Posts Tagged ‘Peter’

Doubt and authenticity

August 27, 2017

Pentecost 12 – 2017

Matthew 16:13-24

Marian Free

 In the name of God who respects our doubts and welcomes our questions. Amen.

Some time ago I met a man who was, I think, in his fifties. We were at a conference on spirituality in the workplace and after dinner we were discussing the opening paper. I mentioned that I was disappointed that the speaker used the platform to sideline the Christian faith (while at the same time using some of Christianity’s key concepts to make his point). My conversation partner (Jack) defended the speaker and in doing so shared something of his own story. He had, he said, attended an Anglican boarding school in country Queensland. At age fifteen Jack had asked a teacher to explain the virgin birth. The teacher’s reply was that the boy had to accept the virgin birth by faith. As Jack recounted the story, his eyes welled with tears. He had been a young person who was keen to understand and desperate to believe. The response of his teacher left him feeling that he been fobbed off, not taken seriously. Worse, Jack felt that questions were out-of-place and this led him to query the depth of his own faith – which, the teacher had implied, was in some way lacking.

Obviously this man had been a serious and thoughtful young man seeking for answers. A consequence of the teacher’s dismissive and unsatisfactory response was that my new friend abandoned his search for truth within the Christian faith and over, the course of his life had explored alternative ways to meet what was obviously a deep spiritual need. Some thirty years later, his tears clearly indicated his feeling of betrayal and the pain that he had experienced as a result of the dismissive reaction to his questioning and exploration.

I still can’t think of Jack’s story without a sense of grief – for Jack and for the church that has lost so many people because they have been made to feel that they do not belong. A common mistake from both within and outside religious traditions is to confuse faith with certainty. It is sometimes assumed that people who confess a particular faith adhere to if not rigid, certainly to reasonably fixed ideas. From this point of view doubt and or questioning can be interpreted as a lack of faith. Confusing faith with certainty and questioning with a lack of faith has served to exclude and alienate many who, with a little encouragement might have come to see that while there are sometimes no easy answers that asking questions can be the beginning of a deep and satisfying experience of the relationship with God.

The idea that faith and doubt are incompatible is incompatible with a great deal of scripture, the Old Testament is very clear that God doe not reject those who question God. In Genesis Abraham challenges God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom () and as we heard a couple of weeks ago, Jacob struggles with God all night. Moses is constantly questioning God’s response to Israel’s unfaithfulness and more than one of the prophets questions God’s wisdom. In the New Testament, in the gospels in particular, doubt and faith seem to go hand in hand (Matthew 28:17).

What is clear is that neither in the Old Testament or the New does God revile or reject those who dare to question, those who are not satisfied with simple or simplistic answers.

Two weeks ago when we looked at the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on the water (August 13) we saw that, rather than demonstrating Peter’s faith, the story revealed Peter’s doubt, his unwillingness to believe unless he had absolute proof. We saw too that Peter’s language: “If it is you”, put him in the same category as Satan and Jesus’ opponents. According to today’s gospel, it is Peter who claims that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus calls Peter “the rock on which he will build his church” and gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom. However, within moments Jesus is accusing Peter of being Satan because, once again, Peter demonstrates that he simply does not understand the sort of Christ Jesus is to be.

Jesus calls Peter out, but he does not reject him nor does he hold him to account. Jesus accepts Peter as he is with his doubts, his questions and his need for absolute proof. If that is not an indication that doubt and questions are an acceptable part of the faith journey, I don’t know what is.

Faith and doubt are not so easily separated. Peter’s struggle to believe demonstrates that the two can be held in tension. Our questions and our struggles are often necessary to bring us to a deeper understanding of and a closer relationship with God. When we refuse to take things at face value we are led beyond the obvious and the superficial to find meaning in the things and issues that puzzle us. We are free to engage in the sort of exploration that is content with the journey itself and that understands that ultimately God will always elude us. As T.S. Eliot expresses the mystery: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Peter’s doubt does not exclude him from a relationship with Jesus, but rather demonstrates the sort of authenticity that reveals an openness and a trust that allows the relationship to grow and develop. Rather than isolate him from God, Peter’s freedom to be himself, to question and to challenge, eventually leads Peter to believe with such conviction that he will willingly give his life for what he believes.

 

 

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We cannot go it alone

February 14, 2015

Transfiguration
Mark 9:2-9
Marian Free

In the name of God whose engagement with the world draws us into engagement with God. Amen.

