St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 27 July 2012

July 29 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 17

July 29                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 17

Texts: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

Theme: It speaks for itself this week – The Abundance of God!

Introduction.  All three readings paint a picture of the excess, the extravagance, of God: with God there is always something more.  One hundred members of the Company of Prophets (now there's a group that might be worth joining, but not perhaps as the minutes secretary!) are fed from 20 loaves intended as a gift for their most distinguished member, "and they had some left over". In the second lesson, superlative is heaped upon superlative as Paul tries to cope with the impossible task of describing the love of God, which is just too big to be confined to words.  And when Jesus commands his disciples to feed the multitude by the lake from 5 small loaves and 2 small fish, the cleaning up afterwards yields 12 baskets of leftovers!  God doesn't just meet our needs, he swamps them.

Background.  In an effort to understand how it is that a man as educated, intelligent and downright clever as biologist Richard Dawkins can be so rudely dismissive of any form of religious belief I have set myself the task of reading about the beliefs of others that many of us would rudely dismiss as crackpots.  A few minutes on the internet, with Google's amazing assistance, soon showed there were many possibilities to choose from.  I chose the Findhorn Community on the North-East coast of Scotland.

They have a wonderful website, and if you had never heard anything about them before you might get the impression that they are a relatively orthodox group of people interested in saving the planet from ecological disaster.  Thus, the website shows their work in developing energy-efficient housing, efficient and non-polluting sewerage systems, and of course good food-producing practices.  They have come a long way in the 50-odd years since their foundation by 3 adults and two children trying to survive in a caravan on a combined income of 6 pounds a week!  (That caravan is preserved for its heritage value in the present community – or, more accurately, in the village of several hundred people that has grown from the vision and efforts of those early pioneers.)

They started their venture in the early 1960's, and even by the standards of those days (Britain was just beginning to swing, remember, courtesy of drugs, rock 'n' roll, imported flower-power, locally designed mini-skirts, and heaven knows what else), the beliefs associated rightly or wrongly with the Findhorn pioneers were a little weird.  Think of the ridicule heaped on Prince Charles when he famously admitted to talking to his plants, multiply that by ten, and you have some idea of what most people thought about the "Findhorn fanatics".  They didn't just talk to the plants; they talked to the governing spirits of the plants, and consulted them on the proper care of the plants.  The problem (for the critics) was, whatever they were doing it seemed to be working spectacularly.

They started small.  To supplement their meagre income they asked permission from the owner of the caravan park where they were parked to start a small vegetable patch.  He was much amused, because the land was a mixture of coastal sand over which a layer of gravel had been poured; but he gave permission.  Not only was the ground a lost cause, but the site was open to the coastal winds, salt-laden and powerful.  But the garden grew wonderfully well.  They asked to use more land and the landlord agreed.  Again huge success.  A rose expert, irritated by his wife's obsessive interest in Findhorn, offered to donate a dozen roses.  When the offer was gleefully accepted he sprung the trap.  He chose 12 of the most delicate and difficult roses to grow and donated those.  When he checked a year later he was astonished to find they had all produced roses of championship quality.

The Findhorn Garden became famous, and attracted horticultural experts to investigate.  They found that the people were using good horticultural practices – plenty of compost, and so on – but the consensus was that such practices alone could not possibly account for the produce coming from the garden.  (The clincher was the average weight of their cabbages – 40lbs!).  There had to be some other factor involved, but what was it?  Of course, they asked the pioneers themselves and the answer was always the same: we ask the inner spirits and they tell us what to do.

So I chose Findhorn as my project, and through the wonders of the internet, and Amazon Kindle, I have been reading all about it.  Remembering that I started by wondering how Richard Dawkins, trained and highly skilled in the scientific method, could be so closed-minded when it came to religious belief, I was sure that with my own training in the legal method I could consider their beliefs in a calm, rational and open-minded way.  I couldn't!  I was less than 3 pages in to the autobiography of one on those early pioneers when I started snorting in derision: "what a load of codswallop!  How can anyone believe this stuff?"  I out-dawkined Dawkins – until I remembered my calm and reasonable approach to those who do not believe in the resurrection of Christ.  With people like that, I start with the undeniable fact that from the desolation of Good Friday, a defeated rabble of 11 disciples, exhausted and terrified, hiding behind locked doors, were suddenly transformed into fearless apostles, many of whom suffered martyrdom rather than deny the reality of their belief in Jesus.  And the movement they started has now grown worldwide, etc.  We say that only the resurrection could have caused such a transformation.  That is our explanation.  What is yours?

