Posts Tagged ‘relationship with God’

Lovers or Vipers?

December 12, 2015

Advent 3 – 2015

Luke 3:7-18

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into a relationship that is honest, mature and above all, life-giving.  Amen.

Relationships – with family, with friends and with lovers -can be complicated. They require a delicate balance between giving each other enough space and taking each other for granted. Healthy relationships rely on mutual trust and respect, a recognition of difference and a willingness to encourage each other to grow. All relationships require a certain amount of effort, of consideration, of good communication.

Perhaps the most difficult relationship to manage effectively is that of marriage. Marriage is the relationship in which we place the highest expectations, in which two people are thrown together for the greatest period of time and in which we can be confronted with extraordinary stresses and strains. Those who enter into matrimony do so with great anticipation. They are so full of love that they believe that nothing will weaken the bonds between them. In most cases each partner is sufficiently confident in their affection to promise that their commitment to each other will weather all kinds of changes in circumstance including sickness and health, wealth and poverty. Sadly, for a great many people, this does not prove to be true.  Statistics tell us that in 2014 alone, 46,498 divorces were granted in Australia and in America almost 50% of marriages end in divorce.

There are many reasons why relationships do not last. Surprisingly, according to Dr Mark Dombeck, a primary cause of marriage break-up is familiarity. He suggests that over time passion diminishes and at the same time couples become more used to each other. If this continues without some attempt to address the issue, couples can find themselves drifting apart and taking each other for granted. Situations such as this can lead to resentment or to one or both partners being tempted by the attentions of others and falling into an affair. Longevity in marriage cannot simply be taken for granted.

At the other extreme are partnerships in which one or the other is unable to truly believe that they are loved. They simply cannot take the love of the other as a given and as a result either smother their partner with attention or demand evidence that they are loved and valued. Unfortunately, nothing can satisfy their need and their unrelenting attention or their constant need for reassurance may wear away the patience of their partner who may seek solace in being with someone who is more secure and less demanding.

What is required of a good relationship is holding the tension between being over-confident and lacking in confidence such that there is mutual trust and a mutual commitment to keep the relationship alive.

When we think about relationships – what makes them strong and what causes them to break apart – it is not often that our relationship with God is included in the mix. This is unfortunate, because the Bible in its entirety deals with our relationship with God. The Old Testament in particular describes God’s reaching out to us and God’s desire for a relationship that is honest and whole, mature and responsible, loving and confident.  At the same time, the Old Testament describes God’s frustration and anger that humanity consistently goes its own way either taking God and God’s gifts for granted, or its failure to trust in God’s love and believe that God will be true to God’s promises.

Into this mix comes John the Baptist urging God’s people to rethink and renew their relationship with God, to stop taking God for granted and to stop selfishly going their own way.

As Steve Godfrey says: “John must have missed the Seeker Sensitive Message”.[1] Instead of commending those who have come out to listen to him and be baptised, he attacks them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

What John is really saying is that the restoration of relationship requires more than just outward show. John can see what we cannot – that those who have come to him, still think that being a child of Abraham is all that it takes to win salvation. They are reliant on their heritage and do not understand that their relationship with God requires some effort, some commitment on their part. For John, it is not enough that the crowds have come to the wilderness seeking baptism. They must intend to change their lives. They must demonstrate their love for and gratitude towards God, they must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” they must stop taking God and their relationship with God for granted.

At the same time John, is anxious not to frighten the crowds. He cautions that a healthy relationship must maintain the balance between doing enough and doing either too little or too much. When asked: “What shall we do?” his response is measured. He suggests that there is no need to go over the top, no need for them to be so lacking in confidence that they feel a need to earn God’s love. They don’t need to work themselves into a frenzy or to worry themselves sick about doing enough to please God. Maintaining a healthy relationship he suggests is a simple as not taking advantage of others, not practicing extortion or blackmail and not holding on to more than one needs but being content with what one has.

John the Baptist reminds us that our relationship with God cannot be taken for granted, it requires openness and honesty, trust and respect, and above all a constant re-examination to see whether on the one hand we are doing all that we can to keep the passion alive and to avoid the over-familiarity that would allow us to take God (and God’s love) for granted and on the other hand that we ensure that remain sufficiently confident in God’s love for us that we do not fall into the error of failing to trust God and that we are able to resist the temptation to over-compensate by doing those things that we mistakenly believe will make God love us.

Our relationship with God is the most important relationship that we have and yet for many of us, it is the one into which we put the least effort. Perhaps this Advent is the time to reconsider how much we take God for granted and to ask ourselves would John the Baptist include us among the brood of vipers?

