Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Sunday 19 July 2020 - Ordinary 16

Theme(s):Grace, mercy and kindness. Hope and glory. Patience and eager anticipation. Suffering and hope. Life in the kingdom. Judgment.


Sentence: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).


Collect:


God of all power and might,

the author and giver of all good things,

graft in our hearts the love of your name,

increase in us true religion,

nourish in us all goodness,

and of your great mercy

keep us in the same;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Readings (related):


Isaiah 44:6-8

Psalm 86:11-17

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43


Commentary:


Isaiah 44:6-8


The choice of this reading looks ahead to a challenging (to understand) gospel reading. What God presides over a world in which the plan is to establish a kingdom for that God, yet an evil one is permitted to establish a rival kingdom? The prophet here acclaims the God of Israel as the one God of all the world ('besides me there is no god', 6, see also 8b).


For this God there is no question of a rival, not even an evil one sowing discord in the world.


Thus those who believe in the God of Israel do not need to be afraid (8).


Note a curious phrasing in 44:6, 


'Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts.'


In part, in its original compositional context, this is a condemnation of Babylonian claims about multiple gods controlling the world. No, says Isaiah, the LORD is the one God of all.


In another part, a seeming distinction between the LORD as the King of Israel and the LORD of hosts as 'his redeemer' anticipates the later christology in which the God of Israel is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Lord Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of Israel's God, the Son of God.


Psalm 86:11-17


It is sometimes said of the Old Testament that one, single, unifying idea cannot be found within it, which 'organises' its contents. But there is one great idea, one substantive teaching which shines through many of its pages, and these verses give expression to it: God is 'merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness' (15).


It is the God of this kind of love who brings the parable to us in today's gospel reading: a God who withholds judgment rather than hastens it.


Romans 8:12-25


If I am a Christian then I have the Spirit of God living within me (8:1-11). Paul continues to spell out what this means for you and me as Christians.


Essentially, we are under obligation, 'we are debtors' (12), with our obligation being to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh (13).


But thinking this way takes Paul on a theological journey as he links one thought to another thought. He will come back to the battle between flesh and spirit (23, 26) but he moves on this journey as follows:


- the Spirit of God is not 'a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear', rather it is 'a spirit of adoption' (15);

-under the influence of the Spirit as our spirit of adoption we cry out to God as 'Abba, Father' (15c) which is also testimony that we are 'children of God' (16, also 14);

- if we are children of God then we are 'heirs of God' which also means we are 'joint heirs with Christ' (17a);

- but that last thought raises a 'check in', have we suffered with Christ so that we may be glorified with him? (17b)

- suffering now may be compared with glory to come, with the latter far outweighing the former (18);

- but thinking of what is not yet leads to thinking about 'creation' waiting 'with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God' (19);

- in turn Paul offers a deep reflection on creation as that which currently is subject to 'futility' (20) while yet able to anticipate being 'set free from its bondage to decay and [obtaining] the freedom of the glory of the children of God' (21), with the sense that creation 'until now' 'has been groaning in labour pains' we ourselves are involved as we 'groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies' (22-23);

- such anticipation of a better, fulfilled future is hopeful, in fact, 'in hope we are saved' (24a) which could mean, 'in hope we see what one day will be but which is not yet our completed experience';

- thus as an aside we have a few words about 'hope' (24) and its application 'we wait for it with patience' (25).


What does all this mean for the Christian today?


I suggest at least this: Paul faces the reality that in the battle between spirit and flesh, between living for God and living for self, between achieving ideal holy living and failing to achieve it here and now, it is very tough for believers. We are in the same position as 'groaning' creation. We long for that which we want but do not yet have. Whether this is a matter of suffering in itself (i.e the suffering of patiently withstanding temptation and living rightly) or we suffer as Christians simply for being Christians as enemies persecute us, Paul urges us to 'hang in there'. Hope tells us we will get to the end. The glory in that day will outweigh present trials. Don't give up!


Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43


The reading as selected from Matthew 13 focuses on one parable and its interpretation (in parallel with last week's reading, and both parables have 'seed' as a common motif).


Note that if the full reading, 13:24-43, were followed then we would have three parables of kingdom growth (24-33), deliberately joined together in a sequence. 


Further (and paralleling a missing part Matthew 13 in last week's reading) we would have a brief explanation concerning teaching by parables (13:34-35; parallel, 13:10-17): Matthew is a very sophisticated literary artist!


So, with that in the background, let's look at the 'parable of the weeds'.


The core idea is easy to understand, especially with the aid of the provided interpretation: the kingdom of heaven (= kingdom of God) consists (in this life, thinking of the reign of God across the whole globe) of 'children of the kingdom' and 'children of the evil one' (37).


This fact of the kingdom is visible and gives rise to thoughts of a human solution (27-29). But the master of the kingdom, God, directs patience and requests waiting: the separation of the children of the kingdom and of the children of the evil one will take place at judgment and will be handled by the angels (30, 39-42).


The application of the parable - at first sight, straightforward, Wait and leave judgement to God! - is one tricky matter, another concerns how the kingdom can include both kinds of 'children'.


