Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday 3 July 2016 - Ordinary 14

Possible Theme: Gospel for a New Creation

Sentence:      Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God (Isaiah 41:10)

Collect:          God, you are working still,
                      breaking down and building up;
                      open our eyes to discern your hands
                      so that we may take our place
                      as labourers together with you
                      in the power of the Spirit
                      through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:1-6, 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Comments:

Isaiah 66:10-14

At the end of the great book of Isaiah, Jerusalem  is envisioned as the mother city of God's new world. That new world begins to come into being as the mission of God through Jesus Christ spreads throughout the world, an anticipation of which is found in the story of the sending out of the seventy (Luke 10).

Psalm 66:1-9

Here is a psalm which gives thanks and stiffens the backbone. In thanking God for God's awesomeness there is a particular recall of the Exodus (v. 6). Verses 8-12 speak of a new test (vss. 10-12). Israel needs God to again bring them through. The psalmist is confident that God will do it. God will bring 'us out to a spacious place' (v. 12).

Galatians 6:1-6, 7-16

This is our last week in Galatians. Paul's theological 'yell' is coming to an end. That yell has been a cry of the heart against the diminishment of the singular gospel of Jesus Christ: there is no other gospel, there is not a gospel with additions added on. In this chapter Paul largely continues the work of chapter five: how does a Christian live as a grace-filled person, freed from the law, freed to live in total freedom in Christ?

Christ has set the Christian free yet we saw in chapter five that this freedom is not freedom to licentiousness but freedom to 'through love become slaves to one another' (5:13). In 6:2 Paul states this irrevocable law of Christian freedom in this way: 'Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ'.

('The law of Christ' is an unusual phrase. See also 1 Corinthians 9:21 and Romans 8:2. Could Paul also be picking up tradition which found its way into Johannine writings as Christ's 'new commandment' to 'love one another'?).

Galatians 6:1-6 each offer practical instruction to the Christian seeking to live a life worthy of the gospel. 6:7-9 takes us back to Paul's theme of life in the Spirit (5:16-26), striking a note of encouragement to those who may have become weary of doing good. Verse 10 then completes both sections, 6:1-6 and 6:7-9.

6:11-18 then completes the letter with some standard conclusion features, 'See what large letters I make ...' (v. 11) and 'May the grace of our Lord Jesus ...' (v. 18). But in between Paul has one last go at making his case about the uniqueness of the gospel: 'May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!'

Paul, in other words, steadfastly denies that the gospel is 'cross plus circumcision' saves. Only the cross saves. And what a salvation it is: 'a new creation' is inaugurated through Christ's death on the cross.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The lectionary lets us down with the verses omitted here! Terrifying though judgement is, these omitted words are the words of Jesus. At the very least they should be included to underline the point of the verses which are appointed, that the mission of Jesus is vital and decisive for humanity. The decisiveness of the mission is captured in verse 16:

'Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.'

With this verse in mind we might reread 10:1-11 and read 10:12-15: the disciples on mission speak for God. They are the Lord's labourers. When rejected it is God himself who is rejected. When accepted, it is the Lord who is accepted. The kingdom of God is indeed 'near' people when the disciples are present (v. 9).

Verses 17-20 are challenging - a commentary might be well consulted. But the seventy disciples are assured by the Lord that their well-being is in his heart.

There are many things a preacher could stop and pause to reflect on through these verses.

Consider:

v.3: what does it mean to be lambs among wolves?

v.4: is it practical to take nothing with us on the road?

v. 2: why are there few labourers for the plentiful harvest?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sunday 26 June 2016 - Ordinary 13

Possible Themes:
- Cost of discipleship (if focusing on OT/Gospel)
- True freedom (if focusing on Epistle)

Sentence:             You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence (Psalm 16:11) 

Collect:                  Lord Jesus, wherever you go
                                We will follow you.
                                Use us to light the world,
                                Through the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Readings ("related"):      

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalm 16              
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Comments:

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 Elisha follows Elijah

The relationship of this passage to the gospel reading is enigmatic. Straightforward is the calling of a disciple (Elisha) by a master (Elijah), with the twist that Elisha will succeed Elijah. In the gospel would be disciples come to the master Jesus - ultimately disciples succeed Jesus in in his work on earth. Less straightforward is the character of the parallel between Elisha wanting to return to his parents before following Elijah and the would be disciples in the gospel wishing to undertake domestic tasks before following Jesus: does Elisha actually return to his parents, or not? Is Elijah's reply, 'Go back again ...' (v. 20) a way of saying to Elisha, either follow me or do not bother?

What is clear, however, is that Elisha does follow Elijah and does so after finishing with his old way of life. He burns the yoke of his oxen in order to cook up the oxen for food which he distributes to the people. Sometimes our discipleship necessarily involves a complete break with the past.


Psalm 16 "In the presence of the Lord there is fullness of joy"

Just as there is a group of psalms called 'lament psalms' and another group called 'psalms of ascent', there ought to be a group of psalms called the 'lovely psalms'. If there were, then this would be first or second in loveliness!

