Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sunday 6 September 2015 - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Healing and deliverance / Who is Jesus? / Mission to the Gentiles / The kingdom of God / Equal love for all / No favourites!

Sentence: You do well if you rally fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (James 2:8)


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

Readings (related):

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 7:24-37


Isaiah 35:4-7a

This passage relates to th second healing in the gospel passage below, where further comments are made about Isaiah 35:1-10.

Psalm 146

We can connect this psalm with the concerns of the James reading (e.g. 3, 7-9). But we can also connect it with the healings in the Mark reading (e.g. 7b-9). Although neither kind of healing is explicitly referenced in these verses, both the demon-possessed daughter and the deaf-mute man were 'oppressed' by and 'prisoners' of their respective situations.

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17

Don't read this passage out in any church which (a) rents its pews (b) ushers the better dressed parishioners to the front seats or (c) looks embarrassed when a homeless person turns up!!

James is very focused on good Christian behaviour, but is not restricted to matters deemed 'personal morality.' In several places, James is clearly concerned for the social morality of whole congregations. This passage is one of those places.

Congregations should not show favouritism to the rich nor prejudice against the poor (1-10). It is important to notice that James specifically frames this instruction in terms of 'our glorious Lord Jesus Christ' (1). He asks the question, 'do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?' The implication seems to be that if you do believe in Jesus you won't play favourites and that will be because you understand that Jesus treats each person the same since all are created equally in God's image and in the kingdom of God, all citizens are equal, because Jesus died for all in the same way and loved each in this action the same. Jesus did not die specially for the rich!

Further, verses 8-10: partiality runs against the 'royal law' of 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Although he does not spell this out, if I love the rich more than the poor, then I am only loving one of those two groups 'as yourself' and that group is not the poor. Thus - noting verse 9 - partiality breaks this royal law and such partial Christians 'commit sin' and are 'transgressors.'

Verse 10 then spells out a point which is especially apt for the subject of verses 1-10, but has implications for other matters of obedience/disobedience (11-13). That point is that we are law-breakers because we break one law, not because we break a majority of them. We cannot keep all the other laws and get a 'Get our of jail' card on showing partiality. If we are partial then we have ruined our law keeping efforts.

With verses 14-17 we return to the question of partiality, but with a different focus. In verses 1-10 the focus was on whether the congregation treated the rich deferentially compared to the poor. In these verses the focus is on how the poor are treated full-stop. When confronted by the poor and their obvious needs for clothing and food, words are not enough. Action is required. We cannot be partial to words and favour them over deeds, for fine words never clothed or fed anyone.

But there is another issue being raised in these verses and that issue continues through the remainder of the chapter (which is not read next Sunday). That issue is the question of 'faith' and 'works'. Scholars seem largely agreed that in the background here is an early church debate in the light of what Paul the Apostle taught about faith and works. In this debate, as known to James, it seems that 'faith' (without works, at least in the sense of good deeds of kindness and mercy) has been exalted  and works deprecated. This is not surprising in a congregation prepared to favour the rich (who need no good deeds shown to them other than where the front seats in the church are).

It would take more space and time than I presently have to work out why a congregation might have drawn this conclusion from the writings of Paul, whether such a conclusion was justified, and, indeed, what Paul's understanding of 'faith' in relation to 'works' actually was. We could, in such a space and time allocation, also consider what various theologians have made of the situation, the most memorable of whom was Martin Luther who dismissed James on the basis that this passage seemed to contradict Luther's newly discovered doctrine of justification by faith in the Pauline epistles.

What we can say, briefly, is that James is absolutely correct to determine that faith is not faith if it is not evidenced by works. He is correct both on the basis that this is something Jesus himself taught in the gospels and on the basis that (whatever we make of 'faith' and 'works' in Paul's writings when he is explicitly discussing both themes) Paul himself always envisages, in the second part of his epistles, the new life of the justified believer in Christ expressing itself in deeds of love.

Mark 7:24-37

We are in a section of Mark's Gospel in which Jesus is ministering in Gentile/Greek dominated territory ('the region of Tyre', 24; 'the region of the Decapolis,' 31). Looking back to last week's reading, remembering that Mark translates some aspect of Jewish life for his (likely) Gentile readers, we therefore note that Mark is bringing stories of Jesus-meeting-Gentiles-and-changing-their-lives to his Gentile readers.

Today we have two healing miracles which we could summarise as 'Jesus heals Gentiles too!' But there is more to the stories than that, and some digging into the detail both yields exegetical rewards as well as raising challenging questions.

