Posts Tagged ‘identity’

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.

 

Does Jesus need to be baptised??

January 7, 2017

The Baptism of Jesus – 2017

Matthew 3:13-17

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose plan is, was and always will be to save the world.

Why does Jesus need to be baptised? Surely Jesus doesn’t need to be cleansed from sin. He doesn’t need to profess his faith. John certainly doesn’t think that Jesus needs to be baptised. It is important that we, with John ask the question? Why does Jesus need to be baptised? The problem is that it is easy for us to make assumptions based on the  idea that John’s baptism was like that which we received when in fact the two things are very different.

John’s baptism – that received by Jesus – was very different from the baptism that has grown up in the practice of the church. John was calling the people of Israel to repentance.  Baptism (the greek word simply means “wash”) was a sign that they were turning their backs on the way that had been living and were returning to God. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. It was not intended for individuals but for all of Israel. John was calling for the renewal of the Jewish people nation. He was NOT calling for people to repent of their own individual sins. John the Baptist was preparing the people as a whole for the coming of a Redeemer.

Baptism in the name of Jesus is, at the very least a post-resurrection event. It is form of initiation and a statement of faith. John’s baptism is not and cannot have been a baptism into the Christian faith.  Jesus had not even begun his public ministry and Jesus was, and remained a Jew.

What all this means is that when we consider Jesus’ baptism we have to see it as a stand-alone event and not as something that foreshadows the practice and doctrine of the Christian church. The baptism of Jesus is not baptism in the way that we think of baptism, but something entirely different.

All the gospel writers record this event, so we can state with some confidence that it has a basis in historical fact. Jesus was baptised and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended on him. Matthew, Mark and Luke all report a voice coming from heaven (or from a cloud) that affirmed Jesus as God’s Son and indicated God’s pleasure in God’s son.

Of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, Matthew’s is the longest. This is because he alone records John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus. “I need to be baptised by you and do you come to me?” he asks. John recognised that Jesus is the more powerful than he.  John thinks that Jesus should baptise him, not vice versa. Matthew apparently agrees with John that Jesus does not need to be baptised, so in order to understand what is happening, we have to examine how Matthew explains Jesus’ baptism.

According to Warren Carter we need to pay attention to four things in order to understand Matthew’s understood if we pay attention to four things: the context, John’s baptism, the conversation between John and Jesus and the voice from heaven[1].

The account of Jesus’ baptism occurs part way through chapter three in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus’ ministry is yet to begin. In fact it will not begin until mid-way through chapter four (after the temptations). Matthew has been setting the scene. Jesus’ baptism is one of the way in which Matthew establishes Jesus’ identity and demonstrates the way in which Jesus is a fulfilment of God’s promises. Matthew begins by establishing Jesus’ identity and the ways in which his early life is a fulfilment of scripture. Jesus is of the line of David, conceived by the Spirit to save the people from their sins. He is Emmanuel, “God with us”. His life is in danger because he is a threat to Herod. The leaders in Jerusalem ignore his birth and yet he is recognised and worshipped by foreigners. Through Joseph, God ensures that he is kept safe from harm and finally John the Baptist prepares the people for his coming.

Matthew has made is clear that Jesus has been sent by God. His baptism by John demonstrates that Jesus both understands and accepts his role and that he intends to be obedient to God’s plan for his life.

Only Matthew records the conversation between Jesus and John – John’s initial reluctance and Jesus’ insistence. Remember that John ‘s baptism is not about individuals, but about the nation of Israel. Jesus’ sinlessness is not in question, it is Jesus’ role as the “one who is more powerful” that causes John some anxiety.  Jesus’ response is mysterious. All it really tells us is that Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism is part of God’s plan for putting everything right – the plan that John has been announcing to the world. Just as other events in Jesus’ life so far have been to “fulfil” God’s plan, so too will Jesus’ baptism. It does not make immediate sense, just as Jesus’ death will not make sense. What is important for Matthew’s story is that God has a plan and that Jesus is determined to submit to that plan, to accept his commission from God.

After Jesus has convinced John that his baptism is not only right, but also divinely sanctioned John baptises Jesus. Then, as Jesus emerges from the water, God affirms both Jesus’ identity and his mission by opening the heavens, descending as a dove and declaring Jesus to be his son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.

Through genealogy and story, affirmation and fear, Matthew has established Jesus as the one of David’s line who will fulfil God’s promise to bring salvation to Israel. Now that he has made it absolutely clear who and what Jesus is, Matthew can begin his record of Jesus’ teaching, teaching that he has proven can be heard and received with absolute confidence. Those who hear and those who read Matthew’s gospel know exactly who Jesus is, by whom he has been commissioned, and what role he is to play in the history of Israel.

