Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday 1 March 2015 - Second Sunday in Lent

Theme(s): Self-denial / Taking up the cross / Following Jesus / Faith

Sentence: No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God (Romans 4:20).


Servant God, grant us opportunity
give us willingness
to serve you day by day;
that what we do
and how we bear each other's burdens,
may be our sacrifice to you. Amen.


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm 22:23-31

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

As best I can tell this reading is connected to the gospel reading via the epistle reading! The epistle reading talks of  what Jesus has done for us by dying and rising again (see the first verses of the gospel reading where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection). It also talks about 'inheriting the world' (Romans 4:13) which connects with Jesus' own talk about gaining or losing the world (Mark 8:33-37).

But the epistle reading also talks about Abraham and his faith that against the odds his aged wife would bear a son who would begin the fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham that through him and Sarah they would beget a great and flourishing nation. In these verses God restates his promise to Abraham re a great inheritance (verses 1-7) and Abraham is shown in verses 16-17 to not believe God!

Psalm 22:23-31

Jesus himself cited Psalm 22 while dying on the cross (verse 1) and he may in fact have recited the whole psalm. In these verses praise is given to the Lord on the other side (so to speak) of the affliction suffered in the first part of the psalm. In that way the psalm connects to Jesus' prediction in Mark 8:31 that he will suffer, die and rise again.

Romans 4:13-25

In context this passage is part of Paul's unfolding argument to the Romans concerning the righteousness of God, who receives it and how. In verse 13 Paul characterises the situation in terms of inheritance: 'For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.' The phrase 'inherit the world' connects this epistle to the gospel and reference there to 'gain the whole world' (Mark 8:36). But connections can also be made in respect of the purpose of Jesus dying and rising from the dead.

In the context of today's set of Lent 2 readings we might read this passage as a commentary on Jesus' teaching on discipleship in Mark 8:31-38. From that perspective this passage makes the point that 'faith' is the key to inheriting the present and future blessing God has for us. Abraham exemplifies the faithful disciple who trusts God for what is promised but which is not yet seen. When Jesus teaches that denying self and taking up one's cross in order to follow him means a willingness to lose life in order to gain life, implicitly disciples of Jesus must be people of unwavering (Romans 4:20) faith.

Mark 8:31-38

Jesus is still in Galilee but he is seeing the cross ahead of him in Jerusalem. After the triumphs of healings, deliverances and feeding miracles, it must have been a shock to the disciples when Jesus began teaching them 'that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected ... and be killed'. We can readily imagine that after that triad they did not really comprehend 'and after three days rise again' (31).

Having confessed that Jesus was the Messiah (29), Peter could not more clearly demonstrate that he had no idea what kind of Messiah Jesus was than his blurted rebuke (32). Jesus calls him out by highlighting his false understanding through addressing him as 'Satan' (33). Ouch! Jesus then goes on to carefully clarify what is wrong: Peter is thinking 'human things' rather than 'divine things' (33).

What Jesus then goes on to say, notably to 'the crowd with his disciples' (34) explains what 'divine things' versus 'human things' mean for every day living: a different kind of Messiah has different kind of followers from the Messiah Peter has in mind.

In summary Jesus says that the suffering he will undergo will be the suffering his followers undergo. Through history this has proven to be the case as Christians have been martyred for their faith. As I write many Christians around the world are troubled by the story of 21 Coptic Christians martyred in the last week or so for their faith by ISIS on a beach in Libya.

Our question reading what Jesus says is a question not only about how we might conduct ourselves through the demanding season of Lent but also how we will conduct ourselves through the demanding years of life itself!

When Jesus says "If any want to become my followers" (34), he is laying it on the line. He might have said, "Do you really understand what it means to be my followers? Let me lay it on the line for you, unvarnished, raw and robust!"

What is laid on the line is this:

"let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (34).

A first reflection is to connect this back to the 'divine things' of verse 33: if we are serious about God then we cannot live life as we please but must live to please God and in that living be open to the whole life of God filling out lives. Thus the cost of that fullness of divine life is that we deny self, that is, open the whole of our lives to God. Yet here on earth, living the divine life, as Jesus is doing, is not to enjoy the applause of the world but its fear and antagonism which may lead literally to a cross and metaphorically leads to living as ones willing at any time to die for Christ.