Verse 24 rehearses a familiar theme from the gospels, Jesus attempts to be anonymous, to escape the hustle and bustle of his ministry.. Those familiar with Middle Eastern life will not be surprised at the failure of these attempts: everything is noticed and reported around the community!

The woman introduced in verse 25 becomes, in verse 26, someone whom Mark goes out of his way to tell us about. He doubles up on her Gentility: 'a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.'But that definitiveness about her status relative to the Jewish Jesus heightens the exegetical challenge in verse 27.

First, the ever loving and compassionate Jesus seems a somewhat off-handed Jesus, disinterested in helping her daughter. Secondly,  what are we to make of Jesus describing the woman (and, by extension, all Gentiles) as 'dogs'? (Indeed, is there something chauvinist in this ascription being directed to a Gentile woman?) Thirdly, the ever inclusive, globally focused missional Jesus seems focused on mission to Israel and no one else. What is going on?

One explanation is that Jesus is not disinterested in her plight and is not exclusive in his mission but is teasing her or challenging her to move beyond 'begging' (26) to demonstrating (mature?) faith in Jesus. Further, in his teasing or challenging riposte in verse 27, Jesus is not, according to this explanation, deprecatingly describing her as a 'dog' but ironically picking up the everyday language of Jews in relation to Gentiles. That is, effectively Jesus is saying, "So, tell me, given the priority of my mission to Israel, to the Jews, why should I offer to one whom Jews put down with the term 'dog' a blessing reserved, at this time, for them and not ordinarily available to Gentiles?"

Another explanation is that Mark is presenting the church - perhaps unwittingly - with an unvarnished portrait of Jesus which does not fit with a number of christological conclusions we have reached about Jesus (that he loves everyone, that his mission was to the world, to both Israel and to the Gentile nations, that he was gracious and well-mannered to all people). The real or historical Jesus was a man of his context: he was a Jew and shared the Jewish view of Gentiles as second-class citizens (and may have been chauvinist), he was - as a self-conscious prophetic and rabbinic figure within Israel, exclusively focused on the problems of Israel.

Further, and shockingly for our christological assumption that Jesus the Son of God knows everything, on this unvarnished view of Jesus, the Syrophoenician woman taught Jesus something: Gentiles had worth too. They may be viewed as 'dogs' in relation to Israel as the 'children' of God, but dogs get to eat the same food of God.

I am not going to attempt to resolve these opposing views save to note that Jesus himself, according to verse 24, seems determined to head into Gentile territory. So he knowingly placed himself where he would encounter Gentiles. That observation may lean our assessment towards the first rather than the second explanation.

What is Mark doing in this story? Surely, by presenting this story, and in particular the exchange in verses 27 and 28, Mark is warning Jewish readers against viewing Gentiles as second class citizens of the world or kingdom of God. The kingdom of God - whatever Jesus was doing and thinking when the conversation took place - is now the kingdom of Jew and Gentile. All eat the same food at the table of God.

The deaf man with a speech impediment perhaps poses less challenges but raises some questions nevertheless. There is a parallel with the first healing story in this passage. Thus we notice that 'They' brought the man and 'they begged him to lay his hand on them' (32). We recall the woman came on behalf of her daughter, and she too 'begged' Jesus to help her daughter.

When we go on to read that Jesus 'took him aside in private, away from the crowd' (33), we wonder why he did that. We also wonder how Mark knows what Jesus said (34) because reporting the word 'Ephphatha' to us almost certainly means that someone heard Jesus speak in Aramaic and this word in particular was remembered, treasured and handed on from one story-teller to another.

That stories were told and re-told about this miraculous event logically flows from verse 36. The point in verse 36 is that Jesus wants to downplay his significance, almost certainly because he was concerned at that significance being misunderstood (i.e. that is misunderstood in terms of the politics of the day). But - typically for humanity - the more one tries to suppress speech, the more the gossip flows around a community.

The motif of (attempted) secrecy is called by scholars, The Messianic Secret.

Finally, in verse 37, continuing another theme in Mark's Gospel, the crowd around Jesus are 'astounded beyond measure' and praise Jesus. In this case, their saying 'he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak' is multi-layered in its significance.

Layer one: literally, the deaf and the mute hear and speak.

Layer two: prophecy is being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus (see Isaiah 35:5) and thus visions such as Isaiah 35:1-10 which look ahead to a great and glorious day of restoration for Israel are coming into being in the reality of the kingdom of God which Jesus proclaims with words and inaugurates with deeds according to Mark's Gospel.*

Layer three: (this is a bit complicated, and reading Isaiah 6:9-10 with Isaiah 35:1-10 will assist). Already in Mark's Gospel we have encountered Jesus explaining parables and why he uses them in terms which invoke Isaiah 6:9-10 and the resistance of hearers of God's messengers to really hearing what God is saying through prophecies/parables. But the kingdom of God comes about because some people do receive the message and receiving it, they pass it on: their ears are not stopped and their tongues are not constrained. Thus this healing is a further sign of the coming of the kingdom.

