Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday 2 August 2015 - 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Bread from heaven / Bread of life / Believe! / Equipping the saints / How then shall we live?

Sentence: Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Ephesians 4:1)

Collect:

Heavenly Father,
you see how your children hunger for food,
and fellowship and faith.
Help us to meet one another's needs of body, mind and spirit,
in the love of Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings ('related'):

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Comments:

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

This passage tells the story of God's provision of food for the Israelites in the wilderness, and thus provides background to mention of manna in the wilderness and bread from heaven in the gospel reading today.

Psalm 78:23-29

These verses also refer to the story of the provision of food in the wilderness.

Ephesians 4:1-16

Ephesians 1-3 in sum is 'theology'. Ephesians 4-6 in sum is 'application'. The 'therefore' in 4:1 represents the pivot point in the letter, when Paul moves from 'this is what God has done for you' to 'this is how you should live for God responsively.'

This responsive living is summed up in the remainder of the first verse, 'lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.' We have been called by grace, saved by faith which itself has been God's gift to us. There is nothing we need to do to earn God's favour and approval but we can choose to live lives which worthily reflect that favour and that approval.

Such a life (2) - logically - would be one which reflects the very character of God ('with all humility and gentleness, with patience') and reaches out with love to others. It will also be a life - noting the theology in ch. 2 of breaking down barriers between Jew and Gentile - in which 'the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' is paramount (3).

Being Paul 'theology' and 'application' are not strictly segregated, so we find a little theology appearing through verses 4-6 (the oneness of the body of Christ), 7-12 (the gifts, perhaps we should say 'major gifts' of ministry), 13 (the purpose of these gifts, unity and maturity), 14-16 (themes of unity and maturity developed). Yet woven through these verses is more than a little application: those who have the major ministry gifts, to be apostles, evangelists, etc, are taught here to focus their work on God's desired conclusion for the church. All in the church, whether we are apostles, evangelists etc or not, are forced in these verses to take stock: what is our congregational life like? Is it marked by unity? Are their signs of growth into maturity? Is there freedom to speak 'the truth in love'? Are we understanding the way in which Christ is part of this growth (16)/

A couple of 'exegetical' points are worth noting.

- verse 8 involves a reversal of what Psalm 68:18 actually says (there, tribute is received rather than gifts given). What is going on? I refer you to the bigger commentaries for a full discussion, but essentially this verse is evidence that some biblical writers felt a considerable freedom in how they went about using the scriptures of Israel to illustrate points in their argument.
- in verse 11, is there a list of five ministry gifts or four? If the former then the list is, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. If the latter then the list is, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors-and-teachers. The point then is that pastoral ministry should not be divorced from teaching ministry (and vice versa).
- verse 12, 'to equip the saints for the work of ministry' makes an often overlooked point. The tendency in church life is to clericalise, that is, to expect even demand that the clergy/ministers/paid officials do most of the 'work of ministry.' But Paul is saying here that he expects the apostles, evangelists, etc to 'equip' (train, teach, encourage, model, upskill) all of the church to be able to take a participatory share in the ministry.

John 6:24-35

We began John 6 last week with the telling of two miraculous events, one of which, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, is deemed by John to be a 'sign', that is, an event which points (or signposts) the true significance of Jesus. As the crowd catch up with Jesus (24-25), Jesus criticises them: they have not chased him around the lake 'because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves' (26). They live materialistic lives. The bread filled their stomachs but sparked no reflection about the significance of the miracle in their minds. Jesus will attempt to lift their sights to a spiritual plane, for only on this plane is life lived which is 'eternal' (27).

The crowd gets into the spirit of the conversation, but still, in a sense, at a material level, 'What must we do to perform the works of God?' (28). Fed by bread, they are eager to act. Jesus stops them in their tracks, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent' (29). God's challenge to Israel, with the coming of the Incarnate Word, is that the primary response to God is no longer the doing of the works of the Law, but relationship with the Incarnate Word (i.e. 'believe').

Verse 30 can be interpreted as obtuseness. The sign has already by given which enables them to believe in Jesus, but they obtusely ask 'What sign are you going to give us then ...?' But they do seem to have some sense of the connection between 'bread' and 'sign' because in v. 31 they talk about the 'manna in the wilderness' and link it to 'bread from heaven to eat.' Noting verse 32, perhaps they were at least opening their minds to Jesus as a new Moses. But Jesus pushes beyond such a notion: it was not Moses that gave the manna/bread from heaven, but 'my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven'.

The new bread from heaven (the broken and distributed few loaves which fed 5000) comes from the Father through the Son: the sign of the feeding of the five thousand is a sign which points to the Father and Son working together to feed God's people, but it also points beyond the bread itself to the 'true bread from heaven' (32) which is 'the bread of God ... which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world' (33).

Naturally, with this logic, the crowd can say nothing other than 'Sir, give us this bread always' (34).

That is the cue for Jesus to make one of his great 'I am' statements: 'I am the bread of life' (35). Only by coming to Jesus, by believing in him will people 'never be hungry ... never be thirsty' (35). The ultimate satisfaction in life is through union with Christ. But this will be explored further in the verses which follow (i.e. come back next week)!

All of these verses, with the logical argument woven through them, set up the exposition to follow on the body and blood of Jesus.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday 26th July 2015 - 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Feeding Five Thousand / Miracles / Rescue on the Lake / God's boundless wisdom and love / Christ's immense love / God's work in us through the Spirit and Christ

Sentence: I pray that you may ... know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:18-19).

