Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sunday 1 September 2019 - Ordinary 22

Theme(s): Radical hospitality // Cost of inclusion

Sentence: It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice (Psalm 112:5)

Collect:

God of nations, help us to reflect and share
the goodness that surrounds us.
Help us to win justice for poor and rich alike,
and to bring trust and friendship
to all our different races. Amen.

Readings (related):

Proverbs 25:6-7 [Sirach 10:12-18 is an alternative];
Psalm 112;
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16;
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Comments:

Proverbs 25:6-7

It is a matter of simple wisdom to wait to be raised up in status rather than to be put down.

Psalm 112

Sometimes the word 'righteous' invokes an assumption that we are talking about people who live a certain kind of morally upright life, perhaps marked by scruples and tight adherence to minor commands and rules. Here the psalmist expounds the virtues of the righteous in ways that go beyond that kind of assumption.

The righteous are those who fear the Lord (that is, trust in and reverence the Lord) and delight in his commandments (v. 1).

Blessed by the Lord, they are 'gracious, merciful, and righteous' (v. 4).

They are 'generous' and live justly (v. 5; also v.9).

There is a solid stability to these righteous and they are not afraid of evil tidings because 'their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord' (v. 6-8).

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

After twelve chapters expounding his theme of the uniqueness, completeness and superiority of Christ as both High Priest and sacrifice, the writer turns her or his attention to practical matters.

'Let mutual love continue. Do no neglect to show hospitality to strangers ... Remember those who are in prison ... Let marriage be held in honor by all ... (vss. 1-4).

Each of these matters could be a sermon in its own right!

But the writer cannot let go of his main theme, the superiority and uniqueness of Jesus. So v. 8 states simply but relevantly, 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.' Every day is lived with Jesus, and Jesus expects us to live every day for him.

]Verses 9-14, then, are theologically profound and offer a restatement of interests central to the main body of the letter.]

But what about the practical matter of Christians responding to God? In the light of the completed work of Christ on the cross, fulfilling and finishing all God's purposes in the Old Covenant, how are Christians to worship God? What sacrifices can now be offered meaningfully?

The Hebrews' answer was begun in our reading last Sunday (12:28). Now it is completed:

'Through [Jesus Christ], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. But that is not all. The vertical focus of this worship is joined with a horizontal focus to others. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God' (13:15-16).

All Christian liturgical work and social service is encapsulated in these two verses!

Luke 14:1, 7-14

(Sometimes the lectionary misses out verses and it is annoying as it raises questions about whether some kind of 'political correctness' or 'ecclesiastical correctness' is driving the omission. But in this case Luke 14:2-6 is omitted because it is essentially a repetition of last Sunday's gospel reading, 13:10-17.)

Jesus goes to a Pharisee's house to eat a meal (minor point: despite the great debates between Jesus and Pharisees, he was on friendly terms with some).

After healing someone and challenging his host and host's friends to a debate about it without success, Jesus moves on to another challenge (vss. 2-7).

This meal was more than a simple 'come back to my place for a bite to eat' - more a major dinner party, a banquet even. So in the custom of the day, some places 'at table' were more important than others. Jesus notices the scramble for these places and tells a parable directed at the scramblers (vss. 7-11).

Scripturally this parable builds from a passage such as our Old Testament reading and makes at least the same point: it is unwise to seek for a higher place lest embarrassment through demotion takes place. But is that sufficient explanation for why Luke tells us this story. Is there a 'kingdom of God' point to dig into these verses for?

A cross-referencing Bible may tell you what mine tells me, that 14:11 is similar to 13:30 (and 18:40, Matthew 18:4; 23:12). Luke 13:30 is at the end of a passage which touches on the wide inclusiveness of the kingdom of God (and a feasting kingdom at that). An implication for Luke 14:7-11 is that in the feast of the kingdom of God those seated at the table will be those who otherwise would not expect to be there and those in the least honourable places (if not excluded) will be those who otherwise expected most to be in the best places (i.e. religious leaders).

Jesus is not finished. He goes on to make a devastating critique of his host and his mates.

This critique is the remainder of today's reading. Nothing is implicit or hidden here in vss. 12-14. Jesus does not tell a parable, he just tells the host, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner ..." But the host is us, all readers of Luke's Gospel. When we give a lunch or dinner, we should ... (1) Not invite the people we usually invite (friends, family, well-off neighbours, all of whom are able to repay the favour), but (2) Invite the people who cannot repay us (the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind).

Speaking personally, that is a challenge because 100% of guests at my table are able to repay me. (Technical matters, like inviting a person visiting from overseas whom I may never visit in their city does not, I suggest, count as inviting those who cannot repay me!)

It would be easy to displace the challenge in these verses, say, by doing good to those who cannot do good to you. This could be fulfilled by giving money to a charity which works with people who will never give back to me. But Jesus is quite specific. He does not say 'When you give money ...' but 'When you give a luncheon or a dinner ...' Our homes are precious havens. Jesus challenges that. In the kingdom of God, our homes are to be open to those not like us, not equal to us, and not otherwise deemed worthy of an invite into our home.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sunday 25 August 2019 - Ordinary 21

Possible theme(s): Salvation is wholeness // God's holy love // Terrifying God

Sentence: If you offer your food to the hungry then your light shall rise in the darkness (Isaiah 58:10 adapted).