Last week I was struck by the number of similarities between last week’s gospel and this week’s account of the Transfiguration. In both instances Jesus has been pressed in upon by people demanding his attention, seeking healing or simply desiring to be in his presence. After both occasions Jesus withdraws to a mountain to gather his strength and to reconnect with God. After the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus wakes early in the morning and goes to a “deserted place” by himself to pray. He gets little peace, because Peter and his companions seek him out. (The Greek is even stronger – it reads “hunted him”). “Everyone is seeking you”, they say. It seems that those who have experienced his ministry and his healing power do not want to let him go. They try to draw him back, to keep him to themselves. That is not possible. Jesus informs them that he doesn’t belong to them or even to their small part of the world. His role, as he understands it, is to spread his teaching to as broad a group of people as possible. His ability to heal, belongs not to a few, but to all the world. He had not come into the world to be a local miracle worker. His mission could not be restricted nor could his healing power be owned by just a few.

There are differences and similarities between this account and today’s account of the Transfiguration. Again, the crowds, recognising what Jesus can offer, have allowed him little respite. “They have been with me three days” – three days with no time to himself, no time to think! Jesus’ personal resources must have been stretched to the limit. He has fed five thousand people with seven loaves and some small fish, he has returned sight to the blind, argued with the Pharisees and had the emotionally draining experience of trying to share with the disciples what the future has in store for him. (A task made even more difficult by Peter’s refusal to understand.) As in the first chapter, Jesus’ response to the pressure is to take time apart, to go to a place where he is unlikely to be disturbed, a place in the wilderness where he can take stock and allow God to minister to him and to restore him to himself. On this occasion Jesus does not go alone. He takes with him his closest friends, those who will share the most intimate parts of his journey – Peter, James and John. In doing this, he exposes them to the nature of his relationship with God and gives them a glimpse into who he really is.

This moment is more dramatic than his quiet prayer in the wilderness. On this occasion his experience of the presence of God is not only tangible, it is transformative. Before the disciples’ eyes, Jesus is physically transfigured – his clothes become dazzling white. Even more amazing, the disciples witness Jesus speaking with those giants of the Israelties’ faith – Moses and Elijah. On this occasion too, Peter wants to hold on to the moment. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Peter and his companions want to keep Jesus to themselves. Now, on the mountain, Peter seeks to capture and contain the experience, to hold on to the moment, he does not want to let go of such a tangible, affirming encounter with the holy. “Let us make three tents” he says. Just as he did not want Jesus to leave his home town, so now he doesn’t want this amazing encounter to come to an end.

One can imagine that Jesus might have been tempted to stay, to take the easy way out, to abdicate his responsibilities, to avoid the demands of the crowds and to evade the eventual consequences of his mission. But the whole point of his being here, the purpose of the incarnation is that he share in the full human experience. So while he takes time apart to replenish his resources and while his intimacy with God is such that he like Peter might have wanted to rest in it forever, Jesus plunges back into the messiness of human existence – (to be greeted at the foot of the mountain, by yet another situation that demands his full d undivided attention, a situation, which Jesus informs us can only be dealt with because his life is sustained by his relationship with God – by prayer.)

In the wilderness and on the mountaintop, Jesus spends time with God. Here he allows God to fill him, here he ensures that he has the strength and resources that are required to meet the demands that will be made upon him, he he gives God the opportunity to strengthen him to face any of the difficulties that he might face in his life’s journey. Empowered by God he can face anything and do anything. It is God’s presence in and with him that gives Jesus the ability to share the good news of the Kingdom, to heal the sick and cast out demons.

If our lives are to be informed by and empowered by God, we too must find time to be with God, we must discover our own place apart, allow God to restore and heal us, give God room to work in and through us.

With Jesus, we must learn that our busyness and our engagement with the world must be fueled by the presence of God and that the presence of God in our lives will in turn send us back into the world to be a sign of God’s presence in the chaos and turmoil of what it means to be human. In the end, we cannot do it alone, but only in the power of God

Taking our eyes off Jesus

August 9, 2014

Pentecost 9 – 2014

Matthew 14:22-36

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who stretches out his hand and holds us when we falter. Amen.

 

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.

Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.

Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,

other times there were one set of footprints.

This bothered me because I noticed

that during the low periods of my life,

when I was suffering from

anguish, sorrow or defeat,

I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord,
 ‘You promised me Lord,

that if I followed you, 
you would walk with me always.

But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life

there have only been one set of footprints in the sand.

Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?’

The Lord replied,

‘The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand,

is when I carried you.’

