Monday, June 18, 2018

Sunday 24th June 2018 - 12th Ordinary Sunday

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: (related)

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 133
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Comments:

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 meaningfuly 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 is: '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.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sunday 17th June 2018 - 11th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Inward heart / Love of Christ / Kingdom growth / Careful listening

Sentence: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Collect:

Eternal Father,
your Son Jesus Christ,
now exalted as Lord of all,
pours out his gifts on the Church;
grant us that unity which your Spirit gives,
keep us in the bond of peace,
and bring all your creation to worship
before your throne;
for you live and reign
one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: (related option)

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

Comments:

Ezekiel 17:22-24

This is an allegory about the future reinstatement and flourishing of the Davidic kingship - the restoration of the monarchy at the heart of Israel's history as a flourishing nation. Various links with the gospel reading are readily seen.

Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

Like the parables in the gospel reading, this psalm is keen on God's people flourishing!

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

Paul has confidence (6, 8) in God's ability to see him through to the end and beyond it to glory. The reasons are in the preceding verses (chapter 4 as well as 5:1-5) and turn on the fact that God's power has raised Jesus from the dead (4:10-14).

Verses 6-10 are Paul looking wistfully at leaving his body and being with the Lord (shades of Philippians 1) but recognises that faithfulness to Jesus means 'whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him' (9).

The edge here is that Paul knows the day of judgment is coming when each will 'receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.' (See also Romans 14:10. This is not the judgment which Christians need fear about eternal destiny: Paul is confident of heading into eternal fellowship with God, because of his faith in Christ. Rather this is the judgment which 'tests' what sort of work we have done in this life (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).)

With judgment in mind, Paul moves on in his argument, 'Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others;' (11) But the persuasion has no pretensions: God knows Paul and his colleagues; and the Corinthians - Paul hopes - also know them well. 'Conscience' here is the inner judgment of the mind which assesses whether action is in accord or not with moral standards.

In verse 12 Paul embarks on special Pauline turn of flattering phrase: we aren't commending ourselves but giving you the opportunity to enjoy being able to boast about us! But there is more than flattery going on here, Paul hopes his readers will acknowledge the reality of Paul's apostleship and apostolic message and stand with it against 'those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart' (i.e. the false apostles troubling the Corinthian church and opposing Paul). Possibly 'outward appearances' here refers to circumcision, so the false apostles are those urging that the gospel requires circumcision.

Verse 13 may seem strange with the reference to 'if we are beside ourselves' but here too it is likely that Paul has in minds his opponents, this time those who denigrated him for not having (or not having sufficient) ecstatic experiences (cf. 12:1-12). If so, then Paul is saying, 'Ecstatic experiences are for God, not for impressing other Christians; what other Christians need is me and my mates thinking straight, being wise and sensible.'

Perhaps Paul is also thinking of the power games which his opponents are engaged in when they continue to assert their superiority over Paul and his team. He will have none of it. What motivates Paul is 'the love of Christ' (14). In particular Paul understands the love of Christ as that which led Christ to die 'for all' (x2 in 14-15).

'therefore all have died' (14) then means that the fate of all is now exposed: people die but now this does not have to be the end: 'And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves' (15).

In turn, this means that Paul can no longer 'regard [anyone] from a human point of view' (16). That point of view means that we understand human beings as finite beings. Even Christ was once regarded in that way. But the resurrection blows that boundedness of life away. Christ can no longer be viewed as only a finite human and no one else can be either.

Boom! Verse 17 is the climax of this part of the argument: infinite possibilities now exist for humans who are 'in Christ': 'So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed aay; see, everything has become new!'

Mark 4:26-34

One gospel reading, (possibly) three sermons?

- There is parable 1 about the kingdom, 26-29, effectively on 'the way the kingdom grows';
- then parable 2 about the kingdom, 30-32, also about the growth of the kingdom, and we must ask, are the two parables saying the same thing with different illustrations, or do the differences speak of differences in the way the kingdom grows?
- Then there is a passage, 33-34, which speaks about parables themselves.

Let's see what we can make of these three parts to this gospel passage ...

Both parables, 26-29 and 30-32 tell us that the kingdom of God is something that grows, bigger and bigger (particularly emphasised in 30-32) and in a manner which, like a seed growing to a stalk with a head which may be harvested, is unknown to the ordinary person going about their ordinary routines of life.

Choosing to retell these parables several or even many decades after Jesus first told them, Mark is telling his readers (likely a long way from Galilee and Judea) that when they see many Christians around them, they are seeing something which Jesus foretold. They are the sign that these parables are true, just as we in NZ, many years later and even further away from Galilee and Judea, are also a sign of the growth of the stalk towards harvest and of the mustard seed into a large shrub.

We might usefully ask ourselves, however, if we live in a place, such as NZ, where the church is declining in numbers, "What is going on?" One answer could be that the kingdom of God is not the same as the church (so God's kingdom work may be growing even when numbers gathering to be the church are declining). Another answer could be that the church needs to do even more and better soul searching than it currently is, about the reasons for decline and the possibilities for growth.

