Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday 1 March 2015 - Second Sunday in Lent

Theme(s): Self-denial / Taking up the cross / Following Jesus / Faith

Sentence: No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God (Romans 4:20).

Collect:

Servant God, grant us opportunity
give us willingness
to serve you day by day;
that what we do
and how we bear each other's burdens,
may be our sacrifice to you. Amen.

Readings:

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm 22:23-31

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38

Comments:

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

As best I can tell this reading is connected to the gospel reading via the epistle reading! The epistle reading talks of  what Jesus has done for us by dying and rising again (see the first verses of the gospel reading where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection). It also talks about 'inheriting the world' (Romans 4:13) which connects with Jesus' own talk about gaining or losing the world (Mark 8:33-37).

But the epistle reading also talks about Abraham and his faith that against the odds his aged wife would bear a son who would begin the fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham that through him and Sarah they would beget a great and flourishing nation. In these verses God restates his promise to Abraham re a great inheritance (verses 1-7) and Abraham is shown in verses 16-17 to not believe God!

Psalm 22:23-31

Jesus himself cited Psalm 22 while dying on the cross (verse 1) and he may in fact have recited the whole psalm. In these verses praise is given to the Lord on the other side (so to speak) of the affliction suffered in the first part of the psalm. In that way the psalm connects to Jesus' prediction in Mark 8:31 that he will suffer, die and rise again.

Romans 4:13-25

In context this passage is part of Paul's unfolding argument to the Romans concerning the righteousness of God, who receives it and how. In verse 13 Paul characterises the situation in terms of inheritance: 'For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.' The phrase 'inherit the world' connects this epistle to the gospel and reference there to 'gain the whole world' (Mark 8:36). But connections can also be made in respect of the purpose of Jesus dying and rising from the dead.

In the context of today's set of Lent 2 readings we might read this passage as a commentary on Jesus' teaching on discipleship in Mark 8:31-38. From that perspective this passage makes the point that 'faith' is the key to inheriting the present and future blessing God has for us. Abraham exemplifies the faithful disciple who trusts God for what is promised but which is not yet seen. When Jesus teaches that denying self and taking up one's cross in order to follow him means a willingness to lose life in order to gain life, implicitly disciples of Jesus must be people of unwavering (Romans 4:20) faith.

Mark 8:31-38

Jesus is still in Galilee but he is seeing the cross ahead of him in Jerusalem. After the triumphs of healings, deliverances and feeding miracles, it must have been a shock to the disciples when Jesus began teaching them 'that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected ... and be killed'. We can readily imagine that after that triad they did not really comprehend 'and after three days rise again' (31).

Having confessed that Jesus was the Messiah (29), Peter could not more clearly demonstrate that he had no idea what kind of Messiah Jesus was than his blurted rebuke (32). Jesus calls him out by highlighting his false understanding through addressing him as 'Satan' (33). Ouch! Jesus then goes on to carefully clarify what is wrong: Peter is thinking 'human things' rather than 'divine things' (33).

What Jesus then goes on to say, notably to 'the crowd with his disciples' (34) explains what 'divine things' versus 'human things' mean for every day living: a different kind of Messiah has different kind of followers from the Messiah Peter has in mind.

In summary Jesus says that the suffering he will undergo will be the suffering his followers undergo. Through history this has proven to be the case as Christians have been martyred for their faith. As I write many Christians around the world are troubled by the story of 21 Coptic Christians martyred in the last week or so for their faith by ISIS on a beach in Libya.

Our question reading what Jesus says is a question not only about how we might conduct ourselves through the demanding season of Lent but also how we will conduct ourselves through the demanding years of life itself!

When Jesus says "If any want to become my followers" (34), he is laying it on the line. He might have said, "Do you really understand what it means to be my followers? Let me lay it on the line for you, unvarnished, raw and robust!"

What is laid on the line is this:

"let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (34).

A first reflection is to connect this back to the 'divine things' of verse 33: if we are serious about God then we cannot live life as we please but must live to please God and in that living be open to the whole life of God filling out lives. Thus the cost of that fullness of divine life is that we deny self, that is, open the whole of our lives to God. Yet here on earth, living the divine life, as Jesus is doing, is not to enjoy the applause of the world but its fear and antagonism which may lead literally to a cross and metaphorically leads to living as ones willing at any time to die for Christ.

A second reflection is provided by Jesus himself in verses 35-37. Very few people are willing to die for no return. Human nature looks for value in exchange for value: life is valuable so why deny self and be prepared to be crucified?

This is Jesus' answer:

"For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?"

Note that Jesus' characterises the possibilities of loss and gain in following him in a way which actually makes the non-follower liable to lose more than the follower!

But what do we make of these words? Our world is weighted towards the importance of this earthly life, exemplified by the desire of most people to live as long as possible, eagerly embracing every advance in medical treatment to prolong life. In living that longer life we then find ourselves attempting to live the fullest life possible, exemplified by the desire of many people to travel far and wide to experience as much of the variety of life on earth as we can absorb. Is it now harder than in Jesus' own day to contemplate that the best life is yet to be, is to be found by travelling to the other side of death and not to the other side of the planet?

Questions such as these take on an edge when we read the last verse of the passage. Jesus envisages what most of us try not to think about: a day of reckoning 'when he comes in the glory of the Father and with the holy angels' (38b). On that day what will be revealed about ourselves? Will we be among those who are 'ashamed of [Jesus] and [his] words'?


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday 22 February 2015 - First Sunday in Lent

Theme(s): Covenant / Suffering / Lent / Salvation / Baptism / Temptation and Testing / Wilderness

Sentence: Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress. (Isaiah 33:2)

Collect:

Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Readings:

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Comments:

Introductory Comment:

We read these readings from the perspective of Lent. The Genesis and Peter readings raise many questions which will not be dealt with here. Rather we focus on what they contribute to our journey with Jesus through Lent to the cross.

Genesis 9:8-17

This reading is connected to our epistle reading (see below). At the heart of the story of Noah is the question of relationship between God and humanity, a relationship which has gone very seriously wrong. With the flood, God destroys the unrighteous and saves, via the ark, the righteous (i.e. Noah and his family). In these verses God says that this mammoth act of judgment will not occur again. The rainbow will function as a sign of God's covenant not to act in this way again.

Thus a central theme in the story is God's willingness to engage verbally with humanity, via covenants which spell out what God's plan for humanity is. Soon there will be a covenant with Abraham, then with Moses, followed by a Davidic covenant and then the promise of a new covenant.

Although Mark's account of the baptism of Jesus does not mention a rainbow, it does mention the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove (which also features in the story of Noah). In other words, the covenant-making God is at work in the story of the baptism of Jesus.

Every covenant God makes, including this one here, is part of the assurance through words, that God cares for the world and is committed to the salvation of God's people.