A second reflection is provided by Jesus himself in verses 35-37. Very few people are willing to die for no return. Human nature looks for value in exchange for value: life is valuable so why deny self and be prepared to be crucified?

This is Jesus' answer:

"For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?"

Note that Jesus' characterises the possibilities of loss and gain in following him in a way which actually makes the non-follower liable to lose more than the follower!

But what do we make of these words? Our world is weighted towards the importance of this earthly life, exemplified by the desire of most people to live as long as possible, eagerly embracing every advance in medical treatment to prolong life. In living that longer life we then find ourselves attempting to live the fullest life possible, exemplified by the desire of many people to travel far and wide to experience as much of the variety of life on earth as we can absorb. Is it now harder than in Jesus' own day to contemplate that the best life is yet to be, is to be found by travelling to the other side of death and not to the other side of the planet?

Questions such as these take on an edge when we read the last verse of the passage. Jesus envisages what most of us try not to think about: a day of reckoning 'when he comes in the glory of the Father and with the holy angels' (38b). On that day what will be revealed about ourselves? Will we be among those who are 'ashamed of [Jesus] and [his] words'?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday 22 February 2015 - First Sunday in Lent

Theme(s): Covenant / Suffering / Lent / Salvation / Baptism / Temptation and Testing / Wilderness

Sentence: Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress. (Isaiah 33:2)


Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.


Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15


Introductory Comment:

We read these readings from the perspective of Lent. The Genesis and Peter readings raise many questions which will not be dealt with here. Rather we focus on what they contribute to our journey with Jesus through Lent to the cross.

Genesis 9:8-17

This reading is connected to our epistle reading (see below). At the heart of the story of Noah is the question of relationship between God and humanity, a relationship which has gone very seriously wrong. With the flood, God destroys the unrighteous and saves, via the ark, the righteous (i.e. Noah and his family). In these verses God says that this mammoth act of judgment will not occur again. The rainbow will function as a sign of God's covenant not to act in this way again.

Thus a central theme in the story is God's willingness to engage verbally with humanity, via covenants which spell out what God's plan for humanity is. Soon there will be a covenant with Abraham, then with Moses, followed by a Davidic covenant and then the promise of a new covenant.

Although Mark's account of the baptism of Jesus does not mention a rainbow, it does mention the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove (which also features in the story of Noah). In other words, the covenant-making God is at work in the story of the baptism of Jesus.

Every covenant God makes, including this one here, is part of the assurance through words, that God cares for the world and is committed to the salvation of God's people.

Psalm 25:1-10

What is Lent? In part it is a time of learning, of discipline, of care and attention to the obedient life of a disciples of Christ. Verses 4-5 point us in the direction we need to go; with a reinforcement in verses 8-10.

1 Peter 3:18-22

This reading and Genesis 9:8-17 (from the story of Noah) are obviously linked together, but what is the link to the gospel reading on this first Sunday in Lent?

I suggest the link is provided by the first and last verses of the passage: Jesus 'suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God' (with v. 22 observing that this suffering was vindicated). In Lent we journey with the suffering Jesus, the Jesus who suffers by resisting Satan's temptations, suffers by bending his will to God's will as he travels to Jerusalem knowing the destiny which awaits him, suffers false accusations, a manipulated set of trials, mocking, scourging and finally crucifixion itself.

Verses 19-21 are food for commentarial thought. Peter segues off 'alive in the spirit' in v. 18 to talk about what Jesus then did. The narrative of preaching to imprisoned spirits is connected to the creedal phrase 'descended to the dead' and to 1 Peter 4:6. Beyond that we have no other testimony in Holy Scripture to this action by Jesus. What is Peter saying? Can the spirits of dead disobedient people be released to new life in God? (Cue discussion of praying for the dead, talk of Purgatory and so forth.) If so, note that Peter does not say anything about whether we should pray about such release? Was this action of Jesus a 'one off' proclamatory event, that is, not an event we should rely on as precedent for what happens (say) to ourselves re a future 'second chance' should we choose to live disobediently to God? I'll stop my brief discussion here, for reasons of insufficient time. But clearly a long and lively discussion could ensue. Either way, I do not think these verses are the reason why this reading is chosen for this day.

