (20th century disciples of Christ) whether we are so far removed from the situation of the first disciples that Jesus’ instructions and words of encouragement mean nothing to us, or whether we have removed ourselves so far from the risks and dangers of discipleship that we can no longer really call ourselves disciples.

What does discipleship really mean and what will it take for us to be numbered as one?

 

 

[1] The longest and most complex chiasm is the entire book of Revelation.

[2] Adapted from Byrne, Brendan, Lifting the Burden – Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today. NSW, Australia: St Paul’s Press, 2004, 87.

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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.

 

Can we say “yes”?

September 3, 2016

Pentecost 16 – 2016

Luke 14: 25-35

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us out of our safety zone and takes us where we do not want to go. Amen.

Today at St Augustine’s six people will be baptised and four of those will then join six others in being confirmed. At the same time three young people will be admitted to Holy Communion. A confirmation is a great occasion in the life of a faith community. As adults and teens affirm the promises that were made for them in baptism, we are all challenged to reconsider our own baptism and confirmation and to think about how well those promises and commitments are lived out in our own lives. Do we “turn to Christ, repent of our sins, we reject false living and all that is unjust and renounce Satan and all that is evil?” On a daily basis do we make every effort to “love God with our whole heart and our neighbour as ourselves?”

In a Christian society these are not really such awesome commitments – believing in Jesus, recognising and being sorry for the times when we fall short, trying to ensure that those around us are treated fairly and renouncing evil come easily enough to most of us. We can even convince ourselves that we love God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves. Being a Christian is a part of our self-identity, something that we accept as true without necessarily putting too much effort into it or spending too much time in reflection as to what it means. Most of us blend in with the world around us except that we probably attend church most Sundays and object to certain blatant misbehaviour. In a society that considers itself to be a Christian society, such commitments are not so far outside the norm that making them comes at any great cost.

I wonder if we would feel quite so self-assured if we were asked the questions implied in this morning’s gospel? Imagine, if you will, standing before your faith community and responding positively to ALL of the following questions:

Will you from this day forward commit yourselves to abandoning and hating your family?

Will you, if required, submit yourself to the horror of the cross?

Do you understand that if you want to follow Jesus that you must hate life itself?

Are you prepared to give up all your possessions?

If you start down this track are you prepared to see it through to the end?

I imagine that if these were the questions that were asked at our baptism and confirmation that not a few of us would reconsider our position. No wonder that most bibles entitle this section of the gospel “ the cost of discipleship.”

In the context of Luke’s gospel these statements are made at a time Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and death. In making these demands, Jesus will have been ensuring that the disciples knew what lay ahead and assuring himself that they would be up to the task. Jesus wants to be confident that those who claim to be his disciples will be able to follow through – that they will not be found wanting when the time comes, that they will not expose themselves and therefore his message to ridicule.

Jesus is well aware that the journey on which Jesus and his disciples are embarking will have serious consequences. Those who follow him will need to be prepared to give up more and more as they approach their goal of walking in his footsteps. After Jesus’ death, when the disciples take on his mantle, they will face the same opposition and the same obstacles. They will have to be ready to sacrifice everything – family, possessions and even life itself.

In the twenty-first century we do not literally walk in the shadow of the cross, but Jesus’ demands are no less terrifying and overwhelming. They are a reminder that discipleship is costly. It can mean that we stand out from the world around us, that we are subject to greater scrutiny than those who profess no faith, that we might be called to put Jesus before our personal comfort, security and even safety. At the same time, we do not know when we will be put to the test, when we will be required to stand firm for what we believe or when we be asked to lay down our life for the sake of the gospel.

In every age, there have been believers who have known these demands to be true for their own lives, those who have refused to compromise even though it meant giving up family, possessions and ultimately life for the gospel[1].

It is perhaps our failure to give ourselves wholly and completely that leaves the church so open to scrutiny in today’s world. It is perhaps our half-hearted response to Jesus’ demands that means that we are not taken seriously, that ensures that the world is less than impressed by our commitment.