[1] “Brood of Vipers”


Feeding on Christ

August 15, 2015

Pentecost 12 – 2015

John 6:51-58

Marian Free


In the name of God who gives us life in abundance and desires that we share that life with the world. Amen. 

Most of you will have gathered by now that I experience a degree of frustration with regard to the focus on church growth and in particular the time spent in worrying why congregations are declining and the time and money spent on programmes designed to turn the decline around. My concern is that the navel-gazing of the past fifty years has achieved little and has caused us to become inward-looking rather than outward-focussed and that we are more anxious about the survival of the institution of the church than we are with the transmission of the gospel.

I am confident that God will survive with or without the church and will find new ways to make Godself known with or without our assistance. That said, thriving faith communities would ensure that for generations to come, that there will be a place or at least a group to whom people can come to hear the good news, to find spiritual refreshment and to be restored and made whole.

It was interesting therefore to attend the Arnott lecture two weeks ago and to be reminded by Bishop Stephen Cottrell that there are people in the wider community who are yearning for some spiritual connection, who have spiritual thirst that they are longing quench, a hunger they are desperate to satisfy and who are searching for answers in a world that can be isolating, confusing and even hostile.

Last week’s Clergy Conference focussed on Church Growth, but while its proponents did at times seem to be promoting growth for the sake of growth, they too expressed the belief that there are many non-church-goers who are seeking nourishment for their souls, an experience of life that is more satisfying than the material and superficial and a relationship with the utterly other.

The church as a community of faith is in an ideal position to satisfy this longing for meaning, search for depth and hunger for spiritual connection. So why is it that we are in decline? Why is it that those who are seeking turn to other faiths, explore other paths or simply give up the search? Is it because those who are looking for a connection with the sacred do not find it in the church? Is it because it is no longer evident that the church is the place in which spirituality is fed and nurtured? Is it because we have become so comfortable in our faith that we no longer make the effort to work on and to strengthen our relationship with God?

One of the speakers at the Clergy Conference challenged us to ask this question of ourselves and of our congregations: “Where are you with God?” “Where are you with God?” By this he means, “How is your relationship with God?” Are you conscious of the presence of God in your life? Do you nurture your relationship with God through regular prayer, reading God’s word or practicing some form of spiritual discipline? Is your spiritual life sufficiently full and rich that it spills over to enrich and enhance the lives of those around you? In other words are we feeding our own spiritual lives such that we have plenty with which to feed others?

In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds his listeners that he is the bread of life and he challenges them to feed on him, to so take him into themselves, into their lives, that they become a part of him and they of him.

If we really want to turn the church around perhaps we should stop looking for external reasons for the decline in numbers and begin looking at ourselves and the way we practice of our faith. We will have to stop looking back to the golden era of our past, stop believing that the faith is somehow passed on by osmosis or hoping that the right programme, the right youth leader or the ideal priest will turn things around.

The health of the church as a whole is the responsibility of every member of the church. That means that each of us needs to ask ourselves what we are doing about our own spiritual health; to question whether we are really feeding on the bread of life, continually re-fuelling our faith, allowing our relationship with Jesus to be constantly re-energised and enlivened and remind ourselves on a regular basis not only of what we believe, but of the benefits of being in a relationship with the living God.

Are we day by day allowing ourselves to abide in Jesus and allowing Jesus to abide in us?

I believe that the church will grow because we are energised by our faith, because the joy we experience is palpable, because we demonstrate in our own lives God’s unconditional love and because our experience of Jesus as the bread of life fills our longing for meaning and inspires us to share that meaning with those in our community who hunger and thirst for something more.

As you come to the altar this morning, as you take into your very selves the life-giving presence of Jesus, allow yourselves to be changed and transformed by the bread of life, let the Spirit of God burn within you and the creative energy of God inspire you. May our lives overflow with the knowledge and love of God – the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – such that we cannot help but bring healing to those who are broken, provide direction to those who have lost their way and be a beacon of hope in a world that sometimes seems devoid of meaning.

Preparing for eternity

December 6, 2014

Advent 2 – 2014

Mark 1:1-8

Marian Free

 Living God fill us with a sense of expectation and anticipation that we may be ready to meet you when you come again. Amen.

 I was both a Brownie and a Girl Guide, so I knew all about being prepared. Among other things ‘being prepared’ involved carrying emergency kits in our pockets. I particularly remember this because unlike the other girls in my unit, I was unable to get all the various bits and pieces into a neat compact package. My first aid kit was twice as big as anyone else’s and my pocket always bulged unattractively. It made me self-conscious, but my kit contained only the same things as everyone else and I was prepared as anyone for almost any eventuality – snakebite, broken-glass, splinters, cuts. I had everything required for a minor medical emergency. The second kit (in my case equally bulky) contained other essentials like matches and pocketknife so that we could fend for ourselves in the bush. We were prepared for anything.