Clearly, in practical terms, evil people need separating from non-evil people: a murderer should be imprisoned, a paedophile kept well away from children ... a heretic denied a pulpit and a thief kept off the church silver cleaning roster. It would be absurd to suggest the parable means that in specific instances of these kinds, whether thinking of society broadly or more narrowly of congregational life, we should just let people be and allow them to carry on their evil ways.


But, if that is so, are there other 'evil' people whom we can tolerate between now and judgment day? That sounds a bit absurd. Especially if we focus on the life of the congregational church: it is hard work putting up with evil people who (say) disrupt congregational harmony, damage people through (say) gossip and putdowns, manipulatively abuse power. Much easier to expel the troublemakers!


But two such absurdities perhaps will make us think, 'what is the kingdom in this parable?' Perhaps we shouldn't think so much about an equation between kingdom and church (as often Christians have done). Indeed, not far away in Matthew's gospel, chapter 18, we have Jesus giving instruction for how to manage discipline in the church. Further, the emphasis on the judgment in the parable and its interpretation is on final judgment ('furnace of fire,' 42), not the outcome of a church tribunal. So, what is the kingdom in view here?


A strong clue seems to be in verse 38, 'the field is the world.' Jesus has the whole world in view here and the spread of the kingdom of heaven through it. More than church congregational life is being considered in this parable. 


Life in the world, lived under the rule of God (i.e. the kingdom of heaven) involves the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one mixing together socially. The parable and its interpretation is a specific command for the kingdom children to refrain from attempting to carry out God's judgment (1) before it is due according to God's timetable, (2) when it is not the designated role of the children to do so.


What are children of the kingdom to do? 


The application of the passage is, in the end, plain for us: remain faithful to our calling as children of the kingdom, bearing grain (i.e. living fruitful lives for God) (26), avoid becoming weeds, refrain from playing the role of God as judge, and patiently endure the presence of evil people in the world.

Sunday 12 July 2020 - Ordinary 15

Theme(s): The mission of Jesus / The multiplying mission of Jesus / Gospel fruitfulness. Set free by the Spirit. Victorious life in the Spirit.


Sentence: There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)


Collect:


Almighty God,

in your Son Jesus Christ

you have created a people for yourself;

make us willing to obey you,

till your purpose is accomplished

and the earth is full of your glory. Amen.


Readings (related):


Isaiah 55:10-13

Psalm 65:9-13

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


Commentary:


Isaiah 55:10-13


God's word (here, in context, God's covenantal promise to restore Israel from exile, see 55:3) 

is powerful in its purpose (it will achieve what it sets out to do) and 

purposeful in its power (it intends to do good). 

It will be fruitful - Israel will 'go out with joy and be led forth in peace' (12).


This same word is the word of the gospel as taught and proclaimed by Jesus (see gospel below).


Psalm 65:9-13


This is a lovely picture of God blessing the earth. The psalm is chosen to complement the gospel reading. As the word of God brings forth fruit in people's lives, its warmth, beauty and loveliness is illustrated by this parallel scene in nature. Over both kinds of fruitfulness God is the caring farmer!


Romans 8:1-11


This 'continuing' reading through Romans brings us into a great chapter which represents an important stage in Paul's argument through the whole epistle.


Through seven chapters Paul has been expounding the grace of God, a grace which includes Jew and Gentile, which covers every sin, and is freely available because of what Christ has done. So he begins this chapter, 'Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' (1) which is a fair summary of his argument to this point. But what now? What is Paul's next stage? What point does he now seek to make?


In part Paul continues a theme he has been developing through chapters six and seven: life in Christ does not mean continuing in sin in order for grace to abound, nor does it mean despair over continued sinning because a new way of life is available through identification in baptism with the death and rising of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless there is a new development, presaged in Romans 5:5 with mention of the Holy Spirit, in which Paul reminds his readers that the Holy Spirit is at work in them in the battle between doing good and doing wrong, between allegiance to God and allegiance to the sinful nature within them.


Effectively Paul repeats his argument through chapters six and seven but revises it to now talk about the Spirit of God and the work of the Spirit which every believer may expect and rely on.


Along the way Paul sets out some facts about the Holy Spirit: 


One is that the Spirit of God lives in each person who 'belongs to Christ' (9). No Christian should think they do not have the Spirit, and certainly no Christian should run around congregations suggesting that some members do not (yet) have the Spirit ("But if you pray this prayer etc then you will have ..."). 


Secondly there is no division in the working of God between Christ being in the believer and the Spirit being in the believer (9-10). 


Thirdly, the power available to the believer is the power of the one and same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead who now dwells within the believer (11).


Thus Paul, at the beginning of our passage, can confidently teach that the Christian believer is able to be victorious in overcoming sin (1-4) because there is a new, lively power at work in us (2), enabling us to meet the requirements of the law in a way which the law itself is not able to do.


One way to summarise all that is going on through chapters 6-8 is this: Christians, be what you are (in, through and because of Christ - who he is and what he has done for you)!


Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 - The Parable of the Sower


A challenge for the preacher this week is to take a very familiar passage and say something fresh from it!


Something to observe is that Jesus tells the parable when 'such large crowds gather round him' (13:2). It is as though Jesus is sizing up the crowd and telling them that they will not all be found faithful to the word he is teaching them. Even at a high point of 'success' for his movement, measured in terms of interested listeners, Jesus recognises the reality of life.


