Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sunday 3 March 2019 - Eight Sunday in Ordinary Time (final Sunday before Lent)

Theme(s): Teaching/Love for enemies/Mercy

Sentence: So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty. (Isaiah 55:11)


God our rock,
the solid ground of our being;
help us dig deeply into your rich soil,
graft us into Christ the good tree,
so that we bear the fruit that will last;
through Jesus who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
1 Corinthians 15:51-58
Luke 6:39-49


Isaiah 55:10-13

Through these Ordinary Sundays the Old Testament reading connects to the Gospel reading. (Later this will only happen if we follow the "related" readings.)

In this passage Isaiah is focused on the tracking of God's "word" as it goes "out of [the Lord's] mouth" (11a) and what then happens to it. Through Isaiah the Lord says, "it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (11b).

That is, the Lord is intent on his word - what is being spoken through the prophet Isaiah - transforming the situation of Israel. That transformation is spoken of in lyrical terms in verses 12-13 - terms which relate to Israel's jubilant return from exile in Babylon (see also 40:3-5 and 48:20-22).

Jesus is also intent that his words - his teaching in the Sermon on the Plain - will not be in vain and urges his hearers to not only listen but also to act, for then the kingdom of God will expand on earth and the world will be changed from a place of lasting enmity and revenge into a place of peace and joy.

Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

In the Revised Common Lectionary readings for each Sunday there is normally a connection between Psalm and Gospel. Here, after a lovely opening to the psalm - fit for any Sunday - we skip verses to go to the end of the psalm, verses 12-15 and find connections with the last part of the gospel reading.

In the last part of the gospel reading Jesus commends those who hear his words and act on them: they are like a man building a house on a strong foundation.

Here in verses 12-15 we read of "The righteous" who "flourish" like trees such as the palm and the cedar, "planted in the house of the Lord." No tree grows well unless it puts down strong and deep roots. The tree imagery here is equivalent to the building/foundation imagery in Luke 6:46-49.

Further, "the Lord is ... my rock" (verse 15).

1 Corinthians 15:51-58

So, Paul, having dealt with various Corinthian questions, concludes his chapter on the resurrection.
Change is coming. Expecting this will happen while some readers are still alive, he says that when the great end of time arrives - signalled by "the last trumpet" (52a; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:16) - "we will not all die, but we will all be changed" (51). Those who have died will be "raised imperishable" (52b). This, of course, has been Paul's great theme in responding to Corinthian questions: what will happen we do not know but it will be wonderful and, here he says, it will be permanent.

In particular, the resurrection at the end of time will be the final victory - Jesus has won that victory (57) - over death. Isaiah 25:7-8 and Hosea 13:14 are combed and pieces from them combined to provide the declaration over the end of death in verses 54b-55. Verse 56-57 is then a summary commentary: in classic Pauline terms: death is linked to sin (sin is the sting which kills us), the power of sin is "the law" (see Romans 1-8) - paradoxically, the law of God given through Moses tells us what sin is and enhances the power of sin over us, a power which is victorious through death, except that - thanks be to God - victory (over sin and death) is given through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, verse 58, what are we then to do? Stand firm! Aiming for and achieving excellence in our work for the Lord "because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain" (because resurrection means all we do for God is rewarded by God).

Luke 6:39-49

Thus we come to the conclusion of the Sermon on the Plain. And the conclusion to the conclusion, the parable of warning, to build our lives on the words/teaching of Jesus, reminds us that this is Luke's version of Jesus' greatest sermon because Matthew has the same ending to his version of that greatest sermon.

In some ways comment is not needed on the conclusion to the sermon but it may guide us through the conclusion if we think of these verses as provoking Jesus' hearers to take utterly seriously what he says, to act on his words and not to walk away from them (as we so often do, after hearing a sermon), making noises about how "interesting" or "lovely" the message was. Jesus demands action - response, repentance, obedience, change. He was not then and does not now look for pleasant compliments for his sermonic efforts.

Verses 39-40: The second half of these two verses clarifies that Jesus is speaking to disciples (actual and "would bes"): a disciple of Jesus is a learner; unless the disciple learns the truth (i.e. what Jesus teaches) there is spiritual danger (he or she may lead another (less knowledgeable disciple) to fall, with them, into the pit); but a disciple - always in the humility that remembers the teacher is above not below the disciple - may become "fully qualified" and when this is so, will "be like the teacher." In this instance, this likeness is not "as great as Jesus" but "ready and able to disciple disciples and thus to fulfil the Great Commission, to "make disciple of all nations" (Matthew 28:19)".