Collect:

Almighty God,
for the joy that was set before him
your Son endured the cross
and by his resurrection turned our sorrow into joy;
help us to rejoice in his power
that we may walk in his way with glad obedience;
in the power of the Spirit,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings (related):

     Isaiah 58:9b-14

     Psalm 103:1-8

     Hebrews 12:18-29

     Luke 13:10-17

Comments:

Isaiah 58:9b-14

The key to this passage is to identify who the 'you' is. The instructions to 'you' are pretty clear. And 'you' should do them. So, who is 'you'? For Isaiah it is the people whom God calls 'my people' (58:1). Those people are still around - you and me, for instance - so the reading here is directed to us. What will we do? What is required is straightforwardly just, generous, kind and fair, with great reward following.

There is a twist in the passage, one which connects it as a 'related' reading to the gospel. Verses 13-14 make special mention of the sabbath, of not trampling on it, not pursuing one's own interests, instead honouring it and taking delight in it. Why is observance of the sabbath singled out? Because it is 'the holy day of the Lord' (v.13). To observe this means special care is being taken by God's people to fulfill all aspects of God's will. Seven days a week, God's people do God's will.

In respect of the gospel below, the challenge Jesus brings is to a perception that the observance of the sabbath has been narrowed in such a way that the interests of other people are being ignored.

Psalm 103:1-8

These verses are among the most wonderful words written down in all Scripture. We should sing them rather than preach about them!

Hebrews 12:18-29

Fire begins and ends this passage. Why? The writer is at pains to emphasise who God is, the God to whom he is both encouraging his readers to draw nearer too, in confidence because of what Christ has done, and challenging his readers to not fall away from, lest they fall to a point of no return to God. Who is God? 'Our God is a consuming fire' (v. 29), a terrifying God (vss. 18-24), the judge of all (v. 23), a God who has sent Jesus to mediate a new covenant at the cost of his own blood (v. 24; and, effectively, chapters 1-10). In biblical and theological language, God is holy.

What are we to do with this passage? It is tempting to ignore it, to set it aside in favour of other 'nicer' passages, in which God is not terrifying, in fact he is our best friend forever, and offers comforting love of a touchy, feely kind. That would be a mistake. That God is love is as true as that God is holy. The trick is to keep them both together in our understanding of God. We could say that God is holy love. God loves us and the God who loves us is not like us (in our sin) but holy.

How then can we even think of approaching God? The long answer to that question is in Hebrews 1-10 (and Romans, Galatians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 John) but the short answer, in terms of this passage, is 'the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel' (v. 24). That is, the holy love of God has found a way to 'make' (see v. 23) imperfect humanity perfectly righteous and righteously perfect: the blood of Jesus cleanses us from every sin.

There is more to be said (about the importance of 'not refusing the one who is speaking', v. 25) but I will close with two short observations.

First, to take up God's invitation is to receive a 'kingdom that cannot be shaken'. That is worth having.

Secondly, a proper response is that we 'give thanks'. Jesus dying on the cross is the one, perfect, final sacrifice. Only required now is to give thanks for what has been done for us. This is now the acceptable sacrifice we offer to God (v. 28).

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus had quite a few things to say on that sabbath day in that synagogue.

First, he was teaching (v. 10). Then, he spoke to the crippled woman (v.11-12). Thirdly, he rebuked the leader of the synagogue, telling him off for criticising this action on the sabbath. Along the way he made some explicit and implicit points about theological matters: what kind of deeds can and should be done on the sabbath; what is the ultimate nature of illness and disability (it is a bondage of Satan when compared with the salvation (wholeness) intended and now available by God); that teaching (words) can be illustrated and evidence by deeds.

But what is Jesus saying to the church today, when we do not have the difficulty about healing on the sabbath that the synagogue leader had?

We could note (and should not rush past) the possibility that there is 'hypocrisy' which Jesus would challenge us about. Just because we would be pleased to see a healing take place at church this Sunday does not get us out of jail on possible hypocrisy! Is there some other way in which we apply rules of church life to restrict Jesus from freeing people from things which 'cripple' them?

There is also a 'deep' lesson to consider about the nature of illness and disability. When Jesus speaks about the woman's condition in terms of  '... whom Satan bound for eighteen long years ... this bondage ...' (v. 16) was he saying something we can receive in our day (when we generally use other explanations for why illness and disability occurs)? I suggest we can, especially if we pause to reflect on the great message of Luke's gospel, that Jesus came to save people in the sense of making people whole, in body, soul, mind and spirit.

If the great purpose of God in Christ is to take a fallen, broken, frail creation and restore it (the kingdom of God), then the 'big picture' explanation of the situation is that the chief ringleader of opposition to God's plan for the world, Satan has bound people into fallen, broken, frail states. But Jesus doesn't make grand, general claims about the situation of the world: this woman is a victim of Satan's opposition: she has been bound these eighteen long years. Jesus can do no other than check the advance of Satan into God's realm. She has been set free from Satan's bondage which is the same thing as being straightened from her crippled state. Luke's description that the woman 'began praising God' tells his readers that the woman's transformation was not solely physical.

Then, we could move from 'depth' to 'width'. What is the nature of salvation of the saving work which Jesus comes to the world to do? Here Jesus begins with 'teaching' and moves to 'action.' A bound person is freed and a disabled person is made able. Salvation comes to the woman as a whole of life transformation. When we work for God in the continuation of that work, we are invited to work for transformation of the whole person, to work on change on many and varied aspects of the life of the world. Some people are 'bound' into poverty, for example, and we could work to free them through socio-economic transformation. Others are 'trapped' in oppression of some kind, perhaps in harsh working conditions. We could work to lift the oppression and set them free from the trap.

