Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday 7th September 2014 - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Church decisions / church discipline / dealing with relationship breakdown / when Jesus is present / love as fulfilment of the law

Sentence: How good and pleasant a thing it is when God's people live together in unity (Psalm 133:1)

Collect: P8.1

Creator God
you have made us
not in one mould, but in many:
so deepen our unity in Christ
that we may rejoice in our diversity. Amen.

Readings (related):

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Comments:

Ezekiel 33:7-11

What is the role of a prophet? Here the role is that of a 'sentinel' (7), someone who watches out for coming danger. In this case the prophet is to warn of the dangers of wicked living and to urge the wicked to turn from their ways (8-9). This role flows from the character of God: God cannot stand wickedness yet God does not wish to see the wicked die in their wickedness but repent and turn back to God.

Psalm 119:33-40

The psalmist praises the law. His desire to keep the law is heartfelt not about externalities of behaviour. I think the psalmist would have approved of what Paul wrote in the epistle today!

Romans 13:8-14

In continuity with earlier chapters in Romans, Paul loosens focus on the Law of God given through Moses from its details to its principles. In a subtle piece of writing he manages to move from the payment of taxes and giving of honour to those who deserve it (13:7) to guidance about debt ('Owe no one anything') to love for one another (13:8). In highlighting love for one another he is able to announce, 'the one who loves another has fulfilled the law' (8b). He then takes the commandments among the ten commandments associated with social relationships and sums them up, in agreement with Leviticus 19:18, and with Jesus, as 'Love your neighbour as yourself' (9b).

To be clear, this does not mean that we might find occasions when it is loving to (say) steal from our neighbours. 'Love does no wrong to a neighbour' (10).

The succeeding verses then make the point that while we are free in Christ we are to live not only as those who love one another but as those who live in the light. The day of reckoning is coming so we should live as we will live the day after that, in the full glare of God's presence.

Matthew 18:15-20

Only Matthew's gospel uses the Greek word for 'church,' ekklesia and all the occurrences are in this passage or the next verse, 18:21! An obvious inference to draw is that Matthew wrote this report of Jesus' teaching (remember, originally it was in Aramaic, not in Greek) with needs of the church his day in mind.

And what a useful passage it is! Matthew outlines a three stage process for dealing with conflict or wrong-doing in the church. In my view this process, albeit adapted, lies at the heart of our church's official, canonical process for dealing with conflict or wrong-doing (see Title D On the Maintenance of Ministry Standards). The move is from keeping the matter as low-key and personal as possible, through a stage in which several people are involved through to the full glare of congregational consideration.

However it might not be the best sermon to preach to outline this process because talk about how it might be implemented in the life of your congregation might raise more questions than you would like to answer at morning tea afterwards. Who do you have in mind, O preacher, who needs dealing with?

Perhaps, however, it would be a timely sermon to work from the passage to how each of us deals with interpersonal conflict as some of us have a propensity to want to get to the last stage before moving through the first two stages! In today's world we could perhaps talk about dealing with conflict via face to face conversation rather than trying to do so via text or email. The dangers of conflict on Facebook conversations ...

There is also a question within the passage of what verse 18 means (see also 16:19). Does this verse refer to some kind of absolute power of the church (e.g. to settle doctrinal matters in an infallible manner) or is it absolute language which merely refers to the binding nature of church decisions when arrived at after due consideration of the matter at hand in a fair and reasonable process? That is, is the language hyperbolic (as some language of Jesus is), so that what is being referred to here are the ordinary decisions of the church (to be respected and implemented) rather than the extraordinary decisions of the church (which, sometimes, contribute to an exercise of ecclesiastical power with unfortunate repercussions, including the practical impossibility of people implementing the decision).

We might note, incidentally, that the 'you' in verse 18 is the congregation and not the apostles (which, arguably, is the scope of authority granted in 16:19). But does the congregation here mean literally 'the congregation' as in the worshippers gathered together or some kind of meeting of the church as a council or synod? (Acts 15 is an example of the early church meeting together as a council and making a binding decision).

Verse 19 extends the power of the church when in agreement to prayer itself. Whether we feel we can explain this or not, it is an extraordinary claim to consider. The words can be read as, 'the Father waits for the church to agree what it will tell him to do'! On the one hand, God as Father is our loving father and wishes to assist and help us (and in that sense is willing for us to 'tell him what to do'). On the other hand, God is God and needs no one, let alone the church to tell him what to do, not even what we need him to do!

In context, verse 19 must at least mean that God supports the church as it puts into effect its decisions when it makes proper decisions after due process.

Verse 20 also offers this twist to considering verse 19: when we gather as the church, Jesus is in our midst (even when we are the smallest of churches). This implies that Jesus assists the church in making its decisions and in arriving at agreement with what it asks of the Father. Thus the church being promised that the Father will do for us what we ask implies that this will be so for requests made which Jesus himself agrees to, that is, for that which lines up with God's will.




Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday 31st August 2014 - 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Cost of discipleship / Denying self and taking up the cross / Practical Christian living

Sentence: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good (Romans 12:9)

Collect:
God of unchangeable power,
our strength at all times;
guard us from all dangers
and support us in all difficulties
that we may live victoriously now and forever;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings - related:

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Comments:

Jeremiah 15:15-21

The prophet Jeremiah is living out the cost of discipleship, even though he lives centuries before Jesus! In these circumstances of oppressive persecution, Jeremiah appeals to God for help, reaffirms his conviction that the words of God are the 'delight of [his] heart' (16), and receives from God a reaffirmation of his calling.

Psalm 26:1-8

This psalm resonates with Jeremiah 15:15-21 (e.g. both psalmist and prophet do not consort with the worthless, 26:4).

The psalmist, however, is able to embrace devotional life in the temple - a place which in Jeremiah's time has become controversial as Jeremiah's prophecies are directed against the prophets associated with the temple.

