Sunday, July 26, 2020
Sentence: Jesus said to his disciples, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." (Matthew 14:16).
God of the hungry,
make us hunger and thirst for the right,
till our thirst for justice has been satisfied
and hunger has gone from the earth,
through God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
This reading relates to both the epistle and the gospel!
The direct links are verse 2 to the feeding of the five thousand, and verses 3-5 to the beginning of three chapters in Romans, 9-11.
As the crowd feeds on the word of God through Jesus they also begin to hunger physically for bread, but the former offers the ultimate satisfaction.
As Paul develops his understanding of the gospel or new bread of God, he embarks on a reflection concerning the relationship between God and Israel as the revelation is made that the gospel is for all peoples.
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
What kind of god is present in Jesus Christ? When Jesus discerns that his audience is hungry he has compassion on them (Matthew 14:13-21). Thus present in Jesus is the God of Israel, praised in this psalm, a God full of grace and mercy, with compassion 'over all that he has made' (9).
With particular reference to the gospel reading we find verse 15, 'the eyes of all look to you and you give them their food in due season.'
As we have made our way through Romans in recent weeks we have seen Paul develop various arguments (i.e. explanations which develop points about various themes in the light of the good news of Jesus) under the 'umbrella' argument that the gospel is God's word for the whole world, announcing salvation through Jesus Christ.
But logically this presents a question for Paul, a Jew who now follows Jesus. He now understands the Law of Moses to be deficient in the light of Christ who offers believers the power to live a righteous life which the law does not. The question in colloquial terms is "What about Jews who do not believe in Jesus?"
Our five verses today are the introduction to three chapters in which Paul works out his answer to the question. It is a complicated answer over which Pauline scholars disagree when they try to explain it to us!
But these five verses are straightforward enough: Paul longs for his fellow Israelites to know Christ and to belong to Christ. From a "pre gospel" perspective they have every advantage (verses 4-5). Yet Paul wishes he himself could be "accursed and cut off from Christ" for their sake (3).
This is the true love of a godly evangelist for those to whom he proclaims the gospel. If he could make a choice between those who are "accursed and cut off from Christ" and those who are not, he wishes he could be cut off so that his hearers could belong to Christ and no longer be accursed.
Matthew 14:13-21 Feeding of the Five Thousand
(Since last Sunday's reading, Jesus has been rejected at Nazareth (13:54-58) and John the Baptist has had his head cut off (14:1-12).)
Jesus understandably (for, remember, he is completely human) withdrew from 'there' (where?, the text does not say) 'when he heard this [news about John the Baptist]' (13).
He withdraws by boat (i.e. across Lake Galilee) to 'a deserted place by himself' but this is futile since the 'crowds heard it' and 'followed him on foot from the towns' (13).
It is worth a moment's pondering to consider the nature of Jesus' public fame so that people watched him leave by boat, then bothered, in numbers, to walk to where he had traveled by boat, indeed walk at a fast pace, since they arrived before he did at his destination (14).
For those of us minded to do calculations re travel times, it seems extraordinary that the crowd could beat the boat, but perhaps Jesus was in no hurry to get to shore - sailing has its own recreational virtues, and it would be in keeping with other gospel stories if there was some fishing on the way :).
It is a tribute to Jesus that when he tried to 'get away from it all' nevertheless, when confronted with the crowd, he did his works of compassion in the usual way (14).
(Incidentally, when we compare the four gospel versions of this story, Matthew 14:13-21 // Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10b-17, John 6:1-15, Matthew tells us Jesus healed people and then fed them, Mark tells us Jesus taught them (out of compassion) then fed them, Luke says he spoke to them about the kingdom of God and cured the sick before feeding them, and John says he sat down saw the crowd - who had followed him because of his healings - and set about organising a feed for them).
The disciples are themselves a little bit compassionate in this story! They see the need for the crowd to have a feed and suggest, in a quite patronising manner, as though Jesus was incapable of seeing the dilemma for himself, that he disperse the crowd and send them 'into the villages' so they could buy food for themselves (15).
Jesus will have none of this practical but powerless ministry: 'They need not go away; you give them something to eat' (16). We can only imagine the incomprehension, if not fear in the eyes of the disciples as they heard this direct speech from the Master!