Collect:

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):

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

Comments:

2 Kings 4:42-44

Most of Jesus' miracles, perhaps even all of them (we could argue that, but not here) have some background and some precedence in the miracles associated with Elijah and Elisha. Thus in seeking a 'related' passage to the gospel reading, the lectionary compilers have rightly looked into the Elijah and Elisha cycles of miracle stories. This one is apt.

Note that the numbers themselves are not the precedent ('twenty loaves barley,' 'a hundred people' (though this seems to mean 'it wouldn't feed a hundred people so how would it feed the starving multitudes', 4:38).

Psalm 145:10-18

The 'relatedness' of this psalm to the gospel reading turns on the phrase 'you give them their food in due season' (15). But the whole of the chosen passage frames what happens in the gospel story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. God is to be thanked and blessed (10). What God powerfully does leads to talk of 'the glory of your kingdom' (albeit that in the gospel passage this is converted by the people to the desire to make Jesus 'king.'

Ephesians 3:14-21

(Continuing a sequence of readings from Ephesians through these weeks).

Ephesians 3:1-13 has set out Paul's privilege as a commissioned servant of the gospel (2, 7) to reveal the gospel which Paul describes as a 'mystery' (3, 4, 9). This mystery is that 'the Gentiles have become fellow heirs' (i.e. with the Jews) of the privileges and possibilities for eternity of belonging to the body of Christ and sharing 'in the promise in Jesus Christ' (6). For Paul this mystery of the gospel now revealed includes 'the boundless riches of Christ' (8) and is a revelation not only for people on earth but also for heavenly rulers (10). So for all these and other reasons set out in 3:1-13 Paul says in 3:14, 'For this reason I bow my knees ...'

But what does Paul bow his knees to pray for? (We will come back to 'Father' in verse 14 at the end).

He prays a long prayer (16-19) in two parts (16-17, 18-19), each part of which is in turn divided into two. But these latter two parts might be best understood as two sides of the one coin of God's work in the believer.

Thus 16-17 concerns the strengthening power of the Spirit in the inner being of the believer (16) and the dwelling of Christ in the believer's heart 'through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love' (17). Note, incidentally, the Trinitarian flavour of what Paul seeks in prayer 'before the Father' ... 'through his Spirit' ... 'that Christ may dwell' (14-17).

Thus 18-19 concerns the 'comprehension' and 'knowledge' of the believer. In verse 18 the prayer is that the believer 'may have power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth' (of what?) and in verse 19 'to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge'. We should understand verse 18 as either applying to comprehension of the 'wisdom of God in its rich variety' (3:10) or 'the love of Christ' (19), noting also the grounding 'in love' of verse 17. Either way, Paul's invoking of breadth/length/height/depth is an invoking of the unlimited and multiple dimensions of what is available from God - Father, Christ and Spirit - for the believer which we might also describe as 'the boundless riches of Christ' (3:8).

In this way the believer, Paul prays, 'may be filled with all the fullness of God', a purpose and point of God's work in Christ which Paul has already prayed for in Ephesians 1 (noting the parallel between 1:23 and 4:19). Do we grasp the sheer scale of what God blessings mean for us? If we answer 'No' then we are understanding the passage well!

Then verses 20-21. In sum, Paul is saying, 'If this is who God is and what God has done and is doing for us ('able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine') then 'to him be glory.' But there is much to reflect on here.

The 'him' who works in us, according to the first verses in this passage, works through the Spirit and through Christ. The Spirit and Christ are co-partners in this divine work, not agents of the divine. The doctrine of the Trinity may have been finally formulated centuries later, but its groundedness in revelation is right here in these verses.

The glory of God which Paul wishes to be given to God is 'in the church' which begs the question whether we (let alone those outside the church) see that glory in the life of the church? It is also 'in Christ Jesus', for Jesus is the glory of God made visible on earth.

Finally, back to verse 14. There is a question whether the Greek translated in the NRSV as 'family' should be 'fatherhood' (the literal meaning of patria). First note that Paul is offering a wordplay between 'the Father/pater' and 'family/fatherhood/patria'. God is Father or Creator, Source and Ruler of all human entities (whether we think of nations, tribes, communities, families). Every such grouping derives its very existence from 'the Father'. But what grouping is Paul concerned with here? He is concerned with the church. If we track back through the preceding verses we see the church described as the body, dwelling place for God, temple in the Lord (3:6; 2:22; 2:21 respectively) and as 'the household of God' (2:19). None of this is particularly close to 'fatherhood' but 'the household of God' takes us close to 'family' so to 'family' we will stick, with the NRSV.

John 6:1-21

Introduction

Starting today we spend five weeks in John 6. For those unfamiliar with the three year RCL cycle, the successive foci are on Matthew, Mark and Luke. But John's Gospel is not neglected and so from time to time (and especially in the Year of Mark) we also engage with Johannine readings. In this case we move from the possibility of considering Mark 6:35-52 to John 6:1-21 where (intriguingly, if we were to think of possible influence of Mark's Gospel on the composition of John's Gospel) a similar sequence of Feeding Five Thousand/Storm on Lake sequence is found.

John 6:1-15

In this version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we notice a connection being made with the Passover (4). This reference seems a bit random, especially noticing the setting of the scene, beside the Sea of Galilee (1), which is a long way from Jerusalem (see 7:1). It could be that John is making a point with 7:1 anticipated in his mind: the popularity of Jesus in Galilee will make life difficult for him when he visits Jerusalem.

We also notice that the disciples do not draw Jesus' attention to the hunger of the listening crowd. Rather Jesus, seemingly even before the crowd have sat down to listen to him (i.e. to Jesus teaching his disciples who are already seated, 3), anticipates the problem and tests Philip (6) by asking him 'Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' (5).