Between the parable (1-9) and the interpretation (18-23), what Jesus recognises is understandable in every generation, including ours. Some simply do not 'get' the gospel message (4, 19); some hear the message and respond joyfully, but the hearing has no depth and when trouble comes, they fall away (5, 20-21); some hear the word but their response is quickly choked out by the worries of this life and the deceitful claims of wealth - materialism trumps spirituality (6, 22); some hear, understand, with joy, deeply, without choking (7, 23).


What does the reference mean to the crop being produced hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown (8, 23)? We might investigate what this meant in terms of the agriculture of Jesus' day. But more relevant could be investigating what this meant in terms of Jesus' own mission.


If the starting point above is valid, that Jesus was seeing beyond the crowds to the few who would be faithful to his word, then the multiplying of the seed is about the value of the faithful few: they will receive the word and multiply it, in terms of more faithful adherents across Israel and, later, throughout the world.


The very fact that you are reading this, that a congregation will hear your sermon this Sunday is testimony to what Jesus taught about the word. We are evidence of the multiplication!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Sunday 5 July 2020 - Ordinary 14

Theme(s): Come to me / Father and Son / Lifting burdens / God's rescue from sin

Sentence: Come to me all you are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28)

Collect:

Almighty God
you have made us for yourself
and our hearts are restless
till they find their rest in you;
so lead us by your Spirit
that in this life we may live to your glory
and in the life to come enjoy you for eve;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Readings (related):

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Commentary:

Zechariah 9:9-12

Chosen to complement the gospel reading, this passage is certainly 'at home' on Palm Sunday. In today's gospel context it speaks of the 'gentle and humble heart' (Matthew 11:29) of Jesus.

Psalm 145:8-14

These verses are a perfect complement to the final verses of the gospel reading. Just as the Lord known to Israel is 'gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love' (8) and One who 'upholds all who are falling' (14), so the Lord revealed in the gospel passage is one who lightens the burdens of his people and gives them rest.

Romans 7:15-25a

The first sentence of the section below re the gospel reading applies in this section, swapping Jesus for Paul, also!

A recap: Paul has been arguing in preceding chapters that faith not works counts, in respect of being counted among the righteous. The grace of God which enables this to be so, on the basis of Jesus Christ fulfilling all the sacrificial requirements of the Law, is not to be taken advantage of by living licentiously (Romans 6). To do that would be to misunderstand the spiritual transformation which takes place through baptism into the death of Jesus.

In the first part of chapter seven Paul develops a sophisticated argument about the role of the law in our sinning, even asking the question whether the law is sin (7a). In part the argument is that the Law has a role in sinning, because by naming what we should not do we then know what sin we might commit (7b). But in another part the argument is that sin is an enslaving power working within Paul, me and you, manipulatively taking even the good Law and making it have a role in our sinning.

Thus verse 14 captures the argument to the point immediately preceding the beginning of our reading:


'For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh sold into slavery under sin.'

Our reading is then an insight into how sin works within humanity.

The essence of the insight is that humanity, that is, each human being, has a divided inner being. There is an 'inmost self' (22) which delights in the law of God (22), wants to do good (19, 21) yet is at odds with 'the flesh' or (some translations, "sinful nature") which does things the inmost self does not want to do (15b, 16a, 18, 23).

Whatever we make 'psychologically' about this way of seeing the psyche of the human person, Paul is touching on a profound human experience of letting God down, hurting others and damaging ourselves through sin: we 'do not understand [our] own actions' (15a), we do things we cannot understand ourselves doing (15b-16), we tend to blame such situations on something within us we cannot control (17), we set out to do right and end up hurting others (18b-19).

Cleverly Paul sets up this 'internal dialogue' in such a way that by verse 23 we are applauding Paul's insight into our own behaviour even as we feel crushed by the seeming prison of desire and sin in which we are trapped. We are doomed, it seems, with no way out. Or not?

In verse 24-25a Paul leaps from the prison. Having faced what a 'wretched man' he is, he asks, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

There is only one answer, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (25a).

From that exuberance Paul turns back to the course of his insight. Perhaps looking ahead to the renewing of his mind through God's transformative power (12:1-2) Paul makes the point in conclusion that


'with my mind [equals saved and transformed by God through Jesus Christ our Lord]
I am a slave to the law of God,
but with my flesh (where the power of sin still has hold of me)
I am a slave of the law of sin." (25b)

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Preaching on this particular selection definitely requires a word about what has gone before the launch in to Jesus saying, "But to what will I compare this generation ..." (16).

The prelude to our passage is Jesus in conversation, indirectly, with John the Baptist languishing in prison (11:1-15). His reflection on their respective ministries is that both, though completely different in style (see 18-19), have provoked opposition: scorn, doubts, and derision.

We may not expect what Jesus then says. Perhaps we would have said, "But God will deal with the naysayers." Jesus simply says, "Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds" (19). In a brief, simple sentence, Jesus links the pre-gospel message with the gospel as both messages are 'wisdom'. Here 'wisdom' is the revelation of God to the world, an active word of God which brought the world into being (see Proverbs 8:22-31).

