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.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

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

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

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

Collect: P8.1

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

Readings (related):

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

Comments:

Ezekiel 33:7-11

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

Psalm 119:33-40

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

Romans 13:8-14

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

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

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

Matthew 18:15-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Sunday, August 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

Readings - related:

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

Comments:

Jeremiah 15:15-21

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

Psalm 26:1-8

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

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

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

Romans 12:9-21

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 16:21-28

There are three parts to this passage.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday 24 August 2014 - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

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

Collect: Pent 8:2

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

Readings (related):

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

Comments:

Isaiah 51:1-6

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

Psalm 138

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

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

Romans 12:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthews 16:13-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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