Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday 21 September 2014 - 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): God's generosity / God's mercy / the first will be last / living worthily of the gospel

Sentence: Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.(Philippians 1:27)

Collect:

God our ruler and guide,
when we come to the place where the road divides,
keep us true to the way of Christ,
alive to present opportunities,
and confident of eternal life. Amen.

Readings (related):

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Comments:

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Paul (in Philippians below) is delighted that Philippians have heard the gospel and become Christians. There could not be a greater contrast re preaching and its outcomes than between Paul's delight and Jonah's sulkiness.

Jesus tells a parable (in Matthew below) in which early recipients of an employment contract are bitter about only receiving the same pay as late recipients of a contract. This bitterness has some common ground with Jonah's bitter response to people responding to his preaching and repenting because of it. In both cases there is a lack of joy that people not in 'my group' receive a blessing I thought only belonged to that group.

Psalm 145:1-8

In this psalm we read/sing beautiful, comprehensive, inspiring words of praise to the God whose greatness is 'unsearchable' and whose character is 'gracious and merciful.'

Philippians 1:21-30

I have no idea why we have switched out of the last chapters of Romans to Philippians!

But what a great passage to switch to. Nowhere in his writings does Paul better declare his passionate devotion to Christ than in this chapter. Writing from a dank prison cell, in verses 21-24 he expresses his torn desires between living in this world (fruitful labour as he encourages the churches and preaches the gospel) and departing this world to live in eternal, full-and-intimate fellowship with Christ.

He will remain (25) for the sake of the Philippian church (25-26).

Paul lives and dies for Christ but the church is very close in his passionate commitment: he will stay physically alive for the sake of the life of the church. How devoted are we to Christ and to his church?

But the Philippian church are not babes to be nannied by Paul. His role is to assist their development as Christians, not to do everything for them. He expects them to be mature in their faith. Hence verses 27-30.

They, and we, are asked to 'live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' (27). Presumably that includes matters such as forgiving others (since the gospel tells us of God forgiving us) but here Paul emphasises three matters (27b-28) after 'so that' (27a):

1. 'standing firm in one spirit'
2. 'striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel'
3. 'in no way intimidated by your opponents.'

In other words, living lives worthy of the gospel is living lives in solidarity with other disciples, sharing the intention to both proclaim the gospel (evangelism, see 1:1-18) and defend its truth (chapter 3), all without fear of what opponents may do.

That opponents of the gospel cause suffering, such as Paul himself is experiencing, is a real possibility. The Philippians are experiencing that but Paul reminds them that this is actually, under God, a 'privilege' (29-30).

Matthew 20:1-16

We could call this passage 'the parable of the gracious employer' or we could call it 'the parable of the ungrateful employees'.

Following on from last Sunday's passage about generous forgiveness (18:21-35), we read here that the kingdom of heaven is an equal blessing to those who turn up to it early as to those who enter at the last minute. God's generous welcome into the kingdom is not proportioned to give more to those who commit to the kingdom from the first, with crumbs of blessing given to those who come last.

The parable (20:1-15) is framed by the comments in 19:30 and 20:16 about the last being first and the first being last.

In part this refers to the inclusive and expanding nature of the gospel (cf. Matthew 28:16-20): as the Gentiles are included in the scope of the gospel, Jews may be resentful that they are the 'Johnny comes latelies' as recipients of God's blessing. The last are equal to the first.

In part this refers (noting what precedes 19:30) to a general lesson to all disciples, the first called and the last called, the ones who give up everything and the ones who don't, God loves all equally and welcomes all into eternal life which is without distinctions and layers.

Such parables drive certain values deep into Christian consciousness: God is gracious, no Christian is more meritorious than another, whether we are lifelong Christians or deathbed converts we are all one in Christ, and, very importantly, in our attitudes to one another we act as God acts towards us, treating each person as equally worthy of hearing the gospel, of receiving our charitable actions and being the objects of our prayers.

In practical and political terms, as we run up to an election on 20 September, a recently arrived refugee is as valuable a citizen as a sixth generation descendent of early settlers from Europe or as Maori descended from the arrivals in the tenth century.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday 14 September 2014 - 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Forgiveness. Quality not quantity. Accepting those who are weaker than us. Accepting those who think differently to us. Conflict resolution. Judge not for you will be judged.

Sentence: Forgive your brother or your sister from the heart (Matthew 18:35)

Collect:

God of infinite mercy,
Grant that we who know your pity
May rejoice in your forgiveness
and gladly forgive others
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Comments:

Genesis 50:15-21

This is a very naughty story! When the general run of the Bible speaks of the importance of genuine repentance and of freely given forgiveness, here we find the brothers of Joseph manipulating their brother into forgiving them (i.e. formally, publicly) by lying about what their father said.

However the whole story of Joseph suggests that he would not have been fooled by their attempt to claim knowledge of something their father Jacob had not himself shared with his favourite son! Thus we can think of Joseph forgiving because he chooses to do so. A forgiveness which extends to include their continuing brazen attempts to save their skins.

Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13

With an eye looking ahead to the gospel reading, on forgiveness, who is the God who calls us to forgive one another? It is the 'merciful and gracious' Lord (8) who 'does not deal with us according to our sins' (10).

Romans 14:1-12

(While it is no purpose of this blog to engage with the specifics of present debates re homosexuality in the life of the church, a parenthetical comment can be made, and perhaps should be made, that Romans 14 is an appropriate passage to bring into the consideration of these debates because they reveal the apostolic mind engaging the apostolic church on matters of deep disagreement even division).

