Posts Tagged ‘Satan’

On the side of Satan???

September 15, 2018

Pentecost 17 – 2018

Mark 8:27-38

Marian Free

In the name of God who through Jesus reveals something of Godself to the world. Amen.

 Today I’d like to do something a little different. I invite you to take a few moments now to think about your image of Jesus –

Do you, as some people do, think of Jesus as your friend or is Jesus the judge who is watching you to catch you out in some minor or major misdemeanour?

In your imagination is Jesus enthroned or on the cross; coming in glory or mingling with friends?

Do you see Jesus as a tiny baby who is dependent on others or as a self-confident adult who takes on the power brokers of the church? Is the Jesus you relate to powerful or vulnerable?

is your Jesus a benign teller of stories, a “don’t rock the boat” sort of person or is your Jesus an uncomfortable radical who challenged the establishment?

Did “your” Jesus ask his followers to support the status quo or to struggle for justice?

In your mind is Jesus someone who comforts and mends or someone who breaks down barriers and takes you out of your comfort zone?

Is Jesus always male for you or do the images of the Christa[1]inform your picture of Jesus?

 

There is an old hymn that references a number of different ways in which people have thought of/named Jesus. In Together in Song it is hymn 205 and over the course of 12 verses the hymn explores a number of expressions that have been applied to Jesus – “Redeemer, Angel, Prophet, Counsellor, Pattern, Guide, Surety, High-Priest, Advocate, Conqueror, King, and Captain” and each term is expanded on in some way.

“I love my Shepherd’s voice,

his watchful eyes shall keep

my wandering soul among

the thousands of his sheep:

he feeds his flock, he calls their names,

his bosom bears the tender lambs.”

Today the language of Isaac Watts is foreign and even peculiar, but it reflects the ways in which people saw Jesus in the 18thcentury.

Even the  New Testament includes a variety of expressions to refer to Jesus. These include: “Lord”, “Saviour”, “Shepherd”, “Lamb”, “True Vine”, and “Bread of Life”.

It seems that no one image is enough to capture all that Jesus was and is. At different times and in different places people have different experiences of Jesus that inform how they name Jesus and how they relate to him. Depending on where we are in our life’s journey we too might experience Jesus differently over the course of a life-time.

In my childhood the picture of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” was the predominant image. Jesus was depicted as a benevolent social worker who went around doing good. He did not challenge the system but accepted and therefore supported the world as it was. For many people that image still holds but, during the twentieth century there was a growing awareness that Jesus might have been anything but mild-  at least on occasion. For example, when Jesus saw the money changers in the Temple he was sufficiently enraged that he fashioned a whip to drive them out of the Temple. It is hard to miss the fact that Jesus was a change-agent who was incensed by injustice and frustrated by the complacency and self-satisfaction of the leaders of the church. And, as we see today, he was not afraid to accuse even his closest followers of being Satan.

“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” This question is the climax of Mark’s gospel. Until now Jesus’ identity has been veiled; and from now on Jesus will gradually reveal his true nature to his disciples until it is finally announced by the centurion at the foot of the cross.

Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” Then he asks: “Who do you say that I am?” it is clear from the responses that those who came into contact with Jesus drew a number of different conclusions as to who he was based on their expectations and their experience – John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, but when Jesus goes on to clarify what that means, Peter is sufficiently confused that he rebukes him. It is beyond Peter’s comprehension that the Christ should suffer, be rejected and die. Peter obvious hoped that Jesus would be a Christ who would be triumphant in a worldly sense, that he would either reform the church or oust the Romans.

His misunderstanding causes Jesus to react in a way that seems completely out of proportion to Peter’s response. He says angrily: “Get behind me Satan!” That he would call his closest friend and most significant disciple Satan, demonstrates the seriousness of Peter’s misunderstanding. In Jesus’ eyes Peter is so far off the mark in his comprehension of who Jesus is that he has put himself on the side of evil rather than the side of good.

While it is true that there are many different ways to think of Jesus, we must never be complacent and self-satisfied, never think that ours is the only view and never think that we really know who Jesus is. We must keep an open mind, continue to explore scripture for the answers to our questions keep on building and developing our personal relationship with Jesus so that at last we can feel that we truly know him.

As today’s reading shows us, this exploration is not an added extra to our faith but an essential element. The consequences of being mistaken in our understanding of Jesus could be catastrophic. We could be so far from the truth that, like Peter, we could be found to be  on the side of Satan.

 

[1]For example Sydney Nolan, for others see for example: https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/christa-edwina-sandys-art_us_57f55296e4b0b7aafe0b8999

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Insiders and outsiders

June 9, 2018

Pentecost 3 – 2018

Mark 3:20-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who does not observe conventional boundaries and who brings the outsider in and challenges the insider to rethink their ideals and their values. Amen.