Verses 20-21 take us to Noah, as an exemplary figure from a time when the inhabitants of the earth 'did not obey'. He then says that when Noah's family were saved in the ark in the midst of the flooding of the earth it was a 'prefiguring' (or, we can say, 'type') of baptism (another link with the gospel reading). Verse 21 is then a theology of baptism: this needs careful thought lest we misunderstand what is being said. I will make just one point here: when Peter writes 'And baptism ... now saves you' he is not saying that we just need to be baptised and we are saved. His point is more subtle than that, because he integrates baptism into the state of our consciences and understands a 'good conscience' as coming 'through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.' Salvation comes through Jesus Christ and we receive salvation as we receive Christ and that, reading the rest of the epistle, involves our inner faith as much as the outer baptism of water.

Mark 1:9-15

Although this passage begins with the baptism of Jesus we have already tackled this in Year A. Our focus today is on verses 12 and 13, the immediate aftermath of the baptism in which the Spirit drives Jesus 'out into the wilderness.'

Mark tells us that Jesus 'was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.'

We can read a lot into these words. The wilderness was the place where Israel was tested between leaving Egypt and entering the promised land, with 40 days here matching 40 years of Israel's sojourn through the wilderness. Israel is God's Son and now Jesus Christ, the Son of God is tested like the whole people he represents. But Elijah, a prophet with many resemblances to Jesus' prophetic ministry, also went into the wilderness for 40 days (1 Kings 19:4-8).

The specific reference to Satan tempting Jesus recalls (at least) the temptation of Adam and Eve and the testing of Job. If Jesus is to be the 'one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world' then he needs to pass the test which Adam and Eve failed. If Jesus is to truly suffer or experience true suffering, then he, like Job, must be tested through suffering.

The wild beasts are more difficult to interpret. Is this reference to the extent of the wilderness experience: wild beasts threatened to devour him? Or, does this mention imply that when Jesus was with the wild beasts, they were tamed by him who has come to reverse the effects of the fall? The latter is more likely because Mark makes nothing of the threat to Jesus, but in a story about the Saviour who restores the world it makes sense to include references to the ways in which God's new creation is taking effect.

The ministry of the angels recalls both the ministering angels to Israel during its forty years in the wilderness as well as the angel ministering to Elijah during his wilderness experience.

Coming out of the wilderness, Jesus begins to preach the gospel and to inaugurate the kingdom.

The specific sequence of 'baptism' then 'temptation' may not be the typical experience of every Christian disciples, but most disciples experience sharp testing at times in our walk with the Lord.

If we think of the wilderness experience as 'preparation for ministry' then we are reminded here that our efforts to minister in Jesus' name are best served by appropriate preparation.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunday 15 February 2015 - 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): healing / Cleansing / Faithfulness

Sentence: You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. (Psalm 30:11-12)


Mighty God,
strong, loving and wise,
help us to depend upon your goodness
and to place our trust in your Son.


2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45


2 Kings 5:1-14

Sometimes matching the Old Testament reading with the Gospel has the feel of matching the right wine with the main dish for the day. Here the meat of Jesus healing a leper is matched with the wine of God healing Naaman from leprosy.

A common matter between the two stories is suffering from leprosy but from there most points of possible comparison do not match. Naaman is a named and high ranking Aramean: the gospel leper is unnamed and no particular importance is attached to him. Naaman is healed 'at a distance' whereas Jesus heals the leper with a touch.

But the end result is the same: both lepers are 'clean' as a result of their healing. We cannot underestimate the importance of that word: lepers had a bad social status, people avoiding them in the hope of avoiding catching leprosy. Healing meant not only the end of the disease but also the restoration of social status as a 'clean' person.

Psalm 30

This psalm speaks of a psalmist in pitiable circumstances who has been brought out of them, from death to life so to speak. So the Lord is extolled and praised (as we might imagine the leper in today's gospel story might praise the Lord after being healed).

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Paul is not afraid to mix metaphors. He moves from a kind of drama metaphor (verses 19-23), becoming all things to all people, to a sporting metaphor (strictly, set of metaphors). In the process he switches topics a little, from winning the world for Christ to making sure he does not lose his share in the blessings of the gospel (23). But by the end of 27 he is back to the matter of proclaiming the gospel.