As we travel together through the gospel according to Matthew this, we can be sure of this that Matthew believes that: Jesus has been sent by God, to fulfil God’s promises and to carry out God’s plan. What we read and hear can be trusted because it comes from God..

 

 

 

 

[1] For the original see http://workingpreacher.org

Identity crisis

August 8, 2015

Pentecost 11 – 2015

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free 

In the name of God, source of all being, giver of all that is good. Amen.

Our recent trip to Israel was incredibly rewarding, but also very disturbing. Among other things I was disillusioned by the presence of the Christian church, in particular the partisanship and the competition for the tourist dollar. The major denominations in particular the Catholics and Orthodox, having vied for their piece of the Holy Land, hold on to it for all their worth. I could give you several examples of stories that filled me with despair, but I will limit myself to just one. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem has no fewer than six custodians – the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic Churches as well as the Coptic, Armenian and Syriac Orthodox Churches. The church itself is divided between all six denominations with some shared areas. When we were there the Catholic Franciscans were preparing for Evensong, which they observe before the Russian Orthodox so as to be sure of a free run of the church. Had we stayed longer, we would have observed them scuffling with the Greek Orthodox whose procession was competing for the same space. It left me wondering what the church was really about and whether it really mattered who had the largest slice of the cake.

The experience confirmed something that I already thought – that today’s church, (and dare I say it, yesterday’s church) – has an identity crisis. It seems at times that we no longer really know who we are. We are not so sure of our place in the world or even in our communities. We are uncertain of our role and as a result we have no real direction. I wonder whether, like the church in the Holy Land, we too are concerned to protect and to hold on to what we have and whether we are struggling to preserve the institution of the church as much as we are trying to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

It used to be so much easier. There was a time when we didn’t have to struggle, a time when everyone knew who we were and what we stood for, a time when we were respected, a time when it was clear that we did some good in the world, a time when we didn’t have to explain or defend ourselves. Sadly today, in the eyes of many, the church is a spent force – at best an anachronism, at worst a laughing stock.

There are now at least two generations of Australians who have had little or no relationship with the church. Ask a class of nine year olds what happened at Easter and you are more likely to be told that Jesus was born (or died) than you are that Jesus rose from the dead.

Not only have we lost our place in the world, we seem to have lost our way. For centuries we were able to be complacent. We could take it for granted that most people knew whom we were and what we were about. Our children (even those who did not attend church) learnt the stories of the faith at school and Christianity provided some sort of moral compass for the world at large. During the colonial era there was a flurry of activity on the mission field as we sought to impose our beliefs on others, but at home we relied on the culture of the day to pass on the faith to others. We took for granted that we were part of the establishment and failed to reflect sufficiently on what it takes to share the good news.

So now we have an identity crisis. Others can now offer what we thought that we had to offer. Many of the services that used to be provided exclusively by the church are now equally the province of secular entities. The government can legislate for good behaviour and can provide social welfare, health care and education and non-government agencies can provide overseas aid. It begs the question: who are we, and what is our role? What do we have to offer that is unique and attractive to today’s world.

This morning’s gospel is in part about identity. Jesus’ listeners cannot get past the fact that Jesus is Joseph’s son. They can see and grasp Jesus’ earthly existence after all they know his mother and his father. Their problem is that they cannot begin to get a handle on his heavenly origins. How can the man whom they see before them have come down from heaven? For them, it is much easier to focus on the material and the physical than to grasp what Jesus is saying – that in his very person heaven has broken into the present, that the barriers the material and the spiritual have been destroyed and that the boundaries between the present and the future have been irrevocably broken for those who are able to comprehend who and what Jesus is.

I wonder sometimes if this is at the heart of our problem – if this is the reason why our churches are no longer full and why people no longer come to us for answers. I wonder if we have found it is easier to focus on the physical and the earthly, on things that can be observed and measured than to point to what cannot be seen and to direct others to realities that are beyond this existence. Yet this is the core of our identity – our understanding that faith in Jesus opens the door to a life beyond this, that for those who have faith the present is radically changed by the in-breaking of God into the world and that we no longer driven by hunger and thirst for something more, because we have found in Jesus all that gives life meaning and value. We do not have rely on the achievements of the past or worry about the uncertainty of the future, because we know that the past no longer has a hold on us and that our future is assured.

While we worry about the survival of the church, there are many in the world who hunger and thirst for meaning, who are looking for relationships that are more than superficial and searching for an assurance that their life has value. It is our responsibility to provide that meaning, our task to reveal the spiritual in the midst of the material and our role to demonstrate in our own lives what it means that the future has broken-in and radically changed our view of the present.

