Posts Tagged ‘division’

Fire-breathing Jesus

August 13, 2016

Pentecost 13 – 2016

Luke 12:49-59

Marian Free



In the name of God who demands that we hold fast to the truth whatever the cost. Amen.

In Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald, two articles caught my attention. The first reported on the visit of Susan Sarandon to Melbourne. It may come as no surprise to you that Sarandon is one of the actors I most admire – along with other strong women (Kate Hepburn, Glenda Jackson, Meryl Streep) who refused to buy into the Hollywood hype and who maintain their commitment to their craft. Sarandon was in Melbourne at the invitation of the La Dolce Italia festival. Of course, the report only captured the material that would sell newspapers. What struck me in the short piece was Sarandon’s determination to say what she believes to be right and not to compromise.

“The thing that really gets me is when I haven’t said something honestly. When there is something that people who don’t have a voice … and someone tells me about it, and I have the opportunity to shine a light on it, when I don’t, I feel that I have betrayed my authenticity,” she told the compere, Crown’s Ann Peacock.

A second article contrasted strongly with the brief report on Sarandon. Headlined “Refugee singer’s uneasy air” it concerned a young refugee from Syria whom you might have seen in the news earlier in the year. As a means of dealing with the trauma and the hardship of his ‘pulverised, starving neighbourhood in war-torn Syria, Ayham al-Ahmad embarked on a career of playing concerts in the rubble’ to provide a sense of normality. Videos of his performances spread online, drew attention to him and finally enabled him to escape the siege of his hometown Yarmulke.. Ahmad has now been accepted as a refugee by Germany where he has “set himself the task of putting a human face on his fellow refugees”. In Syria Ahmad was a piano teacher and music salesperson. Here in Germany he has become a star. He is booked nearly every night, has appeared in numerous German news accounts and received a prestigious music prize.

Despite all this he is filled with a sense of unease. He wonders if he really makes a difference, if his audiences see him and his relative success and forget where he is from and do not see in him the thousands who are still in Syria – in prison, under siege or subject to constant bombing. Ahmad’s escape also gives him a sense of survivor’s guilt – why is he the lucky one? Did he make more of a difference when he was playing for and with those whom he has left behind?

On the one hand, Sarandon refuses to compromise, and on the other Ahmad is anxious that he perhaps he has been compromised. Of course, the two come from vastly different positions – Sarandon has, privilege, position and wealth where’s Ahmad has only talent, vulnerability and dependence. All the same, Sarandon’s outspokenness could potentially cost her roles and if Ahmad maintains his integrity he could win even more respect and notoriety – but these are issues on which we can only speculate.

Jesus has some challenging words in today’s gospel: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Major social change rarely comes without a cost. Some things that we now take for granted were hard won and along the way created fury and split the community into those who were for and those who were against the issue. For example, the abolition of the slave trade – while ending centuries of inhumanity and liberating people from indenture – caused economic hardship, if not ruin for those who had built their wealth on free labour. No wonder abolition was so vehemently opposed and it’s supporters vilified.

Giving women the vote was equally contentious. It meant a complete overhaul of accepted social norms especially around the place of women and the capability of women. For some it was seen as a threat to family life and an overturning of the entire social fabric. No wonder the issue was so divisive and its proponents seen as disruptive and anti-social. Social change, even that pursued by followers of Jesus, can and does lead to harmony and division.

Many of us feel that being a Christian entails conforming to the world around us, keeping the law, not causing trouble and certainly not taking a radical stand. But Jesus gave us no such idea. Jesus utterly refused to fit in to the society around him. He refused to compromise his values, and he stood by his convictions even in the face of opposition and derision. Jesus was confident that he understood God’s purpose for him and he would not be dissuaded from this path no matter how many people he offended or put off side and no matter that the consequence would be his crucifixion for insurrection.

This is fire-breathing Jesus not the gentle Jesus meek and mild of the 19th century poem. This is a Jesus who knows what he believes and what he stands for and who will stick to his principles no matter what the cost. This is the “sign that would be opposed” that Simeon predicted when the infant Jesus was presented at the Temple. This is the division that Jesus predicts will result from his presence here on earth. When Jesus and his followers stand up for what is right, when they challenge governments and institutions, when they name injustices and shine a light on oppression they will cause disquiet, disharmony and even division, but that is not a reason to stay silent and it is a poor excuse for not becoming involved.

Listen again to what Jesus says in today’s gospel: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Let us pray that the fire of Christ’s passion may fill our lives and inform our actions and that should it come to it, we would have the courage to take a stand no matter what the cost to ourselves.