For David (the writer, according to the inscription) his life's commitment to God is under test. He seeks to have unwavering trust in God. Relative to our gospel reading, David is a model disciple.

Romans 12:9-21

There is a sermon not just in every verse here but in every phrase. "Rejoice in hope" (12) takes my fancy!

The exegetical challenge (mostly) does not lie in the detailed advice and guidance being offered here. The challenge re "extend hospitality to strangers" (13) is practical (will we actually do this?) not exegetical (what does this mean?).

An arguable exception concerns the last few verses: how would the last remaining Christian in the Caliphate in northern Iraq put verses 17-21 into practice? But when we read on into chapter 13 we get the sense that Paul is talking about life in a generally settled state of social health and well-being. By 'evil' in chapter 12 Paul does not mean 'extreme evil' (as we are seeing in places such as the Caliphate). For a Christian response to that extreme we might be better to read the Book of Revelation.

In a benign world, presumably Paul is talking about responding to (say) the neighbours from hell or the business which tries to dupe us or the needling bully in the schoolyard. But for such problems we are not necessarily being asked to become a doormat on which abusive behaviour is trampled. In verse 18 Paul talks about 'if it is possible' when talking about living 'peaceably with all', and looking over to chapter 13, there is a ringing endorsement of the state having and exercising appropriate legal authority to deal with injustice and infractions of laws and rule.

As a closing comment, we might remind ourselves that when Paul writes this kind of passage he is not setting out a 'new law' with 1001 rules for Christian living. In the spirit of Romans 12:1-2, Paul is setting out guidelines for what the discernment of the will of God in the concrete reality of life looks like - a reality which often fails to fit with 1001 rules and requires a discernment of God's will to work out what is 'good and acceptable and perfect' (12:2).

Matthew 16:21-28

There are three parts to this passage.

(1) verses 21-23: Jesus predicts his suffering, death and resurrection; Peter rebukes him and Jesus calls Peter 'Satan.'
(2) verses 24-26: a saying to followers about denying self and taking up the cross
(3) verses 27-28: a statement about the coming judgment of the Son of Man.

The whole passage represents 'tough talk' by Jesus. No disciple reading this passage could be in any doubt that being a disciple means 'total commitment'!

His suffering, death and resurrection are supremely important for the future of the human history. Peter's opposition shows that he has no depth of insight to his confession that Jesus is the Messiah (16:16). Jesus cannot let his opposition go unchallenged. Peter is undermining the very will of God, he is taking on the role of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the role of questioning whether God really does want X to happen, so Jesus names him for what he is at this point: 'Satan.' Peter is a 'stumbling block' - contrast with his confession in v.16 which makes him a building block for the church Jesus will build,v. 18.

But the suffering of Jesus which will lead to death on a cross is not for him to experience alone. "If any want to be my followers," he says to the disciples (24), "let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Verses 25 and 26 then amplify the wisdom underlying the saying in verse 24: it would be foolish to give up eternal life (i.e.the best life ever, undefeated by death) for the sake of this life which ends with death, with that which makes all wealth and power ultimately pointless.

Verses 27-28 underline the implied point in verses 24-26, that there is a day of reckoning or judgment coming in which it will matter whether we have or have not lost our lives for the sake of saving them through Christ.

Verse 28 is challenging because the plain meaning of the words is that some hearing Jesus would still be alive when the Son of Man comes. Allowing, say, for a span of forty years from that point, it is clear to us that the Son of Man had not returned to 'repay everyone for what has been done' (27, speaking about judgment). Commentators can get themselves into some awkward contortions over the meaning of this verse since, on the face of it, it looks like Jesus made a mistake. That, indeed, is one possible inference to take from the verse. However some commentators reasonably propose that Jesus is speaking of two timelines in these verses, united in the death and resurrection which is the subject of the first part of the passage: timeline #1 looks ahead to a future day of judgment; timeline #2 looks ahead to the coming of the kingdom in the sense of the day when the kingdom breaks into the life of the world decisively, that is, the day of resurrection. The unity of the two timelines is the single (i.e. combined) event of the death and resurrection of Jesus for in that event God is judging the sinners of the world, a judgment focused on Jesus as he bears the sin of the whole world, yet also a judgment which is begun but not yet completed. Completion is at a future date, unannounced by Jesus.



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday 24 August 2014 - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Confession of faith / The basis of our faith / Who is Jesus? / How then should we live?

Sentence: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1)

Collect: Pent 8:2

Almighty and everlasting God,
by your Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified;
hear the prayers we offer
for all your faithful people,
that in the ministry to which you have called us
we may serve you in holiness and truth;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthews 16:13-20

Comments:

Isaiah 51:1-6

The connection between this passage and the gospel reading is obvious: the word 'rock' figures in both passages, a 'rock' which is foundational for the succeeding work of God. Isaiah looks back to a person or persons (Abraham and Sarah): the work of God is always a work among people and works from people. Israel grows from Abraham and Sarah's child. The church is built as people respond to the preaching of Peter and the other apostles.

Psalm 138

The psalm praises the Lord, who is both beyond all kings and gods, yet is not so high as to be unable to regard the lowly (6).

Marked by 'steadfast love and your faithfulness' (2), this Lord, the God of Israel is able to help the psalmist 'in the midst of trouble' (7).

Romans 12:1-8

The importance of this passage cannot and should not be underestimated.

Through 11 preceding chapters Paul has laid out the content of the gospel which is the power of salvation (1:17). Through the gospel we learn that God saves us when nothing else can and we learn that all can be saved, Gentiles as well as Jews. In response to the gospel we are freed from the wrath to come and granted eternal life rather than awarded the wages of sin which is death.

All that being so, one great question remains: how are saved people to live?

Paul now gives his answer, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to" (1a). To do what? The next words are a general statement summing up the scope of our activity as Christians:

"present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (1b).

