Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sunday 26 August 2018 - 21st Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Choose whom you will serve / Costly discipleship / Spiritual warfare / God's protection

Sentence: 'Choose this day whom you will serve' (Joshua 24:15)

Collect:

God of Israel old and news,
write in our hearts the lessons of your law;
prepare our minds to receive the gospel
made visible in your Son Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Readings (related):

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Comments:

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18

This passage highlights and underlines one of the great questions for all who follow the God of Israel:

"choose this day whom you will serve" (15).

In Joshua the question is posed in terms of serving the Lord (YHWH) or the gods of surrounding nations. The same question is effectively asked of his disciples by Jesus (= Joshua!) in our gospel reading.

The story of Joshua both completes the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and begins the settlement of Israel in Canaan, its Promised Land. So this question coming at the end of Joshua tests the direction of Israel in its relationship with the LORD God. Will it faithfully and singlemindedly serve the one God who has brought them out of Egypt into the Promised Land? Will it continue in relationship with this God as it settles and remains, generation after generation?

Unfortunately the succeeding historical books in the Old Testament show that the clarity of conviction in the answer given in Joshua 24 was not always upheld by either the people of Israel or its rules.

Psalm 34:15-22

The portion of the psalm read last Sunday emphasised the Lord's provision for the needs of his people.

This week's portion emphasises the protection of the Lord for his people. The righteous have many afflictions, 'but the Lord rescues them from them all.' (19)

Ephesians 6:10-20

This passage is much preached from on the subject of 'spiritual warfare.'

Paul moves from an initial instruction concerning standing 'against the wiles of the devil' (11) (which could mean no more than resisting temptation) to a general statement about the larger battle in which the saints are involved:

'our struggle ... against rulers ... of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places' (12).

Initially we might interpret this as an almost bizarre change from the domestic concerns of the preceding verses (about husband/wife, father/child, master/slave relationships). But Ephesians began in chapter one with an amazing vision of God's eternal purposes being worked out in both physical and spiritual worlds, in both earth and heaven. So Paul is taking us back to where he began. But in this practical second half of the book, he sets out our role in the great battle between good and evil as it is fought in both the world we see and in the world we do not see.

We'll come back to verse 12 below, re the principalities and powers, but let's press on for now with where Paul heads. In verse 13, after his introduction, there is a sturdy and directional, 'Therefore.'

What is an Ephesian Christian to do about resisting the wiles of the devil? 'Therefore take up the whole armour of God' (13). But the whole phrase is puzzling. It is 'Therefore take up the whole armour of God on that evil day'. To what day is Paul referring? Is he looking ahead to the great and final Day of Judgement (when the ongoing battle between good and evil reaches some kind of climax)? Or is he using 'day' in a more general sense of 'the present age' (see 'this present darkness' in verse 12)? That it might be the latter is suggested by the next phrase, 'and having done everything to stand firm' because that suggests that we put on the armour now and keep it on, fighting the battle and whenever we think we have won, remaining resolute and firm and ready to fight the next battle.

Verses 14 to 17 are then an absolutely easy to grasp picture of the spiritually armoured Christian in the light of the standard armour worn by the typical Roman soldier. Our difficulty in the 21st century may be that we are not as familiar as we once were about that armour (e.g. in the days when learning Latin was spread throughout many schools), and not as familiar as Paul's readers would have been.  (I won't go here into the details of that physical armour - a decent commentary or Bible encyclopedia may assist you - even Wikipedia).

The general point, the point which unites the details of these verses, is that in this particular spiritual battle, it is the basics of being a gospel Christian that count: truth, righteousness, proclamation of the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit and the word of God. Why? One reason is that a wile of the devil is to distort the truth of God. Another wile is to undermine the gospel (e.g. by getting Christians to believe less than or more than the gospel itself requires). A further wile is to lure Christians into standing on their own two feet, independent of God, rather than standing on the promises of God in the power of the Spirit, trusting God for protection (see above, Psalm 34).