David sets out the blessing of knowing the Lord, trusting the Lord, keeping close to the Lord and praying to the Lord. Life turns out well for David but he says it with brilliant poetry:

'The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; 
I have a goodly heritage' (v. 6). 

He would have said the same if he had been a Kiwi.

But it is not just that life is generally pleasant for David and that he is glad about the material comforts of that life. David feels secure and protected (vss. 1, 5, 7-8, 9-10).

The summary of this blessed state is the climax of the psalm. Summing up many parts of the New Testament which speak of blessing, it should be the profession of every Christian:

'In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore' (v. 11).

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Like many Pauline passages 'there is a lot here'. We could, for instance, embark on a sermon series (as many have done before us) on 'the fruit of the Spirit', one sermon for each of 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control' (v. 22-23). We could (and should) pause on the phrase 'Live by the Spirit' (v. 16; cf. 18, 25) since that phrase sums up the Christian life. Here I want to mention three matters in the passage in particular but do so in full acknowledgment that many matters here are worth paying great attention to.

(1) Christian freedom (v. 1). 'For freedom Christ has set us free.' This acclamation  challenges us. Do we live in freedom as Christians? Alternatively, are there ways in which as Christians we live without freedom because we are bound by things which should not and need not bind us? In part, Galatians is a letter in which Paul rails against all so-called Christians (not just certain Jewish Christians of his day) who add rules and regulations to the gospel of Christ. Here Paul does not rail against such opponents of true Christianity but appeals to true Christians who may be tempted to constrain the freedom Christ has set them free for (5:2-12 provides a specific case study). Many Christians (including this writer) find great comfort in following rules and regulations, sometimes even in creating them. Do we need to reconsider these rules and regulations so that we experience the full depths of the freedom for which Christ has set us free?

(2) Christian behaviour (v. 13-25). Yet the appeal for freedom to be lived out creates a dilemma for Christians. What is the nature of this Christ-ordered freedom? Is it freedom from every rule and from regulation of all kinds so that I am free to do absolutely anything, even things which are sinful? Paul's clear answer is 'No.'

'For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not let use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another' (v. 13).

Christian freedom, Paul seems to be saying, is a freedom to do anything but (or, BUT) exercising that freedom in self-indulgent living is to choose death (see vss. 14-15, 16-21). So freedom for Christians ought to be constrained in the direction of life. To choose life rather than death as an expression of our freedom means choosing to love one another, 'through love become slaves to one another.' Christian freedom involves a paradox: we are truly free of unnecessary rules and regulations when we becomes slaves to one another.

Although Paul then changes themes from freedom/slavery to life in the Spirit (vss. 16-25), he is pursuing the question of Christian freedom and the potential to understand that as freedom to indulge. From the perspective of life in the Spirit the answer is the same as above. Christian freedom is not being exercised when we 'gratify the desires of the flesh' (v. 16). This leads to Christian death or loss of inheritance (v.21). Further, it works against the work of the Spirit of God within us. Christ has set us free AND given us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works to constrain the exercise of our freedom in the direction of goodness, particularly love for others. Indulgence works against that direction.

(3) Christian power (vss. 16-25). Rippling through the same verses that bring us Paul's concern about how we exercise Christian freedom is Paul's concern that we understand the nature of divine power in Christians. If our behaviour as Christians is to be oriented in the direction Christ wishes us to follow, we need spiritual power to live well. Where does this come from? Earlier in the letter Paul has denied that that power exists in the law of Moses. Now he takes up an observation made in 3:2 about where the Spirit of God has come from. The power to live a godly life is first the power of the Spirit of God living within us.

So, Paul says, paraphrased, 'Live by the Spirit which God in Christ has given you (and not by the law which cannot give the power to live well).'

For the sake of clarity Paul spells out what this living by the Spirit looks like. First: what it does not look like (fornication, impurity, licentiousness ..., vss. 19-21; and, 'conceited, competing against one another, envying one another, v. 26). Secondly: what it does look like (love, joy, peace ... vss. 22-23; but we could add 6:1-10 to the picture).

In the course of all of this Paul makes another point about Christian power. If "live by the Spirit" is one general injunction, another is implied in these words,

'And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires' (v. 24).

That is, those who live by the Spirit in the freedom of Christ have died to sin.

A crucified 'flesh' (human nature) is dead. The dead do not exercise any freedom to sin! 

Paul doesn't say it, but later commenters have observed with witty seriousness, once crucified, our flesh should not be resurrected.

Luke 9:51-62

There are two parts to this gospel passage. The first part, 9:51-56 tells the story of the beginning of Jesus' intentional journey towards Jerusalem and death. Scholars call the whole section 9:51-19:28 the 'Travel Narrative'. This journey will be an actual journey from village to village (so in these verses) as well as a journey in discipleship for many of Jesus' most famous teachings are taught in this section, as well as much loved parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

In 9:51-56 we find that Jesus' journey is not universally welcomed, a village of Samaritans in particular rejecting him, perhaps because of his Jerusalem-centric intention. (Samaritans did not honour Jerusalem as their preferred centre of worship, see John 4).