His point is simple. Those who will be ultimately and permanently blessed by the gospel are those who remain faithful in the ministry of the gospel to the end.

Just as Paul does all he can to win others for Christ, so he will do all he can to remain faithful in the service of the gospel. He is not here talking about qualifying for the blessings (that has been done for him by Christ) but of avoiding disqualification. The emphasis on 'self-control' in the passage implies that we could disqualify ourselves by failing to be faithful in our obedience to God through the long course of our lives.

Mark 1:40-45

Mark is a seriously good story teller! On the face of it, this is the story of the healing of a leper. Rightly we marvel at the miracle and, as readers, become more and more impressed through a succession of such stories by Mark's overall aim to persuade his readers (or reinforce their belief) that Jesus is the Son of God.

But digging deeper into the story (or, alternatively, reading the story slowly so we take in each nuanced detail), we see Mark telling us a number of things about Jesus and his life situation.

The leper has implicit faith in Jesus: if Jesus chooses he can heal him, if not, he will not be healed (40).

Is it a mixture of need (the man's leprosy), the humble begging on his knees and the simple trusting faith which means Jesus is 'Move with pity'? (41).

Jesus responds to the direct question about choosing to heal by saying 'I do choose. Be made clean!' (41) But this conversational logic raises the question of the role of God's will in healing: does God sometimes will healing to take place, and by implication, sometimes will for healing not to take place? Then the attitude and approach of the leper begs the question whether the way we pray makes a difference to God's will to heal. Food for thought! Mark is not telling the story in this way to establish a comprehensive 'theology of prayer for healing' but he must have been alert to questions of his fellow disciples when he wrote: Does the risen Jesus still heal today? Is it God's will to heal my sickness? When he reports Jesus saying 'I do choose', at the very least, he is expressing the view that healing is not guaranteed every time we ask for it.

The report in 42 that 'Immediately' the man was healed is part and parcel of Mark's overall strategy of presenting Jesus as the powerful Son of God.

The next few verses begin/continue a theme in the gospel called 'the Messianic Secret.' Jesus asks the recipient of a miracle not to say anything about it. ('Begin' if we think about humans being commanded to say nothing; 'continue' if we think about demons already commanded to be silent, 1:34).

Why would Jesus not want the world to know about such a powerful demonstration of his divinity?

Cutting through a whole lot of scholarly discussion the best answer remains (in my view) that Jesus sought to control the reception of his ministry, lest it generate the wrong kind of following. A man making the unclean clean is a man with potential to change society (because able to shift people from the margins to the centre), that is, to be a political messiah, a new king threatening the colluding rule of Herod and Caesar. Jesus has come to establish a different kind of kingdom, not least because it is not going to be confined to the geographical territory of Israel. The moment for revealing that kingdom plan has not yet arrived.

But it is to no avail. The man goes out and about proclaiming the miracle freely and so 'to spread the word' (45). Ironically, Mark portrays one who disobeys Jesus while acting as a model disciple-witness! The gospel which Mark is writing is a message to be proclaimed and spread around the world ... at the right time.

A final subtlety to note is Jesus' insistence that the cleansed leper does the right thing by the Law of Moses (44): 'as a testimony to them (= the laws of Moses)' means that Jesus is not intending to be anything other than a Law-abiding Jew. That, later, he will get into trouble with his contemporary guardians of the Law will be their false understanding of the Law and not his disobedience of it. Mark makes this point along the way of this story. It is not his main point but he makes sure it is made as a minor note within it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sunday 8th February 2015 - 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Can anyone explain why we have moved from last Sunday being the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany to this Sunday being the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time? Why not the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany?

Theme(s): Healing / Restoration / Obligation to preach / All things to all people

Sentence: Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up (Mark 1:31)


Almighty God,
you have called us to serve you,
yet without your grace
we are not able to please you;
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39


Isaiah 40:21-31

Isaiah 40 is the beginning of the second part of Isaiah which is (so to speak) a charter for the future restoration of creation (i.e. the kingdom of God), including the restoration of Israel from its Babylonian exile (the immediate issue facing God's people at the time of writing).