Another reason for Paul setting out the response Christians are to make is that in a context of 'principalities and powers', questions of allegiance arise in the battle for hearts and minds of humanity. The basic signs of our allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ are our commitment to the truth of the gospel, to proclaiming that truth, to faith, righteousness, salvation, the Spirit and the word of God.

From this exposition on spiritual warfare Paul both moves on to the topic of prayer and also connects prayer with that exposition (since praying for Paul will help him in his particular current battle, 19-20). Prayer, Paul says, is to be both continual ('at all times') and persistent ('always persevere') (19).

Now back to a tricky topic in verse 12.

Paul distinguishes between two sets of opponents for Christians: 'enemies of flesh and blood' and 'the rulers ... the authorities ... the cosmic powers of this present darkness ... the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.'

The former are clearly fellow human beings and could include (in his day) opposing Jews and Gentiles in the cities and countryside in which Christians lived and worshipped, as well as the Roman authorities, both local and the Emperor himself in Rome.

The latter are less easy for us on earth to envisage: they are not experienced as flesh and blood but they are real in the other world, the world beyond this world which they inhabit. To a degree we can envisage them by reading books such as Daniel and Revelation with their visions and their talk of angels, fallen angels, of demons, of beasts and so forth. But only to a degree because those visions tend to convey an impression of battles being fought in that other world between the forces of light and darkness but do not tend to convey an impression that we take part in such spiritual or heavenly battles. Here, by contrast, Paul says that the real battle we are fighting is not against the opponents we can see but against opponents we cannot see.

That raises the question of who these principalities and powers are. I am not going to take a stand on the matter here, and refer you to commentaries for more comment than I will give here.

On the one hand I observe that some interpreters concentrate our attention on understanding that there are spiritual forces of evil (e.g. demons) which being spiritual can inflict themselves on us earthly creatures and against them we stand by way of the recipe in verses 13 onwards.

On the other hand I observe that some interpreters - no doubt wary of invoking demons as explanations for evil deeds committed by human beings - commend to us an understanding of these principalities and powers in sociological (or perhaps political terms): every human organisation (be it a club, society, nation or culture) takes on an inner life, an ethos which affects (and even inflicts itself on) individuals. Against this 'thing' which is hard to explain, but which is definitely experienced by us (e.g. we walk into, say, one school or clubrooms and experience it in terms of warmth and welcome and walk into another and experience it in terms of aggression and alienation), Paul invites us to stand with basic gospel values and commitments.

Obviously much more is to be said here. My final thought for now is this: what if the principalities and powers are both spiritual and sociological? (!!)

John 6:56-69

Verses 56-58 sum up and conclude Jesus' teaching on eating and drinking: his flesh and his blood in order to abide in him (56-57) and the bread which came down from heaven in order to live forever (58). This is extraordinarily provocative teaching because  (a)  blood was forbidden to Jews (Deuteronomy 12:23) and (b) Jesus was claiming that the bread he offered was better quality than the manna God supplied in the desert. Note, however, that Jesus is not so much asking his followers to do something forbidden by drinking his blood but asking them to believe that in him true life - represented by blood - was to be found. (That, is Jesus agrees with the Mosaic Law, the life of the creature is in the blood; but says what is prohibited of animals is not forbidden of his blood.)

But verse 59 is a bit puzzling. John says that Jesus said these things 'while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.' On the one hand, this is a place where Jesus teaches according to the gospels (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:31). On the other hand, although earlier in John 6, Jesus has been heading towards Capernaum (17, 24), we the readers have not been told that Jesus has been giving this discourse in the Capernaum synagogue. By locating the teaching in the synagogue at the end of the discourse, John may be hinting that Jesus' teaching was extended over time, from, say, an initial delivery at the lake's edge to a final delivery in the synagogue. Specific mention of the synagogue as location for the teaching also underlines that Jesus is offering a reading of Israel's scriptures (which were routinely read in the synagogue).

John is also highlighting that Jesus was engaged at a teaching centre of Judaism (albeit in Capernaum and not in Jerusalem) when he delivered this 'alternative' teaching in Jewish terms about what gives life to God's people.

