Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday 26 October 2014 - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Loving God, loving neighbour // The Great Commandment //

Sentence: Love your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)

Collect: (used with Permission Rev Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )

Forgiving God,
your covenant is firm;
be merciful to us,
and grant us to live in your presence, ever singing your praise;
with Jesus, the Way,
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Readings:

OT (continuous): Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (not commented on below)
OT (related): Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm (continuous): Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 (not commented on below)
Psalm (related): Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Comments:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

This reading gives the context for the 'second commandment' (see gospel reading below): love your neighbour as yourself. Israel is to be holy (1-2) yet also kind to the poor (9-10), respectful of neighbours (including, by not stealing from them or lying about them, 11-14). Holy Israel is to treat people justly, especially 'neighbours' (15-16) and lovingly (with a love that forbids hatred yet may reprove, 17-18).

Thinking along these lines, 'love your neighbour as yourself' (18) is a neat summing up of what has gone before and a handy guide to general conduct: since we treat ourselves justly, even generously, do not defraud ourselves, occasionally reprove ourselves and often speak well of ourselves (see verses 9-18) we can safely say that for other aspects of life, what we would do to ourselves is a benchmark for the way we should love our neighbours.

Psalm 1

Given the use of Psalm 110 in the gospel reading below, it may be surprising that Psalm 1 is the 'related' psalm for today. This psalm speaks of two approaches to the law, one affirming and obedient, the other denying and disobedient. From that perspective common ground with the reading lies in Jesus affirmation of the two greatest commandments as a summary of the law and the prophets.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Paul reminisces about his gospel ministry among the Thessalonian Christians but this is scarcely an exercise in nostalgia as he laces his memories with theological affirmations.

Three matters stand out:

Paul and his companions preached the gospel to obey and honour God. Convinced that this was their calling (as the sent ones or apostles of Christ, see 'apostles of Christ', v. 7), they preached in the face of opposition (2, 4, 8).

Their preaching was from pure motives (including pleasing God) and their content and style avoided pleasing men and women ahead of honouring God (4, 6).

Their preaching ministry was pastoral (7b) and personal (8b). While the content of their message - entrusted to them by God (4) - was important, their role was not simply to impart a set of words. They cared for their hearers (7b) and they engaged with them in such a way that they shared their lives with them (8b).

Matthew 22:34-46

Jesus turns the tables on his interlocutors!

Matthew 23 will  be the damning conclusion (against the scribes and Pharisees) of this part of the gospel which has seen an ongoing series of traps set for Jesus, each of which he springs free from. In this last part of chapter 22 there is a final question from the Pharisees (22:34-39, after a failed attempt from the Sadducees, not part of this sequence in the lectionary, 22:23-33). Then Jesus himself poses a question to the Pharisees (22:40-46).

The question put to Jesus scarcely holds any traps (36) and Jesus answers it not only with ease but with an irrefutable simplicity: the greatest commandment is this ... a second great commandment is that ... (37-39). To this day this 'summary of the Law' is imprinted on the minds of most Christians. It reflects a simple but important division of perspectives, upwards (to God) and outwards (to others).

What might be useful in our reflections via a sermon is less pondering on these two commandments as a summary of 'the law' (40) and more thought on these two commandments as something on which 'hang' both 'the law and the prophets' (40).

One thought is this: 'the law and the prophets' is effectively a summary of what we now call 'the Old Testament' (including Psalms and wisdom literature). Jesus - the biblical interpreter par excellence - is saying that the summary of the whole of the OT consists of these two commandments.

Given that some biblical scholars argue that there is no 'centre' to the OT nor overarching thematic structure (which is true to a considerable extent), nevertheless the greatest OT scholar of them all is saying, the diversity of the OT is unified around these two points.

The first part of our gospel reading is remarkably clear, memorable and straightforward to explain. The second part (41-46), much less so because it involves some riddle wordplay around the words 'Lord/lord'.

In this part of the dialogue Jesus has gone on the offensive: he asks the questions of his questioners.

What he is trying to draw out from them is recognition that the Messiah is God's Son as well as David's son (i.e. descendant of David). When they are answer his question with 'The son of David', they answer correctly, competently and incompletely.

Jesus draws their attention to Psalm 110:1. Jesus knows that they know this text, but it seems to have slipped from their memories. This text makes the unexpected point - when sons normally defer to their fathers and not the other way around - that David says that the Lord (God) addressed his son as 'my Lord'.

When Jesus asks the pointed question which challenges the incompleteness of their first answer (45), the Pharisees do what many a politician does in an interview: 'duck for cover'!

For Christian readers of Matthew's Gospel there was no need for Matthew to explain the citation from Psalm 110 any further. This psalm was a favourite 'Messianic Psalm' of the early church which often drew on it to expound the relationship between Jesus and God (see also Acts 2:34,35; Hebrews 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 10:13).








Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sunday 19 October 2014 - 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Pay your taxes! / Give to God what is God's / The power of God's Word

Sentence: The gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (1 Thessalonians 1:5)

Collect: (used with permission of Rev. Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )

Holy One,
nameless, you stay with us;
even when we wrestle in the darkness
may we never lose heart
until your justice is fulfilled;
through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer,
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God,  now  and for ever.
Amen.