You see what a model of calm, polite discussion that is?  But when I apply that approach to Findhorn I find I'm hoisted on my own petard.  They can start with the undeniable fact of their garden: they say that the phenomenal growth is due to their cooperation with the inner spirits; and they can now point to the worldwide reputation and influence of the Findhorn Community as it is today.  They say that it is all due to their spiritual beliefs and practices.  What is my explanation?

And with all this in mind I turned to today's readings and found myself in a real quandary.  Read the whole of chapter 4 of the Second Book of Kings, and what do we find?  The multiplication of a small quantity of oil into enough to fill many large jars; the miraculous conception of a son, and the subsequent raising of that son back to life from death; the detoxification of poisoned stew; and the feeding of 100 hungry prophets from 20 loaves of bread.  Add to these the two miracle stories in today's gospel passage, and you begin to see the sort of difficulties I'm talking about.  Why is it that I can accept these biblical stories as essentially true, while dismissing the beliefs of people whose garden defies all scientific explanation?

Kings.  Have you ever noticed how Elisha tends to fly under the radar compared with Elijah?  Maybe it's the misfortune of having a rather similar name, so rather than trying to remember which is which we tend to amalgamate them in our minds and ascribe everything to Elijah.  Perhaps the only story that we are confident is about Elisha is the healing of Naaman, the Syrian commander.  Yet, as mentioned above, the whole of chapter 4 of this book features miraculous outcomes associated with Elisha.  And today we have a sort of prototype "feeding of the multitude".  Notice that the bread is made from the first fruits of the corn harvest, and is offered as a gift to the "man of God".  This is a story about offering, blessing, and growth: and it seems to me to have a ritualistic flavour to it.  A gathering of religious men shared bread together.

Taking It Personally.

·        Contemplate a piece of bread, or, better, a whole loaf.  Think about all the biblical stories that come immediately to mind featuring bread.  Pray the relevant petition from the Lord's Prayer.  Give thanks every time you eat bread this week.

·        Think about the way in which a loaf of bread is a symbol of co-creation.  What part of that creation is attributable to God and what to human agency?

·        Break the bread.  Recall that the liturgical word for the action of the priest in breaking the Eucharistic bread is "the fracture".  Ponder the meaning and significance of that.

·        Do you agree that our use of individual wafers weakens the significance of the Eucharistic liturgy?  What can we do about it?

Ephesians.  This is yet another sublime passage that defies summary and analysis.  It almost smacks of "automatic writing", that produced by people in mystical states.  At the heart of it is the astonishment felt by the Jewish faithful at the time that God loves Gentiles as much as he loves Jews.  We find it hard to grasp how Paul and his contemporaries felt about this, but it truly was a most amazing revelation for them.  (Perhaps their version of what our educated ancestors felt when they discovered the earth isn't flat and isn't the centre of the universe.)  Note that the passage is in the form of a prayer for the recipients of the letter, the faithful at Ephesus.  If I had to pick two elements as of particular significance I would go firstly for the idea in verse 19 of "love that surpasses knowledge" – on which so much of St Augustine's theology was based.  We know about God through our minds; we know God through our hearts.  Secondly, I would go for the concluding doxology in verses 20 and 21, which makes such a wonderful conclusion to the prayers in our funeral liturgy.

Taking It Personally.

·       Slowly, meditatively, read through this passage in the style of lectio divina.  Savour each phrase – stay with it for as long as it holds your attention.  Take all week if necessary.  Don't try to analyse it, or have any clever thoughts about it.  Try to bathe in it, as in a warm bath.