The first part of v.33 makes a very interesting observation: Jesus spoke many parables but Mark only tells us a few.

Is Mark generally saying that there is a whole lot of other material he knows exists but does not have access to, or is he saying that he is deliberately not giving us all the parables of Jesus he does have access to?

If the latter, then some scholars go further and propose that Mark was written after Matthew and Luke's gospels and chooses not to reproduce all their parables in his gospel (known as the Griesbach Hypothesis).

Verses 34 then tell us that Jesus spoke only parables to the crowds ('as they were able to hear it', 33) but offers interpretation of the parables to the disciples 'in private' (34). This is consistent with a point made earlier in the chapter (10-13).

It is, I suggest, something of a mystery that Jesus would not interpret the parables to the crowds. It cannot be, for instance, that there was an ultimate secret hidden in them, for anyone now reading Mark's Gospel can share the secret meaning of the parables with the disciples to whom Jesus revealed it. Indeed, it is not as though the parables without interpretation are completely opaque. Today's parables, for instance, are reasonably straightforward to understand.

The point (it seems, as many scholars agree) is that Jesus is asking for intention and application in hearing. Already, as we read in 4:9, 23 'Let anyone with ears to hear listen' and in 4:24 'Pay attention to what you hear', Jesus has urged perseverance in listening. The word of God (20, 33) is worth pursuing for it yields a rich reward. Effectively Mark presents Jesus' teaching here as demanding. The attentive ears of believers will understand. The inattentive ears of unbelievers will not understand.

Even though the disciples are given an 'extra grace' of Jesus' own interpretation, they too need to press on, in order to grasp and preserve the truth (25).

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Sunday 10 June 2018 - 10th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Family values (?) / Kingdom life / Hope / The weight of glory

Sentence: For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Collect:

Christ our Redeemer,
you have crushed the serpent's head;
you have freed us from our sin;
rescue all your suffering world from the evil
that attracts us still. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

Comments:

Genesis 3:8-15

When we meet in the gospel reading the scribes who are accusing Jesus of being Beelzebub/Satan, and we find Jesus rebutting their accusations with talk about Satan not working against Satan, we are connecting with a strand through the Bible in which an individual figure (the serpent, Satan, the devil, Beelzebub) antagonises both God and humanity.

In this passage we read of God consigning the serpent who has deceived Adam and Eve to a position of being 'cursed' and at 'enmity' with humanity (14-15). A prophesied result of this enmity is that an offspring of the woman 'will strike your head, and you will strike his heal' (15), a prophecy Christians understand to have been fulfilled in the death of Jesus on the cross, an event in which the 'Christus Victor', though killed (the striking of the heel) defeats Satan (the striking of the head).

Psalm 130

The psalmist expresses a theology of hope, in keeping with our epistle reading!

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Paul's theological writing hits a purple patch in 2 Corinthians 4-5. He uses metaphors rich in emotional warmth and eternal vision. He lays open the gracious, reconciling heart of God. He recounts the utter privilege of being a servant of the lovely and loving Lord of all.

Our verses here express the centre of Christian hope, 'because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence' (14). That is the gospel! But Paul goes on to make a further point about the goodness of the gospel: it is not for a select group but for 'more and more people' (15).

What Paul then says, from his heart, as one who has suffered for the gospel, both through beatings and deprivations such as imprisonment, speaks to all of us, even those who live a safe life but find our bodies weakening with age and infirmity. 'Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day' (16).

Elaborating on this theme in verses 17 and 18, also 5:1, Paul lays out a theology of suffering: what happens in this life to us is a 'slight momentary affliction' which prepares us 'for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure' (17). This theology of suffering is simultaneously a theology of hope (especially verse 18, see also 5:2-5). The best is yet to be and that best is our hope (since we cannot yet see it and experience it), a hope which enables us to live with our afflictions.

Mark 3:20-35

This passage is framed (i.e. beginning and ending) by references to Jesus' family. In the middle is some tricky material about Satan and the Holy Spirit. Jesus may even be mad. Fasten your seatbelts, the exegetical ride could be wild!

If we remember that each gospel writer needs to explain why the good Jesus dies the death of a criminal, the larger story in Mark 3 is of signs of opposition to the ministry of the good Jesus. (These signs begin earlier, as we saw in last week's reading from Mark 2). He heals a man, but its timing, the Sabbath, excites controversy (1-6). The ministry continues (7-12) and Jesus chooses his team of key potential leaders (13-19).

'Then he went home' (19b). As we begin this week's reading at v. 20, we might expect a bit of R & R for Jesus, but the crowd presses in (20) and his family, perhaps hearing of strange incidents such as reported in verse 11, seek him out 'to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind".' (21) (This statement may reflect an insight often found when we meet a 'mad genius': we think them mad, later recognition of their achievements makes them a genius in everyone's eyes. But it may also simply reflect people's surprise that the ordinary Jesus of Nazareth they had known for 30 odd years was now doing extraordinary things).