Readings (Related):

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Comments:

Isaiah 45:1-7

When Jesus says in the gospel reading today that it is ok to pay to Caesar taxes required by Caesar, he stands in a theological tradition in which this Isaianic passages plays a role: ungodly rulers serve God's purposes, they may even be described by the Lord God as 'his anointed' (1).

The whole passage makes clear that the Cyruses of this world are (in a sense) mere pawns in the great chessboard of God's plans. Would that megalomaniacal rulers understood how puny they are compared to the one God ruling over the universe.

Psalm 96:1-9

If we start by contemplating the might of mighty rulers, and then (in accord with ancient world views) consider the 'gods' who allegedly empower those rules (4-5), we - who understand that such gods are 'idols' - may praise God with greater joy for there is only one God, the Lord who 'made the heavens' (5).

With a nod to our gospel reading and Jesus' affirmation that what belongs to God should be given to God, note that our praise to God should not only be words but also come with an 'offering' presented in his 'courts' (8).

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

This letter is widely accepted as the first of Paul's letters to be written. It is a team effort, coming from 'Paul, Silvanus and Timothy' (1).

As with other Pauline letters, the beginning here is marked by thankfulness. The writers use the opportunity to tell their recipients that they thank God for them to also tell why they thank God.

If this Pauline team were writing to our church - perhaps after a parish review - would they be able to say of us what they say here?

Note the way in which the 'history' of the Thessalonian church, including the progress of the gospel among the members of the congregation (5, 9b), their 'imitative' discipleship (6a), their experience of persecution (6b), and their spreading reputation (7-9a), is woven together with 'theology' of Christian living and church life.

That is, note the important theological triad of faith, love and hope (3), the role of God in 'choosing' them to become his 'beloved' (4), the correlation in true preaching of the gospel between 'word', 'power', 'Holy Spirit', and 'conviction' (5), along with characteristics of reception of the gospel, 'joy inspired by the Holy Spirit' (6b), changed lives (7-9), as well as a new horizon for the future (9) and, finally, the Christology which affirms Jesus as 'Son' whom God 'raised from the dead' and the saviour 'who rescues us from the wrath that is coming' (9).

Perhaps all is well in our church and we can receive this passage as an endorsement of the work of God in our midst.

Perhaps all is not well in our church. How might we receive this passage?

On the one hand, could it be that we need a renewal of the basics of Christian life? A renewal of vital faith, energetic love and patient hope? Could a key to that renewal be a renewal of the importance of preaching as preaching of God's powerful, convicting, Holy Spirit inspired and illuminated word?

On the other hand, could it be that, unconsciously, we have reversed the course of conversion. We have turned back from God to 'idols' (9b)? We may need to identify what have become idols in our particular congregational life, but once identified we can turn again to the living and true God.

Matthew 22:15-22

I wonder how many preachers this Sunday will be bold enough to firmly and loudly urge their congregations to pay all their taxes and with the same earnestness and enthusiasm that they obey all the other commands of our Lord!

Yet, seriously, one of the applications of today's passage is: pay your taxes!

How do we get to that application?

Jesus is continuing a series of exchanges with religious leaders. If he is not provoking them, they are provoking him. Keen to get rid of him, they have tried to trap him. Today's trap is particularly vicious as a wrong answer on tax to be paid to Rome could see Jesus going straight to a Roman court with no need for the extraordinary persuasion exercise Israel's leaders would eventually have to engage in so that Rome could do their dirty work for them.

Remembering that the Israel of Jesus was a theocracy wrapped inside an autocracy, with the extra layer of local hegemony via Herodian rulers (of different parts of Israel) wrapping round the theocracy and helping the Roman emperor to exercise his power, we note the trap is set by a group of Pharisees as well as some Herodians (15-16). Pharisees, let's recall, were keen to live out the law of God, determined to be faithful to God while under the thumb of Roman and Herodian rule, yet resisted temptation to isolate themselves monastically (as the Essenes did, in the desert) as well as to ingratiate themselves with the rulers (as the Sadducees did, via Israel's leadership through priesthood and Sanhedrin [council]). The very fact that the disciples of the Pharisees combined with the Herodians in this entrapment tells us that significant issues were at stake politically and religiously.

The wrong answer, Jesus, re tax to Caesar and the Herodians will be off to Pilate quick as a flash.
The wrong answer, Jesus, re giving to God and the Pharisees will be off somewhere (making mischief with the crowds, perhaps?).

The question itself is a Pharisaical question because it is framed in terms of what is 'lawful' (17). It is a good question, almost a clever question, because it asks Jesus as a 'rabbi' or 'teacher' (16) to give a legal ruling which, in turn, invites Rabbi Jesus to engage with the Law of Moses, a set of rules with lots to say about giving to God, making offerings to God, including, of course, the giving of tithes to God. In the theocracy presupposed by the Law, nothing is said about paying taxes to foreign rulers of Israel.

Thus the trap in the question is twofold. A simple 'Yes' it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor would mean a denial of the Law of Moses in favour of obedience to imperial law. A simple 'No' it is not lawful to pay such taxes could have been an assertion of the Mosaic Law's authority over Roman law but the Pharisees would not have wasted time complimenting Jesus on his rabbinical faithfulness. A quick nod of their heads to the Herodians and off to court Jesus would have gone.