One clue to the direction of our participation in the work of salvation is whether it leads to the outcome described in this reading: God is praised!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sunday 18 August 2019 - Ordinary 20

Possible theme(s): Crisis over Jesus // Jesus the judge // Looking to Jesus

Sentence: Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1b-2a).

Collect: Pentecost 10:2 (revised by me)

Come Holy Spirit, to all who are baptised in your name,
that we may turn to good
whatever lies ahead.
Give us faith, give us fire, give us perseverance;
Empower us to transform the world from what it is,
to what you created it to be
through the love of the Father and the transforming power of the Son. Amen.

Readings (related):

   Jeremiah 23:23-29

   Psalm 82

   Hebrews 11:29-12:2

   Luke 12:49-56

Comments:

Notes on readings - mostly my own thoughts, sometimes utilizing a commentary, and gratefully assisted by one 'study Bible' in particular, the New Oxford Annotated Bible (Fully Revised Fourth Edition).

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Jeremiah spent much of his prophetic ministry in fierce debate with fellow prophets. He would be proven right because with a terrifying Babylonian threat pressing against Jerusalem, they said everything would be OK and he begged to differ! In these verses we have a representative passage concerning this debate in which God's voice supports Jeremiah.

A universal theme which sweeps through these verses is the question of truth and falsehood. Many claims about truth are made, including claims to know truth from God, but some claims are false. In these verses, God speaking through Jeremiah reminds false claimants of the fix they are in: God sees and hears everything, including liars and the lies they tell in God's name. By contrast the truth, 'my word' (23:29), is like a (destroying) fire and a rock-breaking hammer. Truth always prevails over falsehood. Lies cannot withstand the power of truth.

How does this passage relate to the gospel reading today? In part of the passage Jesus challenges his hearers to discern accurately what is going on around them, the signs of the times. That is, Jesus challenges them and us to seek and commit to the truth, rather than settle for and be comforted by lies.

Psalm 82

This psalm is a 'petition for divine justice.' The 'divine council' (v. 1) reflects the presumption of the time of composition that there was a host of heavenly beings commissioned to rule the world under God's oversight (see Deuteronomy 32:8-9). The accusation in this psalm is that these beings have judged unjustly and thus God has had to intervene, take over their role, and demonstrate true justice.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

This great chapter on faith comes to an end. In a sweeping survey, the writer gathers up the last of the ones he will name and adds to their number a vast company of unnamed heroes and heroines, offering one of the great accolades from all literature, 'of whom the world was not worthy' (11:38).

They all had one thing in common as people of faith:

'Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised' (11:39).

But this is not a sad historical assessment of the life of faith (e.g. so much hoped for, so little delivered). Rather, God's kindness to those who trust in him now includes those who trust in Jesus Christ (represented by Hebrews' readers) and his promises in which they and we trust are bona fide:

'since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect' (11:40).

So what? The writer draws us on with one of the great 'therefores' of Scripture (12:1-2). As the last generation of the people of God, with 'so great a cloud of witnesses (i.e. the previous generations of people with faith in God)' surrounding us, we must live accordingly (lay aside every weight and clinging sin, run with perseverance, look to Jesus).

Note the christological emphasis struck in these verses. The surrounding cloud of witnesses is inspiring enough to run the race etc but there is more than that available to the Christian runner.

We have Jesus to look to, the one who has pioneered out faith and promised to perfect it, who himself was a runner in the race, enduring even the cross, looking beyond it to the joy set before him and who now, consequentially, is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Will we run? Will we persevere? Will we look at ourselves (tired, weary, struggling) or to Jesus (who succeeded in the same race)?

Luke 12:49-56

If we wanted a candidate passage for "Most awkward thing Jesus said" or "Please explain, Jesus, what you meant" Award, then this is as good a passage as any.

The Prince of Peace speaks here of division. The One in Whom God was reconciling the world to himself proposes that 'from now on' households will be divided against themselves.

What did this mean and what does it mean for us today?

As a preliminary engagement with this passage, several clues help us.

- The opening words about fire mean a theme here is 'judgment'.
- The divisions in 12:53 take us to Micah 7:6 and thus also to the theme of judgment.
- The point about interpreting the 'present time' in 12:54-56 is that his contemporaries who can interpret when the weather is going to change (a meteorological crisis) should be able to understand the crisis of their time which is the crisis of Jesus coming into the world.
- This crisis of Jesus coming into the world is a division of the world into those who are alert and ready for him and those who are not (see last week's gospel reading, Luke 12:32-40).

Part of our difficulty with today's passage may be that the language used is not our language. We likely would follow 12:32-40 with 'So, as you can see from these parables I have just told you, judgment is coming and you need to be alert and ready for it. Judgment will be terrifying for those not expecting it and not ready to welcome me.' Jesus, by contrast, talks about fire, baptism, family divisions and weather signs!

A further clue is to consider 'baptism' here as a reference to the death of Jesus (towards which this section of Luke, 9:51-19:28, the Travel Narrative, takes us).

With those preliminary thoughts in mind here goes, then, at making sense of the passage:

Jesus' mission ultimately is about making peace on earth, his gospel being a call to people to enter God's kingdom by coming under the rule of God, a situation in which people are reconciled to one another (think parable of Prodigal Son) and all sorts are included in the one family of God (think of the welcome accorded Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10).