You don’t have to be a Girl Guide to be prepared. While much of our lives are routine, there are some areas that require at least some preparation. If for example, we are travelling overseas we need to check that we have passports, visas, inoculations, insurance and other such necessities. If we are going to hospital or having a medical procedure, it is essential that we are prepared – that we have filled in the correct forms, fasted for the right number of hours, advised the appropriate people of the medications we are taking or the things we are allergic to. Being prepared assures us of a safe trip, and the best possible outcome of our medical treatment.

We go to a lot of effort to be prepared for upcoming events to ensure that everything runs smoothly or works out as we have hoped. Planning for aspects of our earthly existence often comes at the expense of planning for our heavenly existence. Our concern with things temporal tends to overwhelm and overtake our concern for things eternal. Our focus on the present can mean that we do not pay enough attention to the future.

What are we doing now to ensure a good outcome at the judgement? Have we put the necessary things in place to guarantee a positive experience?

John the Baptist draws our attention to the coming of Jesus, and challenges us to be prepared, to set our lives straight and to repent of those things which might be a cause for regret.

Being prepared means more than being good. It means developing a heart and mind that are focused on the things of God. It means ridding ourselves of all selfishness and malice, all discontent and pettiness. It means being deeply at peace with ourselves and with the world. It means understanding and accepting God’s love and God’s grace. It means accepting that we are pilgrims and strangers on earth and knowing that our true home is with God.

We cannot expect to have a good relationship with God in the future if we are not developing a good relationship with God in the present. We cannot expect to recognise Jesus when he comes in glory, if we have not spent time getting to know the Jesus who came in humility. We cannot expect to be content for eternity if we have not practiced contentment now.

Advent can be an unsettling time. On the one hand it is a season that gives us reassurance that Jesus will return and take us to himself. On the other hand it reminds us of our obligation to be ready. On the one hand it focuses our attention on the love that sent Jesus into the world for our salvation. On the other hand it reminds us Jesus will come again in judgement. On the one hand it echoes a warning to “be prepared”. On the other hand it is a gentle prompt not to neglect those things that will make us ready.

The question is: “how do you want to spend eternity, and what are you doing to prepare for that outcome?”

A gift of love

January 11, 2014

Baptism of our Lord – 2013

Matthew 3:13-17

Marian Free 

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

 Last Sunday I attended a friend’s annual Epiphany party. In the course of the afternoon one of the guests began a discussion about godparents and in particular when the practice of having godparents began. Frankly, I had no idea. I thought that it was probably a late development as, up until the fourth century and even later, whole families, if not whole tribes, were baptised at the same time. It was an all or nothing situation, the head of the family or the king would be converted and the family and the tribe had no choice but to go along. There was no need for anyone to make promises for the children who would have had no say, then or in the future, as to whether they were Christian or not. As they grew up, it would simply have been a part of their identity. They would have absorbed by osmosis what it meant and their own children would have likewise been brought up in the faith of those around them

 An examination of that great source of wisdom and knowledge – the internet – revealed that I was wrong. Apparently, the equivalent of godparents came into being as early as the second century when parents made the confession of faith on the part of their child and were charged with their children’s spiritual upbringing. St Augustine allowed for exceptions to that practice, but apparently within a hundred years the exception had become the rule – parents were no longer allowed to sponsor their children for baptism.  However the relationship of a godparent  to the child was considered as close as that of a parent. This can be seen in the practice from the fifth century when baptismal sponsors were called “commaters” and “compaters” – co parents whose relationship to the child was considered sufficiently close that they were forbidden from marrying them.

Until recently, most children in this country were baptised. There was an assumption that this was a Christian country and that even those who rarely attended church were Christians and that their children should be formally identified as such. For some, there lay behind this practice a belief that a child who was not baptised would go to purgatory or to hell, but for many baptism was simply part of the culture of the day. Fear is no longer a driving force and in our time a great many people who no longer have any connection to the church, or who do not profess the faith, have come to the conclusion that baptism is at best unnecessary and at worst hypocritical.

The church has also undergone a change. Far from wanting to rescue so many innocents from the clutches of the devil, the church has had conversation after conversation about the practice of infant baptism and whether or not children of non-practicing families should be baptised. Some churches, including some Anglican congregations insist that parents attend church for a minimum number of weeks and attend classes before their child is accepted for baptism. The purpose of this is to ensure that the parents take their commitment seriously and that they will have some knowledge of the faith that they will claim to profess. Sadly this practice has led to a feeling of rejection and alienation among those who have felt that their good intentions were rejected when they were genuinely trying to do the right thing by their child.