Scholars speak of 'wisdom christology' in Matthew: here is a seed of understanding, that Jesus embodies wisdom (as does John the Baptist), which will come to fuller flowering in John's Gospel with the declaration that 'the Word became flesh' (1:14) and in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians when he declares that Jesus is 'wisdom from God' (1:30).

Jesus' point is that the wisdom shared between himself and John the Baptist is vindicated - we could say, 'proved to be true' by deeds - by the miracles described in verses 4 to 5.

We then skip a passage which is a pity, as verses 20-24 make the converse point: to deny that the wisdom of God comes through John the Baptist and Jesus, especially when so powerfully illustrated by the latter's miracle working deeds, is to invoke God's judgment.

If the end of verse 19 offers a 'wisdom christology' we zoom very fast in verses 25-30 to a 'Son of God christology'!

Verse 25 has an ironic note concerning 'wisdom': what God reveals through Jesus is 'hidden' from the 'wise and intelligent' (that is, they don't get it), instead the ones who show their understanding by responding to Jesus are 'infants', that is, the disciples.

Verse 26 offers an interpretation of this state of affairs: 'yes, Father, for such was your gracious will'.

The Father's grace offers this revelatory wisdom to all, including to those not deemed in the world's eyes to be 'wise and intelligent', but this revelation is beyond the ability of the wise and intelligent to grasp it. It may seem ungracious that it is 'hidden' from them, but it certainly is gracious that God's revealed truth through Jesus is not restricted to the brainy scholars among us!

Verse 27 is an oddity within Matthew, Mark (not found) and Luke (repeated in Luke 11:21). It seems a statement more at home, indeed completely at home in John's Gospel. Indeed this verse is sometimes called the "Johannine thunderbolt" (prompted by Luke 10:18), a statement akin to a 'meteor from the Johannine sky.'

Nevertheless in this verse, whether uncharacteristic of Matthew or not, we have a remarkable statement about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son: Father and Son are identified around the point of knowledge (i.e. wisdom).

'All things' have been handed over to the Son (power to redeem as well as create the world?). Father and Son know each other intimately and completely. When the Son reveals things, what is being revealed is God's word and God's will. In particular, it is through the Son that we may know the Father.

Verses 28-30 then seem slightly at odds with this christological discourse, having more of a pastoral flavour. What must have been important in the remembering of these words of Jesus is that a pastor who says 'Come to me and I will take care of your burdens' is no ordinary pastor when he is the Son to whom the Father has handed all things and who is the way to the Father.

Might we be encouraged also as we come to Jesus today with our burdens and cares?

The specific image of the 'yoke' is highly suggestive of one aspect of 'burden' which a religious person might carry, in particular a fellow Israelite in Jesus' day.

'Yoke' spoke of the requirements of keeping the Law or Torah. Many statements in the gospels suggest that interpretations of the Law by Jewish teachers of the Law added to the burden these requirements made. If so, then Jesus is saying that his teaching is a way to lighten the load by re-finding the true meaning of the Law, which is to give life rather than to squash it.

'Yoke' also suggests two oxen yoked together in order for their walking around the millstone to crush grain into flour - often one of the oxen being senior to the other. Again, if so, then Jesus is saying not only that his teaching is 'lighter' than that of his contemporaries but that his way of life is easier because he shares with each disciple the burden of living it.

Postscript: I love the rendering of 28-30 which Eugene Peterson gives in The Message:

'Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest.
Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.'

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Sunday 28 June 2020 - Ordinary 13

Theme(s): Welcome / Identification between God, Jesus and disciples / Death versus eternal life/ Slaves to God

Sentence: 'You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God (Romans 6:18)

Collect:

Almighty God,
grant that we your children
may never be ashamed
to confess the faith of Christ crucified,
but continue his faithful servants
to our lives' end. Amen.

Readings: related

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Commentary:

Jeremiah 28:5-9

Here (looking ahead to our gospel reading), a prophet's life is a perilous one. To the extent that this ministry is one of anticipation and prediction of the future, a prophet's ministry depends on words today being matched by outcomes tomorrow. Jeremiah's ministry is a running battle between himself claiming one thing and other ('official') prophets claiming another, each with such specificity that both cannot be right.

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

A celebration of God's 'great love for ever' (1) makes a supporting point to the gospel reading when it speaks of 'reward'. The ones who are 'blessed' are those who 'have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, Lord.' This state of blessedness is not so much a reward at the end of some labour, like a bonus payment for a worker, or a holiday at the end of a year of effort, but a continuing state of benefit: walking in the light of God's presence is its own reward.

Romans 6:12-23

Continuing Paul's response to the question whether the abundance of God's grace means we may sin as much as we like after discovering we are recipients of God's grace, Paul clearly lays down a principle for Christian living, 'do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires' (12, effectively repeated in 13).

Verse 14 brings us to an associated principle: life is lived under some kind of lord or master. To keep on sinning is to live under the mastery or lordship of sin. For a Christian,that is, for a confessor that 'Jesus is Lord,' this cannot be so.