If Paul has been focused in chapter 13 on what it means to be a Christian and a citizen in the Roman Empire, he now turns to what it means to be a Christian and a member of the church, with special reference to a matter which must have been of grave concern to the early church (see also Acts 10 and 15, 1 Corinthians 10, the letters to seven churches in Revelation 2-3, Mark 7).

That matter was what food Christians may eat with clear conscience.

There were two significant factors at work in disagreements over these matters, one concerning the movement from Jewish constraints on diet to Christian openness to eating all kinds of meat, the other concerning the provenance from which meat came or was intended for, that is meat 'sacrificed to idols' (Acts 15:29). Jewish Christians seemed to have both concerns on their minds (as here in this chapter), arguably the concerns Paul tackles in 1 Corinthians 10 were concerns Gentile Christians had as they sought to demonstrate exclusive loyalty to Christ.

The problem Paul is tackling is subtle and complex. In the Roman church (so his informers were telling him) were some with such a strong faith (and appetite!) that they could and would eat anything (any meat, sacrificed to any idols) and there were some with such a weak faith that they avoided any difficulties over meat by eating only vegetables (1-2). While presumably this caused some practical problems at shared meals, the problem Paul tackles is the attitude of each group to the other. Each appears to think they were not only in the right but had a moral platform to cast judgment on the other (4). Paul instructs both sides to not 'despise' nor 'pass judgment' on the other (3).

His point is that there is one judge, the Lord, and each side is accountable to the Lord and only to the Lord (4, also 12). But to make this point he himself must have believed that each option was honourable and holy. One option might be less preferable to the other, a point seemingly indicated by his description of the 'the weak' as eating 'only vegetables' (2, but note that he might have simply been using the language of the debate going on in Rome), but Paul sees no inherent difficulty before God for either approach.

The verses between his initial opening statement and closing statement (with reference to our selected passage), i.e. verses 4-11 offer two matters for reflection by his audience. First, on these matters of indifference, each must act in accord with their conscience, a conscience that should be informed futuristically by what it will mean to account for their actions before the Lord. Secondly,  we should not be passing judgment on one another over such matters. Only the Lord is fit to make such judgment and only to the Lord do we owe account for how we have eaten.

Matthew 18:21-35

This passage follows on neatly from last Sunday's reading about resolution of conflict in the life of the church. Note how Peter's starting question involves 'if another member of the church sins against me' (21). When we flow from last week's passage to this week's we effectively have, in 18:15-35, a charter for conflict resolution which involves both a mechanism for resolution and a means for making that resolution effective: the injured party forgives the one who wounds.

Peter's supplementary question, 'As many as seven times?' (21) demonstrates both his embeddedness in Jewish culture and theology (see Genesis 4:24), and his generous spirit, no doubt infected by the gracious example he was already seeing in his Master's life. But Jesus' response is challenging. To forgive seven times is extensive - most of us won't return to a relationship in which we need to forgive for an eighth time! Yet Jesus says 'seventy-seven times' we should forgive the one who sins against us (22, noting, according to a footnote, this might even be translated as 'seventy times seven').

On the one hand, this much larger number is a way of saying "there is no count to be put on forgiveness, Christians keep on forgiving through all of life." On the other hand, this much larger number underlines something about church relationships: once in the church we are to stay in the church, to stay in relationship with brother and sister Christians, just like (say) marriage, for it is that kind of relationship in which one does not walk away after seven wounds but may, literally, need to forgive the other seventy-seven times, even on seventy times seven occasions.

The story which is then told, a parable (noting its parabolic introduction, 'the kingdom of heaven may be compared to ...' (23)), does not deal in numbers of times re forgiving but in numbers re 'amount' of forgiveness.

Two slaves owe two different amounts. One owes ten thousand talents to his master and pleas successfully for mercy. The other owes one hundred denarii to the first slave. The first slave, despite having had a debt of 60 million denarii (= 10k talents) forgiven, will not forgive a debt of 100 denarii! The parable concludes with the point being made that all the numbers involved in verses 21-34 amount to this, Christians must 'forgive your brother or sister from your heart' (35). In an importance sense, what begins with 'quantity' ends up with 'quality.' There are two lessons in the parable.

(1) Our multiple forgiveness of others should not be superficial: each act of forgiveness is to be from the heart.

(2) We forgive from the heart, we forgive multiple times, we keep on forgiving because no matter how many times we forgive or how deeply we forgive, it is tiny in comparison to the extent of the forgiveness God offers us.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday 7th September 2014 - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Church decisions / church discipline / dealing with relationship breakdown / when Jesus is present / love as fulfilment of the law

Sentence: How good and pleasant a thing it is when God's people live together in unity (Psalm 133:1)

Collect: P8.1

Creator God
you have made us
not in one mould, but in many:
so deepen our unity in Christ
that we may rejoice in our diversity. Amen.

Readings (related):

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Comments:

Ezekiel 33:7-11

What is the role of a prophet? Here the role is that of a 'sentinel' (7), someone who watches out for coming danger. In this case the prophet is to warn of the dangers of wicked living and to urge the wicked to turn from their ways (8-9). This role flows from the character of God: God cannot stand wickedness yet God does not wish to see the wicked die in their wickedness but repent and turn back to God.

Psalm 119:33-40

The psalmist praises the law. His desire to keep the law is heartfelt not about externalities of behaviour. I think the psalmist would have approved of what Paul wrote in the epistle today!

Romans 13:8-14

In continuity with earlier chapters in Romans, Paul loosens focus on the Law of God given through Moses from its details to its principles. In a subtle piece of writing he manages to move from the payment of taxes and giving of honour to those who deserve it (13:7) to guidance about debt ('Owe no one anything') to love for one another (13:8). In highlighting love for one another he is able to announce, 'the one who loves another has fulfilled the law' (8b). He then takes the commandments among the ten commandments associated with social relationships and sums them up, in agreement with Leviticus 19:18, and with Jesus, as 'Love your neighbour as yourself' (9b).