Yet the gospel is controversial. People oppose it. Indeed opposition to Jesus will lead to his death by public execution. The opposition stems from what the gospel challenges, the sin of humanity (of which, to give just one recent example as we read Luke's gospel, material greed is a presenting example, as illustrated in the parable of the Rich Fool, 12:16-20).

That is, the call to enter God's kingdom is simultaneously a judgment against those who refuse to enter.

So this passage works on at least two levels.

First, the present time of Jesus is one in which judgment comes as he moves towards Jerusalem and people either welcome or refuse him. His baptism/death lies ahead as a 'crucial' action for the kingdom of God to be established. In this journey, although the mission is ultimately about peace, division is occurring, not least because (as Micah 7 illustrates) Israel is embroiled in sin. All this, like familiar signs that the weather is about to change, should be discernible to those watching Jesus.

A second level is our present time, as readers of Luke's gospel and as people closer to the return of Christ than to the time of the cross.

Jesus continues to be controversial, to inspire opposition as much as welcome and acceptance. His message simultaneously invites people into the kingdom, into a new way of living (thus previous verses in Luke 12 illustrate a new way of living in respect of money and material possessions) and opposes the kingdom of this world, the 'old way of living' in which greed, acquisition and selfishness prevail. To this old way of living, Jesus is the fire of judgment and his baptism/death (now a completed historical action) stands out as a point of division (because people gratefully accept that action as means of salvation or reject it as failure and embarrassment).

That people are divided over Jesus is a 'sign of the time', a sign that the world is in crisis over Jesus and thus people with the slightest inkling that Jesus might be God at work in the world would want to be alert and ready for his return.

One reflection in 2019 - in which all sorts of controversies in the world are going on [Trump, Brexit, culture wars] - is whether division in the church, or over the church, is division over Jesus (the Jesus we proclaim, the Jesus we profess to follow) or something else ...

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Sunday 11 August 2019 - Ordinary 19

Possible theme(s): Faith. True treasure. Trusting in God for everything.

Sentence: Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine. Psalm 33:18-19

Collect:

God, the strength of all who believe in you,
Increase our faith and trust
In your Son Jesus Christ
That in him and through your Holy Spirit, we may live victoriously. Amen

Readings (related):

     Genesis 15:1-6

     Psalm 33:12-22

    Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

    Luke 12:32-40

Comments:

Genesis 15:1-6

This reading relates both to the epistle reading (the life of faith) and to the gospel (trusting God that his promises will come true). Abram is offered an extraordinary vision of the future, despite being childless he will father a great, uncountable nation. A lesser man might have dismissed God but Abram believes. He accepts that what God says will come into being. Such belief means 'the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness' (v. 6): in other words, Abram does not work to earn God's favour (e.g. through a long obedience to commands great and small, or through great sacrifices, or through intense effort at being holy) but God responds to Abram's act of trust and counts him as righteous: a right living man in a right relationship with God.

Psalm 33:12-22

Are there any happy nations on earth today? If not, there is a reason and the psalmist gives it!

'Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord' (33:12)

What follows is a delightful poem setting out the greatness of God, the one who sits enthroned above the world and sees all that goes on within it. In that light, the fate of nations is not determined by how powerful a king and his military are. No, victory comes to those who fear God - in Old Testament language this is pretty much the same as New Testament language about trusting God.

It is said that Stalin once asked how many (army) divisions the Pope had. Obviously he knew that the answer was none. Many decades later Stalinism is no more but the faithful followers of the Pope (that is, believers in Jesus Christ within the Roman Catholic church) are greater than 1 billion. If only Stalin (who was once upon a time a trainee in a church seminary) knew this psalm!

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Better than a dictionary definition of faith, the first few verses here tell us what faith is:

'the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.'

Faith is not mere wishful thinking, nor is it imagining things which do not exist. It is the confident conviction that what is not seen (God) and what is not yet experienced (the fulfilment of God's promises) is true and real. God exists (see also 11:6) and the future is the reality that the shadow of the present points to.

In verses 8-16, an example of this definition is given. Abraham (i.e. Abram of Genesis 15) set out in life to receive things which he did not see: 'By faith Abraham obeyed' (v. 8). When he received one such thing (the land promised to him, v. 9) he still needed faith, for he knew there was a great future to come, a city so to speak relative to the tents in which he and his family dwelt (v. 10). So through verses 11 and 12 we find the retroactive reflection on what has been just read from Genesis 15: childless Abraham and Sarah became fruitful, their descendants beyond count.

Luke 12:32-40

Chapter 12:13-30 is Jesus teaching assertively that God will provide for his disciples' needs so they neither need to strive to meet these needs, nor be anxious about God's provision and certainly not store up an abundance of wealth. Verse 32 following continues this theme but quickly flows into the theme of readiness for the coming of the Son of Man (i.e. for the return of Jesus Christ to earth).

Verses 32-34: How do we see God as our provider? As a begrudging giver, perhaps in need of a twist of his arm (e.g. through some form of strong prayer on our part, or impressive display of faith)? Jesus assures us that it is our Father's 'good pleasure' to give us the kingdom. So confident can we be in this generous Father that we should 'Sell your possessions and give alms.'