Jesus knows he is being put to the test and declares that in a voiced complaint (18). 'you hypocrites' is a valid charge here because the questioners are play acting. Theirs is not a genuine intellectual question but an enticement to support breaking the law.

In what is now 'typical' fashion for Jesus, he answers a question with a question. He asks for the coin in which the tax is to be paid (19) and puts the question, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" (20).

There can only be one answer to the question (21a) but what Jesus then says likely surprised his hearers and likely continues to challenge us, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's" (21b).

Our first interest in the reply is the manner in which it answers the entrapment question. Effectively Jesus says, "Yes, it is lawful to pay tax to the emperor." But he does so in a way, with a 'both ... and' that makes no diminution of the Law of Moses regarding tithes and offerings. He is, to coin a phrase, politically correct and theologically correct. Ironically, he gives the same answer that the Pharisees and Herodians would have given if the question had been put to them.

Our second interest in the reply is the content of the answer in respect of life for each Christian in every country where (with the exception, perhaps, of the Vatican State - but I claim no familiarity about how taxes work there) taxes are claimed by governments that make no claim to do the will of the God of Jesus Christ (indeed, may even make the claim to be opposed to that will).

The balance in the statement between emperor and God, along with the significance of paying taxes to an enemy ruler over Israel commends what Jesus says as a timeless principle.

Governments have the right to claim taxes from us since they are authorities instituted by God (see Romans 13) and the costs of their work in guarding, guiding, and caring for us need to be met. God has the right to ask us to give, both because everything we have has come from God as Creator and Sustainer of all things, and because the mission of God (God as Redeemer redeeming the world from sin) has costs.

(I leave for another day the difficult questions of when we might stop paying taxes because the benign government envisaged in Romans 13 becomes malign. Save for sheer fear for life itself, should any Christians remaining in IS controlled areas of Iraq and Syria willingly pay taxes claimed from them, simply because they are Christians?)

Our third interest - potentially - in what Jesus says in verse 21 lies in the presumption the statement makes: that the 'world' or 'worldly' system of money - expressed through coins minted by due authority - is what it is, when we engage in it we must honour the obligations of it, but no thought is given here to (say) opting out of the system, or railing against it, let alone changing it.

There might be some challenging morning tea conversations if we pursue this thought!

A fourth interest, possibly, lies in the distinction Jesus makes between (so to speak) the worlds of Caesar and of God. How far do we press that distinction? Occasionally we hear stories of Christian businessmen who are grace-filled on Sundays and 'hard', 'mean', 'sharp', 'worshipping the almighty dollar' in the practice of their business life Mondays to Saturdays. Is that a distinction which may be justified from this saying of Jesus? Or, to head in a different direction re engagement with business life, as consumers, are Christians doing what Jesus wants if they shop like everyone else for the latest clothes and gadgets, just so long as on Sundays there is a decent offering in the plate?

Food for thought!


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday 12 October 2014 - 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Righteousness. An inclusive kingdom? God's surpassing peace. The great feast of God.

Sentence: Rejoice in the Lord always! (Philippians 4:4)

Collect: (used with permission of Rev. Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )

Life-giving God,
as we experience your healing,
may we proclaim your deeds,
and turn to you to offer thanks and praise;
through Jesus our Messiah,
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Comments:

Isaiah 25:1-9

How does this passage 'relate' to the gospel reading today, a reading featuring a wedding banquet (in an unknown location) and a city - Jerusalem - destroyed by fire, set alight by enemies?

In one sense the passage does not relate at all! It looks forward to the destruction of an enemy city (i.e. not Jerusalem) and it envisages a great banquet on Mt. Zion (see 'this mountain', 6, compare with 24:23).

In another sense the passage relates to the gospel reading because the gospel passage's wedding banquet is the great eschatological banquet of the kingdom of heaven, the feast to end all feasts and the feast for those judged to be right with God and fit to enjoy eternal fellowship with God. From this passage we see this great feast or banquet as the celebration of the end of death (8), the end of tears (8, cf. Revelation 7:1; 21:4) and the final salvation (9).

Psalm 23

By-passing the many things which we can and should say about and from this amazing psalm (because it says so much in so few words), we see in the psalm the expression of one of the great themes of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, that the consummation of all things in the fullness of God's time is symbolized by a great feast. That feast makes an appearance in the gospel parable as a 'wedding banquet.'

Philippians 4:1-9

There is at least one sermon to be preached from each verse in this passage! Briefly, these are the possibilities:

1: with all that Paul has written to this point in mind, the Philippians and ourselves are urged to 'stand firm in the Lord in this way.'

2: picking up a great theme in this letter, of Christian unity via a common mind, Paul focuses on two individuals at odds with each other, Euodia and Syntyche. It might not be a good idea for the preacher to single out two out of sorts parishioners and name them from the pulpit :) But it would be a good idea for the preacher to reinforce the great theme of Christian unity through the concord of agreement in the truth.

3: Avoiding the sidetrack of whether Paul means by 'my loyal companion' exactly those words or is actually invoking a name, 'loyal Syzygus', to say nothing of the sidetrack of who the loyal companion might be, there is a sermon here on the importance of women in the ministry of Paul, because Euodia and Syntyche are 'co-workers' with Paul and other male gospel workers in the 'work of the gospel'. They have worked 'beside me' rather than beneath Paul in some kind of hierarchy. A further point could be made that back in verse 2 Paul urges rather than commands Euodia and Syntyche to be of the 'same mind in the Lord.'

