St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 24 February 2012

February 26 NOTES FOR REFLECTION First Sunday in Lent

February 26                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION             First Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Theme:  I'm going with "The Temptations of Humanity" (rather than the more usual "Temptations of Christ"), to emphasise that there is nothing unique to Christ in these temptations.  All of us face them in some form or other: they may best be described as primal archetypes of temptation.

Introduction.  A slightly odd collection of readings this week.  Perhaps to reassure us as we enter the Season of Lent that God will not destroy us for our evil ways, we open the Season somewhat later in the Noah saga than we might have expected.  The focus is not on the punishment of evil throughout the world, but on the offer of a new beginning and the promise that never again will God contemplate destroying his creation.  Perhaps this gives us a slim clue as to the reason for choosing as our epistle reading one of the most obscure passages to be found in the New Testament.  Whatever else it means (and there have been many suggestions over the centuries!), it at least means that no one (not even the worst of sinners long dead) is beyond the saving reach of Christ.  Our gospel reading is in part a repeat, covering again Jesus' baptism, this time because of its immediate link with the temptations in the desert.  It also serves as a timely reminder to us on this First Sunday in Lent of the link between our baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ.

Background.  The most useful guidance I can offer this week comes in the form of the following extensive quotations from Fr Thomas Keating's marvellous book, The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Spiritual Experience.

(From p. 36)  According to the evidence of developmental psychology, each human being recapitulates the pre-rational stages of development toward full reflective self-consciousness that the human family as a whole has undergone in its evolutionary ascent.  In the first six months of life, the infant is immersed in nature and has no awareness of a separate identity.  As the infant begins to differentiate a body-self, its emotional life clusters around its instinctual drives for survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control.  Image patterns, emotional reactions and behaviour gravitate around these instinctual needs and create elaborate and well-defended programmes for happiness (or programmes to avoid unhappiness) that might be called "energy centres"...

...When these programmes for happiness are frustrated, upsetting emotions such as grief, apathy, greed, lust, pride or anger instantly arise.  If these emotions are painful enough, one is prepared to trample on the rights and needs of others, as well as our own true good, in order to escape the pain.  This leads to the behaviour that we call personal sin.  Personal sin is the symptom of a disease.  The disease is the false-self system: the gradual building up of the programs for happiness initiated in early childhood and expanded into energy centres around which one's thoughts, feelings, reactions, mindsets, motivations and behaviour gravitate.  As each new stage of developing human consciousness unfolds, an increasing sense of separation emerges, along with the corresponding feelings of fear and guilt.  We come to full reflective consciousness with the pervasive sense of alienation from ourselves, other people and God.


(From pages 41-2)  In the desert Jesus is tempted by the primitive instincts of human nature.  Satan first addresses Jesus' security/survival needs, which constitute the first energy centre.  "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread."...

...The devil then took Jesus to the holy city, set him on the parapet of the temple and suggested, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down...In other words, "If you are the Son of God, manifest your power as a wonder-worker.  Jump off this skyscraper.  When you stand up and walk, everybody will regard you as a bigshot and bow down before you."  This is the temptation to love fame and esteem....

...The third energy centre is the desire to control events and to have power over others.  Satan took Jesus to a lofty mountain and displayed before him all the kingdoms of the world, promising "All these I will bestow on you if you will prostrate yourself in homage to me."  The temptation to worship Satan in exchange for the symbols of unlimited power is the last-ditch effort of the false-self to achieve its own invulnerability and immortality.


My own comment on all this is this: it seems to me that what Fr Keating is talking about here is very similar to Jesus' teaching on 'clean' and 'unclean', with his insistence that we are made unclean, not by what enters through our mouths, but by what comes out of our hearts.  Substitute 'subconscious' for 'heart' in Mark 7:20-23 and see what I mean.


Genesis.  The muddled and repetitive structure of the text is usually taken to mean that it is an ancient text, and probably put together from two or more sources – the skills of a redactor (editor) not being of a high level at the time.  For all that, it's an important text, speaking of a new beginning after the widespread devastation of a natural disaster (obvious connections with Canterbury Earthquake, Japanese tsunami, etc).  It also provides a sound theological basis for modern ecological and environmental concerns: God's covenant is not just with humanity but with all living creatures.

The passage obviously acts as an aetiological myth, 'explaining' the existence of rainbows.  Simple observation tells us that they are most visible when there is high water content in the air and sunlight, most often after rain and at the start of clearing skies.  Hence its obvious connection with the end of the Flood and the start of better weather to come.  The science of the time would not have known anything about diffraction of light, of course, but the rainbow is a useful symbol of difference and unity, and the fecundity and complexity of light.  We talk of simplicity and clarity as a matter of black-and-white, without realising how different these are.  White is a composite of seven (the perfect number) beautiful colours: Black is simply the absence of light.

