Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday 22 July 2018 - 16th Ordinary Sunday

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

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

Collect: P18:1

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

Readings (related):

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

Comments:

Jeremiah 23:1-6

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

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

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

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

Psalm 23

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

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

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

Ephesians 2:11-22

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

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

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

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

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

What does your church and mine look like by comparison?

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

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

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sunday 15 July 2018 - 15th Ordinary Sunday

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

Theme(s): John the Baptist /

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

Collect:

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

Readings (related):

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

Comments:

Amos 7:7-15

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

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

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

The king is less powerful than the Lord God.

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

Psalm 85:8-13

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

Ephesians 1:3-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we enjoying those blessings?

Mark 6:14-29

Mark performs a trick of narration through word association.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last part of the story is poignant.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Sunday 8 July 2018 - 14th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Mission / Ministry / True power / Weakness/ Weaknesses / Thorn in the flesh

Sentence: I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Collect:

Christ of the new covenant
give us happiness to share,
with full measure, pressed down,
shaken together and running over,
all that you give us. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Comments:

Ezekiel 2:1-5

We care partly read this passage as a clarion call to all preachers (including those sent out to preach in today's gospel reading) to faithfully preach the gospel 'whether they hear or refuse to hear' (5).

We can also read this passage as setting out background to Jesus' commission in the gospel reading to the disciples: they are to preach for repentance. Why? Because Israel remains generally in a state of rebellion against God.

In its specific context, this call is God's call to Ezekiel to be his priestly prophet to the exiles in Babylon after Judah had been exiled there.

Psalm 123

This psalm is one of the fifteen 'songs of ascent', likely sung while pilgrims ascended towards the Temple on Mt Zion.

The psalmist looks up to God for help, for 'mercy' (2c, 3a).

We cannot guess at what troubles (3b-4) engendered this psalm, though a general trouble could be that Israel is viewed contemptuously by surrounding nations.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Paul is under the cosh from his opponents ('super-apostles', 11:5) in respect of what the Corinthians are thinking about Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:10-13). So through chapters 10-13, Paul sets out his stall:
- he is not whom the others say he is;
- he is not guilty of the charges they make about him (e.g. he was not a burden to the Corinthians, 11:7-9); and
- he is committed in love to their well-being.

In our passage today (for which 12:1 is important as an introduction) we see Paul in a form of 'boasting' which we should understand as a response to goading by the super-apostles (11:5). Presumably they were boasting themselves of their experiences which they alleged were superior to those of Paul. Presumably they laid claim to their 'super' status because of ecstatic, mystical experiences of heavenly journeys.

So, says, Paul, in our verses, if that's the 'game' bring it on. To their claims I will counter with this testimony.

Yet Paul as he sets out his testimony of ecstatic, mystical experience is modest. He speaks elliptically about himself, 'I know a person in Christ' (2) and proceeds to recount an experience which could only have been his own (3-4,7a).

'third heaven' (2) in ancient Jewish understanding equals 'Paradise' (4).

Paul is reticent to boast about this experience (5-6) and he explains the reason in verses 7b-9: subsequent to it, he received 'a thorn ... in the flesh' (7).

In other words, Paul's heavenly experience was not one that led him to make grandiose claims for his spiritual power and privilege. Far from it! Whatever the nature of the thorn (a physical malady? persecution?) it was distressing and kept Paul humble. It weakened Paul rather than strengthened him. It led him to a point where he relied on God's grace to see him through (7-9).

In fact, Paul claims, the weaker I am, the better for the work of Christ in me, for if I am weak, then anything powerful happening through me is 'the power of Christ' (9b).

In other words - and here we might look ahead to verses 11-12 - Paul is carefully and cunningly saying something like this: "If it is a straight boasting competition between me and the super-apostles, then I win; in fact that is not the competition which counts, that competition is for the person who is weakest so Christ is strongest, it is a competition for the genuine work of Christ, and that competition I also win." Boom!

Mark 6:1-13

Jesus returns to his hometown, his disciples following (1). Mark sets everything in his gospel in terms of christology and discipleship: that is, through each part of his gospel he answers the questions, Who is Jesus? and/or, What do disciples of Jesus do?

The 'Who is Jesus?' question in this passage concerns Jesus as a teaching prophet (2,4) who organises a movement (7) (which, incidentally, hits the political antennae of King Herod, 14).

The 'What do disciples do?' question in this passage receives the answer 'What Jesus himself did' (7-13).

The questions asked in the synagogue (2-3) have a subtle effect within the narrative of the gospel: Mark is saying to later readers of his gospel, 'Jesus was a man of astounding wisdom and power, yet came from an ordinary family.'