Psalm 25:1-10

What is Lent? In part it is a time of learning, of discipline, of care and attention to the obedient life of a disciples of Christ. Verses 4-5 point us in the direction we need to go; with a reinforcement in verses 8-10.

1 Peter 3:18-22

This reading and Genesis 9:8-17 (from the story of Noah) are obviously linked together, but what is the link to the gospel reading on this first Sunday in Lent?

I suggest the link is provided by the first and last verses of the passage: Jesus 'suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God' (with v. 22 observing that this suffering was vindicated). In Lent we journey with the suffering Jesus, the Jesus who suffers by resisting Satan's temptations, suffers by bending his will to God's will as he travels to Jerusalem knowing the destiny which awaits him, suffers false accusations, a manipulated set of trials, mocking, scourging and finally crucifixion itself.

Verses 19-21 are food for commentarial thought. Peter segues off 'alive in the spirit' in v. 18 to talk about what Jesus then did. The narrative of preaching to imprisoned spirits is connected to the creedal phrase 'descended to the dead' and to 1 Peter 4:6. Beyond that we have no other testimony in Holy Scripture to this action by Jesus. What is Peter saying? Can the spirits of dead disobedient people be released to new life in God? (Cue discussion of praying for the dead, talk of Purgatory and so forth.) If so, note that Peter does not say anything about whether we should pray about such release? Was this action of Jesus a 'one off' proclamatory event, that is, not an event we should rely on as precedent for what happens (say) to ourselves re a future 'second chance' should we choose to live disobediently to God? I'll stop my brief discussion here, for reasons of insufficient time. But clearly a long and lively discussion could ensue. Either way, I do not think these verses are the reason why this reading is chosen for this day.

Verses 20-21 take us to Noah, as an exemplary figure from a time when the inhabitants of the earth 'did not obey'. He then says that when Noah's family were saved in the ark in the midst of the flooding of the earth it was a 'prefiguring' (or, we can say, 'type') of baptism (another link with the gospel reading). Verse 21 is then a theology of baptism: this needs careful thought lest we misunderstand what is being said. I will make just one point here: when Peter writes 'And baptism ... now saves you' he is not saying that we just need to be baptised and we are saved. His point is more subtle than that, because he integrates baptism into the state of our consciences and understands a 'good conscience' as coming 'through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.' Salvation comes through Jesus Christ and we receive salvation as we receive Christ and that, reading the rest of the epistle, involves our inner faith as much as the outer baptism of water.

Mark 1:9-15

Although this passage begins with the baptism of Jesus we have already tackled this in Year A. Our focus today is on verses 12 and 13, the immediate aftermath of the baptism in which the Spirit drives Jesus 'out into the wilderness.'

Mark tells us that Jesus 'was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.'

We can read a lot into these words. The wilderness was the place where Israel was tested between leaving Egypt and entering the promised land, with 40 days here matching 40 years of Israel's sojourn through the wilderness. Israel is God's Son and now Jesus Christ, the Son of God is tested like the whole people he represents. But Elijah, a prophet with many resemblances to Jesus' prophetic ministry, also went into the wilderness for 40 days (1 Kings 19:4-8).

The specific reference to Satan tempting Jesus recalls (at least) the temptation of Adam and Eve and the testing of Job. If Jesus is to be the 'one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world' then he needs to pass the test which Adam and Eve failed. If Jesus is to truly suffer or experience true suffering, then he, like Job, must be tested through suffering.

The wild beasts are more difficult to interpret. Is this reference to the extent of the wilderness experience: wild beasts threatened to devour him? Or, does this mention imply that when Jesus was with the wild beasts, they were tamed by him who has come to reverse the effects of the fall? The latter is more likely because Mark makes nothing of the threat to Jesus, but in a story about the Saviour who restores the world it makes sense to include references to the ways in which God's new creation is taking effect.

The ministry of the angels recalls both the ministering angels to Israel during its forty years in the wilderness as well as the angel ministering to Elijah during his wilderness experience.

Coming out of the wilderness, Jesus begins to preach the gospel and to inaugurate the kingdom.

The specific sequence of 'baptism' then 'temptation' may not be the typical experience of every Christian disciples, but most disciples experience sharp testing at times in our walk with the Lord.

If we think of the wilderness experience as 'preparation for ministry' then we are reminded here that our efforts to minister in Jesus' name are best served by appropriate preparation.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunday 15 February 2015 - 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Theme(s): healing / Cleansing / Faithfulness

Sentence: You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. (Psalm 30:11-12)

Collect:

Mighty God,
strong, loving and wise,
help us to depend upon your goodness
and to place our trust in your Son.
Amen.

Readings:

2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Comments:

2 Kings 5:1-14

Sometimes matching the Old Testament reading with the Gospel has the feel of matching the right wine with the main dish for the day. Here the meat of Jesus healing a leper is matched with the wine of God healing Naaman from leprosy.

A common matter between the two stories is suffering from leprosy but from there most points of possible comparison do not match. Naaman is a named and high ranking Aramean: the gospel leper is unnamed and no particular importance is attached to him. Naaman is healed 'at a distance' whereas Jesus heals the leper with a touch.

But the end result is the same: both lepers are 'clean' as a result of their healing. We cannot underestimate the importance of that word: lepers had a bad social status, people avoiding them in the hope of avoiding catching leprosy. Healing meant not only the end of the disease but also the restoration of social status as a 'clean' person.

Psalm 30

This psalm speaks of a psalmist in pitiable circumstances who has been brought out of them, from death to life so to speak. So the Lord is extolled and praised (as we might imagine the leper in today's gospel story might praise the Lord after being healed).

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Paul is not afraid to mix metaphors. He moves from a kind of drama metaphor (verses 19-23), becoming all things to all people, to a sporting metaphor (strictly, set of metaphors). In the process he switches topics a little, from winning the world for Christ to making sure he does not lose his share in the blessings of the gospel (23). But by the end of 27 he is back to the matter of proclaiming the gospel.

His point is simple. Those who will be ultimately and permanently blessed by the gospel are those who remain faithful in the ministry of the gospel to the end.

Just as Paul does all he can to win others for Christ, so he will do all he can to remain faithful in the service of the gospel. He is not here talking about qualifying for the blessings (that has been done for him by Christ) but of avoiding disqualification. The emphasis on 'self-control' in the passage implies that we could disqualify ourselves by failing to be faithful in our obedience to God through the long course of our lives.

Mark 1:40-45

Mark is a seriously good story teller! On the face of it, this is the story of the healing of a leper. Rightly we marvel at the miracle and, as readers, become more and more impressed through a succession of such stories by Mark's overall aim to persuade his readers (or reinforce their belief) that Jesus is the Son of God.

But digging deeper into the story (or, alternatively, reading the story slowly so we take in each nuanced detail), we see Mark telling us a number of things about Jesus and his life situation.

The leper has implicit faith in Jesus: if Jesus chooses he can heal him, if not, he will not be healed (40).