I don’t need to tell anyone that families are complicated beasts. An ideal family provides nurturing and safe place in which there is a genuine desire that each member is given the space and resources to develop their full potential. The reality however is sometimes very different. Children, and even parents can compete with one another for the limelight. Some parents want to live out their missed opportunities through their children and others want their children to follow in their footsteps. Even though most of us have good intentions, we can unwittingly bring to our relationships our own experience of family and our unmet needs.

Families may not be perfect, but most of us stumble through and our lives are enriched by the relationships and the security that family affords and most of us retain our loyalty to and our love for our families despite their flaws.

In the first century family life was complicated by the cultural norms of honour and shame and of the collective personality. Individualism as we know it did not exist. Society consisted of a web of relationships and individuals existed in relationship only to others – primarily to their extended families. At the same time a person’s honour was their most precious possession and had to be guarded zealously. A man’s reputation (his honour) could be negatively impacted or seriously undermined not only by his deeds but also by the actions of his family (who were seen as extensions of himself). Expectations of family members were much higher a result.

According to today’s gospel Jesus’ behaviour had led his family to believe that: “he had gone out of his mind” . It is not surprising then, that they determined to “restrain him”. The reputation of his brothers, his mother and his sisters and their standing in the community were at stake. We don’t immediately hear how this part of the story works out because Mark interrupts the discussion with a comment from “the scribes who came down from Jerusalem” who, while acknowledging that Jesus was possessed of power to heal, claimed that his power derived from Satan . When Mark returns to the story of Jesus’ family the reader is shocked to hear that Jesus not only ignores their call, but completely dissociates himself from them.

By placing these stories together Mark suggests that Jesus’ family was as misguided as the scribes. They were concerned with superficial issues such as reputation. They misinterpreted his teaching, his healing and the attention of the crowds as madness. The scribes, who were perhaps threatened by Jesus’ popularity, could not believe that God was at work through him (or indeed that God could be at work in the world). They refused to believe that a nobody from Galilee could work miracles that they themselves were unable to perform. They resented the fact that Jesus was liberating the poor and the marginalised from illness and possession.

Jesus pointed out the foolishness of the scribes’ point of view. Satan, he says, simply has no interest in relinquishing his power over individuals and certainly would waste no time in setting them free from the cords that bound them – to do so would only weaken Satan and ultimately destroy him – which would be counter- productive to Satan’s goal of controlling the world!

The actions of both Jesus’ family and the scribes reveal not only their lack of understanding, but that they in fact are in league with Satan. Both have committed the “unforgivable sin” – mistaking God for Satan and by standing in the way of God’s work in the world. They are unable to see God’s compassion and grace being worked out through Jesus – in fact they reject that very possibility. They have confused the divine with its opposite and what is worse, is that both Jesus’ family and the scribes try to stop Jesus – the family by restraining him, the scribes by denouncing him. Their hearts are hardened and their eyes are blinded to the presence of God’s liberating grace. They themselves have not been set free from the powers that bind them (honour in the case of the family, cynicism in the case of the scribes) and they cannot rejoice when others are set free.

That Jesus would reject his family is shocking even now. That he would put his family in the same category as the scribes and even Satan seems utterly outrageous.

Through his teaching and healing ministry, Jesus broke apart the conventional ways of behaving and of seeing the world. He opened up new possibilities for those willing and able to recognise the potential to bring about healing and wholeness for the world. Those who had not as yet identified their own brokenness resisted and condemned him, unable to relinquish their pre-existing points of view (as to how things should be done and who should do them).

Jesus broke down the barriers that separated people from one another and from God. His acts of healing restored them to family and to society, his teaching freed them to experience God’s love and compassion in their lives. Jesus redefined the meaning of family (personal and religious)– insiders became outsiders and outsiders become insiders. Insiders were no longer defined by belief or by blood, but by their relationship to God, their willingness to see God in Jesus and their desire to work with and not against God.

Insiders were (and are) those who are not concerned with reputation or position in the world, who are not rigidly locked into a particular way of seeing things, who do not resent God’s blessings being bestowed on the unlikely and the unworthy and who are not afraid to see God at work in new and unexpected ways.

For different reasons both Jesus’ family and the scribes are determined to stop him and as a result are exposed for whom they really are – people closed to the possibility that God might be at work in the world.

Let us pray that we do not make the same mistake, but remain open, expectant and excited by what God might be yet to do.

Risking it all

June 2, 2018

Pentecost 2– 2018

Mark 2:23- 3:6

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, who gives us the truth and trusts us to pursue it and not compromise it. Amen.

Those of us who read know that novelists have a gift for building suspense. Detective novels for example, are written in such a way as to totally confuse the reader. Once the crime is committed, there are often there are a number of red herrings that lead the reader to consider most of the characters as potential suspects and to keep them guessing until the very end of the novel when the real culprit and his or her motivation are finally exposed. Romantic novels are also suspenseful. Authors make the reader follow a torturous path of separations and misunderstandings before the two lovers finally admit their love for one another. Every genre of literature – fiction and non-fiction alike – has a particular style or format designed to capture and maintain the attention of the reader.