That the teaching was provocatively controversial to his Jewish audience is heightened in verse 60 where we read that even some of his disciples  found it 'difficult.' (The New English Bible has a wonderful, punnish version - sadly not continued in the Revised English Version: "This is more than we can stomach.")

Jesus then makes life very difficult for his disciples by being frank and robust about who he is (61-64). If they do not like his teaching on bread, flesh and blood, they will not like the thought of his 'ascending to where he was before' (62). Why does he say this? Presumably to make the point that those who believe in him must not only believe that he has come from God (Incarnation) but also that he returns to God (Resurrection and Ascension). Yet Jesus goes further and for a moment seems to undermine his teaching on bread, flesh and blood when he says,

'It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.'

But he also says in the next breathe, 'The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.' (63)

Cleverly Jesus is giving an interpretation of what he has being saying: the key to abiding in him, to receiving eternal life is not the eating of any literal flesh or drinking of any actual blood but the action of the Holy Spirit breathing in new life into the one who believes his words.

(It is not difficult to understand that Jesus never intended his believers to be cannibals, but a different question arises as to whether he expected them to eat bread (like the manna of old) symbolising his being the bread come down from heaven, a question which is hard to answer on purely Johannine terms because he does not report the institution of the Lord's Supper. We can imagine that John presumed his Christian readers would have been eucharistic Christians and thus would have understood John 6 with reference to eating bread and drinking wine, to eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus).

(Another aside: "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless" relates to the "epiclesis" in communion, the invocation of the Holy Spirit to come upon the bread and wine that it may be the body and blood of Christ.)

In other words, Jesus is both making it easier and harder for those disciples on the verge of walking out. Easier by making the teaching less objectionable with particular respect to eating flesh and drinking blood. Harder because Jesus is making his words supersede Moses' teaching (see John 1:17) and his talk of the spirit giving life a better nurture than the feeding with manna.

When combined with Jesus' understanding of descent/ascent from/to heaven (62) - an understanding which itself is a point of mystical/apocalyptic difference to the emerging rabbinic Judaism centred on the synagogues and the Temple - Jesus presents a complex and comprehensive teaching which is decisively different to Judaism. Thus this is a moment when those drawn to Jesus need to ask themselves whether they are going on, all the way with Jesus, or drawing back.

Verses 64-65 challenge us further - as if this is not already 'my brain hurts' material - because Jesus says that he already knows the pathways these temporary disciples and Judas will take. The challenge here is the sense that these verses convey that believers are pre-destined to be believers (65).

Thus schism takes place within the disciples (i.e. between the true and faint-hearted disciples), a schism which may reflect schism within the later Johannine church (on which, reading 1, 2 and 3 John will assist).

Simon Peter's response to the question, whether 'the twelve' (only mentioned here and in 20:34 in John's Gospel) will also go, has a distinctive Johannine form while also resembling his confession at Caesarea Phillipi (see Mark 8:28-29).

For us readers we also hear the question of Jesus. Will we go or stay with him? Our answer will depend on whether we agree with Simon Peter that Jesus has the words of eternal life.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sunday 19 August 2018 - 20th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Bread of Life / Eternal Life / Wisdom / Provision of our needs / Filled with the Spirit

Sentence: Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)

Collect:

Living host, call us together,
call us to eat and drink with you.
Grant that by your body and your blood
we may be drawn to each other
and to you. Amen.

Readings (related):

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

Comments:

Proverbs 9:1-6

Solomon excels himself here with his verbal picture of 'Wisdom' as the hostess with the most-est (house with seven pillars, animals killed for a feast, wine secured, table set, servant-girls sent out with invitations). The feast here consists of food which imbues the feaster with wisdom, insight, and maturity. (By way of contrast, note verses 13-18, where the 'foolish woman' also seeks to invite people to learn of her foolishness.)

On the 'seven pillars' see Job 9:6; 26:11; Psalm 75:3 and Proverbs 8:29-30.

Psalm 34:9-14

These verses express assurance that God looks after those who love God ('fear him', 9; 'seek the Lord', 10). They will 'have no want' (9) and 'lack no good thing' (10).

Verses 11-14 then express the psalmist's teaching on what it means to 'fear' the Lord.