To this mix of support and opposition from his own family, we now find added the deprecatory criticism of 'the scribes who came down from Jerusalem' (22) in which they allege that "He had Beelzebub ..." (22).

Jesus responds to this criticism (and, by implication, also to the views influencing his family at this time). To the scribes he offers parables in reply (23-27), all of which are variations on the theme "How can Satan cast out Satan?" (23). (By implication he is saying to his family, "How can a mad man speak so much sense?)

Verses 28-30 are challenging. Jesus appears to engage in a (form of) counter-attack against the scribes: what you are saying is unforgivable! The challenge is at least twofold. First, what is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Secondly, why can this sin not be forgiven? (Especially when Jesus has just said that blasphemies generally speaking can be forgiven and sins generally speaking are forgiven).

The words in verses 30 certainly imply something about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that wrongly discerning the spirit at work in Jesus and wrongly naming that spirit is an attack on the Holy Spirit.

What have the scribes actually done? They have failed to discern the work of God in and through Jesus. Their ascription of this work to Satan is 'an eternal sin' (29) in at least this sense: their minds are closed to who God is and what God does and thus they have shut themselves off from God for ever. This sin can never be forgiven because it is not repented of.

Finally, in verses 31-35, we return to the framing narratives of the passage,* as Jesus' family reappears. His mother and his brothers are near at hand and ask for him to step outside the crowd around him to speak with them.

Jesus takes the opportunity to make a point - a teachable moment - and asks the crowd who his mother and brothers really are. The answer: 'Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother' (35).

This is challenging teaching, whichever way we look at it. First, Jesus relativises the importance of family. The kingdom family, the doers of the will of God, is more important to him than his natural family. (When Christians today yearn for 'family values', what do we mean?) Secondly, Jesus absolutizes the importance of doing God's will. There are no options here such as doing God's will when it suits us, let alone doing God's will providing it doesn't clash with Grandad's birthday. What value do we place on doing God's will?

Across the whole of the passage Mark is driving forward his understanding of who Jesus Christ is: the Son of God, the Antagonist of Satan, the Interrupter of Jerusalem based religious power.

*Another way of describing the sequence in this passage of family-scribal debate-family is to talk of Markan sandwiches, or, if we want a word of more than three syllables, intercalation. When reading through Mark's Gospel there are many such sandwiches. Have fun spotting them!

Friday, May 25, 2018

Te Pouhere Sunday - 3rd June 2018 [9th Ordinary]

This year Te Pouhere Sunday is also the 9th Ordinary Sunday.
Unfortunately I do not have time to offer notes for the Ordinary Sunday readings, only for the Te Pouhere readings.

For convenience I list the readings (related) for the 9th Ordinary Sunday, then the readings etc with notes for Te Pouhere Sunday.

9th Ordinary Sunday

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Psalm 81:1-10
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23-3:6

Added, Sunday 3 June 2018: Mark 2:23-3:6: there is a lot in this passage. It is Mark 2 but already the ending of Jesus life and ministry is part of the story of his ministry. What is the opposition which a few ears of grain and a healing generates? Why? Who benefits? Clearly the mix of Jesus' action and speaking about the Sabbath (perhaps also the popular response to his doing good) is threatening to those who begin to plot Jesus' downfall. Presumably those threatened have power if not control in Jewish society. The conspiracy with the Herodians suggests this power is more than religious power, it is also political power. Is Jesus over a religious teaching unleashing fear of breakdown in social order? Is there something we modern readers are missing?

Then there is the question for us modern readers who have our own rules and regulations about things, including unwritten rules about the way things should be done around here, which concerns how we both make those rules and how we understand those rules in relation to God's purposes for humankind. Is Jesus offering us a hermeneutical model for understanding God's revelation for our lives (i.e. a way of approaching challenging issues about which rules we need to follow and which we do not need to)?

Finally, for 2018, how radical are the implications of what Jesus does when he turns the Sabbath keeping from a rule-focus to a human-focus?

Te Pouhere Sunday

Te Pouhere Sunday (i.e. celebration and commemoration of the three tikanga constitution of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia).

Sentence: Galatians 3:28

Collect:

God of our faith, 
strengthen our Church 
as it seeks to show your love in the ministry of its three tikanga. 
Make us bold to seek new ways to best serve you, 
showing your boundless love as you have shown through Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Readings:

Isaiah 42:10-20
2 Corinthians 5:14-19
John 15:9-17

Comments: these are shaped towards and by 'Te Pouhere'

Isaiah 42:10-20

This chapter begins one of the so-called 'servant songs' in Isaiah, songs which look to the coming anointed suffering servant of God who will be instrumental in bringing God's plan for the world to fulfilment. Christian understand the servant to be Jesus Christ.

These verses call for praise and glory to be given to God (10-13)  because God is about to perform a great reversal. Darkness will be turned into light (16). Those who trust in images will be put to shame (17).

(Verses 18-20, frankly, are difficult to understand unless we read through to the end of v. 25. The gist is that Israel in rebellion is like a deaf and blind person - one who cannot discern where they are going - and will be punished by the Lord. But the hint here is that the Lord's messenger/servant (19) will identify with Israel. In further servant passages in Isaiah, the hint will be broadened to include the notion that the servant saves Israel).