The best way to break the power of money over our lives, to destroy any allegiance to Mammon is to give away what we have. A positive effect of giving is that we will receive 'an unfailing treasure in heaven'. Verse 34 makes a point already made in a different form earlier in the chapter in the parable of the rich fool (vss. 16-20): for our hearts to be in the right place we need to have our 'treasure' in the right place. Money in the bank, multiple properties, gold bars stashed under our beds are spiritually dangerous: our hearts are likely not in heaven but bound here on earth!

Verses 35-40 With no money in the bank, or properties to worry about, the next instruction for a disciple is easy to follow! 'Be dressed for action and have your lamp lit.'

These verses (which receive further expansion in 12:41-48 and 12:49-59) teach disciples that discipleship is a 24/7 task. We serve our master in the tasks of the kingdom with diligence, patience and persistence, never being found by sudden inspection to have grown slack, complacent or sloppy.

Generally in Luke's Gospel the idea of the 'sudden inspection' inherent in the notion of 'Christ's Second Coming' is downplayed compared to Matthew and Mark. But here Luke discloses Christ's clear instructions in the light of the future coming of himself as 'Son of Man' (12:40) - a theme redolent with ideas of judgement, return, restoration and general putting the world to rights (see, e.g. Daniel 7). Disciples are to be 'alert', v. 37, and 'ready', v. 40 for the return of their master.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sunday 4 August 2019 - Ordinary 18

Possible theme(s): Trust in God not in wealth // Be what you are

Sentence: Truly, no ransom avails for one's life, there is no price one can give to God for it. (Psalm 49:7)

Collect:

God of all the earth
You have given us the heritage
of this good and fertile land;
grant that we may so respect and use it
that others may thank us
for what we leave to them. Amen [Pent 24:2: NZPB p. 636]

Readings ("related"):

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-12
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Comments:

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Within wisdom literature in the Bible (Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Job) two perspectives on daily life stand in tension. Work hard, play fair, save for a rainy day, reap the rewards of sensible living is a perspective in Proverbs whereas in Ecclesiastes, represented in today's verses, life sucks. Working hard is hard work and tiring, according to Ecclesiastes. Playing fair is all very well but the end of the game is pain and death. Saving for a rainy day could mean one's children get to enjoy spending it, and, as for the rewards of sensible living, what about all the nights lying awake wondering if one can get through the next day?

Our calling as preachers is not necessarily to resolve each tension in Scripture. Ecclesiastes is gloomy in outlook but that might speak to the pessimists in the congregation. The point of Ecclesiastes (and thus a challenge to pessimists) is not revealed in these verses (one needs to jump ahead to the last chapters of the book). Ultimately gloominess is not the prevailing word but seriousness is. The wise person is serious about the importance of living well because God judges all our deeds (12:14).

The serious lesson in today's readings is that material gain may be in vain and thus the ultimate goal of life should not be defined by material success. That lesson ties in with the gospel reading.

Psalm 49:1-12

This psalm emphasises "wisdom" in its contents. Less a song than a sermon ("Hear this, all you peoples ..." v. 1, see also v.4), its message ties in beautifully with the gospel: 'tis foolish to trust in wealth since death denies its advantage to us (vss. 5-9). There is also a tie to the gloominess of Ecclesiastes: death comes to both the wise and to the foolish (v. 10).

Colossians 3:1-11

This passage is "thick", rich in content. It begins with strong encouragement about focus or priority for Christian life (and thus ties in well with the other readings for today): "seek the things which are above" (v. 1, repeated v. 2). But, typical of Paul, a call to action is undergirded by theological reasons for the action. Christians are those who have "died" (to self, to sin, through identification with Christ on the cross, v.3) and been "raised with Christ" (to new life, to holy living, through identification with Christ in his resurrection, v.1). So we are to "seek the things that are above" (i.e. in keeping with being a "raised with Christ" person, v.1), doing so in the understanding that our "life is hidden with Christ in God" (v. 3). To be a Christian is, in a Pauline phrase, to be "in Christ." We are participants in the very life of Christ himself, through mystical union in the Spirit of God: thus Paul calls us to live outwardly what is now the inward status of our lives.

The instructions through verses 5-9 make sense in this way: put to death the things that steer you away from the focus to which you are called. Verse 10 is the positive construction of new life in Christ: this new life is the life in which Christ remakes us to be what we are meant to be, people made in the image of God our creator (see Genesis 1:26-28) - it is elaborated further in verse 12 and following. The point here is not, "here are the rules of a morally upright life, obey them," rather it is, "You are called to live as Christ himself lives, thus these things can no longer be the way you live."

The final verse in today's passage reminds the Colossians that "in Christ" there are no divisions of people in the usual way (see also Galatians 3:28) and thus no excuses for how we are to live. Perhaps, particularly, Paul is urging that no one can claim an excuse for living badly on the basis of ignorance due to cultural background.

Luke 12:13-21

Any rich person should be uncomfortable reading Luke's Gospel! Whether we read Luke as aggressively attacking the rich or mildly challenging reliance on possessions, many passages in this gospel unashamedly talk about money, wealth and materiality with the edge that being rich is not a blessing.

Here Jesus takes an innocent request re a family inheritance and turns it into a warning to take care about greed and a statement about life itself. The abundance of possessions is not life. Kiwis keen on having a house to live in, a house at the beach, a boat to enjoy the sea and a large 4WD to take the boat to the beach, take note!

