Posts Tagged ‘tradition’

What we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know

August 10, 2018

Pentecost 12 – 2018

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God who stretches our minds and expands our imaginations. Amen.

Having been in Italy and finding myself in Geneva, I am conscious of the schisms created by the Reformation and the sometimes vast differences between the different arms of the Christian Church and of the passion with which members of different denominations hold (or held) to their truths. Arguments raged in my own tradition about whether to kneel for communion or to use the sign of the cross. There were some who died rather than renounce their position on particular issues and bishops who only two centuries ago went to jail for using candles as a part of the liturgy. Today, most of the animosity between traditions has disappeared. The ecumenical movement has led us to understand that the heart of our faith is the same even if some of the externals differ.

That is not to say that the churches have achieved unity – externally or internally. New issues have emerged that are at least as divisive as those of the past – the ordination of women and the marriage of same sex couples to mention two. Again, those on either side of the debate present their arguments with equal intensity and with equal conviction that it is they who are most faithfully interpreting the scriptures and the will of God.

Where we stand on these and other issues depends on many factors including our personal experience and the tradition in which we have been born and raised. Sometimes our opinion is formed or altered by our education or our exposure to those who differ from us – though it must be said that education and personal experience do not always challenge pre-existing views.

Our particular experience of church and of faith also impacts on the way in which we approach change. There is so much at stake that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change direction. To give a personal example, even though my sense of vocation was powerful and strong, there were moments when a verse from scripture made me waver, made me wonder if the opponents to the ordination of women did in fact have it right. My life’s experience and the teaching I had absorbed as a child were so deeply ingrained and so much a part of my understanding of salvation that it was hard to isolate the voice of the spirit from the accretions of practice and tradition.

So – perhaps we should not be so hard on the hapless ‘Jews’ who are Jesus’ opponents in John’s gospel. As we saw last week, Jesus’ communication could be confusing at best and obtuse at worst. Furthermore, he was taking traditions that had been held for generations and turning them upside down. In today’s gospel we hear Jesus claiming that he is to the Jews what the manna was to their ancestors. In fact he is asserting that he is much more. Using the language that God used to identify himself to Moses, Jesus claims: ‘I AM’. ‘I am the bread of life.’ ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Jesus, whom everyone in his audience knows to be the son of Joseph, is now insinuating that he is God. As God he is able to guarantee life eternal to those who believe. It is an extraordinary claim for which Jesus’ listeners are completely unprepared. Nothing in their past experience, nothing in their religious practice, nothing in their tradition or teaching could have led them to expect the outrageous claims that Jesus is making. It really is not surprising that they found what he had to say difficult and incomprehensible.

Perhaps the question that we should ask ourselves is not why Jesus’ opponents did not believe, but ‘what was it that enabled at least some to believe?’

Complacency and self-satisfaction can be the enemies of a deep and authentic engagement with the divine. They can give us a false sense of what should be and make us blind and deaf to what really is. We cannot, and will not, ever know a fraction of what there is to know about God.

Instead of arguing over trivial and superficial issues perhaps we as believers should unite in a concerted effort to suspend all our certainties and be caught up in the great adventure that is a relationship with God – Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver – who is ultimately beyond all our efforts to comprehend and who will always be beyond our grasp.

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.

Gospel Truth?

May 23, 2015

Pentecost – 2015

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Marian Free

 In the name of God who has entrusted us with God’s very word. Amen.

Occasionally I watch an Australian crime drama set in the 1920’s: “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”. If you are unfamiliar with the programme, Miss Fisher is apparently an independently wealthy woman turned private detective. Phryne (yes, that is her name) has a personal assistant named Dotty. Dotty, under Phryne’s tutelage, assists her employer in the art of detection. Both women are unusually independent and intrepid for their time and place and both take risks that even today some of us would consider foolish. One of the on-going sub-plots is a growing affection between Dotty and a junior Police Officer, Hugh. Like most men, then and now, Hugh is protective of Dotty and would prefer that she keep herself out of danger.