But they are nothing, as we have seen, if not practical and realistic. They have already collated their resources and counted them up: 'nothing but five loaves and two fish' (17).
Jesus is not deterred. The crowd will be fed and they are going to do it. He orders the meagre resources to be brought to him (18) and orders the crowds to be seated nearby (19a).
How are these meagre resources to be multiplied to feed the multitude? Jesus takes them, looks up to heaven (that is, entrusts the whole situation to God's power), blesses and breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the crowds (19).
The way Matthew describes the event crushes any attempt by modern scholars to explain the feeding as an impulse sweeping around the crowds to get out their otherwise hidden lunches and share them with their careless neighbours who had not brought their own supplies. The miracle of multiplication here occurs through the work of God enacted in the combination of taking, praying, blessing, breaking and distributing.
The report concludes with the powerful observation that the multiplied food was not a stretching thin of the meagre amounts of food so that everyone had a mouthful to keep them going. No,
'all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full' (20).
With God working this miracle we should expect no less than this ending since God is God of all the world and able to provide all necessities of life in abundance. In the background, of course, is the mighty provision of daily sustenance of manna and quails for the feeding of Israel in the wilderness.
So what? What are we meant to do with this report (apart from praising God for his power and provision)?
Matthew always tell us about Jesus with an eye on the church for whom he writes. Jesus is lord of the church and wants the church to be the continuation of the disciples-in-mission whom Jesus is training and commissioning for service in the kingdom.
Thus we may read this report as a message to the church (as well as a story of Jesus). The resources of the church are often meagre and the needs of the world around it are overwhelming. Yet God can take the little we have and multiply it for the good of all, in a demonstration of the compassion of God. Our role is to offer the little we have to God in faith, bless it, break it and distribute it.
Through this miracle, God says to the church in relation to the world, 'you give them something to eat' (16).
Sunday, July 19, 2020
Sentence: All things work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28)
God of mercy,
you have blessed us beyond our dreams;
you have set before us promises and perils
beyond our understanding
help us to struggle and pray
that the perils may be averted
and your promises fulfilled. Amen.
1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
1 Kings 3:5-12
Solomon has the world and its opportunities set before him but in his time and context there are three sought after possibilities, wealth, long life, or wisdom. He chooses the last and God is pleased to grant that to him.
In the gospel reading today, the kingdom of God offers a new way of life in which riches play no part and there may not be a long life, but true wisdom in the light of the coming of Jesus demands entry to the kingdom rather than its rejection.
Back to this reading: Solomon seeks wisdom in order to govern his country well. There must be something to say from this observation about the state of our world and about the choices we will make at our forthcoming NZ election!
The psalmist shows a deep, passionate, intelligent appreciation for God's law through these verses. It is not just that God's 'decrees are wonderful' as decrees which govern life (129), they have power to do more for those who love God's law.
'The unfolding of your words gives light' (130a) and 'imparts understanding to the simple' (130b). Through reading and keeping God's law, the psalmist recognises that he is more able to understand the world and what is going on within it. The law provides wisdom and insight.
Realistically, the psalmist recognises that the words of the law do not by themselves empower him to keep the law: so he entreats God to help him to live rightly (133-135).
This passage is a good complement to Matthew 13:51-52.
Recalling last week's passage and comment, we remind ourselves that Paul is sequencing his way through several, related themes in this chapter, though always with an eye on the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer.
Here the themes are:
- prayer aided by the Spirit (26-27)
- the fulfilment of God's good purposes for those who love God (28-30) which anticipates the next and last section of the chapter in which Paul proclaims the unshakeable and unbreakable love of God
- God is on the side of God's people, not against them, demonstrated by 'not withhold[ing] his own Son' (31-32)
- there is no charge of sin against God's elect (33-34)
- nothing, absolutely nothing, not earthly powers nor heavenly ones, neither the fiercest opposition nor death itself can 'separate us from the love of Christ' (35-39).
This is a carefully worked out yet poetically expressed ending to this first part of Romans. The gospel indeed saves people and does more in the sense that it guarantees the salvation of people who respond to God's love for them in Christ with love for God through Christ, empowered by the Spirit of God who comes to dwell in believers.
Finally, and briefly, if we look back to verses 19-24, we find Paul talking about the whole of creation, its present "eager longing for the revealing of the children of God," 19, (while in a state of "bondage to decay", 21) and its anticipation of the future when "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (22), which, in turn, is linked to our own situation:
"and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies" (23).
