Posts Tagged ‘Mission’

Mission as mutual enrichment

May 25, 2019

St Augustine’s Day (Easter 6) – 2019

(John 14:23-29, Acts 16:9-15)

Marian Free

In the name of God who goes before us into the world. Amen.

“Dear Bishop, …Suddenly I feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa. I would propose cutting myself off from the schools and the hospital and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. Outside of this, I have no theory, no plan, no strategy, no gimmick, no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked. I will begin as soon as possible.”

In the mid 70s a young Jesuit priest, Vincent Donovan, was sent to a missionary post in Kenya. The Jesuits had been in the nation for over 100 years, but had not managed to convert even one member of proud Masai people. The mission station boasted a hospital and a school. Children came to the mission school to be educated the the Masai brought the sick to be treated. The Jesuits were welcome guests at significant events, but had long since given up any real attempt to bring the Masai to faith. Vincent was young and enthusiastic. He had not come to this far away land to sit and wait for people to come to him. He had become a missionary so that he could share the faith that was so important to him. The Bishop gave his approval for Vincent to carry out his experiment. What happened next was truly remarkable.

In order to begin Vincent sought the permission of the elders of the various Masai communities. They were willing to hear him but, being herders who woke early to take their flocks to pasture, they could only spare the hour before dawn. Undeterred, Vincent rose early and met with the communities before they left with their flocks for the day. His method was to tell the story of Jesus through the gospel of Mark. Each morning Vincent would meet with the people and explain the gospel to them. Along the way he learnt about the culture he was interacting and adapted his teaching to fit. For example, parables that were meaningful in the agricultural society of first century Palestine did not not speak to the pastoral society of the Masai who competed for land with the agriculturalists to the south. Jesus’ teaching had to be shared in another way.

Not only was Vincent sensitive to the surroundings in which he found himself, he was also open to the wisdom that preceded him. He did not assume that the Masai had no culture or spiritual life and was therefore able to learn more about himself and his faith from those with whom spoke. It was clear to one of the tribal elders that at times Vincent appeared to be lost. He took Vincent aside and explained to him that the Masai understood God to be like a prowling lion and he observed that the lion was following Vincent and he challenged Vincent to stop and take stock and to ask himself what it was that he was running away from! Instead of rejecting this advice Vincent took it to heart

Vincent had come to Kenya share the gospel that he loved with those who had not heard it, but he was respectful of their culture and their experiences and willing to learn from those around him. He did not assume, as many have, that he was interacting with heathen savages but recognized that the Masai belonged an ancient culture that had its own beliefs and wisdom. He spoke to their situation and in turn was willing to learn from their experience.

To me the most stunning aspect of Vincent’s story is this. At the end of the process, after endless mornings of pre-dawn discussions, Vincent asked the villagers whether or not they would like to be baptized. Some said ‘yes’ and others said ‘no’. He did not try to persuade those who said ‘no’ to change their minds nor did he use the fear of hell. He had shared the faith, but he was not willing to impose it. The choice was theirs to make.

Centuries before Vincent stepped foot in Kenya, Augustine landed in Kent from Rome. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory to convert the Angles. In Kent Augustine and his band of monks received a cordial welcome. The gospel had in fact preceded them and the Queen, Bertha, was already a Christian. Just as Vincent had a base from which to work, so too did Augustine. In both cases there was a small Christian presence, but most of the people remained unchanged, their culture and their customs untouched by the gospel. We know little about Augustine’s methodology, but from a letter to the Pope, we know that he was unsure what he should do with regard to local practices and holy shrines. In his wisdom the Pope suggested that the holy places be retained and put to use, thereby adapting earlier practices for use by those who now professed Jesus as Lord. Instead of destroying that which preexisted Christianity, Gregory encouraged engagement with it.

The approach of Augustine and Vincent differ markedly from that of many of the colonial missionaries who often sought to conquer and suppress the cultures they encountered, who failed to listen to and understand the peoples whom they desired to change and who, in their arrogance and ignorance, failed to see that God was already at work in the ancient cultures they encountered.