Is it a mixture of need (the man's leprosy), the humble begging on his knees and the simple trusting faith which means Jesus is 'Move with pity'? (41).

Jesus responds to the direct question about choosing to heal by saying 'I do choose. Be made clean!' (41) But this conversational logic raises the question of the role of God's will in healing: does God sometimes will healing to take place, and by implication, sometimes will for healing not to take place? Then the attitude and approach of the leper begs the question whether the way we pray makes a difference to God's will to heal. Food for thought! Mark is not telling the story in this way to establish a comprehensive 'theology of prayer for healing' but he must have been alert to questions of his fellow disciples when he wrote: Does the risen Jesus still heal today? Is it God's will to heal my sickness? When he reports Jesus saying 'I do choose', at the very least, he is expressing the view that healing is not guaranteed every time we ask for it.

The report in 42 that 'Immediately' the man was healed is part and parcel of Mark's overall strategy of presenting Jesus as the powerful Son of God.

The next few verses begin/continue a theme in the gospel called 'the Messianic Secret.' Jesus asks the recipient of a miracle not to say anything about it. ('Begin' if we think about humans being commanded to say nothing; 'continue' if we think about demons already commanded to be silent, 1:34).

Why would Jesus not want the world to know about such a powerful demonstration of his divinity?

Cutting through a whole lot of scholarly discussion the best answer remains (in my view) that Jesus sought to control the reception of his ministry, lest it generate the wrong kind of following. A man making the unclean clean is a man with potential to change society (because able to shift people from the margins to the centre), that is, to be a political messiah, a new king threatening the colluding rule of Herod and Caesar. Jesus has come to establish a different kind of kingdom, not least because it is not going to be confined to the geographical territory of Israel. The moment for revealing that kingdom plan has not yet arrived.

But it is to no avail. The man goes out and about proclaiming the miracle freely and so 'to spread the word' (45). Ironically, Mark portrays one who disobeys Jesus while acting as a model disciple-witness! The gospel which Mark is writing is a message to be proclaimed and spread around the world ... at the right time.

A final subtlety to note is Jesus' insistence that the cleansed leper does the right thing by the Law of Moses (44): 'as a testimony to them (= the laws of Moses)' means that Jesus is not intending to be anything other than a Law-abiding Jew. That, later, he will get into trouble with his contemporary guardians of the Law will be their false understanding of the Law and not his disobedience of it. Mark makes this point along the way of this story. It is not his main point but he makes sure it is made as a minor note within it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sunday 8th February 2015 - 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Can anyone explain why we have moved from last Sunday being the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany to this Sunday being the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time? Why not the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany?

Theme(s): Healing / Restoration / Obligation to preach / All things to all people

Sentence: Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up (Mark 1:31)

Collect:

Almighty God,
you have called us to serve you,
yet without your grace
we are not able to please you;
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings:

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Comments:

Isaiah 40:21-31

Isaiah 40 is the beginning of the second part of Isaiah which is (so to speak) a charter for the future restoration of creation (i.e. the kingdom of God), including the restoration of Israel from its Babylonian exile (the immediate issue facing God's people at the time of writing).

In this part of the beginning of the charter, the prophet paints a verbal picture of the transcendent might and power of God, yet a power and awesomeness which is personal: the weary in Israel will receive new strength and power from the Almighty God (27-31).

These last verses are the particular connection with the gospel reading today as we see new strength come to Peter's mother-in-law.

But the first part of the Isaianic reading reminds us that from Isaiah onwards 'God' in Israel's theology was re-envisioned as God of the whole world, not just of Israel. In a context where nations had their gods, and even tribes had tribal gods, the 'theological achievement' of Isaiah is not to be under valued.

When Jesus comes, the kingdom of God which he proclaims is not only the new rule of God over Israel but also the rule of God over the whole world.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

This psalm sets a context for the compassionate miracles of Jesus recounted in Mark's Gospel. What Jesus does is God in action, as anticipated here: 'He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds' (3).

One phrase particularly links with Mark's story of the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law: 'The Lord lifts up the downtrodden' (6b, see Mark 1:29-31 where Jesus takes the woman by the hand and 'lifts her up').

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Paul's letter is a series of responses to situations in the church in Corinth, but one situation appears to be Corinthian Christians questioning Paul's status as an 'apostle' (see verses 1-15). Possibly there were multiple questions such as Is Paul really an apostle like Cephas? Does he have the status of the (real) apostles and the brothers of the Lord? He's paid too much, isn't he? The last question (it seems reasonable to presume such a question was being asked, 6-14) invokes intriguing talk of "rights", otherwise a concept which we might think to be recent and modern!

Out of a defensive rejoinder to the grizzling about him (1-15) Paul hits a purple patch about the special character of his apostleship in our passage.

(1) Whatever anyone says about him, 'an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel' (16). Paul can only do what he is doing because there is no alternative.

(2) Preaching the gospel is its own reward (17-18, also 23).

(3) Short of changing the essence of the gospel, Paul will do anything in order to win people to Christ. If he needs to be Jewish 'in order to win Jews' he will be Jewish (20); if he needs to be a non-Jew 'so that I might win those outside of the law' he will become 'as one outside the law' (21). In fact, cutting to his own summary, 'I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some' (22).

The great question for declining churches in the world today is what must we become to be 'all things to all people'?

Mark 1:29-39

One of the theories about the authorship of Mark's Gospel is that it was written by John Mark but what he wrote down was largely the teaching of Simon Peter, perhaps as he taught in the churches in Rome in the 60s AD. (We have the theory because ancient church history attests to this explanation, but we cannot prove that it is fact). If Simon Peter is the author behind the author then it is understandable that this passage includes an intimate family story: Simon's mother in law is ill, Jesus comes as a guest to her house, heals her and she repays the favour by serving Jesus and the disciples (29-31). But Mark tells the story in a manner which is theological as well as biographical.

First, a healing with names highlights the general point Mark will go on to make: Jesus healed many people (32-34) and these healings were integrated into the mission of preaching the kingdom of God is near (1:15, 38-39). Always in this gospel, deeds back up words and words are accompanied by deeds. If the kingdom of God is near we would expect illness to be overcome, since illness is a denigration of the original kingdom of God, creation itself; and we would expect demons, antagonists against the rule of God, to be expelled (34, 39).

Secondly, Mark makes a theological point when he tells us that Jesus physically led her out of illness to new life: 'he took her by the hand and lifted her up' (31). Illness has cast her down but Jesus lifts her up. There is a hint here of resurrection. There is more than a hint of a work of restoration. Healing is not simply the removal of illness from a person's life but a work of renewal of life.

Thirdly, by telling us that when she was lifted up, Peter's mother in law 'served them', Mark also makes a point that the work of the kingdom, the restoring of health, is purposeful for the ongoing life of the kingdom in which the hallmark of relationships with one another is that we serve each other (see importantly 10:45).