Ephesians 5:15-20

How then shall we live? If we were to boil the answer to that question down to one sentence, vv 15-16 or 17 or 18 could be answers!

15-16 invokes the great tradition of wisdom, a tradition represented in the Old Testament through books such as Proverbs (including our Old Testament passage) and carried forward by Jesus who was a wise teacher. Wise people do not know all the rules but they always know what to do. But Paul introduces the theme of time in respect of wisdom: 'making the most of the time, because the day's are evil.' Some older translations speak of 'redeeming the time', others suggest 'seize the opportunity.' Before we attempt to say what this means, we need to ask what it means that 'the days are evil'?

One thought is that the times we live in are difficult and challenging. Nevertheless they present opportunities to live wisely, to draw close to God and to proclaim the gospel.

17 is, effectively, saying the same as verses 15-16: to be wise is to not be foolish and to be wise is to understand what the will of the Lord is.

18 invokes the great tradition of living empowered by the Spirit of God. Humanity has tended to prefer the spirit of alcohol to the Spirit of God. Paul says No to the former. Rather 'be filled with the Spirit.' The sense of the verb is continual filling with the Spirit rather than a one off experience. When we are filled with the Spirit we will be directed as to how we are to walk in the Spirit. Verse 19 then paints a picture of what the Spirit-filled life looks like: it is marked by a joy which spills out in song, motivated not only by the Spirit but also - verse 20 - by thanks for all God has done.

But verse 20 goes a bit further because it instructs the Christian community to give thanks 'at all times' - even in the 'evil days' we are to give thanks to God. Why? One reason is that all time, all days, good and bad, are ultimately subject to God's control and direction. In the end, all will be well for those who trust God - a trust which is exemplified when we give thanks at all times.

John 6:51-58

Verse 51 (which concluded last week's passage) connects Jesus the 'living bread that came down from heaven' with the eucharistic bread of the Last Supper, 'the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.'

'The Jews'* dispute what this means among themselves (52) with more than a hint that a hint of cannibalism in the conception of eating Jesus' flesh is unacceptable. Jesus does not back off. In verses 53-56, Jesus he un-embarrassingly talks about the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood. Yet only the perverse would think that he means for his flesh literally to be eaten and his blood literally to be drunk. So what does he mean?

On the one hand (taking into account the whole dialogue through chapter six), Jesus is clearly referring to the spiritual union between himself and believers, a union in which Jesus gives life (eternal life) to those who believe in him and who receive and follow his teaching (e.g. 35, 36, 44, 45, 47, 63).

On this understanding the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood is the in-taking of the life of Jesus (recalling the Mosaic Law's injunction not to drink/eat the blood of animals because the life of the animal is in the blood).

On the other hand (also taking into account the whole dialogue through chapter six), Jesus is less clearly referring to the eucharistic bread and wine - see note above on verse 51 - the bread and wine, that is, which he has signified, according to the Synoptic Gospels, is his body and his blood. Thus some scholars argue that these verses have nothing to do with the eucharist, while other scholars argue that they have everything to do with the eucharist.

A point in favour of a eucharistic understanding of Jesus' talk here of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is that it makes little sense for him to pursue this imagery of eating and drinking if no eating or drinking of anything is in view. Whereas the eating of bread and the drinking of wine has potential to be understood as the symbolic eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood, especially when we reflect on the connection made in verse 51 re 'eats of this bread'. But honesty does demand that we acknowledge that no reference is made to drinking of wine in this chapter.

A further point in favour of a eucharistic understanding goes like this:

later in the gospel, John will depict Jesus' death as occurring at the same time as the Passover Lambs are sacrificed (19:14).**

But already in chapter 1:29, 36 Jesus has been hailed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Passover Lambs were sacrificed and their flesh was eaten as part of the remembrance of when God saved Israel from the Angel of Death (Exodus 12).