A question for Te Pouhere Sunday observers is whether the constitution of our church,  and the way we express our allegiance to it, is a means for God to do a new thing, including a reversal of the typical outcomes of multiple cultures being part of one body, in which one culture dominates and the others become subservient.

2 Corinthians 5:14-19

There is an obvious sense in which this passage is chosen for Te Pouhere Sunday: a day in which we engage with the reality of our life as a three tikanga church is a day in which we encounter the true state of reconciliation between the three tikanga. This passage talks about the 'ministry of reconciliation' in the apostolic mission of the church (19b).

Yet we need to read the passage carefully enough to recognise that the primary focus of talk of reconciliation is between God and the world (18, 19a, 20). Paul's ministry of reconciliation means his message is 'we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God' (20).

What then of the relevance of this passage for Te Pouhere? Three brief observations:

1. Our constitution is first and foremost a document expressing our relationship to God as God's church.
2. Our ability to be reconciled with one another is enhanced by being first reconciled with God, not least because knowing that God has forgiven us much (see how much in verse 21) empowers us to forgive others (e.g. Luke 7:36-50).
3. From this passage (i.e. to end of 2 Corinthians 5), Paul easily begins speaking of life in the church: 'As we work together with him' (6:1).

John 15:9-17

In the end, the life of our church is commanded by Christ to be a life of love. 'This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you' (12, see also 17). When we ask about the meaning of Te Pouhere, the Jesus of John's Gospel wants us to ask whether Te Pouhere deepens our love for one another.

What is our answer?

Postscript: our church's website even gives a sermon for Te Pouhere Sunday, albeit one that should be adapted by the preacher for this year and the preacher's specific context!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Trinity Sunday - 27 May 2018

Theme(s): Trinity/God is Three yet One/God is Father Son and Holy Spirit/The Triune God

Sentence: You, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. (Lamentations 5:19)

Collect: God of unchangeable power,
you have revealed yourself
to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
keep us firm in this faith
that we may praise and bless your holy name;
for you are one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Comments:

On Trinity Sunday we reflect on the nature of God as the church believes God has revealed God to be through Scripture, 'We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who in unity with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, and has spoken through the prophets.'

Isaiah 6:1-8

We can read this passage in various ways. It has been, for example, the text for many a service of commissioning for ministry and mission (noting verse 8 in particular). It is a passage which conveys the holy magnificence and magnificent holiness of God: 'the hem of his robe filled the temple' (1) speaks of magnificence and the cry of the seraphs in verse 3 underlines the depth of the holiness of God.

But how does this passage fit into thinking Trinitarian thoughts?

One way is to observe some unexpected features of the vision. First, Isaiah 'saw the Lord sitting on a throne' (1). Other parts of the OT suggest that God is unseeable, being wholly 'other' to us (which is one meaning of 'holy' or 'separate'). When Isaiah 'sees' the Lord he himself is surprised (5). Later, seeing the Unseeable (in the face of Jesus Christ) is a reality for Jesus' disciples (noting especially John 1:14-18). This vision, in other words, anticipates the later and greater surprise that God becomes Incarnate among us.

Secondly, the movement of the seraph from the heavenly throne to touch the mouth of Isaiah as part of his commissioning anticipates the sense that the Holy Spirit 'proceeds' from the heavenly throne to come towards and to dwell in humanity, assuring us of the cleansing of our sins and commissioning us for ministry.

Psalm 29

On one level this psalm praises God and that is what the church should do on a day such as this.

On another level, the focus in this psalm on the 'voice' of God performing might acts connects to the Trinity in this way. In ancient theological thinking the more God was thought of as 'wholly other' or absolutely separated from humanity and creation, the harder it was to then explain how God had any interaction with the world. One solution was to envisage an aspect of God which conveyed a sense of how God could reach out to the world while preserving the Otherness of God. For Hebrew thinking, convicted that God had spoken to Israel, the idea that the 'word' or 'wisdom' of God enacted certain things (e.g. speaking creation into being, Genesis 1) was such a resolution.

Here this kind of thinking envisages the 'voice' of God (obviously closely related to the 'word' of God) being the link between God and the world.

Later still, Christians trying to express the conviction that Christ was the embodiment of such a link, took over Hebrew thinking about 'voice', 'word' and 'wisdom' and made it their own as they began to articulate how Christ was identified with God.

Romans 8:12-17

Crudely we can observe this passage is 'Trinitarian' because it mentions the Spirit, the Father and Christ! Can we be a little more sophisticated?

Paul, writing to the Romans about life in the Spirit now that the gospel of Christ establishes that observance of the Law is no longer required in order to be saved, continues working through chapter 8 on what life in the Spirit means.

There is still a battle between good and evil in the life of the believer, but it is understood here in respect of living according to the flesh (essentially this is living a life centred on one's self and what serves one's selfish ends) or according to the Spirit (essentially living life by following the leading of the Spirit and by putting 'to death the deeds of the body') (verses 12-14).