Verses 41-42: we can spot a connection between the "blind" imagery in verse 39 and the speck/log diminishment of sight in these verses. (Such connections, many scholars think, added the memory of disciples as they collected and then transmitted the teaching of Jesus by oral means, in the decades before the gospels were written. It was easier to remember longer chunks of material if they were connected by similar if not common imagery.) Here Jesus is addressing disciples - we tend to use the speck/log imagery to address people who generally find fault with others while not understanding their own failures. A feature of modern inclusive language aids the second and not the first understanding because in the NRSV "brother's eye" has become "neighbour's eye." What, then, is Jesus addressing? Likely he is guarding disciples against thinking that because they understand a little bit of Jesus' teaching they can start critiquing other disciples. If they do so, they run the risk of failing to recognise their own major faults, which they will have a better understanding of when they have more knowledge of the kingdom of God.

Verses 43-45: Jesus here speaks about a general human phenomenon, using readily understood imagery from nature: a good person has a good heart and a bad person has a bad heart. The sting in the tale for disciples is in the last part of verse 45: "for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks." Disciples need to have hearts filled with "good treasure" (first part of the verse) - the teaching of Jesus - if they are to overflow with goodness (and not, as in the previous verses, with hypocrisy).

Verses 46-49: Thus, as we come to this last passage in the sermon, we are prepared for yet one further way in which Jesus talks about discipleship and the importance of his teaching for disciples. The success, Jesus says, of a disciple's living well (succeeding, if we can so speak, at discipleship) depends not only on hearing what Jesus teaches but also on doing what Jesus teaches disciples to do. Discipleship is not "learning" but it is "putting learning into action." If listening does not lead to doing, then the (supposed) disciple is very foolish - like a man who builds his house on "ground without a foundation" (49).

What then do we need to do which Jesus has asked us to do but which we have not yet done?

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sunday 24 February 2019 - 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Love your enemies. Trust God to deal with your opponents. Be merciful. Resurrection life.

Sentence: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:36).


God of welcome,
we encounter you in those different from us;
enlarge the tent of our lives to embrace both friend and foe,
so that we grow to be more like you;
through Jesus, your image,
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Genesis 45:3-11,15
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38


Genesis 45:3-11,15

Who in the Bible lived out Jesus' command to love our enemies?

Answer: (among others) Joseph.

Joseph had no reason to love his dastardly brothers who had become jealous of him, lured him to destruction, only just been persuaded not to murder him and instead had "merely" sold him into slavery.

In our passage, towards the end of the story of re-acquaintance of Joseph and his brothers (itself a long story within the overall story of Joseph), Joseph demonstrates his love for his brothers.

Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40

The sentiments in these verses undergird (and lie in the background to) what Jesus says in our gospel passage.

Why might I love my enemies? Won't that mean they get away with their hatred of me and their ill-treatment of me?

No, says this psalm.

The Lord is in control: the Lord will look after you and the Lord will take out your enemies ("for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb" (2)).

1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50

Paul continues his engagement with questions concerning the resurrection (of Christ, in particular; of the dead (all humanity), in general).

Here the central question being addressed is posed in verses 35: "... what kind of body ..." do the raised-from-the-dead have?

Effectively the remainder of the passage is a long, detailed, solidly argued case for a simple answer to the question: when we are raised from the dead, we will have a new body quite unlike the body we have been used to in this life, here on earth.

Luke 6:27-38

Moving on from the blessings and woes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus both questions what his audience already knows while stretching their horizons in the service of God: "But I say to you that listen" (27).

What then follows is familiar to us and that means we may not read this passage in a way which feels the extreme force of what Jesus is saying. There is nothing straightforward or easy about doing what Jesus says:

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." (27-28)

Similarly when Jesus goes on in verse 29 - 30 to offer practical examples (particularly relevant within the culture of his day) of what this might mean.

Our natural tendency and the voice of contemporary culture makes us more likely to (say) avoid our enemies; call the police; ring a radio station and complain about how we are being treated; etc.

Special note: 
(i) Jesus is not talking about putting up with an abusive bully, whether in the family household or workplace or school yard. If any reader (or hearer of your sermon) is in that situation, help should be sought, not only to protect someone being abused now but also to prevent further abuse of others. Jesus is talking about how his followers should respond to (a) persecution and opposition for being a Christian; (b) everyday life in which we meet those who dislike us or compete against us or oppose what we do as we go about our daily business.
(ii) Some caution is required with an instruction such as "Give to everyone who begs from you" (30). There a genuine beggars and there are people who are out to defraud us (with examples being reported all too often in the papers). We need wisdom and discernment with a critical overriding instruction being: "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (31).

