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.

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