(*For those interested in the proposals of Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright, and, in this case, his proposal that the gospels are best understood in terms of Jesus bringing about the ending of Israel's exile, then the relationship between Isaiah 35:1-10 and this story is intriguing, because Isaiah 35:1-10 is about more than a general restoration for Israel, it is about the return from exile).

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sunday 30 August 2015 - 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Clean heart versus clean hands / Inward and outward religion / What is true religion? / Avoiding hypocrisy / God's commandments and human traditions

Sentence: Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (James 1:22).


Gentle Father,
show us our sins as they really are
so that we may truly renounce them
and know the depth and richness of your mercy. Amen.

Readings (related):

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15


We return to Mark - the Gospel of Year C - and dig into a challenging chapter because it takes us into crucial debates between the Jesus movement and those Jews who resisted the advance of that movement, while also raising the question, why does Mark give such prominence to these debates when - in all likelihood - he was writing his gospel in Rome and with a Rome-based audience in view?

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Deuteronomy is a 'second giving of the law'. In this version of the divine Law mediated to us by Moses, the purity and perfection of the Law (as given) is emphasised, along with the importance of obedience to the Law. With respect to our gospel reading today we especially notice verse 2: nothing is to be added to or subtracted from the Law.

Psalm 15

I was once told, and have never forgotten, in my all boys' school, that Psalm 15 set out the character and characteristics of the perfect gentleman!

In the context of today's readings, we note that the person who may fellowship with God (1) is the person who is both walking blamelessly, i.e. obeying the Law (2) and living an outwardly blameless life with a heartfelt motivation to do the right thing (2b, 4b, 4c).

Such a person is stable and solid, a pillar in the household of God (5b).

James 1:17-27

We are moving on from Ephesians to James.

The Epistle of James (the brother of Jesus?) complements the Pauline epistles which emphasise the importance of faith to appearance of neglect of the importance of good works which express that faith. The general problem over the centuries has been the thought that in the James' epistle the importance of good works is emphasised to the point of apparent neglect of the importance of faith in Christ (see James 2:14-26).

In today's passage - after the introduction in verses 1-16, focusing on testing of faith, wisdom, humility, resisting temptation - the writer continues a vein of exhortation which is coherent with the introduction. Our passage would not be out of place in the wisdom literature of the Bible, int he exhortation passages in the Pauline epistles, and is reminiscent of Jesus' own teaching (as, indeed, most of the letter is).

The centrepiece and effective summary of the passage is verse 22:

'But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.'

With an eye on the gospel reading it is not hard to see (so to speak) James' commenting on aspects of the passage: the true state of the heart comes from both being undeceived as to what is really going on within ourselves (26) and being filled with the word of truth (18, 21, 25).

Typically of James' there is a strong emphasis throughout the passage on 'practical religion'. And if for some of us the word 'religion' is something we are not so keen on using to describe 'the Christian faith', then we confront the fact that James' himself uses the word (26-27).

And the note he strikes is sobering and challenging: pure and undefiled religion is practical care ahead of pure practice of worship in the liturgy: 'to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.' (27)

We may need to translate 'orphans and widows' in relation to the world today (migrants and beneficiaries?) but we cannot and must not avoid the challenge to reach out with practical care to those less well off than ourselves. From that perspective, today's passage is an exposition of the commandment, Love your neighbours as yourselves.

Note, incidentally, that the emphasis on 'doing' in this passage is not an emphasis on our actions and practical works in order to elicit God's favour towards us. Verses 17 and 18, for instance, speak of God's initiative in giving to us that which makes us generous and that which makes us 'first fruits of his creatures' 'in fulfillment of his own purpose.' Verse 21 speaks of ridding ourselves of 'sordidness' and 'rank growth of wickedness' so that 'the implanted word' (i.e. given by God to us) may be welcomed, the word which 'has power to save your souls'. We do not save ourselves by our good works but our good works tell the world that God has begun and continues a saving work within us.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15

We need to read the first verses carefully to discern what Mark's agenda is here.

Recalling our foray into John 6, we see there the sequence of Feeding Five Thousand and Walking on Water followed by an extensive discourse about the meaning of bread. Here Mark frames a quite -different direction: Jerusalem-based Pharisees and scribes gather around Jesus and ask him about ritual cleansing (1-5).

But is the passage about (so to speak) a Christian response to Jewish rites of cleansing or something else?