The Feeding of the Five Thousand has always been a story with numbers in it (5000, 12 baskets). Here Philip calculates 5000 mouths in terms of numbers of dollars: 'Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.' (In a rough top of the head calculation, I reckon a couple of months gross wages on the average wage today would buy a couple of nice buns from an NZ supermarket for each of the 5000).

With verse 8 we feel like we are getting into the version of the Feeding we are familiar with from the other gospels. Andrew steps forward to say 'There is a boy here who has five loaves and two fish.' (9a). But he shares Philip's pessimism about the scarcity of resources versus the plentitude of people present (9b)!

The people are made to sit down (10). Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks and distributes to those seated and does likewise with the fish (11).

[Notable here is that Jesus neither 'looks up to heaven' nor 'breaks' the bread (so Matthew 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16). This is in keeping with John dealing with the 'Lord's Supper' differently to the other gospels (noting that the other gospels offer parallels between Jesus' actions with bread in the Feeding and in the Last Supper; whereas John refrains from offering an account of the Last Supper in which the Lord's Supper/the Eucharist is instituted).]

Verse 12 has a poetic quality to its description: 'Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.' The care here for the fragments is reminiscent of the care elsewhere in the gospels for the last, the least and the lost.

The fragments gathered up here amount to 'twelve baskets' (13). A remarkable feature of this miracle story, told in all four gospels, is that when various details vary from telling to telling, there are four numbers which are fixed across the four versions: 5000 (people), 5 (loaves), 2 (fish), 12 (baskets of leftovers).

With verse 14 we are theologically in Johannine territory: what has happened is a 'sign', and this sign prompts a political speculation not found in the other gospels at a parallel point: 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.' John goes further than preserving this comment. With verse 15 he describes a spontaneous uprising to make Jesus 'king'. Before we think about the import of this report, note that Jesus avoids the momentum towards kingship by withdrawing 'to the mountain' which is a motif found also in Matthew 14:23 and Mark 6:46.

Most of John's Gospel seems unconcerned with what we could call the political dimension of life. Jesus does not, for instance, come to the attention of King Herod (recalling Mark 6:14-29 two Sundays ago). Nor does this gospel have much to say about 'the kingdom of God', a political concept if ever there was one. But here in John 6:15 we have this Johannine oddity: the people think what Jesus is up to with his 'signs' is worthy of making him 'king', a royal leader of Israel to challenge the imperial power of the Emperor and of his lackeys such as Herod. By saying that Jesus avoided this momentum, John is disavowing the political implications of Jesus' mission, at least in their local sense. Jesus has come (we later find) not to rule over Israel but over the world, not to challenge the Roman Emperor but the 'ruler of the world.'

Nevertheless we should not underestimate the impact of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. In the ancient world food was as much a necessity as it is today but its supply was more prone to being cut off (e.g. by drought) than our supplies are today (when, e.g. we have immense capacity to shift food from productive areas to unproductive areas). A human leader who could guarantee the supply of food in the way Jesus could was someone worth making king!

John 6:16-21

When we compare verse 15 with what happens at the beginning of the story of the lake which we now look at, we realise that either Jesus was not very far up the mountain (15) or the mountain was a small hill beside the lake!

There are several lake stories featuring storms in the gospels. All features boats and terrified disciples. Not all feature Jesus walking on the water. This one does (19). This one is also ambiguous about the terror: were they terrified by the storm or by the sight of Jesus (perhaps not recognised) walking on the water. Jesus' response in verse 20 is consistent with either cause of terror. Either 'It is I (so do not worry about the storm because I will take care of everything)' or 'It is I (hey, it's me, Jesus, not a ghost or apparition, so stop panicking).'

A unique feature of this story is that we are not told that the storm abated. Rather, when they took Jesus into the boat 'immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going' (21). Reaching land instantly is the same as having the storm cease instantly!

Apart from (so to speak) the usual application of this story, that disciples should not be afraid whatever storms may come, it is difficult to know what to make of this story because John himself has nothing more to say about it. The rest of the chapter is devoted to dialogue and discourse about the ramifications of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (i.e that Jesus is the Bread of Life, 35). What we can notice, however, is that when we discuss John's Gospel in relation to the other gospels, we have in this sequence of two miracles a sequence that is paralleled in Matthew 14 and Mark 6. Thus we have something to talk about when we ask whether the Synoptic Gospels may have influenced the composition of John's Gospel.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday 19 July 2015 - 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Shepherd and Sheep / Sheep without a shepherd / Compassion / The mission of God / New humanity / God's reconciling grace

Sentence: Jesus had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34).

Collect: P18:1

Father God,
imprint on our hearts
that because we belong to you
no one can pluck us from your hand
and because we fear you
we need fear no other. Amen

Readings (related):

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Comments:

Jeremiah 23:1-6

This passage rounds off a survey of the kings (i.e. shepherds) of Judah (ch. 22). They are a bad lot and the Woe of verse 1 is addressed to them.

But all is not lost: the Lord will 'attend' to them for their 'evil doings' (2). Then the Lord himself will intervene to 'gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them' (3). Then, so to speak, the order of shepherds will be restored (4). But, in particular, 'the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land' (5, see also 6).

In other words, the future great David-like and descended-from-David shepherd king will save Judah and make Israel safe. It is to that kind of prophetic promise that our gospel reading alludes when it presents Jesus as the compassionate shepherd of God's people.

Psalm 23

I will be brief here when every line of this greatest of psalms deserves a paragraph!

When David says that the Lord is his shepherd, he is not only speaking of the Lord's personal care for him as one of the sheep of the Lord's flock, he is also speaking for Israel, as the flock which desperately needs the loving care and protection of the Lord as its shepherd.