Should it be required of us, are we ready to follow Jesus to the bitter end, or are we among those who have begun to build but who have not considered whether or not we have the materials to finish it?

These are serious questions. The future of the gospel may depend on our response.

*********************

Afterword:

I thought this powerful quote was worth sharing. Check out the site for the rest of the article.

“So maybe, just maybe, these harsh words about “cross-bearing” are a call to do what Simon of Cyrene did. Once he picked up the cross, it wasn’t clear to anyone how the day would end. It was only clear that his future was bound up with the future of the poor, unfortunate person who could no longer carry the weight of the cross[2]”.

 

[1] I think of all the saints and martyrs – particularly those of our own time whom I name over and over again – Dietrich Bonheoffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King not to mention the hundreds and thousands who have given their lives in the cause of justice and freedom.

[2] provokingthegospel.wordpress.com

Ask not what God can do for you

June 25, 2016

Pentecost 6 – 2016

Luke 9:51-62

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us out of our comfort zone and calls us to follow wherever we are led. Amen.

It is probably true to say that we all respond differently to different invitations. For example we might not feel as well disposed to attend our partner’s work function as we are to participate in the wedding of our best friend. We might jump at the opportunity to meet someone whom we admire, but hesitate to respond to an invitation to a function hosted by someone who is less well-known or less interesting to us. If our diaries are fully booked up we might move heaven and earth to be at the death-bed of someone we love, or to babysit a treasured grandchild, but if the invitation does not have a sense of urgency or a pull on our heart-strings we will politely point out that we simply do not have the time to attend.

Invitation seems to be at the heart of this morning’s gospel – God’s invitation to us to follow wherever God might lead.

Luke’s gospel, like that of Mark and Matthew, is broadly speaking divided into three parts – Galilee, the journey to Jerusalem and Jesus’ time in Jerusalem. Of course the divisions are not hard and fast but they do enable us to recognise that the majority of Jesus’ life and ministry were spent in and around Galilee in the northern part of Palestine. It is also useful to be able to locate Jesus’ teaching in relation to the different phases in his ministry – when he is on home turf, when he is travelling to Jerusalem and of course when he is facing danger in Jerusalem[1].

As we have seen, the gospel writers arrange their material differently. Matthew includes a vast number of Jesus’ sayings in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Some of these sayings can be found in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, but the author of Luke has used much of the same material in the account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. From Luke’s text we can deduce that the Lucan Jesus uses the journey to prepare the disciples for their own ministry. So while Jesus’ teaching is rarely exclusive, there are times in this section of the narrative where Luke specifically addresses the disciples. .

Although we begin today’s gospel reading at verse 51 of chapter 9, it is clear that we are entering the second phase in Jesus’ ministry – that of the journey to Jerusalem. This means that from now until Jesus reaches Jerusalem, the primary theme will be that of discipleship and underlying that will be the tension and the threat associated with what awaits Jesus in that city.

Even in translation it is clear from the language that for Jesus going to Jerusalem is an act of will – that the journey is something that he has to do rather than something that he wants to do. When the time came Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. The Greek word στηριζω (staritzo) means to set fast, or in this context  “to render mentally steadfast”.  Jesus knows that he must go to Jerusalem and so he points himself in that direction despite his fear and trepidation. In other words, putting aside his own needs and desires, he responds to the call of God.

Jesus’ response to God’s invitation stands in stark contrast with the examples that follow. The Samaritans for example, demonstrate their complete indifference or even hostility by refusing Jesus hospitality. A would-be follower is warned that discipleship will be difficult and challenging (we do not know how he responds). Two others – those whom Jesus invites to follow – are willing to be disciples, but they want to put their affairs in order first. Jesus’ response is harsh: “let the dead bury the dead” and “no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”. Those who are left behind are already dead, Jesus suggests, they can take responsibility for themselves. A person who is ploughing cannot possibly plough a straight line unless their focus is on what lies ahead.