Note in verses 3 and 4 that Mark takes great pains to explain the issue: there are washing rites which obedient Jews should be observing, but the disciples were not observing them (v. 2). But that only raises the question why Mark bothers to tell this particular story many years later.

One possibility is that Mark is indirectly tackling a current issue of different practice between Jewish and Gentile Christians in his local church community (likely Rome, see also Romans 14-15 for another mode of tackling such difference in the Roman church).

Another possibility is that he is simply building up to a particular point in the teaching of Jesus which has universal applicability, the source of evil in respect of people, from within themselves and not from outside of themselves (17-23).

Along the way (and returning to the passage set down for this Sunday), Jesus makes a different point, about the state of the human heart in relation to worship of God (6-8). That point is that it is possible to act outwardly correctly (e.g. washing hands) while inwardly being wayward and far from God. This is a form of acting out one reality while living another, that is, a way of life which draws the charge 'you hypocrites' (6).

In saying this, Jesus reaches back to Isaiah 29:13 (verses 6b-7), to the scriptures of Israel from one of the great prophets. Thus he aligns himself with the great prophetic critique of Israel's mischievous approach to obedience to the Law, one in which the minimum one needs to do is done.

(Your Bible may have a footnote which tells you that it is "Isaiah 29:13 LXX" which is cited, that is the Greek version of the Old Testament. While it is true that that raises questions about the extent to which Mark is interpreting what he has received about what Jesus said, because Jesus almost certainly did not ever refer to the Greek Old Testament in his own speech, it is also true that we do not know exactly which Hebrew version of the Old Testament Jesus used. What we call the Hebrew version of the Old Testament (i.e. Masoretic text) is one version of the Old Testament. There may have been other versions in Jesus' day, reflected in the Greek translation which Mark uses.)

Verse 8 is just a little bit puzzling (especially if we do not go on to read the next verses). On the face of it, there are plenty of regulations in the Mosaic Law about washing rituals which are commandment' and not human tradition. But verse 8 is a pivot from the general problem in verses 5-7, whether one pleases God by outward obedience or by inward attitude and desire for fellowship with God, to another problem, whether the commandments of God in Scripture are being diminished in importance by the development of later custom endorsed by the scribes and Pharisees, i.e. by 'human tradition.') Verses 9-13 then set out an egregious example of such tradition trumping God-given commandment.

If we go back to the starting issue, washing hands or not before a meal (5), verses 14-15 then become the definitive response of Jesus. (This response, we should note, was not one which biologically considered whether or not it was necessary hygiene to wash hands before a meal). In that response Jesus justifies his disciples' ritual slackness. People are not defiled by lack of ritual cleanliness but the state of their hearts. An unwashed hand may place both food and something else alien in the mouth. But this is not defiling. What is defiling is what comes out of the mouth by way of words which give expression to the state of the heart. His disciples might be technically ritually unclean but their hearts were good.

Lessons for ourselves in a different time, place and context are not hard to find.
(1) Do we honour God with out hearts? Or are we going through the outward motions of pleasing God? (6)
(2) Do we by teaching, whether with words or by example, encourage people to follow human custom/entrenched tradition which - on closer examination - is unsupported by the commandment of God? (8)
(3) Have we heard ourselves speak lately? Does our language express a defiled heart? (14-15)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sunday 23rd August 2015 - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Choose whom you will serve / Costly discipleship / Spiritual warfare / God's protection

Sentence: 'Choose this day whom you will serve' (Joshua 24:15)


God of Israel old and news,
write in our hearts the lessons of your law;
prepare our minds to receive the gospel
made visible in your Son Jesus Christ.

Readings (related):

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69


Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18

This passage highlights and underlines one of the great questions for all who follow the God of Israel:

"choose this day whom you will serve" (15).

In Joshua the question is posed in terms of serving the Lord (YHWH) or the gods of surrounding nations. The same question is effectively asked by Jesus (= Joshua!) of his disciples in our gospel reading.

The story of Joshua both completes the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and begins the settlement of Israel in Canaan, its Promised Land. So this question coming at the end of Joshua tests the direction of Israel in its relationship with the LORD God. Will it faithfully and singlemindedly serve the one God who has brought them out of Egypt into the Promised Land? Will it continue in relationship with this God as it settles and remains, generation after generation?

Unfortunately the succeeding historical books in the Old Testament show that the clarity of conviction in the answer given in Joshua 24 was not always upheld by either the people of Israel or its rules.

Psalm 34:15-22

The portion of the psalm read last Sunday emphasised the Lord's provision for the needs of his people.