-Mary Stevenson

 

This poem adorns cards bookmarks, placemats, wall hangings, plates and a vast number of other things. It is a reminder that while we might take our eyes off Jesus, Jesus never takes his eyes off us.

Like most gospel stories this morning’s gospel reading is packed with detail.

You may remember from last week, that Jesus sought solitude after the death of John the Baptist and that he and his disciples got in a boat to go to a deserted place. His plan was foiled by the crowds who followed him seeking healing. Jesus’ compassion was such that instead of sending them away, he not only healed them, but he also fed them. It is now evening. Jesus commands the disciples to get into the boat. Then he dismisses the crowd. He himself remains behind to pray (his reason for being in the mountains in the first place).

When the disciples are a significant distance from land, the wind and waves build up and (according to the Greek) “torture” the boat[1]. This is not unusual. The Sea of Galilee is surrounded by mountains. When a wind causes the cool air from the mountains down to meet the warm air of the lake, the change in air pressure means that storms spring up suddenly and without warning. The lake is relatively shallow which means that waves build up more rapidly than they would in deeper water. We know that at least some of the disciples are fishermen and used to weathering stormy seas. This would explain why they do not appear to be afraid of the storm or the wind – even though they appear to have been battling the waves for several hours.

They are not afraid until – sometime between 3 am and dawn – they see a figure that they presume to be a ghost, walking on the water towards them. Terrified, they call out in fear, but Jesus – for of course, that is who it is – responds: “It is I, do not be afraid.” Both phrases are significant. The words: “It is I” are reminiscent of God’s words to Moses from the burning bush. I AM being the self- designation of God. Jesus is identifying himself to the disciples. At the same time he is identifying himself as divine. “Do not be afraid,” is also a familiar phrase. These are the words of the angel to Mary and to Joseph and to the shepherds in the fields. A natural response to the presence of God is fear or awe and from Genesis onwards, God’s representatives are careful always to allay that fear with the words, “Do not be afraid”.

Jesus is present but the storm continues to rage. The storm is not the source of the disciples’ fear, nor is the purpose of this story to demonstrate Jesus’ power over the storm.

Peter, who from now on, becomes the spokesperson for or the representative of the disciples wants to be sure that it is Jesus. Perhaps too he is testing Jesus’ divinity – if Jesus is “I am” then surely he will be able to empower Peter to come to him on the water. Jesus’ command: “Come!” makes the impossible possible. Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water towards Jesus. At first all is well. Then Peter sees the wind (or more likely the effects of the wind). He loses confidence and begins to sink. Terrified, he calls out to be saved. Jesus reaches out to catch him, at the same time chiding him for having little faith and asking why he wavered or doubted. Together they get into the boat. Only then does the wind stop.

Astounded by what has happened, those in the boat realise that Jesus is the Son of God and the fall down and worship him.

The chapter ends as it began with large crowds seeking out Jesus in order that he might heal their sick.

For the ancients the sea was the place of chaos and evil. It was volatile and uncontrollable. That Peter left the boat at all is evidence of his faith and confidence in Jesus. That he faltered when he realised the danger in which he had placed himself is perfectly understandable. Jesus might chide Peter, but blind faith is not a pre-condition for Jesus’ saving grace.

Faith enables us to do extraordinary things and to face terrifying and demoralising situations. Responding to the call of God empowers us to do things we could not otherwise do – to step out of the safety of our figurative boats and to walk across the stormy seas of life. There will be times when we walk with assurance with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus, but there may also be times when we falter. When we are overcome with confusion or grief, when we are weighed down with despair or guilt or when misfortune hits us out of the blue we can forget that Jesus is present with us or waiting ahead of us. At those times we can be sure that even if we forget, Jesus will not forsake us and that, when we call out in terror, Jesus will stretch out his hand and pull us to safety. The storm that had threatened to overwhelm us has been stilled.

We will discover that Jesus does not put limits on his compassion or his love nor does he place conditions on his help. Just as he did not abandon Peter to the sea, he will not abandon us in those times when our faith is tested or when our confidence in him has grown weak. Our faltering faith may mean that there are times in our lives when we take our eyes off Jesus, but no matter how much we waver, Jesus will never take his eyes off us.