Thus, when, at the beginning of this Sunday's passage we read,
"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness ... " (26),
we are brought to an encounter with the awesome "universalism" of the salvation of God in and through the crucified and risen Christ.
God is as much at work by the Holy Spirit in the whole of creation as in each of us as individual creatures!
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
With this passage we complete the parables taught by Jesus as conveyed in this chapter of Matthew.
In each of the five parables 'the kingdom of heaven is like' something: mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a fine pearl, a net with all kinds of fish.
Our challenge, without interpretations provided for the parables (save that the interpretation in 13:36-43 would appear tobe applied to 13:47-50), is to understand what it means that the kingdom is 'like' something.
Without proposing that the following is an exhaustive set of interpretations, Jesus appears to be saying that the kingdom of heaven is:
- a growing phenomenon which starts small and becomes very large (mustard seed)
- a powerful influence working through the whole world (yeast)
- something utterly worth being part of and belonging to (hidden treasure, fine pearl)
- a bit messy because it grows and develops in such a way that both evil and righteous people are caught up in its life (fishing net).
Can we say with the disciples that we understand 'all this' (51)?
The passage finishes on a beautifully poetic note about scribes trained for the kingdom (52) who are also 'like' something - like a master of a house who brings out of his treasure what is old and what is new. But what does this mean? Who are 'scribes' in the kingdom (since we do not encounter these particular kingdom officials anywhere else in the gospels)?
A key word here is 'trained' which in the Greek also means 'discipled'. Potentially 'scribes' could be all disciples, or scribes trained in the Law of Moses who are now discipled into the kingdom; or it could be one scribe in particular, Matthew who composes this gospel.
Either way, there is a strong hint here, as we recall Matthew 5:17-20, that Jesus is valuing continuity with all that is good in the past of Israel as well as asserting the value of what is now being taught through the parables of Jesus.
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
Theme(s):Grace, mercy and kindness. Hope and glory. Patience and eager anticipation. Suffering and hope. Life in the kingdom. Judgment.
Sentence: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
God of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things,
graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish in us all goodness,
and of your great mercy
keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The choice of this reading looks ahead to a challenging (to understand) gospel reading. What God presides over a world in which the plan is to establish a kingdom for that God, yet an evil one is permitted to establish a rival kingdom? The prophet here acclaims the God of Israel as the one God of all the world ('besides me there is no god', 6, see also 8b).
For this God there is no question of a rival, not even an evil one sowing discord in the world.
Thus those who believe in the God of Israel do not need to be afraid (8).
Note a curious phrasing in 44:6,
'Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts.'
In part, in its original compositional context, this is a condemnation of Babylonian claims about multiple gods controlling the world. No, says Isaiah, the LORD is the one God of all.
In another part, a seeming distinction between the LORD as the King of Israel and the LORD of hosts as 'his redeemer' anticipates the later christology in which the God of Israel is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Lord Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of Israel's God, the Son of God.
It is sometimes said of the Old Testament that one, single, unifying idea cannot be found within it, which 'organises' its contents. But there is one great idea, one substantive teaching which shines through many of its pages, and these verses give expression to it: God is 'merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness' (15).
It is the God of this kind of love who brings the parable to us in today's gospel reading: a God who withholds judgment rather than hastens it.
If I am a Christian then I have the Spirit of God living within me (8:1-11). Paul continues to spell out what this means for you and me as Christians.
Essentially, we are under obligation, 'we are debtors' (12), with our obligation being to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh (13).
But thinking this way takes Paul on a theological journey as he links one thought to another thought. He will come back to the battle between flesh and spirit (23, 26) but he moves on this journey as follows:
- the Spirit of God is not 'a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear', rather it is 'a spirit of adoption' (15);
-under the influence of the Spirit as our spirit of adoption we cry out to God as 'Abba, Father' (15c) which is also testimony that we are 'children of God' (16, also 14);
- if we are children of God then we are 'heirs of God' which also means we are 'joint heirs with Christ' (17a);
- but that last thought raises a 'check in', have we suffered with Christ so that we may be glorified with him? (17b)
- suffering now may be compared with glory to come, with the latter far outweighing the former (18);
- but thinking of what is not yet leads to thinking about 'creation' waiting 'with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God' (19);
- in turn Paul offers a deep reflection on creation as that which currently is subject to 'futility' (20) while yet able to anticipate being 'set free from its bondage to decay and [obtaining] the freedom of the glory of the children of God' (21), with the sense that creation 'until now' 'has been groaning in labour pains' we ourselves are involved as we 'groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies' (22-23);
- such anticipation of a better, fulfilled future is hopeful, in fact, 'in hope we are saved' (24a) which could mean, 'in hope we see what one day will be but which is not yet our completed experience';
- thus as an aside we have a few words about 'hope' (24) and its application 'we wait for it with patience' (25).