Here in chapter six, Jesus is thinking of himself as the Passover Lamb who will be sacrificed and eaten (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7). But what meaning does eating Jesus the Passover Lamb have if his actual muscular flesh is not eaten? The only meaning we can give to 'eating' being an actual ingestion is if we think of the eating of bread which 'is' his body. In verse 51 Jesus himself equates 'bread' with 'flesh' and thus it seems logical to conclude that a similar equation is at work as in the Synoptic Gospels (as well as in 1 Corinthians 10-11).

*'The Jews' is always a tricky subject to discuss in John's Gospel as 'the Jews' always seem to be disparaged as those who are consistently against God and against God's Son. One line of argument is that 'the Jews' refers to (naughty, corrupt) leaders of the Jewish people, but in this chapter it makes sense to think that 'the Jews' are the crowd of ordinary people that have followed him around the Lake of Galilee. Nevertheless, 'the Jews' here seems to mean "fellow Jews of Jesus (the Jew) who are antagonistic to Jesus". By contrast, 'disciples' seems to mean "fellow Jews of Jesus (the Jew) who follow Jesus (at least until they choose not to follow him)."

**Until reading Brant Pitre's book Jesus and the Last Supper, I had assumed that the John 19:14 reference was to the lambs being slaughtered for the Passover meal (i.e. the meal at the beginning of the feast of the Passover) and thus John places Jesus' crucifixion a day before the Synoptics do, and the "last supper" in John 13 is not the same meal depicted in the Synopics as Jesus' Last Supper: thus and hence a difficulty over who is telling us the history of Jesus' death most accurately. I am now convinced by Brant Pitre that we have read too much into John 19:14. That is, that verse is a reference to slaughtering of lambs for meals during Passover week and not to the initial meal of that week. And thus and hence John's "last supper" is also "the Last Supper" [Thursday night] and Jesus dies on Friday, as depicted in the other three gospels.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sunday 12 August 2018 - 19th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Bread of life, Bread which gives eternal life, God nourishes us, Jesus came from God, live in love.

Sentence: "Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God' (Ephesians 5:2).

Collect:

Merciful God,
you gave your only Son
to be both a sacrifice for sin
and an example of godly life;
help us gladly to receive
all that he has done for us
and follow in his footsteps;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings (related):

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Comments:

1 Kings 19:4-8

Elijah has striven mightily with the prophets of Baal and won. But his strength is expended and he asks that he might die. God sends an angel to nourish him with food and drink. Not once but twice. That food sustains him for his long journey to Horeb.

God always sustains God's people for God's work along God's way. In a different way, Jesus will nourish his followers, according to our gospel reading today.

Psalm 34:1-8

When we consider what Jesus offers us as the living bread, this psalm assists us as we praise and exalt God!

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

We are in the 'application' chapters of Ephesians. But the theology is never faraway. Paul's first instruction here, about speaking truthfully, is: 'for we are members of one another' (25).

Later, still on the theme of speaking, Paul wants wholesome, edifying talk to come out of the Ephesians' mouths 'so that your words may give grace to those who hear' (29).

In 30 the Holy Spirit is invoked and in 32 being forgiving is 'as God in Christ has forgiven you.'

In the end, the whole living of a holy Christian life (including verses not mentioned above, 26-28, 31) is imitative of God (5:1) and summed up - as elsewhere in Scripture with 'live in love' (5:2).

Love here being the love with which 'Christ loved us and gave himself up for us' (2). We also meet this language of giving himself up for us in the gospel reading.

John 6:35, 41-51

You have got to feel for Jesus. The people who want to make him king are always complaining (41).
But their complaint is rational. They know Jesus as an ordinary human being, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?' (42). So how dare he say 'I am the bread that came down from heaven'? (41, 42).

Jesus says that they should not complain among themselves (43). As complainers, they are rather like their ancestors in the wilderness who complained about the lack of food and then complained about the lack of variety in the food (Exodus 16:2; Number 11:1). So Jesus saying that they are not to complain is to attempt to steer them out of the tradition of grumbling against God.

If they grumble against God, might God refuse to draw them to himself? (44a) If they are not drawn by God to him, they will not be raised up on the last day (44b). What is at stake is not what Jesus is daring to say but what Jesus is offering, which they might miss out on.