To be clear, this does not mean that we might find occasions when it is loving to (say) steal from our neighbours. 'Love does no wrong to a neighbour' (10).

The succeeding verses then make the point that while we are free in Christ we are to live not only as those who love one another but as those who live in the light. The day of reckoning is coming so we should live as we will live the day after that, in the full glare of God's presence.

Matthew 18:15-20

Only Matthew's gospel uses the Greek word for 'church,' ekklesia and all the occurrences are in this passage or the next verse, 18:21! An obvious inference to draw is that Matthew wrote this report of Jesus' teaching (remember, originally it was in Aramaic, not in Greek) with needs of the church his day in mind.

And what a useful passage it is! Matthew outlines a three stage process for dealing with conflict or wrong-doing in the church. In my view this process, albeit adapted, lies at the heart of our church's official, canonical process for dealing with conflict or wrong-doing (see Title D On the Maintenance of Ministry Standards). The move is from keeping the matter as low-key and personal as possible, through a stage in which several people are involved through to the full glare of congregational consideration.

However it might not be the best sermon to preach to outline this process because talk about how it might be implemented in the life of your congregation might raise more questions than you would like to answer at morning tea afterwards. Who do you have in mind, O preacher, who needs dealing with?

Perhaps, however, it would be a timely sermon to work from the passage to how each of us deals with interpersonal conflict as some of us have a propensity to want to get to the last stage before moving through the first two stages! In today's world we could perhaps talk about dealing with conflict via face to face conversation rather than trying to do so via text or email. The dangers of conflict on Facebook conversations ...

There is also a question within the passage of what verse 18 means (see also 16:19). Does this verse refer to some kind of absolute power of the church (e.g. to settle doctrinal matters in an infallible manner) or is it absolute language which merely refers to the binding nature of church decisions when arrived at after due consideration of the matter at hand in a fair and reasonable process? That is, is the language hyperbolic (as some language of Jesus is), so that what is being referred to here are the ordinary decisions of the church (to be respected and implemented) rather than the extraordinary decisions of the church (which, sometimes, contribute to an exercise of ecclesiastical power with unfortunate repercussions, including the practical impossibility of people implementing the decision).

We might note, incidentally, that the 'you' in verse 18 is the congregation and not the apostles (which, arguably, is the scope of authority granted in 16:19). But does the congregation here mean literally 'the congregation' as in the worshippers gathered together or some kind of meeting of the church as a council or synod? (Acts 15 is an example of the early church meeting together as a council and making a binding decision).

Verse 19 extends the power of the church when in agreement to prayer itself. Whether we feel we can explain this or not, it is an extraordinary claim to consider. The words can be read as, 'the Father waits for the church to agree what it will tell him to do'! On the one hand, God as Father is our loving father and wishes to assist and help us (and in that sense is willing for us to 'tell him what to do'). On the other hand, God is God and needs no one, let alone the church to tell him what to do, not even what we need him to do!

In context, verse 19 must at least mean that God supports the church as it puts into effect its decisions when it makes proper decisions after due process.

Verse 20 also offers this twist to considering verse 19: when we gather as the church, Jesus is in our midst (even when we are the smallest of churches). This implies that Jesus assists the church in making its decisions and in arriving at agreement with what it asks of the Father. Thus the church being promised that the Father will do for us what we ask implies that this will be so for requests made which Jesus himself agrees to, that is, for that which lines up with God's will.




Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday 31st August 2014 - 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Cost of discipleship / Denying self and taking up the cross / Practical Christian living

Sentence: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good (Romans 12:9)

Collect:
God of unchangeable power,
our strength at all times;
guard us from all dangers
and support us in all difficulties
that we may live victoriously now and forever;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings - related:

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Comments:

Jeremiah 15:15-21

The prophet Jeremiah is living out the cost of discipleship, even though he lives centuries before Jesus! In these circumstances of oppressive persecution, Jeremiah appeals to God for help, reaffirms his conviction that the words of God are the 'delight of [his] heart' (16), and receives from God a reaffirmation of his calling.

Psalm 26:1-8

This psalm resonates with Jeremiah 15:15-21 (e.g. both psalmist and prophet do not consort with the worthless, 26:4).

The psalmist, however, is able to embrace devotional life in the temple - a place which in Jeremiah's time has become controversial as Jeremiah's prophecies are directed against the prophets associated with the temple.

For David (the writer, according to the inscription) his life's commitment to God is under test. He seeks to have unwavering trust in God. Relative to our gospel reading, David is a model disciple.

Romans 12:9-21

There is a sermon not just in every verse here but in every phrase. "Rejoice in hope" (12) takes my fancy!

The exegetical challenge (mostly) does not lie in the detailed advice and guidance being offered here. The challenge re "extend hospitality to strangers" (13) is practical (will we actually do this?) not exegetical (what does this mean?).

An arguable exception concerns the last few verses: how would the last remaining Christian in the Caliphate in northern Iraq put verses 17-21 into practice? But when we read on into chapter 13 we get the sense that Paul is talking about life in a generally settled state of social health and well-being. By 'evil' in chapter 12 Paul does not mean 'extreme evil' (as we are seeing in places such as the Caliphate). For a Christian response to that extreme we might be better to read the Book of Revelation.

In a benign world, presumably Paul is talking about responding to (say) the neighbours from hell or the business which tries to dupe us or the needling bully in the schoolyard. But for such problems we are not necessarily being asked to become a doormat on which abusive behaviour is trampled. In verse 18 Paul talks about 'if it is possible' when talking about living 'peaceably with all', and looking over to chapter 13, there is a ringing endorsement of the state having and exercising appropriate legal authority to deal with injustice and infractions of laws and rule.