·       Pray this prayer for yourself, then for the members of your local church, and then for everyone else for whom you pray.

·       When you have finished, turn to verse 16.  Do you feel strengthened by your faith?

·       Close by reciting verses 20 and 21 several times until you know it by heart.

John.  Two obvious observations to start with.  First, consider why in Year B of our three-year cycle of readings featuring the Gospel of Mark we are suddenly given a chunk from the gospel of John, not just this week but for 5 consecutive weeks.  Secondly, notice that this chunk of five gospel passages are all taken from one chapter, chapter 6.  I suggest there is good reason for this.  In this second part of our liturgical year we are focused on the life of discipleship – how are we as people of faith to live out that faith in our everyday world?  The danger is that we focus entirely on doing Christian things, rather than on being Christian.  Remember how the first mission conducted by the twelve ended with them being so busy that they didn't have time even to eat.  What did Jesus do about that?  He took them away to a solitary place for prayer and spiritual refreshment.  It seems to me that what our Lectionary arrangement is saying is, at the centre of our life of discipleship, of active ministry, is our relationship with Christ, the living bread.  We must never be so busy that we forget our need for daily, deep nourishment.  Our readings from John on this and the next four Sundays form a period of spiritual retreat (a 40-day fast, almost) from the helter-skelter pace of life so well captured by Mark's frenetic pace.  Bread is life stripped down to the bare essentials.

The text is so well-known as to require little comment.  A few little bits that caught my attention in the feeding narrative.  Notice how well Jesus reads the crowds.  They are after what they can get from him – healings, and later on a free lunch.  The narrative is set in the shadow of the Passover festival (think unleavened bread, followed by manna, the original bread of life/bread of heaven.)  I enjoy the little interplay between Jesus and Philip: the text says Jesus was testing him; I think he was teasing him, a nice little human touch.  Andrew illustrates our tendency to focus on the problem, not the solution, on scarcity not possibility.  When the bread is distributed, all receive what they "wanted", not just what they needed.  And, of course, there are heaps left over.

As always the question of Jesus' identity and role is never far from the surface.   Is he the long-awaited prophet who was to come?  And there are those who see him as a natural leader for a rebel uprising.  Let's crown him as our king and sock it to the Romans!

The episode on the lake is curious.  I'm inclined to believe that it is intended as a parable aimed at the Church.  Notice that in this version the disciples seem to have set off without Jesus, who "had not yet joined them".  At the literal level the difficulties are obvious: why would the disciples leave him behind, and how precisely was he supposed to join them if they had already cast off?  But suppose the boat represents the Church, and suppose that some in the Church believed that Jesus had died and they had to go on without him now.  In other words, not everyone believed in the resurrection.  So, off goes the tine Church, having left Jesus behind, and immediately gets into strife.  When Jesus is seen coming towards them they are terrified, assuming he is a ghost, perhaps.  Only when he speaks to them are they reassured, and, in a curious phrase, "then they were willing to take him into the boat".  Just a thought (with which even Richard Dawkins might agree).

Taking It Personally.

·       Re-visit Findhorn.  (Google it, if you're that way inclined.  Some key names to pursue are Peter and Eileen Caddy, Dorothy Mclean, David Spangler and R Ogilvie Crombie.)  Are you tempted to be dismissive?  What is it that distinguishes their beliefs from our own?

·       In the story of walking on water, are you tempted to choose between the literal and the parabolic approach to the story, or can Scripture be true on two or more levels?

·       In preparation for what is to come over the next 4 weeks read the rest of chapter 6 of John's gospel.  Note any questions you have.  Revisit the list at the end of August.  Do you have any questions still unanswered?  What are you going to do about that?

·       In the gardening world, August is a month of resting before the energy of spring.  Use this period, with the help of this chapter, to re-charge your spiritual energies.