Discipleship entails courage and commitment, a willingness to leave the past behind and to give oneself completely to the task at hand. Cowardice and delay simply will not do. Jesus’ own experience tells him that the only way to follow God is to do so wholeheartedly and without delay, not weighing up the costs or being held back by indecision or personal considerations. Following where God will lead does not necessarily mean an easy existence, it may mean leaving behind what one loves and going where one does not wish to go. It might entail discomfort and risk-taking or facing hardship and even hostility, but Jesus’ example demonstrates that the rewards by far outweigh the costs.

We make a mistake if we think that faith is only about what God can do for us. It is clear from the example of Jesus and the disciples that just as often faith is about what we can do for God.

God is always leading us on, drawing us out, inviting us to take risks and suggesting new directions for our lives. Today’s gospel asks us to consider how we respond to God’s invitation. Do we pay so little attention that we do not even notice that God is calling? Do we play it safe and stay in our own little comfort zone rather than allow God to stretch and challenge us? Is our response to God’s call lukewarm and half-hearted or does it depend on what else we have going on in our lives? Do we answer “yes” but keep half an eye on what else might be on offer?

Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. Following Jesus is not just a matter of doing the right thing. It entails responding to God’s call, stepping out of our comfort zones, taking up the challenge and facing every difficulty and hardship knowing that whatever the cost, it will all work out in the end.

 

[1] The chapter and verse numbering is helpful in enabling us to quickly find a verse or parable, however they do not necessarily reflect the natural breaks in the narrative. For example, in Luke the journey to Jerusalem begins at the end of chapter 9 rather than at the beginning of chapter 10.

The cost of transformation

June 18, 2016

Pentecost 5 – 2016

Luke 8:26-39

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who soothes our sorrows, calms our fears and restores us to wholeness. Amen.

Just as the world was appalled when Boko Haran kidnapped 200 girls from their school in Nigeria, so the world applauded when some were discovered and brought home. While the restoration of the girls was a victory of sorts, few of us would understand the double burden that those young women carry. Traumatized and brutalized by their kidnapping, raped and abused by their captors, many of them returned home to discover that their own communities no longer accepted them. The girls who returned were not the girls who had left. They had lost their virginity and their innocence, the communities felt ashamed at their inability to protect the girls from harm but also ashamed by the perceived dishonour that the girls brought to their family’s of origin. Many of the victims now occupy a kind of no-man’s land, belonging nowhere, having no support and no certainty for the future.

They are not alone. Theirs is a story that is repeated in refugee camps throughout the world. Women who have escaped war or famine find themselves vulnerable to abuse and rape in the camps. Instead of finding sympathy and support from their family and wider community, they find themselves despised and rejected again because they are no longer the person they once were. Even within our “enlightened” Western society, there are young women whose relationship with their fathers is irrevocably changed when they are attacked or raped. Unconsciously and irrationally fathers find themselves unable to relate to their daughters who have been forcibly made into women.

A similar scenario is sometimes played out when the seemingly opposite occurs – when a family member is restored to health after a long illness. Although it seems contradictory, families and communities can mould themselves and form a new identity around the illness or disability of one member. Their new identity as carers for the vulnerable and their sense of purpose can be radically disrupted if the person for whom they care is restored to health. They no longer know what to do or how to behave. So while they may appear to be delighted that someone who was unwell is now well, there may be all kinds of subtle signs that tell the one-time sufferer that they are now uncomfortable in his or her presence.

Experiences of conversion can also have the effect of alienating a person from their family and community. When one member comes to faith, others can feel awkward around them. They no longer feel comfortable behaving the way that they use to behave – they are unsure what the rules of the new relationship might be, they wonder if they need to change their behaviour (stop swearing for eg), they are anxious that the newly converted might try to convert them. Over time, such discomfort can cause the relationships to break down.

It is only when we understand these complex family and community dynamics that Jesus’ instruction to the demoniac is thrown into relief.