What does all this mean for the Christian today?
I suggest at least this: Paul faces the reality that in the battle between spirit and flesh, between living for God and living for self, between achieving ideal holy living and failing to achieve it here and now, it is very tough for believers. We are in the same position as 'groaning' creation. We long for that which we want but do not yet have. Whether this is a matter of suffering in itself (i.e the suffering of patiently withstanding temptation and living rightly) or we suffer as Christians simply for being Christians as enemies persecute us, Paul urges us to 'hang in there'. Hope tells us we will get to the end. The glory in that day will outweigh present trials. Don't give up!
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The reading as selected from Matthew 13 focuses on one parable and its interpretation (in parallel with last week's reading, and both parables have 'seed' as a common motif).
Note that if the full reading, 13:24-43, were followed then we would have three parables of kingdom growth (24-33), deliberately joined together in a sequence.
Further (and paralleling a missing part Matthew 13 in last week's reading) we would have a brief explanation concerning teaching by parables (13:34-35; parallel, 13:10-17): Matthew is a very sophisticated literary artist!
So, with that in the background, let's look at the 'parable of the weeds'.
The core idea is easy to understand, especially with the aid of the provided interpretation: the kingdom of heaven (= kingdom of God) consists (in this life, thinking of the reign of God across the whole globe) of 'children of the kingdom' and 'children of the evil one' (37).
This fact of the kingdom is visible and gives rise to thoughts of a human solution (27-29). But the master of the kingdom, God, directs patience and requests waiting: the separation of the children of the kingdom and of the children of the evil one will take place at judgment and will be handled by the angels (30, 39-42).
The application of the parable - at first sight, straightforward, Wait and leave judgement to God! - is one tricky matter, another concerns how the kingdom can include both kinds of 'children'.
Clearly, in practical terms, evil people need separating from non-evil people: a murderer should be imprisoned, a paedophile kept well away from children ... a heretic denied a pulpit and a thief kept off the church silver cleaning roster. It would be absurd to suggest the parable means that in specific instances of these kinds, whether thinking of society broadly or more narrowly of congregational life, we should just let people be and allow them to carry on their evil ways.
But, if that is so, are there other 'evil' people whom we can tolerate between now and judgment day? That sounds a bit absurd. Especially if we focus on the life of the congregational church: it is hard work putting up with evil people who (say) disrupt congregational harmony, damage people through (say) gossip and putdowns, manipulatively abuse power. Much easier to expel the troublemakers!
But two such absurdities perhaps will make us think, 'what is the kingdom in this parable?' Perhaps we shouldn't think so much about an equation between kingdom and church (as often Christians have done). Indeed, not far away in Matthew's gospel, chapter 18, we have Jesus giving instruction for how to manage discipline in the church. Further, the emphasis on the judgment in the parable and its interpretation is on final judgment ('furnace of fire,' 42), not the outcome of a church tribunal. So, what is the kingdom in view here?
A strong clue seems to be in verse 38, 'the field is the world.' Jesus has the whole world in view here and the spread of the kingdom of heaven through it. More than church congregational life is being considered in this parable.
Life in the world, lived under the rule of God (i.e. the kingdom of heaven) involves the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one mixing together socially. The parable and its interpretation is a specific command for the kingdom children to refrain from attempting to carry out God's judgment (1) before it is due according to God's timetable, (2) when it is not the designated role of the children to do so.
What are children of the kingdom to do?
The application of the passage is, in the end, plain for us: remain faithful to our calling as children of the kingdom, bearing grain (i.e. living fruitful lives for God) (26), avoid becoming weeds, refrain from playing the role of God as judge, and patiently endure the presence of evil people in the world.