Friday, 20 July 2012

A Weekend of Prayer for our Diocese

From John Franklin, Bishop's Chaplain A 7pm Friday 31 October - 7pm Sunday 2 September 
As we all know, we are facing significant and exciting challenges to our life as the Diocese of Dunedin.  In his blog of 7 July, Bishop Kelvin wonderswhat our diocese might look like in two years time after we have radically rearranged it. While we look, Leslie Newbigin reminds us that our life is in our orientation to the needs of the world rather than our own preservation.  He says, "Election is not about who gets to heaven; election is about who God chooses to be part of his crisis-response team to bring healing to the world."
This is a time that our bishop describes as one of the most exciting since Constantine, and I believe that it calls us to wholeheartedly turn to our Source.  The mission is not ours, and the church isn't ours.  So Bishop Kelvin and I invite you to join us in a weekend of prayer for our life as a church.  Let's pray together to be open, listening, and responsive to God's 'new thing'.
 And Paul encourages us.  "Do not worry about anything (like earthquake insurance, and financial constraints), but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God" (Philippians 4.6).
We ask each parish/ministry unit to commit to a weekend of united, continuous prayer before Synod, and while Bishop Kelvin prayerfully considers our options for the future.
Some steps:
  1. Talk with one another and get the word out.
  2. Decide whether your people can manage a half day, or 12, 24, 36, or 48 hours from 7pm Friday. 
  3. Choose a warm hospitable space in which to meet.
  4. Choose a coordinator/contact person.
We will provide a prayer for the diocese that will be a starting point, some practical suggestions, copy for Sunday bulletins, and a poster for notice boards.
Let us pray!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

July 22 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 16

July 22                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 16

This Sunday is designated Social Services Sunday.  The readings for that are given in the Lectionary.  It is also the Feast Day of St Mary Magdalene, and readings are also given there for that.  In keeping with my usual practice, I am sticking with the readings set for this Sunday, the 16th in Ordinary Time, although they could be used quite successfully, I suggest, to say some helpful things about Social Services.  (I doubt if they could be stretched to bring in St Mary Magdalene, but over to you.)

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Theme:  A bit trickier this week.  All sorts of ideas have suggested themselves; "Running to Jesus"; "Work-Life Balance"; "Of Kings and Shepherds"; "Breaking Down All Barriers"; "Spiritual Globalisation".  After much tedious debate with myself I'm going with "Life in the Real World".

Introduction.  The shepherd motif is an obvious link between the first lesson and the gospel passage.  More generally, the ministry of Jesus in the gospel passage can be seen as the fulfilment of the messianic prophecy in verses 5 and 6 of the passage from Jeremiah.  A less obvious connection between the gospel and the second lesson may be found in the divide between Jew and Gentile, with the lake acting as a physical barrier between the Jewish territory on the western side and the Gentile territory on the eastern side.  [Cue a quick reminder to notice how many times Mark refers to Jesus crossing over to the other side.]  Overall, it could be said that the unifying theme for all three readings is something to do with the whole idea of the scattering and gathering of the people.  In Christ the gathering of the people of the world into one flock (a new humanity) is foreshadowed in the first lesson, explained theologically in the second lesson, and demonstrated in action in the gospel reading.

Background.  The first thing that strikes me about the gospel passage is the "split" reading.  That always leads me to read the bit missed out first, and today it seems more than passing strange.  Why on earth (or "in the realms of Christendom", as Greg King put it) would we want to jump over the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and the story of Jesus walking on the sea?  However, all is not as it seems: there is no conspiracy to reduce the number of miracle stories to appease the Liberals in the Church.  We have these two stories next week, albeit from St John instead of St Mark.

So what's going on?  As always, it's useful to look at the structure of chapter 6.  It starts with Jesus' lament that a prophet is without honour in his own hometown: St Mark states bluntly that Jesus was unable to achieve much there because of their lack of faith.  That's followed by Jesus sending his disciples out two by two to preach, exorcise, and heal.  Then comes a strange interpolation, the account of St John the Baptist's gruesome execution, before the narrative resumes in real time with the return of the apostles as they report back to Jesus.