Taking It Personally.

·        Reflect on the whole Noah story.  What does it tell you about the nature of God?

·        Reflect on the whole issue of natural disasters, most of which cannot be blamed on human wrongdoing.  The Bible holds God responsible for the Flood (albeit as the divine response to widespread human sin).  How would you respond today to any suggestion that an earthquake or tsunami was "sent" by God to punish sinful people?

·        What does this story tells us about the worth and dignity of all other living creatures?

·        How might your attitude towards rainbows change as you reflect on this story?

Peter.  This passage is generally accepted by New Testament scholars as among the most difficult to comprehend.  From this has come the whole idea of the harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday. The basic idea seems to be concerned with those who have died before the coming of Christ.  If salvation is only available through faith in Christ, how can it apply "retrospectively"?   The somewhat obscure answer given here is that Jesus took the gospel even into the depths of Hades for the benefit of even the worst of sinners, symbolised by those of Noah's time.  The Flood waters are seen as a symbol of baptism, and the ark becomes a forerunner of the Church - hence the word "nave" (from the Latin for "boat") still used for the main area of a church building.

Taking It Personally.  I must confess that this passage has defied all my attempts to take it personally!  I can only suggest you take it as an opportunity to reflect on the eternal reach of God – past, present and future are all as one to God; and/or to reflect on your own baptism and its significance in your life.

Mark.  The first thing to notice about this passage is its brevity: cf. Matthew 3:13-4:11; and Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-13.  [John has no direct reference to Jesus' baptism, nor to his temptation in the desert.]  Mark's account of the temptation is particularly brief, and we need to go to Matthew or Luke for the details.  The reference to being "with the wild animals", is an interesting one.  At one level it may simply mean that Jesus was constantly in danger – the desert was a dangerous place, being the haunt of wild animals.  On the other hand, Mark uses the word "with" which can mean "accompanied by"; in which case we may have a hint of Jesus being in harmony with all creatures.  [This might be the link with the first lesson, the covenant with all living creatures.]  But at another level "wild animals" can be symbolic of our natural instincts and emotions (Jesus was undergoing an inner struggle); or of demonic beings (which would seem to be superfluous given that Jesus has been confronted by Satan himself!) However, given the immediately following reference to the angels attending to Jesus, the picture of a contest of the good spiritual beings and the evil spiritual beings could have been intended.  One thing that is certain is that the reference to the angels symbolises the Father's providential care of the Son during the time of trial. (cf. Matthew 26:53; and recall Christ's terrible cry of abandonment on the cross – Matthew 27:46).

Taking It Personally.

·       This is the classic passage with which to begin Lent.  It calls for a spiritual stock-take.  What most tempts you to turn away from God? 

·       Following Fr Keating's analysis above, which of the "three energy centres" is most problematic for you, safety/security, affection/esteem, or power/control?  Do you find his comments helpful in understanding yourself and others?

·       Notice that Satan's suggestions do not seem evil in themselves.  Jesus was desperately hungry: why not turn a stone into bread?  Jesus needed to draw the attention of the masses; why not put on a death-defying show?  Jesus came into a corrupt, warring world: why not take all political power?  But can the ways of the world be defeated by following the ways of the world?

·       Do the ends ever justify the means?

·       How might Jesus' alternative way – of love, service, surrender, acceptance, etc – shape your prayers for God's intervention in a particular situation?

·       When we refer to God as "almighty" what is the nature of the "might" we are ascribing to God?


Monday, 20 February 2012



Lenten Studies 2012

To be held in St Barnabas Church Lounge, Warrington

Leader: Roger Barker


Session 1         Monday, 27th February            The Gifts of God

Passage for Reflection:  A poem by Rabindranath Tagore [Bengali philosopher, poet & mystic: 1861-1941]

Session 2         Monday, 5 March                    The Work of God

Passage for Reflection:  The Deathbed Homily of Fr Gilbert Shaw [English priest & spiritual director: 1879-1968]

Session 3         Monday, 12 March                  The Body of God

Passage for Reflection:  Hymns of Divine Love No.15 by St Symeon the New Theologian [Greek abbot, mystic & saint: 949-1022]

Session 4         Monday, 19 March                  The Victory of God

Passage for Reflection:  A Prayer Found Beside a Dead Child in Ravensbruck Death Camp [Anonymous, Jewish, 1945]

Session 5         Monday, 26 March                  The Healing of God

Passage for Reflection:  The Psalm of an Abused Canadian woman [Anonymous, Canadian, from the 1990's]


1.      Each passage is an extraordinary expression of the author's faith.  I have chosen them because of their impact on my own faith journey.