Wisdom and the cross

February 8, 2014

Epiphany 5

1 Corinthians 2:1-13

Marian Free 

In the name of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Amen.

 If someone were to ask me which of Paul’s letters was my favourite, I think I would say the first letter to the Corinthians for no other reason than it reveals Paul’s profound insight into and interpretation of the cross. The community almost certainly Gentiles so it is not surprising that, as the letter indicates, they were a little confused as to the details of this new faith. It has to be remembered that at that time, there were no Christian scriptures. New converts were entirely dependent on the teaching of itinerant preachers who did not stay long enough in the community to ensure that all possible problems had been dealt with and all questions answered. Even though Paul had spent quite some time among the Corinthians, it seems that confusion reigned once he had left the city.

Paul writes this (possibly his second)[1] letter to Corinth in response to some concerns which had been reported by Chloe’s people[2] and also in response to a letter that the community had written to him[3]. Chloe’s concerns relate to divisions and competition in the community and immoral and un-Christian behaviour. Paul’s deals with issues such as members striving to outdo each other with regard to spiritual gifts, sub-groups following different leaders, a man living with his father’s wife and believers taking one-another to court. The letter also deals with more specific issues, many of which relate to relationships and sex: how to behave towards one’s spouse (whether to have sex or not, whether one should divorce a non-believing partner) and to marry or not to marry.

Even though Paul is addressing these very specific issues, he does so in a way that is theologically insightful and which interprets the cross of Christ is such a way that he can apply it to the community life of the believers in Corinth and to his own ministry.

The Corinthians, as I have said, were a divided community who had not fully grasped Paul’s message of the gospel. Perhaps based on the religions from which they had come, they placed wisdom as the high point of their faith and competed for the distinction of being the wisest or most knowledgeable in the community. It is clear that knowledge or wisdom is at issue. More than once Paul challenges their supposed wisdom with the question: “Do you not know?” (Obviously they do not!)

In order to demonstrate that the Corinthians wisdom is only narrow and partial, Paul points out the absurd contradiction of a crucified man proving to be God’s chosen one. As he says, any self-respecting Jew would have nothing to do with such a person – let alone elevate him to the status of God’s anointed.  On the other hand Greeks would think that to have faith in such a man would be utter foolishness.  To be fair, if we were to strip away sentimentality, dogma and creed, we too would think that a crucified Saviour was both gruesome and ridiculous (and impossible to sell). God, in Christ, has done something absolutely ludicrous. This, Paul claims, this is exactly the point. Christians believe that a man who was condemned to death as a criminal was the one sent by God. God’s action begs the question: Why on earth or in heaven would God chose such a person, or allow such an awful fate to befall the one whom he sent? He provides the answer using the words of Isaiah “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (29:14)

According to Paul, God’s purpose in presenting us with a crucified Saviour was precisely to confound and unsettle us, to create some sort of cognitive dissonance that would force us to rely, not on ourselves, but on God, to shake us out of our complacency and to open our eyes to a completely different way of seeing, so that instead of being limited and bound by our own intelligence and by the constraints of the human imagination, we might be freed to see and hear what God is actually doing and saying. This, the cross demonstrates, is often the exact reverse of what we expect God to say and do.

In today’s text, Paul extends his argument about the cross to his proclamation of the gospel.  Paul made no attempt to claim power or knowledge for himself as did other preachers. He did not pretend to be anything he was not but allowed the Corinthians to see his weaknesses and imperfections. Paul has no need to compete, to demonstrate that he is wiser, stronger or more knowledgeable than anyone else. He is content to be weak and inarticulate because he knows that this enables him to be used by God and to be receptive to the Spirit. What is more those who come to faith know that they have not been swayed by the power of Paul’s presence and the force of his argument, but by the power of God working through him. Their faith lies where it belongs, in God and not in Paul.

The contradiction of the cross turns everything upside down. In so doing the cross exposes the flaws in what we might have thought we knew and the limitations of human knowledge and understanding – about worldly values, wisdom and strength. Through the cross God makes us aware that our knowledge, however good, is always incomplete and imperfect. The only true wisdom is that of God and the only way to achieve that wisdom is through recognizing the vast gulf between ourselves and the creator of all – who saw fit not to stun us with a triumphant king or a military victory, but a vulnerable, friendless man who died one of the most shocking deaths of all.

The purpose of the cross is to challenge the arrogance and self-conceit that allows us to believe that we know all there is to know about God. A crucified Saviour confronts our need for certainty and our dependence on doctrine, ritual and yes, even scripture and to open us to the power of God working in us and through us.

[1] 1 Corinthians 5:9

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:11

[3] “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (7:1, cf 7:25, 8:1).

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