Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sunday 12 July 2015 - 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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 to Ephesians. Since this reading was also set down for 4 January 2015 I reprise the comment from then.

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

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


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 pushing the cause of 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) sees and 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 today from 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.

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


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday 5 July 2015 - 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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: he answers the questions, Who is Jesus? What do disciples of Jesus do?

The 'Who is Jesus?' 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?' 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: by stating them as having occurred early in the ministry of Jesus, 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 remained 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 21, 2015

Sunday 28 June 2015 - 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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 Jairus to seek help from Jesus. The unwell woman would, according to Mosaic Law, have been permanently unclean and this 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, 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 well nation of faith-filled people.
-

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday 21 June 2015 - 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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: (continuous)

1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16
Psalm 133
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Comments:

1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16

There are points of connection here with the gospel reading! Can you find them? One connection is the 'awe' Saul has for David and his successes (18:15). Another connection is the general power and authority which David accrues as he goes from success to success, and as his good fortunes are contrasted with the misfortunes of Saul: thus also is our gospel story part of the growing successes of Jesus (the Son of David).

ADDED: Mea Culpa. I have just realised, Friday 19 June, that I made a mistake with the readings above: my aim has been to work with the 'related' readings and not the 'continuous' readings, thus I have  reflected on 1 Samuel instead of on Job 38:1-11. Here are a few thoughts on the latter ...

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 meaningly 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, '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 7, 2015

Sunday 14 June 2015 - 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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: (continuous option)

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

Comments:

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

One point of this story today is that David being selected by the Lord, ahead of his brothers, because the Lord does not settle for the outward appearance of a man, but looks on the inward attitude of a man (i.e. looks into the heart of the man) connects with the concern for the inner meaning (so to speak) of parablesin the gospel reading.

Just as the story of David's selection to be appointed the next King of Israel is the prelude to the growing kingdom of Israel under King David, so the parables taught by Jesus are the prelude to the growing kingdom of its King, the Son of David.

Another point of this story is that its concern with the inward state of the heart versus outward appearances ties in with the reading from 2 Corinthians, note particular 5:12.

Psalm 20

This psalm petitions the Lord for victory for David (4-5). Thus will the kingdom of David grow.

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 as 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. If 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 parable 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 in 4:9, 23 'Let anyone with ears to hear listen' and 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 to grasp and preserve the truth (25).

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sunday 7 June 2015 - 10th Ordinary Sunday or Te Pouhere Sunday

Usually I do not comment on the readings for Te Pouhere Sunday but this year I am preaching and have been asked to speak to the readings set down for Te Pouhere Sunday. So I shall attempt to provide comment on both sets of readings for the day!

Also, this is the first in a series of ordinary Sundays following the Lent-Easter-Trinity Sequence in which the lectionary provides for the alternative OT readings, 'continuous' or 'related'. I am following the 'related' reading option.

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:

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. 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). 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 the '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 know 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 is mother and brothers really are. '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!

Te Pouhere Sunday (i.e. celebration and commemoration of the three tikanga constitution of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia.

Sentence: Galatians 3:28

Collect:

God of our faith, 
strengthen our Church 
as it seeks to show your love in the ministry of its three tikanga. 
Make us bold to seek new ways to best serve you, 
showing your boundless love as you have shown through Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Readings:

Isaiah 42:10-20
2 Corinthians 5:14-19
John 15:9-17

Comments: these are shaped towards and by 'Te Pouhere'

Isaiah 42:10-20

This chapter begins one of the so-called 'servant songs' in Isaiah, songs which look to the coming anointed suffering servant of God who will be instrumental in bringing God's plan for the world to fulfilment. Christian understand the servant to be Jesus Christ.

These verses call for praise and glory to be given to God (10-13)  because God is about to perform a great reversal. Darkness will be turned into light (16). Those who trust in images will be put to shame (17).

(Verses 18-20, frankly, are difficult to understand unless we read through to the end of v. 25. The gist is that Israel in rebellion is like a deaf and blind person - one who cannot discern where they are going - and will be punished by the Lord. But the hint here is that the Lord's messenger/servant (19) will identify with Israel. In further servant passages in Isaiah, the hint will be broadened to include the notion that the servant saves Israel).

