Posts Tagged ‘understanding’

Abundance not sacrifice – Lent is God’s gift to us, our gift to ourselves

March 12, 2016

Lent 5 – 2016

John 12:1-8

Marian Free

In the name of God whose outpouring of love is more than we can ever imagine.  Amen.

It is just possible that I am turning into a grumpy old woman or it may be that I am by nature someone who tends to take the world and faith seriously. Whatever it is, I have found myself being irritated or disappointed by the attitude that some people (particularly via social media) have taken towards Lent. There have been posts on Facebook by people bemoaning the fact that they are saying “goodbye” to beer or wine or some other treat for forty days as if Lent is a burden imposed upon them rather than something taken up freely. Other people have posted cartoons, which again make it seem that Lent is at worst some interminable punishment or at best a trial that has to be endured. To be fair, I am sure that most of the posts are from people who do take Lent seriously and who assume that their friends will understand that they are simply making light of it not expressing how they really feel.

It does concern me however that the negative messages about Lent, give the wrong idea – not only about the practice of Lent but about the Christian faith – to the non-Christians who hear or read them. Those who are not in on the secret could be forgiven for thinking that Lent is a period of misery expected by an exacting and demanding God instead of seeing it as a time of self-imposed abstinence that will liberate us to know more fully an indulgent and affirming deity.

The readings for the first four weeks of Lent have encouraged us to turn our lives around and to remove the barriers that separate us from the overwhelming abundance of God’s love. John the Baptist urged us to “repent” (literally – turn around), the parable of the fig tree reminded us that we share with all of humanity its frailty and imperfections, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem gave us an insight into the sorrow experienced by God because of our refusal to accept God’s love and the parable of the two sons demonstrated God’s utter refusal to exclude us from that love and at the same time reminded us of the ways in which we place ourselves beyond the reach of God’s affection.

Today, as we approach the end of our forty days, we are confronted by a description of an act of intimacy, extravagance and tenderness – not of God towards us, but of Mary towards God. At first the gospel seems out of place an action of such beauty and lavishness seems to conflict with a time of fasting and self-denial.  But today’s gospel is a perfect fit – not only with the gospel readings that have preceded it, but also with the central purpose of Lent. In conjunction with the gospels of the past four weeks, today’s gospel sums up what Lent is about and what we can hope to achieve.

We discover, if we plumb the lectionary offerings, that Lent is primarily about ensuring that we are in the best condition possible to accept God’s love for us. We allow ourselves a period of prayer and self-examination to reflect on our lives and in particular to consider whether or not we are truly open to the love that God is constantly pouring out on us. Fasting and self-denial are not intended to be a way of  “mortifying” or denying the flesh” but a means of identifying and ridding ourselves of the obstacles that we place between ourselves and God – obstacles which are just as likely to be emotional and psychological as they are to be physical.

When we strip ourselves bare, when we purge ourselves of all the things that prevent us from experiencing the fullness of God’s love, we will be simply overwhelmed by the outpouring God’s grace and the generosity and the bounty of God’s affection. We will be astounded that God could love us so much and we will be acutely aware of our little we deserve that love.

Lent is a lesson of love, God’s extravagant, unconditional and boundless love, which is ours for the taking. The disciplines of Lent are not intended to weigh us down, but to prepare us to receive God’s love without question and without hesitation.

This is where Mary fits in. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, responds to God’s love with an extravagance that matches Jesus’ own. Mary is the perfect example of someone who has allowed herself to be stripped bare, who has opened herself completely and unreservedly to God’s scrutiny and in so doing has discovered not judgement but compassion, not condemnation but understanding, not rejection, but complete and total acceptance. Mary responds in the only way possible – with a demonstration of her deep and humble gratitude.

Even by today’s standards, Mary’s actions open her to disapproval – the loose hair, the public and intimate display of affection, the extravagance and waste. Yet for Mary there is no other response that will adequately express her reaction to God’s love for her. Mary throws caution, propriety and decorum to the wind. She has no thought of what others might think of her only that she must express her own love in a way that matches her experience of the love of God.

Lent then, is not so much about sacrifice as it is about abundance, not so much about self-denial as it is about self-acceptance, not so much about being unable to measure up, but about realizing that there is nothing against which to measure ourselves. Lent is less about sacrifice and more about abundance – about discovering the abundance that emanates from God and not from the world. Lent is less about will power and more about letting go – for it is only when we truly let go that we are able open ourselves to the wealth that is ours for the taking.