This week's portion emphasises the protection of the Lord for his people. The righteous have many afflictions, 'but the Lord rescues them from them all.' (19)

Ephesians 6:10-20

This passage is much preached from on the subject of 'spiritual warfare.' Paul moves from an initial instruction concerning standing 'against the wiles of the devil' (11) (which could mean no more than resisting temptation) to a general statement about the larger battle in which the saints are involved 'our struggle ... against rulers ... of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places' (12).

Initially we might this an almost bizarre change from the domestic concerns of the preceding verses (about husband/wife, father/child, master/slave relationships). But Ephesians began in chapter one with an amazing vision of Gods eternal purposes being worked out in both physical and spiritual worlds, in both earth and heaven. So Paul is taking us back to where he began. But in this practical second half of the book, he sets out our role in the great battle between good and evil as it is fought in both the world we see and in the world we do not see.

We'll come back to verse 12 below, re the principalities and powers, but let's press on for now with where Paul heads. In verse 13, after his introduction, there is a sturdy and directional 'Therefore.' What is an Ephesian Christian to do about resisting the wiles of the devil? 'Therefore take up the whole armour of God' (13). But the whole phrase is puzzling. It is 'Therefore take up the whole armour of God on that evil day'. To what day is Paul referring? Is he looking ahead to the great and final Day of Judgement (when the ongoing battle between good and evil reaches some kind of climax)? Or is he using 'day' in a more general sense of 'the present age' (see 'this present darkness' in verse 12)? That it might be the latter is suggested by the next phrase, 'and having done everything to stand firm' because that suggests that we put on the armour now and keep it on, fighting the battle and whenever we think we have won, remaining resolute and firm and ready to fight the next battle.

Verses 14 to 17 are then an absolutely easy to grasp picture of the spiritually armoured Christian in the light of the standard armour worn by the typical Roman soldier. Our difficulty in the 21st century may be that we are not as familiar as we once were about that armour (e.g. in the days when learning Latin was spread throughout many schools), and not as familiar as Paul's readers would have been.  (I won't go here into the details of that physical armour - a decent commentary or Bible encyclopedia may assist you).

The general point, the point which unites the details of these verses, is that in this particular spiritual battle, it is the basics of being a gospel Christian that count: truth, righteousness, proclamation of the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit and the word of God. Why? One reason is that a wile of the devil is to distort the truth of God, another wile is to undermine the gospel (e.g. by getting Christians to believe less than or more than the gospel itself requires) and a further wile is to lure Christians into standing on their own two feet, independent of God, rather than standing on the promises of God in the power of the Spirit, trusting God for protection (see above, Psalm 34).

Another reason for Paul setting out the response Christians are to make is that in a context of 'principalities and powers', questions of allegiance arise in the battle for hearts and minds of humanity. The basic signs of our allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ are our commitment to the truth of the gospel, to proclaiming that truth, to faith, righteousness, salvation, the Spirit and the word of God.

From this exposition on spiritual warfare Paul both moves on to the topic of prayer and also connects prayer with that exposition (since praying for Paul will help him in his particular current battle, 19-20). Prayer, Paul says, is to be both continual ('at all times') and persistent ('always persevere') (19).

Now back to a tricky topic in verse 12.

Paul distinguishes between two sets of opponents for Christians: 'enemies of flesh and blood' and 'the rulers ... the authorities ... the cosmic powers of this present darkness ... the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.' The former are clearly fellow human beings and could include (in his day) opposing Jews and Gentiles in the cities and countryside in which Christians lived and worshipped, as well as the Roman authorities, both local and the Emperor himself in Rome. The latter are less easy for us on earth to envisage: they are not experienced as flesh and blood but they are real in the other world, the world beyond this world which they inhabit. To a degree we can envisage them by reading books such as Daniel and Revelation with their visions and their talk of angels, fallen angels, of demons, of beasts and so forth. But only to a degree because those visions tend to convey an impression of battles being fought in that other world between the forces of light and darkness but do not tend to convey an impression that we take part in such spiritual or heavenly battles. Here, by contrast, Paul says that the real battle we are fighting is not against the opponents we can see but against opponents we cannot see.

That raises the question of who these principalities and powers are. I am not going to take a stand on the matter here, and refer you to commentaries for more comment than I will give here.

On the one hand I observe that some interpreters concentrate our attention on understanding that there are spiritual forces of evil (e.g. demons) which being spiritual can inflict themselves on us earthly creatures and against them we stand by way of the recipe in verses 13 onwards.