This opposition is a sign of what is to come, including rejection in Jerusalem itself. James and John gallantly offer to help Jesus out by reigning down judgmental fire on the Samaritan village. Jesus' rejection of that offer is in keeping with his merciful character on display in Luke's Gospel.

Thus the journey is off to a challenging start on a number of counts and this sets the background for the next incident, vss. 57-62, in which the theme of discipleship is addressed by way of three dialogues with would be or 'wannabe' disciples.

In summary, a disciple is wholly committed to Jesus, without entanglements and compromising other commitments.

But the detail of the three conversations is worth pondering.

- each would be disciple understands what all disciples should understand: a disciple is a follower of Jesus. The first and the third each say, 'I will follow you.' The second engages with Jesus directly calling him, 'Follow me.'

- the first would be disciple has a deep understanding of discipleship. 'I will follow you wherever you go' (v. 57). Yet Jesus does not accept this. Why not? His enigmatic response seems to say to him (and to us as readers), 'Do you understand that where I go there is no security, no comforts, no prospects except the prospect (implied by the use of 'Son of Man') of suffering?' The would be disciple has - in reality - reckoned with only some, not all the cost of discipleship.

- the second and the third would be disciples appear to be similar in procrastination, even though their reasons are slightly different. Jesus lacks sympathy for their (quite reasonable) appeals to family obligation. Discipleship is more important than the previously most important of human obligations and more urgent than any other pressing task. It requires focus on the task at hand, 'Proclaim the kingdom of God', with complete concentration and no backwards look to pre-discipleship life (v. 62).

Finally, we might note here, looking back to the 1 Kings passage and the call for Elisha to follow Elijah, that Luke presents Jesus here as one who is greater than Elijah: Jesus has more disciples and asks of them a greater commitment than is asked of Elisha.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Sunday 19 June 2016 - Ordinary 12

Theme                  Who is Jesus?   

Sentence             O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. (Psalm 63:2)

Collect                  Jesus, we believe you; all we heard is true.
                                You are the Christ, the Son of the living God;
We confess the truth about you,
                                And ask that through the power of your Spirit,
                                We may boldly proclaim you through all the world. Amen.

Readings (related):

                       Isaiah 65:1-9
                       Psalm 22:19-28                                  
                       Galatians 3:23-29
                       Luke 8:26-39

Comments:

Isaiah 65:1-9

This reading makes sense when we hear the gospel as well because it includes a complaint from God about the rebelliousness of his people, including their eating 'swine's flesh' (vs. 4) which was forbidden for Jews/Israelites. Later in the gospel reading a swineherd will feature which is destroyed.

In its own right the reading is both a complaint against the unholy behaviour of God's people and a forecast that a remnant of 'Jacob' (i.e. the northern kingdom of Israel) and 'Judah' (i.e. southern kingdom of Israel) will yet inherit a new or renewed land (vss. 8-9)

The language is strong in its pictures. To give just one example: the actions of rebellious Israel are 'a smoke in my nostrils' (vs. 5).

Psalm 22:19-28

This psalm, also related to the gospel reading, is often read in conjunction with Jesus' own suffering on the cross. Here a section is read which relates to one who is oppressed and then delivered by God with the result that God is praised by the one who is delivered (vss. 22-28). This fits the circumstances of the man called Legion in the gospel reading.

Note that, in conjunction with Luke's overall project through his Gospel and through Acts, to tell the story of the kingdom of God spreading from Jerusalem to Rome, vs. 28 of the Psalm reading is a presupposition of the Lukan project:

"For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations."

Galatians 3:23-29

Paul's argument about the gospel in relation to the law reaches an apex in these verses. At this apex Paul both looks back on the course of the argument, offers a summary of it and looks forward to the consequences of the gospel replacing the law.

His summary: there was an era in which 'the law' played a decisive role in the life of Israel (as guard, as disciplinarian) but that era is now over with the coming of Christ, so that justification comes by faith, and comes for 'all' (i.e. Jews and Gentiles).

His forward looking vision: a new people of God is being created through Christ, in which those who are baptized into Christ are all accounted as Abraham's offspring and heirs of the promise made to Abraham. These offspring are one people (for all of you are one in Christ Jesus), no longer divided by race (no longer Jew or Greek), class (no longer slave or free), gender (no longer male and female).

This new people of God are a special people. Just as the people of God known as Israel were distinguished by mark of entry into Israel (male circumcision) and by lifestyle (obedience to the law), so Christians are distinguished by entry into God's kingdom (baptism, vs. 27) and by lifestyle ('clothed yourselves with Christ', vs. 27).

Arguably, as the church of God in the 21st century engages with issues of gender, race, sexuality and class, we can say that the full implications of Paul's vision of the consequences of the new era coming are not yet fully explored and are still being worked out in the life of the church.