This is no less true of the gospels. We do not know who wrote the gospels and scholars cannot agree as to what genre of literature they belong but it is clear that each gospel has a particular structure and a particular intention – that of supporting the communities who have come to faith in Jesus and of encouraging others to believe in Jesus. The gospels were not written by Jesus’ disciples – uneducated fishermen and tax-collectors, they were written by second or third generation Christians who were compelled to collect the stories of Jesus at a time when the church was separating from the synagogue and developing a life of its own. There was an anxiety that stories that were repeated from memory were in danger of being embellished. The gospel writers wanted to gather Jesus’ teaching and the account of his life before it was altered beyond recognition.

While we do not know the identities of the gospel writers, we can make a number of assumptions based on the gospels themselves. Only about 1% of the people in the first century could read or write, so we know that our authors had some form of education and whether through formal learning or through the absorption the culture of the educated class, our authors had a knowledge of rhetoric and thus were able to construct their accounts of Jesus’ life in a way that was not dry and uninteresting, but which even today is engaging and even suspenseful.

I have said previously that it is generally agreed that the first gospel to be written is that of Mark. Mark’s gospel is more concise and less accurate than that of Matthew and Mark and his use of the Greek language is much less sophisticated. However an examination of his narrative style and his use of literary techniques reveals that the author is a skilled storyteller. As we journey through Mark’s gospel during the remainder of this year some of the skills that he used will be revealed.

Conflict is a key characteristic of Mark’s gospel – conflict with Satan, conflict with the authorities, conflict with his family, conflict with the disciples and in the end conflict with the crowds who have followed him. Mark introduces conflict at the very start of the gospel and arranges the material in such a way that the conflict continues to intensify throughout the gospel until it culminates with Jesus’ death.

After a brief introduction, Mark introduces the conflict with Satan in the wilderness. Then, no sooner has Jesus begun his ministry and chosen the first disciples, than a representative of Satan in the form of a man with an unclean spirit challenges him (as the demons will continue to do in the first part of the gospel). From the beginning of chapter 2 to 3:6, Mark reports a series of “controversy stories” – Jesus is accused of blasphemy, criticised for eating with tax-collectors and sinners, challenged because his disciples do not fast andbecause they pluck grain on the Sabbath and finally he is attacked because he heals on the Sabbath. At the conclusion of this section, the tension has built to such an extend that: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

The story has barely begun and already a number of things have become evident: Jesus was engaged in a battle with the forces of evil (who recognised his divinity), he offended the Pharisees by doing things that only God can do (forgiving sins) and by breaking the Sabbath. At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry Mark hints that the story is going to end badly – Jesus’ enemies will destroy him. A sense of foreboding hangs over Mark’s gospel from the beginning that deepens when Jesus enters Jerusalem and is challenged by the priests.

Jesus does not change his behaviour to accommodate his opponent’s ideas or to quell their fears. He doesn’t compromise his mission for the sake of his own safety or so that he can fit in with those around him. Throughout his mission Jesus manages to cause affront to those who are self-satisfied and to challenge those who keep outdated rules for the sake of keeping rules. The Jesus of Mark’s gospel is confrontational and uncompromising.

Through a focus on conflict, Mark makes it clear that the gospel as he understands it is not about conforming or fitting in, it is about challenging embedded injustice, questioning outdated rules, re-thinking ancient traditions and above all demonstrating compassion for the marginalised and the despised. The Jesus of Mark’s gospel makes it clear that being true to the gospel has the potential to put us at odds with the world around us. Mark doesn’t promise us comfort. His gospel assures us that as Jesus faced conflict, so too will those who follow in his footsteps.

Mark’s gospel challenges us to ask ourselves – How much have we sacrificed in order to fit in with the world around us? Have we compromised the gospel in order to avoid giving offence? When it comes to living out our faith, do we play it safe, or are we prepared to risk all for what we believe to be true, what we believe to be right?

Whose side are you on?

February 24, 2018

Lent 2 – 2018

Mark 8:31-39

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. Amen.

Last week I suggested that Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was a means of preparing him for what was to come. The hostile environment, the privations and the encounter with Satan could be seen a foretaste of what Jesus could expect as he began his ministry as one who had been named the Son of God. From start to finish, Jesus will encounter misunderstanding, antagonism and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his own disciples. If he could withstand the difficulties that he faced in the desert, he (and God) could be comfortable that he would be able to survive the forces that would oppose him as he attempted to share the good news.

Today’s gospel takes a great leap forward from Jesus’ baptism and temptation. What that means is that we have not been following Mark’s story line and so we have not seen the way in which the tensions between Jesus and his opponents build and develop. We have not been privy to the threats against Jesus’ life that began as early as chapter 3.