In this part of the beginning of the charter, the prophet paints a verbal picture of the transcendent might and power of God, yet a power and awesomeness which is personal: the weary in Israel will receive new strength and power from the Almighty God (27-31).

These last verses are the particular connection with the gospel reading today as we see new strength come to Peter's mother-in-law.

But the first part of the Isaianic reading reminds us that from Isaiah onwards 'God' in Israel's theology was re-envisioned as God of the whole world, not just of Israel. In a context where nations had their gods, and even tribes had tribal gods, the 'theological achievement' of Isaiah is not to be under valued.

When Jesus comes, the kingdom of God which he proclaims is not only the new rule of God over Israel but also the rule of God over the whole world.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

This psalm sets a context for the compassionate miracles of Jesus recounted in Mark's Gospel. What Jesus does is God in action, as anticipated here: 'He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds' (3).

One phrase particularly links with Mark's story of the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law: 'The Lord lifts up the downtrodden' (6b, see Mark 1:29-31 where Jesus takes the woman by the hand and 'lifts her up').

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Paul's letter is a series of responses to situations in the church in Corinth, but one situation appears to be Corinthian Christians questioning Paul's status as an 'apostle' (see verses 1-15). Possibly there were multiple questions such as Is Paul really an apostle like Cephas? Does he have the status of the (real) apostles and the brothers of the Lord? He's paid too much, isn't he? The last question (it seems reasonable to presume such a question was being asked, 6-14) invokes intriguing talk of "rights", otherwise a concept which we might think to be recent and modern!

Out of a defensive rejoinder to the grizzling about him (1-15) Paul hits a purple patch about the special character of his apostleship in our passage.

(1) Whatever anyone says about him, 'an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel' (16). Paul can only do what he is doing because there is no alternative.

(2) Preaching the gospel is its own reward (17-18, also 23).

(3) Short of changing the essence of the gospel, Paul will do anything in order to win people to Christ. If he needs to be Jewish 'in order to win Jews' he will be Jewish (20); if he needs to be a non-Jew 'so that I might win those outside of the law' he will become 'as one outside the law' (21). In fact, cutting to his own summary, 'I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some' (22).

The great question for declining churches in the world today is what must we become to be 'all things to all people'?

Mark 1:29-39

One of the theories about the authorship of Mark's Gospel is that it was written by John Mark but what he wrote down was largely the teaching of Simon Peter, perhaps as he taught in the churches in Rome in the 60s AD. (We have the theory because ancient church history attests to this explanation, but we cannot prove that it is fact). If Simon Peter is the author behind the author then it is understandable that this passage includes an intimate family story: Simon's mother in law is ill, Jesus comes as a guest to her house, heals her and she repays the favour by serving Jesus and the disciples (29-31). But Mark tells the story in a manner which is theological as well as biographical.

First, a healing with names highlights the general point Mark will go on to make: Jesus healed many people (32-34) and these healings were integrated into the mission of preaching the kingdom of God is near (1:15, 38-39). Always in this gospel, deeds back up words and words are accompanied by deeds. If the kingdom of God is near we would expect illness to be overcome, since illness is a denigration of the original kingdom of God, creation itself; and we would expect demons, antagonists against the rule of God, to be expelled (34, 39).

Secondly, Mark makes a theological point when he tells us that Jesus physically led her out of illness to new life: 'he took her by the hand and lifted her up' (31). Illness has cast her down but Jesus lifts her up. There is a hint here of resurrection. There is more than a hint of a work of restoration. Healing is not simply the removal of illness from a person's life but a work of renewal of life.

Thirdly, by telling us that when she was lifted up, Peter's mother in law 'served them', Mark also makes a point that the work of the kingdom, the restoring of health, is purposeful for the ongoing life of the kingdom in which the hallmark of relationships with one another is that we serve each other (see importantly 10:45).

Finally, note that Mark picks up another 'marker' in the life of Jesus when he interrupts his telling of the progress of the preaching of the kingdom by recounting an intimate detail of Jesus' life with God: Jesus took time out to go out to the wilderness to pray. Here, Mark is saying, is both the secret of Jesus' power (his relationship with God) and a model for disciples reading the gospel (we too, like Jesus, should go to quite places for quiet times of prayer).