In what Jesus' says, there is a strong sense of the initiative of God in salvation. This continues in verse 45 when Jesus quotes Isaiah 54:13 and interprets this as 'Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.' Implicitly this is critical of his hearers: as Israelites, they should know the Father, but their attitude to Jesus suggests they do not.

Yet Jesus himself is the key to knowledge of the Father since he has come from God (46). With this stated, Jesus can return to a recurring theme in his discourse, 'whoever believes has eternal life' (47, cf. 29, 35, 40, 50, 54, 58, 68). When the Israelites ate the manna, they died (49). But the bread of life (48) is 'the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die' (50).

All of this teaching is summed up in v. 51: Jesus is the living bread that comes down from heaven, whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread for the life of the world is Jesus' flesh.

Here Jesus' connects his coming to earth from heaven with his death. It is not his coming per se which makes him the life-giving bread but the giving up of his flesh for the life of the world.

With this statement we have to reckon with Jesus not generally talking about himself as the bread of life but specifically talking about himself as the eucharistic bread of life and thus John is offering to his readers his understanding of the eucharist: Jesus' body is the bread (compare with the Synoptic gospel accounts of the last supper: the bread which Jesus breaks is his body).

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sunday 5 August 2018 - 18th Ordinary Sunday

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings ('related'):

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

Comments:

General Comment: a superb book to read on Jesus and the Last Supper (and by extension on what Jesus says about the bread from heaven in John 6) is Brant Pitre, Jesus and The Last Supper, Grand Rapids/Cambridge UK: Eerdmans, 2015. Especially applicable here and in weeks ahead are Chapters Two (The New Moses) and Three (The New Manna).

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

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

A point Brant Pitre makes is that this kind of background means it is entirely plausible that Jesus taught we we read in John 6. We do not need to assume (as many do) that John 6 represents the eucharistic theology of the later church being retrofitted back into the life of Jesus.

Psalm 78:23-29

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

Ephesians 4:1-16

Ephesians 1-3 in sum is 'theology'. Ephesians 4-6 in sum is 'application'. (Although this is an over simplification of the contents of Ephesians, it is a useful distinction).

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

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

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

Paul being Paul, in Ephesians, 'theology' and 'application' are not strictly segregated, so we find a little theology appearing through verses 4-6 (the oneness of the body of Christ), 7-12 (the gifts, perhaps we should say 'major gifts' of ministry), 13 (the purpose of these gifts, unity and maturity), 14-16 (themes of unity and maturity developed).

Yet woven through these verses is more than a little application: those who have the major ministry gifts, to be apostles, evangelists, etc, are taught here to focus their work on God's desired conclusion for the church. All in the church, whether we are apostles, evangelists etc or not, are forced in these verses to take stock: what is our congregational life like? Is it marked by unity? Are their signs of growth into maturity? Is there freedom to speak 'the truth in love'? Are we understanding the way in which Christ is part of this growth (16)/

A couple of 'exegetical' points are worth noting.

- verse 8 involves a reversal of what Psalm 68:18 actually says (there, tribute is received rather than gifts given). What is going on? I refer you to the bigger commentaries for a full discussion, but essentially this verse is evidence that some biblical writers such as Paul felt a considerable freedom in how they went about using the scriptures of Israel to illustrate points in their argument.

- in verse 11, is there a list of five ministry gifts or four?
        If the former then the list is: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers.
        If the latter then the list is: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors-and-teachers.
The point then is that pastoral ministry should not be divorced from teaching ministry (and vice versa).

- verse 12, 'to equip the saints for the work of ministry' makes an often overlooked point. The tendency in church life is to clericalise, that is, to expect even demand that the clergy/ministers/paid officials do most of the 'work of ministry.' But Paul is saying here that he expects the apostles, evangelists, etc to 'equip' (train, teach, encourage, model, upskill) all of the church to be able to take a participatory share in the ministry.

John 6:24-35

We began John 6 last week with the telling of two miraculous events, one of which, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, is deemed by John to be a 'sign', that is, an event which points (or signposts) the true significance of Jesus.