4: In a sea of negativity, harping and carping, demoralization over this and that shortcoming of the church, what better sermon to preach than 'Rejoice!'

5: In a world of violence, hatred, bigotry, and general thrusting forward of self ahead of others, 'Let your gentleness be known to everyone.' It is not just that this would make the world a better place. It is urgent for Christians to live out what it means to be Christian because 'the Lord is near.'

6: Do not worry! How not to worry? Pray! This way: 'in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.' That is,  the antidote to worry is to turn what we are worried about into prayer requests to God with the key step that as we make our requests for help in our hour of need we are also thankful ('with thanksgiving'). That is, start counting your blessings when you worry, then turn those blessings into the thanksgivings which accompany your prayers and before you know it, you will experience verse 7.

7: This prayer is one of the more popular blessings prayed at the end of services. It speaks of the opposite of worry (see verse 6): the experience of God's peace, that is a real experience of genuine peace from God should be (a) overwhelming ('surpasses human understanding') and (b) protective ('will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus').

8: What should Christians think about? Try the list here!

9. What should Christians do? 'Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in [Paul].' For just about any other Christian this claim would be at least ludicrous if not the height of arrogance. (Writing this on St Francis' feast day, perhaps he would be a similar exception?) But Paul is no ordinary Christian - the first chapters of Philippians (to say nothing of his other writings) make this clear. He has pushed devotion to Christ to the limits. His zeal is second to none. His bravery is unparalleled. His desire to know Christ and to make him know has no competitor. His example, his teaching, his words of advice: they should be noticed, imitated and followed.

Matthew 22:1-14

There has been many a sermon on this parable, and no doubt a few more this coming Sunday which go something like this,

"God calls people to enter his kingdom. You might expect the religious people to be first in line, but they can be the most resistant to the call. So God goes out looking for the least likely people to enter his kingdom. But, note carefully, even so God expects people to be 'properly dressed', that is, to have saving faith. Without that, you will be no better off than the religious people who reject God out of hand."

How does this stack up when we read the parable in the light of Jesus' intention (telling it) and Matthew's intention (reporting it)?

Over the past few weeks our readings from Matthew have been parts of an exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel in which, summarising, Jesus says to the leaders that they have led wrongly and God's will for Israel is being revealed through him and not their interpretation of the law and the prophets. Last week's parable was a very strong statement inasmuch as Jesus declared himself to be the Son of God compared with the prophets sent from God as God's servants.

In this week's parable Jesus once again speaks of God's son (God is the king and throws a wedding party for his son). The first set of invitations go to an unspecified group of people 'but they would not come' (3). The invitation is repeated (4) but some went their own way to avoid coming and others 'seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them' (6). At this point the mistreatment and killing of the slaves takes us back to the parable of the tenants (21:33-41) and we recognise that the invitees are Israel.

In this parable Israel is destroyed (7, see further below) and a new set of invitations is issued (8-9) and the respondents gather for the wedding feast 'both good and bad' (10).

To this point we can understand Jesus as telling a parable which highlights the foolishness of Israel's leadership in not recognising the kingdom of heaven made manifest in himself. The rejection by the leadership paves the way for a broader kingdom, to be understood as including the Gentiles.

The next verses are challenging. If the 'good and bad' are welcomed into the banquet hall what is the exchange between the king and the badly dressed guest about (11-12)? On the one hand a point is being made that while it does not matter whether we are 'good' or 'bad' when called, it does matter whether we are found to be properly attired which must be about being deemed by the king to be 'righteous': good or bad, we need to be in a right relationship with the king. 'For many are called, but few are chosen' (14). On the other hand the point is not wonderfully clear! We, the readers, have to supply what the wedding garment stands for. Further, if the start of the passage is told with the intention of critiquing the rejection of Jesus by those within Israel who should know better, by the end the intention seems to be a critique of those outside of Israel who accept Jesus but do not ensure that they are found righteous by God.

What was Matthew's intention in reporting this parable? We can ask the question because Matthew has already reported to us sufficient speech from Jesus making the point that he was rejected by Israel's leadership. For Matthew, developing his narrative of Jesus' life and death, the parable offers two new points.

(1) Verse 7, especially 'burned their city' is highly suggestive of Rome's sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus, telling the parable, likely has in his mind the history of Israel, including the history of Judah and Jerusalem, in which the latter was sacked by Babylon, 597/587 BC. He sees history repeating itself. Matthew, likely composing the gospel after 70 AD, reports a parable which has the virtue of accurate prediction being fulfilled. God's judgment has come to rejectionist Israel. By implication the mission to the Gentiles (in Matthew terms, note particularly the Great Commission, 28:16-20) is vindicated.

(2) Verses 11-14 then can be understood not as a strange ending given the way the parable begins, rather as an unfolding of the theological history/prediction of future: Israel rejects God's invitation to come into the kingdom, but as the invitation is extended beyond Israel, the new invitees must not think that God's standards for citizenship of the kingdom have changed: all are to be righteous.

So the generalized account above of how many sermons on the passage have gone is in tune with thinking about the passage from the perspective of Jesus' and Matthew's intentions in communicating it.