Then Jesus tells a memorable and pointed parable which speaks to all generations and all cultures about greed. A man, wise in the ways of the world, both accrues wealth and enlarges his storage of it, only to discover he has foolishly forgotten God who visits him in death and at a stroke takes the wealth away, leaving him standing before God in judgement with nothing.

If we read the parable itself as about the mega-rich and thus not about ourselves we should pay particular attention to 12:21: we each in our own way, even with the little we can set aside each pay day, "store up treasures" and thus should ask ourselves, In what ways we are "rich towards God"?

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Sundays 30 June, 7 July, 14 July, 21 July, 28 July 2019: Ordinary 13,14,15,16,17

I have a demanding schedule of travel/meetings coming up so am cramming in five weeks in the posts below, but posting in advance on Sunday 23 June 2019 ...

Sunday 28 July 2019 - Ordinary 17

Possible Theme: Prayer or The God to Whom We Pray is Kind or Stick with Christ

Sentence: How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13).

Collect:

Father, we hallow your name
For you are worthy of our praise;
Your kindness and mercy give us confidence to pray
“Your kingdom come”;
So we ask and keep on asking that you will provide
Everything we need for life in your kingdom
In the power of the Holy Spirit
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings “Related”

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

Comments:


Genesis 18:20-32

Don’t get stuck on “Sodom and Gomorrah” as a theme for this reading. It “relates” to the gospel reading because the latter is about prayer and in Genesis 18:20-32, Abraham is an intercessor.

What happens? Abraham's nephew, Lot, lives in Sodom and Abraham is concerned that the three visiting men will destroy Sodom, and Lot with it. So Abraham addresses the Lord (seemingly, putting 18:16, 22, 33 and 19:1 together, one of the three) and does so in a manipulative manner.

He asks the Lord if he will really sweep away the city if fifty righteous people are found within it. The Lord says that he will not, rather he will forgive the city. But Abraham’s “fifty” is a bargaining ploy. He beats the Lord down to ten (though no reader will be fooled as to whether the Lord is being manipulated or not). Ten (presumably) is the size of Lot’s household. In the end, Genesis 19 tells us that only four actually survived the devastation of Sodom, and then Lot’s wife disobeyed instructions and paid for that with her life.

What then does the passage say to us about prayer? Surely we are not meant to learn from it that prayer might be a manipulative tool in our hands to get God to do what we want!

No, what we learn from the passage is that God is open to requests which draw from him his characteristic work, which is showing mercy. The downward count, from fifty to ten, does not show us how to manipulate God but how kind God is: on the smallest pretext God will be merciful.

There is something else to mention. Abraham’s concern is that the righteous in Sodom might be destroyed as the wicked are punished. He appeals to God’s character in order to avert unfair disaster for those righteous: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (18:25).

That is a good question to bring to a number of issues. Nothing to do with the other readings today, but the key to understanding hell lies in this question. You may need to think about why for a few moments.

Psalm 138

What kind of God do we serve, in daily life and in liturgy? What do we have to give thanks for? This psalm answers these questions: a God of steadfast love and faithfulness who has ‘exalted [his] name and [his] word above everything’ (v. 2); a God who answers the prayer of the psalmist and increases the strength of his soul (v. 3); a God whose glory is great and words impressive (v. 4-5); a God who looks for the “lowly” and cares little for the “haughty” (v. 6); when the psalmist walks in the midst of trouble, God preserves him from the wrath of his enemies and delivers him from trouble (v. 7); and, finally, “the Lord will fulfil his purpose for me” and the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever (v. 8).

We serve and worship a great and wonderful God!

Colossians 2:6-15

Why has Paul written Colossians? If all were well and going to remain well with the church in Colossae, it is scarcely conceivable that he would have made the effort. In fact, Paul is concerned that either something is wrong or about to go wrong for this church.

His most urgent concern is that the Colossians might move on from Christ as the centre of their faith and life. “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him,” (2:6). They have started well. They must not now stumble. What they especially need to avoid is being captured by some other claim to truth which is actually an “empty deceit” (2:8).

So Paul warns them and then pretty much goes over similar ground (2:8-15) as in chapter 1 (especially verses 15-23 – indeed 1:23 is a precursor to 2:6-7). Paul must have been very concerned for the Colossians.

What Paul is saying, in summary terms, is that Christ is all the Colossians need, Christ is supreme and in need of no supplementary or complementary figure, and on the cross Christ has achieved all things necessary for forgiveness from the past and making people alive for a new future.

Luke 11:1-13

There is a lot here and there is no need to comment on many matters which will be well-known to the preacher and congregation. A challenge with this passage is to expound what it says with freshness. But one way to do that could be to draw people to the importance of prayer about any and every situation in life: that is a fresh truth for most of us because … we forget to pray, we avoid praying, we allow busyness to clutter up our days and distract out nights.

The passage is suggestive of several sermons. Just preach one of them!

One sermon could be on the Lord’s Prayer. Luke offers a shorter and slightly simpler form of the Matthean version. It appeals to God as Father to bring his kingdom into being, a kingdom in which its citizens have food to eat, forgiveness of sins (and who forgive sins) and protection from trial.

Another sermon could be on perseverance and persistence in prayer.

A third possible sermon could be on the Father to whom we pray. The last verse of the passage challenges and inspires us to believe that the Father to whom we pray is kind and generous, like a good human father only much more so.

There is then a Postscript: if, for whatever reason, some situations require persistence in prayer, it is not because God is mean and tight-fisted. Look back to what is said above re God and Sodom and Abraham's prayer strategy: God wills to be merciful.