Verse 3 is one of the most detailed NT expressions of Jesus' 'career' and 'family':
- he was a 'carpenter' (though some see the underlying Greek word as meaning a man technically proficient with his hands beyond proficiency with wood);
- he was known at this stage as the 'son of Mary' (had Joseph died?); and
- he had four brothers and an unknown number of sisters.

As an aside, note that here the siblings of Jesus could be siblings Mary produced (i.e. Mary was not a perpetual virgin) or siblings Joseph had produced via a wife before he married Mary (who thus may have remained a perpetual virgin, as many Christians believe). I do not believe there is much point in spending time speculating that "siblings" here may have meant "cousins." The second possibility in the first sentence is the simpler explanation for the use of sibling if one wants to also teach/believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin.

In verses 4 -6 we find the specific point of Mark telling this particular incident:

'he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them' (5). 

In his own hometown, among his own people, including his own family, Jesus faced a barrage of cynical questioning. This questioning expressed the 'unbelief' (6) of the crowd. His ministry was limited. Even with all God's power at his disposal, belief on the part of those he came to minister to was vital to its success.

Naturally such a disappointing response in Nazareth led to moving the mission on (6b).

But verse 7 signals a different kind of expansion from the geographical expansion in verse 6. Jesus calls 'the twelve' and sends them out in six pairs with 'authority over the unclean spirits.' Theirs will be a focused mission, so no extra gear is required (8-9), with specific instructions about receiving hospitality along the way (10-11), and a simple message of repentance (12).

For disciples living after these events, perhaps settled into a city such as Alexandria or Rome, what is the message embedded here? Presumably it is that the power of the gospel does not rest in the resources we provide but in the action of God: the call and commission to preach the gospel in word and in deed is vital to the power of the gospel to change lives (13).

What is the result of this mission? Jumping ahead we find the disciples reporting back to Jesus in 6:30. But here in verse 13 we find that demons are cast out and the sick are cured.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sunday 1 July 2018 - 13th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Healing / Restoration / Giving / Equity between Rich and Poor / Waiting patiently for the Lord

Sentence: Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" (Mark 5:41)

Collect:

Gracious God,
grant us the gift of faith
that we may be made whole
through the power of the Holy Spirit
and in the name of Jesus who restores life.
Amen.

Readings: (related)

Lamentations 3:22-33
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Comments:

Lamentations 3:22-33

Did you know that our English Bible title for this lament for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple comes from the Greek title in the Septuagint (Threnoi) and not from the Hebrew title ('Ekah') which means 'How' and is drawn from the first line of the first verse, 'How lonely sits the city'?

Some of the most marvellous words in the Bible are presented in this passage. After a catalogue of appalling misfortunes the writer (Jeremiah?) affirms, against context,

'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end' (22).

Yet the words continue with acknowledgement that the Lord himself is responsible (in some sense) for the situation (long story short: a significant portion of the Old Testament explicitly or implicitly presumes that the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians is punishment for Israel's disobedience):

'... when the Lord has imposed it (28) ... For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief ... (31-2) ... for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone' (33).

So the writer's viewpoint is that the steadfast, ever merciful love of the Lord for his people will eventually overcome and bring to an end the cataclysm which has engulfed Israel.

'It is good that one should wait patiently for the salvation of the Lord' (26)

In relation to our gospel reading today, this passage speaks to the haemorrhaging woman, who endured her illness for 12 long years. But, as we see in the comments below, the woman herself stands for Israel yet to be fully restored after the Babylonian destruction, the hope of Lamentations not yet fully realised at the time when Jesus came to inaugurate his kingdom.

Psalm 30

Essentially this psalm expresses the sentiments of the Lamentations' passage. Sometimes our lives are marked by the heartfelt sentiment at the heart of this psalm,

'For his anger is but for a moment; his favour is for a lifetime. / Weeping may linger for the night but joy comes with the morning' (5).

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

From the earliest days, the life of the church's ministry and mission required, not to put too fine a point on it, cold, hard cash. But this cash requirement was a subtle matter, and invoked (as here) some profound theological reflection.

The subtle matter is that the collection of funds which Paul discusses here (i.e. 8:1-9:15) is twofold in purpose: first, to bring relief to the Jerusalem church at a time of economic plight through drought; secondly, to underscore the unity of the scattered churches resulting from apostolic mission with the mother church of the mission, the church in Jerusalem. (Shades, in Anglican terms, of parishes showing their unity with the diocesan cathedral ...!).