2.      Each session will begin at 7.30pm and conclude by 8.30pm.

3.      Ideally, copies of the passage under consideration will be available to participants a week in advance.

4.      We will begin each session with a short discussion about the meaning of the text as it is; and relate it to Scripture.  Then we will have a period of silent reflection on the passage, followed by prayer and feedback.

5.      It is suggested that participants bring notebook and biro, and a bible. 


Saturday, 18 February 2012


February 19                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 43 18-25; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12

Theme: "God Does New Things", is an obvious choice today.  I'm biased, of course, because Isaiah 43:18-19 are my favourite verses in the whole of Scripture.  But just think for a moment about the whole "Christ event". How many times did people misunderstand Jesus because they hadn't grasped the New Way God was opening up in Christ.  "We have never seen anything like this!" exclaim today's crowd; and that response echoes through the gospel narrative like the chanting of a Greek chorus.

Introduction.  Taken into captivity the Jewish people spent 70 years in exile.  During that time they meditated on their faith stories.  Understandably the story of the Exodus was prominently in their minds.  Their God had rescued them from captivity in Egypt: surely he should now rescue them from captivity in Babylon.  So where was the new Moses when they needed him?  But that was how God worked in the past: this time he had something completely different in mind.  Yes, he was still the Saviour God committed to his chosen people and to their liberation/salvation.  But God was no slave to precedent: this time his agent of redemption was to be the Persian King, Cyrus.  Who but God could have thought of that?  The initiative in any situation is always God's: our role is simply to consent, to say "Yes" to what God is doing, as St Paul makes clear in our epistle reading.  That is the problem confronting the teachers of the law in our gospel reading.  They know that God alone can forgive sin: their mistake lies in thinking that God can only do this in accordance with the rites and procedures set out in the Law.  The idea that God may take human flesh, come among his people, and forgive them in person was beyond their wildest imaginings.

Background.  There is something easier and very often more sensible about doing things the way we have always done them, rather than constantly starting from scratch.  To learn from the past – both our successes and our mistakes – is part of growing up, maturing, becoming more competent people.  It's also an important element of getting to know other people: we build up a picture of them from our previous experiences of them.  We trust people whom we have found to be trustworthy in the past: we are more cautious with someone whom we found unreliable in the past.  And, of course, remembrance is an important part of honouring people who have died, or to whom we have reason to be especially grateful.  In the Scriptures God often identifies himself in terms of the past: "I am the God of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob"; "I am the one who led you out of Egypt."  To remember the past in all those sorts of way is positive and healthy.  That cannot be what God is talking about through Isaiah today.

But there is a dark side to our relationship with the past.  We all know people who are stuck in the past, embittered by some wrong (real or imagined) committed against them.  We all know of towns, regions, and countries mired in disputes, disagreements and even wars, technically long-since over, but still seemingly unable or unwilling to let those things go and move on to new arrangements for the future.  And we all know that in the Church we are particularly deaf to what God is saying through the prophet Isaiah today!

Part of the problem (I would say it's a very small part!) is a blindness arising from a lack of imagination.  We simply cannot imagine a different way to the way we have always done things in the past.  But we only have to think of the reception prophets of all ages have received from their own people to know that seeing new possibilities is not the largest difficulty: trying them, letting go of past certainties and risking some new alternative is too scary to contemplate.  There's another bigger part of the problem.

And the largest part is the awful challenge of forgiveness.  I have lost count of the number of times I have listened to someone pouring out the anguish of their past..."My Father was a mother never really loved me...I was unjustly dismissed..." and tried to explore with him or her what would happen if he or she forgave the wrongdoer.  Yes, forgiveness is unjust; yes, it can be agonisingly difficult, but is there any real alternative within his or her power?  How else may they have a future better than their past?  How else may Palestinians and Israelis have a peaceful and fruitful future than by forgiving each other (and themselves) for past horrors?

God is a God who makes all things new.  When we intercede for someone, or seek God's help for ourselves, are we not asking God to change something or someone?  Are we not asking God to effect change in the present circumstances?  If we pray for an increase in church membership, do we leave the "how" to God, or do we expect him to follow our present practices, even though they have not succeeded in the past?  When Jesus says, "Follow me" he gives no further detail.  The journey of faith is a journey into the ever-new.