To bring you up to speed then: after Jesus’ baptism he is driven into the wilderness where he is tested or tried out by Satan. During the course of his ministry the demons confront him, the leaders of the church challenge and criticize him, his family are concerned that he is mad and now we discover that Peter, one of Jesus’ inner circle, is among those who would oppose or even prevent Jesus’ mission. So serious is Peter’s misunderstanding that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan or the adversary.

Today’s passage, with the one that precedes it, is the climax of Mark’s gospel. In the verses immediately preceding those we have just read, Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They respond: “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ.” Peter has spoken the truth, but what follows demonstrates that Peter knows and understands only half the truth. His understanding of the Christ is limited. It has been conditioned by the cultural expectations of his time and, despite the fact that he has been with Jesus since the beginning, his experiences have not impacted on his expectations.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus is very reluctant to make his identity public. Jesus is well aware that he will fail to meet the hopes of many of the people. He knows that those who were expecting God to send someone to restore the glory of Israel – politically, economically, spiritually – will be seriously disappointed. Jesus does not reveal who he is because he knows that he will be misunderstood. Contrary to the popular thought, Jesus will not be a Christ who will lead the people to a triumphant victory over Rome. He is not a Christ who will restore the purity of the Temple worship. Jesus is neither a warrior nor a high priest.

So, when Peter declares him to be the Christ, Jesus’ qualifies Peter’s declaration with a description of the future that he, as the Christ, can expect. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter has so misunderstood Jesus’ ministry that he is shocked to the core by Jesus’ revelation and so validates Jesus’ belief that he will be misunderstood. In fact, Peter is so shocked that he immediately tries to convince Jesus that he is mistaken.

If Peter’s declaration that Jesus’ is the Christ is the climax of the gospel, then Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction is the other side of that fulcrum. The stakes are high – as is demonstrated by the strong language that is used in this passage. “Epitimaō” the word that is translated as “rebuke” in our versions of the New Testament, means “to overcome with a powerful word”. It can be used to demonstrate the way in which Jesus exercises power over the demons and over the natural elements. In other words it is used in the context of the fierce battle between the demons and the divine. On Peter’s lips it could be translated, “Shut up! Don’t say such things!” On Jesus’ lips, as the text makes clear, it suggests that Jesus understood Peter to be taking the side of the demonic forces that opposed Jesus. Jesus’ response is to tell Peter to go away. A better translation of “Get behind me, Satan,” is: “Depart behind me Satan” (in other words, “Get out of my sight, you have no place alongside the divine”). Not surprisingly, this is the same language used by Matthew when Jesus casts out demons. Jesus banishes Peter not only because he so spectacularly fails to understand but also because he has the arrogance to presume that he knows better than God what lies ahead. In that moment Peter has shown himself to be on the side of Jesus’ opponents who want to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny.

The language of this passage tells us that this is not a simple disagreement between Peter and Jesus but “a life-and-death clash between the divine and the diabolical”.[1]

This brief interchange between Jesus and Peter shows how much is at stake if we fail to truly grasp who and what Jesus is, if we try to contain Jesus through simple and well-worn categories or if we think that we know better than God. Jesus’ crucifixion is proof-positive that God acts in ways that we do not expect and that we cannot comprehend. The cross throws into relief all our false ideas, our hopes and expectations. Jesus is not all-powerful and all-knowing, but vulnerable and subject to misunderstanding. Jesus’ life, ministry and ultimately Jesus’ death forces us to continually rethink our ideas about God – who is not triumphant, who does not exert God’s will over us and who shows in high relief the distinction between the divine and its opposite.

Jesus is not and will not be who or what we expect. So let us not make Peter’s mistake of assuming that we know and understand, but rather suspend our certainty so that we can learn from Christ who and what he is.

 

 

 

 

[1] C. Clifton Black, workingpreacher.org. Lent 2 2018.

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.

 

 

Keeping Jesus secret

September 12, 2015

Pentecost 16 – 2015

Mark 8:27-38

Marian Free

May God’s word, written and spoken, speak to our hearts and minds so that we might know God’s Son Jesus the Christ and in so knowing allow ourselves to deny ourselves such that Jesus is our all-in-all. Amen.

“Get behind me Satan!” Jesus strongest words of rebuke are directed towards Peter at the very point at which Peter has identified Jesus as the Christ. What is going on here? Why does Jesus react so strongly? Why is it that when Peter demonstrates both his insight and his concern that Jesus not only goes on the offensive but also identifies the spokesperson for the disciples as the devil? To grasp the answers to these questions we have to understand the strategy that lies behind Mark’s gospel and Mark’s understanding of the nature of Jesus’ ministry.