Verses 32-36 then expand on the point Jesus is making in verses 27-31. It is not hard to love those who love us. I give you a birthday gift as part of a circular friendship in which you will give me a gift on my birthday. Everyone loves to be loved and thus loves those who love them in return. Followers of Jesus are being challenged to go beyond the norms of human social life. Love without expectation of anything in return. Love "enemies" - love those who are unloveable, love those who will not love you back. In doing so we will be rewarded (but, let's think of that reward in terms of an ever deepening experience of God's love for us) and we will truly belong to the God who is love (35).

In sum, for verses 27-36: be like God; God is merciful (loves God's enemies), so be merciful.

The final two verses continue in a similar vein, reworking what it means to be merciful: do not judge, do not condemn, forgive, give, give generously.

Again, some wisdom and discernment is needed: these verses do not mean that a Christian makes no judgement calls (e.g. that it would be better to marry X rather than Y; to go into business with A rather than B; to imprison a murderer rather than let the murderer be free to kill again). Rather we live in a way that others receive from us what we would like to receive ourselves (31).

Monday, February 11, 2019

Sunday 17 February 2019 - 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time




God of transformation,
you heal our troubled spirit;
turn our hearts to follow your way of humility
that we may find the blessing of new life;
through Jesus our Messiah,
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.


Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Luke 6:17-26


Jeremiah 17:5-10

There is much in this passage which is in common with Psalm 1 but there is also a strong connection to the opening beatitudes of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 (see below).

Psalm 1

We should read this psalm bearing in mind it is number 1 by design and not by accident. As an introduction to the Psalms, what does it tell us?

That there are two ways to live (1), that one of those ways is "delight ... in the law of the Lord" (2) that the other way is "not so" (4), and that there is a coming judgement which will be fatal for the "wicked" (5-6).

Many psalms through the next 149 psalms will be similarly concerned, whether pointing out that there are two ways to live, or appealing to the Lord for help lest the wicked over power them (see, e.g., Psalm 3), or giving thanks to the Lord for such deliverance (e.g. Psalm 9).

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Last Sunday we heard Paul's "list" of evidence - a list of witnesses who had (but now are dead) or could (because still alive) give testimony that they had seen the risen Lord. The first eleven verses of this chapter have become a critical corporate testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Our passage today gives us a sense of why Paul is devoting this part of 1 Corinthians to the "resurrection of the dead" (12) and to the resurrection of Jesus: some Corinthians have been denying the resurrection of any dead person (12).

Paul's argument goes like this:
- some of you are denying the resurrection of the dead
- but Jesus rose from the dead (as I have just demonstrated)
- so either you are right (and, in fact, Jesus didn't rise from the dead)
- or I am right and you are wrong (because if one man has risen from the dead then potentially more can be raised from the dead, and in that way Christ is "the first fruits of those who have died" (20).)

Along the way Paul makes a point, a non-negotiable presupposition to the gospel:

"and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (14); and

"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (17).

That is: if God did not raise Jesus from the dead then the death he died was of no eternal importance in  respect of reconciling us to God. Jesus was just an exciting rabbi who inspired a number of people but now he is a dead rabbi and that is the end of the matter.

Sometimes Christians today talk as though the resurrection of Jesus was an "optional extra" - nice of God to have done that for Jesus but not that important because what was important was that Jesus died for us. Paul says, "That ain't so." The work of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself was a work which involved both the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The passage ends with Paul's conviction, not only that "in fact Christ has been raised from the dead" but also that his being raised from the dead is "the first fruits of those who have died" (20).

Luke 6:17-26

We have moved from Luke's story of the disciples being called by Jesus to Jesus teaching "his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon."

The content of this teaching is close to but not exactly the same as Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount". Luke specifies the location as "a level place" and thus distinguishes his version, often called the "Sermon on the Plain," from Matthew's. But for both evangelists, this block of teaching is the first major teaching Jesus gives following his baptism. We may assume that both evangelists are tapping into foundational teaching of Jesus, which has been carefully handed on from one disciple to another, and from one generation to another. (Likely Matthew and Luke composed their gospels at least one generation on from the generation which heard Jesus directly.)

Nevertheless, as the teaching was handed on (and translated from the Aramaic of Jesus into the Greek of the first Christians), some changes occurred. Most of Matthew's Gospel's (longer) sermon is found in Luke's Gospel but much of the material is relocated in different places in the unfolding story of Jesus (so Luke's version is shorter than Matthew's). And Luke may have collated some teaching of Jesus, unknown to Matthew, into material which is common to Matthew's Gospel (e.g. the "woes" in Luke 6:24-26, which are unknown to Matthew, or Mark or John).