In this context the Spirit of God is decisive concerning status before God: 'all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God' (14). The Christian life, in other words, involves a relationship with God via the Spirit of God, the Spirit of God being the presence of God in the life of the believer.

In verses 15-17 Paul develops the theme that this relationship with the Spirit is also a relationship with the Father (15-16). We are not 'children of God' in an abstract or general sense that we in some sense belong to God. Rather, God has adopted us as his children (15) which implies, incidentally, that not all humanity is automatically counted among the children of God. Further, in that same action we are able, through the Spirit, to address God as 'Abba! Father!' (15).

Two notes, before proceeding:

first, in times past (it seems to my memory) exegetes have made a lot of 'Abba' as a term of intimacy between father and child, more 'Daddy' than 'Father' and much less seems to be said about that today. (That may be because some scholars have challenged whether calling God 'Abba' was unique to Jesus himself). But Paul's invocation of 'Abba' in a letter to Christians in Greek speaking churches in Rome suggests he is invoking a special memory about Jesus' own address to God the Father. And Jesus was especially intimate - of course! - with the Father.

secondly, already we see a kind of 'cash value' to the doctrine of the Trinity: when we believe that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are not believing something about God-up-in-heaven-and-distant-from-us. We are believing something about God's involvement with us.

Let's proceed. Where does the Son fit into this passage on Trinity Sunday?

We have already met Christ the Son in Romans 8, for Christians are those 'in Christ Jesus' (1), freed from sin through God's own Son dealing with sin (2-3), and indwelt by the Spirit of God who is also the 'Spirit of Christ' (9). With that in the background, we come to verse 17 and read, 'if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ'

'Heirs' here refers to the promises made to Abraham (of receiving God's blessing), elucidated previously in Romans 4. As adopted children of God we not only have the privilege of praying to Abba, Father, we are also heirs of the promises of God. But, wait there is more. We are not heirs in a secondary sense, so that Christ is the true Son and heir and we are lesser heirs (in the sense that, say, the eldest son gets to inherit the family farm and the other siblings get a lesser cash settlement). No, Paul writes that we are 'heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ'. He writes this consistent with his understanding, e.g. in 8:1, that Christians are identified with Christ Jesus, we are 'in Christ'. That means that what Christ inherits, we inherit.

On Trinity Sunday when we celebrate the revelation that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we may also celebrate the extraordinary truth that we ourselves are being drawn into the life of the Triune God, since we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and identified with Christ the Son.

John 3:1-17

As with the passages above, we could read this passage in a variety of ways (not least as the passage which brings to us the 'most famous verse in the Bible', John 3:16). But here we are looking for the Trinitarian 'payload.'

First, note the references - implicit and explicit - to God as Spirit, Son and Father (2, 5-8, 13-14, 16-17.

Secondly, note the various works of the persons of the Trinity:
- the Spirit works on bringing new life to believers: 'no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit' (verse 5, see also verses 4, 6-8).
- God (the Father) gives and sends the Son into the world (16-17).
- the Son (of Man) descends from heaven (13) in order to be lifted up (i.e. crucified, 14), that 'whoever believes in him may have eternal life' (15) which means that the descent and lifting up of the Son of Man is the same action as God giving the Son out of love for the world (16) and God sending the Son in order that the world might be saved through him (17).

In other words,
if the doctrine of the Trinity is the church agreeing on what the Bible says and means about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or, perhaps better, the one God whom we encounter as Father, Son and Holy Spirit),
once again we see that this doctrine is not only about an abstract set of relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is also about how these three persons who constitute the one God have worked for our salvation:
the Father sends the Son to save the world, the Spirit enables people in the world to be born anew in order to enter into the fullness of the life of God (i.e. the kingdom of God).

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sunday 20 May 2018 - Pentecost

Theme(s): Holy Spirit / Spirit of truth and power / Power of the Spirit / Pouring out of the Spirit / New wine of the Spirit

Sentence: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (John 16:7)

Collect:

Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Your blessed anointing from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Overcome with eternal light
the dullness of our blinded sight. Amen. [Adapted].


Readings:

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104;24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Comments:

Acts 2:1-21

Luke tells the story of the day in which Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit coming with power was fulfilled. In turn this coming fulfilled an ancient prophecy in Joel. 

The Holy Spirit comes upon everyone (not just the apostles, not just on male disciples but on both women and men). They speak in other tongues, in languages which the multitude of Jews gathered in Jerusalem from around the world could understand: 'our own native language' (2:8).  

The import of this language fluency is that the Holy Spirit was promised by Jesus to give power to his followers so they could be 'my witnesses ... to the ends of the earth' (1:8). Jesus makes good that promise: his followers will be able to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth because they have the ability to testify to Jesus through receiving a supernatural gift.

The Holy Spirit both comes  on the gathered disciples (2:3) and fills them (2:4) meaning that the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers is overwhelming and complete: no aspect of life is untouched when God's Spirit comes into our lives.