The association of mission with colonialism has given mission a bad name. So much damage has been done in the name of Jesus that we are cautious and timid, anxious not to be seen as those who impose our will on others. Yet we have a great treasure that cries out to be shared – not by tramping rough shod over ancient traditions and wisdom, not by arrogantly assuming that those whose lives are different from our own are necessarily impoverished, not by imposing our will or ourculture on others but by starting where people are, by showing respect for and interest in those whom we meet, by being willing to learn and to have our own lives and faith deepened and enriched as a result. In the end, the gospel belongs to God and God will speak to the hearts of others as God has spoken to us and God will use us if we make ourselves ready and available, humble and willing to learn.

Don’t send me!

May 19, 2018

St Augustine – Pentecost, 2018

John 15:26-27

 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.  You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

Marian Free

In the name of God who will empower and direct us and who has already gone before us into the world. Amen.

The English Historian the Venerable Bede has provided us with a history of the English church from about 100 BCE to 731 CE. Even though he himself did not travel he was able to get others to bring him relevant information and documents. Among these were the letters from Pope Gregory to Augustine that give us a reasonably comprehensive idea of Augustine’s mission and of the concerns that Augustine raised. Those of us who regularly worship at St Augustine’s are familiar with the story. Pope Gregory (the Great) was intrigued by some blonde slaves whom he saw in the market. On learning that they were Angles (he heard the words as angels) he determined to send someone to the British Isles to convert them.

To that end Augustine and several other Benedictine monks were commissioned with the task. On reaching England they received a welcome from the King of Kent Ethelbert whose wife was already a Christian. Ethelbert gave the monks land on which to build their church and allowed them liberty to preach the gospel in his kingdom. The site on which the church was built became Canterbury Cathedral, the center of the Anglican Communion to this day.

There are a number of interesting facets to the story but my favorite is this – after the team set out they got cold feet, to quote Bede: “Having undertaken this task in obedience to the Pope’s command and progressed a short distance on their journey, they became afraid, and began to consider returning home. For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation of whose very language they were ignorant. They unanimously agreed that this was the safest course, and sent back Augustine … that he might humbly request the holy Gregory to recall them from so dangerous, arduous and uncertain a journey.”[1]Gregory refused this request and so they continued.

Their anxiety is not uncommon among those called to serve God. Moses at first refused God’s call (even though God appears in a burning bush!). The reasons – he was certain that Pharaoh would not listen to him and that the Israelites would not believe that God had sent him. When these excuses did not dissuade God, Moses argued that he could not do the task because he was not eloquent enough[2]. Jeremiah likewise argued that he could not speak well and he added to that that he was only a boy.[3]Gideon made the point that his tribe was the weakest in Israel and when God insisted that Gideon wasthe one whom he had chosen, Gideon asked for a sign. When God gave him a sign, Gideon, still refusing to believe that God could use him, asked God to repeat the sign![4]Jonah’s reaction to God’s call was the most dramatic and the most selfish of all. Jonah was so reluctant to respond to God’s call that he ran away, presumably believing that he could escape God.  Worse, when he finally did what God had asked and God spared Nineveh, Jonah sat under a tree and sulked.

If we are anxious or lacking in confidence when it comes to sharing the gospel, we are in good company. However, that does not let us off the hook. In today’s gospel Jesus commissions us to testify on his behalf. Through our baptism we are all called and commissioned as disciples to be God’s presence in the world. And still we hesitate. The reasons for our hesitation may be as many and varied as those of us who are present. Like Jeremiah we might think that we are too young (or even too old). Like Moses and Jeremiah we might be afraid that we will be unable to find the right words to say or that people won’t believe what we do say. Like Gideon we might need to be convinced that God really canuse us. Like Jonah we might simply think that God can do it all on his own and that God doesn’t need us or, like Augustine and his fellow monks, we might be terrified of the reception that we imagine awaits us.

The worst fears of Augustine’s monks were not realised. The reality was quite different from that which they had expected. Instead of a hostile reception, they received a warm welcome and were given freedom to pursue their mission and the resources to establish themselves and their community. Their obedience to the call of God resulted in blessings far more than they could have imagined because God had not asked them to do the impossible. God had gone before them to prepare the way, remained with them as their help and support and empowered them with the Holy Spirit so that they could do what needed to be done.