Isaiah.  God has just reminded the people that he is the one who brought them out of Egypt and destroyed the Egyptian pursuers. Now he tells them "[But] forget the former things, don not dwell on the past!"  There we see both the positive and the negative side of the past: we are reminded of God's power, love and commitment to his people, but we must not expect God to act in exactly the same way again.  Now notice the use of the present tense in what follows: we are not told that God is planning something new, that sometime in the future he will do a new thing, but he is already at it, if only they had eyes to see.  God acts in the eternal now: we live our lives in that eternal now, even though mentally we are forever brooding on the past or planning for (fantasizing about) the future. And what is this new thing he is doing at that moment?  Well, he seems to be granting them absolution of their sins even though they had failed to observe all the requirements of the law relating to sacrifices and other offerings.  He is offering them grace, a free pardon, but the gift goes unnoticed for another few centuries, until Jesus brings the same offering in person.  And gets much the same blind response.


Taking It Personally.

·        Is there some area of your life in which you are stuck, some grievance which comes back into your mind from time to time?  Is there some part of the past that you have never let go – that is still adversely affecting your present?

·        In general, what is your attitude to change?  Are you open to it or suspicious of it?  Are you inclined to draw a line in the sand or go with the flow and see what turns up?

·        Has there been an occasion in your life when you experienced God nudging you in a new direction?  What was that like?  How did you respond?

·        Ponder verse 25.  How do you feel about it?  Does it really touch you – move you to thanksgiving and praise – or does it strike you as superfluous to your needs?

Corinthians.  This short passage does not rank among the clearest in St Paul's writings.  He seems to be dealing with our propensity for "double-mindedness", the difficulty we find in being whole-hearted in our commitments.  We run hot and cold (or mostly tepid!): we say "yes" to Christ but act in a way that is unworthy of him.  So Paul is calling us to give the same unqualified "Yes" to Christ as Christ gave to God, not by our own strength of character but by the power of the Holy Spirit given to us.

Taking It Personally.

·       With the beginning of Lent just a few days away, this is a good passage to use in conducting an audit of your spiritual health.  How unequivocal is your commitment to Christ?  Is your response "Yes", or "Maybe", or "To some extent" or "Sometimes".

·       What might you need to give up (not just for Lent but for ever) if your commitment to Christ is to grow stronger?

·       Spend some time pondering verse 22 – perhaps even commit it to memory.  Let the truth of it sink in.  Do you believe it?  Ask God for the grace to accept it fully.

Mark.  What a wonderful story this is!  Marvel over the detail.  Jesus has come "home" (back where he was in verses 29-32 where he healed Peter's mother-in-law and spent all day healing crowds of people).  Now he's back and the surgery is resumed.  But this time the focus is on one patient, a man with paralysis.  Notice the structure of this part of the story.  Four bearers carry their prostrate friend.  They dig a hole and lower him down.  Remind you of something?  Of course, it's a funeral scene!  At the bottom of the "grave" the "deceased" meets Jesus, who raises him up.  Yes, it's a resurrection story!  But wait! There's more!  We have the first signs of opposition in the form of a chorus of teachers of the law.  What are they doing there?  Checking out the rumours about Jesus, I guess.  They think dark thoughts, and the wonderful irony is that they are on the right track.  God alone can forgive sin.  The problem is that they do not put two and two together and recognise God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, but then again it was something of a stretch, wasn't it?


 What triggered such dark thoughts?  Jesus said to the paralysed man, "Son, your sins are forgiven."  Pay careful attention to this.  He did not immediately tell the guy to get up and walk: he forgave him and then healed him.  We have a sacrament in reverse here.  Remember what the Catechism says a sacrament is: the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.  Jesus forgives the man (inward and invisible grace) and then heals him physically (outward and visible sign).  The healing works as a sign because of the widespread belief at the time that illness (such as paralysis) is caused by sin.  The sin having been forgiven, the man can now be set free from paralysis.

Notice, too, that even though Jesus read their thoughts, the teachers of the law did not seem to change their initial assessment of Jesus: compare Nathaniel's response in John 1:47-49.  They were so stuck in the past they were not open to the new thing God was doing in the present (and in their very presence).  Again ironically, what the teachers of the law could not see, the crown at least glimpsed: they praised God; and recognised that something entirely new to their experience had just happened before their very eyes.

Taking It Personally.

·        Do you agree or disagree that we tend to focus more on physical health than on spiritual well-being?  Are you more impressed that the paralysed man could walk again or that his sins were forgiven?

·        Reflect on the words of the Absolution on page 408 of the Prayer Book.  Do you "know" that you are forgiven?  Are you "at peace"?  Cast your eye down the page.  Let "the peace of Christ rule in your heart".  Notice that word "rule": not "reside" or "dwell" in your heart (alongside or with everything else), but "rule" or "govern" everything else.

·        Pray that "the word of Christ may dwell in you richly".