Baptism as a form of initiation appears to be a Christian innovation. There is no evidence of a practice of baptism in Judaism. Purity laws meant that believers regularly had ritual baths to purify  themselves, but there is little to suggest that converts to the faith were washed or baptised. The Greek word Βαπτίζω simply means to wash. Jews washed away their impurities, but did not extend this practice to include the initiation of new believers.  John the Baptist appears to have taken the practice of ritual cleansing to a new level –  the idea of washing away sins and renewing of one’s relationship with God was unique to him.

Jesus’ baptism by John was controversial for at least two reasons. It was impossible for the Gospel writers to believe that Jesus had any sins to be washed away and it was equally impossible to imagine that John’s stature was such that it would warrant his baptizing Jesus. For both these reasons Jesus’ baptism seems to have been a cause of embarrassment for the authors of Matthew and John. Matthew tries to explain Jesus’ baptism away telling us that the Baptist insisted that Jesus should baptise him, to which Jesus responds that it is “proper for us to fulfill all righteousness”. John’s gospel does not mention Jesus’ baptism at all. However it clear that Jesus did seek and did receive baptism from John.

It is probably because Jesus himself was baptised that the early church adopted the practice as its form of initiation even though Jesus himself baptised no one. We have only a few New Testament references to baptism. Some scholars believe that Gal 3:28 is a baptism formula: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” and Romans 6 uses the language of dying and rising with Christ. We heard in today’s reading from the Book of Acts that water was important for baptism – even though those who heard the message had already been filled with the Holy Spirit.

It is in the Didache (a second century document) that we find the first instructions for Baptism. The Didache tells us that we should baptise in this way. “After explaining all things you should baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If you cannot do it in flowing water then do it in cold water, if not in cold then warm. If you have very little water pour it on the head three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Before the baptism both the baptizer and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.” (The practice of fasting during Lent is an extension of this practice. The whole community would fast in preparation for the baptisms that were to take place at Easter.)

I’m not sure how many people fast before a baptism these days. Certainly, even for those encouraged to attend church for six weeks, the preparation is a far cry from the days when a candidate would spend four years learning the faith before they were accepted for baptism.

Over the centuries, the details of baptism services have differed, but the intent remains the same. Through baptism an individual, or godparents on behalf of that individual, declare an allegiance to the Christian faith and in so doing recognise and accept the place of God in their lives. In this overtly materialist world, those who bring their children for baptism acknowledge that the material world has its limitations and they express a desire to expose their child to the world beyond this world, to give their child an opportunity to see that there is more to life than what can be seen and felt and touched. The children whom we welcome into our faith community are already loved by God. In baptism we acknowledge God’s love for them and formalize their entitlement to that love. We recognise that everyone is loved by God and is a child of God.

Of course, that is only the beginning.  Jesus’ baptism signaled the beginning of his ministry. So too for us – our baptism is a gift that shows its true potential only when we set it free to act in and on us. Baptism is a gift of love that is activated most fully when we respond to that love. If we allow it, if we set it free, God’s love will empower and direct our lives, it will fill us with joy and it will activate our compassion and desire for justice and peace. Knowing our place in the spiritual realm will enable us to sit lightly with this world – not to be tossed about and driven by desire for material possessions, status and wealth.  Conscience of God’s presence always with us, we will face every difficulty with courage and every set back with grace. Having been affirmed as a child of God, we will strive to be worthy of that privilege.

Let our beginning not be our ending. May we, the baptised, give God the freedom to renew and transform us, so that we may become more truly ourselves – set free to love and be loved and to make God’s presence known to all around us.


Trusting God with our present and our future

October 26, 2013

Pentecost 23 – 2013

Luke 18:15-30

Marian Free 

In the name of God who loves us with an everlasting love and asks us only to place all our trust in him. Amen.

This morning I’d like to begin with two stories. They are both true, both autobiographical. The first is told by a Paul Villard who reports that when he was quite young, his family had one of the first telephones in their neighbourhood. He was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when his mother talked to it. Once she lifted him up to speak to my father, who was away on business. Magic!

He discovered that somewhere inside that wonderful device lived an amazing person: whose name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know – someone’s phone number, the correct time. His first experience with this amazing person came one day while his mother was out. Amusing himself at the tool bench in the basement, he whacked his finger with a hammer. Though the pain was terrible, there didn’t seem to be any point in crying because there was no one to offer sympathy. He was walking around the house sucking he throbbing finger, when he saw the phone.