As the disciples and the crowd gather, Luke tells us they "had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases" (18). Luke tells us the former took place (18b-19) before telling us what they heard (20-26 and beyond).

Note, in verse 20, that although the disciples and the great crowd are listening, Jesus addresses his sermon to "his disciples." This is kingdom teaching, setting out the style of life for followers of Jesus - a style of life that on some matters is more demanding than the teaching (or Law) of Moses and on some matters is less demanding (eventually Jesus' followers will realise they no longer need to make sacrifices of animals and plant-based foods).

(An alternative possibility is that the teaching in the sermon is for the crowd as well as the disciples but the disciples are addressed because they will have responsibility for handing on this kingdom teaching.)

Thereafter we have four blessings and four woes (20b-26), with the latter a counterpoint to the former. Luke has a stronger material emphasis than Matthew (so the first blessing, on "you who are poor" corresponds to Matthew's "you who are spiritually poor", Matthew 5:3).

The combination of blessings and woes amounts to a theology of reversal: the poor will become rich and the rich will become poor, a theology we have already seen in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55, noting verse 53 especially).

What might this mean for us as disciples of Jesus?

No one wants a sermon on the material prosperity of Western Christians. But perhaps we should want such a sermon!

Is a significant danger to watch out for, which is named in verse 26? There is a strong tendency in our churches, as well as among ourselves as individuals, for approval: we hope the local community likes what we are doing; will the newspaper give us a good write up; does out application look good enough for some community funding?

Of course we can be spoken well of when we are faithful to Christ and his word. But it is always worth checking out whether we are being spoken well of as Christians or simply as likeable people.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sunday 10 February 2019 - 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme                  If God says so, will we let down the nets? / Change is possible when Jesus speaks          

Sentence            The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14; NZPB, p. 568).

Collect                  Lord Jesus Christ,
                             before whose judgment seat we shall appear;
                             enable us to see ourselves as you see us,
                              to repent and to change,
                              and to be found worthy to bear your name.

Isaiah 6:1-8 The call and commissioning of Isaiah
Psalm 138 David praises God
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 The resurrection
                          Luke 5:1-11 The call of the fishermen

UPDATE: Ian Paul has another excellent blog on Luke 5:1-11, here. The first comment below the post is challenging on a number of fronts.

If we begin with our gospel reading, Luke 5:1-11, then we have a story of call, commissioning and change, each of which theme is illuminated by the other readings.

Luke, noticeably offering a variant to the calling of the (fishermen) disciples in Matthew's and Mark's gospels, tells us that when Simon Peter, James and John were called to be disciples of Jesus, they had an unusual encounter with Jesus. Plying their trade as fishermen, they found Jesus in one of their boats. After teaching the crowds, he suggested to the fishermen that they catch some fish. The fishermen, to say the least, were not impressed. They had just finished a forlorn night catching nothing. Nevertheless they honoured (or even humoured) Jesus by following his suggestion. We can only imagine their surprise at the haul they brought up, and their consternation that it threatened to capsize their boats. 

The shock of this unexpected and surprising outcome (a miraculous event) drives Peter to his knees to express his confession: Jesus should leave him, for he was a sinful man. 

We do not now what sin Peter had in mind, or the extent of his awareness of his sinfulness, but at the least we can imagine Peter confessing his failure to honour Jesus by implicitly trusting him instead of querulously saying that they had fished all night without success.

The catch of fish leads neatly into Jesus' commissioning the disciples: their call is to follow him, their commission is to from now on catch people. This call and commission is decisive for their lives and livelihoods: 'they left everything and followed him' (v. 11).

Psalm 138 illuminates the occasion: the God of Jesus Christ is a God who has regard for the lowly (in this world's eyes).

1 Corinthians 15:1-11, about change from death to life, underlines the dramatic change in the fishing story. In that story, a night without fish becomes a day with a super-abundant catch. Put another way, in the gospel reading we meet humanity in despair: great effort has met with no success. Surely all is lost and only despair is possible. But Jesus comes and turns the situation upside down: many fish are caught and hope for a flourishing life is restored. 

Resurrection, the change from death to life, is a parallel change from despair to hope. Wherever Jesus, the One Raised By God, is, there is hope. What situations are we encountering in which all seems lost and continuing seems pointless? Is Jesus telling us to let down our nets one further time?

Finally, one of the most famous call and commissioning stories in the Old Testament, that of Isaiah's, is recounted in Isaiah 6. In its own way it is as dramatic as our gospel story. Essentially the commission of Isaiah and of the disciples is the same: to speak out God's word is to catch people. People are 'caught' into God's kingdom through responding to the proclamation of the Word of God.