A question for Te Pouhere Sunday observers is whether the constitution of our church,  and the way we express our allegiance to it, is a means for God to do a new thing, including a reversal of the typical outcomes of multiple cultures being part of one body, in which one culture dominates and the others become subservient.

2 Corinthians 5:14-19

There is an obvious sense in which this passage is chosen for Te Pouhere Sunday: a day in which we engage with the reality of our life as a three tikanga church is a day in which we encounter the true state of reconciliation between the three tikanga. This passage talks about the 'ministry of reconciliation' in the apostolic mission of the church (19b).

Yet we need to read the passage carefully enough to recognise that the primary focus of talk of reconciliation is between God and the world (18, 19a, 20). Paul's ministry of reconciliation means his message is 'we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God' (20).

What then of the relevance of this passage for Te Pouhere? Three brief observations:

1. Our constitution is first and foremost a document expressing our relationship to God as God's church.
2. Our ability to be reconciled with one another is enhanced by being first reconciled with God, not least because knowing that God has forgiven us much (see how much in verse 21) empowers us to forgive others (e.g. Luke 7:36-50).
3. From this passage (i.e. to end of 2 Corinthians 5), Paul easily begins speaking of life in the church: 'As we work together with him' (6:1).

John 15:9-17

In the end, the life of our church is commanded by Christ to be a life of love. 'This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you' (12, see also 17). When we ask about the meaning of Te Pouhere, the Jesus of John's Gospel wants us to ask whether Te Pouhere deepens our love for one another.

What is our answer?

Postscript: our church's website even gives a sermon for Te Pouhere Sunday,albeit one that should be adapted by the preacher for this year and the preacher's specific context!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Trinity Sunday - 31 May 2015

Theme(s): Trinity/God is Three yet One/God is Father Son and Holy Spirit/The Triune God

Sentence: You, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. (Lamentations 5:19)

Collect: 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:

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Comments:

On Trinity Sunday we reflect on the nature of God as the church believes God has revealed God to be through Scripture, 'We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who in unity with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, and has spoken through the prophets.'

Isaiah 6:1-8

We can read this passage in various ways. It has been, for example, the text for many a service of commissioning for ministry and mission (noting verse 8 in particular). It is a passage which conveys the holy magnificence and magnificent holiness of God: 'the hem of his robe filled the temple' (1) speaks of magnificence and the cry of the seraphs in verse 3 underlines the depth of the holiness of God.

But how does this passage fit into thinking Trinitarian thoughts?

One way is to observe some unexpected features of the vision. First, Isaiah 'saw the Lord sitting on a throne' (1). Other parts of the OT suggest that God is unseeable, being wholly 'other' to us (which is one meaning of 'holy' or 'separate'). When Isaiah 'sees' the Lord he himself is surprised (5). Later, seeing the Unseeable (in the face of Jesus Christ) is a reality for Jesus' disciples (noting especially John 1:14-18). This vision, in other words, anticipates the later and greater surprise that God becomes Incarnate among us.

Secondly, the movement of the seraph from the heavenly throne to touch the mouth of Isaiah as part of his commissioning anticipates the sense that the Holy Spirit 'proceeds' from the heavenly throne to come towards and to dwell in humanity, assuring us of the cleansing of our sins and commissioning us for ministry.

Psalm 29

On one level this psalm praises God and that is what the church should do on a day such as this.

On another level, the focus in this psalm on the 'voice' of God performing might acts connects to the Trinity in this way. In ancient theological thinking the more God was thought of as 'wholly other' or absolutely separated from humanity and creation, the harder it was to then explain how God had any interaction with the world. One solution was to envisage an aspect of God which conveyed a sense of how God could reach out to the world while preserving the Otherness of God. For Hebrew thinking, convicted that God had spoken to Israel, the idea that the 'word' or 'wisdom' of God enacted certain things (e.g. speaking creation into being, Genesis 1) was such a resolution.

Here this kind of thinking envisages the 'voice' of God (obviously closely related to the 'word' of God) being the link between God and the world.

Later still, Christians trying to express the conviction that Christ was the embodiment of such a link, took over Hebrew thinking about 'voice', 'word' and 'wisdom' and made it their own as they began to articulate how Christ was identified with God.

The next two sections are incomplete as I post this Monday a.m. I hope to get back to this post on Monday afternoon.