Both the location and the presence of pigs tell us that Jesus is in Gentile territory. There he was accosted by a man who lived among the dead, a man who at times was so violent and uncontrollable that not only was he banished to the graves, but he was shackled and kept under guard. The demons that possess the man cannot bear to be in Jesus’ presence that traumatizes (“torments”) them. Realizing that there is no escape, they choose their fate – to enter the pigs. The demoniac is restored “to his right mind”.

Not surprisingly, the man who was possessed by demons wants to follow after the one who has saved him. His sense of amazement and gratitude will have been enough for him to follow Jesus, but perhaps he knew that he would find no welcome among the community who had rejected and restrained him. He may have sensed even if he did not know that in his absence the community will have found new ways of being and that relationships will have been redefined. There was no longer anything for him in his hometown.

Jesus has other plans. He asks the man to do something that is more difficult – to return to his home, to face the changes that have occurred, to rebuild relationships and to share with them his faith in Jesus.

As we will be reminded next week, discipleship is not without its costs. It may require leaving behind one’s home and family, facing ridicule and rejection or being a source of discomfort for those who thought that they knew you.

Being in a relationship with Jesus can be a powerful, transforming experience, but it can come at a cost. The good news is – that the rewards of discipleship far outweigh anything that we have to give up, any discomfort that we have to endure and any rejection that we might experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It still doesn’t depend on us

May 9, 2015

Easter 6 – 2015

John 15:9-17

Marian Free

In the name of God – Lover, Friend, Enlivener. Amen.

Today will be the third time in three weeks that I have had cause to preach on John 15:9-17 – at the service to dedicate the windows, on ANZAC Day and now today. That tells you at least three things. One is that our scriptures are often put to uses for which they were not originally intended, a second is that they are to some degree pliable (that is they can withstand more than one interpretation) and a third is that our biblical texts contain so much depth and complexity that they can be viewed from a wide variety of angles and through an array of different lenses and so continue to reveal new and rich insights. This is certainly the case with John’s Gospel. Apparently simple, transparent texts contain layers of detail that only become obvious when we make the effort to really familiarize ourselves with them.

Take John 15:1-17 for example. Jesus declares himself to be the true vine – an image that he expands on in two ways. In the first few verses (those we heard last week) he elaborates on the image by comparing himself with the vine – the source of life for the branches. That seems straightforward enough until the reader begins to explore questions such as: to whom is Jesus referring when he speaks of the branches and whom does he mean by the branches that have withered? What does sort of fruit are the branches to bear? Does he mean doing good works or does he, as the reading suggests mean discipleship? If bearing fruit is discipleship what does that look like? [1]

Jesus expands on the question of discipleship in his second explanation of the vine. Discipleship according to this image is evidenced by self-sacrificial love for one another – love that like fruit flows from a believer’s abiding in him. This discussion is no less complex than the first. Here, Jesus turns his attention to the theme of love but he confuses the issue by adding instructions about keeping his commandment, about servanthood (slavery) versus friendship, about being sent and about answered requests.

In a ten minute sound bite, such as a sermon, it impossible to follow and elaborate on all of these different threads much as I would like to! I alert you to them so that you are aware that I am skimming the surface of and not plumbing the depths of Jesus’ analogy.

When John 15:9-17 is read on ANZAC Day, it is usual for the preacher to focus on just one of the verses: “Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends” (John 15:13). In that context of ANZAC Day, it is appropriate think of all those who, in times of conflict, have risked or given their lives so that others might live and it is comforting to understand that their lives were given not only for a good cause, but in response to the highest Christian ideal.

Jesus setting was not that of wartime, nor do I imagine that he spoke these words with that particular context in mind. In trying to come to grips with the text today it is important to ask: “What is the context that Jesus is addressing? To whom was he speaking? and What did he mean by that line?