In other words, the story about John's death is book-ended by reports of ministry carried out by Jesus and the apostles.  This is what prompted m to select the theme I have.  Jesus has come into the world to bring life, and he has commissioned others to continue this ministry with him.  But the world into which he has come, and into which he has sent them, is a real one, full of darkness, division, hostility and ungodliness.  The awful execution of John (whom at least some of the apostles knew, admired and followed before joining with Jesus) serves as an illustration of all that is corrupt in the real world.  It follows the sending out, where Jesus clearly warns them that they will not be welcome everywhere and by everyone.

Sometimes when I am reading Scripture a snatch of liturgy crashes into my mind, and it happened this week as I was pondering the gospel reading.  One of the positives from leaving out the heavy stuff and concentrating our attention on what at first sight might seem relatively inconsequential extracts is to give a graphic picture of the energy and excitement that followed Jesus on his journeying around Galilee.  Twice we are told of people running to him, even arriving before him in the first case.  (Do I detect faint echoes of the famed foot race between Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved to the empty tomb on Easter morning?)  Individual cases (the man lowered through the ceiling on a stretcher and the woman with the blood discharge problem) are now multiplied into hundreds of similar cases: the sick are carried to Jesus on mats and people beg to be allowed just to touch the hem of his robe to be healed.

With this scene in mind turn to pages 456-7 of the Prayer Book and recite the following slowly (out loud):

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator, the love at our beginning and without end, in our midst and with us.

God is with us, here we find new life.

Let us give thanks for the coming of God's reign of justice and love.

Jesus Christ is good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberty for those who are oppressed.

Do you see what I mean?  Isn't that exactly what was going on among those people in those two little extracts?

Jeremiah.  God is complaining about the leaders of the people, who are referred to as "shepherds".  We might be tempted to construe that term as meaning "pastors", religious leaders), but that's probably too narrow here.  The target is the leaders generally, remembering that Judah was what we would call a theocracy (Modern Iran may give us some inkling of the mix between religious and secular leadership).  The ideal for the Jews was always King David, the classic Shepherd-King.  They had been falling down in their duty to tend the flock.  It's difficult to avoid the feeling that there is something of a contradiction between verses 2 and 3.  The shepherds are accused of having "scattered my sheep and driven them away"; but in the latter verse God proclaims his intention to gather the remnant "out of all the countries where I have driven them".  Such contradictions are probably inevitable given the underlying theological stance that everything that happens to the people, good and bad, must be attributed to God.

Be all that as it may, the emphasis is on a fresh start.  In the short term God will appoint new shepherds to tend the sheep; but this is followed by the great messianic prophecy, once again invoking the name of King David as the ideal leader.

To get a feel for the role of the shepherd have a look at psalm 23, the psalm set for the day; and the re-instatement of Peter in John 21.

Taking It Personally.

·        What sort of leadership do we look for in our local church, our Diocese. and the wider Church?  Is a shepherd still a useful model for us?  If not, what model or image might be better?

·        What about leadership in our communities and in our country?  How do our leaders measure up against the criteria in verses 5 and 6?  Do they reign wisely, and do what is just and right?  Are our people safe and secure?

·        Take some time in silence.  Notice the random thoughts that buzz around in your head.  Now reflect on the theme of scattering and gathering.  Can you gather your thoughts into some sort of creative and coherent whole, centred on Christ, or are they scattered all over the place?

·        Meditate on psalm 23.  Make a list of the things the Good Shepherd does for his sheep.  How far does your own experience confirm (or contradict) this list?


Ephesians.  This one of those wonderful passages that surely makes this epistle one of the most glorious in the whole collection (whether Paul wrote it or not).  It defies detailed analysis: it is best enjoyed as one all-embracing vision of the wonder of God's grace.  It is hard for us, perhaps, to grasp how overwhelming and uncontested the supposed divide between Jew and Gentile was until Christ broke it down.  Remember how difficult it seemed to the early Church to get over the "circumcision" issue.  Imagine how long and how many Commissions the Anglican Communion would have needed to grapple with that!  And try not to think of our three-tikanga constitution with this passage in front of you.  If you do feel the need to take bite-sized pieces, here are three tasty titbits: a new humanity (spiritual globalisation); the Trinitarian thrust of the last few verses; the idea of the people of God being built into a temple to house the Holy Spirit.