To be fair to ourselves as readers, these words are inspiring and yet mystifying: what is 'living sacrifice' and 'spiritual worship'? We need to read on!

In the next verse Paul urges us to not be 'conformed to this world' (which speaks of living a distinctive and different style of living), rather being 'transformed by the renewing of your minds' (which, in the light of the preceding chapters, must be the work of the Spirit of Christ indwelling us).

The outcome of this turning away from the world and allowing the Holy Spirit to renew our minds is not a set of rules for each and every one of life's moral dilemmas and choices about what to do next. Rather it is the ability to 'discern what is the will of God' (2b).

Verses 3-8 (and, of course, 12:9-15:7) then give us some details about the general shape and direction of the 'good and acceptable and perfect' will of God.

In these verses the focus is on ourselves and 'the measure of faith' which God has assigned to each of us, which includes the gifts God has distributed to each of us as we are members of the one body - gifts which are to be taken out of their wrappers and used.

Next Sunday we continue into further explanation of the will of God through verses 9-21.

Matthews 16:13-20

Who is Jesus? On the answer to that question a lot turns. Everything Christians believe hinges on the answer to the question. If, for example, the answer is 'Jesus of Nazareth, nothing more, a teacher with interesting ideas on the application and extension of the Law of Moses' then there should be no Christianity, just an extra chapter, or maybe only an extra footnote in the history and theology of Judaism.

So Jesus confronts those closest to him with the question, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' (13) and then confronts them directly with 'But who do you say that I am?' (15).

Note that answers to the first question make no great demands on Jewish belief and commitment. If verse 14 is the answer to the question 'Who is Jesus?' then we are in an extra chapter or footnote to Judaism territory.

Simon Peter's answer to the second question is a wedge which driven down further through the future after Jesus' ascension, eventually, will separate Jews and Jewish Christians and drive Christianity apart from Judaism: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (16).

Why is this answer more significant than the one given in verse 14?

First, verse 14 shows that an unsettled answer or set of answers was circulating among some people.Without a settled answer, would the movement of people following Jesus have become a distinctive force within Judaism? Secondly, it is far from clear, surveying the history of speculations in Judaism re figures such as Elijah and Jeremiah, that if a settled answer such as "Jesus is the re-appearance of Jeremiah" had been agreed to, then much impact would have been made (beyond a footnote in the history of Judaism).

But the third observation is that the claim in verse 16 is significant. Expectation about the coming of the Messiah grew and grew through the pages of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) and in the minds of readers of these sacred writings. To claim that "X is the Messiah", then to persist in that claim, in the face of persecution and even execution, was to determine that Judaism should now fall in behind the Messiah rather than continue in a state of waiting and yearning. To make and persist in the claim, as the first Christians did, was to say, "there are two ways ahead of us, following the Messiah or denying that the Messiah has yet come." Indeed the very existence of a group known as 'Christians' was to make the claim since Christ = Messiah so the Christians were (so to speak) 'Messiahians'.

So Jesus blesses the one making the statement with clarity and conviction, Simon Peter.

But the blessing raises a couple of questions. (1) Why describe Peter as 'son of Jonah'? Possibly nothing more than a variation on 'son of John' (see John 1:42), possibly Peter is being described as a prophetic figure, like Jonah. (2) What does the statement about the confession Peter has just made being 'revealed' mean for us? Does it mean that we can only believe similarly if we too have a revelation? (Certainly the confession of many Christians would be that they have not been argued into the kingdom but that some kind of revelation has occurred which has led from a state of unbelief to a state of belief). Does it mean that now the confession has been written down, we are without excuse for refusing to believe the confession? (Certainly the confession of many Christians is that the witness of Scripture, built in the New Testament around precisely what Peter says, is decisive in the pathway to faith).

So far so good. In a sense we have through verses 13-17 the decisive reason for the break between Christianity and Judaism but in verses 18-20 we have a decisive difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism/Eastern Orthodoxy! The former (broadly speaking) emphasises the person of Peter and the office he carried forward from that day, as senior apostle then first Bishop of Rome as the foundation on which Christ builds the church, with the authority of the office being ascribed to Jesus' own delegation of authority in verses 19-20. The latter (broadly speaking) emphasises the confession Peter makes, with the church being built on the basis of sound theology, on the foundation of basic truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The authority delegated by Jesus in verses 19-20 is then an authority delegated to all the apostles. The final verse, 20, is addressed to all the apostles, not only to Peter.

Without attempting to 'sort this issue' once and for all (as if I could undo 2000 years of difference in the church!) the following observations might be profitable in the run up to this week's sermon:

- if Peter, as person and office-holder, is being singled out by Jesus, where do we find supporting words in the other gospels or in Acts (noting that in the key council in Acts 15, Peter is one of the senior figures, not any kind of supreme figure)?
- if confession rather than person counts, why does Jesus then talk about the exercise of authority which can only be exercised by people rather than by a confession?
- does our understanding of this passage require an acknowledgement of the importance of both personal leadership and of impersonal confessional statements?



Friday, August 8, 2014

Sunday 17 August 2014 - 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): God's mercy / our faith / a simple cry for help / God saves both Jews and Gentiles

Sentence: O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33)

Collects:

All-seeing God,
teach us to be open with you about our needs,
to seek your support in our trials,
to admit before you our sins,
and to thank you for all your goodness. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Comments:

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

As we come to the gospel reading today to consider a story in the mission of Jesus in which he claims that his mission is to Israel alone, we hear this reading as a reminder that God's mission was never to Israel alone, but always included in its vision the wider world.

Thus this reading forms background to the gospel story in which a Gentile woman seeks help from Jesus and leads us to wonder if Jesus was making a teasing comment about the focus of his mission rather than a definitive or absolute statement.