·        Praise God for all that you have seen through these Scriptures today.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Lenten Study Series

Lenten Study Series  ---"Passages of Faith" led by Roger.  5 sessions, 45-60 minutes, Mondays at 7.30pm, at St Barnabas. Each week we take a short passage from a spiritual writer and use it for reflection, prayer and discussion.  Dates are February 27, March 5, 12, 17, and 24.  Could people please register an interest in advance with Roger or Helen for further details: Roger plans to get copies of the weekly passage to participants in advance of the sessions.


February 12                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

Theme:  There are some fairly obvious ones today; but I'm going with "Obstacles to Grace", looking at some of the things that might hinder our relationship with God, or prevent God's grace flowing into us.

Introduction.  There is much that is strange about the healing of Naaman, including the fact that it remained very much a sore appoint right up to Jesus' time: see Luke 4:27-30.  The strangest thing about it is its inclusion in the Hebrew Scriptures at all!  What were the Jewish faithful to learn from this story?  That their God cared as much for Syrians as for Jews?  That Elisha humiliated the second most powerful person in Syria and lived to tell the tale?  Or that, only when we get rid of our national and ethnic illusions of superiority, and our false preconceptions of what God should and shouldn't do, are we open to receive God's grace?  So there are things we must get rid of for our relationship with God to grow.  There are also things we must do: just as athletes train to achieve physical fitness, so we must strive to achieve spiritual fitness.  When we are ready to acknowledge our need and call out to God unconditionally, to open ourselves to God's healing grace, God is willing to meet our needs.

Background.   Writers such as Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, Jim Marion, and Ken Wilber have been pouring out books in recent years on the subject of spiritual evolution and development, both in relation to our species and to the individual human being.  It is generally accepted that the new-born infant has no sense of self: very young infants will watch their own foot waving about with the same attention he or she gives to a rattle or a toy dangling above the cot.  The infant does not distinguish between self and object.  The ability to do this develops gradually over the next 2 years or so, so that by that age the child has some degree of self-awareness, but this is still fuzzy around the edges.  The close bonding with the infant's parents means that the distinction between self and parent is not nearly as clear as that between self and stranger.  As the years go by there is a gradual move to identify with a larger group of people, other family members, play-mates, and others who are seen often.  Somewhere in the teens a period of re-alignment of loyalties takes place, with a growing sense of self and autonomy, and then more equal relationships may be entered into. 

Meanwhile we start o indentify with "clans" or "tribes" of our own choosing, be they sports teams, hometowns, or our country.  Healthy religious faith seeks to lead us on further, to transcend such us-them divisions altogether and recognise the oneness of humanity, and even of all creation.  But most of us struggle with this to some degree.  When push comes to shove – and especially when peace gives way to war – all pretence to belong to the one human race is liable to be replaced by a growing conviction that our side is right and the other side is wrong; that God is on our side and the other side is demonic.  Listen to debates on the Treaty – or on our three-tikanga constitution – or on globalisation –and you will not hear many voices raised in support of the proposition that we are all one in God!  Come to that, go to a meeting on the future of the Parish of East Otago and suggest that it doesn't matter where we worship – or which churches we use and which ones we close - and see how many people agree with you!  Despite the universalism that has been an essential part of our faith since the time Of Isaiah – reaffirmed by Jesus in his ministry and spelt out in black and white by St Paul at least three times – we still do not really believe that in Christ there is no such thing as male and female, Jew or Greek, free or slave: that in Christ all such differences are transcended.  When they are not they become obstacles to grace.

Kings.  What a wonderfully told story this is!  Right from the start we are alerted to the fact that it operates on the two levels we have become used to in recent weeks, the material (worldly) realm, and the spiritual one.  Naaman is the Commander of the Syrian army.  We are told that he is a great man in the eyes of his master (the King of Syria) and highly regarded because the King and the people believe that Naaman has won a great victory on the battlefield.  However, the author makes it clear to us that his victory was given to him by the Lord, although he sees no need to explain to us why the Lord God of Israel should give victory to a pagan army often at odds with Israel.

The picture of the great man is completed by an assurance that he is a valiant soldier, then immediately dashed to pieces with a medical diagnosis: he has leprosy.  His life will never be the same again.  Help comes in a most extraordinary way.  In his own household, serving his own wife, is a young girl captured from Israel, nameless and quite probably abused.  Yet she has compassion for his plight.  She plucks up courage to raise the subject with her mistress: "if only", she says, indicating the strength of her concern for the master's health.  The wife passes her message on, and his desperation is such that he decides to give it a go.  He seeks leave from the King, and again we see the worldly point of view: the King gives him a letter of authority addressed to the King of Israel (not, to the prophet of whom the servant girl spoke).  To men of such rank the assumption is that you deal with the man at the top and he will order the prophet to carry out the work.  Similarly it is assumed that the prophet (or perhaps the King) will expect a pretty handsome koha for his troubles.  The King of Israel adopts a similarly worldly view of all this, fearing a diplomatic set-up as a pre-cursor to more aggression.