Jesus gave his life, that we might have life. In our turn, we are called to give our lives that others might know what it is like to be truly alive.

Who is Jesus?

August 24, 2014

Pentecost 11

Matthew 16:13-20 (A Reflection)

Marian Free

 

In the name of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Amen.

In January 2013, ABC Science reported that an Australian researcher had discovered a new frog near Ho Chi Minh City. Apparently Jodi Rowley who discovered Helen’s Flying Frog, at first thought it was familiar species. It was only when she saw the original specimen some time later that she realised that the former exhibited a number of differences. Molecular analysis confirmed that she had in fact identified a species that had not previously been recognised. Similar discoveries are happening all the time. If you google “new frogs” you will learn that no less than fourteen new species of dancing frogs have been found in India, another frog has been found in Madagascar and a thorny tree frog has been discovered in Vietnam.

I find it extraordinary that centuries after Linnaeus developed a system of classifying flora and fauna, that it is still possible to locate new species. It is equally fascinating that the distinction between sub-species is sometimes so subtle that a researcher has to rely on molecular analysis in order to be certain that the new creature is in fact new. Presumably any difference is significant and important in the scientific world.

Identity is an important issue. If a person claims to be a policeman or woman, we want to see some form of identification before we comply with their request. If we are about to have major (or minor surgery) we would like to know that our specialist has in fact passed their exams. When we hire a car, pick up a package from the Post Office, leave or enter a country, staff and officials need some surety that we are who we say we are.

Despite all these precautions, it is still possible to be taken in. Numerous people have been caught up in improbably investment schemes, or have lost their life savings believing that the person whom they met online is their one true love. Still others have been caught in the grip of charismatic figures who imprison them in some form of extreme religious idealism (often with catastrophic results).

It should come as no surprise then, that the matter of Jesus’ identity was a live issue both during his lifetime and when the gospels were being written. Why would anyone risk their life, or expose their credibility for a charlatan? Those who were writing the gospels wanted to write in such a way that others would be convinced to follow Jesus.

Each writer approaches the question slightly differently. Matthew, whose gospel we are reading presents Jesus primarily as the authoritative teacher (one who has more authority than the scribes and Pharisees). Jesus is also the “one who abides” – Immanuel, God with us. He is the Son of David, the Son of God. He is “I AM” and the one who will bring Gentiles to faith. It seems that no one word or expression can fully contain the writer’s experience and knowledge of Jesus. While we know who Jesus is, the early disciples were not at all sure. The writers of the Synoptic gospels show how the disciples gradually came to understanding.

That said, all gospel writers struggle with the fact that Jesus does not fit neatly into any existing category. The disciples especially find it difficult to come to grips with the fact that Jesus is to suffer and to die. This tension comes to a head in today’s gospel. At the very point at which Peter makes his declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the same Peter makes it clear that he doesn’t understand what this means. He, along with his fellow Jews had expected God to send the Christ – a figure who would set things right – either by reforming the faith, or by leading a revolt against Rome. A Christ who was dead would not be able to achieve either of those things.

Peter expresses his determination that this should not happen – that Christ should conform to expectations. Jesus’ aggressive response demonstrates just how serious Peter’s misunderstanding is: “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus cannot and will not fulfill his task in any way than that set before him. It is suffering and death and consequent resurrection that will set the world to rights – there is no other way.

Jesus has been so domesticated and his death and resurrection so sanctified, that it is difficult for us to understand how confronting it was for those first disciples. We cannot grasp what a huge leap it was for anyone, Jew or Greek, to believe in a crucified Saviour.

You and I have the benefit of the gospels and two thousands years of reflection and study on the life of Christ to inform our understanding. We have the creeds that have formalized our belief and our liturgies which celebrate it.

All these come to nothing however, if we have not answered Jesus’ question for ourselves, if we have not made the effort to come to know who he really is and what his suffering achieved.

Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?” What do you reply?

The wilderness of our hearts

February 16, 2013

Lent 1 – 2013

Luke 4:1-13

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who longs for us to see ourselves more clearly and having done so to submit ourselves to the transforming power of God. Amen.

‘Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of. Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, that’s what little boys are made of.’ To think that many of us used to recite this silly, sexist rhyme! But what are we made of? Beyond the obvious skin and bones, do many of us really know what lies beneath? Do we really know our strengths and recognise our weaknesses? Do we know what triggers or events might lead us to act nobly and selflessly? Alternately, can we begin to imagine forces or situations which would lead us to behave basely or cruelly?