As a closing comment, we might remind ourselves that when Paul writes this kind of passage he is not setting out a 'new law' with 1001 rules for Christian living. In the spirit of Romans 12:1-2, Paul is setting out guidelines for what the discernment of the will of God in the concrete reality of life looks like - a reality which often fails to fit with 1001 rules and requires a discernment of God's will to work out what is 'good and acceptable and perfect' (12:2).

Matthew 16:21-28

There are three parts to this passage.

(1) verses 21-23: Jesus predicts his suffering, death and resurrection; Peter rebukes him and Jesus calls Peter 'Satan.'
(2) verses 24-26: a saying to followers about denying self and taking up the cross
(3) verses 27-28: a statement about the coming judgment of the Son of Man.

The whole passage represents 'tough talk' by Jesus. No disciple reading this passage could be in any doubt that being a disciple means 'total commitment'!

His suffering, death and resurrection are supremely important for the future of the human history. Peter's opposition shows that he has no depth of insight to his confession that Jesus is the Messiah (16:16). Jesus cannot let his opposition go unchallenged. Peter is undermining the very will of God, he is taking on the role of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the role of questioning whether God really does want X to happen, so Jesus names him for what he is at this point: 'Satan.' Peter is a 'stumbling block' - contrast with his confession in v.16 which makes him a building block for the church Jesus will build,v. 18.

But the suffering of Jesus which will lead to death on a cross is not for him to experience alone. "If any want to be my followers," he says to the disciples (24), "let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Verses 25 and 26 then amplify the wisdom underlying the saying in verse 24: it would be foolish to give up eternal life (i.e.the best life ever, undefeated by death) for the sake of this life which ends with death, with that which makes all wealth and power ultimately pointless.

Verses 27-28 underline the implied point in verses 24-26, that there is a day of reckoning or judgment coming in which it will matter whether we have or have not lost our lives for the sake of saving them through Christ.

Verse 28 is challenging because the plain meaning of the words is that some hearing Jesus would still be alive when the Son of Man comes. Allowing, say, for a span of forty years from that point, it is clear to us that the Son of Man had not returned to 'repay everyone for what has been done' (27, speaking about judgment). Commentators can get themselves into some awkward contortions over the meaning of this verse since, on the face of it, it looks like Jesus made a mistake. That, indeed, is one possible inference to take from the verse. However some commentators reasonably propose that Jesus is speaking of two timelines in these verses, united in the death and resurrection which is the subject of the first part of the passage: timeline #1 looks ahead to a future day of judgment; timeline #2 looks ahead to the coming of the kingdom in the sense of the day when the kingdom breaks into the life of the world decisively, that is, the day of resurrection. The unity of the two timelines is the single (i.e. combined) event of the death and resurrection of Jesus for in that event God is judging the sinners of the world, a judgment focused on Jesus as he bears the sin of the whole world, yet also a judgment which is begun but not yet completed. Completion is at a future date, unannounced by Jesus.



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday 24 August 2014 - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Confession of faith / The basis of our faith / Who is Jesus? / How then should we live?

Sentence: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1)

Collect: Pent 8:2

Almighty and everlasting God,
by your Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified;
hear the prayers we offer
for all your faithful people,
that in the ministry to which you have called us
we may serve you in holiness and truth;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthews 16:13-20

Comments:

Isaiah 51:1-6

The connection between this passage and the gospel reading is obvious: the word 'rock' figures in both passages, a 'rock' which is foundational for the succeeding work of God. Isaiah looks back to a person or persons (Abraham and Sarah): the work of God is always a work among people and works from people. Israel grows from Abraham and Sarah's child. The church is built as people respond to the preaching of Peter and the other apostles.

Psalm 138

The psalm praises the Lord, who is both beyond all kings and gods, yet is not so high as to be unable to regard the lowly (6).

Marked by 'steadfast love and your faithfulness' (2), this Lord, the God of Israel is able to help the psalmist 'in the midst of trouble' (7).

Romans 12:1-8

The importance of this passage cannot and should not be underestimated.

Through 11 preceding chapters Paul has laid out the content of the gospel which is the power of salvation (1:17). Through the gospel we learn that God saves us when nothing else can and we learn that all can be saved, Gentiles as well as Jews. In response to the gospel we are freed from the wrath to come and granted eternal life rather than awarded the wages of sin which is death.

All that being so, one great question remains: how are saved people to live?

Paul now gives his answer, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to" (1a). To do what? The next words are a general statement summing up the scope of our activity as Christians:

"present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (1b).

To be fair to ourselves as readers, these words are inspiring and yet mystifying: what is 'living sacrifice' and 'spiritual worship'? We need to read on!

In the next verse Paul urges us to not be 'conformed to this world' (which speaks of living a distinctive and different style of living), rather being 'transformed by the renewing of your minds' (which, in the light of the preceding chapters, must be the work of the Spirit of Christ indwelling us).

The outcome of this turning away from the world and allowing the Holy Spirit to renew our minds is not a set of rules for each and every one of life's moral dilemmas and choices about what to do next. Rather it is the ability to 'discern what is the will of God' (2b).

Verses 3-8 (and, of course, 12:9-15:7) then give us some details about the general shape and direction of the 'good and acceptable and perfect' will of God.

In these verses the focus is on ourselves and 'the measure of faith' which God has assigned to each of us, which includes the gifts God has distributed to each of us as we are members of the one body - gifts which are to be taken out of their wrappers and used.

Next Sunday we continue into further explanation of the will of God through verses 9-21.