The Rabbis taught in Jesus' time that to heal leprosy is as difficult as raising the dead: the King's response in verse 7 ("Can I kill and bring back to life?") suggests that this view has ancient roots.  Elisha hears what's going on and tells the King to refer the unfortunate Naaman onto him.  Now watch and admire the storytelling genius of this author: every little detail helps to heighten the drama.  "So Naaman went with his horses and chariots" (verse 9): we might say, with his entourage, all very impressive and reeking of power.  Elisha doesn't even stir himself to greet his "distinguished" patient: he sends out a messenger with a ridiculous "green prescription".  Naaman is incensed.  He has a very clear idea of how a healer should act: wonderful comedic touch!  Naaman has to accept that he is no longer the powerful one; he has to learn to control his anger; he has to lose his ethnic/national superiority; and he has to submit to the advice of his staff.  All those things are acting as obstacles to God's healing grace; and only when he jettisons his pride and arrogance and submits to the Lord's authority exercised through Elisha, his servant, and Naaman's own men, is he healed.

Taking It Personally.

·        Recall a time when you were ill.  Which part of Naaman's story do you most identify with?  The shock of the diagnosis?  The willingness to try the unorthodox?  The sense of anger at the way a health professional treated you as a person?  The indignity of the hospital gown?  What did you learn about yourself from that whole experience?

·        Think about your ethnic or national identity for a moment.  Are you proud of it?  Why?  Do you consider yourself patriotic?  Is your Christian identity more or less important to you than your national or ethnic identity?

·        Are you open to receiving advice from those of "inferior rank" (children, junior colleagues, recent immigrants, etc)?

·        Is this story about baptism, being born again, healed, cleansed, converted?  Read verse 15: does that alter your view?

·        Read Luke  4:27-29.  Why do you think this story is so controversial?  Can you identify with those who find such a story offensive?  [Think about our propensity to re-write history, to cover over the black spots in our national history.]

Corinthians.  It is not obvious to me why this short reading has been chosen today.  I want to see it as a warning against spiritual passivity, or quietism.  Yes, God, takes the initiative, but that does not mean that we just sit back and let it all happen.  We need to be spiritually fit: we need to work at it, in prayer, in worship, in Bible study and reflection, and in other forms of spiritual exercise.  Perhaps verse 24 is not St Paul at his best, with the implication that we compete with one another for the crown of salvation and there can only be one winner!  But he recovers in verse 25, so we can overlook that brief lapse.

Taking It Personally.

·       Are you careful to ensure that you get regular physical exercise?  Do you try to eat healthily and get a reasonable amount of sleep?  Why?

·       Do you give the same amount of attention to your spiritual wellbeing as to your physical wellbeing?  Why not?

·       What form of spiritual exercise might you trial during the coming week?

Mark.  And here's another beautifully told story.  Notice that it is not set anywhere in particular: it is a representative case.  The leper comes to Jesus in breach of the Law and custom: he should have kept well away from other people.  He kneels before Jesus and begs him.  This is the essence of prayer.  He comes, he submits, he acknowledges his need, and he asks for help.    Jesus responds immediately by touching him – also a clear breach of the Law and custom.  Jesus thereby renders himself unclean, and identifies fully with the leper.  But then he tells the leper to go to the temple and do all that the law requires for him to be re-admitted to the worshipping community.  All he asks for himself is that the man will keep what has happened quiet.  Fat chance!  He tells his story to anyone who will listen [think Facebook, twitter, etc;] and the story goes feral: it ends with Jesus excluded and confined to "lonely places".  He and the leper have swapped social positions.

Taking It Personally.

·   Reflect on this story as a model for petitionary prayer.  What is your most pressing need at this time?  Bring it to Jesus; kneel before him; cry out to him for help.  Hear Jesus assure you: "I am willing.  Be healed."

·   Notice how Jesus is "filled with compassion".  Compassion means to "suffer with".  Jesus feels the man's pain and it becomes his own.  There is nothing "professional" or emotionally distant about Jesus' response to this man.  Reflect on your own intercessory prayer for others.  Is it rooted in compassion for those others?

·   Some translations say Jesus was angry, either because the leper seemed in doubt as to whether or not Jesus would treat him, or because he was angry at the effect leprosy was having on this poor man.  Do you feel this sort of anger when you confront illness?

·   The language is pretty strong in verse 43: it is the same phrase used in exorcisms!  Does this change your image of Jesus in this story?