 

[1] (The Sea of Galilee is not a sea at all but a large inland lake. It is formed between the steep cliffs of a wadi where the Jordan spreads out across the Rift Valley. The sea itself is 680 feet below sea level and the surrounding mountains reach up to 2000 feet in height. This means that while the valley enjoys a temperate climate the mountaintops get quite cold. When a wind rises in the east it brings the cold air down to the lake and when the cool air meets the warm the resultant change in air pressure mean that storms can spring up suddenly and without warning. The lake is quite shallow – 141 metres – and this means that it takes no time for waves to build up.)

An Extraordinary story

February 9, 2013

Epiphany 5

Luke 5:1-10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us, imperfect though we are, to follow Jesus and to share the gospel with others. Amen.

Those among you whose enjoy puzzles will know the “Find the Difference” puzzles. Even those who do not enjoy puzzles may have had to find the difference between two pictures as part of their early schooling. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the puzzle involves two almost identical pictures which are placed side by side. The observer is asked to find the differences. Usually, if there are say, ten differences, the first seven or so are relatively easy – the dog is black in picture (a) and white in picture (b), a cloud in picture (a) is missing in picture (b) and so on. However, the last couple of differences tend to be more subtle and are often overlooked. For example, the curtain in picture (a) has four pleats and in picture (b) it only has four.

It is a different exercise, but we can play “find the difference” using the gospels. Placing one or more gospel passages side by side allows us to note the different ways in which Jesus’ life and teaching is recorded by the different authors. For example, last week we noticed how differently Luke presents the account of Jesus in the synagogue and we made some educated guesses as to the reason for the differences. In his re-telling of the story, Luke is influenced by his social justice programme and his desire to demonstrate that the inclusion of the Gentiles was always part of God’s plan.

Having noted that Luke has a different agenda, it will therefore come as no surprise to note that Luke’s report of the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John is also quite different from that of Mark. This week we will have a look at the actual texts. (You might like to see how many differences you can spot.)

Mark 1:16-20 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Luke 5:1-10 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

In comparing the readings we note, as we might expect, that Luke has expanded and elaborated Mark’s account. Another obvious difference is that the sea is given a different name. In Mark, Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, in Luke, the crowds press in on Jesus at the lake of Gennesaret. In Mark Peter and Andrew are fishing from the shore, James and John are mending their nets. In Luke all four have left their boats and are washing their nets. Luke includes a miraculous haul of fish which is not in Mark and while Mark leaps straight into the call of the disciples, Luke precedes the account with a vast amount of material not considered necessary to Mark – the birth narrative and the genealogy.

Those are the obvious differences. A more subtle difference, but one which is important for our understanding of the Gospel of Luke is this: Peter now has a boat, he and Andrew are not standing on the shore casting their nets but are boat-owners. The comparison between the two families has been softened or obliterated. James and John are no longer set apart by the fact that their family owns a boat and has servants – both sets of brothers now have a boat. Finally, in Luke Peter’s response to the miracle of the fish is a significant addition, as is his designation for Jesus – “Lord”.

To understand the changes made by Luke it is important to understand something about him and why he is writing. For the purpose of today’s gospel, we need to note again to whom the gospel is addressed: “most excellent Theophilus”.  Luke’s re-telling is influenced in no small part by the person to whom he is telling the story. From his name and Luke’s form of address we suspect that Theophilus is a wealthy person of some status who lives a long way distant from the villages of Galilee. This means that Luke has to tell the story in such a way that it will not only make sense to Theophilus, but also in such a way that it will not offend him.

In order to do this, Luke makes some basic changes in the way he tells Mark’s account. He moves the gospel to the city, removes the poor, uneducated people and makes it clear from the very beginning not only that Peter is a leader in the church but that Jesus is “Lord” – a title used for a prominent person in the Empire. Luke changes Peter’s socio-economic status and his role in the early church is established. Peter recognises and names Jesus and Jesus is named in a way that would indicate Jesus’ significance to Theophilus. (A poor fisherman and an itinerant preacher may not have grabbed the attention of Theophilus, but he is able to recognise a boat owner and a “lord” as people worthy of his attention.)

Luke would have had no thought that by changing the way he told the story, he was changing the story. He would have thought that he was faithfully recounting the story of Jesus and the church, but that he was doing it in such a way as to ensure its reception not only by Theophilus, but also to the whole of the Roman Empire.

It is extraordinary to think that a man from a tiny village in a remote part of the Empire, who was executed as a trouble-maker, should have made such an impact that his story was told at all. It is even more extraordinary that four people thought it so important that the story be told that they told it in such a way that others would grasp its significance. And perhaps, most extraordinary of all, is that two thousand years later, we are still telling the story and are moved to faith by it.


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