Posts Tagged ‘division’

What are we prepared to give, to give up?

August 17, 2019

Pentecost 10 – 2019

Luke 12:49-59

Marian Free

May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, God our strength and redeemer. Amen.

In Apartheid South Africa it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person or a coloured person or an Indian person or for a colored person to marry a black person or a white person, or an Indian person. If one was unlucky enough to fall in love with someone outside the prescribed parameters the consequences were serious – disgrace, arrest, followed by a jail sentence. Those who formed such relationships were usually isolated from their families and ostracized by their social circle. A white South African sex worker named Ethal, reported that she felt more accepted by her peers when she was a sex worker than when she married a black African man. For many in this situation, the threat of jail or of social censure led to self-imposed exile. In order to be with the one that they loved, they gave up home, family, friends and occupation.

As I have said many times, the first century Mediterranean culture was very different from our own. Greeks and Romans comfortably worshipped a number of gods. Their gods did not command the absolute loyalty of individuals but were variously responsible for the weather, the harvest and so on. It was no hardship for a Gentile to include Emperor worship to this diverse practice. On the other hand the one Jewish God demanded absolute loyalty and was worshipped only in the Temple in Jerusalem. Gentile gods could be worshipped wherever a Temple was to be found.

From a religious point of view, whether one’s starting point was as a Jew or a gentile, becoming a Christ-believer involved a radical realignment of one’s social, economic, religious and even political loyalties. Urban life was closely associated with both the local gods and with the imperial cult. It was essential for the well-being and protection of the city that all citizens fulfill their obligations to Rome and to the gods. Gentiles who came to believe in Christ could no longer associate with the gentile temples. When they stopped participating in sacrifices to the Emperor or to the local gods, they would be seen as putting the whole city in danger of losing the favour of the gods or the privileges extended by Rome.

If this were not enough to create tension, Engagement with the gods and their temples not only provided protection for the city, it was also central to the social life and cohesion of the community. Sacrifices of both meat and wine were part of the practice of worship. Temples were therefore not only gathering places for worship, but also marketplaces and venues in which people met to eat. Further, different gods were associated with different trades and the various guilds would hold their meetings in the relevant temple. A person who believed in Jesus was no longer able to visit the temple and so not only became isolated from his or her family and peers, but they were also excluded from membership in the guilds. This latter meant that they were not able to earn an income – at least not in the way that they had been used to. Christ-believers were regarded as dangerous because they placed their fellow citizens in jeopardy. They were isolated from their families and friends and unable to work.

The situation was not much better for Jews. Those who lived beyond Judea enjoyed many privileges that their fellow citizens did not. They were exempt from the Emperor cult and were free to send money to the Temple in Jerusalem. If some of their number chose to believe in Jesus, the whole Jewish community would be affected. Technically, Christ-believers were no longer Jews which meant that they were no longer under the protection of Rome. The problem for continuing Jews was that outsiders might not be able to distinguish the Christ-believers from the real thing. Jews were worried that they would be tainted by association and that they would be accused of sedition and lose their privileges. For this reason, among others, Jews too kept their distance from those who had come to believe in Jesus.

Whether Jew or Gentile, a person who chose to believe in Jesus was effectively cut off from all their previous relationships – family, friends and work. Faith in Jesus was divisive, potentially pitting “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Jesus’ words introducing this passage are perhaps the most passionate and, dare I say, violent that Jesus utters. “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!”

This is not the first time that Jesus tells us that faith in him redefines what it means to be family, but this is the only time that he is explicit about the effect that coming to faith will have on relationships. In a culture in which family formed the basis for social relationships and for social cohesion, Jesus’ words will have been shocking, even frightening, but Jesus is describing the world as it will be for those who follow him. As he does on other occasions, Jesus is warning would-be disciples that following him means not only commitment but a willingness to leave everything behind to face a hostile and even dangerous world.

How reassuring these words must have been to those who found themselves ostracised and financially strapped as a consequence of faith? After all, isn’t this what Jesus said lay ahead? How difficult these words are for us in a world in which once again family is the bedrock of our society and, though the world is changing, a world in which having faith in Jesus puts us within, not outside the status quo? For most of us faith comes at no cost, only with benefits. The danger is that we will become complacent, that we will relegate Jesus’ uncomfortable words to irrelevancy instead of seeing them for what they are – a challenge to our complacency, a prick to our easy conscience, a call to action. Would our faith stand the test if it meant losing everything that is meaningful to us? Would we hold fast if we lost our work, our family and our friends? Would we stand our ground if society turned against us, harassed us, persecuted us or threatened to kill us?

The question is: What does our faith mean to us, and what are we prepared to give up for it?

