Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday 20 September 2015 - 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Jesus predicts his death and resurrection / How then shall we live? / Church conflicts: how they can be dealt with and why they never need arise / True wisdom / Asking and receiving / The character of the kingdom / The kingdom of God and its requirements of our character

Sentence: 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.' (Mark 9:37)


God who sees everything,
may we understand true wisdom
so that our lives are both pure and peaceful
and your church is marked by harmony
through the power of the one Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings (related):

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37


Jeremiah 11:18-20

In the gospel reading Jesus predicts his suffering and death (and resurrection). Here Jeremiah envisages his own fate at the hands of evil men. But he cannot see a resurrection ('his name will no longer be remembered') though he has faith that God will bring retribution upon those who destroy him.

Incidentally, as a detail which is not terrifically important, note that in the Greek version of Jeremiah, 'lamb' is arnion, the word which John the Seer, writing the Book of Revelation uses for 'the Lamb' who appears so often in his visions. By contrast John the Evangelist, writing the Gospel, uses the word amnos for Lamb in John 1:29, 36 when John the Baptist cries out for people to Behold the Lamb of God.

Psalm 54

This psalm, a cry from David's heart when pursued by Saul, fits well with Jesus' situation when he finds 'the ruthless seek my life' (3) but faces that, sure that 'God is my helper' (4). As we find these kinds of psalms linked to the gospel readings such as today's, which speak of the suffering and death of Jesus, we build a repertoire of psalms which cast light on the meaning of the dark days of Jesus' suffering and thus of the explosion of glory which the resurrection represents.

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Spoiler Alert: you might be troubled by this passage if your life is not in order, outwardly and inwardly!

If earlier we have seen James 'have a go' at those whose faith claims are at variance with their works (2:14-26), here we find him having a go at those who claim to be wise and understanding yet do not show this in the way they live. Moreover, the way these works are done, 'with gentleness born of wisdom' is important, for that will demonstrate the state of one's heart. There is a false wisdom which is 'earthly, unspiritual, devilish' which is represented when our hearts are full of 'bitter envy and selfish ambition' (13-15).

Such envy and selfish ambition leads to 'disorder and wickedness of every kind' (16) - which might explain some divisions and dysfunctions in the church! The contrast, with obvious shades of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) and the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5) present, is 'the wisdom of above' which is 'first pure, then peaceable ...' (17). Different ones among us might usefully reflect on relevant items on the list. To take one, 'willing to yield', how many conflicts inside and outside the church make sad progress (i.e. regress) when parties to the conflict are unwilling to give way to the other. The theme of peace is especially strong through 17-18 (x3). James is right to emphasise this sign that the church understands the implications and application of the gospel of peace.

Chapter 4:1-3 is then a different tack on the same subject of conflicts and quarrels. It seems unlikely that any of James' readers would have been murderers, so does he have in mind the metaphorical murder, when we hate someone, when we cut them dead in conversation and when we exclude them from our social circle?

These verses begin with a kind of 'amateur psychology' approach exploring where 'conflicts and disputes' come from with the answer 'Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? (1) Actually, this is more than amateur psychology because - we know this from our own experience - conflicts and disputes often are about something else going on in our lives, a missing something which desire or crave. For example, we crave more attention and love so we conflict with the one in our group who is the centre of attention. (Looking ahead to the gospel reading and the dispute there among the disciples, Mark 9:33), there was a craving for status!)

But the end of verse 2 takes us from psychology to theology, 'You do not have, because you do not ask.' James doesn't quite spell out what he is saying here. It sounds as though a fuller version would be, 'You end up quarrelling because of things you do not have and you are missing the point that you don't have these things because you haven't asked God for them,'

Incidentally, with those last words in verse 2 we are certainly taken to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:7-11) and thus verse 3 becomes a commentary on Jesus' own words about asking and receiving. It is an age old Christian question or two that we respond to Jesus with 'Does that mean I can ask for anything at all and expect to get it?" and 'Why didn't I get what I asked Jesus for?' Here James  answers that we do not receive what we ask for 'because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures'. In other words - noting verses 4-6 which are not part of the lectionary reading - when you ask according to your will and not according to God's will, you do not receive.

But we should go back to the end of verse 2. 'You do not have, because you do not ask.' Are there times - I know there are in my life - when you do not have what God wants you to have because you have done everything about your lack except ask God for supply!

Finally (7-8a), kind of summing up the whole situation of these verses, the lives we live, for good or for ill, according to our will or God's will, James draws a series of contrasts &: submit to God/resist the devil; draw near to God/he will draw near to you.

There is an old bumper sticker which proclaimed an important truth, If you are not close to God, guess who moved? (!!)

Mark 9:30-37

Famously Mark has Jesus predicting three times that he will be put to death yet rise again to life. Our passage begins with the second of the predictions as Jesus again speaks to his disciples (30-32). Again we also find, in relation to this conversation, that Jesus is being secretive (cf. discussion in previous posts about 'the Messianic Secret' in Mark's Gospel). In this case Jesus 'did not want anyone to know' that they were passing through Galilee (30) because he wanted to speak to his disciples, 'for he was teaching ... "The Son of Man is to be betrayed ..."' (31). This suggests that Mark is very summarily giving us what Jesus taught, as a walk through Galilee would have take a day or three.

Despite this prolonged teaching session the disciples are, well, thick. 'But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.' (32) There is a bit to ponder here. Jesus was a good teacher, the disciples were following him and generally eager to learn from him. What was the blockage in this case?

Psychologically we can understand that the disciples were unable to comprehend that their beloved leader was going to die. They were, to use an old phrase, 'in denial.' Theologically we can understand that the disciples were unable to comprehend that their Messiah was going to suffer which, in turn, leads us to think that they knew all the stories of David's prowess as a warrior and nothing of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

But why were they 'afraid to ask him' to clear matters up?

The next verses may give us a clue (as well as telling us of the hopeless depth of incomprehension they were in). In the next scene the disciples are arguing amongst themselves. Jesus calls them out on it and their silence speaks volumes: they knew they were caught arguing something that was displeasing to Jesus.

It all seems pathetic to us as readers! They were arguing over 'who was the greatest', that is, who was the greatest among them, who would be at the right hand of Jesus after his coronation. At once we see the depth of the disciples' commitment to some kind of political interpretation of Jesus' ministry. These healings and feedings were the prelude to taking up power and authority over Israel and booting the Romans out as well. Who wouldn't want to be top dog in the court of King Jesus! Perhaps their fear of asking Jesus to help them properly understand (32) was the fear of a grand fantasy being destroyed!

Jesus takes them to task on this. But, looking ahead, it is to little avail as there is yet another attempt to come to assert top dog status, Mark 10:35-45.

But it is to our avail what Jesus says in verses 35-37. In the simplest and clearest terms he sets out the values of the kingdom, the real kingdom he is king of, the one wishing to be at his right hand should seek to be 'last of all and servant of all' (35). In that kingdom it is the last, the least and the lost - represented by the little child he takes in his arms - who is to be welcomed and given pride of place (36-37a).

When, as ourselves members of this particular kingdom with these 'upside-down' values, we welcome the last, the least and the lost, we welcome Jesus himself. When we welcome Jesus we welcome God who sent him (37b).

In this last verse we find discipleship (what we are asked to do) meeting christology (who is Jesus?) because we find in the chain of welcome, child/Jesus/God are subtle equation between Jesus and God!

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