Part of the deep poignancy of this psalm is that David composed it as an experienced shepherd. He knew first-hand what caring for the flock means.

Ephesians 2:11-22

It is a pity to skip bits of Ephesians when working through it as it is a tightly woven theological argument which leads into a carefully constructed set of instructions for living out the gospel. Here, with the 11th verse of chapter 2 we pick up Paul in full flight about what the gospel 'of redemption through his blood' (1:7) means. 2:1-10 has made the point that although we are 'dead through our trespasses', God has 'made us alive together with Christ' (5). Since God has done this, it is a work of grace (7), in fact, so gracious is God that even our 'faith' (i.e. responsive acceptance of God's salvation) is 'the gift of God' (8).

What do we find in verse 11? 'So then ...' Paul wants his Gentile readers to remember what the 'blood of Christ' (13) has achieved: it has brought them into relationship with Christ. In turn this means that they have been brought into relationship with 'the commonwealth of Israel' (12), two groups, Gentiles and Jews which Christ 'in his flesh ... has made ... into one' (14). This in fact is 'one new humanity' (15), reconciled 'to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it' (16).

We should pause on these verses, less intent on explaining them and more drawn to praise God (see 3:20-21) for the wonderful, dynamic and miraculous achievement of the cross: enmity between human beings, alienation from other men and women, division into separated hostile groups of humanity can be overcome. The secret is to come to Christ, to accept his saving work on the cross, and to acknowledge the new, united humanity which results.

Verses 19-22 then develop what this new humanity looks like: 'the household of God' (19), 'built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,* with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone' (20), 'a holy temple in the Lord' (21) and 'a dwelling place for God' (22). With these series of images, Paul sets out this new humanity as a new Israel, a living building ('built together spiritually', 22), which fulfils the purpose of the Jerusalem temple. In short, a new society - a new people of God.

What does your church and mine look like by comparison?

Does the world outside the church look on the church as a new people of God?

*The phrase 'apostles and prophets' means the apostles of Jesus and the first Christian prophets rather than the apostles of Jesus and the prophets known from the Old Testament. See 3:5.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The omitted verses here mean we engage with a chunk of Mark's Gospel concerning the mission of Jesus minus the events of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Walking on Water. (Since these stories occur in other gospels, there are plenty of opportunities across a three year cycle to engage with them!)

Note that 'the twelve' of verse 7 and now described as 'The apostles' (30). At the very least this is a functionally deserved description because the twelve were sent out on a mission which they accomplished. They are now the 'sent ones' i.e. apostles. Mark, writing around 70 AD, nevertheless is aware that this description became their title as the founding members of the Christian church. His point then is that the apostles earned their laurels by being active in the mission of Jesus while Jesus himself was on earth.

The next verse, 31, could be written for all Christian ministry and mission activity through all of time: take some rest, make sure you have a day off, annual leave is not a luxury but a necessity if you are to recharge your spiritual batteries, always go on an annual retreat, never miss the opportunity for sabbatical! Many are the days when ministry feels like 'many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.' How difficult it can be when we need it most to 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.'

From that perspective verse 32 sounds like a great idea: get a boat and get away in it! I once had a colleague who mused about purchasing a boat and naming it 'On Presbytery Business.' If the church secretary then explained his absence with 'He's away on Presbytery Business', would a lie have been told :) Seriously, sometimes a boat or bike or canoe or caravan or holiday bach is essential to cutting ties to the telephone, the doorbell and the internet.

But there is no guarantee here (please note, just before you lash out on a new and expensive boat): the crowds eager to see and to hear Jesus were not deterred by the boat moving away from shore (33a). The winds on Galilee must have been light that day as the crowd got to Jesus' landing place before he did (33b).

Did Jesus sigh and mutter 'I was hoping to have a decent Day Off and this lot have shown up'? No. Mark reports that 'he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd' (34).

Here, in a phrase, is the essence of Christian ministry: the sheep need a shepherd, the people need a pastor. But, put like that, the image evokes a sense of pastoral care: the minister is the pastoral visitor to needy people, to people needing a compassionate ear. So it may be surprising to read on in verse 34, 'and he began to teach them many things'.

It seems, then, that Mark is thinking that the sheep without a shepherd are not sheep in need of pastoral care but sheep in need of guidance and direction. In Old Testament passages (e.g. Numbers 27:17, 1 Kings 22:37; Ezekiel 34:8; Zechariah 10:2) 'sheep without a shepherd' is an image for Israel without a king or a prophet to lead them. So now the new David, the new shepherd-king sits down with God's people and teaches them, that is, teaches them about God's new kingdom and its ways.

In doing this, Jesus is being contrasted by Mark with Herod the king-who-is-not-a-shepherd, the king who (bad pun coming up) fleeces his people rather than looking after them. (That looking after is highlighted in the passages we now omit, the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Walking on Water).

Picking up the passage again at verse 53, we find Jesus and the apostles now moored at Gennesaret. Again the people 'recognise' Jesus and 'rush' about, corralling up the sick and bringing them to 'wherever they heard he was' (55). Many healings take place as people 'begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak' (56). The passage ends with Jesus being (so to speak) the Most Popular Person in Palestine, except with religious leaders in Jerusalem. They are waiting to examine his theology once again in chapter 7.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sunday 12 July 2015 - 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): John the Baptist /

Sentence: 'See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel' (Amos 7:8)

Collect:

God our strength and our hope,
grant us the courage of John the Baptist,
constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice
and patiently to suffer for the truth's sake;
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings (related):

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Comments:

Amos 7:7-15

One of the roles of the prophets was to hold power and authority to account, to hold up a 'plumb line' by which the deviations from the Lord's ways were measured (though here it is the Lord himself who holds up the plumb line (8-9). Amos was such a prophet and John the Baptist was too.