Unity not uniformity

June 1, 2019

Easter 7 – 2019

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into union with Godself and with one another. Amen.

Ten days ago Archbishop Phillip shared with us the letter sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion. The letter urged all Anglican Bishops to attend the Lambeth Conference in 2020. Archbishop Justin Welby acknowledged the differences of opinion that led a number of conservative Bishops to organize their own conference in 2008, but encouraged them to attend the next Lambeth Conference to ensure that their point of view was heard. Already four Primates of the Anglican Church have announced their intention not to attend. Last Sunday the ABC news reported that a large proportion of the Uniting Church was planning to secede from the Uniting Church Conference citing in particular the Conference’s making same sex marriage a matter of conscience for individual ministers. During the same time period in New Zealand a group of Anglicans formed their own, separate Diocese under the umbrella of the GAFCON and for at least a decade, Anglican Bishops have been ordaining clergy in Dioceses that are not their own, and parishes have been aligning themselves with Dioceses to which they do not geographically belong.

All over the world, and in a number of denominations, the church is being torn apart by differences of opinion – primarily over the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage but also in relation to the role of women and the interpretation of the bible. Claiming the high moral ground, the conservatives argue that the liberals have compromised the gospel, a gospel that they believe demands that we adhere to clear, unchanging moral guidelines. Liberals, on the other hand, claim that the gospel demonstrates God’s inclusive love and point to Jesus’ willingness to break the rules to make that love a reality in the lives of those who were marginalized, excluded or limited by those rules.

The issues on which we differ are not always clear cut, but are complicated by such things as local culture, history and the ownership of property. The world wide Anglican communion, which has held together since the Reformation, is now straining at the seams.

Today’s gospel comes towards the end of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prays for the disciples who must carry on in his absence. Jesus prays that the disciples will be protected from the ‘evil one’ but more importantly he prays that the disciples might be one, as he and the Father are one: ‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:20,23). Unity among the disciples, in fact among believers generally, is so important that Jesus repeats the prayer within six verses.

‘May they be one as you and I are one, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ In Jesus’ mind unity is a prerequisite of mission. A unified community is itself a witness to Jesus and Jesus’ union with God. A unified community does away with the need to proclaim dogmas, to demand adherence to a code of behaviour or to insist on one or another interpretation of scripture. Unity among believers is sufficient evidence of the presence of Jesus among them and of the union between Jesus and God. According to this point of view, creative outreach programmes, exciting, modern music and Bill Graham style evangelism campaigns would all be redundant if those who profess to believe in Jesus could only live in unity with one another.

The question then becomes: “what is unity?” Is it uniformity or is it mutual respect? My money is on the latter. It seems to me that scripture is anything but prescriptive and, even if it were, none of us are able to travel in time back to the first century to learn exactly what Jesus said or what the various writers of the New Testament meant when they recorded Jesus’ sayings. We can’t ask Paul to explain his ideas, nor can we really get an accurate sense of what it was like to be a believer in first century Palestine or the eastern Mediterranean.

Unity is not related to the minutiae of Christian practice but to the broader picture of faith. What Christians have in common is our absolute confidence in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, in the risen Jesus who is present with us and in the Holy Spirit who directs and inspires us. It is our relationship with God – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – that unites us. This being the case, we do not have to force others to think in exactly the same way as we do rather we, and they, could learn to trust that we are all doing our very best to submit our lives to the God who revealed Godself in Jesus and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who is the perfect example of obedience and faithfulness.

If the different parts of Christendom learned to trust and respect each other, to believe that we are all in our own way striving to develop our relationship with the risen Christ, trying to be open to the presence of God and anxious to align ourselves with the direction of the Holy Spirit, the antagonism between the warring factions would diminish and even disappear.

No one truly knows the mind of God and it is the utmost arrogance for any of us to presume that it is we, not someone else who has the first claim on God’s truth. Instead of trying to prove that we are right and that others are wrong, perhaps it is time that we started to mind our own business, to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ and to allow others to do the same. If our primary focus was our relationship with God -Earth-maker, Pain-bearer and Life-giver – we might stop worrying abut what others do and do not believe and use the time and effort to concentrate on ourselves – on our own behaviour, our own attitudes and our own weaknesses. If our central concern was the building up of our own faith, we would not be obsessively concerned with externals – who can marry whom or who can be ordained – but with the deeper issues of vulnerability, humility and our dependence on God.

Jesus prayed that we might be one so that the world might believe through us. If we seek to draw others to the faith we must find a way to end factionalism, to cease competing as to who is right and who is wrong, and to seek, not uniformity, but the unity that comes from our shared faith in the Triune God revealed by our Saviour and Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

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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