But a twist lies with thinking about the wedding garment requirement for the guests. Let's agree that this is about being righteous. The sharp question then is the degree to which Matthew himself understands being righteous in terms of saving faith. That is a distinctive Pauline perspective. In Matthew's Gospel (i.e. read on its own, apart from the remainder of the New Testament) there is a huge emphasis on righteousness being proved by good deeds. Yet it would be too simple to conclude that Matthew does not mean righteousness with God found through saving faith in Jesus. If the garment = good works, how come the banquet hall is full of people both 'good and bad'?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday 5 October 2014 - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): The Lord's vineyard; Jesus God's own son; the benefits of Christ.

Sentence: I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Philippians 3:8)

Collect:

Merciful God,
you make all things new;
transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Readings - related:

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:9-17
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Comments:

Isaiah 5:1-7

Here is the direct OT background to today's gospel parable of the tenants. God speaking through Isaiah says that Israel is his vineyard. However the focus of concern is not on tenants running the vineyard but on the quality of the grapes:

'When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?' (4)

Psalm 80:9-17

More vineyardism! Here the psalmist sees Israel not as a vineyard but as 'a vine out of Egypt' (8a). The vine has been planted in the land now called Israel but which needed 'the nations' driven out of it in order for the vine to be 'planted' there (8b).But the vine is in a sorry state. Walls that should have protected it have broken down so 'the boar from the forest ravages it' (13). The psalm then becomes a prayer (14-19) that the Lord might have 'regard for this vine' (14) and restore it.

Philippians 3:4b-14

(Once again, note that the lectionary omits robust passages from the Bible, here Paul talking about 'dogs ... evil workers ... those who mutilate the flesh', 3:2)

Paul has spent two chapters urging the Philippians onwards and upwards in pursuit of proclaiming the gospel from a common fellowship together in Christ. Now he turns to some practical matters of dispute and division. In this passage - which only makes sense with the missing verses at the beginning of the chapter - Paul waxes autobiographical in response to a 'circumcision' group preying upon the Philippians.

Look, he says, if you want confidence in the 'flesh' (i.e. literally, via the mark of circumcised flesh) then I have it all (circumcised, Israelite, Benjaminite, Hebrew of Hebrews, Pharisee, zealous, 5-6). BUT! All that, Paul goes on to say, is nothing. It is loss (x3, verses 7-8). Indeed it is 'rubbish' (8). Actually, to be faithful to Paul we need a much earthier word than 'rubbish'. A study Bible before me has the well mannered 'excrement'. Might we say 'shit' to convey joltingly the reality of Paul's disparagement of all the benefits of circumcision in the light of the blessings of Christ?

Paul's great point, brought out with joy through verses 7-14, is that in Christ true righteousness comes (circumcision just doesn't do that), with the bonus of the power of the resurrection and the 'prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus' (14).

It is not said in the reading itself but the Philippians are invited to recognise that to give in to the demands of the circumcision party is to settle for a very distant second best.

Matthew 21:33-46

This is a devastating parable which even the critics of Jesus get, at least to some degree (45). In the space of a few verses, via a narrative constructed around familiar social and economic facts of contemporary life (absentee ownership, tenants, collecting the owner's dues), Jesus sets out the theological history of Israel with a predictive presumption that he is the son and is about to be killed by the 'tenants.'

In that theological history, God (the owner) has a vineyard (Israel, commonly associated with this image in the prophets) and attempts to communicate with the Israelites (tenants) via his prophets (servants, a familiar term for divine prophets in Israel). The servants attempting to receive the harvest rightfully due the owner are the prophets calling Israel back to her Lord and master. His harvest is to receive the trusting love of his people. They resist prophet after prophet, mistreating them. Finally, a final attempt at communication is made: 'he sent his son to them' (37). To no avail.

Of great christological interest here is the obvious equation Jesus draws between himself and the son in the parable. Some critics of the gospels suggest that the theme of Jesus' divine sonship is largely a Johannine interest, even an invention after the facts of Jesus' peasant-and-prophet routine according to the other gospels. But here Matthew (also Mark, Luke) brings testimony of Jesus himself teaching that he was God's son.

The picture painted in the story of Israel rejecting the prophets and then, finally, Jesus needs some care and attention lest we fall into the error of supersessionism (that God rejects Israel and has replaced her with the church in his affections, 'the other tenants' of v. 41).

Remembering that Jesus himself as a Jew, that his first disciples were Jewish and many of the converts they won to Jesus were Jewish, we should read the parable as a theological history of establishment Israel - the Israel dominated by religious leaders who (when we read the prophets) got many things wrong in their understanding of God and God's will for Israel. The establishment within the people of God rejected the prophets and will reject Jesus. Through all the history of Israel, including through to the days of Jesus himself, faithful people of God believed in God and obeyed his laws: these people neither rejected the prophets nor Jesus. Their place in the vineyard is not be usurped.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday 28th September 2014 - 26th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Obedience / Authority / True to Jesus / Example of Jesus / Christian unity

Sentence: 'Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regards others as better than yourselves' (Philippians 2:3)

Collect: P17:2

We pray you, Jesus, take the cold water,
our busy, conscientious lives,
and turn them into gospel wine,
that everyone may see your life and thirst. Amen.