Psalm 67

The psalmist shares in God's global vision. The expectation of this psalm is that 'all nations' will know who God is, what God's saving power is all about, and respond with joyful worship.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

This choice of verses is very poor on the part of the lectionary compilers! By stopping the first part with the words 'God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew' the sense is given that 'Israel is fine (fullstop)' when, in fact, the next few verses (2b-5) go on to make the point that God not rejecting Israel is exemplified by the recurring presence of a 'remnant' (5). It is not exemplified by a 'get out of judgment' card for all Israel.

In the second part of the reading, it is just as unfortunate that the choice of verses does not front up to the confrontational verse 28, 'As regards the gospel they are enemies of God fo your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors;'. Only with this verse does verse 29 make any kind of sense!

What is Paul saying in these latter verses? He is saying something he expresses throughout the chapter (see verses 11 and 12) that in some way, Israel being disobedient to God has opened up the way for God to expand his covenant of love to include those outside Israel, the Gentiles. Their loss (of obedience) is Gentiles' gain (of blessing). But verse 31 suggests a kind of virtuous circle: as the blessing of God moves on from disobedient Israel to the Gentiles, so it will move on again, move back to Israel that it might also be shown mercy.

This likely seems odd to our way of thinking, especially those of us who are Gentile Christians, steeped in a strong sense of the inclusive, wide-ranging love of God. We need to think about what a revolution had been going on in Paul's life: an Israelite nationalist and Jewish zealot, his view of the sphere of God's operation was extremely limited. Israel alone! Now, his tiny worldview shattered by his conversional encounter with the risen Christ, he is setting out an understanding of what his new worldview looks like, in relation to his previous one.

But there are more difficulties in Romans 11 and the lectionary choice generously drives us past them, leaving them unattended on the side of the exegetical road! What, for example, does Paul mean when he says, 'And so all Israel will be saved' (26a)?

Whatever he means, it is difficult, taking the chapter as a whole, the three chapters, 9-11, and the whole letter to the Romans, to get past the fact that, in the end, Paul is committed to an understanding of salvation in which our belief - our faith response to Christ - determines where we stand in relation to God.Thus we read in verse 23,

'And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.'

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

15:10-20:- It is likely too much to preach a moderate length sermon on the whole of 15:10-28! But 10-20 serve as background to 21-28 for there Jesus converses with a Canaanite, a defiled person, so to speak and thus verses 10-20, about what actually defiles a person is of direct relevance. The summary of 10-20 'But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles' (18). By verse 28 we will find that what comes out of the Canaanite woman are words of faith: she is no longer 'defiled'. Jesus has prepared the way for her to be included in the 'new Israel' or kingdom of God because in verses 10-20 he has upended the role of the law in guarding the boundaries of Judaism. If what defiles a person are not external actions (hand washing, which foods go into the mouth) but internal attitudes and intentions, then the basis of distinction between Jew and Gentile is radically undermined.

15:21-28:- Matthew tells this story with some variations from Mark's version (Mark 7:24-30). In Mark's version her Gentileness is spelled out as 'a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth' (7:26) but Matthew summarises this to 'Canaanite' (22). Either way, this woman is a Gentile, someone who does not belong to Israel, a point made with particular intensity by Jesus (24).

Matthew's Gospel has a high gearing towards a Jewish Christian readership (note, for example, the beginning via an 'Israelite' geneaology, the repeated invocation of prophetic texts being fulfilled in Jesus and the engagement with the relationship between Jesus' teaching and Old Testament law in 5:17-20). But at several points Matthew communicates to his readers that Jesus' mission long-term was not to be confined to Israel. This story is one of those points. Here is a Gentile woman seeking help from Jesus (15:25); here is Jesus claiming that he 'was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (24). But the woman gets the help she seeks and the conversation between her and Jesus draws out that Gentiles are encompassed by the scope of Jesus' mission: 'even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table' (27).

For many centuries this story has been read as a fascinating story in which Jesus and an unnamed Gentile woman engage in a bit of clever repartee for which the woman is commended as yet another person, indeed another Gentile (see Matthew 8:5-13) who has faith (28).

But recent years, especially through feminist critical lens, this story has received quite a 'going over'. Special concerns raised include:

- the attitude of Jesus towards the woman (harsh? unyielding until she gets the better of him?)
- the use of the word 'dogs' to describe the position of the Gentile woman (26)
- yet again Matthew presents a woman, two woman, in fact, the mother and the daughter, without names.

The observation is also pressed by some scholars that the story seems to show Jesus as needing to be taught a lesson by the woman, 'even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table' (27), before he succumbs to her entreaty for help.

In sum: the story has become a centre of scholarly controversy, both in respect of Jesus' attitude to women, to outsiders and in respect of christological reflection as to 'who' the Jesus of this story is.

Can we add a thought or two at this point?

If we compare this story with the comparable (re Gentiles) story in Matthew 8:5-13 we see that there is equal treatment of the centurion and his servant re names, both are unnamed. We also see that the centurion takes a position of extreme humility in relation to Jesus whereas in today's story Matthew (so to speak) permits the woman to be a 'strong woman' with humility ('she came and knelt before him', 24) but not extreme humility (since she refuses to take 'No' for an answer).

In each story Jesus commends the Gentile for his or her 'faith' and healing occurs at a distance (in each case the ill person is not present to Jesus).

Each supplicant demonstrates their great faith in Jesus by a 'smart' verbal exchange: the centurion demonstrates his awareness of the authority of Jesus in relation to the authority of God, the Canaanite woman demonstrates her awareness of the mercy of Jesus in relation to the mercy of God (which has been demonstrated through the centuries to non-Israelites, e.g. to Naomi & Ruth, to Naaman).