Finally, note that Mark picks up another 'marker' in the life of Jesus when he interrupts his telling of the progress of the preaching of the kingdom by recounting an intimate detail of Jesus' life with God: Jesus took time out to go out to the wilderness to pray. Here, Mark is saying, is both the secret of Jesus' power (his relationship with God) and a model for disciples reading the gospel (we too, like Jesus, should go to quite places for quiet times of prayer).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday 1 February 2015 - 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

(An alternative is to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, or Candlemas, otherwise set down for 2 February 2015).

Theme(s): Authority / Power / Authoritative teaching / Preaching with power / Exorcism / Spiritual warfare.

Sentence: They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22)

Collect:

Teach us, Jesus
how to live and worship
without being worldly or greedy.
Drive from our lives what spoils them
and make us temples of the Spirit.

Readings:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Comments:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The words of this passage are background to the gospel reading today. While we may properly explore the ways in which Jesus was 'more than' a prophet, he was never less than a prophet of God, one, that is, distinctively called of God to proclaim the message of God often in contrast or even opposition to prevailing understanding of God and God's will according to the religious establishment of Israel. Thus here, where there is both prediction that God 'will raise up for you a prophet like me' (15) and prospectus (so to speak) of what the prophet will be like and how Israel will know that this prediction has been fulfilled, we are invited to read the passage and measure Jesus against it.

Psalm 111

The words of this psalm are background to the gospel reading today. When Jesus acts in power and teaches with authority he does so as the representative, indeed as the embodiment of the God of Israel, the God who, according to this psalm, performs great works which are 'studied by all who delight in him' (2), who (like Jesus in the gospel reading) 'has gained renown by his wonderful deeds' (4). A recurring theme here is God's covenant with Israel (5, 9): when Jesus comes to Israel, he comes in fulfilment of the great covenant of God, revealed in different ways and on different occasions, through Abraham, Moses and David, yet essentially the one covenant, that God will be ISrael's God and Israel will be God's people.

When Jesus performs miraculous deeds, he demonstrates that God remains Israel's loving God.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

In just 13 verses Paul traverses significant ground - ecclesiology, theology, christology - while talking about what Christians eat!

1 Corinthians is a series of responses to a series of issues in or questions raised by the Corinthian church. In chapter 8 we switch away from sexuality and marriage (chapters 5-7) to the question of 'food sacrificed to idols' (1). This question must have been deeply troubling to the early churches. Not only does it feature here but Paul comes back to it in 1 Corinthians 10. Across in Rome it was an issue because the matter is tackled in Romans 14-15. It is also a feature of the letters to the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 2-3).

The gist of what Paul is saying is that in a community of Christians, some of whom come from Gentile backgrounds and thus used to worship idols, some of whom come from Jewish backgrounds and thus are used to thinking idols are nothing (the gods they represent do not exist), some of whom are rich (and thus may afford meat not offered to idols and/or regularly receive invites to dinner with their Gentile-idol worshipping business and social colleagues) and some of whom are poor (and thus may rarely eat meat, and then it may be meat distributed after public festivals dedicated to idols), care needs to be taken not to destroy faith in other believers.

In verses 1- 3 Paul is challenging those Christians who use their 'knowledge' or assurance that idols do not really exist (4) and who thus cheerfully eat meat dedicated previously to idols to work out their life choices on the basis of love and not knowledge: 'Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up' (1), a theme which is touched on again in chapter 13.

In verse 7 Paul makes the observation that 'It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge.' These are the folk whom love needs to build up! In the remainder of verse 7 he spells out who these members of the Corinthian church are: Gentiles whose minds are so imbued with their previous worship of idols that they cannot freely partake of meat offered to those idols. They are the 'weak' whom the 'strong'- those who have 'liberty' (9) on the matter - may yet destroy (11).

Paul has a particular concern in verse 10 that those who are strong, in this case strong enough to actually go into a temple of an idol and partake in a meal there, may lead astray the weak because the weak (on this matter) might not just have a sensitive conscience re eating meat offered to idols, but be led to actually eat such meat with a damaging effect on their consciences.

Paul goes on to underline the severity of the sin of the strong on this matter: 'you sin against Christ' (12). Then he spells out the radical action he recommends, that is the action he himself would do if he were in Corinth: 'I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall' (13).

This is strong stuff! It works from the demands of life in the church (ecclesiology) to establish a general principle of church life (love builds up) to a specific recommendation: when meat is the cause of stumbling, stick to vegetables.

Observant readers here will have noted that I have passed over verses 4-6. Here Paul takes a kind of sidetrack. Having reminded his readers in verse 4 that when we know that 'there is no God but one' then (consequently) 'no idol in the world really exists', he goes on to make several statements about gods, God and Jesus Christ. In doing this he sets out what has proved over time to be a significant Pauline statement about theology and christology, providing grist for the mill of many doctoral theses and erudite scholarly monographs and articles!

Here, understandably, we have neither time nor space to reproduce these works. But we can make these observations:
- Verse 5 reads (e.g.) in the NRSV as a contradiction because Paul seems to admit that (despite his contrary statement in 4) that there 'may be so-called gods'. We should read this as a statement bookended by v. 4 and v. 6, that is, Paul is not saying there are many gods but that many gods are worshipped by many people, as though they do exist, and thus the reality of this worship of false gods is a strong factor in human experience.
- Verse 6 is likely an early Christian confession already in existence when Paul cited it here. (See Romans 11:36 and Colossians 1:15-16 for (relatively) comparable creedal statements).
- the two parts of verse 6 are parallel statements re 'oneness' which are significant as we search the New Testament for signs of early belief that Jesus Christ was believed to be identified with God as included in the one God of Israel; yet there are subtle differences which distinguish 'God, the Father' from 'one Lord, Jesus Christ.' In the former case creation is 'from whom are all things and for whom we exist' and in the latter case creation is 'through whom are all things and through whom we exist.'

Mark 1:21-28

The disciples are following Jesus (see last week's gospel reading). Within a few days they are in the thick of Jesus' ministry: thick with teaching, miraculous action and publicity.

Jesus the teacher presumably has some kind of relationship with the synagogue of Capernaum before his appearance on this occasion (21). Perhaps beforehand his teaching had caused no particular excitement. Now, baptised, tested in the wilderness and with a company of disciples, Jesus teaches and his congregation is 'astounded' (22) because 'he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes' (22).

We rightly ask, as readers, what does 'taught as one having authority' mean. One insight comes from realising the Greek word translated as 'authority' can also mean 'power.' In part the astonishment may concern the fact that Jesus was an ordinary Galilean, not one of the scribes (i.e. members of the Jewish establishment). Nevertheless something seems out of the ordinary because of the note re astonishment.

Whatever the power of Jesus' teaching means in respect of his words, we are soon told by Mark that his powerful/authoritative teaching was backed up by powerful deeds. On this occasion the power is the ability to rebuke an evil or 'unclean' spirit inhabiting a man present in the synagogue and to command that spirit to leave the man (23-26). Here Jesus performs the role of exorcist.