When I caught up with the show last week I discovered that Dotty and Hugh are engaged. Dotty is a practicing Roman Catholic so Hugh needs to adopt Catholicism before they can be married in the Catholic Church. At first, Hugh is hesitant, but his enthusiasm grows when he discovers that a Catholic wife must obey her husband. (Remember it is the 1920’s!) Having clarified with the priest that he has understood this aspect of the faith correctly, Hugh becomes much more engaged in the process. An obedient wife, he thinks, will have to take his concerns and his cautions seriously, an obedient Dotty will stop taking risks and stop engaging in amateur sleuthing.

Unfortunately for Hugh, Dotty is not to be so easily restrained. In a private conversation with the priest, she happens to mention that Protestantism has a lot to offer – implying that if the priest insists on her obedience, she will leave his congregation for another. Poor Hugh is completely nonplussed when, at their next meeting, the priest points out that of course, times have changed, and that in the modern world one needn’t take the obedience clause absolutely literally!

I don’t have to tell you that in the Anglican tradition many things that were once held to be sacrosanct have been softened or even abandoned. It is almost impossible to believe that only fifty years ago people who were divorced could not be remarried in an Anglican church, children of parents who were unmarried were refused baptism and women were not admitted to holy orders. The debates that accompanied these changes were often fierce and uncompromising because those who opposed change found support for their position in the Bible and were unable to see things any other way.

It is tempting to think that there is such a thing as “gospel truth” but the reality is vastly different. What was “true” four thousand years ago for a nomadic Middle Eastern tribe cannot always be applied in a digital, technological twenty first century world. No one today would take all of the Old Testament literally. Medical science has come to the conclusion that circumcision can be detrimental rather than beneficial. The development of refrigeration means that the health risks of eating shellfish have been significantly reduced and I think that I am safe in saying that none of us believes that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death.

Even Jesus did not seem to think that the rules and regulations of the Old Testament were immutable. Where the Old Testament counselled: “love your neighbour and hate your enemy” Jesus taught “love your enemy”. Where teh Old Testament demanded “an eye for an eye”, Jesus said: “Do not resist an evildoer”. Where the Old Testament allowed divorce and remarriage Jesus claimed this to be adultery[1]. Just as Jesus did not feel utterly bound by the Old Testament, later New Testament writers did not feel obliged to follow absolutely the teaching of earlier writers. Colossians and Ephesians, then the Pastoral letters seriously altered Jesus’ and Paul’s inclusive view of the role of women. And over time societal values change. Both Jesus and Paul took slavery for granted, something that we find abhorrent today.

It is impossible (when human writers are concerned) to be completely dispassionate and not to allow one’s own views to permeate what is written. It is equally impossible to imagine that someone writing four or even two thousand years ago could envisage and therefore write comprehensively for a situation so far removed from their times as ours. Our scriptures – Old and New – have a great deal to say about love, forgiveness and compassion and about the care for the weak and vulnerable, but they have nothing to say about climate change, genetic modification or IVF. On many of the issues of our time, we are left to our own devices. Rightly or wrongly God expects us to work through the ethical issues of such things as stem cell research and to come up with answers that are right and just. Rightly or wrongly God has given us responsibility to determine how far we should take genetic engineering and other medical advances.

Because nothing stays the same and few things are true for all time, God has given us minds to use and hearts to feel. Far more importantly God has blessed us with the Holy Spirit. Three years were not nearly enough for Jesus to prepare the disciples and thus the church for every possible eventuality. He does not leave them/us unresourced but promises to send the Spirit who then, as now will guide them/us in all truth.

God who sent Jesus, Jesus the sent one, and the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent empower us (the church) to think and act as God the Trinity would act. It is an awesome responsibility and one that requires of us a union with God – Father, Son and Spirit – such that their mind is our mind and that decisions that we make are in accord with decisions that they would have us make. In a complex and ever-changing environment, God has entrusted us not only with God’s word, but also with the power and the resources to interpret that word across time and space.

History has shown that time and again we have abused that trust, yet God has not withdrawn it. In our time and place let us demonstrate that we are worthy of God’s confidence and whatever the cost, let us give ourselves entirely to God, Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit so that all our decisions are wise, compassionate and just and consistent with God’s desires for us and for the world.

[1] Albeit to protect women from arbitrary abandonment.


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