Verses 15 to 18 expand on the principle laid down in verse 14 and verses 19-23 offer further comment in a slightly different vein. In the latter case a theme from verse 18 is taken up. The opposite of being slaves to sin is being slaves to righteousness. Verse 22 underlines the importance of living out this form of slavery: only slavery to God leads to holy living with the result of 'eternal life'. Verse 23 is then a summary of the argument: the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.

Matthew 10:40-42

It could be easy to (mis)read this message in a kind of social sense: "We, the church, need to be a welcoming body of people." We do, but is that the primary importance of this passage? The focus is actually on the welcome the world gives the church rather than the other way around! Themes here are discipleship, mission and christology.

The context (recalling last Sunday's gospel) is the 'cost of discipleship.' Now Jesus turns the emphasis in a new direction: disciples need not uniformly expect a bad reception, some will welcome them. To these good outcomes Jesus offers encouragement, both to the disciples and to the ones who welcome them.

First, since true disciples are representatives of Jesus, missioners in the mission he has commissioned, a welcome given to the disciples is a welcome given to Jesus himself, embodied in them. In turn, reflecting the relationship between Jesus as one sent from God and God as sender, the welcome to disciples is a welcome of 'the one who sent me' (40).

Implicit here is some kind of reward for welcoming God! To an extent verse 41 makes this explicit, except that we have no idea what a 'prophet's reward' or a 'righteous person's reward' is! Digging deeper into the passage we can get some sense of what is meant. From verse 40 we bring a strong identification, God/Jesus/disciple to verse 41. If we see a similar identification, God/prophet and God/righteous person, then the one who welcomes the prophet welcomes God and the one who welcomes a righteous person welcomes God and in each case the welcome is a form of identification, welcomer/prophet and welcomer/righteous person. Thus a prophet's reward belongs to the welcomer, ditto for a righteous person's reward. In each case the reward (taking into account other talk in Scripture of 'reward') is the privilege of being a participant in the life of God and standing securely in the presence of God.

In verse 42 Jesus moves from the general case of prophets and righteous people being welcomed (which hearkens back to the history of Israel) to the specific case of his disciples (looking around in the present and looking ahead to the future expansion of the kingdom). Even a cup of cold water to a quite ordinary disciple (i.e. one who may not also be a notable prophet or a distinctively righteous person) leads to reward. Given the general expectations of hospitality in the Middle East (food and accommodation), Jesus is signalling here that the slightest of welcomes counts.

Disciples may have some expectation of welcome and not persecution. Welcomers of disciples are welcomers of God and that carries with it rewards of a special kind. Disciples in mission move forward as fast as the welcome accorded them.

Secondly, woven through these verses is a very important christological note, one which undergirds the distinctive christology of John's Gospel with its great themes of the oneness of Father and Son and of the Son as the sent one from God. Jesus is God in human form: when we welcome Jesus we welcome God. When people welcome followers of Jesus they welcome Jesus and thus welcome God into their lives.

Through last week and this is a strong theme (expounded to the fullest in John's Gospel) of Jesus as the Agent of God and disciples as agents of the Agent of God.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sunday 21 June 2020 - Ordinary 12

Theme(s): Discipleship / Being disciples / Cost of discipleship / Abounding grace / Mocked for Jesus' sake?

Sentence: Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39).

Collect:

Holy God, grant us the beginning of wisdom
and love to cast our every fear:
that we may grow more brace,
more ready to hear,
more ready to obey,
the teaching of Jesus,
doing so through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings: (Related, rather than Continuous)

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:8-11 (12-17) 18-20
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Commentary:

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Jeremiah has just been brutally treated, beaten and placed in stocks (20:1-3). After his release Jeremiah has denounced his tormenter, a man named Pashhur (20:4-6). But our verses are at odds with Jeremiah's external confidence in this denunciation. They seem to give us a sense of the internal feelings of Jeremiah. Speaking to the Lord, Jeremiah says that he feels as though he has been enticed and overpowered by the Lord because his words have led to him becoming 'a laughingstock all day long' (7).

Yet, Jeremiah goes on, this painful experience of derision (8) is not able to be stopped by ceasing to preach the word of the Lord. He cannot suppress the word which is burning within him (9a),indeed he has tried but the effort (like all suppression of raging feelings!) is too wearying. It must come out.

Despite the denunciations he experiences, Jeremiah is confident the Lord will see him through (11-13).

Thus Jeremiah is a prototypical disciple for the kind of 'tough' commitment Jesus expects of his own disciples in today's gospel reading.

Psalm 69:8-11 (12-17) 18-20

The psalmist (likely David, according to the superscription) seems to be in a similar mood to the prophet Jeremiah! He too has 'borne reproach' (7). Thus our passage begins in v. 8 with the psalmist feeling that his zeal for the Lord's house (9) has become the occasion for alienation from his own family.

David is bowed down (9-11), even broken (19-20). He cries to the Lord for help (13-18). As with many prayers in the Old Testament, his hope for answered prayer rests on the character of the Lord: 'your steadfast love ... your abundant mercy' (16).

Romans 6:1b-11

In the unfolding argument of Paul in Romans, on the nature of the gospel of grace, logic requires Paul to take up some inevitable questions. In this case, if the grace of God is so abundant as to forgive all sin (see, e.g. 5:20-21) then

'Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?' (6:1b).