Luke 8:26-39

To our ears this may seem the strangest of gospel stories, perhaps the more so because Luke tells it to us. Our favourite Lukan stories of Jesus likely do not include this one. So our challenge is both not to ignore it and to press for the purpose of Luke as he includes it in his gospel. 

One way to take up the challenge is to step back from the story and look at the stories preceding and succeeding it. Before this story we have the stilling of the storm (8:22-25) and after it we have the healing of Jairus's daughter and the woman with haemorrhages (8:40-56). In each case Jesus displays his power and authority: over the forces of nature, over the forces of death and illness (and an associated social exclusion). We could go further back and note Jesus' authority to forgive sins (7:36-50) and further forward to note Jesus giving 'power and authority' to the disciples 'over all demons and to cure diseases' (9:1-2).

Thus today's story is part of a sequence in which Luke presents the power and authority of Jesus over forces which inhibit human flourishing, both forces working against physical life (e.g. illness), spiritual life (e.g. guilt, demons), and social life (e.g. social exclusion, as experienced by the sinful woman (7:36-50), Legion (this story), and the woman with haemorrhages (8:43-48)). In summary terms: no force of nature, the devil, sickness or human behaviour can resist the power of Jesus. The kingdom of God, that is the effective ruling power of God over life, is being inaugurated through the work of Jesus.

Some details within the story of the deliverance of the demons from the man called Legion are helpful to explain:

- the country of the Gerasenes (v. 26) was largely inhabited by Gentiles; Gentiles ate pork (forbidden to Jews) and thus 'a large herd of swine' (v. 32) was unsurprisingly nearby to the place where the encounter takes place.

- conversely, the forbiddenness of pork to Jews means that the loss of the herd would register to some readers of Luke as inconsequential and to others as disturbing, as it was to the people of the Gerasenes who saw not only a display of spiritual power but the loss of livelihood (v. 37)

- Legion as a name is drawn from Roman military life (a legion was a force of many soldiers). A very, very subtle implication of the story is that Luke, in presenting Jesus as a man of power and authority in the context of the Roman empire, hints that Jesus' power is greater than that of the Emperor, the chief commander of all military legions.

- deliverance of demons is a common occurrence in the ministry of Jesus but in many parts of the world today it is not a common occurrence, so questions arise because of this difference. One answer given from our modern perspective is that this man was psychotically disturbed. This answer is not necessarily incompatible with the traditional answer that demons exist and can inhabit places and people. Another answer is that Jesus coming into the world provoked the fury of demons opposed to the kingdom and thus we see in the gospels an intensive demonic presence which is at variance with our day.

At the end of the story a very interesting comparison can be made. Jesus commands the man, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." But Luke reports that what the man actually did was to go away "proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him" (vs. 39). This does not mean that the man has suddenly become a Trinitarian orthodox Christian who believes that Jesus is God! But it does mean that Luke is comfortable presenting Jesus to the world through his gospel as one who is identified as God. Of such seeds will the later fruit of Trinitarian belief grow.

As an application of the story we might note that Jesus calls people to follow him and to proclaim the gospel, but some are asked to go to the rest of the world, and others, as here, are asked to stay at home.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sunday 12 June 2016 - Ordinary 11

Theme                  Christ forgives us            

Sentence             Happy the one whose offence is forgiven, whose sin is pardoned. (Psalm 32:1)

Collect                  God our Father,
                                We rejoice in your forgiveness made available to us in Christ.
                                May we in turn forgive one another
                                So that the life of the Spirit flourishes in your church,
                                Through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Readings                                             
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
Psalm 32
Galatians 2:15-21
                      Luke 7:36-50

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15

This reading starts off mid-story and it could be appropriate for the reader to have a one sentence introduction to the reading such as, 

'This reading picks up the story of David after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had arranged for her husband to die in battle.'

With that background the reading is focused on the role of the prophet Nathan in bringing David, via a parable, to a place where David admits his guilt, "I have sinned against the Lord" (12:13). To get there the parable works, as all parables intend to work, to convict the hearer of the need for action. David is drawn into the story as told to him and reacts with anger to the greedy manipulation of the villain and declares, as a king-with-power-to-judge, a fitting outcome for the villain's despicable action. That leaves David vulnerable to Nathan's parabolic twist. The story is not about a lamb stealing manipulator but about David: "You are the man!" (12:7).

The reading ends abruptly relative to the larger story. The child is ill (12:15c). In fact the child dies (12:18-19). The reading also confronts the reader with a huge theological issue at its end when it describes how "The Lord struck the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and it became very ill" (12:15b). Potentially many words could be expressed to respond to the many questions this kind of language raises. A commentary or three could be usefully consulted. Here we simply observe that this kind of language in the Old Testament, harsh though it may sound to our ears, is simply an application of the basic truth of God's sovereignty, that nothing happens in this life apart from God's rule over life.