Readings (related):

Ezekiel 18:1-14, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Comments:

Ezekiel 18:1-14, 25-32

This stirring prophecy nails down the importance of personal responsibility. Fathers will not be punished for the sins of their sons, nor vice versa.

From a 'history of theology' perspective this passage marks a development away from Exodus 20:5 where God indicates that he will punish 'children for the iniquity of the parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.'

Psalm 25:1-9

In the context of our Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading, the psalmist offers a prayer which both implores God to help him to know the will of God and seeks God's help to be led in the right way.

Philippians 2:1-13

With a strong line in theological reasoning, Paul is hugely emotional in this letter: he pours out his heart to his readers. In chapter one he has written about his devotion to Christ. Out of that devotion he now pleads with the Philippians that they, also devoted to Christ, allow the mind of Christ to be their mind (1-5). From that one mindedness he wants to see them united. But the hopes he has for the Philippian church are not that they will agree with Paul but that they will understand who Christ is.

So verses 6-11 become the 'christological clincher' - Paul's reasoning cites the example of Christ himself. To be one minded the Philippians need to treat each other as better than themselves and to set personal agendas aside (3-4). They should do this because of the example of Christ himself (5).

Verses 6-11 may be a hymn to Jesus already in existence when Paul wrote. In that case he is claiming some common Christian theology to support his argument. Whether cited or composing from scratch, Paul offers powerful support because he discloses the example of Christ himself as one who 'though he was in the form of God ... emptied himself ... humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross' (6-8). No greater humiliation can be invoked than that one in the form of God ends up dying on a cross (a shameful, shocking end to life). The point would have been obvious to the Philippians: if Jesus Christ humbled himself so abjectly, one Philippian Christian could humble herself or himself to treat a fellow Christian better than themselves.

The hymn goes on to conclude with the exaltation of Jesus (9-11). One implication of this part of the hymn is that when we humble ourselves in order to treat others as better than ourselves we may rely on God to eventually exalt us.

(Necessarily, for reasons of space and time, I pass over interesting but tricky christological issues in the hymn, focused on the meaning of words and phrases such as 'form', 'equality with God', 'exploited' (6), 'emptied himself' 'form' in 'form of a slave ... human form' (7), 'the name' (9). Good commentaries will assist with exploration of these matters).

The final verses in the reading, 12-13, open up a new question: how is salvation worked out in each believer? Do we sit around and watch on as God works within us? Do we engage in frantic effort to please God and show that we remain worthy of his saving us? Neither, says, Paul. 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling' (12).

Matthew 21:23-32

We have skipped a bit of Matthew (because the church year accommodates it on other Sundays) and are now in the last week of Jesus' life, but a week, as the next Sunday or two unfolds, in which Jesus continues to engage us through parables.

Today's passage sets the scene for three parables (21:28-32; 21:33-41 [part of reading for Sunday 5 October]; 22:1-14 [Sunday 12 October]). Each of the three parables is told 'against' the religious leadership of Israel.

Today's passage begins with Jesus entering the temple. To teach there was sure to excite interest and sure enough 'the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him' (23). But theirs was no idle curiosity. They had a question to ask, indeed a trap to set him. Their question concerned the authority by which Jesus was 'doing these things' (presumably meaning, doing deeds (including Jesus overturning the traders' tables (21:12-16) and doing teaching).

If Jesus said he did it with God's authority they could pounce on him as a blasphemer. If he said he did it on his own authority they could dismiss him as an eccentric, if not lunatic false prophet.

But Jesus is clever. He says he will answer the question if they answer a question he sets them. Essentially he asks the same question of them. 'Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?' equals 'Where did John's authority come from?'

The leaders are caught. John's ministry was  both popular with the people and the people believed the ministry was godly. But they had not accepted that this was so.

When Jesus asked the question they could neither affirm one origin or another for the baptism of John. 'We do not know' (27) gave Jesus a let out from answering their question. He would live for another few days.

But Jesus was not about to let go of the opportunity to make some points against his opponents. He continues with his questions (28).

He wants them to answer which of two sons did the will of their father, the one who said he would work in the vineyard but did not or the one who said he would not but in fact went to work (28-31).

To this question they give an answer ... and fall into the trap which Jesus has set. They collectively constitute the son who has said he will do the will of his father but has not. The point is rammed home with further reference to John the Baptist and the kind of people who responded to his preaching.

OK, this is well and good in the context of the narrative of the gospel: Jesus is in opposition to the religious leaders of Israel. It is deeply theological (where is God in relation to their lives?) and brutally political (do they or Jesus connect with the people and the beliefs which motivate them?). The differences between them are not the differences of theoreticians. Within a few days these leaders will have arranged for his execution.

But what does the passage say to us, the followers of Jesus and readers of Matthew's Gospel today?

It is possible to work from the passage to a lesson about actually doing God's will rather than just talking about it, to being what we say we are by virtue of action rather than being a hypocrite by saying one thing and doing another.

We could also work from the passage to say something about the importance of being on God's side as history unfolds rather than deceiving ourselves that we are on God's side when the effective outcome of the way we live is that we are against God's plan for the world.

But the strongest point from the passage, and one in keeping with the most pervasive concern through the whole passage is the question of 'authority.' Who or what authorises the claims of Christ (and therefore our testimony to Christ)? 'God' is obviously the answer! But is this obvious from the way we presently live and talk?