Note that Mark also tells us that the unclean spirit recognises who Jesus is and makes a confession about his status, 'I know who you are, the Holy One of God' (24). Thus Mark the narrator and theologian is cleverly communicating a lot of stuff to his readers. This is what Jesus said and did, this is how people responded to Jesus (27), this is who Jesus is. Mark is convincing his readers that Jesus is no ordinary man or teacher. Jesus is a powerful, dynamic person: actually, by the end of the gospel, Jesus is the Son of God.

Conversely, note what Mark does not tell us about this sabbath incident: at this stage there is no controversy over acting on the sabbath (that will come later, 2:23-3:6). Mark in this first chapter is intent on introducing Jesus to his audience, setting out the basic claim about who he is. Beginning with chapter 2 we see Jesus meeting human opposition and thus Mark begins to explain how the wonderful, astounding, authoritative, popular Son of God ends up dying on a cross.

A final note is that while Jesus does not yet meet human opposition, this encounter is an instance of spiritual opposition. In the encounter with the unclean spirit Jesus engages in 'spiritual warfare': Satan has already tempted him (1:12), now one of Satan' minions challenges him. The challenge is met, the opposition is silenced, the disturbed man is released from captivity to the spirit.

Do we receive the teaching of Jesus as authoritative?

Do we trust in Jesus as the victor in all aspects of spiritual warfare?


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday 25 January 2015 - 3rd Sunday of the Epiphany

(An alternative today is to celebrate the Conversion of St Paul, but I am choosing to go with the readings for the 3rd Sunday of the Epiphany.)

Theme(s): God's king / the kingdom of God / repentance / Repent and Believe / A new world

Sentence: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news (Mark 1:15)

Collect:

Jesus, our Redeemer,
give us your power to reveal and proclaim the good news,
so that wherever we may go
the sick may be healed, lepers embraced,
and the dead and dying given new life.

Readings:

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Comments:

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Jesus and Jonah both preach messages of repentance (and both are "buried" for three days)!

Jonah is one of the rare biblical prophets for whom people take notice and act on the prophetic message being proclaimed.

The last verse of the reading tells us of God's response to their repentance: he 'changed his mind' (10). In the context of the story of Jonah this is simply a statement about God adapting his will to the choice made by those to whom he speaks through his prophet: save debates about whether God has the kind of 'mind' which changes or whether God is somehow fickle and changeable to another day!

Psalm 62:5-12

This is not an easy reading to connect to the themes in today's gospel reading! The key link appears to be the reliance the psalmist puts on "God alone" (5, 6). Such a reliable, trustworthy God - by implication - is One who through his Son Jesus Christ calls us to "Follow him."

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[NB In last week's comment I made a mistake, stating that the 1 Corinthians reading on Sunday 18 January was not part of a series on 1 Corinthians through these weeks. It was and it is, as the provision of this next reading in the series makes clear].

1 Corinthians 5-7 is a sustained theology of marriage and sex. It only really works as a scriptural passage on marriage and sex if we read all of it (and then do so with our Bibles open in places such as Genesis as well). Nevertheless, constrained by the lectionary, today we read three verses, and important verses they are!

Why does Paul at various points in his exposition on marriage and sex urge radical action, including commending celibacy? These verses give the answer: "the appointed time has grown short" (29). The Greek word used can refer to curtains being gathered together or sails being furled: now that Christ has come, time is being wrapped up, the end is nigh!

Mostly we conclude from such phrases that Paul genuinely believed that chronological time was being wrapped up, that the Lord would return in a few years or even a few days time, and thus whether one married or did not marry (see verses 25-28) was immaterial. Yet Paul is not only thinking chronologically. When he writes "For the present form of this world is passing away" (31) he is talking about the in-breaking of the kingdom into the present age. Whether this age ends in a few years or days, or a thousand years from now, it is not the 'time' or 'period' it was before Christ came, died and rose again. Life is different now, and we should live differently if we belong to the kingdom of Christ as it breaks into the present form of this world.

All this, nevertheless, connects to the beginning of our gospel reading in which Jesus proclaims that "The time if fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near" (Mark 1:14).

Mark 1:14-20

Verses 14-15

The opening of Mark's gospel is over: John has prepared the way for Jesus and baptised him. Jesus has been tested in the wilderness. Now the work of mission to the world begins. Poignantly it begins at a point in time, according to Mark, when John has been arrested. Literally, John is moved aside for Jesus to take centre stage.

What does Jesus do? He preaches the gospel. Mark, in other words, introduces us to the mission of Jesus as primarily a mission of 'Word' or 'Message' ahead of 'Action' or 'Power'. The action/power (soon to come in v. 21) will illustrate and endorse the message, but the message is primary.

Thus the response to the preaching involves where the message is received, in the mind: "Repent, and believe in the good news" (15) where "Repent" is about changing the direction the mind is heading in and "believe" is about making a choice to entrust one's life to that which is being believed.

What is the message? It looks like it is this: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near" (15).

If so, we rejoice in a short, brief and to the point sermon ... and despair over understanding what it means! However it is worth asking whether the words "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news" (15) is Mark's summary of the preaching of Jesus (so the 'and' at the beginning of verse 15 is equivalent to "that is") or Mark's reporting the repeated conclusion to Jesus' preaching the good news (so the 'and' at the beginning of verse 15 is literally 'and' meaning Jesus preached the good news and this message as well, "The time is fulfilled ..."). On the latter understanding, we might turn to chapter 4 for some of the content of Jesus' preaching the good news.

Either way, the words in verse 15 are clearly very important in respect of the message of Jesus: they are the only particular words Mark reproduces for us.

Back to the question of what these words in the first part of verse 15 mean. Given the heavy influence of prophetic material in the preceding verses (e.g. citation of prophecy, John's role and demeanour as a prophet) we must assume that 'the time is fulfilled' relates to what the prophets previously had foretold would happen, that is, what the prophets foresaw as God's great restorative and re-creating intervention through his Messiah/Christ.

In turn, this means that 'the kingdom of God has come near' is about the lordship or sovereignty of God over the and within the world is no longer distant but close at hand. Indeed, the remainder of the gospel, as Jesus teaches with authority and acts in deliverance, healing and control over nature with power, demonstrates the personal character of the 'kingdom of God': the kingdom has come near because God's king is now present in the world.

Verses 16-20

Mark's is a gospel of immediacy - he is always telling us that Jesus immediately went from one thing to another. So in Mark's terms, unsurprisingly he tells the story of the calling of the first disciples simply (they fish, Jesus calls, nets are dropped, they follow) and bluntly (there are no introductions, no tentative first moves in getting to know one another).