I suspect that it is impossible to know ahead of time how we will react in situations that demand courage, resilience or moral fortitude. Fear, timidity and an unwillingness to stand out from the crowd can prevent people from acting as they should or worse, they can cause people to behave in ways that are cowardly, cruel and self-serving. History is littered with instances of good people failing to act in the face of evil. The past is crowded with examples of a mob mentality leading otherwise reasonable people to behave in violent or rash ways. The world stood silent in the face of the Nazi gas chambers and still seems unable to act against oppressive or unjust regimes.  The insanity of the mob leads to disregard for law and order and the destruction of property as was witnessed in Brixton, in Cronulla and elsewhere.

After the event, those who were silent might say: “I was too afraid to speak out.” Those who were caught up with the crowd might respond: “I thought they would kill me if I didn’t join in.” There is always a reason or justification for such behaviour. No one likes to believe that they deliberately acted in a way that led to or contributed to another’s injury or harm or which saw another abased or killed because of their failure to act. No one likes to think that they could have a propensity for cruelty or indifference, that they would join in with the crowd or that they would stand silent in the face of grave injustice.

On the other hand, the past is equally populated with ordinary people who, in the face of danger, have exhibited extraordinary courage and who have risked their own safety to save the life of another – the by-stander who pulls a person from a burning car, the surfer who without thought rushes to the aid of someone attacked by a shark, the solider who exposes him or herself to enemy fire, to save another who is injured or dying. Every day, in a variety of different circumstances, people like you and I show what they are really made of. When asked about their heroic acts, such people often reply: “I didn’t think – I just did what needed to be done.” They don’t think of themselves as heroes because their action was so spontaneous. Until confronted with the situation they may not have known that they had such courage in them.

Some among us may have faced such challenges and may have confidence to know how they will respond in the face of danger or when someone is needed to speak out. Others of us can only imagine and hope that we would meet every difficulty and danger with grace, that even at the cost of our own lives we would challenge oppression, cruelty and injustice and that we would seek to heal and be healed, to understand and forgive (even if at first sight, healing, understanding and forgiveness is impossible to imagine).

The sad reality is that apathy, cruelty and lust for power exist side by side with integrity, compassion and selflessness in every human being and until we are tested we cannot be 100% sure how we will respond. Fortunately, it is not often that we are put to the test.

For Jesus it was different. Jesus had a very particular task. Jesus was called by God to serve God in the world and to bring about the salvation of humankind. This was a task that could only be achieved if Jesus was prepared to submit his life completely to God. Anything less would jeopardise the whole endeavour. His was a weighty responsibility. Jesus (and perhaps God) had to be sure that he was up to the task. He (and God) had to know that when it came to the crunch, he would not bow down to earthly authority, he would not waver in the face of opposition and he would not give up before the job was complete.

There was no opportunity for a dress rehearsal. Jesus only had one chance. When the moment came to be strong, to speak out or to suffer, Jesus had to know that he would not back down but would continue on the path that was set before him. So the spirit led him to the wilderness – to the emptiness and silence, to a place where there were no distractions, nothing to take his mind off himself, no social structures to ensure that his baser instincts were suppressed. In the desert then, Jesus came up against the darker side of himself. Deprivation and isolation brought to the surface ideas that may, until then, have been suppressed. He could do so much with the power that was his! Given who he was and the power that was at his disposal, it would have been easy for him to be self-serving (to use his gifts to enrich himself). Given God’s love and care for him, it would have been easy for him to take risks with his own safety, to force God to always be on the look out for him, protecting him and keeping him out of harm’s way. Then again, he could use his power for his own aggrandisement, he could force the world to bow to him and not to God.

Jesus heard the voice of his “other self”, the voice of temptation whispering in his ear – what he could do if he wanted to! He knew though, that this was not the self that he wanted to be – a self separated from and in competition with God. Using the words of scripture he pushed the other voice out of the picture and demonstrated that he could withstand every test and that he was ready to answer the call of God.

Finding out who we are and of what we are capable is one of the goals of Lent. Through fasting or prayer or giving up something that we thought we could do not without we create space in our lives. We make our own small internal wilderness and we can be surprised by what longings, what emotions, what insecurities rise to the surface.

In the stillness of this wilderness it is harder to escape from who we are. In the silence of this desert it is harder to quell thoughts we would rather ignore. In this place, without our usual distractions, we can come face-to-face with who we really are.

We can spend a lifetime running away from ourselves, avoiding our deeper issues, burying parts of ourselves that we wish were not there at all or we can take time out, have the courage to see who and what we really are and with the help of God dispel the demons that drive us and build up the character that we want to define us


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