Like John the Baptist, Amos has come to the attention of the king (Jeroboam, through Amaziah who is a tell tale!). Amaziah the priest says to Amos to clear off (12-13).

Amos' response is tell the story of his calling: "I am no prophet ... the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'."

The king is less powerful than the Lord God.

(Amaziah and his family, incidentally, suffer greatly because of his antagonism towards Amos, verses 16-17).

Psalm 85:8-13

If we read this passage from the psalm in the light of the gospel reading then we see the promise of God's reward (peace, salvation, good, 8, 9, 12 respectively) for one such as John who is 'faithful' (8), who 'fears' God (9).

Ephesians 1:3-14

We now switch from 2 Corinthians to Ephesians. Since this reading was also set down for 4 January 2015 I reprise the comment from then.

Ephesians is a great theological document in its own right as it sets out a vision of the universal, comprehensive scope of God's plan for the world, including the comprehension of all of time, from beginning to end.

Today we read it in tandem with our gospel reading and find some important connections. 'In the beginning was the Word' (John 1:1) connects with 'he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world' (Ephesians 1:4). Talk of becoming the children of God in John 1:12-13 intersects with Ephesians 1:5. John sets out the glory and grace of Christ in one way (1:14-17) while Paul writing in Ephesians 1:6-7 does so in another way. Both passages have in view the concept of fullness - both the fullness of time and the fullness of life (see, respectively, John 1:1-5, 14, 16; Ephesians 1:3, 7, 10).


Mark 6:14-29

Mark performs a trick of narration through word association.

Our reading last week (6:1-13) finished with the disciples succeeding in their mission. This week's reading begins with Herod hearing 'of it, for Jesus' name had become known' (14). Then Mark reports that some were explaining Jesus' mission in terms of 'John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead and for this reason these powers are at work in him' (14). Verses 15 and 16 then report that others were saying that Jesus was Elijah and yet others thought him one of the other prophets while Herod dismisses the alternatives and declares 'John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.' Thus Mark creates the cue to tell the story of John's execution (17-29). 'For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John ... (17).

Observation: Mark always through his gospel is pushing the cause of the identity of Jesus. (He is slightly biased!) Here he presents the possibility that Jesus' (by now) obvious mighty power and impressive authority is related to other human figures such as John the Baptist, Elijah or another famous prophet. His plan is to show that Jesus is more than this and immediately after the story of John's death he will tell us the story of the feeding of the five thousand (6:30-44), a miracle which goes beyond anything anyone else has done. In 8:27-30 he will take up this presentation again, and nail down that Jesus is 'the Messiah.'

Question: Why does Mark tell us about the death of John the Baptist and tell us at such length? (Neither Matthew nor Luke, both of whom almost certainly knew Mark's Gospel, rate the story as worth the length Mark gives it). Let's see if we can answer that question at the end of this comment!

Back to the story: This Herod is Herod Antipas. For more details on his life, marriage and its political implications, head to Wikipedia. The key point here is that John is not merely critiquing the morality/legality of Herod's marriage (for which, see Leviticus 18:16; 20:21) but he was touching on the political toxicity of Herod offending Aretas the Nabatean king who was father of his first wife (17-18).

Unsurprisingly, Herodias the wife has a grudge against him (19) but she cannot have him killed because Herod is hesitant. He may have miscalculated the political fallout with Aretas but here he calculates the local political fallout if he has John - respected widely as a holy man - killed. Besides, Herod himself (somewhat intriguingly) has a personal regard for John: 'Herod feared John' (20).

But Herod has to reckon with not one but two clever women. His daughter (either called 'Herodias' or 'the daughter of Herodias', also known from other sources as Salome) dances for him and when he offers her whatever she asks, she doesn't reply straight away but seeks her mother's advice (21-24). Herodias (senior) sees and takes her opportunity by telling her daughter to ask for John's head (24).

The story then goes through unsurprising details about Herod's sorrow that he will have to give the young woman her wish lest he embarrass himself before his guests (26). (Note that 'shame and honour' are important to his cultural world).

So the orders are given and John is beheaded (27) - an outcome sadly all too familiar to us today from news reports from Syria and Iraq. The head is brought 'on a platter' and given to the girl. She, of course, gives it to her mother (28). That part of the story has a completed circle.

The last part of the story is poignant. 'When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb' (29). When we read this verse we realise that Mark is anticipating the death of Jesus himself (compare 6:29 with 15:46).

So Mark takes time here to tell at great length why and how John died because he is anticipating the later story of the death of Jesus. A death which will need to be explained (how does a good man die the death of a criminal?) just as John's death has needed explaining. Here he lays the ground work for how the story of Jesus will unfold.

Along the way, we have also seen that John the Baptizer was a brave and bold prophet who spoke truth to power.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday 5 July 2015 - 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Mission / Ministry / True power / Weakness/ Weaknesses / Thorn in the flesh

Sentence: I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Collect:

Christ of the new covenant
give us happiness to share,
with full measure, pressed down,
shaken together and running over,
all that you give us. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Comments:

Ezekiel 2:1-5

We care partly read this passage as a clarion call to all preachers (including those sent out to preach in today's gospel reading) to faithfully preach the gospel 'whether they hear or refuse to hear' (5).

We can also read this passage as setting out background to Jesus' commission in the gospel reading to the disciples: they are to preach for repentance. Why? Because Israel remains generally in a state of rebellion against God.