Matthews 16:13-20

Who is Jesus? On the answer to that question a lot turns. Everything Christians believe hinges on the answer to the question. If, for example, the answer is 'Jesus of Nazareth, nothing more, a teacher with interesting ideas on the application and extension of the Law of Moses' then there should be no Christianity, just an extra chapter, or maybe only an extra footnote in the history and theology of Judaism.

So Jesus confronts those closest to him with the question, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' (13) and then confronts them directly with 'But who do you say that I am?' (15).

Note that answers to the first question make no great demands on Jewish belief and commitment. If verse 14 is the answer to the question 'Who is Jesus?' then we are in an extra chapter or footnote to Judaism territory.

Simon Peter's answer to the second question is a wedge which driven down further through the future after Jesus' ascension, eventually, will separate Jews and Jewish Christians and drive Christianity apart from Judaism: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (16).

Why is this answer more significant than the one given in verse 14?

First, verse 14 shows that an unsettled answer or set of answers was circulating among some people.Without a settled answer, would the movement of people following Jesus have become a distinctive force within Judaism? Secondly, it is far from clear, surveying the history of speculations in Judaism re figures such as Elijah and Jeremiah, that if a settled answer such as "Jesus is the re-appearance of Jeremiah" had been agreed to, then much impact would have been made (beyond a footnote in the history of Judaism).

But the third observation is that the claim in verse 16 is significant. Expectation about the coming of the Messiah grew and grew through the pages of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) and in the minds of readers of these sacred writings. To claim that "X is the Messiah", then to persist in that claim, in the face of persecution and even execution, was to determine that Judaism should now fall in behind the Messiah rather than continue in a state of waiting and yearning. To make and persist in the claim, as the first Christians did, was to say, "there are two ways ahead of us, following the Messiah or denying that the Messiah has yet come." Indeed the very existence of a group known as 'Christians' was to make the claim since Christ = Messiah so the Christians were (so to speak) 'Messiahians'.

So Jesus blesses the one making the statement with clarity and conviction, Simon Peter.

But the blessing raises a couple of questions. (1) Why describe Peter as 'son of Jonah'? Possibly nothing more than a variation on 'son of John' (see John 1:42), possibly Peter is being described as a prophetic figure, like Jonah. (2) What does the statement about the confession Peter has just made being 'revealed' mean for us? Does it mean that we can only believe similarly if we too have a revelation? (Certainly the confession of many Christians would be that they have not been argued into the kingdom but that some kind of revelation has occurred which has led from a state of unbelief to a state of belief). Does it mean that now the confession has been written down, we are without excuse for refusing to believe the confession? (Certainly the confession of many Christians is that the witness of Scripture, built in the New Testament around precisely what Peter says, is decisive in the pathway to faith).

So far so good. In a sense we have through verses 13-17 the decisive reason for the break between Christianity and Judaism but in verses 18-20 we have a decisive difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism/Eastern Orthodoxy! The former (broadly speaking) emphasises the person of Peter and the office he carried forward from that day, as senior apostle then first Bishop of Rome as the foundation on which Christ builds the church, with the authority of the office being ascribed to Jesus' own delegation of authority in verses 19-20. The latter (broadly speaking) emphasises the confession Peter makes, with the church being built on the basis of sound theology, on the foundation of basic truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The authority delegated by Jesus in verses 19-20 is then an authority delegated to all the apostles. The final verse, 20, is addressed to all the apostles, not only to Peter.

Without attempting to 'sort this issue' once and for all (as if I could undo 2000 years of difference in the church!) the following observations might be profitable in the run up to this week's sermon:

- if Peter, as person and office-holder, is being singled out by Jesus, where do we find supporting words in the other gospels or in Acts (noting that in the key council in Acts 15, Peter is one of the senior figures, not any kind of supreme figure)?
- if confession rather than person counts, why does Jesus then talk about the exercise of authority which can only be exercised by people rather than by a confession?
- does our understanding of this passage require an acknowledgement of the importance of both personal leadership and of impersonal confessional statements?



Friday, August 8, 2014

Sunday 17 August 2014 - 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): God's mercy / our faith / a simple cry for help / God saves both Jews and Gentiles

Sentence: O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33)

Collects:

All-seeing God,
teach us to be open with you about our needs,
to seek your support in our trials,
to admit before you our sins,
and to thank you for all your goodness. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Comments:

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

As we come to the gospel reading today to consider a story in the mission of Jesus in which he claims that his mission is to Israel alone, we hear this reading as a reminder that God's mission was never to Israel alone, but always included in its vision the wider world.

Thus this reading forms background to the gospel story in which a Gentile woman seeks help from Jesus and leads us to wonder if Jesus was making a teasing comment about the focus of his mission rather than a definitive or absolute statement.

Psalm 67

The psalmist shares in God's global vision. The expectation of this psalm is that 'all nations' will know who God is, what God's saving power is all about, and respond with joyful worship.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

This choice of verses is very poor on the part of the lectionary compilers! By stopping the first part with the words 'God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew' the sense is given that 'Israel is fine (fullstop)' when, in fact, the next few verses (2b-5) go on to make the point that God not rejecting Israel is exemplified by the recurring presence of a 'remnant' (5). It is not exemplified by a 'get out of judgment' card for all Israel.

In the second part of the reading, it is just as unfortunate that the choice of verses does not front up to the confrontational verse 28, 'As regards the gospel they are enemies of God fo your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors;'. Only with this verse does verse 29 make any kind of sense!