Sunday 21 July 2019 - Ordinary 16

Possible theme(s): Only One Thing Needed or Christ Alone

Sentence:

You O Lord are my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in you and I am helped; therefore my heart dances for joy, and in my song I will praise you. (Psalm 28:8)

Collect:

Father,
Let us not serve you grudgingly like slaves,
But with the gladness of children
Who delight in You
And rejoice in your work
Empowered by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings ("Related")

Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Comments:

Genesis 18:1-10a

Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to three strangers.

The providing of hospitality is the common theme with the gospel reading today.

Abraham directs Sarah what to do. (By the standards of the day and the location) a sumptuous meal is provided. Abraham is mostly exhibiting a cultural norm of being hospitable. But we can see an element of grace: Abraham welcomes three men with no particular claim on him through family or other ties. Without obligation to do so, the men indicate that Sarah will (finally) become pregnant with the child promised of God.

In entertaining strangers, Abraham and Sarah have welcomed angels (see also Hebrews 13:2). We may even say, stretching a theological bow from the Old Testament to Trinitarian orthodoxy, they have welcomed God in Three Persons. Google "Rublev's Icon" for a perfect, profound, timeless, widely appreciated illustration of this Trinitarian meal!

Psalm 15

The perfectly formed Christian character finds its description in this psalm! Note that this character includes both personal piety and integrity, social relationships, and community dealings.

That this psalm is a psalm (a song for worship) is justified by the opening verse: the perfectly formed Christian character is not a list of moral attributes but a description of the person who may live in the close presence and intimacy of God.

Colossians 1:15-28

Paul is "all Christ" in this passage as he sets out his understanding of the significance of Jesus of Nazareth. There are various ways in which we could break his praise-poem (doxology) of Jesus Christ into categories.

One way is Christ the creator (vss. 15-17), Christ the head of the church (vss. 18-22), Christ in the life of the believer (vss. 23-28).

Another way is to think of vss. 15-22 as a creed, this is what Christians believe about Jesus Christ, and vss. 23-28 as code of discipleship, this is how Christians live out the gospel. A sermon along these lines might reflect on the significant development in roughly 30 years, between the initial understanding of Jesus as a carpenter from Nazareth who performed miracles and taught as other rabbis of his day did (c. 30 AD) and this christological exposition of Christ as the fullness of God (c. 62 AD).

A third division of the passage could be to think about what is said about the gospel: Jesus as the centre of the gospel message Paul proclaims, the content of the gospel (especially vss. 20-22), and the aim of the gospel (especially vss. 27-28).

Nevertheless the passage flows from one verse to another, each of which has 'deep content' about important matters in the life and belief of Christian people. Whole sermons could be preached on verses such as 15, 16, 17, 18, and, well, each of the other individual verses!

Luke 10:38-42

Mary and Martha are enigmatic characters in the gospel, appearing twice only: here as a pair of sisters and, in association with their brother Lazarus, in John's Gospel. Luke almost certainly tells us this story to illustrate aspects of discipleship.

As a follow up to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story is an illustration of loving God and loving your neighbour.

The story of Mary and Martha illustrates love of God (through Mary's devotion to Jesus as her Lord) and love of neighbour (Martha's practical service).

In respect of discipleship alone, the story illustrates the priority of the disciple: to sit at the feet of the master teacher, learning as much as possible, even prioritizing this over the ordinary work of life. Typical of Luke, this story underlines that female disciples are important in the kingdom of God (see also Luke 8:1-3).

Sunday 14 July 2019 - Ordinary 15

Possible theme: The good Muslim (referring to the gospel reading) // Rescued from darkness (referring to the epistle reading).

Sentence: "[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son." (Colossians 1:13)

CollectPent 23:1

Almighty God
you teach us in your word
that love is the fulfilling of the law:
grant that we may love you with all our heart
and our neighbours as ourselves;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings ("related' rather than "continuous")

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-10
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Comments:

Deuteronomy 30:9-14 (I suggest 30:8-14 would be better)

Behind the zeal of the questioner of Jesus in Luke 10:25-37 is a desire to obey the Lord because, according to Deuteronomy, the Lord will make the obedient Jew 'abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings' (30:9).

Psalm 25:1-10

The psalmist is keen to follow in the Lord's way. He tells the Lord he puts his trust in him and asks for support - to not be put to shame, not to have his enemies exult over him. That is the negative, what the psalmist does not want to happen. What he wants to happen is that he is made to 'know your ways, O Lord' (v. 4) and is led by the Lord 'in your truth' (v. 5).

Why this enthusiasm? The psalmist does not appeal to the blessings of prosperity promised in Deuteronomy, though what he seeks is a blessed way of life:

'All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees' (v. 10).

Colossians 1:1-14

Colossians is a great letter. It is philosophy and piety bound in a proclamation of the gospel and bathed in prayer.

Today we start a series of four readings from the letter. Paul sets out the gospel and its concrete application in the life of the believer.

Note the 'therefores' which come out later in the epistle: 2:6, 16. Paul is saying (in the first part of Colossians), "This is the gospel (you are set free, transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, etc)" and in the second part,  "Therefore act accordingly (do not let people enslave you or condemn you or be taken captive by another philosophy)."

Here in these first fourteen verses of the letter, Paul begins in his own classic style.

There is a greeting with theological depth (vss. 1-2: address to 'saints and faithful brothers and sisters'; 'grace', 'peace', 'God our Father.')