In its specific context, this call is God's call to Ezekiel to be his priestly prophet to the exiles in Babylon after Judah had been exiled there.

Psalm 123

This psalm is one of the fifteen 'songs of ascent', likely sung while pilgrims ascended towards the Temple on Mt Zion.

The psalmist looks up to God for help, for 'mercy' (2c, 3a).

We cannot guess at what troubles (3b-4) engendered this psalm, though a general trouble could be that Israel is viewed contemptuously by surrounding nations.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Paul is under the cosh from his opponents ('super-apostles', 11:5) in respect of what the Corinthians are thinking about Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:10-13). So through chapters 10-13, Paul sets out his stall: he is not whom the others say he is, he is not guilty of the charges they make about him (e.g. he was not a burden to the Corinthians, 11:7-9), and he is committed in love to their well-being.

In our passage today (for which 12:1 is important as an introduction) we see Paul in a form of 'boasting' which we should understand as a response to goading by the super-apostles (11:5). Presumably they were boasting themselves of their experiences which they alleged were superior to those of Paul. Presumably they laid claim to their 'super' status because of ecstatic, mystical experiences of heavenly journeys.

So, says, Paul, in our verses, if that's the 'game' bring it on. To their claims I will counter with this testimony.

Yet Paul as he sets out his testimony of ecstatic, mystical experience is modest. He speaks elliptically about himself, 'I know a person in Christ' (2) and proceeds to recount an experience which could only have been his own (3-4,7a).

'third heaven' (2) in ancient Jewish understanding equals 'Paradise' (4).

Paul is reticent to boast about this experience (5-6) and he explains the reason in verses 7b-9: subsequent to it, he received 'a thorn ... in the flesh' (7). In other words, Paul's heavenly experience was not one that led him to make grandiose claims for his spiritual power and privilege. Far from it! Whatever the nature of the thorn (a physical malady? persecution?) it was distressing and kept Paul humble. It weakened Paul rather than strengthened him. It led him to a point where he relied on God's grace to see him through (7-9).

In fact, Paul claims, the weaker I am, the better for the work of Christ in me, for if I am weak, then anything powerful happening through me is 'the power of Christ' (9b).

In other words - and here we might look ahead to verses 11-12 - Paul is carefully and cunningly saying something like this: "If it is a straight boasting competition between me and the super-apostles, then I win; in fact that is not the competition which counts, that competition is for the person who is weakest so Christ is strongest, it is a competition for the genuine work of Christ, and that competition I also win." Boom!

Mark 6:1-13

Jesus returns to his hometown, his disciples following (1). Mark sets everything in his gospel in terms of christology and discipleship: he answers the questions, Who is Jesus? What do disciples of Jesus do?

The 'Who is Jesus?' in this passage concerns Jesus as a teaching prophet (2,4) who organises a movement (7) (which, incidentally, hits the political antennae of King Herod, 14).

The 'What do disciples do?' in this passage receives the answer 'What Jesus himself did' (7-13).

The questions asked in the synagogue (2-3) have a subtle effect within the narrative of the gospel: by stating them as having occurred early in the ministry of Jesus, Mark is saying to later readers of his gospel, 'Jesus was a man of astounding wisdom and power, yet came from an ordinary family.'

Verse 3 is one of the most detailed NT expressions of Jesus' 'career' and 'family': he was a 'carpenter' (though some see the underlying Greek word as meaning a man technically proficient with his hands beyond proficiency with wood), he was known at this stage as the 'son of Mary' (had Joseph died?), and he had four brothers and an unknown number of sisters. (As an aside, note that here the siblings of Jesus could be siblings Mary produced (i.e. Mary was not a perpetual virgin) or siblings Joseph had produced via a wife before he married Mary (who remained a perpetual virgin).)

In verses 4 -6 we find the specific point of Mark telling this particular incident: 'he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them' (5). In his own hometown, among his own people, including his own family, Jesus faced a barrage of cynical questioning. This questioning expressed the 'unbelief' (6) of the crowd. His ministry was limited. Even with all God's power at his disposal, belief on the part of those he came to minister to was vital to its success.

Naturally such a disappointing response in Nazareth led to moving the mission on (6b).

But verse 7 signals a different kind of expansion from the geographical expansion in verse 6. Jesus calls 'the twelve' and sends them out in six pairs with 'authority over the unclean spirits.' Theirs will be a focused mission, so no extra gear is required (8-9), with specific instructions about receiving hospitality along the way (10-11), and a simple message of repentance (12). For disciples living after these events, perhaps settled into a city such as Alexandria or Rome, what is the message embedded here? Presumably it is that the power of the gospel does not rest in the resources we provide but in the action of God: the call and commission to preach the gospel in word and in deed is vital to the power of the gospel to change lives (13).

What is the result of this mission? Jumping ahead we find the disciples reporting back to Jesus in 6:30. But here in verse 13 we find that demons are cast out and the sick are cured.




Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday 28 June 2015 - 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Healing / Restoration / Giving / Equity between Rich and Poor / Waiting patiently for the Lord

Sentence: Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" (Mark 5:41)

Collect:

Gracious God,
grant us the gift of faith
that we may be made whole
through the power of the Holy Spirit
and in the name of Jesus who restores life.
Amen.

Readings: (related)

Lamentations 3:22-33
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Comments:

Lamentations 3:22-33

Did you know that our English Bible title for this lament for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple comes from the Greek title in the Septuagint (Threnoi) and not from the Hebrew title ('Ekah') which means 'How' and is drawn from the first line of the first verse, 'How lonely sits the city'?