Theme(s): The mission of Jesus / The multiplying mission of Jesus / Gospel fruitfulness. Set free by the Spirit. Victorious life in the Spirit.
Sentence: There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)
in your Son Jesus Christ
you have created a people for yourself;
make us willing to obey you,
till your purpose is accomplished
and the earth is full of your glory. Amen.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
God's word (here, in context, God's covenantal promise to restore Israel from exile, see 55:3)
is powerful in its purpose (it will achieve what it sets out to do) and
purposeful in its power (it intends to do good).
It will be fruitful - Israel will 'go out with joy and be led forth in peace' (12).
This same word is the word of the gospel as taught and proclaimed by Jesus (see gospel below).
This is a lovely picture of God blessing the earth. The psalm is chosen to complement the gospel reading. As the word of God brings forth fruit in people's lives, its warmth, beauty and loveliness is illustrated by this parallel scene in nature. Over both kinds of fruitfulness God is the caring farmer!
This 'continuing' reading through Romans brings us into a great chapter which represents an important stage in Paul's argument through the whole epistle.
Through seven chapters Paul has been expounding the grace of God, a grace which includes Jew and Gentile, which covers every sin, and is freely available because of what Christ has done. So he begins this chapter, 'Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' (1) which is a fair summary of his argument to this point. But what now? What is Paul's next stage? What point does he now seek to make?
In part Paul continues a theme he has been developing through chapters six and seven: life in Christ does not mean continuing in sin in order for grace to abound, nor does it mean despair over continued sinning because a new way of life is available through identification in baptism with the death and rising of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless there is a new development, presaged in Romans 5:5 with mention of the Holy Spirit, in which Paul reminds his readers that the Holy Spirit is at work in them in the battle between doing good and doing wrong, between allegiance to God and allegiance to the sinful nature within them.
Effectively Paul repeats his argument through chapters six and seven but revises it to now talk about the Spirit of God and the work of the Spirit which every believer may expect and rely on.
Along the way Paul sets out some facts about the Holy Spirit:
One is that the Spirit of God lives in each person who 'belongs to Christ' (9). No Christian should think they do not have the Spirit, and certainly no Christian should run around congregations suggesting that some members do not (yet) have the Spirit ("But if you pray this prayer etc then you will have ...").
Secondly there is no division in the working of God between Christ being in the believer and the Spirit being in the believer (9-10).
Thirdly, the power available to the believer is the power of the one and same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead who now dwells within the believer (11).
Thus Paul, at the beginning of our passage, can confidently teach that the Christian believer is able to be victorious in overcoming sin (1-4) because there is a new, lively power at work in us (2), enabling us to meet the requirements of the law in a way which the law itself is not able to do.
One way to summarise all that is going on through chapters 6-8 is this: Christians, be what you are (in, through and because of Christ - who he is and what he has done for you)!
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 - The Parable of the Sower
A challenge for the preacher this week is to take a very familiar passage and say something fresh from it!
Something to observe is that Jesus tells the parable when 'such large crowds gather round him' (13:2). It is as though Jesus is sizing up the crowd and telling them that they will not all be found faithful to the word he is teaching them. Even at a high point of 'success' for his movement, measured in terms of interested listeners, Jesus recognises the reality of life.
Between the parable (1-9) and the interpretation (18-23), what Jesus recognises is understandable in every generation, including ours. Some simply do not 'get' the gospel message (4, 19); some hear the message and respond joyfully, but the hearing has no depth and when trouble comes, they fall away (5, 20-21); some hear the word but their response is quickly choked out by the worries of this life and the deceitful claims of wealth - materialism trumps spirituality (6, 22); some hear, understand, with joy, deeply, without choking (7, 23).
What does the reference mean to the crop being produced hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown (8, 23)? We might investigate what this meant in terms of the agriculture of Jesus' day. But more relevant could be investigating what this meant in terms of Jesus' own mission.
If the starting point above is valid, that Jesus was seeing beyond the crowds to the few who would be faithful to his word, then the multiplying of the seed is about the value of the faithful few: they will receive the word and multiply it, in terms of more faithful adherents across Israel and, later, throughout the world.
The very fact that you are reading this, that a congregation will hear your sermon this Sunday is testimony to what Jesus taught about the word. We are evidence of the multiplication!