A number of factors make it clear that Jesus is talking to believers,those who are already disciples. In the first instance, the setting in the gospel is Jesus’ last meal with the disciples – presumably the twelve minus Judas who has already gone out, but certainly an inner circle of followers. Secondly, Jesus is addressing those who abide in him – those who have not already withered and died. Thirdly, he calls the listeners “servants” a term that implies they are his disciples or followers. Jesus is speaking to his followers in the context of saying farewell to them and preparing them to be the church in his absence.

This is an essential detail in terms of working out the meaning for us today. Jesus is NOT encouraging us to do good works. The fruit we are called to bear is that of discipleship and discipleship is to be demonstrated in self-sacrificial love – not for the nation, not for those in need, but for our fellow church members, those with whom we meet week by week, those whom we take for granted and those whom we let get under our skin, those who agree with us on issues such as music and furnishing and those who want to turn everything upside down, those who encourage us and those who let us down, those whom we have known for years and those whom we have only known for hours. In one sense it is a much more homely love (less noble) than dying for another in battle and yet in another sense it is a much more difficult love because it means that issues that arise need to be properly addressed, differences recognised and dealt with and rifts mended. It entails recognising when to hold one’s ground and when to give way, when to be firm and when to be gentle. In one sense this sort of love is incredibly difficult, in another it is the easiest love in the world, because above all it not our love – it is God’s love, God’s love expressed through Jesus to us.

In the end then, love has little to do with us and everything to do with God. Our primary responsibility is to abide in the vine, to abide in Jesus and in Jesus’ love for us such that Jesus’ self-sacrificial, life-giving love flows through us, filling us, fulfilling our every need and freeing us such that we cannot help but to give that love freely and abundantly to others. We are called, each and every one of us to be in a relationship with God, a relationship with Jesus that is so all-embracing, so intimate that it is as if we are branches that are fed and nurtured and empowered by the life-giving love of the vine that produces the fruit of discipleship which is our love for each other.

Imagine a church community that truly and completely bound itself to God as branches in a vine, a church in which God’s love was abundantly and transparently clear. Who would not want to belong to such a church? Who would not want the love that its members showed to one another?

If we live in God’s love, God’s love will live in us and that love will be manifest to the world. It is my belief that in this community we know and live God’s love. Can know and live it better? Are we willing to know and live it better? If not why not?

[1] That is not taking into account the questions as to whether chapters 15-17 are original to the gospel and/or original to Jesus. Nor does it refer to the issue of Old Testament precedents.

It doesn’t depend on us

May 2, 2015

                                                                                      Easter 5 – 2015

                                                                              John 15:1-8; Acts 8:26-40

                                                                                                                                                                         Marian Free

In the name of God in w  is the source of our being and of all our doing. Amen.

Abiding, discipleship and bearing fruit are among the themes of this short passage from John’s gospel. John’s gospel is both incredibly simply and amazingly complex. Interlocking themes weave their way through a variety of scenarios and images in a way that makes the text repetitive, but also difficult to untangle. This in turn makes the gospel easy to understand (because the ideas are repeated over and over again) and impossible to explain (because so many ideas are included in a very few verses). 

Take today’s gospel for example. It follows on from the discussion on the good shepherd and Jesus’ statement that he has other sheep to bring into the fold. A new image – that of the vine appears to be refer to this new community – one that includes both the original flock and the other sheep whom Jesus has brought in. This new community is described as the branches of the vine, Jesus, who is the source of their life and fruitfulness. By virtue of their decision to ‘abide’ in Jesus these branches have been ‘pruned’ or ‘made clean’ so that they will bear even more fruit. 

In contrast, those who have not responded to Jesus have lost their connection with the source. As a consequence they wither and die – not because they do not bear fruit, but because they do not abide in Jesus nor he in them. Abiding in Jesus, being connected to the vine allows the branches to bear fruit. Bearing fruit in this instance is not related to good works or what a person does or does not do. ‘Bearing fruit’ describes a person’s relationship to the vine – their connectedness or not. The reason for this, is that it is not the branch itself that produces fruit. On its own, the branch can do nothing. It requires the life giving nutrients that flow through the sap that comes from the vine. A grape vine can only produce grapes. A passion vine can only produce passion fruit. The source of life determines what is produced. 