(As an aside, if perchance you read through the whole of 8:1-9:15 and notice a degree of repetition between the two chapters, it is possible that this is because 9:1 represents the start of a different letter of Paul to the Corinthians, about the same matter as addressed in chapter 8. Note 8:10-11: some kind of delay in completing the collection had taken place).

What about profound theological reflection on 'cold, hard cash'? (Here we will stick to 8:7-15).

1. Paul does not make giving (at least in this instance) 'a command' (8). Rather he offers 'advice' (10). Yet honesty requires us to recognise that Paul pulls out a number of persuasive stops in the rhetorical melody he plays here to play on the emotions of his readers! To give one instance, in verse 8, Paul effectively invites the Corinthians to compete with others to be more generous than them.

2. All Christian giving is anchored, according to Paul, in the 'generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ' (9). When he talks about 'though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich' he is articulating his theology of the cross (see both 1 Corinthians 1 and Philippians 2:5-11). Christ died that we might live.

3. Verses 12-15 answer the implied question, 'How much should we give?' We look in vain for a figure, either in actual cash amount or in terms of percentage of income. 'God loves a cheerful giver' (9:7). Rather Paul describes the general situation: you have abundance, the people we are collecting for have need, so it is 'a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need' (13-14). To be blunt, there is a commitment to equity in this passage. Your needs x my surplus = both on the same level of wealth. (This should not be a shock, if we recall, say, Acts 2:45; 4:34).

Mark 5:21-43

Why does Mark run two healing stories together, the Healing of Jairus' Daughter (21-24, 35-41) and the Healing of the Woman with the Issue of Blood (25-34)?

Two clues are already given in these titles: both stories are stories of healing (but see further below) and both are stories of women being healed.

We can also note the obvious point that Mark ran these two stories together because they happened in this way. But the less obvious observation we can make is that Mark has a habit in his gospel of 'sandwiching' items together, bread/filling/bread, and this story is one such occasion.

Further subtleties are worth noting.

- the daughter is aged about 12 years (i.e. on the verge of becoming a woman, 42) and the ill older woman has been unwell for 12 years (25). A question to ponder then is whether Mark understands the number '12' as specially significant. Has it something to do with Israel (a nation of 12 tribes)? When Jesus calls her 'Daughter' (34) it is not because he assumes a fatherly role but because he understands her to be a 'Daugher of Israel'. Associated with this address by Jesus we also observe that the young girl is emphasised as Jairus' 'daughter' (23, 35). We will return to this question about Israel in a moment.
- although both women have already been described in terms of 'healing' it could be more accurate to speak of restoration. Jairus' daughter is either dead (so the supporters of Jairus, 35) or comatose (so Jesus, 39) so that when Jesus raises her up (42-43) he is restoring her to life as much as he is healing her of whatever has led to the cry for help from Jesus. The unwell woman would, according to Mosaic Law, have been permanently unclean and thus permanently confined to the margins of society. When the 'haemorrhage stopped' (29) she could return to full participation in society: her place was restored.
- in both instances the physical touch of Jesus (in two senses of 'of') is important. Jairus is convinced that Jesus must 'Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live' (23). The woman is convinced 'If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well' (28).

If Jesus restores two lives, the number 12 leads us to consider that the two restorations speak also of the larger work of restoration which his mission is involved in: the restoration of Israel itself. The original 'kingdom of God' is the united kingdom of Israel under Saul, David, and Solomon. That kingdom was fractured then destroyed by successive exiles of each of the fractured parts. At the very best it might be said that occasional partial restorations occurred subsequently in the centuries before Jesus came. Now Jesus comes proclaiming a new kingdom of God in a manner such that people think of him as a new Davidic king. But Jesus keeps deflecting that interpretation (including here at v. 43).

In the kingdom of Jesus, faith (34, 36) is the basic requirement of its citizens (not national citizenship or racial heritage). The marginalised (e.g. women generally, unclean women in particular) are placed at the centre of the kingdom. The restored Israel Jesus is working for is a nation of faith-filled, well people.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Sunday 24th June 2018 - 12th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): God's power / Our God is an awesome God / unity / co-operating with God

Sentence: Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4:41)

Collect:

Jesus, Saviour in storm,
when the waters of the deep are broken up,
when the landmarks are washed away or drowned,
come to us across the water,
calm our fears, increase our faith
and bring peace to our lives. Amen.

Readings: (related)

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

Comments:

Job 38:1-11

Job's great quest is to understand why bad things happen to good people. It has been a long quest and three companions have well meaningfuly tried to provide the answer. Now, near the end of the book, we draw closer to the real end of the quest which is when God speaks to Job (1).