That question might not quite be our question today, but we may - at least implicitly - have similar questions: God doesn't want me to be perfect does he? A few little sins don't matter, do they? Oh, well (as we succumb to a tasty temptation) God forgives us, doesn't he?

Paul is decisive in his summary answer - I will print it in caps for effect: BY NO MEANS!

Even shorter would be, 'NO!'

But implicitly his readers press him to give a reason - parents experience this with their children, 'But why?' So Paul - as a spiritual father to his Roman children - sets out his case for answering, 'By no means!' It goes like this:

1. A Christian is a changed person who has died to sin through baptism in order to walk in newness of life (2b-4). To sin now, for a Christian, is a form of ignorance. It betrays a misunderstanding of what being a Christian is all about.

2. Expanding on 1, a Christian is a dead person walking, dead people are free from sin (7) and so a Christian is to live 'no longer enslaved to sin' (6b). To continue sinning, for a Christian, is to live oppositely to the work of Christ which sets us free from such slavery.

3. Lest any Christian think, perversely, 'Well, I will just keep dying and being set free,' Christ died only once ('The death he died, he died to sin, once for all' (10) and thus we are to 'consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus' (11). That is, our baptism into Christ's death (4) is a once and for all experience, a death we are to live out for all time. We by no means keep on sinning, and certainly not to invoke the abundance of God's grace, because we are dead to sin.

(Although beyond the scope of this week's passage - in fact part of next week's passage, 6:12-14 acknowledges the dual reality of Christian life: spiritually we are dead to sin, physically and mentally we remain prone to sin so we are not to let 'sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies' (12) nor to continue presenting 'your members to sin as instruments of wickedness' (12).)

Matthew 10:24-39

This is a challenging compendium on discipleship for preachers.

Challenge (1) is the painful cost of discipleship in this life.

Challenge (2) is choosing whether to say something about each topic within the passage, attend to just one or two verses, or attempt to generally speak about the cost of discipleship.

The context (see the beginning of Matthew 10) is sending out the Twelve to 'the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (6). In this mission they are to travel lightly (9-10), efficiently (11-15), wisely and bravely (16-23).

Now Jesus reminds them that he asks nothing of them which he has not experienced himself (24-25), to have no fear save for fear of God (26-31), to never be ashamed of him (32-33), to recognise the divisive nature of the gospel they bear (34-36), to belong exclusively to Jesus with relativised family ties (37), to be willing to die, knowing that life is found when it is lost for the sake of Jesus (38-39).

Within this compendium of instruction and advice, note the value placed on the disciples (30-31).

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Sunday 14 June 2020 - Ordinary 11, Te Pouhere Sunday

Collect for 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Bountiful God,
with a generous hand you sow the seeds of the Kingdom.
Grant us the grace to cultivate your saplings,
that all might find shade in the forest of love.
All this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings for 11 Sunday in Ordinary Time ("related")

Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

Comments:

Exodus 19:2-8a

These verses set out the special relationship between God and Israel. That relationship lies behind the restriction Jesus places on his commission to the twelve in the gospel reading below.

Psalm 100

This psalm does not need to be explained. It needs to be sung! Perhaps in response to reading Romans 5:1-8.

Romans 5:1-8

Paul begins this chapter with "Therefore" which compels us to look back to what he has been saying in the previous chapter or chapters. Effectively those chapters are summed up in the phrase "we are justified by faith" (1) (note 4:22-25). So, Paul says, since this is true, therefore "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1). In a new, healed relationship with God "we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast of our hope of sharing in the glory of God" (2). In other words, Paul having charted the path to salvation in Romans 1-4 now begins to tackle the question of what salvation means and what the saved can expect in this life. We the saved are in a new, wonderful relationship with God, beginning to experience the blessing of God, though its fullest experience is yet to come.

In the meantime, we will experience sufferings and Paul reflects on what that means (3-5).

Then, Paul, perhaps with his mind full of how we came to be saved, reverts to the theme of chapters 1-4 and again, but more briefly, rehearses the gospel story of how Jesus died for us, as proof of God's love towards us (6-8).

We  have much to be thankful for!

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Well, after the special interests of Eastertide, Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, what better thing to do as we corporately read the Scriptures than to get down to brass tacks in the mission of God, in which we are graciously invited to participate.

In this reading, Jesus goes out in mission (9:35-38), and that means Matthew is telling us about it as an example for us, not just as a bit of "history of mission."

What do we learn?

1. The mission of Jesus was extensive, going everywhere in Israel.
2. The mission was in word and in deed.
3. The mission was motivated by compassion.
4. The need for the mission was great but missioners were in short supply. Prayer to God for supply was required.

We then find the mission of Jesus is extended - as though answering the need addressed in v. 37-38 - to include "the twelve" (10:1-8).

Their mission is pretty similar to Jesus', a mission in God's name of word and of deed (7-8). But they are not Jesus so they need "authority" in order to beat the power of the evil one as "unclean spirits" do their damage in the world (1). Authority  "over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and sickness" (1) is, of course, nothing less than divine authority, the authority of God now invested in them.