As I have said on other occasions, the gospels are not simply random collections of memories nor are they an orderly and exact account of Jesus’ life and teachings. They are in fact carefully crafted writings designed to gain the listeners’ attention and so to bring them to faith in Jesus. Like any good story, the gospels build suspense and come to a climax before finally coming to resolution and they make good use of literary techniques to achieve their end. In this the author of Mark is no different from the other gospel writers. He develops his plot in such a way that Jesus’ identity and destiny are only gradually revealed. In fact one of the characteristics of Mark’s gospel is that of secrecy. A reader could be excused for thinking that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel does not want to be recognised, that he does not want anyone to know who he is.

Secrecy is essential for the author of Mark. Central to his gospel is the cross. In his account of Jesus, Jesus is primarily depicted as the suffering Son of God. Mark knows that this is a contradiction in terms. It does not make sense that God would be vulnerable, that God would appear on earth, not as a leader but as a servant, a servant who would have to suffer and die. It is because a suffering Messiah is difficult to understand that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel reveals his true identity only gradually. Jesus fears that if he exposes his hand too soon those who follow him will form the wrong impression. If he reveals that he is the Messiah, they will cast him in a mould that fits their expectations and will be disappointed when he fails to conform.

The wisdom of Jesus’ caution becomes obvious in today’s reading, which represents a watershed moment in Mark’s gospel. Up until now, Jesus’ true nature has been recognised only by the demons whom he has exorcised. Today Jesus takes a risk and asks the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers confidently: “You are the Christ.” Peter is of course correct, but only partly so. He understands that Jesus is the one promised by God, but he fails to understand what this means in Jesus’ case. This is evidenced when Jesus announces that he must suffer and die. Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. In Peter’s world the Messiah doesn’t die, the Messiah comes to lead and to save.

It is this misapprehension that elicits Jesus’ strong rebuke. Peter has it all wrong. Despite knowing and working with Jesus for some time, he still thinks in human terms and categories. Peter is only able to identify Jesus according to known criteria. He simply cannot cope with the idea of a Messiah who does not conform to his expectations.

Over the next two weeks we will see that the disciples generally cannot come to terms with a Messiah who is not a triumphant leader, but a suffering servant. Each time Jesus announces his death and resurrection, the disciples demonstrate by their words and actions that they really have no idea – either what this means for Jesus or for their discipleship. It is no wonder that Jesus doesn’t want them to tell anyone about him. Until they fully understand his identity and destiny there is no point their sharing their knowledge with anyone. Unless they really comprehend who and what Jesus is, the crucifixion will make no sense at all.

Jesus’ question to Peter could well be Jesus’ question to us. How well do we understand Jesus? Do we make the mistake of ignoring Jesus’ suffering, Jesus’ vulnerability and frailty? Do we too soon elevate Jesus to Son of God without fully understanding his crucifixion and death? Do we really comprehend that Jesus life and ministry are a model for our own? That is, do we really understand that serving God means serving others? Have we grasped that following Jesus requires complete surrender – putting our own needs and wants aside in order to give to him our whole selves – heart, mind and body? Would we, should the occasion require, give even our whole lives?

Do we really comprehend the identity and destiny of Jesus? Or do we like Peter and the disciples still think in human terms? Does the real nature of Jesus remain a mystery for us or have we fully grasped the contradiction of a suffering Son of God?

“Who do you think that I am?” is a question that echoes through the ages, forcing each succeeding generation to examine their hearts and ask if they really do understand. It is a question that challenges every age to embrace a Saviour who must suffer and die before he rises in glory.

When good is perceived as evil

June 6, 2015

Pentecost 2 -2015

Mark 3:20-35

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

If you have never read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end, may I suggest that you take the time to do so. Mark’s account of Jesus is quite short and I think most of us could read it in one or two sittings. This is important, because, it is only by reading the gospel from start to finish that we can gain some idea of the plot development and of the themes that run through the gospel. For example, a prominent theme is Mark’s gospel is that of “conflict”, in particular a conflict regarding who has authority – Jesus or the religious leaders? The question can be narrowed down still further to “who has God’s authority – the authority to represent God before the people?” – Jesus or those who have been given, or who have assumed the authority to interpret scripture and to guard and to pass on the traditions of the faith. When the question is narrowed down still further, we begin to see that the conflict is a contest between good and evil, between the heavenly authorities and earthly authorities, between God and Satan.

The earthly authorities (whether the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the priests or the Herodians) try over and over again to discredit Jesus, to demonstrate that he not only disregards the law and the traditions of the elders, but that he willfully breaks the law and ignores the traditions. The “authorities” are determined to assert their own authority to represent God, and to expose Jesus as a madman, a fraud, a blasphemer or worse, an agent of Satan. Instead of which they themselves are exposed as self-serving, misrepresenting God, misinterpreting scripture, enforcing a tradition that has reached its use-by date and worse, as blasphemers. Despite the best effort of “the authorities”, in every confrontation Jesus is able to turn the tables on his accusers and to reveal them to be guilty of the very things of which they accuse him.

Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath, but whereas his actions (of healing) lead to wholeness and life, the action of the authorities on that same day is to plot Jesus’ death. The authorities try to entrap him with questions about divorce and about the resurrection, but Jesus knows the scriptures so well that he is able to point out that they simply do not understand. They accuse Jesus of breaking the law only to have Jesus point out their hypocrisy and their propensity to twist the law to suit themselves. All their attempts to entangle Jesus or to cause him to lose face before the people have the opposite effect. A result of the conflict – which they have instigated – is that the so-called “authorities” are revealed as loveless, legalistic hypocrites.

Nowhere is the battle between good and evil so clear as in today’s gospel. This is the last of the first series of confrontations between Jesus and the authorities. So far Jesus has been accused of blasphemy, of breaking the laws of ritual purity, of failing to observe fast days and of breaking the Sabbath. At the same time the crowds have identified Jesus as “one having authority” and the evil spirits have recognised Jesus as the Holy One of God. The end result is a conspiracy to destroy him.

In today’s gospel, the scene is set when Jesus’ family, made anxious by reports that he is “out of his mind”, come to restrain him. The idea that Jesus himself might be possessed by an evil spirit is taken up by the scribes (who apparently have come all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to attack him). The scribes accuse Jesus of having Beelzebul (Satan) claiming that only Beelzebul would have the power that Jesus has to cast out demons.

Such a claim is so ridiculous that it is easy for Jesus to demonstrate that it is utterly baseless. No one would possibly try to defeat an opponent by destroying members of their own team. Jesus points out that is only because he has already defeated Satan that he can now so easily dispense with Satan’s minions. Having dealt with the attack on him, Jesus turns the tables on his accusers. He suggests that by identifying him with Satan, the scribes have revealed their true nature and committed the most serious sin of all – that of the sin against the Holy Spirit which is the only sin for which there is no forgiveness. In Jesus, the scribes have seen evil and not good and in so doing they have confused God with Satan. Their attack on Jesus has exposed just how completely they have come to depend on themselves and on earthly authority and how, as a consequence, they have effectively shut God out of their lives. They cannot recognise in Jesus God’s beauty, love, wisdom and compassion. Instead they see in him only evil and threat.

Worse, what is good has become to them so threatening and so disturbing, that they believe that they have to destroy it. The scribes are so intent on preserving their position and their traditions that anything that shakes the status quo is, by their definition, evil. The goodness and life that Jesus represents is to them the source of evil and death.

This then, is the unforgivable sin, to mistake what is good for evil. The scribes have become so blind to goodness that they have closed their hearts to all that is good and true. Believing themselves to be arbiters of good and evil, the scribes simply cannot see that they are in need of forgiveness. They have so effectively locked God out of their hearts and lives that they have put themselves out of reach of God’s loving compassion. It is not so much that God won’t forgive, but that they will not allow God to forgive because instead of seeing in Jesus an example of God’s goodness, they can only see the destruction of everything that they have come to hold dear.

Seeing evil in what is good is not limited to Jesus’ first century opponents. A willingness to rely on human authority and a desire to maintain the status quo has led to acts of oppression and injustice and that have seen the imprisonment and torture of good and prophetic men and women. It is fear of change and distrust of the other that has allowed humanity to turn a blind eye to the abuse of power and the destruction of innocents discrimination against those who are different and rejection of those whom we imagine would threaten our lifestyles.

My our lives be so focused on God that we are not so afraid of change or so determined to hold on to what we have known and believed to be true that we fail to see goodness when it is right in front of us. May our lives be so driven by God’s love and wisdom and compassion that we do not hear the voice of change as the voice of evil when the change is for the greater good.

Suffering is not failure

August 30, 2014

Pentecost 12 – 2014
Matthew 16:21-28
Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us strength and courage to weather the storms of this existence and to come through the other side. Amen.

It is not unusual for someone who is confronted with bad news to deny or ignore it or to change it into a challenge – something that can be defeated or overcome. For example, a typical response these days to a diagnosis of terminal illness is: “I am going to fight it.” Older people (weary with living) who are encouraged by their families to hold on: “You are not going to die, we won’t let you.” When someone has an untimely death at sea, in the mountains or in the air or at sea, it is not uncommon to hear friends and family say: “At least he (or she died) doing what they loved,” as if that somehow makes it all right. At the same time, it is possible to treat the suffering of others in the same way. After the flood and during the cyclone our then Premier assured the state: “We are Queenslanders – we will recover.”