Also potentially complicated is the reason why this reading is chosen to 'relate' to the gospel reading. Is it because sexual unfaithfulness is a strong theme in both passages? Is it because David's reaction to the parable of Nathan, the reaction of a righteous man unaware of his own sin bears comparison with the reaction of Simon in the Lukan story to the presence of a sinful woman? Or both? Something else?

Psalm 32

This is one of seven penitential psalms (6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143). Traditionally Psalm 51 is held to have been composed by David after his adultery with Bathsheba. But this psalm includes sentiments which connect with a deep personal experience of guilt as a burden (32:3-4).

The actual themes in the psalm move from the penitential (verses 1-5) to preservation (verses 6-7) to pedagogy or teaching (verses 8-9)* to perseverance and purity (verses 10-11).

*It is difficult to work out whether the "I" here is David as psalmist instructing another (the reader? a family member? Israel?) or God or the personified Wisdom of God instructing us (or perhaps instructing David himself).

Galatians 2:15-21

Paul develops his argument about the central core of the singular gospel for which other versions are anathema.

Step One: as a Jew by birth he nevertheless knows (what is vital for Gentiles) that "a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (2:15-16). 

In this context "works of the law" appears to be both the things that are done that make one a Jew (e.g. circumcision) and actions which signify one's Jewish commitment to God (obedience to the commandments of God).

But what is "faith in Jesus Christ", especially when (as many scholars argue) the Greek should be translated "the faith of Jesus Christ" (meaning the "faithfulness" of Jesus Christ or the "faith (in God demonstrated by obedience till death on the cross)" of Jesus Christ)? However these debates are resolved, Paul is arguing that through Jesus Christ justification is obtainable in a way not achieved by Jewishness and not previously available to Gentiles.

Step Two of the argument: Paul, using irony, swats aside the possibility that following Christ and ignoring the law makes Christ a servant of sin, and determines that the pursuit of righteousness through obedience to the law will not be restored (2:17-18).

Step Three: as a means of making Paul righteous before God, the law is dead, we might even say, dead useless, so Paul is dead to it and its claims on him, in order that he might "live to God." There is another way, through an exchange centred on Christ crucified on the cross and the believer's identification with the crucified Christ. Thus Paul has been "crucified with Christ" so "it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me." This means "the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God" (2:19-20).

In this last part of the development of his argument Paul is both spelling out the theory of salvation (Christ saves him not the law) and the method of salvation (Christ lives his life out through Paul).

So Paul concludes on an emotive note, 2:21, if the law does justify him then Christ has died in vain.

Luke 7:36-50

There is a lot going on in this passage but essentially there is a triangle between Jesus, Simon and the unnamed woman in which Jesus and Simon converse, Simon judges the woman, and Jesus responds to the woman's engagement with him through her anointing action. 

- Simon invites Jesus to dinner. 
- The dinner is crashed by a "sinner" woman with a jar of ointment. 
- Simon makes a judgment about the woman but Jesus knows what Simon is saying to himself. 
- To make a point to Simon, Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness (7:41-43) and traps Simon into admitting that greater love comes from the one forgiven most (7:43). 
- He then schools Simon in hospitality, contrasting Simon's meanness with the woman's generosity (7:44-46) and draws the conclusion that she loves Jesus much and Simon loves Jesus little (7:47). 
- Then it is back to the woman: "Your sins are forgiven" (7:48).

Jesus will let her go with an affirming message, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (7:50). But the dinner guests are muttering into their wine cups, asking who this bloke is who is claiming to forgive sins (7:49).

The themes of the story are significant, varied, yet mutually connected: faith, salvation, forgiveness, peace, grace, hospitality.

But perhaps the challenge in the sermon we might preach from the passage is for the hearers to work out who they are in relation to Jesus. 

Simon? 

The woman? 

The other dinner guests?

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Sunday 5 June 2016 - Ordinary Sunday 10

Theme                  Christ restores us to life               

Sentence             Everyone was filled with awe and praised God! (Luke 7:16).

Collect                  Father in heaven,
                                Words cannot limit the boundaries of your love
                                For those born to new life in Christ.
                                Always renew our hearts through your Spirit
     So that we may be free to love as Christ loves us. Amen. [Adapted]       

Readings                                             
1 Kings 17:17-24 [related]
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
                        Luke 7:11-17

Comments:

1 Kings 17:17-24

Mighty miracles occurred in the ministry of Elijah. These miracles, later, would be seen as precursors to miracles of Jesus: notably a miraculous feeding (1 Kings 17:8-16) and, in today's passage, a resurrection (or resuscitation?). Details differ in each case but the conclusion of today's reading is the theme of miracle stories in the gospels: they provide evidence that the miracle worker is empowered by God and his teaching is truth.

Psalm 30

The psalmist (David, according to the superscription) extols God because God has healed him. His affliction brought him close to the point of death (verses 2-3) but God has heard his argumentative prayer (verses 8-10). The core of his argument is that the dead are unable to praise God (v. 9). God is good, 'his anger but for a moment; his favour for a lifetime' (v.5), the psalmist has experienced this, in a profound and (literally) life changing way. He must now praise God and cannot be silent (v. 12).