He grabbed a stool, climbed up, unhooked the receiver and held it to his ear. “Information Please” he said.

A click or two, then a small, clear voice spoke. “Information.”

“I hurt my fingerrr-“ he wailed into the phone. The tears came now that he had an audience.

“Isn’t your mother home?”

“Nobody’s home but me,”

“Are you bleeding?”

“No,” he replied. “I hit it with the hammer and it hurts.”

“Can you open the icebox?” she asked. “Yes.”

“Then take a piece of ice and hold it on your finger. That will stop the hurt.”

After that, Paul called Information Please for everything – help with geography and with arithmetic. He even called her when his pet canary died. Information Please listened and said all the things grown-ups say to soothe child, but he remained unconsoled. Sensing that, she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.”

Thereafter, in moments of doubt and perplexity he would recall the serene sense of security he had when he knew that he could call Information Please and get the right answer[1].” (If you’d like to know the rest of the story, you can find it on-line.)

Unfortunately I didn’t record the author of the second story. I think it was American writer Charles Bayer[2]. He describes his visit to Mount Athos in Greece. There are no roads, only treacherous mountain footpaths. Even the sea route is fraught with danger so he set out over the mountains for the monastery of Stavranikita. It was a blazing hot day and carried all the things North Americans “need” for such an undertaking – several changes of clothes, camera, toiletries, extra shoes, books, paper, alarm clock and at least 5 kilos of other junk he never travelled without.

When he neared his destination, he was observed by a monk who had noted his state and burst into gales of laughter. He was so weary he was barely able to walk, but he made out a few words through the avalanche of merriment. “Baggage, baggage, look at the silly American with all that baggage! Why don’t you throw it in the sea? You are weighted down with all your impediments.”

Two very different stories about trust, or lack of trust. With the innocence of a child, Paul implicitly trusted “Information Please”, the adult on his way to the monastery, was afraid to trust that he could manage without his suitcase filled with life’s “necessities”.

In last week’s gospel Jesus told two parables about how to pray in the in-between time. In that time after he has come and before the world is perfected, Jesus urges us to persevere in prayer. This week, the theme of life in the in-between time continues with two stories which illustrate the attitude towards God that we are called to adopt while we wait. The attitude towards God that will allow us to receive the kingdom and will see us through to eternal life is one of complete dependence, one that does not allow anything to stand between ourselves and God.

For this reason, Jesus encourages us to develop the same sort of innocence, the same level of trust that the child Paul showed towards “Information Please”. Terrifyingly, this means abandoning our outer shell of independence and resourcefulness that has helped us to deal with a world and a society that is untrustworthy and that is not universally safe or secure. We spend so much of our lives trying to be grown up, to prove that we can look after ourselves, that we lose sight of the gifts of childhood – innocence, wonder and trust – gifts that along the way we willingly gave up. In this world that seems so little changed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it is imperative that we continue to pray but also that we learn to trust or unlearn our suspicion. In both today’s world and that of Jesus, Jesus turns the social order upside down, It is not the old, the wise, the learned, or the experienced whose example we are to follow, but it is the young, the innocent, the untaught and the inexperienced who teach us not to trust in ourselves, but rather to place all our trust in God.

It is in this context that we have to understand the story of the ruler. It appears that the ruler is seeking something – he has come to Jesus. Despite his upright living, he is not satisfied, he is not confident that his relationship with God is all that it could be. Something has unsettled his quiet, obedient existence. Perhaps he has come to see that in the end, obeying the law is empty without relationship or perhaps he has been moved by Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ freedom and he wants to know more about this different relationship with God. Jesus recognises his longing and identifies the one thing that he needs to do – he must give up his possessions. At the present moment the ruler needs his possessions more than he needs God. He is tied to life in this world more than he is drawn to eternal life. It is only if he can let go to the things that tie him down to this life that he will be truly free to inherit the life to come. He must again become like a child and trust in God to provide all that he needs.

The story of the ruler has little to do with money and everything to do with trust in God. Can we receive the kingdom of God as a little child or do we build up barriers and prevent God from breaking through our defenses? Does our security lie in God and the things that last forever, or do we rely on other, more ephemeral, more temporal things?

In this in-between time, this time of uncertainty, this time of longing for the kingdom to come, God is with us. Jesus assures us that in good times and in bad, God will never abandon us. All we need to do is to throw caution to the wind and toss our lot in with him, to become like a child and to trust God with our present and our future.

[1] The full story can be found at

[2] The book in which the account can be found is called A Guide to Liberation Theology.

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