Almost certainly, wewill not be called to lead a company of people out of slavery to the Promised Land. Wewill not be asked to lead an army in battle or to call an entire city to repentance. We won’t be asked to go to an unknown land to people whose language we do not know. All that we are asked to do is to testify to the risen Christ and to Christ’s presence in the world, to share with others the comfort, strength and assurance that we experience because Christ is present in our lives. We are to trust that the Holy Spirit will equip us for that task and to remember that God will not ask us to do more than we can do, nor will God send us out on a mission that has no chance of success.

The examples of Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, Jonah and Augustine assure us that it doesn’t matter how old (or how young we are), how articulate we are, how wise and clever or how strong or brave we are. God can and will use us to make known God’s presence in the world.

[1]The Venerable Bede, Chapter 23.

[2]Exodus 3,4

[3]Jeremiah 1:4

[4]Read the story for yourself (Judges 6)

Fishing for people, mining for the souls of people

January 21, 2017

Epiphany 3 – 2017

Matthew 4:12-25

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who meets us where we are, not where God would wish us to be. Amen.

Anglicans are notoriously shy when it comes to mission. Most of us are very happy for people to know that we attend church, pray, do voluntary work for the Anglican Church and so on, but when it comes to sharing the gospel suddenly our faith is a very private matter. We don’t want to intrude or to impose on others. We respect their right to make up their own minds and above all we are conditioned by the mantra that in polite society we don’t talk about politics or religion. This attitude stems in part from the religious wars of our church’s home. Consciously or otherwise our collective memory tells us how divisive religion can and has been. Some of us are old enough to remember the suspicion with which Protestants and Catholics viewed each other and know that friendships can be ruined if old wounds are opened up.

On top of all that we have to add that until at least the 1950’s it could be assumed that the majority of people professed some faith. A vast proportion of the population were attached to a church community whether they worshiped regularly or simply sent their children to Sunday School. In a Christian nation we could assume that the community knew the basics of the Christian faith. Magazines printed recipes for Shrove Tuesday and Lent, everything closed between Maundy Thursday and the Tuesday after Easter, carols in the park told the story of the Incarnation. Sharing our faith was in many ways redundant. Even those who didn’t go to church knew the stories – that the birth of Jesus was celebrated at Christmas and his death and resurrection at Easter. Most people knew some of the parables and that Jesus was a preacher and a healer. Until the end of the twentieth century we could be confident that school children had been exposed to the Christian faith through religious education.

Ever since Constantine made Christianity the faith of the Roman Empire there has been little to no need to spread the faith amongst our own. As a result, those of us in traditional churches have become complacent and out of practice. We have had so little cause to share our faith that we do not have the language for mission, let alone the experience at sharing the good news.

In recent decades as our churches have emptied and our Sunday Schools fallen silent, we have begun to think of mission as a way to rejuvenate our churches and to fill our pews. We have experimented with a variety of solutions, but our lack of success is evidenced by our failure to halt the decline.

Today’s gospel focuses on the beginning Jesus’ mission and Jesus’ call to the disciples to fish for people. As twenty-first century disciples, we can interrogate the texts to see what it can teach us.

As I see it, the gospel consists of four parts – 1. a reminder that for many the world is a place of darkness and death, 2. Jesus’ call to repentance, 3. Jesus’ calling of the first disciples and 4. Jesus’ preaching of the good news and his offering of hope and healing to the world. The gospel begins by reminding us of God’s promise to bring light to a world filled with darkness and the claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. Then Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to turn to acknowledge through repentance the part they play in preventing the world from more truly reflecting the kingdom of God. Having established who is he and why he is here, Jesus calls some people to follow him – to join with him in his mission to inaugurate the kingdom. He calls fishermen to fish for people, but he might just as well have asked miners to mine for people or seamstresses and tailors to sew lives together, or miners to mine the depths of human suffering. Finally Jesus demonstrates what the kingdom might look like by bringing healing and wholeness to a suffering world.