On the other hand I observe that some interpreters - no doubt wary of invoking demons as explanations for evil deeds committed by human beings - commend to us an understanding of these principalities and powers in sociological (or perhaps political terms): every human organisation (be it a club, society, nation or culture) takes on an inner life, an ethos which affects (and even inflicts itself on) individuals. Against this 'thing' which is hard to explain, but which is definitely experienced by us (e.g. we walk into, say, one school and experience it in terms of warmth and welcome and walk into another and experience it in terms of aggression and alienation), Paul invites us to stand with basic gospel values and commitments.

Obviously much more is to be said here. My final thought for now is this: what if the principalities and powers are both spiritual and sociological? (!!)

John 6:56-69

Verses 56-58 sum up and conclude Jesus' teaching on eating and drinking: his flesh and his blood in order to abide in him (56-57) and the bread which came down from heaven in order to live forever (58). This is extraordinarily provocative teaching because  (a)  blood was forbidden to Jews (Deuteronomy 12:23) and (b) Jesus was claiming that the bread he offered was better quality than the manna God supplied in the desert. Note, however, that Jesus is not so much asking his followers to do something forbidden by drinking his blood but asking them to believe that in him true life - represented by blood - was to be found.

But verse 59 is a bit puzzling. John says that Jesus said these things 'while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.' On the one hand, this is a place where Jesus teaches according to the gospels (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:31). On the other hand, although earlier in John 6, Jesus has been heading towards Capernaum (17, 24), we the readers have not been told that Jesus has been giving this discourse in the Capernaum synagogue. By locating the teaching in the synagogue at the end of the discourse, John may be hinting that Jesus' teaching was extended over time, from, say, an initial delivery at the lake's edge to a final delivery in the synagogue.

John is also highlighting that Jesus was engaged at a teaching centre of Judaism (albeit in Capernaum and not in Jerusalem) when he delivered this 'alternative' teaching in Jewish terms about what gives life to God's people.

That the teaching was provocatively controversial to his Jewish audience is heightened in verse 60 where we read that even some of his disciples  found it 'difficult.' (The New English Bible has a wonderful version - sadly not continued in the Revised English Version: "This is more than we can stomach.")

Jesus then makes life very difficult for his disciples by being frank and robust about who he is (61-64). If they do not like his teaching on bread, flesh and blood, they will not like the thought of his 'ascending to where he was before' (62). Why does he say this? Presumably to make the point that those who believe in him must not only believe that he has come from God (Incarnation) but also that he returns to God (Resurrection and Ascension). Yet Jesus goes further and for a moment seems to undermine his teaching on bread, flesh and blood when he says,

'It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.'

But he also says in the next breathe, 'The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.' (63)

Cleverly Jesus is giving an interpretation of what he has being saying: the key to abiding in him, to receiving eternal life is not the eating of any literal flesh or drinking of any actual blood but the action of the Holy Spirit breathing in new life into the one who believes his words.

(It is not difficult to understand that Jesus never intended his believers to be cannibals, but a different question arises as to whether he expected them to eat bread (like the manna of old) symbolising his being the bread come down from heaven, a question which is hard to answer on purely Johannine terms because he does not report the institution of the Lord's Supper. We can imagine that John presumed his Christian readers would have been eucharistic Christians and thus would have understood John 6 with reference to eating bread and drinking wine, to eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus).

In other words, Jesus is both making it easier and harder for those disciples on the verge of walking out. Easier by making the teaching less objectionable with particular respect to eating flesh and drinking blood. Harder because Jesus is making his words supersede Moses' teaching (see John 1:17) and his talk of the spirit giving life a better nurture than the feeding with manna.

When combined with Jesus' understanding of descent/ascent from/to heaven (62) - an understanding which itself is a point of mystical/apocalyptic difference to the emerging rabbinic Judaism centred on the synagogues and the Temple - Jesus presents a complex and comprehensive teaching which is decisively different to Judaism. Thus this is a moment when those drawn to Jesus need to ask themselves whether they are going on, all the way with Jesus, or drawing back.

Verses 64-65 challenge us further - as if this is not already 'my brain hurts' material - because Jesus says that he already knows the pathways these temporary disciples and Judas will take. The challenge here is the sense that these verses convey that believers are pre-destined to be believers (65).

Thus schism takes place within the disciples (i.e. between the true and faint-hearted disciples), a schism which may reflect schism within the later Johannine church (on which, reading 1, 2 and 3 John will assist).

Simon Peter's response to the question, whether 'the twelve' (only mentioned here and in 20:34 in John's Gospel) will also go, has a distinctive Johannine form while also resembling his confession at Caesarea Phillipi (see Mark 8:28-29).