Romans 8:12-17

Crudely we can observe this passage is 'Trinitarian' because it mentions the Spirit, the Father and Christ! Can we be a little more sophisticated?

Paul, writing to the Romans about life in the Spirit now that the gospel of Christ establishes that observance of the Law is no longer required in order to be saved, continues working through chapter 8 on what life in the Spirit means.

There is still a battle between good and evil in the life of the believer, but it is understood here in respect of living according to the flesh (essentially this is living a life centred on one's self and what serves one's selfish ends) or according to the Spirit (essentially living life by following the leading of the Spirit and by putting 'to death the deeds of the body') (verses 12-14).

In this context the Spirit of God is decisive concerning status before God: 'all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God' (14). The Christian life, in other words, involves a relationship with God via the Spirit of God, the Spirit of God being the presence of God in the life of the believer.

In verses 15-17 Paul develops the theme that this relationship with the Spirit is also a relationship with the Father (15-16). We are not 'children of God' in an abstract or general sense that we in some sense belong to God. Rather, God has adopted us as his children (15) which implies, incidentally, that not all humanity is automatically counted among the children of God. Further, in that same action we are able, through the Spirit, to address God as 'Abba! Father!' (15).

Two notes, before proceeding:

first, in times past (it seems to my memory) exegetes have made a lot of 'Abba' as a term of intimacy between father and child, more 'Daddy' than 'Father' and much less seems to be said about that today. (That may be because some scholars have challenged whether calling God 'Abba' was unique to Jesus himself). But Paul's invocation of 'Abba' in a letter to Christians in Greek speaking churches in Rome suggests he is invoking a special memory about Jesus' own address to God the Father. And Jesus was especially intimate - of course! - with the Father.

secondly, already we see a kind of 'cash value' to the doctrine of the Trinity: when we believe that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are not believing something about God-up-in-heaven-and-distant-from-us. We are believing something about God's involvement with us.

Let's proceed. Where does the Son fit into this passage on Trinity Sunday?

We have already met Christ the Son in Romans 8, for Christians are those 'in Christ Jesus' (1), freed from sin through God's own Son dealing with sin (2-3), and indwelt by the Spirit of God who is also the 'Spirit of Christ' (9). With that in the background, we come to verse 17 and read, 'if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ'

'Heirs' here refers to the promises made to Abraham (of receiving God's blessing), elucidated previously in Romans 4. As adopted children of God we not only have the privilege of praying to Abba, Father, we are also heirs of the promises of God. But, wait there is more. We are not heirs in a secondary sense, so that Christ is the true Son and heir and we are lesser heirs (in the sense that, say, the eldest son gets to inherit the family farm and the other siblings get a lesser cash settlement). No, Paul writes that we are 'heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ'. He writes this consistent with his understanding, e.g. in 8:1, that Christians are identified with Christ Jesus, we are 'in Christ'. That means that what Christ inherits, we inherit.

On Trinity Sunday when we celebrate the revelation that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we may also celebrate the extraordinary truth that we ourselves are being drawn into the life of the Triune God, since we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and identified with Christ the Son.

John 3:1-17

As with the passages above, we could read this passage in a variety of ways (not least as the passage which brings to us the 'most famous verse in the Bible', John 3:16). But here we are looking for the Trinitarian 'payload.'

First, note the references - implicit and explicit - to God as Spirit, Son and Father (2, 5-8, 13-14, 16-17.

Secondly, note the various works of the persons of the Trinity:
- the Spirit works on bringing new life to believers: 'no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit' (verse 5, see also verses 4, 6-8).
- God (the Father) gives and sends the Son into the world (16-17).
- the Son (of Man) descends from heaven (13) in order to be lifted up (i.e. crucified, 14), that 'whoever believes in him may have eternal life' (15) which means that the descent and lifting up of the Son of Man is the same action as God giving the Son out of love for the world (16) and God sending the Son in order that the world might be saved through him (17).

In other words, if the doctrine of the Trinity is the church agreeing on what the Bible says and means about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, once again we see that this doctrine is not only about an abstract set of relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is also about how these three persons who constitute the one God have worked for our salvation: the Father sends the Son to save the world, the Spirit enables people in the world to be born anew in order to enter into the fullness of the life of God (i.e. the kingdom of God).