In today’s world it seems that many people are so determined to be positive or to be survivors that they are both unwilling and unable to confront the fact that life consists of both the good and the bad and that together they make up the fullness of living. Death is not some disaster that should be evaded – either by fighting it to the bitter end or by making out that a tragic death is somehow wonderful. Neither is it, for Christians at least, something to be feared. Death will come to all of us and while we may want to embrace life we cannot, in the end, cheat death. In the context of this strong, positive culture a simple acceptance of one’s circumstances has come to be seen as a weakness. Giving up or refusing treatment and accepting the inevitable has come to be viewed as a lack of determination to survive. A failure to be upbeat in the face of loss is considered to be giving in to rather than challenging fate.

Of course, I am over-generalising, but it does seem to me that, in this country at least, there has been a movement from a culture that lives with the tension of life and death, trauma and triumph, to a culture that seems to believe that with the right attitudes anything can be achieved.

When viewed through the lens of this culture Peter’s outburst in today’s gospel makes absolute sense – he doesn’t want Jesus to die.

To re-cap the story – in last week’s gospel Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” After a couple of responses: “Elijah, one of the prophets”, Jesus asked: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” His statement earns Peter not only Jesus’ commendation, but also the assurance that Peter is the rock on whom Jesus will build the church. In today’s gospel Peter the rock, is being accused of being Satan, a scandal, a stumbling block. The problem is that Peter doesn’t really understand. While he has come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ, he has not grasped what that really means. When Jesus explains that he must suffer and die, Peter reacts in a very human way and demonstrates that he has no idea of Jesus’ real nature and purpose.

At the time of Jesus there were a variety of expectations about the type of Saviour that God would send to redeem Israel. Some Jews thought that the redemption of Israel would be a military victory over Rome and that the Christ would lead them in battle. Others looked for a priestly figure who would reinvigorate the faith and cleanse the Temple and its officials of corruption. No one, it seems, expected the sort of Saviour that Jesus would turn out to be, a Christ who would suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be put to death. They expected a leader, not a victim.

No wonder Peter bursts out: “God forbid! This will not happen to you.” He has not grasped that Jesus will win the hearts and minds of the people, not by force, but by love and that evil will not be defeated by power, but by powerlessness. He is thinking in human terms, showing that despite his acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ he has not fully grasped what this means.

Peter’s natural instinct is to reject the notion of a suffering Christ and to protect his friend and teacher from harm. He does not realise that his good intention would in fact defeat God’s purpose. His misunderstanding makes him no better than Satan. For like Satan, Peter is trying to turn Jesus from the path set before him, like Satan, Peter fails to understand that weakness, not power will achieve God’s purpose, like Satan Peter has not grasped that it is only by submitting to God’s will that humanity will be saved.

No wonder Jesus reacts so strongly. He must be as firm in his purpose now, as he was when he was tempted in the desert. What is more, it is essential that Peter and the disciples understand what lies ahead. It is vital that they, his followers, understand the way of salvation, not only because he, Jesus will need their support and encouragement, but more importantly because if they are to carry on after he is gone, they will have to teach others about Jesus and they too will have to walk the way of the cross. The disciples must learn not only that Jesus is the Christ, but they must learn and understand what it is to be the Christ to follow in his footsteps.

Accepting the way of Christ is no passive submission to fate, but an active decision to follow the path that God has laid down for us wherever it may lead and whatever it may cost. It is a decision to allow our lives to be governed, not by human needs and desires, but by the presence of God within us. It is grasping the contradiction that the one sent by God to save, must also suffer and die and teaching others that suffering is not always failure, but is sometimes the very thing that leads to salvation and life.

Who is Jesus?

August 24, 2014

Pentecost 11

Matthew 16:13-20 (A Reflection)

Marian Free

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triumph of good over evil

September 28, 2013

Michael and All Angels – 2013 

Revelation 12:7-12a

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals to us far more than we can understand and yet is as familiar as a breath. Amen.

The first time I was taken to see a Shakespearean play, my father gave me a synopsis to read so that I would be sure to understand it. Shakespeare’s English and time are sufficiently different from ours that my father thought that I would be lost without some guidance. It is still the case, that for some productions at least, the programme provides an outline of the story so that the attendee does not get lost. It is a shame that some such guidance is not provided for modern readers of the book of Revelation which was written for a time vastly different from our own and in a form and language that many of us find difficult, if not impossible to understand.

From the beginning the book of Revelation was controversial. Until the fourth century many did not even include it among the books of the New Testament. Revelation is a colourful, even lurid description of what will happen at the end of time to those who oppose God and persecute those who believe in Jesus. It can be a difficult book to understand because it is full of symbolism which we no longer use or understand. In parts it reads like a collection of Old Testament quotes simply cobbled together. In other places there are descriptions of heaven and elsewhere there are fantastical stories, like the story of the woman giving birth and the red dragon which has seven heads and ten horns and a tail that can sweep the stars out of the sky.