On the matter of 'dogs' we should acknowledge that while it is 'a reading' of the verbal exchange to calculate that 'dogs' comes into the story as a deprecatory term for Gentiles, it is also a reasonable term for those outside of the immediate covenant of God which is with Israel as God's 'children' and thus others, outside of Israel, are those outside of God's covenant, those who are not lost children but household pets who are nearby but not full members of the lineage of the family. A further point that could be made is that Jesus words in 15:26 can be read as a form of teasing which open up the possibility of the woman's clever reply which (positively) manipulates the conversation to a point where Jesus has no further reply save to offer 'the crumbs' she seeks (27).

While at this point (and on this point) we could say that Jesus learns a lesson, even is challenged to expand his narrow mission horizon, it is equally possible to say that Jesus himself is manipulating the situation to draw out the faith he senses in the woman, a faith which has brought her to the point of recognising a non-Canaanite as having access to the healing power of God.

Finally, in respect of the christology of the story, Matthew can scarcely be charged with presenting Jesus as some kind of limited human being with a narrow outlook, inconsistent with being divine in status. The woman addresses Jesus as 'Lord' on three occasions (22, 25, 27) and on the first of those occasions connects 'Lord' with the messianic address, 'Son of David.' Does this 'Lord' need to be taught through another human being that God's purposes for the world are greater than his understanding? It is preferable to consider that this Lord is able on his own to work out the global extent of God's plan and thus the comment in verse 24 is a teasing comment rather than a statement of Jesus' then self-understanding with all its implied limitation.

For ourselves, we might read our participation in God's plan via our own needs for assistance, expressed in the simple prayer,

'Lord, help me' (25).

Our confidence in God's help then works its way out from this story as we consider the mercy of God available even to us who may feel far from the centre of God's purpose,

'even the crumbs that fall from their master's table' (27).


Postscript:
(We might also note, at this present juncture in which terrible conflict between Israel and Gaza has arisen, that this story presents an 'Israel' which treats local peoples (such as the Canaanites) as 'dogs' whose general position in life relative to 'Israel' is as dogs eager to eat the crumbs under their master's table, a position which only too well describes the economic situation of Gaza relative to Israel as a 'master' able to impose economic sanctions on Gaza. Whatever else the story does in respect of who Jesus is, it reflects local cultural, racial and political dynamics in Jesus' day. I suggest, by the way, that one can reflect in this way on the uncanny parallels to today's situation without 'taking sides' about the rights and wrongs of the conflict between Israel and Gaza. It is a fact that Israel is economically stronger than Gaza and is able to exert power over Gaza.)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday 10th August 2014 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Faith / Miracles / Do not be afraid / Facing life's storms

Sentence: For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)

Collect:

Almighty God,
in your Son Jesus Christ
you have created a people for yourself;
make us willing to obey you,
till your purpose is accomplished
and the earth is full of your glory. Amen.

Readings (related):

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Comments:

1 Kings 19:9-18

Elijah (and Elisha, introduced in verse 19) are the two prophets of old whose ministry is closest to Jesus in respect of amazing miracles of nature occurring.

In this reading Elijah has been part of an amazing miracle (1 Kings 18) but now finds himself like a balloon that has been punctured. In his deflated state he wishes he could die (19:4) - a state we may find ourselves in after a period of intense spiritual activity.

When we look across to Matthew 14:22-33 we see no signs of Jesus feeling deflated after the Feeding of the Five Thousand but we do see Jesus, like Elijah, seeking aloneness.

In that aloneness, God visits Elijah, as it happens with some mighty natural events (11-12) but it is only when 'a sound of sheer silence' (12b) envelopes Elijah that the voice of God comes with the next step of his prophetic career charted out for him (13-18).

One point of the reading is that the word of the Lord (9) is greater than the power of nature. Nature shouts at Elijah but its message is unclear. Silence permits the word of the Lord to be heard in all its divine clarity.

Psalm 85:8-13

This psalm is appropriate to associate with the gospel reading. In that reading great 'works' are done by Jesus, works that no god other than the God of Israel can do through his Son. To such a God, the nations are envisaged as bowing down and worshipping him. So we find Jesus the Son of God worshipped at the conclusion of the gospel story.

Romans 10:5-15

This reading is just a bit, or even quite a bit complicated! But, despair not, we can make sense of it!

Recall that Paul arguing through the whole of Romans that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for all, for Jews and for Gentiles, is turning his attention through chapters 9-11 to the specific Jewish question of the salvation of Israel, given the covenantal promises God has previously made to them. More simply, when Israel after Jesus Christ asks, 'What about us?', what answer does Paul give?

In Romans 9, lays out what could be called a 'history of salvation' of the Jews, which highlights the instances in which not all Jews were saved. (That sentence is a bland summary of a subtle argument in which Paul engages with God's role (election) in the matter and with Israel's mistakes, leading to a remnant being saved in some episodes of Israel's history).

In the first few verses in Romans 10, Paul is remarkably clear and un-nuanced: Israel's failings are (a) lack of enlightenment or ignorance of the 'righteousness that comes from God' (2-3a), (b) consequential non submission to 'God's righteousness' (3b) with (a) and (b) being measured by 'Christ [as] the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes' (4).

With this in the background, let's see if we can make sense of Romans 10:5-15 which here is divided in 10:5-8, 8-13, 14-15

10:5-8

First, Paul is doing something familiar to Jewish exegetes of his day, but a little obscure to us. He takes two texts (Leviticus 18:5, Deuteronomy 30:11-14) and works from one to the other. Leviticus 18:5 is cited in v.5 whereas Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is cited in vss.6-8. But Paul does something we might - in the light of cold, hard logical consistency - consider a bit dodgy: he pits Leviticus as the voice of Moses against Deuteronomy as the voice of 'righteousness that comes from faith' (6). That is, Paul pits 'righteousness that comes from the law' versus 'righteousness that comes from faith' by citing two pieces of Moses' writings!