Sometimes Christians take a 'pick 'n' choose' approach to what parts of the gospel we take as 'from God' and what parts we treat as 'optional, up to each of us to do as we see fit in our own eyes.'

The religious leaders with whom Jesus was in conversation had developed a response to God which suited them. When challenged by a prophetic figure such as John the Baptist they were momentarily unsettled (until Herod solved the situation in their favour). Now Jesus continues the challenge.

Is Jesus challenging us today about the way in which we respond to God? Do we foster a church which suits us more than it is faithful to God's will?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday 21 September 2014 - 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): God's generosity / God's mercy / the first will be last / living worthily of the gospel

Sentence: Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.(Philippians 1:27)

Collect:

God our ruler and guide,
when we come to the place where the road divides,
keep us true to the way of Christ,
alive to present opportunities,
and confident of eternal life. Amen.

Readings (related):

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Comments:

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Paul (in Philippians below) is delighted that Philippians have heard the gospel and become Christians. There could not be a greater contrast re preaching and its outcomes than between Paul's delight and Jonah's sulkiness.

Jesus tells a parable (in Matthew below) in which early recipients of an employment contract are bitter about only receiving the same pay as late recipients of a contract. This bitterness has some common ground with Jonah's bitter response to people responding to his preaching and repenting because of it. In both cases there is a lack of joy that people not in 'my group' receive a blessing I thought only belonged to that group.

Psalm 145:1-8

In this psalm we read/sing beautiful, comprehensive, inspiring words of praise to the God whose greatness is 'unsearchable' and whose character is 'gracious and merciful.'

Philippians 1:21-30

I have no idea why we have switched out of the last chapters of Romans to Philippians!

But what a great passage to switch to. Nowhere in his writings does Paul better declare his passionate devotion to Christ than in this chapter. Writing from a dank prison cell, in verses 21-24 he expresses his torn desires between living in this world (fruitful labour as he encourages the churches and preaches the gospel) and departing this world to live in eternal, full-and-intimate fellowship with Christ.

He will remain (25) for the sake of the Philippian church (25-26).

Paul lives and dies for Christ but the church is very close in his passionate commitment: he will stay physically alive for the sake of the life of the church. How devoted are we to Christ and to his church?

But the Philippian church are not babes to be nannied by Paul. His role is to assist their development as Christians, not to do everything for them. He expects them to be mature in their faith. Hence verses 27-30.

They, and we, are asked to 'live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' (27). Presumably that includes matters such as forgiving others (since the gospel tells us of God forgiving us) but here Paul emphasises three matters (27b-28) after 'so that' (27a):

1. 'standing firm in one spirit'
2. 'striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel'
3. 'in no way intimidated by your opponents.'

In other words, living lives worthy of the gospel is living lives in solidarity with other disciples, sharing the intention to both proclaim the gospel (evangelism, see 1:1-18) and defend its truth (chapter 3), all without fear of what opponents may do.

That opponents of the gospel cause suffering, such as Paul himself is experiencing, is a real possibility. The Philippians are experiencing that but Paul reminds them that this is actually, under God, a 'privilege' (29-30).

Matthew 20:1-16

We could call this passage 'the parable of the gracious employer' or we could call it 'the parable of the ungrateful employees'.

Following on from last Sunday's passage about generous forgiveness (18:21-35), we read here that the kingdom of heaven is an equal blessing to those who turn up to it early as to those who enter at the last minute. God's generous welcome into the kingdom is not proportioned to give more to those who commit to the kingdom from the first, with crumbs of blessing given to those who come last.

The parable (20:1-15) is framed by the comments in 19:30 and 20:16 about the last being first and the first being last.

In part this refers to the inclusive and expanding nature of the gospel (cf. Matthew 28:16-20): as the Gentiles are included in the scope of the gospel, Jews may be resentful that they are the 'Johnny comes latelies' as recipients of God's blessing. The last are equal to the first.

In part this refers (noting what precedes 19:30) to a general lesson to all disciples, the first called and the last called, the ones who give up everything and the ones who don't, God loves all equally and welcomes all into eternal life which is without distinctions and layers.

Such parables drive certain values deep into Christian consciousness: God is gracious, no Christian is more meritorious than another, whether we are lifelong Christians or deathbed converts we are all one in Christ, and, very importantly, in our attitudes to one another we act as God acts towards us, treating each person as equally worthy of hearing the gospel, of receiving our charitable actions and being the objects of our prayers.

In practical and political terms, as we run up to an election on 20 September, a recently arrived refugee is as valuable a citizen as a sixth generation descendent of early settlers from Europe or as Maori descended from the arrivals in the tenth century.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday 14 September 2014 - 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Forgiveness. Quality not quantity. Accepting those who are weaker than us. Accepting those who think differently to us. Conflict resolution. Judge not for you will be judged.

Sentence: Forgive your brother or your sister from the heart (Matthew 18:35)

Collect:

God of infinite mercy,
Grant that we who know your pity
May rejoice in your forgiveness
and gladly forgive others
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Comments:

Genesis 50:15-21

This is a very naughty story! When the general run of the Bible speaks of the importance of genuine repentance and of freely given forgiveness, here we find the brothers of Joseph manipulating their brother into forgiving them (i.e. formally, publicly) by lying about what their father said.