During Lent we identify and shed the obstacles that separate us from the love of God – a love so overwhelmingly abundant that it calls for a response that is extravagant, intimate and tender a response like that of Mary sister of Lazarus.

Forty days is not much to ask – in fact it almost seems far too little to give when we gain so much in return.

When it gets too hard do you wish to go away?

August 19, 2012

Pentecost 12

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

 In the name of God – source of life, wisdom and joy. Amen.

 “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus’ question to his disciples in verse 67 catches us by surprise. These are the people with whom he has chosen to share his mission, his most private moments. In their turn, they have chosen to follow him despite what others might think. Why would they now want to go away? Today’s gospel helps us to understand the lead up to Jesus’ question. In fact, we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 6 to see how the tension builds to the point where some disciples leave Jesus and Jesus is forced to ask the remainder if they too wish to leave. The author of John’s gospel records the account of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walking on the water as do the other three gospels. According to the author of John, the crowds which have been following Jesus, discover that he is on the other side of the lake and pursue him. This provides Jesus with an opportunity to challenge their self-centredness and to elaborate on his role and his mission.

Jesus perceives that the crowds are primarily interested in what he can do for them – provide food, heal the sick and so on. These signs, while important, are not the real reason that Jesus is here. He challenges those who have followed to seek the deeper meaning of Jesus’ presence among them. Bread sustains the body for a limited time. Jesus asks his listeners to consider the sort of food that will sustain them in the present and more importantly for eternity. He asks them to look beyond their physical needs for sustenance and to seek the food that endures – the spiritual food that sustains the soul. This is the food that he provides to those who seek it.

As part of this argument, Jesus claims to be the ‘bread of life’. We are so familiar with this concept that it can be difficult for us to understand how such a discussion could create the sort of offense that would cause some of Jesus’ disciples to abandon him and Jesus to ask if others too wish to go away. Jesus as the ‘bread of life’ provides us with strength and courage, spiritual nourishment and support.  Perhaps if Jesus had left the argument there his disciples would have remained with him. However, Jesus has claimed to be the bread from heaven which endures forever – unlike the manna in the wilderness which sustained the Israelites in the present, but which was unable to give them eternal life. Among his listeners would have been those who would have heard Jesus’ suggestion that he was more important than – in fact that he had superseded Moses.

If that claim were not confronting enough, Jesus makes the even more disturbing claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this brad will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Not only is the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood utterly repulsive, it is impossible for Jesus’ audience to grasp such a difficult and distressing concept. Many of them know Jesus, they know his mother and his father. They know that he is a human being like themselves – how can he say that he has come down from heaven? It is impossible for them to even begin to conceive that it is possible, let alone necessary for them to consume this man’s flesh and blood if they are to have eternal life! No wonder many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him! They say: “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”

They have failed to understand that Jesus, through this dramatic and uncomfortable language, Jesus is asking his followers not to physically eat him, but to become one with him, to allow him to become so much a part of them that it is as if they are indeed one flesh and blood. Eating and drinking are metaphors for this complete unity. In some way faith is a process of somehow absorbing Jesus into our lives and allowing our lives to be absorbed into that of Jesus.

Eating and drinking are strong images, but they are not totally unfamiliar. We say to children: “I could just eat you!” We don’t mean that literally, we just mean that we love them so much that we don’t want to be separated from them. This is the sort of relationship that Jesus is asking his disciples (and us) to have with him.

It is at this point that Jesus asks those who remain: “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Peter responds: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter, who so often fails to understand, who so often gets it wrong has cut to the core. He may not always understand what Jesus has to say, but he knows what Jesus means – to himself and to the world. Peter may not really understand Jesus’ teaching at this point, but he is sure of one thing – that there is nowhere that he would rather be, nowhere else that he would receive the sort of spiritual guidance that he has found in Jesus. He knows that in the present and in the future, it is his relationship with Jesus that has opened the doors of heaven.

I suspect that it is the same for us. There may be times when we do not understand – when scripture seems too difficult, when the events of our lives or the lives of others seem inexplicable – but we with Peter know that Jesus is the means to eternal life. We have thrown in our lot with Jesus, and nothing in this life or the next will separate us.

 

 

 

 


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