Some of the symbolism is lost to us, but some can be interpreted. We know for example that numbers are significant in Judaism. Seven is the number of perfection, twelve represents comprehensiveness and four refers to the four corners of the earth. We know too that letters were used as numbers in both Hebrew and Greek – so for example the letters in the name David added up to 14 which is significant for Matthew’s genealogy. This information helps us to determine that 666 (the number of the beast in Revelation) is almost certainly the numerical value of the name Nero – a particularly violent Emperor, who by the time of the writing of Revelation was dead, but was also rumoured to have returned to life. Colours also have some significance for the readers of this type of literature. The four horses of the apocalypse are coloured – red (for war), green (for death), black (for famine) and white (for the crown, the conqueror).

Without a code breaker, Revelation is almost impossible to understand. Without an understanding of its background and purpose, it is easily misinterpreted. It can become to the uninitiated a book of judgment when it is intended as a book of comfort and grace.

As the introduction implies, Revelation is directed at seven churches in Asia Minor. Members of these churches were experiencing some form of persecution or social exclusion and isolation. Having become Christians they could not participate in the worship of idols nor could they be involved in the Emperor cult. This in turn would have excluded them from the social, ritual and business life of their society. If they could not worship idols, they could not belong to the trade guilds and their ability to earn a living would have been severely reduced. Added to that was the fact that after the Jewish war they had lost the protection of the synagogue and the respect that was afforded to the Jews throughout the Empire. They were vulnerable and not recognised by the state as a religion.

What these people needed then was encouragement to keep the faith and an assurance that they would be rewarded for their steadfastness – if not in the present then at least in some future life. They needed to believe too that those who opposed them would get their just desserts. The book was not written as a prediction of cataclysmic events in a distant future. It was written to address a particular situation sometime towards the end of the first century. It cannot be used to interpret our present, but rather as a tool to try to understand an aspect of the past.

Scholars approach the book differently, but one way to read the book is to see it as a drama which consists of seven scenes.[i]. Five of the scenes are bordered by descriptions of heaven and four of the scenes contain a group of seven – there are seven seals, seven trumpets, seven visions and seven bowls. Before the seventh seal and seventh trumpet there are interludes or digressions which introduce a different theme one of which includes the brief account of Michael the archangel, who with his angels, throws Satan, with his angels, out of heaven. The heavenly drama is described in only one verse. If we read on, it appears that any victory over God’s opponents has been won as much by believers on earth as it has by the heavenly hosts and that the battle in heaven is a vivid and dramatic way of describing the actual situation on earth.

Satan is not necessarily a being, but is personalized here to make a point about the battle between good and evil, chaos and order, law and lawlessness. The context tells us that Satan in this account is not the tempter of Genesis but the accuser, the devil’s advocate of the book of Job. We deduce this from verse 10, which suggests that one of the forms of persecution experienced by Christians is that their fellow citizens have been accusing them before Rome (12:10) – possibly informing the authorities of their refusal to take part in the Emperor cult. However, even at the risk of their own lives, the believers have remained firm. In this way the believers themselves have exposed how ineffectual Satan really is. Perhaps more importantly, there is no longer anything for which believers can be accused – they have remained faithful. This means that there is no longer a role for Satan (the accuser) in heaven.

Believers are thus assured that while the present may be filled with difficulty and the threat of persecution, their steadfastness in the face of opposition is essential to the triumph of heaven, the victory of good over evil. How comforting those words must have been then and how much they must mean to the Christians experiencing hostility and violence in places such as Pakistan and Nigeria today. Not only are they assured that their steadfastness will be rewarded, they are also being reminded that their very faithfulness will contribute to the triumph of good in the world.

Our experience, in 21st century Hamilton, is vastly different from those for whom the book of Revelation was written. That said, we still live in a world in which there is a great deal that is outside of our control, in which bad things happen to good people and in which no one can escape grief and suffering. For all its complexities, the Book of Revelation is a reminder that no matter how bleak our situation or our disastrous the outlook for the future, we can believe that God is on our side, that good will triumph over evil and that at the end, God will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4).


[i] Fallon provides the following breakdown of the book.

a. Introduction                                                 1:1-3

b. Opening liturgical dialogue                     1:4-8

c. Prophetic commission                              1:9-11

Heaven

Scene 1 Letters to the 7 churches             2:1-3:22

Heaven                                                   4:1-5:14

Scene 2 Six seals are broken                       6:1-7:9

Heaven                                                   7:9-8:6

Scene 3 The sounding of six  trumpets            8:7-11:14

Heaven                                                11:15-12:12

Scene 4 Forces for good and for evil      12:13-14:20

Heaven                                                 15:1-8

Scene 5 The seven bowls                            16:1-18:24

Heaven                                                19:1-10

Scene 6 The final struggle, victory          19:11-20:15

and judgement

Scene 7 The Church of God on earth     21:1-22:5

a. Guarantee of prophecy              22:6-7

b. Concluding liturgical dialogue    22:8-17

c. Conclusion                                                22:18-21


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