For us readers we also hear the question of Jesus. Will we go or stay with him? Our answer will depend on whether we agree with Simon Peter that Jesus has the words of eternal life.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sunday 16th August 2015 - 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Bread of Life / Eternal Life / Wisdom / Provision of our needs / Filled with the Spirit

Sentence: Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)


Living host, call us together,
call us to eat and drink with you.
Grant that by your body and your blood
we may be drawn to each other
and to you. Amen.

Readings (related):

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58


Proverbs 9:1-6

Solomon excels himself here with his verbal picture of 'Wisdom' as the hostess with the most-est (house with seven pillars, animals killed for a feast, wine secured, table set, servant-girls sent out with invitations). The feast here consists of food which imbues the feaster with wisdom, insight, and maturity. (By way of contrast, note verses 13-18, where the 'foolish woman' also seeks to invite people to learn of her foolishness.)

On the 'seven pillars' see Job 9:6; 26:11; Psalm 75:3 and Proverbs 8:29-30.

Psalm 34:9-14

These verses express assurance that God looks after those who love God ('fear him', 9; 'seek the Lord', 10). They will 'have no want' (9) and 'lack no good thing' (10).

Verses 11-14 then express the psalmist's teaching on what it means to 'fear' the Lord.

Ephesians 5:15-20

How then shall we live? If we were to boil the answer to that question down to one sentence, vv 15-16 or 17 or 18 could be answers!

15-16 invokes the great tradition of wisdom, a tradition represented in the Old Testament through books such as Proverbs (including our Old Testament passage) and carried forward by Jesus who was a wise teacher. Wise people do not know all the rules but they always know what to do. But Paul introduces the theme of time in respect of wisdom: 'making the most of the time, because the day's are evil.' Some older translations speak of 'redeeming the time', others suggest 'seize the opportunity.' Before we attempt to say what this means, we need to ask what it means that 'the days are evil'?

One thought is that the times we live in are difficult and challenging. Nevertheless they present opportunities to live wisely, to draw close to God and to proclaim the gospel.

17 is, effectively, saying the same as verses 15-16: to be wise is to not be foolish and to be wise is to understand what the will of the Lord is.

18 invokes the great tradition of living empowered by the Spirit of God. Humanity has tended to prefer the spirit of alcohol to the Spirit of God. Paul says No to the former. Rather 'be filled with the Spirit.' The sense of the verb is continual filling with the Spirit rather than a one off experience. When we are filled with the Spirit we will be directed as to how we are to walk in the Spirit. Verse 19 then paints a picture of what the Spirit-filled life looks like: it is marked by a joy which spills out in song, motivated not only by the Spirit but also - verse 20 - by thanks for all God has done.

But verse 20 goes a bit further because it instructs the Christian community to give thanks 'at all times' - even in the 'evil days' we are to give thanks to God. Why? One reason is that all time, all days, good and bad, are ultimately subject to God's control and direction. In the end, all will be well for those who trust God - a trust which is exemplified when we give thanks at all times.

John 6:51-58

Verse 51 (which concluded last week's passage) connects Jesus the 'living bread that came down from heaven' with the eucharistic bread of the Last Supper, 'the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.'

'The Jews'* dispute what this means among themselves (52) with more than a hint that a hint of cannibalism in the conception of eating Jesus' flesh is unacceptable. Jesus does not back off. In verses 53-56, Jesus he un-embarrassingly talks about the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood. Yet only the perverse would think that he means for his flesh literally to be eaten and his blood literally to be drunk. So what does he mean?

On the one hand (taking into account the whole dialogue through chapter six), Jesus is clearly referring to the spiritual union between himself and believers, a union in which Jesus gives life (eternal life) to those who believe in him and who receive and follow his teaching (e.g. 35, 36, 44, 45, 47, 63). On this understanding the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood is the in-taking of the life of Jesus (recalling the Mosaic Law's injunction not to drink/eat the blood of animals because the life of the animal is in the blood).

On the other hand (also taking into account the whole dialogue through chapter six), Jesus is less clearly referring to the eucharistic bread and wine - see note above on verse 51 - the bread and wine, that is, which he has signified, according to the Synoptic Gospels, is his body and his blood. Thus some scholars argue that these verses have nothing to do with the eucharist, while other scholars argue that they have everything to do with the eucharist.

A point in favour of a eucharistic understanding of Jesus' talk here of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is that it makes little sense for him to pursue this imagery of eating and drinking if no eating or drinking of anything is in view. Whereas the eating of bread and the drinking of wine has potential to be understood as the symbolic eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood, especially when we reflect on the connection made in verse 51 re 'eats of this bread'. But honesty does demand that we acknowledge that no reference is made to drinking of wine in this chapter.