It is this notion that is at the heart of the metaphor of the vine. Followers of Jesus, those who abide in Jesus and he in them, are so intimately connected to Jesus that their lives are not only empowered by him, but  they are, to all intents and purposes, him. What they ask for will be given to them, not because Jesus wants to indulge them or to reward them for their faithfulness, but because they abide in him. If they abide  in Jesus their lives will be so intimately connected with his, that they will want only what Jesus himself would want. 

The connection between Jesus and the disciples is as close as that between Jesus and the Father. By abiding in Jesus (abiding in the vine), the disciples become one with him and therefore one with the Father. Just as Jesus glorifies the Father, so the disciples, by abiding him will in their turn glorify the Father. Fruitfulness then, is not something we do, but something that God (Jesus) does through us. Bearing fruit is for us, as it is for the branch of the vine, something that it passive not active. It involves opening ourselves up to the life-giving power of Jesus so that Jesus can work through us. On our own we do not produce fruit, but if we allow God to work in us and through us, God’s purposes will be achieved through us and that purpose is that God will be glorified.

The story of Philip and the Eunuch is unrelated, but I believe it helps to demonstrate the point that Jesus is making here. Philip is one of the Greeks who has fled Jerusalem following the stoning of Stephen. Philip goes to the road between Jerusalem and Gaza, not to further some purpose of his own, but as a response to the voice of God. Once on the road, Philip again demonstrates his oneness with God. He hears the voice of the Spirit urging him to join the Eunuch who is confused by what he is reading in the book of Isaiah. Led by the Spirit, Philip asks if the Eunuch understands what he is reading. When the Eunuch says that he does not, Philip explains the gospel so convincingly that the Eunuch is brought to faith and seeks baptism. His task done, Philip is ‘snatched by the Spirit’ and finding himself in Azotus where he continues to share the gospel. 

What these two very different texts have in common is the concept that the spread of the  gospel is not dependent on us but on God. The gospel is spread, not by anything that we do, but by what God in us does. This means that more important than anything we do or do not do, is our relationship with God. God can only work in and through us, this is if we are intimately connected to God (the vine) and if our lives are fed and directed by the Spirit within us. In the language of today’s gospel: if we abide in Jesus and Jesus abides in us our lives will be so completely aligned with that of God that what we want will be what God wants and God’s will will be achieved through us and  fruit that we bear will be the spread of the good news.

For decades now we have been anxious  about declining congregation numbers and worried by the increasing secularisation of the world around us. As a result we have tried all kinds of programmes and invested huge amounts of energy in trying to attract people to the faith. In other words, we allow ourselves to think that the future of the gospel depends entirely on  us. Today’s readings remind us that the opposite is the case. It doesn’t depend on us. The gospel always was and always is in God’s hands. The very best that we can do to progress God’s mission in the world is to allow ourselves to be so utterly and completely swept up in God’s ambit that God can and will work in and through us. To further God’s kingdom in the world all that is necessary is for us to surrender ourselves to God’s greater wisdom and open ourselves to God’s life-giving, life-directing presence and leave the rest up to God.

How can we possibly allow ourselves to think that the kingdom of God depends entirely on us? All we need to do is abide in the vine and  leave it to God to do the rest.

Suffering is not failure

August 30, 2014

Pentecost 12 – 2014
Matthew 16:21-28
Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us strength and courage to weather the storms of this existence and to come through the other side. Amen.

It is not unusual for someone who is confronted with bad news to deny or ignore it or to change it into a challenge – something that can be defeated or overcome. For example, a typical response these days to a diagnosis of terminal illness is: “I am going to fight it.” Older people (weary with living) who are encouraged by their families to hold on: “You are not going to die, we won’t let you.” When someone has an untimely death at sea, in the mountains or in the air or at sea, it is not uncommon to hear friends and family say: “At least he (or she died) doing what they loved,” as if that somehow makes it all right. At the same time, it is possible to treat the suffering of others in the same way. After the flood and during the cyclone our then Premier assured the state: “We are Queenslanders – we will recover.”