·   Can you recall feeling socially excluded at any time?  Who might feel such exclusion in our country, or in our church, today?  How do you feel about that?  Angry?  Compassionate?  Pray about it.


Saturday, 4 February 2012


February 5                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Isaiah 40:21-31; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Theme:  There is an unusual degree of agreement among commentators that Mark is describing a typical day in Jesus' ministry as witnessed by the disciples as they began their training: so perhaps the theme could be "A Typical Day", or, a little more dramatic, "The Action Begins".  But notice the sub-text in Isaiah and in Mark is still the critical question of identity.  Who is God/Christ?  Which means, who do we say he is?

Introduction.  It is a constant human failing to scale God down to size.  We reduce him to "buddy" status, perhaps, or as a personal insurer/ medical practitioner/bodyguard/P.A./ Personal Trainer/Life Coach; or just and Agony Aunt/Bartender to whom we can pour out our troubles.  Whenever we are tempted down this track we should hasten to re-read today's passage from Isaiah.  Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  God is the Creator of all things; and you think he's out of his depth in dealing with your problems?  But the opposite error is just as tempting: why should God worry about little old me when he is creating and sustaining the whole universe?  So the gospel passage sees Jesus dealing with both individuals and crowds.  St Paul reminds us about the difference between a calling and a career choice.  With the former there is no choice, no terms and conditions, no agreed salary or recompense.  The gospel is the only thing that matters to him, and he will do anything to get a hearing (although that doesn't stop him complaining bitterly!).

Background.  I want to start with Corinthians today because it is so strikingly modern and applicable to our own situation.  Paul is white-hot with anger.  [Go back to the start of this chapter 9 and read up to today's passage.]  Clearly, he has his critics in Corinth.  Some have dismissed him as an outsider and a bludger.  He's been accused, it seems, of living off his hosts and contributing nothing.  That has really pushed his buttons! Paul insists that he was entitled to their hospitality, but also that he chose not to accept it.  He earned his own living while he was with them.  Verse 5 is particularly intriguing, as it implies that St Paul was married and his wife accompanied him on this travels to Corinth – although the comments may apply only to Barnabas.

The same tone of exasperation and anger permeates today's reading from Isaiah.  The people are grumbling that God seems to overlook them in their daily struggles, because they are so obsessed with those struggles that they are wallowing in self-pity.  The remedy is simple: look up!  Look at the stars in the night-sky [remembering just how spectacular they would be in those days with a complete absence of artificial light].  Be reminded of the greatness and glory of God; compared to him we are all – the great and the famous included – like mere grasshoppers.  Yet he cares for us.  When we turn to him, cease our attempts to solve our own problems in our own way, and place our hope in him, he will reinvigorate us and we will soar high as if on eagle wings.

Mark is often thought of as a mere journalist, a reporter of events, and well aware of the shortness of the average reader's or listener's attention span.  It's true that he doesn't rank as a theologian, and of all the gospel writers he seems the least interested in the content of Jesus' teaching.  Perhaps he is best understood as the author of a training manual for those entering discipleship.  The careful structure of his gospel would point in that sort of direction.  He begins by making clear who Jesus is and the nature of his relationship with God.  Then he records the calling of the first disciples; and now he has begun to show what a life of discipleship looks like from the inside.  And we still haven't reached the end of chapter 1!

Start reading at verse 21 and we get an even clearer picture of what Mark is up to.  He, too, is dealing with our inability to grasp the real truth about Jesus.  The evil spirit recognises him immediately (verse24), but the crowds do not.  They see him as a great teacher and miracle worker, but nothing more.  Although "the whole town" comes to him, and he heals many and casts out demons, and so on, there is no suggestion that these wonderful deeds led to any conversions.  At the end of the day (to coin a phrase) Jesus had the same number of disciples as he began the day with – precisely 4.  News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee, but it was not news of the arrival of the Messiah.  So far people were not sufficiently developed spiritually to recognise that truth: hence Jesus tried to keep secret his messianic identity until they were ready to hear and understand.

Isaiah.  This passage comes at the end of the chapter that begins with those wonderful words, "Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God."  The people are disconsolate.  They have suffered national loss, disgrace and exile.  They are downcast, convinced that God has given up on them, or, worse still, powerless to come to their aid.  Now Isaiah proclaims that those terrible times are over; God is coming to his people with justice and salvation.  But is it all wishful thinking?  How can the people now believe such promises?  By lifting their eyes above the common grind and seeing the majesty of God reflected in his creation.  They will not be given a detailed strategic plan: their hope is not in a manifesto or a series of plans to be set before them.  Their hope is in the nature and character of God.  Hope in God because of who God is.  When we do that we get a new sense of perspective, a new sense of what might be possible, a sense of excitement and a desire to be a part of it.