It is important to notice what Jesus does not do – he does not send people to swell the numbers at the local synagogues. He does not preach the gospel as if it is some sort of moral imperative – “if you are not good you won’t go to heaven”. He doesn’t demand that those whom he calls should be anything other than they are. He doesn’t ask fishermen to teach or teachers to fish. He meets people where they are, acknowledges and affirms what they can do rather than ask them to do something for which they are not suited. He uses the disciples’ gifts and abilities to help him to bring restoration and wholeness to the world.

If we are to learn something from Jesus’ mission it might be this. God has promised to bring light to a world that is filled with the darkness of hardship, sorrow, pain and injustice. God’s desire is that we should catch God’s vision for humanity that the world should be a reflection of the kingdom of heaven and repent our part in the world’s indifference, cruelty and greed and that we should strive with all our being to ensure that our present reality more closely represents the reality that is the kingdom of heaven. We are to recognize and value the gifts and the potential of those around us (valuing them for who they are, not for whom we would want them to be) and through our encouragement and affirmation enable others to share their gifts with the world. And we are encouraged to shower such love and compassion on the world that the recipients of that love cannot help but be changed, renewed and restored and in their turn demonstrate such love compassion to others that the whole world will be healed and transformed and God’s kingdom will be known on earth as it is in heaven.

As we leave behind the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, and enter into the penitential season of Lent, we as church and as individuals have the opportunity repent the part we play in a world that is far from perfect and to consider more deeply what it is that we can to bring about healing and peace and thus ensure that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will will be done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Causing offense

May 16, 2015

Easter 7 – 2015

John 17:6-19

Marian Free

 In the name of God who with us enters into the messiness of this world and who endures the hatred of those who do not understand and cannot accept God. Amen.

Modern technology is wonderful. On my computer I have a wonderful Bible programme called Accordance. With the push of a button I can find out how many times a word occurs in a particular book of the bible and how that compares with its occurrence in other books. For example, I have just popped in the word “κοσμος” (world). The “hits graph” shows me that this word occurs far more often in John’s gospel that anywhere else in the New Testament – far outweighing its occurrence in the other gospels and most of the other books. Further, the graph indicates that John’s use of ‘kosmos” increases (quadruples) in the later chapters – as you can see for yourselves.

Occurrences of cosmos in New Testament

Occurrences of cosmos in New Testament

For those who are interested in such things, the word “kosmos” occurs 78 times in John’s gospel, 23 in 1 John and 21 in 1 Corinthians. The concordance key tells me exactly where to find each of the 186 occurrences of the word, so were I to be researching this in detail I could examine each usage in its context to determine whether the New Testament writers use the word in the same or different ways which in turn would tell me something about the message that each author is trying to present. Today I am content to note that the majority of occurrences of the word in John’s gospel occur in chapter 17, the portion of the gospel assigned to us this morning.

In John’s gospel the word “kosmos” is used in a number of ways that can be summarised: “the world in contrast to the heavens”, “the created world” and “human society”. It can be used positively, negatively and neutrally. So for example the created world is neutral and the world in contrast to the heavens is negative. When the word is used in the sense of humanity, it can be used in all three senses: “the world has gone after him” (12:19 – neutral), “God so loved the world” (3:16 – positive), “the world has hated them because they are not of the world” (17:14 – negative).

John’s gospel presents Jesus as a divisive figure. The way in which people respond to him reveals their innermost self, their true character. According to John, Jesus does not come to condemn the world but to save the world, however by their reaction to Jesus, people in effect judge themselves. That is, they make a choice to accept or to reject Jesus. In rejecting Jesus, they reject God and in turning way from Jesus they demonstrate that they are not able to accept Jesus’ word (a word that he has received from God). Their rejection of Jesus demonstrates that they belong to the world (that is the world that is opposed to Jesus and therefore to God).

According to John’s gospel, the very presence of Jesus is unsettling. The people who reject him are disquieted by him, either because they don’t understand what he is about, or because they feel exposed (he knows who they really are). At the same they don’t really understand their reaction and this makes them even more uncomfortable. They need to find a reason to be disturbed by someone who teaches what he teaches, does what he does (who is as good as he is). As is so often the case, what they do not fully understand, they hate. The “world” (humanity) thus becomes divided between those who accept and follow Jesus and those who do not. Jesus’ “own” are distinguished from those who are not his own. The disciples are distinguished from the “world”, those who do not believe.