As Matthew tells the story of the commissioning of the twelve for mission he uses the narrative to also tell us their names (2-4). Don't miss the fact that he describes them in this context as "apostles", that is, as "sent ones" or "missioners." Later the church will look back on the twelve as "The Twelve Apostles" with potential to make "apostle" mean "senior leader." The twelve were the senior leaders in the early church but primarily they were commissioned for mission and not for leadership.

A challenge for us as readers lies in two places:
1. Verses 5-6 where the mission is narrowly focused on Israel and "not Gentiles, not Samaritans" though they were near at hand. Why wasn't Jesus more, well, inclusive? Over the whole of Matthew's Gospel (e.g. noting 28:16-20) we see a vision unfolding for an inclusive mission to the whole world. Here, perhaps, we might think of Matthew reporting to us that Jesus had concern for the Jews as the special people of God, the ones first called through Abraham and Moses into covenant relationship. Many Jews had lost their way before God. They are now called back to God before the mission extends to the Gentiles and to the Samaritans.
2. (if we extend our investigation from v. 8 to vss. 8-10, or vss. 8-15) This mission of Jesus is to be conducted with minimal resources (i.e. nothing), no pay, and a huge faith in God's provision (e.g. via hospitality (11-12). What does this mean in our day?

Readings for Te Pouhere Sunday (resources for Te Pouhere Sunday at www.anglican.org.nz/Resources/Lectionary-and-Worship )

Isaiah 42:10-20
2 Corinthians 5:14-19 or Acts 10:34-43
John 15:9-17 or Matthew 7:24-29 or Luke 6:46-49 or John 17:6-26

Te Pouhere Sunday is our collective opportunity in ACANZP to reflect on what it means to be "this church" rather than any other church (noting that no church in the South Pacific has a constitution - Te Pouhere - such as ours which attempts to share the power and authority of episcopal leadership and synodical governance in a manner which is equalised between three tikanga within our church, Maori, Pakeha and Pasefika.

One reflection could be that Te Pouhere is our way of imitating the Trinity as a community of love between the Three Persons of the Godhead.

We could critically reflect on our life together: are we any reasonable kind of imitation of the Trinity? What could we change to better be what we seek to be?

We could thankfully reflect on our life together: for all that is good about our way of being church, let us give thanks to God (even as we simultaneously lament our shortcomings and repent of our mistakes).

We could prayerfully reflect on our life together: for all that is yet to be done, let us pray for God's wisdom and strength; for all that we do not yet understand, about God and about ourselves (in our difference and in our diversity), let us pray for knowledge; for resolve to be united in our diversity and to foster diversity in our unity, let us pray for courage and faithfulness.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Sunday 7 June 2020 - Trinity

Theme(s): God is Trinity; God the Three-in-One; The Triune God: Father Son and Holy Spirit

Sentence:


Collect: Grace and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ. (Revelation 1:4-5a)


God of unchangeable power,

you have revealed yourself
to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
keep us firm in this faith
that we may praise and bless your holy name;
for you are one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:


Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Comments:


Genesis 1:1-2:4a


We read this reading today not because we are confusing 'creation' as a theme with 'Trinity' but because this reading reminds us that God (who is Father Son and Holy Spirit, according to the witness of the whole Bible) is Creator. The work of Father Son and Holy Spirit begins (from our perspective) as the work of creating the world.


Within this reading are two fascinating phrases to reflect on today.


But before citing them and offering a reflection we need to be very clear that how we approach this passage as Christian readers is not without searching questions. In its original circulation as a completed composition, this passage was published by ancient Jews, probably in the sixth century BC or later, certainly before the time of Christ, let alone before Christians began to articulate belief that God was One yet Three. No Jew then, and no Jew now, reads this passage as offering any hint of God's Trinitarian nature. Among Christians the possibility that we may read this passage along Trinitarian lines is controversial. Some see no problem: God was more than capable of inspiring Jewish scribes to write material which harboured hidden clues concerning future disclosure about the Trinity. Some say it is disrespectful to the original publication of the passage to impose a Christian reading on a Jewish document.


Now to the two phrases:


(1) In Genesis 1:2 we read, 'the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.' Christian interpreters of Scripture have understood the 'wind' here - 'spirit' is a possible translation - as the Holy Spirit at work in creation.


(2) In Genesis 1:26 we read, 'Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; ...' Christian interpreters have understood the plural 'us' here to be a reference to God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Note also Genesis 3:22; 11:7).


[EXCURSUS: As a point of exegetical intrigue, we can readily understand how a Jewish writer would write Genesis 1:2 as no direct inconsistency regarding the Oneness of God is implied but 1:26 is more difficult, as, on the face of it, "us" implies a plurality of gods and Jews in ancient Israel believed that God was One and there was only One God. Irrespective of Christian readings of Genesis 1:26, why would ancient Jews have circulated this passage with this verse in it in this plural form? One possibility which is plausible is to think of Israel's understanding of the heavenly court of God which involved plural beings who were divine (in some sense, but not in the fullest sense of the divinity of God himself) - see 1 Kings 22:19 and Job 1:6 as well as Psalm 82:1. Thus God is saying to his heavenly court, let us make human creatures on earth who are like the heavenly beings of this heavenly court. END of Excursus.]