In obvious ways this psalm sits alongside the Old Testament and gospel readings in which the dead are raised (or, at least, in the OT passage's case, the near dead are resuscitated).

What is not so obvious is the way in which the psalm can be profitably sung corporately. Note in the superscription there is this line, 'A Song at the dedication of the temple.' David never built a temple so we look for a later occasion when this superscription was added. Likely it was the celebration of the cleansing of the temple by Judas Maccabeus in 164 BCE. Israel has been pressed to a point of 'death' but God has saved his people. This psalm is now their psalm of deliverance as well as David's.

Galatians 1:11-24

(See also notes in post below for Galatians 1:1-12)

These verses, along with 2:1-14, set out an autobiographical account of how "Paul's gospel" came into conflict with "another gospel." Our verses today are strictly autobiographical, telling Paul's story of his conversion, initial Christian life but most especially how Paul can claim - verse 11 - that his gospel "is not of human origin."

Paul's life is interesting in its own right. He was not just a good Jew, but a zealous one. He was not just pure in his own observance of Jewish law, he was aggressive in pursuit of the enemies of Judaism, specifically the 'church of God' which he tried to destroy (v. 13). But we read the passage for clues as to the content of the gospel which Paul now zealously proclaims, defends and acclaims as the basis for pursuit of perverted alternatives.

Earlier in the epistle, 1:3-4, we have the content of the gospel as 'the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.' In this passage we have the somewhat cryptic note, 'God ... was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles' (2:15-16).

The content of the true gospel is, most simply, Jesus Christ. Paul indeed met Jesus Christ in an instantly transforming way on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Yet the earlier disclosure (along with the subsequent development of the content of the gospel in Galatians 2-6) constrains us from thinking the gospel is Jesus Christ as we choose to understand him. Paul preaches Christ, the Christ of grace (not works), of liberation from our sins (not blessing us in our sins), with a view to life in a new age to come (the present age is 'evil').

Luke 7:11-17

Luke tells a story of an event in the ministry of Jesus which is not told by the other gospels. Above we have mentioned the similarity between this story and the story of Elijah raising another widow's son back to life (we could also read 2 Kings 4:32-37). The crowd are the first interpreters to make this connection as their response is a mixture of fear, glorifying God and exclaiming that a 'great prophet' (i.e. one in the mold of Elijah and Elisha) has 'risen among us' (v. 16).

Whatever connections Luke may have been making with the Old Testament background to the ministry of Jesus, the primary importance in respect of making a connection is that this story and the previous one (7:1-10) becomes a report to John the Baptist who is languishing in prison. His ministry was to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord but has that ministry been successful? Has the Lord come? The answering of that question is the subject of the next part of the chapter (7: 18-35). As such that need not concern us here, but we can observe that Luke has a purpose in telling us about the raising of the widow of Nain's son: he is laying out the case for Jesus being God's Anointed One (Messiah/Christ).

What about the miracle itself? Details in 7:12 imply the situation was not only one of concern that a person had died. The son's death makes the widow's own situation perilous. Likely she now faces destitution. Jesus responds with compassion (v. 13). His command to the widow, "Do not weep," is followed by action. He touches the bier and commands the young man to rise up. When the young man sits up and begins to speak, Jesus gives him back to his mother.

There is much to reflect on here. For instance, unlike the immediately previous occasion, there is no reference to 'faith'. The compassion of Jesus here flows spontaneously from Jesus himself, without a triggering request or a display of faith. Or we might note that the occasion does not become an encounter about discipleship: the young man is given no opportunity to consider whether he might like to follow Jesus or not. He is simply and immediately handed back to his mother. Discipleship can involve leaving family for the sake of Christ. Here it involves cleaving to family for the sake of obvious need on the part of the widowed mother.

Importantly, Jesus demonstrates his power to change lives includes power over death itself. This power will also be demonstrated in the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11). Yet there is no presumption that either the son in this story or Lazarus will not, eventually, die in the usual way of all people. The greater demonstration of power over death will come when Jesus himself is raised from death to a life not subject to further death.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Sunday 29 May 2016 - 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time (also: Te Pouhere Sunday)

TE POUHERE SUNDAY

Sentence: Galatians 3:28

Readings:
Isaiah 42:10-20
2 Corinthians 5:14-19
John 15:9-17
Resources are available to assist preaching on this Sunday by going to the General Synod website www.anglican.org.nz then choosing Lectionary, then Te Pouhere Sunday and downloading a PDF file.

The purpose of this Sunday is to celebrate and to reflect on our life as a Three Tikanga Church.

There are no comments on the readings for Te Pouhere Sunday; there are comments below for this Sunday if treated as 9th Sunday in ordinary time.