In chapter 17, Jesus’ farewell prayer for the disciples, Jesus warns the disciples that they can expect the same reception form the “world” as he himself received. If his presence was divisive, theirs will provoke the same reaction, if Jesus’ teaching and actions caused disquiet, then the disciples, who teach and do the same things, can expect to cause disquiet. If people responded to that disquiet by hating Jesus, the disciples can expect that same hatred to be directed at them.

It would be wrong, as a result of reading Jesus’ farewell speech (15-17) to believe that Jesus thought that the world was inherently evil. It would be equally mistaken to think that Jesus was urging the disciples to somehow remove themselves from the world, to protect themselves from the taint of all that was worldly. Nothing could be further from the truth – God loves the world and in sending Jesus God hoped to save the world. Nor is the world to be rejected because it has rejected Jesus, God’s desire is still that it be saved. The disciples are only at risk of being hated, because Jesus is sending them into the world. Jesus very specifically says that he is not asking God to take them out of the world, but to give them the strength and courage that they will require to withstand the hatred that their very presence will generate. (If sharing God’s word was difficult for Jesus, it will be just as difficult for those who continue his work – they will only be able to carry out their work with God’s support.)

Like Jesus, the disciples are not to withdraw from the world, but to be fully engaged in and with the world no matter how uncomfortable or how costly that might be. The world will not be impacted by their presence if, to ensure their comfort and safety they hide themselves away. The world will not come to know God if God, through the disciples, is not made known to the world.

In the twenty-first century we, Jesus’ modern day disciples, are not concerned that world might hate us. Jesus’ prayer seems to us to relate to a past time and situation. For centuries the institution of the church has been so embedded in the world, that we have not had to think about being sent out by Jesus, nor have we had to endure the consequences of being misunderstood.

In a changing situation, it is important to revisit Jesus’ prayer and to ask ourselves:

How well do we represent Jesus/God in the world today?

Have we become so indistinguishable from the world that we no longer cause offense?

Are we so complacent about God’s word that we barely disturb the complacency of those around us?

If our lives and our presence are not disquieting how can we expect to unsettle and change the lives of others?

How do we need to change such that Jesus’ prayer for the disciples is Jesus’ prayer for us today?

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.

Stand up and be counted

June 21, 2014
Meriam Ibrahim and her two children in jail

Meriam Ibrahim and her two children in jail

Pentecost 2 – 2014

Matthew 10:24-39

Marian Free

 

In that name of God who constantly reminds us that there is more to our existence than this life alone. Amen.

It is impossible not to be touched, saddened and outraged by the situation of Meriam Ibrahim a Sudanese woman sentenced to hang – ostensibly for abandoning her Muslim faith. Meriam’s Father is a member of the Islamic faith and her Mother is a Christian. Meriam claims that she has always been a Christian and that therefore she has not abandoned Islam and is not guilty of apostasy. Her claim however appears to be falling on deaf ears and it seems probable that the Mother of two small children will hang for refusing to renounce her faith. Half a world away, in the comfort of a country that has been primarily Christian since its inception, it is difficult for us to imagine the courage and the faith that would lead a young woman to risk her life rather than to deny what she believes.

We are nearly half way through the year and only now are we able to really come to grips with Matthew’s gospel. In fact, even though it is the year of Matthew, it has been three, nearly four, months since our consecutive reading of this gospel was interrupted first by Lent and then by Easter. It is then, a good time to look at the gospel as a whole so that we can begin to appreciate its parts. The Gospel attributed to Matthew appears first in the New Testament, however most scholars agree that Mark was the first to be written. The consensus is that Mark was written first and that Matthew used Mark’s work to write his own. Evidence for this is found in the fact that basic content of Matthew is the same as that of Mark. Matthew has filled out the material used by Mark in two ways. In the first instance, the author of this gospel appears to have had access to some teaching that was circulated widely enough to be known by both Luke and Matthew – they both include sayings that are not found in Mark. Secondly, as some material appears only in Matthew, it seems clear that he or his community were privy to teaching known only to them – including the parable of the ten bridesmaids and the parable of the sheep and the goats[1].

