Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday 2 October 2016 - Ordinary 27

Theme(s): Faith // Obedience // Obedience has its own rewards

Sentence: Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)


Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal,
keep us under the protection of your good providence,
and help us continually by the power of the Spirit
to revere and love your holy name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings, related:

Habbakuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Tim 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10


Habbakuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

These passages set out the great issue in Habbakuk: when will justice prevail? At first sight the expected 'relationship' between this reading and the gospel reading today may be hard to spot. But the connection lies in 2:4, '... the righteous shall live by their faith.' 

In other circumstances, especially in relationship to debates over the meaning of Pauline theology of justification in Romans and Galatians, we might discuss this phrase at great depth and length. Here we simply note, looking ahead to Luke 17:5-6, that Jesus expects his disciples to have faith, to be a people who trust in God through Jesus that mighty transformative work will take place in the world.

Psalm 37:1-9

In part the psalmist could be in dialogue with Habbakuk: don't fret about the injustice you see about you, instead trust in God, do good, and you will find the unjust get their comeuppance.

These verses emphasise the importance of faith ('trust in the Lord', v. 3; 'take delight in the Lord', v. 4; 'commit your way to the Lord; trust in him', v. 5; 'be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret', v. 7; 'wait for the Lord', v.9). 

Faith is exemplified in the face of evil when we 
(a) do good (and do not join the evildoers in their wrongdoing), 
(b) wait patiently for God to act against evil, 
(c) do not fret or be anxious about the terrible situations around us, 
(d) refrain from anger and forsake wrath (v. 8). 

Easy to say, difficult to do! But the psalmist is very clear and insistent about the way of faith. Its importance is tucked away in a phrase in v. 8, 'it leads only to evil:' in other words, the price of not having faith, for instance, of letting our anger and wrath dictate the course of our response to evil, is for evil to be multiplied rather than ended. Sadly we see this unfolding daily before our eyes in war-torn countries around the world.

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Only a very few thoughts - well, half a dozen - here as time does not permit a full commentary on a passage with multiple themes, topics, and teachings. Each point below could be the front and centre of a sermon on its own!

(1) The importance of family upbringing for passing on the faith (v. 5).

(2) The ancientness of ordination (laying on of hands) (v. 6) - to say nothing of the role of the Holy Spirit in bestowing ministry gifts through ordination ... that could be quite a point of discussion after a sermon mentioning it!

(3) The character of the Spirit of God within us: exemplified by power, love, and self-discipline (or sound mindedness), not by cowardice (v. 7).

(4) The purpose of God for our lives (v. 8-9).

(5) The faithfulness of Christ (v. 12)

(6) Our call to hold to the 'standard of sound teaching ... with the help of the Holy Spirit living within us' (v. 13-14).

Luke 17:5-10

After a certain consistency in a connecting theme through Luke 16 (money), chapter 17 has more of a 'miscellaneous' or 'pot pouri' feel as Luke gathers up sayings of Jesus, determined, it seems, that none be lost to his readers.

If today's reading had continued to v. 19 then it would begin and end with a similar theme, faith.

To the reading itself:

Luke has begun the chapter with Jesus addressing 'his disciples' (v.1) but our reading begins with a selected group within the disciples, 'the apostles' who ask the Lord to increase their faith. It is possible that Luke reports the apostles asking this question as an encouragement to all disciples: See, implies Luke, even the apostles struggled to exercise great faith!

Jesus reply is typically enigmatic. He does not tell them how to increase their faith but says that if they had the tiniest amount of faith amazing things would result. (An alternative translation is 'Grant us faith' rather than 'Increase our faith). 

Note that the amazing possibility here is twofold: that a tree with deep roots is uprooted, and that it is planted in the least suitable of environments to plant anything, the sea.

What do we infer from this mysterious reply? 

First, reading Acts alongside Luke's Gospel, we see that the apostles would later preside over a miraculous work of God, the 'uprooting' (so to speak) of the 'mulberry tree' of allegiance to God by Israel and the 'planting in the sea' of the spreading church of God throughout the Roman Empire: faith on the apostles' part indeed triumphed with mighty deeds. 

Secondly, that faith may by a qualitative rather than quantitative attribute of disciples. We simply need faith not a certain amount of it. Here is one illustration: a learner swimmer, clinging to the side of the swimming pool does not need a large amount of faith (that they will not sink) in order to let go of the sidewall or bar; they just need faith. 

There are aspects of this story which are frightening for 21st century people brought up to value themselves, project self-confidence and such. How dare Jesus tell us to say, 'We are worthless slaves'! But whatever we make of the details in the story which seem uncongenial to our ears, a simple and salutary point is made. For the kingdom to work, the citizens of the kingdom (disciples) need to obey directions from the king (Jesus). This is an ordinary feat of discipleship and should occasion no great congratulations or celebrations. 'We have only done what we ought to have done.'

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