As if that does not go against the grain of how we, today, might ideally strive to read the Bible, he also seems remarkably obscure in the way he cites Deuteronomy 30:11-14 in 10:6-8. Again, we need to allow for Paul the Jewish exegete to have his own - to our eyes, peculiar - way with the text. By citing Christ in verses 6 and 7 he is, in a roundabout way, saying that true righteousness is found in Christ but Christ is not found by righteousness striven for by strict obedience to God's commandments. Thus he speaks of 'the righteousness that comes from faith says ...' (6).

But faith is not an alternative to works in the sense that faith is a better pathway to find Christ. So we find that what the righteousness that comes from faith says is 'Do not say in your heart ...' (6). Rather, faith is a response to 'the word' (Deuteronomy 30:14 which Paul interprets as 'the word of faith that we proclaim' i.e. the good news of Jesus Christ).

In other words, in a form of biblical reasoning which is obscure to our usual way of handling biblical texts, Paul is arguing the superiority of 'faith righteousness' over 'works righteousness', and doing so on the basis that Scripture itself supports this argument.

From this point Paul segues towards something clearer to our minds: the word of faith which he proclaims (8) becomes the word spoken of in Deuteronomy 30:14, a word on lips and in hearts, a word which saves.

10:8-13

Implicit in what Paul writes in Romans 10:8-9 is the correct response to the gospel consists of two things. The two things he spells out, using the language of Deuteronomy 30:14, are (1) 'if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and (2) believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.' Verse 10 is a supporting explanation and verse 11 (citing Isaiah 28:16) is a supportive encouragement to be such a believing, 'righteousness that comes from faith' person.

Note that the belief re the resurrection is not that 'Jesus was raised from the dead' or that 'Jesus is alive'. No, it is belief that 'God raised him from the dead', that is, belief that God's seal of approval is on Jesus Christ as the new and living way to God, Jesus is God's anointed one (Messiah=Christ) and thus is properly considered 'the end of the law' (4).

In a neat and decisive twist, backed up by his argument through Romans 1-8, Paul is saying that in the righteousness that comes from faith, there is a new commandment (to use language of Leviticus and Deuteronomy) to follow, a living commandment or, better, living commander, the risen Lord Jesus. To submit to his lordship is now decisive for 'righteousness.'

Verses 12-13, building on this twist, make the point that Jews and Gentiles may both claim Jesus as Lord, may both believe that God raised him from the dead. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (13, citing Joel 2:32 and applying it to Jesus Christ).

10:14-15

From the aforegoing Paul segues again, this time to the mission of proclamation of the 'word of faith'. How can people call on the one they are yet to believe in if they have not heard the message? (14a) How can people hear if noone proclaims the message? (14b) And how can there be proclaimers if no one is sent? (15a).

(Much more can be said, especially when we look over from verse 15 into the succeeding verses where Paul kind of reverses the direction he goes in since he does not talk about proclaimers being sent but about the continuing spiritual plight of Israel as a people for whom 'not all have obeyed the good news' (16).)

Matthew 14:22-33

Matthew has 'form' when it comes to stories involving the combination of Jesus, water, storm, disciples and faith. In Matthew 8:23-27 he tells the story of Jesus and the disciples together in a boat in a storm which leads the disciples asking Jesus to save them and to Jesus rebuking the disciples for having little faith after telling them not to be afraid.

In this story the disciples are alone in a boat in a storm but Jesus comes walking towards them. He urges them to not be afraid. Then Peter asks if he could be commanded to walk on the water towards Jesus. When he does so he is initially successful but when he takes is eyes off Jesus and looks at the waves around him he begins to sink and cries out to Jesus to save him. As Jesus reaches out his hand to save him he says to Peter, "You of little faith, why do you doubt?"

This story of Jesus walking on the water is comfortable enough in gospel terms as other gospels also tell the story of Jesus defying the usual rules of gravity-plus-water (Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21). But when we get to Peter walking on water at the conclusion (albeit briefly) we are in uniquely Matthean territory as no other gospel conveys this story to us.

However a case could be made for the other gospels being a bit coy about this embarrassing-for-Peter story. Whatever we make of Peter walking on water, we can make sense of the fact that it was brash Peter making the attempt and not one of the others. Actually we can make some sense of Peter being inspired by his Lord to emulate him. That he only made it for a few steps before sinking becomes the occasion for a plausible message to us all about faith, as we shall see below.

A further point of comparison concerns the ending of the story.

Matthew's earlier storm story concludes with the disciples saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?" (8:27)

Here the storm story concludes with, "And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." (14:33)

This is a clear instance of Matthew developing his understanding of who Jesus was and is ("christology") as he unfolds the story of Jesus: a question about what kind of man Jesus is is replaced by a statement about who Jesus is in relation to God; and a question about who Jesus is gives way to an act of worship.

Since writing last week's comments, and when preaching on the Feeding of the Five Thousand yesterday, I have coined a phrase, 'every story in Matthew is a sermon'!

What is Matthew's message as he tells us this story in his own unique version of it? (Each point is numbered, but not each point is intended to have 'equal value.'

1. Time alone with God is important. Jesus tried to get that time after John the Baptist died (14:13) but the crowds thwarted him. His determination is not deterred and this time he succeeds. Crowds do not climb mountains. Where do we need to go so that distractions do not follow us? (To a region without cellphone coverage?)

2. If the message of the first storm story (8:23-27) was that Jesus is in the boat with the church when it faces storms, the message here is that even when the church thinks Jesus has deserted them, he is not far away. The church should never be afraid, no matter what storms batter it about. Jesus is present, we do not need to be afraid.

3. Jesus' comfort is to individuals as well as to the church collectively. Peter stands here for all individuals walking in the way of Jesus who take brave steps of faith in the face of life's storms and then lose sight of Jesus and are overwhelmed by the storms. (Step forward all those who have succeeded where Peter failed! ... What, not even one of us?) Jesus is ever at hand to save us, ever gentle chastising us for our little faith.