However the whole story of Joseph suggests that he would not have been fooled by their attempt to claim knowledge of something their father Jacob had not himself shared with his favourite son! Thus we can think of Joseph forgiving because he chooses to do so. A forgiveness which extends to include their continuing brazen attempts to save their skins.

Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13

With an eye looking ahead to the gospel reading, on forgiveness, who is the God who calls us to forgive one another? It is the 'merciful and gracious' Lord (8) who 'does not deal with us according to our sins' (10).

Romans 14:1-12

(While it is no purpose of this blog to engage with the specifics of present debates re homosexuality in the life of the church, a parenthetical comment can be made, and perhaps should be made, that Romans 14 is an appropriate passage to bring into the consideration of these debates because they reveal the apostolic mind engaging the apostolic church on matters of deep disagreement even division).

If Paul has been focused in chapter 13 on what it means to be a Christian and a citizen in the Roman Empire, he now turns to what it means to be a Christian and a member of the church, with special reference to a matter which must have been of grave concern to the early church (see also Acts 10 and 15, 1 Corinthians 10, the letters to seven churches in Revelation 2-3, Mark 7).

That matter was what food Christians may eat with clear conscience.

There were two significant factors at work in disagreements over these matters, one concerning the movement from Jewish constraints on diet to Christian openness to eating all kinds of meat, the other concerning the provenance from which meat came or was intended for, that is meat 'sacrificed to idols' (Acts 15:29). Jewish Christians seemed to have both concerns on their minds (as here in this chapter), arguably the concerns Paul tackles in 1 Corinthians 10 were concerns Gentile Christians had as they sought to demonstrate exclusive loyalty to Christ.

The problem Paul is tackling is subtle and complex. In the Roman church (so his informers were telling him) were some with such a strong faith (and appetite!) that they could and would eat anything (any meat, sacrificed to any idols) and there were some with such a weak faith that they avoided any difficulties over meat by eating only vegetables (1-2). While presumably this caused some practical problems at shared meals, the problem Paul tackles is the attitude of each group to the other. Each appears to think they were not only in the right but had a moral platform to cast judgment on the other (4). Paul instructs both sides to not 'despise' nor 'pass judgment' on the other (3).

His point is that there is one judge, the Lord, and each side is accountable to the Lord and only to the Lord (4, also 12). But to make this point he himself must have believed that each option was honourable and holy. One option might be less preferable to the other, a point seemingly indicated by his description of the 'the weak' as eating 'only vegetables' (2, but note that he might have simply been using the language of the debate going on in Rome), but Paul sees no inherent difficulty before God for either approach.

The verses between his initial opening statement and closing statement (with reference to our selected passage), i.e. verses 4-11 offer two matters for reflection by his audience. First, on these matters of indifference, each must act in accord with their conscience, a conscience that should be informed futuristically by what it will mean to account for their actions before the Lord. Secondly,  we should not be passing judgment on one another over such matters. Only the Lord is fit to make such judgment and only to the Lord do we owe account for how we have eaten.

Matthew 18:21-35

This passage follows on neatly from last Sunday's reading about resolution of conflict in the life of the church. Note how Peter's starting question involves 'if another member of the church sins against me' (21). When we flow from last week's passage to this week's we effectively have, in 18:15-35, a charter for conflict resolution which involves both a mechanism for resolution and a means for making that resolution effective: the injured party forgives the one who wounds.

Peter's supplementary question, 'As many as seven times?' (21) demonstrates both his embeddedness in Jewish culture and theology (see Genesis 4:24), and his generous spirit, no doubt infected by the gracious example he was already seeing in his Master's life. But Jesus' response is challenging. To forgive seven times is extensive - most of us won't return to a relationship in which we need to forgive for an eighth time! Yet Jesus says 'seventy-seven times' we should forgive the one who sins against us (22, noting, according to a footnote, this might even be translated as 'seventy times seven').

On the one hand, this much larger number is a way of saying "there is no count to be put on forgiveness, Christians keep on forgiving through all of life." On the other hand, this much larger number underlines something about church relationships: once in the church we are to stay in the church, to stay in relationship with brother and sister Christians, just like (say) marriage, for it is that kind of relationship in which one does not walk away after seven wounds but may, literally, need to forgive the other seventy-seven times, even on seventy times seven occasions.

The story which is then told, a parable (noting its parabolic introduction, 'the kingdom of heaven may be compared to ...' (23)), does not deal in numbers of times re forgiving but in numbers re 'amount' of forgiveness.

Two slaves owe two different amounts. One owes ten thousand talents to his master and pleas successfully for mercy. The other owes one hundred denarii to the first slave. The first slave, despite having had a debt of 60 million denarii (= 10k talents) forgiven, will not forgive a debt of 100 denarii! The parable concludes with the point being made that all the numbers involved in verses 21-34 amount to this, Christians must 'forgive your brother or sister from your heart' (35). In an importance sense, what begins with 'quantity' ends up with 'quality.' There are two lessons in the parable.

(1) Our multiple forgiveness of others should not be superficial: each act of forgiveness is to be from the heart.

(2) We forgive from the heart, we forgive multiple times, we keep on forgiving because no matter how many times we forgive or how deeply we forgive, it is tiny in comparison to the extent of the forgiveness God offers us.