Matthew copies Mark, Luke offers a different version (in which fishing remains central) and John mentions nothing about fishing and tells a quite different story about how Jesus met his first disciples. In all likelihood (not least because it is not human nature to act so abruptly) the disciples did not meet Jesus for the first time when he called them to follow him.

If so, then Mark is not so much telling us about the first time Jesus meets the disciples and they meet him, rather he is telling us about the decisiveness of the call of Jesus to discipleship. Whatever the "backstory" was to this encounter, on this day Jesus calls for total commitment and the fishermen give it. They leave their nets. They will no longer fish for fish. They will fish for people.

Of course later we read of other encounters in the gospel in which people encounter Jesus but he sends them back to their homes and does not ask them to follow him on the road. Many disciples today follow Jesus without a dramatic career change. Yet Mark does not tell us today's story with a "on the one hand there are those who ... and on the other hand there are those who ..." ending. So we can ask ourselves, What is Mark communicating to all disciple-readers of his gospel in 1:14-20?

What he is communicating is the importance of disciples responding to Jesus completely and fully, with a decisive break from former ways of living (i.e. "repentance") and total commitment to the new way of Jesus. Whether one serves in one's home village or on the road with Jesus himself is up to Jesus, but what he asks of every disciple is that they commit wholly to Jesus.

When the king of the kingdom of God is present we should take notice and when that king calls us to do something, we should obey!

A great question to pose and answer in a sermon on this passage, in the light of the above is 'How is all this good news?'

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sundays 4, 11, 18 January 2015

It being the holiday season this post (which will be developed as and when non-beach, non-cricket listening/watching, non-laziness overcomes me) encompasses three Sundays, respectively, 2nd Sunday of Christmas [making a choice to keep Epiphany to its mid-week fall on Tuesday 6th January), Baptism of the Lord, and 2nd Sunday of Epiphany. Comments likely will be briefer than during the main part of the year.

Sunday 4 January - 2nd Sunday of Christmas

Theme(s): The Word (of God) / Glory and grace / Christ blesses us / The deep meaning of Christmas

Sentence: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

Collect:

O God,
you wonderfully created
and yet more wonderfully restored
the dignity of human nature;
grant that we may share the divine life
of your Son Jesus Christ
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

Comments:

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Through Jeremiah, God looks forward to a better day for Israel. Israel scattered through exile will be returned and restored, the fulfilment of the promises of ancient days to the patriarchs.

As Christians we read this prophecy in the light of the coming of Jesus to be the Christ, the Anointed One of God for Israel. But the better day for Israel, through Christ, will become a better day for the whole world. See, for example, from our gospel reading, "the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world."

Psalm 147:12-20

The psalmist envisages the prosperity of Israel and does so in terms of the creation itself. When the world was created, new life came into being through the command of God, through the word of God making things happen (Genesis 1). Now God's word (15, 18, 19, 20) acts on nature for the good of God's people.

The same word of God, incidentally, as spoken of through 15-20 commands nature and constitutes the commands as know as 'the Law' (19-20).

This psalm, of course, is chosen with an eye on our gospel reading about the Word of God which is God and which became human flesh in order that God's people might be blessed.

Ephesians 1:3-14

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

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

John 1:1-18

A whole book could be written on this passage, sometimes called the Prologue to the Gospel of John. In large part the book would be a set of 18 reflections, each verse full of profound content for our understanding of God, of Christ, of God's plan for Christ (and therefore for us), of light and life and truth. Another part of the book would attend to a range of "issues." The background to the Prologue, for instance, with special reference to God's Wisdom and Word in the Old Testament as well as to the Logos (= Word) in Greek philosophy. There is a literary question to consider around the source or sources to the Prologue. Then something simply has to be said about the 'foreground' to the Prologue, that is, about the role it has played in the development of the church's theological understanding of who Jesus Christ was and is (i.e. 'Christology'). In a nutshell, without this passage we almost certainly would not be reciting the Nicene Creed in our services!

Here we will not provide the book but make the observation that while this passage can be read profitably at any time of the year, we read it within the Christmas season because it offers profound insight into 'the reason for the season.' Although the Prologue says absolutely nothing about the conception or birth of Jesus, let alone about his parents, angels, shepherds, wise men, sheep, oxen, straw or swaddling clothes, it says everything about why he came into the world (5, 7, 9, 12, 16, 17, 18) and what the nature of his coming was: nothing less than 'The Word became flesh' (14).

In summary, the Prologue says that at Christmas, God was born into the world in the baby Jesus. More succinctly, God became human.

The point of this amazing transformation of God is not that we should goggle-eyed yelp in amazement at a stupendous miracle. Rather, the point is that we should join our lives with the One who came to live among us, understanding who the unseen God is, now made visible in the man Jesus Christ, shifting from darkness to life, from destiny to death to embracing the unsurpassed grace of God given to us in Christ.



Sunday 11 January - Baptism of the Lord

Theme(s): Baptism // Baptism of Jesus and our baptism // Baptism in water and the Holy Spirit

Sentence: 'I have baptized you with water; but Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit' (Mark 1:8)

Collect:

Open the heavens, Holy Spirit,
for us to see Jesus interceding for us;
may we be strengthened to share his cup,
and ready to serve him forever. Amen.

Readings:

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Comments:

Genesis 1:1-5

We read the first part of the creation story today because the 'beginning' of creation is the beginning of the story of humanity which goes horribly wrong and the 'beginning' of the gospel begins as Jesus comes to John to be baptised, a beginning of a new story of creation in which Jesus dying on the cross begins to unravel what has gone horribly wrong.

In that first beginning the Spirit of God 'was hovering over the waters' (Genesis 1:2). In the second beginning, Jesus is baptised with water and the Spirit (in a sense) hovers over Jesus in his baptism and descends on him as a sign of God's favour and as an action in which Jesus is empowered for his work in unraveling what has gone wrong for humanity.

Psalm 29

This psalm is about the 'voice of the Lord' (3 etc). This voice is powerful and gives effect to God's will. The psalmist could speak simply of God's 'word' and its effects (including the commands which bring forth creation, Genesis 1) but by focusing on the 'voice' which utters the word of God, the psalmist emphasises the power of God's speech.

Acts 19:1-7

This is a very curious and very interesting episode in the history of the early church. It's curiosity lies in the bits of the narrative that raise more questions than answers. What kind of disciples or 'disciples' hear about Jesus but get baptised with John's baptism and not with Jesus' baptism? Were these disciples followers of John (with some knowledge of Jesus) or followers of Jesus (with some absence of knowledge of Jesus and his ways)?

The interest in the passage lies in its witness to the spread and endurance of the influence of John the Baptist. Here in Ephesus (i.e. in Turkey) either Ephesian people have been baptised into John's baptism or people who have been baptised into John's baptism have dispersed from Galilee/Judea to a city faraway.