4. What is the appropriate response to Jesus who walks on water and calms stormy seas? It is to worship Jesus. But not some kind of 'Superman' or 'Magician' Jesus. He has not performed party tricks on a cosmic scale. What we see through Matthew's eyes is the Son of God, the creator of the universe rule over his world. Nature obeys the Son of God, humanity should worship the Son.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday 3rd August 2014 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Compassion / Provision / God's power and our faith

Sentence: Jesus said to his disciples, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." (Matthew 14:16).

Collect:

God of the hungry,
make us hunger and thirst for the right,
till our thirst for justice has been satisfied
and hunger has gone from the earth. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Comments:

Isaiah 55:1-5

This reading relates to both the epistle and the gospel!

The direct links are verse 2 to the feeding of the five thousand, and verses 3-5 to the beginning of three chapters in Romans, 9-11.

As the crowd feeds on the word of God through Jesus they also begin to hunger physically for bread, but the former offers the ultimate satisfaction.

As Paul develops his understanding of the gospel or new bread of God, he embarks on a reflection concerning the relationship between God and Israel as the revelation is made that the gospel is for all peoples.

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

What kind of god is present in Jesus Christ? When Jesus discerns that his audience is hungry he has compassion on them (Matthew 14:13-21). Thus present in Jesus is the God of Israel, praised in this psalm, a God full of grace and mercy, with compassion 'over all that he has made' (9).

With particular reference to the gospel reading we find verse 15, 'the eyes of all look to you and you give them their food in due season.'

Romans 9:1-5

As we have made our way through Romans in recent weeks we have seen Paul develop various arguments (i.e. explanations which develop points about various themes in the light of the good news of Jesus) under the 'umbrella' argument that the gospel is God's word for the whole world, announcing salvation through Jesus Christ.

But logically this presents a question for Paul, a Jew who now follows Jesus and understands the Law of Moses to be deficient in the light of Christ who offers believers the power to live a righteous life which the law does not. The question in colloquial terms is "What about Jews who do not believe in Jesus?"

Our five verses today are the introduction to three chapters in which Paul works out his answer to the question. It is a complicated answer over which Pauline scholars disagree when they try to explain it to us!

But these five verses are straightforward enough: Paul longs for his fellow Israelites to know Christ and to belong to Christ. From a "pre gospel" perspective they have every advantage (verses 4-5). Yet Paul wishes he himself could be "accursed and cut off from Christ" for their sakes (3).

This is the true love of a godly evangelist for those to whom he proclaims the gospel: if he could make a choice between those who are "accursed and cut off from Christ" and those who are not, he wishes he could be cut off and his hearers could belong to Christ and no longer be accursed.

Matthew 14:13-21 Feeding of the Five Thousand

(Since last week's reading, so to speak, Jesus has been rejected at Nazareth (13:54-58) and John the Baptist has had his head cut off (14:1-12).)

Jesus understandably (for, remember, he is completely human) withdrew from 'there' (where?, the text does not say) 'when he heard this [news about John the Baptist]' (13). He withdraws by boat (i.e. across Lake Galilee) to 'a deserted place by himself' but this is futile since the 'crowds heard it' and 'followed him on foot from the towns' (13). It is worth a moment's pondering to consider the nature of Jesus' public fame so that people watched him leave by boat, then bothered, in numbers, to walk to where he had travelled by boat, indeed walk at a fast pace, since they arrived before he did at his destination (14).

For those of us minded to do calculations re travel times, it seems extraordinary that the crowd could beat the boat, but perhaps Jesus was in no hurry to get to shore - sailing has its own recreational virtues, and it would be in keeping with other gospel stories if there was some fishing on the way :)

It is a tribute to Jesus that when he tried to 'get away from it all' nevertheless, when confronted with the crowd, he did his works of compassion in the usual way (14).

(Incidentally, when we compare the four gospel versions of this story, Matthew 14:13-21 // Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10b-17, John 6:1-15, Matthew tells us Jesus healed people and then fed them, Mark tells us Jesus taught them (out of compassion) then fed them, Luke says he spoke to them about the kingdom of God and cured the sick before feeding them, and John says he sat down saw the crowd - who had followed him because of his healings - and set about organising a feed for them).

The disciples are themselves a little bit compassionate in this story! They see the need for the crowd to have a feed and suggest, in a quite patronising manner, as though Jesus was incapable of seeing the dilemma for himself, that he disperse the crowd and send them 'into the villages' so they could buy food for themselves (15).

Jesus will have none of this practical but powerless ministry: 'They need not go away; you give them something to eat' (16). We can only imagine the incomprehension, if not fear in the eyes of the disciples as they heard this direct speech from the Master!

But they are nothing, as we have seen, if not practical and realistic. They have already collated their resources and counted them up: 'nothing but five loaves and two fish' (17).

Jesus is not deterred. The crowd will be fed and they are going to do it. He orders the meagre resources to be brought to him (18) and orders the crowds to be seated nearby (19a).

How are these meagre resources to be multiplied to feed the multitude? Jesus takes them, looks up to heaven (that is, entrusts the whole situation to God's power), blesses and breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the crowds (19).

The way Matthew describes the event crushes any attempt by modern scholars to explain the feeding as an impulse sweeping around the crowds to get out their otherwise hidden lunches and share them with their careless neighbours who had not the forethought to bring their own supplies. The miracle of multiplication here occurs through the work of God enacted in the combination of taking, praying, blessing, breaking and distributing.

The report concludes with the powerful observation that the multiplied food was not a stretching thin of the meagre amounts of food so that everyone had a mouthful to keep them going. No, 'all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full' (20). With God working this miracle we should expect no less than this ending since God is God of all the world and able to provide all necessities of life in abundance. In the background, of course, is the mighty provision of daily sustenance of manna and quails for the feeding of Israel in the wilderness.