There is expression of prayerful love for the Colossian readers (vss. 3-14) - as well as love of praying for them. Paul never wastes words and these verses both flatter the Colossians and remind them of theological truths (e.g. 'we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints' (flattery) 'because of the hope laid up for you in heaven' (theological underpinning of Colossian virtue), v. 4-5).

Yet Paul's entreaty has no complacency or sense of achievement or completion of spiritual perfection. He prays that his readers 'may be filled with the knowledge of God's will ... so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord ... May you be made strong ... may you be prepared to endure everything ...', vss. 9-11. The Colossians know Christ and follow him, but there is more to know and a stronger following in Christ's way to be continued.

With these words Paul sets out the structure of the letter. Here, as he writes these opening words, and in the remainder of chapter one and into chapter two, he will teach them 'knowledge of God', that is, knowledge of the God they meet in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. Through chapter two and beyond Paul will spell out practical aspects of living lives 'worthy of the Lord.'

What then is the 'word of truth, the gospel that has come to' the Colossians (vss. 5-6)? Paul states it in a unique form in verse 13 (with a more familiar refrain in verse 14):

'[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.'

Here, in a nutshell, is the importance of the gospel (without it, humanity is in the grip of the power of darkness), the power of the gospel (our response to it becomes a release from the power of darkness and entry into the kingdom of Christ) and the content of the gospel (God loves us, out of that love rescues us from slavery to sin, guilt from sin (see v. 14), and receives us into his kingdom).

Luke 10:25-37

One way to get to grips with the depth of the challenge Jesus offers to his questioner is to substitute 'Samaritan' with another word, one which gets to the heart of present day challenges about loving those who are different to us, who threaten us by their existence, whose identity identifies them as our enemy.

Depending on what people group we identify with, there is likely a people group whose existence challenges us, as Samaritans once did for Jews.

What impact does the parable of the Good Samaritan have if we are Palestinian readers and the parable is the parable of the Good Israeli? Ditto: if we are a GLBT community and the parable is the parable of the Good Homophobic Bigot, or if we are part of the Western world subject to fears of terrorism, if not subject to actual acts of terrorism* and the parable is the parable of the Good Muslim or the parable of the Good Illegal Immigrant).

(*When I wrote the first version of this post, in early July 2016, terrible acts of violence and murder at the hands of terrorists had been wrought on people in Istanbul, Dhaka and Baghdad. Tragically in 2019, in my own city of Christchurch, terrorism has been reversed (so to speak) with a white supremacist being arrested and brought to trial for the deaths of 51 Muslims and injuries of many more, on 15 March.)

The point of the parable is striking when we press into it. To a question about who our 'neighbour' is, in respect of the second great commandment, Jesus answers with a story about an enemy! The questioner is perhaps wondering if 'neighbour' means everyone in the street, or just the person who lives next door. Jesus blasts any such small-mindedness out of the, well, neighbourhood. Our neighbour can mean our enemy. If so, then our neighbour is anyone. And everyone.

So no one can be left behind, no one passed by on the other side of the road. If we are serious about inheriting eternal life (see also Colossians above about inheriting the kingdom of God's beloved Sin), then this story of a lawyer intent on so inheriting should cut deeply into us. Cutting away, for instance, our prejudices about certain people. Cutting away our rationalizations about why we should not show mercy to certain people. Cutting down our limited vision of community action and opening up a new vision for love in the world.

Sunday 7 July 2019 - 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 unique 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 '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 in respect of Christ's 'new commandment' to 'love one another'?).

The verses in Galatians 6:1-6 each offer practical instruction to the Christian seeking to live a life worthy of the gospel.

Galatians 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.

Galatians 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 these verses, 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'. 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 re-read 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 30 June 2019 - 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! Alternatively, perhaps we could have a group of "psalms of joy."

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 by God (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). 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 still 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 before. Christian freedom is not being exercised when we 'gratify the desires of the flesh' (v. 16) - such indulgence leads to Christian death or loss of godly 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 in these words, '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 since 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 (with shades of our "related" Old Testament reading, commented on above).

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, to family, 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.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Sunday 23 June 2019 - Ordinary 12 or Te Pouhere Sunday

TE POUHERE SUNDAY

Sentence: Galatians 3:28

Readings:
Isaiah 42:10-20
Psalm: it is recommended that a suitable psalm be chosen by those planning a celebration for this day.
2 Corinthians 5:14-19 or Acts 10:34-43
John 15:9-17 or Matt 7:24-29 or Luke 6:46-49 or John 17:6-26

[A colleague calls our church, "The Church of Or," which is, unfortunately, rather underlined by this set of readings!].

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.

Slightly quicker could be to go to www.anglican.org.nz/Resources/Lectionary-and-Worship 

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 12th Sunday in ordinary time.

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 9, 2019

Sunday 16 June 2019 - 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.

Note for clarity: when I wrote above, "Father, Son and Spirit take up three distinct roles so that creation, redemption and sustenance of life take place," I am talking about Father, Son and Spirit working together, in unity, on those thee matters. Unfortunately, some modern reference to the Trinity in terms of "Creator, Redeemer and Give of life" (or similar) creates an impression that the Father only creates, the Son only redeems, and the Spirit only gives life. Not at all.

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, "the Word made flesh".
                         
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 musical 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 both the bucket receiving water from a pipe and 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 the opening verse 5:1. These thought here 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.