Some of the most marvellous words in the Bible are presented in this passage. After a catalogue of appalling misfortunes the writer (Jeremiah?) affirms, against context, 'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end' (22).

Yet the words continue with acknowledgement that the Lord himself is responsible (in some sense) for the situation (long story short: a significant portion of the Old Testament explicitly or implicitly presumes that the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians is punishment for Israel's disobedience): '... when the Lord has imposed it (28) ... For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief ... (31-2) ... for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (33).

So the writer's viewpoint is that the steadfast, ever merciful love of the Lord for his people will eventually overcome and bring to an end the cataclysm which has engulfed Israel. 'It is good that one should wait patiently for the salvation of the Lord' (26)

In relation to our gospel reading today, this passage speaks to the haemorrhaging woman, who endured her illness for 12 long years. But, as we see in the comments below, the woman herself stands for Israel yet to be fully restored after the Babylonian destruction, the hope of Lamentations not yet fully realised at the time when Jesus came to inaugurate his kingdom.

Psalm 30

Essentially this psalm expresses the sentiments of the Lamentations' passage. Sometimes our lives are marked by the heartfelt sentiment at the heart of this psalm,

'For his anger is but for a moment; his favour is for a lifetime. / Weeping may linger for the night but joy comes with the morning' (5).

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

From the earliest days the life of the church's ministry and mission required, not to put too fine a point on it, cold, hard cash. But this cash requirement was a subtle matter, and invoked (as here) some profound theological reflection.

The subtle matter is that the collection of funds which Paul discusses here (i.e. 8:1-9:15) is twofold in purpose: first, to bring relief to the Jerusalem church at a time of economic plight through drought; secondly, to underscore the unity of the scattered churches resulting from apostolic mission with the mother church of the mission, the church in Jerusalem. (Shades, in Anglican terms, of parishes showing their unity with the diocesan cathedral ...!).

(As an aside, if perchance you read through the whole of 8:1-9:15 and notice a degree of repetition between the two chapters, it is possible that this is because 9:1 represents the start of a different letter of Paul to the Corinthians, about the same matter as addressed in chapter 8. Note 8:10-11: some kind of delay in completing the collection had taken place).

What about profound theological reflection on 'cold, hard cash'? (Here we will stick to 8:7-15).

1. Paul does not make giving (at least in this instance) 'a command' (8). Rather he offers 'advice' (10). Yet honesty requires us to recognise that Paul pulls out a number of persuasive stops in the rhetorical melody he plays here to play on the emotions of his readers! To give one instance, in verse 8, Paul effectively invites the Corinthians to compete with others to be more generous than them.

2. All Christian giving is anchored, according to Paul, in the 'generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ' (9). When he talks about 'though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich' he is articulating his theology of the cross (see both 1 Corinthians 1 and Philippians 2:5-11). Christ died that we might live.

3. Verses 12-15 answer the implied question, 'How much should we give?' We look in vain for a figure, either in actual cash amount or in terms of percentage of income. 'God loves a cheerful giver' (9:7). Rather Paul describes the general situation: you have abundance, the people we are collecting for have need, so it is 'a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need' (13-14). To be blunt, there is a commitment to equity in this passage. Your needs x my surplus = both on the same level of wealth. (This should not be a shock, if we recall, say, Acts 2:45; 4:34).

Mark 5:21-43

Why does Mark run two healing stories together, the Healing of Jairus' Daughter (21-24, 35-41) and the Healing of the Woman with the Issue of Blood (25-34)?

Two clues are already given in these titles: both stories are stories of healing (but see further below) and both are stories of women being healed.

We can also note the obvious point that Mark ran these two stories together because they happened in this way. But the less obvious observation we can make is that Mark has a habit in his gospel of 'sandwiching' items together, bread/filling/bread, and this story is one such occasion.

Further subtleties are worth noting.

- the daughter is aged about 12 years (i.e. on the verge of becoming a woman, 42) and the ill older woman has been unwell for 12 years (25). A question to ponder then is whether Mark understands the number '12' as specially significant. Has it something to do with Israel (a nation of 12 tribes)? When Jesus calls her 'Daughter' (34) it is not because he assumes a fatherly role but because he understands her to be a 'Daugher of Israel'. Associated with this address by Jesus we also observe that the young girl is emphasised as Jairus' 'daughter' (23, 35). We will return to this question about Israel in a moment.
- although both women have already been described in terms of 'healing' it could be more accurate to speak of restoration. Jairus' daughter is either dead (so the supporters of Jairus, 35) or comatose (so Jesus, 39) so that when Jesus raises her up (42-43) he is restoring her to life as much as he is healing her of whatever has led Jairus to seek help from Jesus. The unwell woman would, according to Mosaic Law, have been permanently unclean and this permanently confined to the margins of society. When the 'haemorrhage stopped' (29) she could return to full participation in society: her place was restored.
- in both instances the physical touch of Jesus (in two senses of 'of') is important. Jairus is convinced that Jesus must 'Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live' (23). The woman is convinced 'If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well' (28).

If Jesus restores two lives, the number 12 leads us to consider that the two restorations speak also of the larger work of restoration which his mission is involved in: the restoration of Israel itself. The original 'kingdom of God' is the united kingdom of Israel under Saul, David, and Solomon. That kingdom was fractured then destroyed by successive exiles of each of the fractured parts. At the very best it might be said that occasional partial restorations occurred subsequently in the centuries before Jesus came. Now Jesus comes proclaiming a new kingdom of God in a manner such that people think of him as a new Davidic king. But Jesus keeps deflecting that interpretation (including here at v. 43).