So what? What are we meant to do with this report (apart from praising God for his power and provision)?

Matthew always tell us about Jesus with an eye on the church for whom he writes. Jesus is lord of the church and wants the church to be the continuation of the disciples-in-mission whom Jesus is training and commissioning for service in the kingdom.

Thus we may read this report as a message to the church (as well as a story of Jesus). The resources of the church are often meagre and the needs of the world around it are overwhelming. Yet God can take the little we have and multiply it for the good of all, in a demonstration of the compassion of God. Our role is to offer the little we have to God in faith, bless it, break it and distribute it.

Through this miracle, God says to the church in relation to the world, 'you give them something to eat' (16).

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Wisdom. Kingdom of heaven. Understanding. Kingdom wisdom. Kingdom of heaven: priceless!

This is Social Services Sunday. One way in which these readings contribute to reflection on social services and the church's involvement in society is that the presence of God's kingdom in the world is not restricted to the church in its visible gatherings. Kingdom life should be spreading (like yeast) through every part of life in the world. A further connection is the explicit and implicit commendation of wisdom in the readings. Notably in 1 Kings, Solomon seeks wisdom in order that he may govern well. Christian social service work would be wonderfully "undermined" if governments governed more wisely ... and some Christian social service is appropriately expressed through social justice advocacy which presses governments to govern wisely.

Sentence: All things work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28)

Collect:

God of mercy,
you have blessed us beyond our dreams;
you have set before us promises and perils
beyond our understanding
help us to struggle and pray
that the perils may be averted
and your promises fulfilled. Amen.

Readings (related):

1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Commentary:

1 Kings 3:5-12

Solomon has the world and its opportunities set before him but in his time and context there are three sought after possibilities, wealth, long life, or wisdom. He chooses the last and God is pleased to grant that to him.

In the gospel reading today, the kingdom of God offers a new way of life in which riches play no part and there may not be a long life, but true wisdom in the light of the coming of Jesus demands entry to the kingdom rather than its rejection.

Back to this reading: Solomon seeks wisdom in order to govern his country well. There must be something to say from this observation about the state of our world and about the choices we will make at our forthcoming NZ election!

Psalm 119:129-136

The psalmist shows a deep, passionate, intelligent appreciation for God's law through these verses. It is not just that God's 'decrees are wonderful' as decrees which govern life (129), they have power to do more for those who love God's law.

'The unfolding of your words gives light' (130a) and 'imparts understanding to the simple' (130b). Through reading and keeping God's law, the psalmist recognises that he is more able to understand the world and what is going on within it. The law provides wisdom and insight.

Realistically, the psalmist recognises that the words of the law do not by themselves empower him to keep the law: so he entreats God to help him to live rightly (133-135).

This passage is a good complement to Matthew 13:51-52.

Romans 8:26-39

Recalling last week's passage and comment, we remind ourselves that Paul is sequencing his way through several, related themes in this chapter, though always with an eye on the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer.

Here the themes are:
- prayer aided by the Spirit (26-27)
- the fulfilment of God's good purposes for those who love God (28-30) which anticipates the next and last section of the chapter in which Paul proclaims the unshakeable and unbreakable love of God
- God is on the side of God's people, not against them, demonstrated by 'not withhold[ing] his own Son' (31-32)
- there is no charge of sin against God's elect (33-34)
- nothing, absolutely nothing, not earthly powers nor heavenly ones, neither the fiercest opposition nor death itself can 'separate us from the love of Christ' (35-39).

This is a carefully worked out yet poetically expressed ending to this first part of Romans. The gospel indeed saves people and does more in the sense that it guarantees the salvation of people who respond to God's love for them in Christ with love for God through Christ, empowered by the Spirit of God who comes to dwell in believers.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

[I am now officially annoyed with the Revised Common Lectionary that three weeks in a row we have parables (and interpretations) drawn from Matthew 13 with explicit omission in each case of Matthew's Jesus explaining to us the purpose of using parables: neither 13:10-17 nor 13:34-35 figures. That someone might find elsewhere on another Sunday that the omitted passages are used does not deter me from the point that if we are reading Matthew's Gospel then we might reasonably read what Matthew tells us about parable teaching when Matthew tells it to us, not when we think it suits us to read it, out of Matthean sequence.]

With this passage we complete the parables taught by Jesus as conveyed in this chapter of Matthew.

In each of the five parables 'the kingdom of heaven is like' something: mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a fine pearl, a net with all kinds of fish.

Our challenge, without interpretations provided for the parables (save that the interpretation in 13:36-43 would appear to applie to 13:47-50), is to understand what it means that the kingdom is 'like' something.

Without proposing that the following is an exhaustive set of interpretations, Jesus appears to be saying that the kingdom of heaven is:
- a growing phenomenon which starts small and becomes very large (mustard seed)
- a powerful influence working through the whole world (yeast)
- something utterly worth being part of and belonging to (hidden treasure, fine pearl)
- a bit messy because it grows and develops in such a way that both evil and righteous people are caught up in its life (fishing net).

Can we say with the disciples that we understand 'all this' (51)?

The passage finishes on a beautifully poetic note about scribes trained for the kingdom (52) who are also 'like' something - like a master of a house who brings out of his treasure what is old and what is new. But what does this mean? Who are 'scribes' in the kingdom (since we do not encounter these officials anywhere else in the gospels)?

A key word here is 'trained' which in the Greek means 'discipled'. Potentially 'scribes' could be all disciples, or scribes trained in the Maw of Moses who are now discipled into the kingdom or one scribe in particular, Matthew who composes this gospel.

Either way, there is a strong hint here, as we recall Matthew 5:17-20, that Jesus is valuing continuity with all that is good in the past of Israel before he has come as well as asserting the value of what is now being taught through the parables of Jesus.