In today’s world it seems that many people are so determined to be positive or to be survivors that they are both unwilling and unable to confront the fact that life consists of both the good and the bad and that together they make up the fullness of living. Death is not some disaster that should be evaded – either by fighting it to the bitter end or by making out that a tragic death is somehow wonderful. Neither is it, for Christians at least, something to be feared. Death will come to all of us and while we may want to embrace life we cannot, in the end, cheat death. In the context of this strong, positive culture a simple acceptance of one’s circumstances has come to be seen as a weakness. Giving up or refusing treatment and accepting the inevitable has come to be viewed as a lack of determination to survive. A failure to be upbeat in the face of loss is considered to be giving in to rather than challenging fate.

Of course, I am over-generalising, but it does seem to me that, in this country at least, there has been a movement from a culture that lives with the tension of life and death, trauma and triumph, to a culture that seems to believe that with the right attitudes anything can be achieved.

When viewed through the lens of this culture Peter’s outburst in today’s gospel makes absolute sense – he doesn’t want Jesus to die.

To re-cap the story – in last week’s gospel Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” After a couple of responses: “Elijah, one of the prophets”, Jesus asked: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” His statement earns Peter not only Jesus’ commendation, but also the assurance that Peter is the rock on whom Jesus will build the church. In today’s gospel Peter the rock, is being accused of being Satan, a scandal, a stumbling block. The problem is that Peter doesn’t really understand. While he has come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ, he has not grasped what that really means. When Jesus explains that he must suffer and die, Peter reacts in a very human way and demonstrates that he has no idea of Jesus’ real nature and purpose.

At the time of Jesus there were a variety of expectations about the type of Saviour that God would send to redeem Israel. Some Jews thought that the redemption of Israel would be a military victory over Rome and that the Christ would lead them in battle. Others looked for a priestly figure who would reinvigorate the faith and cleanse the Temple and its officials of corruption. No one, it seems, expected the sort of Saviour that Jesus would turn out to be, a Christ who would suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be put to death. They expected a leader, not a victim.

No wonder Peter bursts out: “God forbid! This will not happen to you.” He has not grasped that Jesus will win the hearts and minds of the people, not by force, but by love and that evil will not be defeated by power, but by powerlessness. He is thinking in human terms, showing that despite his acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ he has not fully grasped what this means.

Peter’s natural instinct is to reject the notion of a suffering Christ and to protect his friend and teacher from harm. He does not realise that his good intention would in fact defeat God’s purpose. His misunderstanding makes him no better than Satan. For like Satan, Peter is trying to turn Jesus from the path set before him, like Satan, Peter fails to understand that weakness, not power will achieve God’s purpose, like Satan Peter has not grasped that it is only by submitting to God’s will that humanity will be saved.

No wonder Jesus reacts so strongly. He must be as firm in his purpose now, as he was when he was tempted in the desert. What is more, it is essential that Peter and the disciples understand what lies ahead. It is vital that they, his followers, understand the way of salvation, not only because he, Jesus will need their support and encouragement, but more importantly because if they are to carry on after he is gone, they will have to teach others about Jesus and they too will have to walk the way of the cross. The disciples must learn not only that Jesus is the Christ, but they must learn and understand what it is to be the Christ to follow in his footsteps.

Accepting the way of Christ is no passive submission to fate, but an active decision to follow the path that God has laid down for us wherever it may lead and whatever it may cost. It is a decision to allow our lives to be governed, not by human needs and desires, but by the presence of God within us. It is grasping the contradiction that the one sent by God to save, must also suffer and die and teaching others that suffering is not always failure, but is sometimes the very thing that leads to salvation and life.


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