9th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Theme                  Jesus draws all to himself            

Sentence             But only speak the word and let my servant be healed (Luke 7:7b)

Collect                  Gracious and eternal God,
                                We thank you for the love of Christ
                                Which draws all people to himself
                                And invites them to have faith in him.
                                May we have the faith of the centurion
                                Who entrusted his servant’s healing
                  Into the care of Jesus. Amen.    

Readings (related):                                             
1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 [related]
Psalm 96:1-9
Galatians 1:1-12
                         Luke 7:1-10
Comments:

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

God is the God Israel and Israel's God must have a house of worship in Jerusalem. Solomon has built that house and offers a long prayer, of which we read a few verses. Related to our gospel reading, the second part of the reading conveys Solomon's prayer that the God of Israel also be the God of God fearing foreigners. "Answer their prayers too," is the gist of the request Solomon makes.

Psalm 96:1-9

This is a wonderful song of praise. It even envisages 'all the trees of the forest' singing for joy! 

But the particular observation we make in the context of the gospel reading is that the psalm has a world vision. God's glory should be declared 'among the nations ... among all the peoples' (3), 'for all the gods of the peoples are idols' (5), 'Say among the nations, "The LORD is king!' (10). God is God of the whole world and the praises due to God should ring out through all the world. 

A challenge in the psalm, for the world to hear and respond to, is that God will judge the world (10, 13). The judgement will be fair (10) but the standard will be God's 'righteousness' and 'truth' (13).

Galatians 1:1-12

For a few Sundays we follow Galatians as the epistle. Galatians is Paul's theological 'yell' when he cries out 'Stop' to some developments which threatened the very existence of the gospel of Christ. Or, for a different image, it is Paul's line in the sand. Here is The Gospel, across that line is Not The Gospel.

But to make this major point, to a readership tempted to embrace a false gospel, Paul has to lay on every part of his case with a thick trowel. So the first two verses, for instance, consist of Paul telling us of his office (apostle), his commission (by Christ and God) and his backing ('all the members of God's family who are with me').

The greeting in verses 3-5 takes the opportunity to spell out who Jesus Christ is: the one 'who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father'. Paul spells out the core of the true gospel: it is good news about freeing us from our sins. Galatians is Paul's argument that this liberation is the work of Christ and not of us.

The preliminaries of good manners out of the way, Paul launches off with a frank statement of the situation in Galatia. 'I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel' (6). Paul has 'called' them to the true gospel. Now they are deserting him for a different gospel.

But there is not 'another gospel' (7). There are perversions of the true gospel and these can be confusing. Paul will clarify for them. But first he spells out how serious the situation is. Twice, verses 8 and 9, Paul says that those responsible for perverting the gospel are 'accursed'.

Paul is not trying to curry favour with his readers (10). His loyalty is to Christ. It is from Christ that he has received the true gospel and it is to Christ that he is accountable for faithfulness both in proclaiming and defending the true gospel (11-12).

Luke 7:1-10

As a whole story, this passage ties in beautifully with the Old Testament readings. Here is someone, a Roman centurion, from the nations beyond Israel who is being drawn into the presence of the God of Israel, including connecting with the people of God and their local place of worship.

From the perspective of the gospel of grace being taught in Galatians, this reading offers an interesting contrast between the view of the Jewish elders sent by the centurion to Jesus and the view of Jesus himself. They think Jesus should heal the centurion's slave because 'He is worthy' (5) where the worthiness is measured in terms of good deeds. Jesus heals the servant in response to the faith of the centurion (9). 

Paul's plea to the Galatians will be that they do not return to the attempt to impress God with their deeds. Rather they should have faith in God who through Christ has done all work needed for their salvation. The centurion does not yet know about this work - Christ has not died on the cross - but he recognises that Christ has extraordinary power to do good. As a man used to the 'chain of authority' he instinctively recognises that Christ has power from God which can command illness to leave the sick person: 'only speak the word, and let my servant be healed' (7). The centurion at this point relies not on his own worthiness (as estimated by human assessors) but on Christ. He has faith that is not found 'even in Israel' (9).

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sunday 22 May 2016 - Trinity Sunday

Theme                  God is Three and God is One     

Sentence             You O Lord reign for ever; your throne endures from generation to generation.. (Lamentations 5:19) [NZPB, p. 606].

Collect                  God of unchangeable power,
                                You have revealed yourself,
                                To us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit;.
                                Keep us firm in this faith
                                May we know his strength
                                That we may praise and bless your holy name;
                                For you are one God now and for ever. Amen. [NZPB, 606].
                                               
Readings            Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
                         Psalm 8
                         Romans 5:1-5
                         John 16:12-15

Comments

Introduction

Many years ago I was told of a clergy colleague whose sermon for Trinity Sunday consisted of just six words. I have no idea whether this was just an idea or an actual preached sermon. The six words were:

"Brothers and sisters, it's a mystery."

God as Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit or Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life or Three Persons in One Being is indeed 'a mystery.'