Setting aside the historical interest in the influence of John the Baptist and (arguably) on the muddied waters of teaching and practice for some believers as they received both Baptist and Jesus traditions, the point Luke is getting across to his readers is a familiar one from other stories he tells: the hallmark of a believing disciple of Jesus (i.e. of a Christian) is reception of the Holy Spirit.

This is the same Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus when he was baptised. Between the gospel reading and this reading today, we should gain and hold to a conclusion that baptism with water 'in the name of the Lord Jesus' is integrally associated with the baptism of the Holy Spirit which Jesus pours out on all who believe in him.

Mark 1:4-11

If the 'beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah' occurs in the prophetic imagination of Isaiah (and Malachi), Mark 1:1-3, the beginning in terms of Jesus' own life, according to Mark, lies in the appearance of the adult John the Baptist (4).

John comes, as predicted by the prophets, to prepare the way for the Messiah called Jesus. He does so with a ministry of preaching, baptism and special premonition about the superiority of the one whose way he is preparing (4-8).

That Jesus is in an entirely different league to John the Baptist (who, to all appearances, interpreted in the light of the scriptures of Israel, is a prophet in the mode of Elijah) is underscored not only by John's description of his place relative to Jesus (7) but by the significant, category difference between their respective baptisms (8). John baptises with water, Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit. One offers an outward sign of inner change (note that people were baptised by John in conjunction with repentance from and confessing of sin, 4-5); the other will offer divine power to change from within (8).

With the scene set by Mark, Jesus arrives (9). Jesus belongs to Nazareth, a town in Galilee (9) and he finds John at the Jordan river where John baptises him (9). So far so like everyone else ministered to by John. But as Jesus comes out of the water 'he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove' (10). The implication is that only Jesus experiences John's baptism in this way, that is, with a baptism of the Holy Spirit superimposed on his baptism with water. To seal the matter of the specialness of the occasion, 'a voice came from heaven' (i.e. the divine voice) citing words recalling (at least) Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:7, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased" (11).

What do these words mean? We should take care not to read too much into these words! As Mark tells the story of Jesus (perhaps around 60 or 70 AD), he is not telling us that the Trinitarian Father God declares that the Trinitarian God the Son is now present on earth. (Though we need not jump in an opposite direction and declare that these words are inconsistent with the later agreement of the church about the Trinity). Rather, Mark likely is understanding that Jesus is a fusion of the 'king of Israel' (knowing that the words in Psalm 2 similar to these applied to the ancient kings of Israel) and of the promised 'suffering servant' of Isaiah's 'Servant Songs', of which Isaiah 42:7 is a part.

In short, the declaration of verse 11 is coherent with Mark already declaring that Jesus is 'the Messiah' or Anointed One of God (see 1:1). Indeed the coming down of the Spirit on Jesus is the anointing direct from God of that symbolised by the pouring of oil in ancient Israelite enthronements.

The Messiah has come. Israel has a new king. But this king is not as other kings have been, and God is with this king in a special way, marked both by the descent of the Spirit on him and by the declaration of 'love' and 'pleasure' in verse 11.

Sometimes we talk about 'love coming down at Christmas' and Christmas messages often emphasise 'God loves everyone.' The twist in this reading is that God's love comes down on 'my Son' and if we ever doubt that God's love for everyone could possibly include you or me, then we can be sure of this: that when we belong to Christ we belong to the One whom God loves and so we too are loved.

From another perspective, this reading might challenge us about the meaning of baptism for each baptised believer in Christ. Christ came to baptise with the Holy Spirit. Christ himself at his baptism received the Holy Spirit. The reality of water baptism is that it offers through a human ritual access to the very Spirit of God. Arguments about how much water or (for that matter) whether a little bit of water from the Jordan River itself makes a difference to the effectiveness of the baptism are beside the point. The great question of baptism is not how much water we have been baptised with but whether the Spirit of God is at work in our lives.

Sunday 18 January - 2nd Sunday of Epiphany

Theme(s): Disclosure of God's knowledge // Hearing God's Word // God's truth or our opinion?

Sentence: You will see greater things than these (John 1:50)

Collect:

Merciful God,
in Christ 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:

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Comments:

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Appropriately in this season of Epiphany or revelation, we read of the calling of Samuel to be prophet. In one way the story is 'cute': a small boy, dedicated to the Lord by a devout mother, lives in the Temple and at a very young age is distinctively and memorably called by God to future service. Those of us who first heard the story in Sunday School will have never forgotten it.

In another way the story is part of a larger tragic story. Verse 1 sets the sad scene, 'The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.'

Eli, under whom Samuel is serving, is part of the problem (2:12-17; 22-25; 27-36), as his family is greedily misusing their position of priestly privilege. In turn that family represents troubled Israel who in the next few chapters will press God to do their will (they want a king like other nations) rather than the other way around.

So it is wonderful that God calls Samuel to serve him but sad that he has to call him rather than permit the ministry of Eli to continue through his own sons.

Remembering that we are in the season of Epiphany, we read this story not only as a 'call' story (with all the inspiration and challenge which such biblical stories have for us) but also as a story of God's revelation to God's people. We have already noted that the narrator of 1 Samuel tells us that the context of this calling is a period in Israel's history when 'the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread' (1). This means that we are reading about a period in Israel's history when the spoken word of God (whether voiced through prophets or communicated through visionaries) brings guidance to Israel rather than the written word of God.

In the midst of the telling of the exchange between Samuel, the (unrecognised) Lord, and Eli, we read this description of Samuel: 'Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him' (7). Samuel serves the Lord in the Lord's temple but the narrator tells both ancient and present readers that such outward service is not the same as personal knowledge of God. Yet the subtlety of the description is such that the responsibility for this situation is not Samuel's alone: 'the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.' One of the great mysteries of Scripture, whether we read it here, or later reflect on Jesus' own words about those who do and who do not understand his teaching, or ponder Paul's teaching on predestination, is the manner in which people come to 'know' God and the role God plays in that knowledge.

At another level, this verse is also about Samuel who will be a seer or prophet of Israel. In that role he will hear from God what he is to say to God's people. He has not yet begun to hear from God. But now he will do so.

We might ponder for ourselves what we know of God.

We might also marvel at the sheer beauty of this story. Note, for instance, the subtlety of verse 3, 'the lamp of God had not yet gone out.' On one level of narration this is simply saying that the lights were still on as sleepiness overtook the occupants of the temple. On another level of narration we are being told that despite the ineptitude and decreptitude of Eli and his sons, the light of God was not extinguished. A faint flicker remained. God is about to fan it back into life.

If things are tough for you and your church today (as indeed they are very tough for, say, the church in Iraq and Syria), take courage and be hopeful: the lamp of God has not yet gone out.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

God knows everything! Revelation concerns receiving some of that knowledge. The psalmist acknowledges that the all-knowing God knows everything about the psalmist (that is, about every individual human).

In a world of exponentially expanding knowledge about life, the universe and everything in between (thanks Google!), this psalm reminds us to be humble. We know heaps more in 2014 than the psalmist knew, but it amounts to nothing much compared to what God knows!