What is Paul saying in these latter verses? He is saying something he expresses throughout the chapter (see verses 11 and 12) that in some way, Israel being disobedient to God has opened up the way for God to expand his covenant of love to include those outside Israel, the Gentiles. Their loss (of obedience) is Gentiles' gain (of blessing). But verse 31 suggests a kind of virtuous circle: as the blessing of God moves on from disobedient Israel to the Gentiles, so it will move on again, move back to Israel that it might also be shown mercy.

This likely seems odd to our way of thinking, especially those of us who are Gentile Christians, steeped in a strong sense of the inclusive, wide-ranging love of God. We need to think about what a revolution had been going on in Paul's life: an Israelite nationalist and Jewish zealot, his view of the sphere of God's operation was extremely limited. Israel alone! Now, his tiny worldview shattered by his conversional encounter with the risen Christ, he is setting out an understanding of what his new worldview looks like, in relation to his previous one.

But there are more difficulties in Romans 11 and the lectionary choice generously drives us past them, leaving them unattended on the side of the exegetical road! What, for example, does Paul mean when he says, 'And so all Israel will be saved' (26a)?

Whatever he means, it is difficult, taking the chapter as a whole, the three chapters, 9-11, and the whole letter to the Romans, to get past the fact that, in the end, Paul is committed to an understanding of salvation in which our belief - our faith response to Christ - determines where we stand in relation to God.Thus we read in verse 23,

'And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.'

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

15:10-20:- It is likely too much to preach a moderate length sermon on the whole of 15:10-28! But 10-20 serve as background to 21-28 for there Jesus converses with a Canaanite, a defiled person, so to speak and thus verses 10-20, about what actually defiles a person is of direct relevance. The summary of 10-20 'But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles' (18). By verse 28 we will find that what comes out of the Canaanite woman are words of faith: she is no longer 'defiled'. Jesus has prepared the way for her to be included in the 'new Israel' or kingdom of God because in verses 10-20 he has upended the role of the law in guarding the boundaries of Judaism. If what defiles a person are not external actions (hand washing, which foods go into the mouth) but internal attitudes and intentions, then the basis of distinction between Jew and Gentile is radically undermined.

15:21-28:- Matthew tells this story with some variations from Mark's version (Mark 7:24-30). In Mark's version her Gentileness is spelled out as 'a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth' (7:26) but Matthew summarises this to 'Canaanite' (22). Either way, this woman is a Gentile, someone who does not belong to Israel, a point made with particular intensity by Jesus (24).

Matthew's Gospel has a high gearing towards a Jewish Christian readership (note, for example, the beginning via an 'Israelite' geneaology, the repeated invocation of prophetic texts being fulfilled in Jesus and the engagement with the relationship between Jesus' teaching and Old Testament law in 5:17-20). But at several points Matthew communicates to his readers that Jesus' mission long-term was not to be confined to Israel. This story is one of those points. Here is a Gentile woman seeking help from Jesus (15:25); here is Jesus claiming that he 'was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (24). But the woman gets the help she seeks and the conversation between her and Jesus draws out that Gentiles are encompassed by the scope of Jesus' mission: 'even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table' (27).

For many centuries this story has been read as a fascinating story in which Jesus and an unnamed Gentile woman engage in a bit of clever repartee for which the woman is commended as yet another person, indeed another Gentile (see Matthew 8:5-13) who has faith (28).

But recent years, especially through feminist critical lens, this story has received quite a 'going over'. Special concerns raised include:

- the attitude of Jesus towards the woman (harsh? unyielding until she gets the better of him?)
- the use of the word 'dogs' to describe the position of the Gentile woman (26)
- yet again Matthew presents a woman, two woman, in fact, the mother and the daughter, without names.

The observation is also pressed by some scholars that the story seems to show Jesus as needing to be taught a lesson by the woman, 'even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table' (27), before he succumbs to her entreaty for help.

In sum: the story has become a centre of scholarly controversy, both in respect of Jesus' attitude to women, to outsiders and in respect of christological reflection as to 'who' the Jesus of this story is.

Can we add a thought or two at this point?

If we compare this story with the comparable (re Gentiles) story in Matthew 8:5-13 we see that there is equal treatment of the centurion and his servant re names, both are unnamed. We also see that the centurion takes a position of extreme humility in relation to Jesus whereas in today's story Matthew (so to speak) permits the woman to be a 'strong woman' with humility ('she came and knelt before him', 24) but not extreme humility (since she refuses to take 'No' for an answer).

In each story Jesus commends the Gentile for his or her 'faith' and healing occurs at a distance (in each case the ill person is not present to Jesus).

Each supplicant demonstrates their great faith in Jesus by a 'smart' verbal exchange: the centurion demonstrates his awareness of the authority of Jesus in relation to the authority of God, the Canaanite woman demonstrates her awareness of the mercy of Jesus in relation to the mercy of God (which has been demonstrated through the centuries to non-Israelites, e.g. to Naomi & Ruth, to Naaman).

On the matter of 'dogs' we should acknowledge that while it is 'a reading' of the verbal exchange to calculate that 'dogs' comes into the story as a deprecatory term for Gentiles, it is also a reasonable term for those outside of the immediate covenant of God which is with Israel as God's 'children' and thus others, outside of Israel, are those outside of God's covenant, those who are not lost children but household pets who are nearby but not full members of the lineage of the family. A further point that could be made is that Jesus words in 15:26 can be read as a form of teasing which open up the possibility of the woman's clever reply which (positively) manipulates the conversation to a point where Jesus has no further reply save to offer 'the crumbs' she seeks (27).

While at this point (and on this point) we could say that Jesus learns a lesson, even is challenged to expand his narrow mission horizon, it is equally possible to say that Jesus himself is manipulating the situation to draw out the faith he senses in the woman, a faith which has brought her to the point of recognising a non-Canaanite as having access to the healing power of God.