Relevant to our gospel reading today is: 'the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind' (1). The disciples encounter the divine Jesus in the storm on the lake and here God speaks to Job in the middle of a stormy wind.

Job then finds that what the Lord says means the tables are turned on him. Instead of asking the questions, Job is expected to come up with answers to the Lord's questions. These questions continue until 40:1. So our eleven verses are just a starter!

Essentially the questions the Lord poses Job make a single point: I am the Creator, you are the creature.

In other words, you ask questions of me as though we are equals, but we are not!

Psalm 133

This lovely psalm makes one point and makes it beautifully: 'How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!' This ties with the ongoing battle Paul has in his Corinthian correspondence for unity in the church.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

The first words of this passage, 'As we work together with him' are worth pausing on. Paul does not say 'As we work together for God.' 'With' God opens up reflection on ministry and mission as a co-operative venture: between God and us, between ourselves and our partners in mission. How gracious is our God, that he should work with us co-operatively.

Paul goes on to urge his readers 'not to accept the grace of God in vain' (2) which means, 'you have been saved, but now you could lose your salvation if you continue to follow my opponents and their 'wisdom' which is not in fact true.'

Verses 3-10 then set out an apologia or defence of Paul's ministry (which began way back in 2:14): 'We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way ... (3). A list - in fact set of lists - unfolds: commendable hardships (4-5); respectable virtues (6-7); contrasting pairs ('honour and dishonour' etc, 8-10). The point of the contrasting pairs is that although Paul and his co-workers are charged by their opponents with being imposters etc, in fact they are the true, honourable, reputable, lively, joyful, enriching-of-others ambassadors of the authentic gospel.

So, Paul concludes, 11-13, he and his teams 'heart is wide open to you Corinthians'. Their affection for the Corinthians is unrestricted, but there is a stricture on the affections of the Corinthians. Thus Paul appeals for them to open their hearts (13).

Mark 4:35-41

Each of the gospels has a storm story (or two). Sea in the Bible can represent chaos and trouble which only God can control (e.g. Job 26:12; 38:8-11; see also Psalm 89:9, 25; note also Revelation 15:2 where 'sea of glass' represents control of the chaos).

The taking of the disciples away from the crowd means that a lesson in discipleship is in prospect.

Verse 36 is interesting (though I am not sure precisely why without checking out a commentary): there are other boats on the trip (fishing mates of Peter, Andrew, James and John?); and they take Jesus 'just as he was'.

Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark (Hendrickson, 2002) points out that the boats 'were with him' parallels 3:14 (re the twelve being 'with him') and hints at a growing band of disciples. That they take Jesus 'just as he was' suggests no change to Jesus' situation, that is there is continuity between the teaching Jesus of the preceding verses and the teaching Jesus of this event (p. 98).

In 37 the detail about the waves beating into the boat highlights the danger: they are not just challenged by the storm (which could be met by superb boatmanship) but about to be defeated by it. Meanwhile Jesus is cool as a cucumber 'asleep on the cushion' (38).

The disciples cannot yet trust in this 'keep calm and carry on' Jesus (38). They cannot carry on without disturbing his sleep. Rather than act themselves (recalling they already have some spiritual authority, 3:15) they ask Jesus to act. Interestingly they call him 'Teacher' rather than 'Lord.'

As their Teacher, Jesus highlights their lack of learning, 'Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?' (40) He might as well have said, 'Have you learnt nothing?' They might, for instance, have learned from the friends who brought the paralytic to Jesus (2:1-12). Their faith took them to Jesus. In faith they believed that Jesus would act, even before they presented their friend to him.

Back to verse 39: Jesus acts. He commands the wind and speaks to the sea. There is calm. Who and what does this remind us of? Primarily it reminds us of the power of God the Creator in Genesis 1: when the Creator speaks, natural phenomena come into being. Only divine power can overcome nature's power.

In verse 41 the disciples are filled with 'great awe' which is a further sign in Mark's narrative that this is a story about God's power working through God's Son (or, if you prefer, God's Son working in God's power). But the last question, 'Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?' show that the disciples do not yet fully understand what Mark understands from his narrator's vantage point many years later.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sunday 17th June 2018 - 11th Ordinary Sunday

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings: (related option)

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

Comments:

Ezekiel 17:22-24

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

Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

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

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 4:26-34

One gospel reading, (possibly) three sermons?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Sunday 10 June 2018 - 10th Ordinary Sunday

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

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

Collect:

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

Readings: (related)

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

Comments:

Genesis 3:8-15

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

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

Psalm 130

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

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

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

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

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

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

Mark 3:20-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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