Matthew’s gospel stands out from the remainder as it is the most Jewish of the Gospels and the one that most clearly identifies Jesus as the one who fulfills the Old Testament. In Matthew Jesus is first and foremost a teacher which may be the reason that Matthew organizes Jesus’ teaching into five sermons the best known of which is the Sermon on the Mount. It is almost certain that Jesus’ preaching did not consist of a string of unrelated sayings, but rather that Matthew gathered them and placed them together. Apart from the introduction (the birth narrative) and conclusion (the passion and resurrection), Matthew’s gospel is made up of five parts each of which consists of a narrative section and a sermon. In other words, the story that Matthew is telling about the life of Jesus is punctuated with blocks of Jesus’ teaching.

Today we are reading a portion of Chapter 10 – the sermon which concludes part two of the gospel – Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. To set the sermon in context, we need to remember that at the beginning of this chapter Jesus has set apart twelve of his disciples and given them authority to cast out demons and to heal. Having done that he sends them out to proclaim that the kingdom of Heaven has come near. In other words, Jesus has shared with the twelve both his authority and his ministry. This is an enormous privilege, but it comes at a cost. If the disciples are to be Jesus’ representatives, they must expect that, like him, they will experience rejection and persecution. (“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” Jesus says.)

The sermon in chapter 10 is addressed not to the crowds, or to the disciples in general – but specifically to the twelve. If they are to share his ministry they must expect to share the consequences of that ministry. Jesus says: ”I am sending you out as sheep amongst the wolves.” This does not mean that they should be timid or afraid – the Holy Spirit will give them words to say and Jesus reminds them how precious they are in the sight of God. If they remain true they may lose their life, but nothing can kill their soul – not even death can separate them from God.

For generations Jesus’ warning has seemed to be directed specifically at those early disciples or to those in the early church who faced persecution and martyrdom. How comforting it must have been to know that the Holy Spirit would be with them when they faced their accusers, that whatever situation they confronted, they were so precious to God that even the hairs of their head were numbered and that if martyrdom was to be their lot they would lose their body, but not their soul. Words such as these must have provided comfort then and they must surely offer hope and consolation to Meriam and to others in her situation today.

Times are changing. In an increasingly secular and multi-cultural Australia we can no longer take for granted the privileges and benefits that have accrued by virtue of our belonging to the predominant faith. There are challenges to our practices and beliefs on a number of fronts – religious education, the presence or not of Santa Claus in kindergartens, the presence or not of Nativity Scenes in public places and whether or not churches that provide social services are to be considered charities and receive the tax breaks associated with such practices. In some places the Christian faith is met with ridicule, in others with indifference and in yet others with outright hostility.

In a nation in which loyalties and beliefs are changing, it may be that there will be a time when we will have to defend what we believe. At best we may have to stand up and be counted and at worst we may have to consider what is more important – security in this life or in the next. Should we, like Meriam, be put to the test, let us pray that we will heed Jesus’ words to his disciples and find the strength and courage to hold fast to our faith no matter what oppositions confronts us and no matter how tempting it is to try to save our skin.

[1] An interesting exercise is to place Matthew, Mark and Luke side by side to see how they have used material known to them all, what sayings occur in Matthew and Luke and what is unique to Matthew or to Luke.

The Holy Spirit – wild and exuberant or quiet and restrained?

June 7, 2014

Pentecost – 2014

Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13, John 20:19-23

Marian Free

In the name of God whose holy Spirit energises, enlivens and empowers us. Amen.

 

We have a feast of readings today. They reveal, among other things, a variety of ways in which we can think about the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Of course, there are other readings that would shed a still further light on the subject and give us an even wider perspective. Today however, let’s just look at those we have heard this morning – Acts, John and 1 Corinthians. The first two provide us with two different accounts of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples whereas the letter to the Corinthians gives us a glimpse into how the Spirit was experienced by at least one early community.