A further point in favour of a eucharistic understanding goes like this: later in the gospel, John will depict Jesus' death as occurring at the same time as the Passover Lambs are sacrificed (19:14). But already in chapter 1:29, 36 Jesus has been hailed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Passover Lambs were sacrificed and their flesh was eaten as part of the remembrance of when God saved Israel from the Angel of Death (Exodus 12). Here in chapter six, Jesus is thinking of himself as the Passover Lamb who will be sacrificed and eaten (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7). But what meaning does eating Jesus the Passover Lamb have if his actual muscular flesh is not eaten? The only meaning we can give to 'eating' being an actual ingestion is if we think of the eating of bread which 'is' his body. In verse 51 Jesus himself equates 'bread' with 'flesh' and thus it seems logical to conclude that a similar equation is at work as in the Synoptic Gospels (as well as in 1 Corinthians 10-11).

*'The Jews' is always a tricky subject to discuss in John's Gospel as 'the Jews' always seem to be disparaged as those who are consistently against God and against God's Son. One line of argument is that 'the Jews' refers to (naughty, corrupt) leaders of the Jewish people, but in this chapter it makes sense to think that 'the Jews' are the crowd of ordinary people that have followed him around the Lake of Galilee.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sunday 9 August 2015 - 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Bread of life, Bread which gives eternal life, God nourishes us, Jesus came from God, live in love.

Sentence: "Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God' (Ephesians 5:2).


Merciful God,
you gave your only Son
to be both a sacrifice for sin
and an example of godly life;
help us gladly to receive
all that he has done for us
and follow in his footsteps;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings (related):

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51


1 Kings 19:4-8

Elijah has striven mightily with the prophets of Baal and won. But his strength is expended and he asks that he might die. God sends an angel to nourish him with food and drink. Not once but twice. That food sustains him for his long journey to Horeb.

God always sustains God's people for God's work and along God's way. In a different way, Jesus will nourish his followers, according to our gospel reading today.

Psalm 34:1-8

When we consider what Jesus offers us as the living bread, this psalm is worth praising and exalting God with!

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

We are in the 'application' chapters of Ephesians. But the theology is never faraway. Paul's first instruction here about speaking truthfully is 'for we are members of one another' (25). Later, still on the theme of speaking, Paul wants wholesome, edifying talk to come out of the Ephesians' mouths 'so that your words may give grace to those who hear' (29).  In 30 the Holy Spirit is invoked and in 32 being forgiving is 'as God in Christ has forgiven you.'

In the end, the whole living of a holy Christian life (including verses not mentioned above, 26-28, 31) is imitative of God (5:1) and summed up - as elsewhere in Scripture with 'live in love' (5:2). Love here being the love with which 'Christ loved us and gave himself up for us' (2). We also meet this language of giving himself up for us in the gospel reading.

John 6:35, 41-51

You have got to feel for Jesus. The people who want to make him king are always complaining (41).
But their complaint is rational. They know Jesus as an ordinary human being, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?' (42). So how dare he say 'I am the bread that came down from heaven'? (41, 42).

Jesus says that they should not complain among themselves (43). As complainers, they are rather like their ancestors in the wilderness who complained about the lack of food and then complained about the lack of variety in the food (Exodus 16:2; Number 11:1). So Jesus saying that they are not to complain is to attempt to steer them out of the tradition of grumbling against God.

If they grumble against God, might God refuse to draw them to himself? (44a) If they are not drawn by God to him, they will not be raised up on the last day (44b). What is at stake is not what Jesus is daring to say but what Jesus is offering which they might miss out on.

In what Jesus' says, there is a strong sense of the initiative of God in salvation. This continues in verse 45 when Jesus quotes Isaiah 54:13 and interprets this as 'Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.' Implicitly this is critical of his hearers: as Israelites, they should know the Father, but their attitude to Jesus suggests they do not.

Yet Jesus himself is the key to knowledge of the Father since he has come from God (46). With this stated, Jesus can return to a recurring theme in his discourse, 'whoever believes has eternal life' (47, cf. 29, 35, 40, 50, 54, 58, 68). When the Israelites ate the manna, they died (49). But the bread of life (48) is 'the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die' (50).

All of this teaching is summed up in v. 51: Jesus is the living bread that comes down from heaven, whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread for the life of the world is Jesus' flesh.

Here Jesus' connects his coming to earth from heaven with his death. It is not his coming per se which makes him the life-giving bread but the giving up of his flesh for the life of the world.

With this statement we have to reckon with Jesus not generally talking about himself as the bread of life but specifically talking about himself as the eucharistic bread of life and thus John is offering to his readers his understanding of the eucharist: Jesus' body is the bread (compare with the Synoptics, the bread which Jesus breaks is his body).