Taking It Personally.

·        What are you most worried about at this time?  On a scale of 1 to 10, how big is this issue?  Do you feel that "my cause is disregarded by my God"?

·        Ponder verse 21.  Let the sting of irony sink into you.  Respond to those questions.  Yes you have heard; but have you understood so deeply and fully that you can say, "I know"?

·        Find a small insect or something similar.  Stand up and look down on this creature.  See how small it is.  Now read verse 22.

·        Find a picture in a newspaper or magazine of some important people.  Have the picture in front of you as you re-read verse 23.

·        Think of the devastation caused by floods, or the Christchurch earthquakes, or tornadoes and hurricanes.  Now ponder verse 24.

·        Finish with a few minutes of meditation on verse 26.  Might you have been guilty of trying to scale God down to size?

Corinthians.  Paul's less pleasant side of his character is on show throughout this passage.  Whatever we may be told about suffering in silence, turning the other cheek, forgiving our enemies, and all that stuff, Paul is not always very good in practising what he preaches (or, at least, what Jesus preaches!)  A constant source of irritation for him seems to be the refusal by many Christians to accept him as an apostle, equal in rank to Peter, Andrew and the rest of the original dream-team.  Notice his special pleading on this point in verses 6 and 7.  But, as mentioned above, he is particularly incensed at the suggestion that he was imposing himself on them and expected to be fed and watered without cost.  He argues his right to such rewards with great vigour in verse 7 to 12; but no sooner has he established (to his own satisfaction) his right to payment in cash or kind, than he switches tack and insists that he has never exercised that right.  Even then, he can't leave the bone alone: he returns to the fight in verses 13 and 14, and then insists again that he has not exercised his right.

To our modern eyes verses 19-23 paint an unpleasant picture.  It looks too much like a politician trying to re-invent himself for each different audience.  But Paul is concerned only with the gospel: that he will never change.  How it is presented will be different for each group, and on such less important matters he will adapt and compromise and do whatever it takes to get the gospel preached and heard.  Preaching the gospel brings its own reward (after all!)

Taking It Personally.

·        Accepting that Paul has been unjustly treated, how do you feel about the tone of his response?  Can you recall an occasion on which you were falsely accused of something, or your motives were seriously and unfairly questioned?  How did you react?

·        Is there a lesson for the Church here in dealing with conflict?  Is it better to "have it all out there" or accept the slings and arrows of outrageous critics and say nothing to keep the peace?

·        Notice how Paul argues that he is compelled to preach the gospel.  To get a grasp on this read Jeremiah 20:7-10.

·        Read verses 20 to 23 again.  How do you feel about Paul's tactics here?  Is it about sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others, or is it political trickery?

·        Overall, how does this chapter 9 affect your attitude to Paul?  Does it make him seem more human?  Is he being too emotional for your taste?  Is he driven on by concern for the Corinthians or is his own pride at stake?  Now stop judging Paul and ask God to show you what your attitude to Paul says about your own character.

Mark.  There are three little episodes joined together here.  Verses 29-31 feature the healing of Peter's mother-in-law.  The story infuriates some feminist theologians who are angered that the poor woman is raised from her sick bed so she can wait on the men!  Methinks they protest too much.  Usually, when a fever leaves a patient she is too weak to do much for a while.  But healing from Jesus is the whole deal.  He hasn't just taken her fever away – he has restored her to full health and vitality.  And the proper response is one of service to him.  Then, after sunset (to avoid any breach of Sabbath law) Jesus heals the crowds who come to him.  He is there for individuals, and for multitudes.  Thirdly, we see Jesus get up very early in the morning while it was still dark (the phrase will return in Mark's account of Easter morning: 16:2), and prays. We are not told what about, or whether this was his usual spiritual practice.  What we are told is that the disciples and everyone else were looking for him.  We miss the import of this because of that translation.  In the Greek the meaning is more like "hassling" him.  Today we might even say they were stalking him.  The sense is that they were after him for what they could get from him, to receive healing, not to give him all praise and thanksgiving.

Taking It Personally.

·        Which of these three episodes most appeals to you?  Why?

·        Put yourself into the second story.  Notice the crowds queuing hour after hour.  How do you feel about them?  Compassionate?  Tired?  Resentful?  Would you rather Jesus paid you more attention instead of them?

·        Notice how Jesus wants to move on, rather than stay with the admiring crowds.  What lesson is there for the church in that?

·        Focus on verse 39.  Notice the balance between preaching in their holy places and practical ministry – (driving out demons).  What lesson is there for the church in that?

·        Ponder the apparent fact that of all the crowds to whom Jesus ministered that day, none became his disciples.  What do you make of that?