Yet not all observers experience the same phenomenon as those receiving the Holy Spirit: 'others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine".' (2:12).

This accusation prompts an apologetic response at the beginning of Peter's sermon (2:14-16). No one is drunk, it is only 9 am in the morning, and let me remind you what the prophet Joel said! This is that (prophecy fulfilled), Peter argues.

This bold, courageous preaching Peter is a severe contrast to the Peter who denied his master three times. The most important outcome of the Holy Spirit working powerfully in our lives is that we are empowered to witness boldly for Jesus Christ.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Just one note here, pertaining to Pentecost. In verse 30 we read, 'When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.'

In the original creation the Spirit of God hovered over the deep. Here the psalmist acknowledges the continuing role of God through the Spirit in sustaining and caring for life.

Romans 8:22-27

In the context of the whole chapter Paul is expounding the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer, a role which is overwhelmingly life-giving (11-12). In today's verses Paul tackles the problem suffering - beginning at v. 18 - poses for his exposition of the life-giving Spirit. That is, Paul responds to the potential criticism of his eulogy of the life-giving power of the Spirit that suffering makes a mockery of the power of the Spirit to give life: Christians are persecuted, suffer illness and hardship and, of course, die: where is the life of the Spirit?

'Potential' might be a good summary word for verses 18-21: there is suffering, Paul acknowledges, but it is not worth comparing to the future 'glory about to be revealed to us' (18b).

At the beginning of our passage Paul develops the theme begun in verses 20-21 that suffering is anchored in the 'bondage to decay' of creation itself (21). In verses 22-23 Paul links creation's desire to escape the bondage to decay, via a change of metaphor to 'groaning in labour pains', with our desire for future fulfilment: 'but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies' (23).

In other words, the Spirit giving us life now is giving us a foretaste of what is to come. (If we are brutally honest, this is not obvious from reading what Paul says in verses 1-17, noting what Paul says there about 'adoption' - without qualification - and what he says in verse 23 about waiting for adoption).

Thus the Christian experience of the Spirit is both one of enjoying the foretaste (verses 1-17) and waiting patiently and hopefully for what is to come (24-25).

In a sense, we are in a weak state relative to a future strong, if not perfect state. So Paul goes back to the Spirit and what the Spirit does for us now when he writes in verse 26, 'Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness ...' The remainder of verse 26 and verse 27 spells out a specific work of the Spirit in the here and now of living in creation subject to bondage to decay: the Spirit works deep within us to enable us to 'pray as we ought' which is according to 'the will of God'.

But note an important point about the Spirit's work within us: the Spirit does not enable us to pray as we ought, but intercedes for us as ought to be the case, that is, 'the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God' (27).

Such prayers cannot fail! 

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

There are three important approaches to understanding the work of the Holy Spirit within our readings today. 

(1) There is the Lukan theology represented in the Acts reading in which the Holy Spirit powerfully propels the mission of Jesus forward by filling the disciples with the power at work in Jesus, making them brave and able to proclaim the gospel.

(2) There is the Pauline theology represented in the Romans reading in which the Holy Spirit works within the depths of believers to enable their journey from creation and its sufferings to a new creation and its blessings to be completed successfully.

(3) There is the Johannine theology represented in this reading in which the Holy Spirit as both Advocate (Comforter/Paraclete/Helper) and Spirit of truth does the following:

- testifies on behalf of Jesus (26)
- (implied but not quite made explicit) will act as though Jesus is still with the disciples (note 4b)
- will 'prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment' (8-10)
- will 'guide [the disciples] into all the truth ... speak whatever he hears .... declare to you the things that are to come' (13)
- will 'glorify' Jesus (14).

Each of these works of the Holy Spirit coheres with Lukan and Pauline theologies of the Holy Spirit (though I won't explain how here - causa brevitatis) save to note, as one example of each, the way in which 'declare to you the things that are to come' fits with Paul in our Romans' passage and testifies on behalf of Jesus fits with our Acts' passage.

We might wonder what verses 8-10 mean since the claim seems extraordinary concerning 'the world'. One insight which might begin an explanation I won't attempt to complete here is a sense in John's Gospel that, just as Jesus himself is put on trial in chapter 18, so Jesus puts the whole world on trial through his coming into the world. The world rejects Jesus (see the Prologue in John 1) and thus the world is placed on trial, charged with that rejection. The Spirit's work in the world, in part, is to convict the world that it is guilty as charged.

The claim in verse 13 is also one which many ponder. Is Jesus saying that there are all sorts of hidden, undisclosed revelations which he has not given the disciples but which the Spirit will later reveal to them? (Thus, to give a contemporary example, some say that the church ought to support same sex marriage because the Spirit is now leading us into this truth as part of 'all the truth' hitherto not revealed). 

Or, is Jesus saying that the Spirit of truth will lead the disciples into a deeper and more complete understanding of what Jesus has already revealed? That is, the Spirit's role is one of clarifying and developing what is partially understood - a point worth considering if only because in the gospel (in each of the gospels) the disciples are often quite boneheaded about what Jesus is saying to them!