But the mystery of the Triune God of Christian belief and worship should not be the mystery of mathematics (how can God be three yet one?) nor of illustrations (is a triangle a good image for explaining the Trinity?). It should be the mystery of love. God is love, we are told, twice in 1 John 4. 

What does this mean? The answer, the creeds and the doctrines of faith tell us, is not that God is the concept of love but that God is the dynamic of love, Three Persons in One Being, a community of love in which the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father (etc) and in that love there is no division of will nor of status. United in love, Father Son and Spirit work as One to create, redeem and sustain life. 

Determined by love to love what that Unity has created, Father Son and Spirit take up three distinct roles so that creation, redemption and sustenance of life take place. In this understanding creation is itself a fruit of the love which is God for that Love seeks to love more rather than less: Father Son and Spirit create a world to love (John 3:16) and in that love draw all people to God that fellowship between Father Son and Spirit might be enlarged to include creatures. specifically being drawn into the fellowship of the Three in One through identity in Christ the Son as the body of Christ. (Key biblical passages on this understanding are John 13-17, 1 John 1-4, Revelation 1-22).

As Trinitarian Christians we are called to bear witness to the Love which is God and to the God who is love.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

From a Trinitarian perspective, this passage from the Old Testament is important because it presents the wisdom of God as a personification that is, wisdom is presented in these verses in a personal way, as an agent or assistant of God in the acts of creation. In doing this a seed is planted in ancient theological thinking which grew to include the possibility that not only the 'wisdom' of God, but also 'the word' of God could be personified. When that conceptualization was bound together with reflection on the role of angels, as personal messengers of God sent by God into the world to converse with people, sometimes in a form of such impressiveness that recipients of angelic visitations believed they were in the presence of God, the foundation was laid for a new development. That new development was the recognition by the first Christian theologians (especially John the Evangelist) that the wisdom/word of God was not only able to be written about in terms of personification, the wisdom/word of God had come into the world in a human person, Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
                         
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 is God, 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.
                         
Romans 5:1-5

Writing these five verses, Paul has not set out to tell us about God as Trinity but, on this Sunday, he does handily write about God's work in salvation including the roles of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. God has sent the Lord Jesus Christ to 'justify' us (through his sacrificial death on the cross, as elucidated in Romans 1-4). As justified sinners we have access to the grace of God (5:2); the grace of God is God's love 'poured into our hearts' (5:5). How does this love reach us as an experience of life rather than a concept in our minds? It is 'through the Holy Spirit' (5:5). Thus the dynamic action of God Father Son and Holy Spirit as the God of our salvation is expressed in this passage, a dynamic action which is 'for us' (further on 'us', 'for us, 'for our sakes' see, among many Pauline texts, Romans 4:23-25).

The giving of the Holy Spirit to us (5:5) means that God's love does more than flow into us (say, like water from a lake, through a pipe, into a bucket). God himself comes to live in us and bind our lives to the life of God itself (so, in an important way, in the image above, we are like the bucket receiving water from a pipe and we are like a bucket dipped into the lake itself). Thus Paul can write in 5:2 of 'our hope of sharing the glory of God.' As members of the body of Christ we share in God's life in Christ.

[Much much more can be said about preaching from this passage, especially from 5:1. These thoughts are specifically geared for Trinity Sunday].
                         
John 16:12-15

In some ways this is a frustratingly short passage from John when the fullness of revelation about the Holy Spirit is given across several Johannine passages (including John 14:25-31; 15:26-27; 16:4b-11).

Nevertheless a vital truth is taught. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth. In one way, of course this is true: we would not expect God's Spirit to lie to us. In another way, this is unexpected in the sense that the Spirit of truth 'will guide you [Jesus' disciples] into all the truth' (16:13). Jesus has many things to say but they cannot be said now (16:12). Not to worry because the Spirit of Truth (also known in this gospel as the Advocate / Counsellor / Helper / Paraclete) will guide us to what we need to know from Jesus.

In this sense, as we find sometimes elsewhere in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is trustworthy as faithful servant of Jesus and his mission. Through the Holy Spirit we meet the risen Lord Jesus and from the Holy Spirit we learn what Jesus wishes to teach us.

Does this mean that the Holy Spirit will teach us new information or new insight into what we already know from Jesus?

Some scholarly debate occurs about this. John's Gospel itself may provide a clue and the epistles another clue. In the former we find new insight into what we already know about Jesus from the earlier gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the latter we find the meaning of the events of Jesus' life being drawn out for us: Christ died on the cross for our salvation. Christ rose from the dead in order that we too may rise with Christ to glory.

We see that the passage rounds off, in 16:15 with talk of God the Father. Jesus has, says, and does nothing except what belongs to, comes from and is directed by the Father. By implication the Spirit of Truth declares only what God the Father has revealed to God the Son. In this way the unity of God is expressed. The diversity of the Godhead is experienced as we meet God in the three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John, writing these words down, may not have had the advantage we have of knowing how to talk about God as 'Three in One' but he knew that God was One yet experienced as Three Persons working in profound unity.