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

To be frank, I am not quite sure why this reading has been chosen for today. (It is not part of a series of readings from 1 Corinthians through preceding and succeeding Sundays).

The major theme running through 1 Corinthians 5-7 is human sexuality and this passage nails down some very, very important matters for Christians to understand both carefully and full of care. (For instance, (1) our freedom in Christ is not freedom to indulge in sexual licence; (2) there is to be no casual sex for Christians (e.g. with a prostitute) for sex unites the bodies of two people into 'one body'/'one flesh' and such uniting is to be within marriage (chapter 7), not only for the reasons of the Law of Moses but also for theological reasons about the new dimension to understanding each Christian's body: it belongs to the Lord, it is the temple of the Holy Spirit. To indulge in casual sex is to indulge the Lord himself in casual sex. No!)

But, very, very important though such matters are for our consideration as Christians living in a world of sexual indulgence and casual sex, that scarcely seems to be the reason why this passage is chosen for the second Sunday of Epiphany!

My best guess is that the passage is chosen because it carries another theme within it, a theme which concerns revelation of true knowledge in the face of competing claims, in this case the true knowledge of what our bodies are 'for' now that we belong to Jesus Christ. Thus the key question in the reading in the context of this particular Sunday in Epiphany is 'Do you not know?' (15, 16, 19).

In a world which glorifies our bodies as temples of nature (see dieting, gym membership, exercise regimes and, dare I say it as a mid fifties guys, "Lycra"), as temples of sex (see the way we "sell" products through sexually attractive people, pills which make for more sexual pleasure, magazines that offer improvements in our love life), and as temples of self (see the way we seek to prolong life through medicine), it is not at all obvious what the answers to the three 'Do you not know?' questions are.

No one would ever guess from a day watching TV, reading the newspaper, flicking through glossy magazines, let alone visiting various websites in the pursuit of a better life, that:

(1) 'your bodies are members of Christ' (15)
(2) 'But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him' (17)
(3) 'your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own' (19).

Once this is revealed to us, how then shall we live?

John 1:43-51

Epiphany is the season of, well, epiphany, or appearance and disclosure of what has previously been unseen, especially in respect of the truth about Jesus Christ.

In this reading we start innocently enough with Jesus deciding to go to Galilee. But not for an outing. He goes to find Philip and he calls Philip to follow him (43). Philip is from the same city as Andrew and Peter, whom we have previously been introduced to in this chapter (40-42). The band of disciples is growing because just as Jesus 'found' Philip, Philip, we are told, 'found' Nathanael. He does not quite persuade Nathanael that Jesus is the one 'about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote' (45) but he does persuade him to 'Come and see' Jesus for himself.

So far, so like any growing human enterprise which draws people on board. There is, incidentally, a special Johannine way of telling this story because the phrase 'Come and see' (or variations) recurs in John's Gospel as people encounter or are encouraged to encounter Jesus and the truth about him (see John 1:39; 4:29; 21:12).

But the story takes an 'epiphanic' turn as Jesus offers special insight into the character of Nathanael. As Nathanael 'comes' to Jesus, Jesus 'sees' what is within him and reveals this insight, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" (47).

Naturally Nathanael wonders how Jesus can say this (48) since they have not previously met. Jesus answers, verse 48b, both enigmatically (we wonder what he means), symbolically (the fig tree is a symbol of Israel) and mysteriously (he has seen Nathanael with special sight before Philip even mentions coming to Jesus).

In a few sentences we, as readers, have been taken from a natural situation to a supernatural situation (almost literally because it is as though Jesus is 'super' or 'over' nature with a helicopter view of life). But, more importantly for the theology of the gospel, we have been taken from the gospel as an account of history (what people have done and have said) to the gospel as an apocalyptic document (what God sees and now reveals to us through an especially appointed agent of revelation).

First, however, we note Nathanael's reply to Jesus' revelation about him (49). Nathanael 'gets it'. Jesus is more than a rabbi or teaching theologian of Israel. "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel." John the gospel writer uses Nathanael both to stake (further) a major claim of the whole Gospel, Jesus is the (eternal, one with the Father) Son of God (so, already in this chapter, verses 14, 18, 34; later see 20:31), to identify Jesus as (at least) the Son of God in the sense of 'the King of Israel' (sometimes referred to in Old Testament writings as 'the Son of God'), and thus to identify Jesus as the Christ or Messiah.

Back to the apocalyptic character of the gospel: John is telling us the (hi)story of Jesus of Nazareth while simultaneously telling us what Jesus the agent of divine revelation reveals to us who live (so to speak) inside human history about the eternal plan and purpose of God, otherwise hidden from ordinary human insight and sight. In this passage we are carefully taken through a story of encounter between a couple of people and a human teacher to a story of encounter between God and humanity. In that encounter Nathanael (and other disciples) will "see greater things than these" (50).

For Jesus to 'see' Nathanael under the fig tree is remarkable but the revelation of God is much greater than this and Jesus goes on to offer Nathanael a glimpse of what this will be.

"Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (51).

Naturally this is puzzling, strange talk and we need to pause to make sense of it (if we can!)

To 'see heaven opened' is classic apocalyptic language: the truth of what is really going on from God's perspective is hidden from the earth, locked away in the dwelling place of God. When heaven is opened and humans are enabled to 'see' into it, revelation and disclosure take place (as, for instance, in the Book of Revelation).

Jacob's remarkable vision of a ladder to heaven, Genesis 28:12, is invoked by talk of 'the angels of God ascending and descending.' In that vision Jacob encounters the very presence of God: so, in this gospel, already noted in 1:18, to see Jesus is to see God.

But here there is no talk of a ladder. The ascending and descending angels move 'upon the Son of Man.' The Son of Man is the ladder, the connection between heaven and earth.

But why mention 'the Son of Man' when previously in this chapter Jesus has been identified as 'the Son of God'? In the context of revelation, of angels, of the opened heaven, reference to the Son of Man takes us more deeply into apocalyptic literature, bringing to our minds the Book of Daniel, chapter 7 in particular, in which the enigmatic 'one like a son of man' figure appears (7:13) in conjunction with the 'Ancient of Days' (7:9), in the midst of angelic figures. In that context, though debated, 'one like a son of man' appears to be a representative of Israel (or, perhaps better, 'the representation' of Israel). In the Danielic vision, the son of man figure brings Israel before God. In this Johannine verse, Jesus is saying that he (the Son of Man) will connect God to Israel and Israel to God in a new, definitive and everlasting manner. (Incidentally, no reflection on the Son of Man in this gospel is complete without reflecting on John 3, especially verses 13-15).

We the readers of this gospel are now ready to read on through chapters 2-21. We will be constantly reading in two dimensions: the (hi)story of Jesus Christ and the revelation (epiphany) Jesus Christ brings from heaven to earth.