We could also consider the option that 'all the truth' is both clarifying the already revealed and revealing the undisclosed.

What did Jesus mean? A simple application of logic to the situation yields the unexpected conclusion that Jesus would not contradict himself so that whatever the Spirit reveals to the disciples will be consistent with Jesus' (already revealed) teaching, 'for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears' (13). 'Whatever he hears' will be whatever the Spirit hears the Father and the Son saying.

A clue that this is the right line of understanding comes from considering John's Gospel itself. Compared to the three Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, is John's very different Gospel a new revelation of the Spirit or a deeper insight into the revelation of Jesus found in the three earlier gospels?

If we answer Yes to the former then we inevitably head in a Gnostic (i.e. new knowledge) direction and are powerless to resist the logic of (say) Mormonism or Islam which each claim new revelation from God which goes beyond the Bible. If we say No to the former and Yes to the latter then we inevitably head in the direction the church historically did head in: towards the encapsulation of the meaning of Jesus Christ for the world in the words of the Creeds, that is, towards orthodox Christian belief.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sunday 6 May and Sunday 13 May 2018 - Easter 6 and Ascension Day transferred

[I am posting two Sundays together because my presence at General Synod is going to be a squeeze on time next Monday.]

SUNDAY 6 MAY 2018 - Easter 6

Theme(s): Love / Service / Divine Friendship / Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Sentence: You are my friends if you do what I command you (John 15:14)

Collect:

Almighty God,
you teach us in your word
that love is the fulfilling of the law:
grant that we may love you with all our heart
and our neighbours as ourselves;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Comments:

Acts 10:44-48

We have not read the 'backstory' to this passage, that is, the story of Cornelius and Peter, the story of the Jewish Peter's reservations that God might work in the lives of Gentiles such as Cornelius being broken down.

Verse 44 begins with Peter still delivering his message after meeting with Cornelius (a meeting, so to speak, by divine appointment). Perhaps God is a little impatient with Peter's exposition because we read, 'While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.'

In the context of Acts, the falling of the Holy Spirit (or pouring of the Holy Spirit, 45) on people is a decisive indication that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been believed and received by its hearers. So Luke is communicating to his readers that the gospel has now 'jumped the barrier' between Jews and Gentiles.

Question: How did those present know the Holy Spirit had come upon these uncircumcised believers (compare 45a)?
Answer: 'for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God' (46).

We could reserve a discussion about speaking in tongues for a seminar on a Saturday rather than trying to deal with it within a sermon, but the point could be made that the coming of the Spirit is not about some vague action by God which we hardly know we have experienced.

Peter then asks why baptism with water cannot now proceed (47) and so it does (48). Note that the 'receiving' of the Holy Spirit following by baptism - we could even say, the baptism of the Holy Spirit followed by baptism with water - is not an absolute order which we must follow. The reverse order, for example, is seen in Acts 8:1-16. God wishes us to be both baptised in water and in the Holy Spirit. The order does not matter but the combination is vital.

Psalm 98

This is a great song of praise. We should say it with gusto, chant it with passion, and (if possible, perhaps via a modern hymnic version) sing it strongly.

1 John 5:1-6

John continues his letter of assurance (this is the truth about God and God's children) and argument (against the secessionists from this community, he argues that the true church is this way and not their way).

We - assuming we are not facing off secessionists challenging our understanding of church - read these verses primarily as a summary of the way of God for God's people: we are defined by belief in Jesus as the Christ of God, we love God and God's son Jesus, and we obey God's commandments. But we might be puzzled by verses 4-6! (See below).

The original readers, however, likely read these verses as a stirring challenge to those who challenged them about what the true Christians faith was all about. John underlines that it concerns the fact that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, that this belief (and only this belief) is the cornerstone of new life in God ('born of God', 1). Further, true Christians are marked by their love for other Christians (1-2) - something the secessionists were not living up to as their act of secession showed hatred for fellow Christians.

Verses 4-5 imply that in the background were assertions by the secessionists about what led Christians to victory over 'the world' (i.e. over the tempting and evil ways of the world in which the Christians lived (e.g. 2:15-17). John teaches that victory does not come from (here we guess a little) believing extra things about God or Jesus or seceding from the church (into an exclusive group living in isolation from the world?). Rather, victory comes from being a Christian (one who is born of God, who has faith in Jesus Christ, who believes the basic creed about Jesus, that Jesus is the Christ (1) and Jesus is the Son of God (5).

Verse 6 then offers some further detail about the content of belief in Jesus as the Son of God: this Jesus is the one who died a real death on a real cross - a death which issued in blood and water from Jesus' side - a true historical fact which is understood theologically as an atoning death (see 2:1-4). All this is testified by 'the Spirit' perhaps implying that the greater teaching of John, embedded in the Gospel of John, forms part of the teaching which is true, teaching authenticated by the Spirit of God.

John 15:9-17

These verses constitute something of a summary of what Jesus has been teaching from the moment he picked up a bowl of water and a towel and began teaching his disciples about the way of serving love (John 13).