As the crowd catch up with Jesus (24-25), Jesus criticises them: they have not chased him around the lake 'because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves' (26). They live materialistic lives. The bread filled their stomachs but sparked no reflection about the significance of the miracle in their minds. Jesus will attempt to lift their sights to a spiritual plane, for only on this plane is life lived which is 'eternal' (27).

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

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

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

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

That is the cue for Jesus to make one of his great 'I am' statements: 'I am the bread of life' (35).

Only by coming to Jesus, by believing in him will people 'never be hungry ... never be thirsty' (35). The ultimate satisfaction in life is through union with Christ. But this will be explored further in the verses which follow (i.e. come back for next week's sermon)!

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

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sunday 29 July 2018 - 17th Ordinary Sunday

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings (related):

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

Comments:

2 Kings 4:42-44

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

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

Psalm 145:10-18

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

Ephesians 3:14-21

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two: 18-19 concerns the 'comprehension' and 'knowledge' of the believer. In verse 18 the prayer is that the believer 'may have power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth' (of what?) and in verse 19 'to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge'. We should understand verse 18 as either applying to comprehension of the 'wisdom of God in its rich variety' (3:10) or 'the love of Christ' (19), noting also the grounding 'in love' of verse 17.

Either way, Paul's invoking of breadth/length/height/depth is an invoking of the unlimited and multiple dimensions of what is available from God - Father, Christ and Spirit - for the believer. That which is available we might also describe as 'the boundless riches of Christ' (3:8).

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

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

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

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

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

John 6:1-21

Introduction

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

John 6:1-15

In this version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we notice a connection being made with the Passover (4). This reference seems a bit random, especially noticing the setting of the scene, beside the Sea of Galilee (1), which is a long way from Jerusalem (see 7:1). But John may be making an anticipatory point, looking ahead to 7:1: the popularity of Jesus in Galilee will make life difficult for him when he visits Jerusalem. Closer at hand, the reference to the Passover has resonance with later talk in this chapter of "bread from heaven": the original Passover story in Exodus is followed by escape from Egypt (through terrifying waters, cf, 6:16-21) and the provision of manna (from heaven) to feed and sustain Israel.

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

The Feeding of the Five Thousand has always been a story with numbers in it (5000 men, 5 loaves, 2 fish, 12 baskets). Here Philip calculates 5000 mouths in terms of numbers of dollars: 'Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.' (In a rough calculation, noting I can buy a bag of 14 buns for c. $5 from my local supermarket, it would take c. $3,500 to buy two buns per man at this picnic if it occurred today, noting that gospel descriptions of '5,000 men" could imply there were additionally 1000s of women and children also present. I leave it to you, dear reader, to work out how many months wages $3,500 represents!).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 6:16-21

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

There are several lake stories featuring storms in the gospels. All feature boats and terrified disciples. Not all feature Jesus walking on the water. This one does (19). This one is also ambiguous about the terror: were they terrified by the storm or by the sight of Jesus (perhaps not recognised) walking on the water. Jesus' response in verse 20 is consistent with either cause of terror. Either

'It is I (so do not worry about the storm because I will take care of everything)' or

'It is I (hey, it's me, Jesus, not a ghost or apparition, so stop panicking).'

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

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

Nevertheless this story makes one critical point, for which a little knowledge of Greek is important! When, in verse 20, discussed above, Jesus says (according to English translations) "It is I, do not be afraid," we miss the Greek which is, literally, "I am - do not be afraid." The "I am" is an assertion of identity with God the "I AM" (revealed to Moses in the Burning Bush event, Exodus 3). Not only is this identity important for the whole of John's Gospel as John presents Jesus the Son who is sent from the Father and who is one with the Father; but it is critical for what follows as Jesus explains that he is the Bread of Life, the living Manna from Heaven. As the I AM, Jesus has been feeding Israel always and will do so for ever.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday 22 July 2018 - 16th Ordinary Sunday

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

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

Collect: P18:1

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

Readings (related):

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

Comments:

Jeremiah 23:1-6

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

But all is not lost: the Lord will 'attend' to them for their 'evil doings' (2). Then the Lord himself will intervene to 'gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them' (3).