In the kingdom of Jesus, faith (34, 36) is the basic requirement of its citizens (not national, racial heritage). The marginalised (e.g. women generally, unclean women in particular) are placed at the centre of the kingdom. The restored Israel Jesus is working for is a well nation of faith-filled people.
-

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday 21 June 2015 - 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): God's power / Our God is an awesome God / unity / co-operating with God

Sentence: Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4:41)

Collect:

Jesus, Saviour in storm,
when the waters of the deep are broken up,
when the landmarks are washed away or drowned,
come to us across the water,
calm our fears, increase our faith
and bring peace to our lives. Amen.

Readings: (continuous)

1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16
Psalm 133
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Comments:

1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16

There are points of connection here with the gospel reading! Can you find them? One connection is the 'awe' Saul has for David and his successes (18:15). Another connection is the general power and authority which David accrues as he goes from success to success, and as his good fortunes are contrasted with the misfortunes of Saul: thus also is our gospel story part of the growing successes of Jesus (the Son of David).

ADDED: Mea Culpa. I have just realised, Friday 19 June, that I made a mistake with the readings above: my aim has been to work with the 'related' readings and not the 'continuous' readings, thus I have  reflected on 1 Samuel instead of on Job 38:1-11. Here are a few thoughts on the latter ...

Job 38:1-11

Job's great quest is to understand why bad things happen to good people. It has been a long quest and three companions have well meaningly tried to provide the answer. Now, near the end of the book, we draw closer to the real end of the quest which is when God speaks to Job (1).

Relevant to our gospel reading today, 'the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind' (1). The disciples encounter the divine Jesus in the storm on the lake and here God speaks to Job in the middle of a stormy wind.

Job then finds that what the Lord says means the tables are turned on him. Instead of asking the questions, Job is expected to come up with answers to the Lord's questions. These questions continue until 40:1. So our eleven verses are just a starter!

Essentially the questions the Lord poses Job make a single point: I am the Creator, you are the creature.

In other words, you ask questions of me as though we are equals, but we are not!

Psalm 133

This lovely psalm makes one point and makes it beautifully: 'How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!' This ties with the ongoing battle Paul has in his Corinthian correspondence for unity in the church.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

The first words of this passage, 'As we work together with him' are worth pausing on. Paul does not say 'As we work together for God.' 'With' God opens up reflection on ministry and mission as a co-operative venture: between God and us, between ourselves and our partners in mission. How gracious is our God, that he should work with us co-operatively.

Paul goes on to urge his readers 'not to accept the grace of God in vain' (2) which means, 'you have been saved, but now you could lose your salvation if you continue to follow my opponents and their 'wisdom' which is not in fact true.'

Verses 3-10 then set out an apologia or defence of Paul's ministry (which began way back in 2:14): 'We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way ... (3). A list - in fact set of lists - unfolds: commendable hardships (4-5); respectable virtues (6-7); contrasting pairs ('honour and dishonour' etc, 8-10). The point of the contrasting pairs is that although Paul and his co-workers are charged by their opponents with being imposters etc, in fact they are the true, honourable, reputable, lively, joyful, enriching-of-others ambassadors of the authentic gospel.

So, Paul concludes, 11-13, he and his teams 'heart is wide open to you Corinthians'. Their affection for the Corinthians is unrestricted, but there is a stricture on the affections of the Corinthians. Thus Paul appeals for them to open their hearts (13).

Mark 4:35-41

Each of the gospels has a storm story (or two). Sea in the Bible can represent chaos and trouble which only God can control (e.g. Job 26:12; 38:8-11; see also Psalm 89:9, 25; note also Revelation 15:2 where 'sea of glass' represents control of the chaos).

The taking of the disciples away from the crowd means that a lesson in discipleship is in prospect.

Verse 36 is interesting (though I am not sure precisely why without checking out a commentary): there are other boats on the trip (fishing mates of Peter, Andrew, James and John?); and they take Jesus 'just as he was'. Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark (Hendrickson, 2002) points out that the boats 'were with him' parallels 3:14 (re the twelve being 'with him') and hints at a growing band of disciples. That they take Jesus 'just as he was' suggests no change to Jesus' situation, that is there is continuity between the teaching Jesus of the preceding verses and the teaching Jesus of this event (p. 98).

In 37 the detail about the waves beating into the boat highlights the danger: they are not just challenged by the storm (which could be met by superb boatmanship) but about to be defeated by it. Meanwhile Jesus is cool as a cucumber 'asleep on the cushion' (38).

The disciples cannot yet trust in this 'keep calm and carry on' Jesus (38). They cannot carry on without disturbing his sleep. Rather than act themselves (recalling they already have some spiritual authority, 3:15) they ask Jesus to act. Interestingly they call him 'Teacher' rather than 'Lord.'

As their Teacher, Jesus highlights their lack of learning, 'Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?' (40) He might as well have said, 'Have you learnt nothing?' They might, for instance, have learned from the friends who brought the paralytic to Jesus (2:1-12). Their faith took them to Jesus. In faith they believed that Jesus would act, even before they presented their friend to him.

Back to verse 39: Jesus acts. He commands the wind and speaks to the sea. There is calm. Who and what does this remind us of? Primarily it reminds us of the power of God the Creator in Genesis 1: when the Creator speaks, natural phenomena come into being. Only divine power can overcome nature's power.

In verse 41 the disciples are filled with 'great awe' which is a further sign in Mark's narrative that this is a story about God's power working through God's Son (or, if you prefer, God's Son working in God's power). But the last question, 'Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?' show that the disciples do not yet fully understand what Mark understands from his narrator's vantage point many years later.