The first verses pick up the theme of abiding, already brought out in 15:1-8. One emphasis here is on the visible actions of the one who claims to abide in Christ: such a disciple obeys Christ's commandments. We cannot say we abide in Christ and refuse (say) to serve other Christians in practical loving actions - a theme developed in 1 John.

Verses 12 onwards take up the teaching about the command to love one another, even to the point of laying down one's life for one's friends. If chapter 13 has emphasised the character of disciples as servants, these verses take the theme of servanthood in a new direction, to a new dimension: servants of Christ who enact his servanthood are in fact 'friends' of Christ. They are 'friends' rather than 'servants' because one aspect of servanthood is ignorance of the master's plans. But Jesus servants disciples now know everything which is in his mind, so they are friends and not servants.

'Everything' is everything which the Father has revealed to Jesus (15). In part this is a claim that through the gospel we are reading, we are learning all that God has revealed through Jesus. In another part, this is a claim against those peddling the claim that there is additional revelation from God, not revealed to or through Jesus, but now available through (false) teachers and prophets: No!, John says through Jesus' words, Everything we need to know about God and God's ways is fully and finally revealed through Jesus' own teaching.

Verse 16 has been of great encouragement to people in ministry through the centuries. Am I persisting in what seems an unrewarding task in God's name? Jesus' answer: 'You did not choose me, but I chose you.' We are always in ministry of the gospel because Christ's hand has taken hold of us, because Christ has called us. If we have not chosen to serve God we cannot choose not to serve God. When God through Christ chooses us for service, we have no choice!

With the reference to 'fruit' in the second part of verse 16, we are back thematically with the vine and the branches.

SUNDAY 13 MAY 2018 - Ascension Day (transferred)

I suspect most readers/users of these notes will follow the Ascension Day (Thursday 10 May) readings on this Sunday.

Theme                  Christ risen, ascended and glorified        

Sentence             Lift up your heads you gates! Lift yourselves up you everlasting doors! That the king of glory may come in. (Psalm 24:7) [NZPB, p. 601]

Collect                  Eternal God,
                                By raising Jesus from the dead
                                You proclaimed his victory,
                                And by his ascension
                                You declared him king.
                                Lift up your hearts to heaven
                                That we may live and reign with him. Amen [NZPB, p. 601] 

Readings:

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

Comments:

Introduction: this post takes no view on whether Ascension Day should be celebrated on Ascension Day or the Sunday after Ascension Day. It does however deal with Ascension Day readings on the basis that, most likely, Ascension Day is being celebrated on the Sunday afterwards. That seems to be the custom these days.

Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53

(I do not think this need be brought into a sermon, but it is fascinating to see how Luke deals with the last event in Jesus' physical presence on earth in his two texts, the ending of the gospel and the beginning of Acts. There are similarities and there are differences.)

In 'big picture' (or 'big theme') terms, each passage conveys two messages: the gospel mission of Jesus must now spread throughout the world, but first new empowerment through the Holy Spirit must come upon the disciples.

The 'event' in each passage is the departure, depicted physically as an 'ascent', of Jesus from the disciples. Never again, save in episodic visionary experiences will they see their Lord again.

Where does Jesus go to? Both texts answer "heaven". Later, Peter, in his Pentecost Day sermon will add "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33). 

Obviously the physical talk of upwards travel to a place beyond the observable world of earth-and-space both assumes and contributes to an understanding that "heaven" is above us. 

It also offers a physical image to match the increase in glory and honour implicit in the idea that Jesus is now 'exalted' to the right hand of God (i.e. seated on a throne on the right side of the divine throne).

Ascension then is a celebration of both departure and exaltation, of the physical loss of Jesus to his followers and of the triumphant gain of Jesus exalted to glory in the realm of heaven. 

With exaltation the victory won in the resurrection, the defeat of the power of death as the last enemy against humanity is completed. 

With departure the door is open to a new history of God being present among God's people, God the Holy Spirit will dwell among them.

Yet this event is also about us. The departure of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit to come in power is integrated with the great commission. 

We misunderstand Ascension and its importance if we think of it as (say) a postscript to the life of Jesus, or a snapshot of the glory of the exalted Jesus. 

Ascension is also the beginning of a new era in our history, the time when we are responsible for the continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ. 

Luke in both texts is keenly alert to this point. If (as some scholars of Luke's writings have supposed) Jesus has come in the middle of history, then we are now in its last period. That this is so, according to Luke, is underlined in Acts 1:11. Jesus has departed, but he will return.

Psalm 47

This is a fitting song of praise to God on this festive occasion.

Ephesians 1:15-23

Obviously verse 20 in this passage links the text to the theme of 'exaltation' which is an important aspect of the theology of Ascension.

The passage is part of a long introduction to the epistle in which Paul sets out a profound set of insights into salvation, Christ, Christ's relationship to those who believe in him, and the great purpose of God being worked out through history - all given in the context of prayer and thanksgiving for his readers.

There is a sermon in every verse of this passage!