Finally, in respect of the christology of the story, Matthew can scarcely be charged with presenting Jesus as some kind of limited human being with a narrow outlook, inconsistent with being divine in status. The woman addresses Jesus as 'Lord' on three occasions (22, 25, 27) and on the first of those occasions connects 'Lord' with the messianic address, 'Son of David.' Does this 'Lord' need to be taught through another human being that God's purposes for the world are greater than his understanding? It is preferable to consider that this Lord is able on his own to work out the global extent of God's plan and thus the comment in verse 24 is a teasing comment rather than a statement of Jesus' then self-understanding with all its implied limitation.

For ourselves, we might read our participation in God's plan via our own needs for assistance, expressed in the simple prayer,

'Lord, help me' (25).

Our confidence in God's help then works its way out from this story as we consider the mercy of God available even to us who may feel far from the centre of God's purpose,

'even the crumbs that fall from their master's table' (27).


Postscript:
(We might also note, at this present juncture in which terrible conflict between Israel and Gaza has arisen, that this story presents an 'Israel' which treats local peoples (such as the Canaanites) as 'dogs' whose general position in life relative to 'Israel' is as dogs eager to eat the crumbs under their master's table, a position which only too well describes the economic situation of Gaza relative to Israel as a 'master' able to impose economic sanctions on Gaza. Whatever else the story does in respect of who Jesus is, it reflects local cultural, racial and political dynamics in Jesus' day. I suggest, by the way, that one can reflect in this way on the uncanny parallels to today's situation without 'taking sides' about the rights and wrongs of the conflict between Israel and Gaza. It is a fact that Israel is economically stronger than Gaza and is able to exert power over Gaza.)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday 10th August 2014 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Faith / Miracles / Do not be afraid / Facing life's storms

Sentence: For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)

Collect:

Almighty God,
in your Son Jesus Christ
you have created a people for yourself;
make us willing to obey you,
till your purpose is accomplished
and the earth is full of your glory. Amen.

Readings (related):

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Comments:

1 Kings 19:9-18

Elijah (and Elisha, introduced in verse 19) are the two prophets of old whose ministry is closest to Jesus in respect of amazing miracles of nature occurring.

In this reading Elijah has been part of an amazing miracle (1 Kings 18) but now finds himself like a balloon that has been punctured. In his deflated state he wishes he could die (19:4) - a state we may find ourselves in after a period of intense spiritual activity.

When we look across to Matthew 14:22-33 we see no signs of Jesus feeling deflated after the Feeding of the Five Thousand but we do see Jesus, like Elijah, seeking aloneness.

In that aloneness, God visits Elijah, as it happens with some mighty natural events (11-12) but it is only when 'a sound of sheer silence' (12b) envelopes Elijah that the voice of God comes with the next step of his prophetic career charted out for him (13-18).

One point of the reading is that the word of the Lord (9) is greater than the power of nature. Nature shouts at Elijah but its message is unclear. Silence permits the word of the Lord to be heard in all its divine clarity.

Psalm 85:8-13

This psalm is appropriate to associate with the gospel reading. In that reading great 'works' are done by Jesus, works that no god other than the God of Israel can do through his Son. To such a God, the nations are envisaged as bowing down and worshipping him. So we find Jesus the Son of God worshipped at the conclusion of the gospel story.

Romans 10:5-15

This reading is just a bit, or even quite a bit complicated! But, despair not, we can make sense of it!

Recall that Paul arguing through the whole of Romans that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for all, for Jews and for Gentiles, is turning his attention through chapters 9-11 to the specific Jewish question of the salvation of Israel, given the covenantal promises God has previously made to them. More simply, when Israel after Jesus Christ asks, 'What about us?', what answer does Paul give?

In Romans 9, lays out what could be called a 'history of salvation' of the Jews, which highlights the instances in which not all Jews were saved. (That sentence is a bland summary of a subtle argument in which Paul engages with God's role (election) in the matter and with Israel's mistakes, leading to a remnant being saved in some episodes of Israel's history).

In the first few verses in Romans 10, Paul is remarkably clear and un-nuanced: Israel's failings are (a) lack of enlightenment or ignorance of the 'righteousness that comes from God' (2-3a), (b) consequential non submission to 'God's righteousness' (3b) with (a) and (b) being measured by 'Christ [as] the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes' (4).

With this in the background, let's see if we can make sense of Romans 10:5-15 which here is divided in 10:5-8, 8-13, 14-15

10:5-8

First, Paul is doing something familiar to Jewish exegetes of his day, but a little obscure to us. He takes two texts (Leviticus 18:5, Deuteronomy 30:11-14) and works from one to the other. Leviticus 18:5 is cited in v.5 whereas Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is cited in vss.6-8. But Paul does something we might - in the light of cold, hard logical consistency - consider a bit dodgy: he pits Leviticus as the voice of Moses against Deuteronomy as the voice of 'righteousness that comes from faith' (6). That is, Paul pits 'righteousness that comes from the law' versus 'righteousness that comes from faith' by citing two pieces of Moses' writings!

As if that does not go against the grain of how we, today, might ideally strive to read the Bible, he also seems remarkably obscure in the way he cites Deuteronomy 30:11-14 in 10:6-8. Again, we need to allow for Paul the Jewish exegete to have his own - to our eyes, peculiar - way with the text. By citing Christ in verses 6 and 7 he is, in a roundabout way, saying that true righteousness is found in Christ but Christ is not found by righteousness striven for by strict obedience to God's commandments. Thus he speaks of 'the righteousness that comes from faith says ...' (6).