Then, so to speak, the order of shepherds will be restored (4). But, in particular, 'the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land' (5, see also 6).

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

Psalm 23

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

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

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

Ephesians 2:11-22

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

What do we find in verse 11? 'So then ...' Paul wants his Gentile readers to remember what the 'blood of Christ' (13) has achieved: it has brought them into relationship with Christ.

In turn this means that they have been brought into relationship with 'the commonwealth of Israel' (12), two groups, Gentiles and Jews which Christ 'in his flesh ... has made ... into one' (14). This in fact is 'one new humanity' (15), reconciled 'to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it' (16).

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

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

What does your church and mine look like by comparison?

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

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

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking up the passage again at verse 53, we find Jesus and the apostles now moored at Gennesaret. Again the people 'recognise' Jesus and 'rush' about, corralling up the sick and bringing them to 'wherever they heard he was' (55). Many healings take place as people 'begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak' (56).

The passage ends with Jesus being (so to speak) the Most Popular Person in Palestine, except with religious leaders in Jerusalem. They are waiting to examine his theology once again in chapter 7.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sunday 15 July 2018 - 15th Ordinary Sunday

Note: I know that through July we have the option of celebrating a series of special themes/matters in the life of the church: Sea Sunday, Social Services Sunday, Bible Sunday ... The fact that I am not providing material specific to those Sundays should not be inferred as meaning I do not think we should focus on such themes/matters. We can and it is right and proper if we do so choose.

Theme(s): John the Baptist /

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

Collect:

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

Readings (related):

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

Comments:

Amos 7:7-15

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

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

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

The king is less powerful than the Lord God.

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

Psalm 85:8-13

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

Ephesians 1:3-14

We now switch from 2 Corinthians passages to passages drawn from Ephesians.

Ephesians is a profound theological letter, which explores the great plan of God to bring all things in the universe together into unity (10), charting the role Jesus Christ plays through his death in putting wrongs to right in order that what has been divided might be unified.

In this passage we see Christ mentioned frequently: actually, in every verse, as "Jesus Christ" or "Christ" or "the Beloved" or "he" or "him."

Christ's role, especially through verses 4-7 are to enable us to be adopted into God's family (5), as holy and blameless children (4) because we have been redeemed and forgiven (7). The great overcoming of disunity, we could say - Paul is saying, is the reunifying of humanity with God through the blood of Christ sacrificed that we might be reconciled to God.

Beyond that, there is a lot we can say - there is a sermon in every verse here!

So, just one more thing here: verse 3 is an extraordinary and wonderful claim, that "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, ... has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places." Every spiritual blessing means that there is nothing we are missing out on, nothing we need to seek for the blessed life which is apart from Christ. As Christians we follow Christ who gives us every spiritual blessing. When we talk about being "in Christ" - our participation in Christ, Christ dwelling in us and we in him - we are talking about the greatest life we can ever live, the fullest life possible.

Are we enjoying those blessings?

Mark 6:14-29

Mark performs a trick of narration through word association.

Our reading last week (6:1-13) finished with the disciples succeeding in their mission. This week's reading begins with Herod hearing 'of it, for Jesus' name had become known' (14). Then Mark reports that some were explaining Jesus' mission in terms of 'John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead and for this reason these powers are at work in him' (14).

Verses 15 and 16 then report that others were saying that Jesus was Elijah and yet others thought him one of the other prophets while Herod dismisses the alternatives and declares 'John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.' Thus Mark creates the cue to tell the story of John's execution (17-29). 'For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John ... (17).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last part of the story is poignant.

'When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb' (29). 

When we read this verse we realise that Mark is anticipating the death of Jesus himself (compare 6:29 with 15:46).

So Mark takes time here to tell at great length why and how John died because he is anticipating the later story of the death of Jesus. A death which will need to be explained (how does a good man die the death of a criminal?) just as John's death has needed explaining. Here he lays the ground work for how the story of Jesus will unfold: Jesus challenges power and authority; that power and authority resists the challenge, and responds by negating the challenge through the finality of death (so they thought).

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