A Trinitarian reading of the passage Genesis 1:26-27 makes sense in this way: God as a communion of Father Son and Holy Spirit make humanity in the image of God, that is a complementary set of man and woman with capacity to form a union of love which images the union of love, or communion of Father Son and Holy Spirit. The image is not about maths (3-in-1 compared with 2-in-1)! The imaging involved is the capacity of humanity (in its diversity yet capable of unity) to represent an aspect or aspects of the very character of God (Three-in-One diversity which is also a unity).


In other readings, plausible for both Jews and Christians, being made in the image of God is about humanity's capacity to make decisions freely, and/or to be creative, especially to create life itself through procreation (1:28a), and/or to be lord of the world (i.e. God is Lord of the whole universe, humanity is lord (and steward) of the resources of the earth (see 1:28b).


Psalm 8


This psalm can be read in various ways (e.g. as a pearl of praise of great price, one which has justly received the attention of very fine composers) but here we read it in Trinitarian perspective as an address to God about the ordering of the world and the place of humanity in it. 


Above all creation is God, and within the glory of God we find ourselves inhabiting a marvellous world in which it is amazing that God has remembered us, ordered as we are to a rank below the angels (8:5). Yet God has not just remembered us, God has crowned us with glory and honour and given us dominion over creation (8:5-6). 


Thus when we consider God as Trinity we are considering God as God, utterly distinct in rank, status and glory from his creation and from us as his creatures yet also as God who in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ the Son of God has bridged the distinction, becoming one with us.

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

We could sing the last verse of this passage instead of preaching on it! But the very fact that the words are used regularly as a concluding prayer to Christian gatherings, whether said or sung, is an alert to think carefully about this verse and its contents. It is a wonderful prayer but it is also an important clue to the thinking of the first Christians about the nature of the God they were realising was being revealed to them in new ways compared with the revelation made known to Israel which was embedded in the Old Testament.

Obviously Paul, concluding this letter, is not intentionally developing a piece of theological explanation. But his prayer is instructive. As a Christian community it is called into being by Jesus Christ so he prays that the grace - the generous kindness and unlimited mercy - of Jesus will be with them (and they need it, because they are a community of faith at odds with themselves). 

This grace is only reinforced by invoking the love of God, the love which God has for his people. 


A community bound together by the grace of Jesus and the love of God has an icing on this particular cake when the communion or fellowship of the Holy Spirit is also with them. (That is,  communion/ or fellowship is the relationship the church has with the Holy Spirit which indwells them as God's personal presence in God's living temple, the church).

We might have preferred, at least for the sake of Trinitarian neatness that 'God' in 13:13 was 'the Father', but Paul is not living in 325 AD (or later)! But this prayer looks ahead to that day. It demonstrates a Christian community aware through its apostle that God is now being experienced in the persons of Jesus Christ, who once lived among their spiritual forbears in Palestine, as well as in the person of the Holy Spirit, who now lives among them and they within him.

If we move from Trinitarian reflection to verses 11 and 12, we see there what the impact on the church should be of the Trinity whose charatcer is love, grace and peace: the church should be a fellowship of love, a mirror of the communion of love which is God Father Son and Holy Spirit.

Matthew 28:16-20

In the Year of Matthew we could head to this passage on numerous counts: the last words of Jesus according to this gospel; the commissioning of the disciples for mission; the promise of Jesus being present to his disciples for ever. Today, obviously, we head here because of the clarity with which God as Father Son and Holy Spirit is invoked in verse 28:19, 


'baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'

Given that the Gospel was written before 100 AD, this is a remarkable anticipation of full blown Trinitarian doctrine, yet to be articulated by the church's future theologians. Note, for instance, that 'the name' is singular so that some sense of the Oneness of God is present. 

On the other hand, the sequence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is as clear a representation of God in Three Persons, as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit, as we find anywhere in the New Testament. It is clearer, for instance, than 2 Corinthians 13:13. Other verses we might refer to are: Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Galatians 4:6: Ephesians 4:4-6; Revelation 1:4-5.

From an authorial perspective, Matthew has perhaps distilled more clearly what other NT writers were saying about the church's experience of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and connected this directly to baptism. If one is being baptized in the name of God then the name of this God (with 'name' reflecting the character of God as experienced by his people) is 'Father Son and Holy Spirit.' 

(By contrast we might note Luke's propensity to describe baptism as being in the 'name of the Lord Jesus', Acts 19:5. Here, however, is not the place to pursue further the question of the Lukan and Matthean understandings of baptism and the manner in which they differ and/or agree). 

From the perspective of Jesus, is this something he himself was likely to have said? It is tempting to understand the whole of this last speech of the Matthean Jesus as a creation of the author (not least because the Matthean Jesus says little about the Holy Spirit). But any haste to do so could be constrained by recognising that the Jesus we meet across the four gospels, especially in Luke and John) is quite familiar with the Holy Spirit, and in the latter gospel, very articulate about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

In fact, Matthew's Gospel itself has already recognised in Jesus' own baptism the interrelationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Matthew 3:16-17.

Finally, as a historical reflection, when we baptise 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' (NZPB, p. 386) we are invoking a most ancient formula, going back at least to the time of the publication of Matthew's Gospel, but likely earlier since there is a finite chance that Matthew himself is invoking a baptismal formula already in use when he composed his gospel.