The descriptions in Acts and in John are so different that we could be excused from thinking that they were accounts of different events. In Acts the Spirit is explosive, uncontrollable, empowering and life changing. The Spirit appears out of nowhere and yet is visibly and audibly present to the disciples in the violent wind and tongues of fire. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would give the disciples power that would enable them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, still I imagine that the actual event took them by surprise. Whether it did or not the effect was immediate – without warning and without years of study – the disciples discovered that they could speak in the variety of languages represented in a cosmopolitan Jerusalem. As a consequence of their newly acquired skill 3000 people joined the believers on that day.

In contrast to the very dramatic and public event described by Luke, is the report in John’s gospel. Here the coming (or the giving of the Spirit) is quiet, discrete, peaceful and controlled. In Acts, the disciples are depicted as a confident community – they meet together to pray and sing. They have just elected someone to replace Judas which suggests some sort of leadership structure. This more settled situation may reflect the fact that in Luke’s account the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples at least forty days after the resurrection. They have had time to get used to Jesus’ risen presence and to think about the future. John’s version however, takes place on the very same day that Jesus rose from the dead.The disciples have heard the reports of the empty tomb, but they are yet to see Jesus for themselves. They are frightened and disorganized and have no apparent plan. Into this fear filled situation Jesus (not the Spirit) quietly appears. He offers them peace and breathes his Spirit on them. There is no wind or fire, just the gentle breath of the risen Christ. The event is private and personal and the consequences subtle and indeterminate. Instead of being given the ability to speak in difference tongues, John’s disciples are empowered to forgive or to retain sins. No converts are added to John’s community on that day, but the disciples have been armed with an important tool for the formation and building of a community of faith – the forgiveness of sins. The giving of the Spirit and Jesus’ resurrection appearance occur concurrently. Frightened disciples are not only assured of Jesus’ victory over death, but are powerfully reminded that, as promised, Jesus will not leave them alone.

Finally (for today) the reading from Corinthians provides us with an insight into the experience of the Spirit in one particular situation – the community in Corinth. Here the work of the Spirit does not equip the recipients for mission. Rather the Spirit endows members of the community with the gifts that will enable them to play a variety of roles within that community – the use of unintelligible language to worship God and to prophesy, the ability to utter wisdom and knowledge or to work miracles and heal. If we read further, we discover that the Spirit also empowers those who teach, lead and administer. In this fledgling community the Spirit seems to be inwardly focused rather than outwardly directed. The Spirit gives to members of the community different skills and these are to be used within the community for the building up of the church. As in Acts, the impression here is that the Spirit is exuberant and unable to be contained and that it leads it recipients to behave in ways that they would not otherwise behave.

What are we to take from all this? It seems clear that we will be able to build a coherent or accurate historical picture of the sending/receiving of the Spirit or that from today’s readings we will be able to neatly sum up the way that the Spirit is manifested in the communities that made up the early church. What we can do is to use all the information that we have to hand to help us to understand and to interpret our own experience. In so doing, it will be important for us to hold together the various biblical accounts and to allow each to inform the other, to recognise that just as the first Christian communities experienced the Spirit in different ways, so too, our experiences may differ one from the other. For some the presence of the Spirit might be wild and unrestrained and for others it might be understated and contained. Some of us will be gifted with the more extraordinary gifts and others will have to be content with those that seem to be less glamorous.

As we try to interpret our experience and to recognise our gifts it is important that we heed Paul’s caution and understand that the Spirit is of God and cannot be used or manipulated for our own ends, nor should the Spirit provide us with a means to compare ourselves favourably with others. The Holy Spirit is not something that we own or control, but a gift from God – the presence of God with and in us that prods us to take risks, that reveals skills that we did not know that we had, that gives us courage in the face of persecution, provides us with wisdom and understanding and opens us to new things, new teaching and new experiences and helps us to build and sustain Christian communities.

As we seek to recreate and renew the church both here and elsewhere, let us be alert to the Spirit in and among us, open to the Spirit’s leading and willing to be led into whatever future the Spirit has in store for us.

 

 

Sharing the Gospel

July 6, 2013

Pentecost 7 2013

Luke 10:1-12,17-24

Marian Free 

In the name of God who equips us and sends us into the world to proclaim the gospel. Amen.