But faith is not an alternative to works in the sense that faith is a better pathway to find Christ. So we find that what the righteousness that comes from faith says is 'Do not say in your heart ...' (6). Rather, faith is a response to 'the word' (Deuteronomy 30:14 which Paul interprets as 'the word of faith that we proclaim' i.e. the good news of Jesus Christ).

In other words, in a form of biblical reasoning which is obscure to our usual way of handling biblical texts, Paul is arguing the superiority of 'faith righteousness' over 'works righteousness', and doing so on the basis that Scripture itself supports this argument.

From this point Paul segues towards something clearer to our minds: the word of faith which he proclaims (8) becomes the word spoken of in Deuteronomy 30:14, a word on lips and in hearts, a word which saves.

10:8-13

Implicit in what Paul writes in Romans 10:8-9 is the correct response to the gospel consists of two things. The two things he spells out, using the language of Deuteronomy 30:14, are (1) 'if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and (2) believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.' Verse 10 is a supporting explanation and verse 11 (citing Isaiah 28:16) is a supportive encouragement to be such a believing, 'righteousness that comes from faith' person.

Note that the belief re the resurrection is not that 'Jesus was raised from the dead' or that 'Jesus is alive'. No, it is belief that 'God raised him from the dead', that is, belief that God's seal of approval is on Jesus Christ as the new and living way to God, Jesus is God's anointed one (Messiah=Christ) and thus is properly considered 'the end of the law' (4).

In a neat and decisive twist, backed up by his argument through Romans 1-8, Paul is saying that in the righteousness that comes from faith, there is a new commandment (to use language of Leviticus and Deuteronomy) to follow, a living commandment or, better, living commander, the risen Lord Jesus. To submit to his lordship is now decisive for 'righteousness.'

Verses 12-13, building on this twist, make the point that Jews and Gentiles may both claim Jesus as Lord, may both believe that God raised him from the dead. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (13, citing Joel 2:32 and applying it to Jesus Christ).

10:14-15

From the aforegoing Paul segues again, this time to the mission of proclamation of the 'word of faith'. How can people call on the one they are yet to believe in if they have not heard the message? (14a) How can people hear if noone proclaims the message? (14b) And how can there be proclaimers if no one is sent? (15a).

(Much more can be said, especially when we look over from verse 15 into the succeeding verses where Paul kind of reverses the direction he goes in since he does not talk about proclaimers being sent but about the continuing spiritual plight of Israel as a people for whom 'not all have obeyed the good news' (16).)

Matthew 14:22-33

Matthew has 'form' when it comes to stories involving the combination of Jesus, water, storm, disciples and faith. In Matthew 8:23-27 he tells the story of Jesus and the disciples together in a boat in a storm which leads the disciples asking Jesus to save them and to Jesus rebuking the disciples for having little faith after telling them not to be afraid.

In this story the disciples are alone in a boat in a storm but Jesus comes walking towards them. He urges them to not be afraid. Then Peter asks if he could be commanded to walk on the water towards Jesus. When he does so he is initially successful but when he takes is eyes off Jesus and looks at the waves around him he begins to sink and cries out to Jesus to save him. As Jesus reaches out his hand to save him he says to Peter, "You of little faith, why do you doubt?"

This story of Jesus walking on the water is comfortable enough in gospel terms as other gospels also tell the story of Jesus defying the usual rules of gravity-plus-water (Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21). But when we get to Peter walking on water at the conclusion (albeit briefly) we are in uniquely Matthean territory as no other gospel conveys this story to us.

However a case could be made for the other gospels being a bit coy about this embarrassing-for-Peter story. Whatever we make of Peter walking on water, we can make sense of the fact that it was brash Peter making the attempt and not one of the others. Actually we can make some sense of Peter being inspired by his Lord to emulate him. That he only made it for a few steps before sinking becomes the occasion for a plausible message to us all about faith, as we shall see below.

A further point of comparison concerns the ending of the story.

Matthew's earlier storm story concludes with the disciples saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?" (8:27)

Here the storm story concludes with, "And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." (14:33)

This is a clear instance of Matthew developing his understanding of who Jesus was and is ("christology") as he unfolds the story of Jesus: a question about what kind of man Jesus is is replaced by a statement about who Jesus is in relation to God; and a question about who Jesus is gives way to an act of worship.

Since writing last week's comments, and when preaching on the Feeding of the Five Thousand yesterday, I have coined a phrase, 'every story in Matthew is a sermon'!

What is Matthew's message as he tells us this story in his own unique version of it? (Each point is numbered, but not each point is intended to have 'equal value.'

1. Time alone with God is important. Jesus tried to get that time after John the Baptist died (14:13) but the crowds thwarted him. His determination is not deterred and this time he succeeds. Crowds do not climb mountains. Where do we need to go so that distractions do not follow us? (To a region without cellphone coverage?)

2. If the message of the first storm story (8:23-27) was that Jesus is in the boat with the church when it faces storms, the message here is that even when the church thinks Jesus has deserted them, he is not far away. The church should never be afraid, no matter what storms batter it about. Jesus is present, we do not need to be afraid.

3. Jesus' comfort is to individuals as well as to the church collectively. Peter stands here for all individuals walking in the way of Jesus who take brave steps of faith in the face of life's storms and then lose sight of Jesus and are overwhelmed by the storms. (Step forward all those who have succeeded where Peter failed! ... What, not even one of us?) Jesus is ever at hand to save us, ever gentle chastising us for our little faith.

4. What is the appropriate response to Jesus who walks on water and calms stormy seas? It is to worship Jesus. But not some kind of 'Superman' or 'Magician' Jesus. He has not performed party tricks on a cosmic scale. What we see through Matthew's eyes is the Son of God, the creator of the universe rule over his world. Nature obeys the Son of God, humanity should worship the Son.