Some time ago now, I read a book written by a Jesuit priest, Vincent Donovan. He tells of being sent to a mission in Kenya filled with enthusiasm to share the gospel. When he arrived he discovered that even though the Jesuits had been in the country for 100 years, they had not converted one single person to Christianity. That is not to say that they had had no impact at all. The local people, proud and independent Masai, were very happy to make use of the mission school and to bring the sick and injured to the hospital. It was some time however since any of the missionaries had left the mission station except to drive the ambulance to pick up or deliver a patient. The youthful and enthusiastic Vincent was dismayed. This was not why he had travelled so far. He had come to take Jesus to the people, not wait until they came to him. He asked for and gained permission to go out into the villages to share the gospel.

This was not easy. First, Vincent had to gain the trust of the chief of the village, then he had to arrange a suitable time for the teaching to occur. He discovered that the best time in the day was four in the morning. As the Masai are pastoralists any later would have found them scattered with their herds. Having gained a welcome and made a time to meet, Vincent’s approach was to share with the people the Gospel of Mark. This too was not without its difficulties. Many of the parables in the gospels relate to an agrarian culture – the mustard seed, the sower and the fig tree all relate to agricultural practices. To repeat these parables might well have led to confusion if not outright antagonism among his hearers. The Masai, being pastoralists, might not have understood the references to sowing. Worse, as those who needed pasture for their flocks, they were in conflict with neighbouring cultures who used the land to produce crops not pasture and may not have taken kindly to stories about growing crops.

Vincent navigated all these difficulties – teaching the gospel with sensitivity and respect for the culture of the people. At the end of the time he asked them if they would like to be baptised. If they said: “yes”, he proceeded with baptism. If they said: “no”, he respected their decision and did not press them to change their minds.

Having grown up in a barely post-colonial era, I found this a refreshing account of mission. Unlike many missionaries before him, Vincent demonstrated respect for the local culture and made no attempt to compel his hearers to abandon their culture or to convert. This is a vastly different approach from the missionaries of the 19th century who, sent out from their respective nations, undermined and denigrated local culture sometimes with devastating results. The problem seems to have been an inability to separate faith in Jesus Christ from the culture and mores of the nations from which they had come. Acceptance of the gospel in their minds equalled acceptance of Western culture. There were of course some wonderful missionaries who tried to learn local cultures and languages, who brought medicine and education that improved the lives of those whom they served. Others simply imposed their faith, their will and their culture on those whom they felt were inferior and lacking in morality. They had no regard for the people and no understanding of the cultures they were destroying.

For many then, the idea mission has left a bad taste. The arrogance and presumption of some that western society had reached some sort of pinnacle of moral goodness and knowledge that meant that it was the standard by which others had to be judge leaves those of us who know its weaknesses embarrassed and ashamed.

This creates a dilemma. In the multi-faith, multi-media world of the 21st century, how do we make sense of Jesus’ sending out first of twelve and then of seventy to proclaim the kingdom? What is our responsibility with regard to sharing the gospel today? Do we, you and I believe that it is our duty to ensure that as many people as possible are “saved”? Do we live in a state of terror that those who have not heard the gospel will be eternally damned? I suspect that the answer to both those questions is “no”. If anything, our behaviour tends to reflect a live and let live attitude a belief that while our faith is good enough for us, we do not need to inflict it on others.

Our response to the mistakes of the past should not be to do nothing. We believe, or at least claim to believe that Jesus’ life and teaching are transformative, that Jesus’ death and resurrection have reconciled us to God, that the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers us. This surely is something worth sharing.

In an increasingly secular world, many people are hungry for meaning, searching for something to nurture their soul. Our task is to get alongside people, to listen to the stories, to try to understand their dreams, to recognise their hurts, to help them deal with their modern day demons of loneliness, busyness, stress, to try to bring about healing of minds as well as bodies, to respond with integrity to their questions, to be open to their doubts and equipped to share with them our journey of faith.

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Rom 10:14)

It is not our task to impose the gospel on those who do not want to hear or accept it, but unless we take the time to share something that is important to us, how will others know the difference it might make in their lives?


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