Taking It Personally


Something a little different to try.  If you have a difficult issue with someone try this.  Imagine a room containing three chairs.  You are seated on one, and opposite you is seated the other person.  The central chair, positioned equidistant from the other two is Christ's seat.  Now imagine yourself putting your side of the argument to Jesus, attempting to convince him that you are right and the other person is wrong.  But whatever you say, Jesus replies, "Yes, but do you love me?"  "Yes, but do you really love me?"  "Yes, but do you truly love me?"  You, of course, respond with Peter (John 21), becoming increasingly exasperated with Jesus.  Then Jesus says, "If you love me you will obey my commandments.  And my commandment is this:  Love one another."


If Jesus is our peace, if he is the one who breaks down the walls that divide, we have only to let him.


Mark.  There is so much here, even without the middle chunks!  The apostles, after a period of active ministry, withdraw to Jesus.  Something here about accountability, perhaps, but also a need to re-charge, physically as well as spiritually.  Even on Social Services Sunday we see the importance of retreat, reflection and prayer.  So, despite all the need around them, they try to get away to a solitary place by themselves, but are unsuccessful.  As noted above, marvel at the lengths to which the crowds will go to meet Jesus.  (When was the last time you ran to church?)  Jesus looks at them and has compassion "because they were like sheep without a shepherd".  We expect pastoral ministry, don't we?  We expect another feeding miracle, or another bout of healing and exorcism.  So did the crowd, probably, but what he gave them was teaching on many things.  The healing and other stuff comes after the return journey.


Taking It Personally.


·        Both these short passages lend themselves very well to imaginative prayer.  Run with the crowd.  Who or what are you bringing to him?  What is your request?

·        How do you feel when he starts teaching, instead of doing something practical?  (Doesn't he know it's Social Services Sunday?)

·        What sort of "many things" might he have addressed in that teaching, given that it arose from his compassion for them?

·        Re-read the snippet of liturgy quoted above, slowly, rhythmically, a few times.  Does that summarise for you what you have experienced through your imagination around the lake?

·        How confidently can you stand in your local church and proclaim, "God is with us, here we find new life"?

Thursday, 12 July 2012

July 15 NOTES FOR REFLECTION National Bible Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-11; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; John 5:36b-47

Theme: Speaks for itself this time: "The Holy Scriptures" covers it.

Introduction.  Not every specially designated Sunday appeals to me, but this one is special.  This is our core business.  Usually we are focusing on short passages of Scripture, without giving any thought to what Scripture is (and isn't); or why we read every week from the Scriptures and not from, say, the Collected works of Charles Dickens or the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  So this day gives us an opportunity to reflect on those questions, guided, of course, by today's readings, each of which has important things to say on this topic.  Isaiah shows us the power of God's word to achieve its purpose.  The classic example of that is found in the creation text in Genesis 1, but we have a variation on the theme in today's chapter 5 of John's Gospel.  (Yes, I know we only have to read verses 36b-47, but we're allowed to read the whole chapter, so why wouldn't we?)  Paralysed for 38 years, the man is suddenly able to do what Jesus commands him to do – stand up and walk.  And in between, St Paul gives directions to Timothy that still constitute the preacher's charter today.

Background.  As I write these notes General Synod is once again grappling with issues relating to sexuality, and in particular to those around same-gender relationships.  Leaving aside bigotry, ignorance and all other human failings that seem to surface with particular force in such debates (inside as much as outside the Church), a major part of the issue for those who do want to arrive at Christ-centred solutions is our attitude to Scripture, or, more fundamentally, our understanding of what Scripture actually is.  Some have what I call an Islamic attitude to Scripture.  Just as classical Islam holds that the Koran is the dictated word of God and must be accepted literally, without interpretation or gloss (some even believe that it should not be translated into any language from the original Arabic), so there are some within the Church who believe that the Scriptures are the dictated word of God and must be treated accordingly.

Such a view is open to all sorts of attacks on historical, literary and other grounds, even by people who wish to give a very high value to Scripture, as I do.  But to me the defining objection to that view lies in the fact that the Scriptures themselves contradict it, and I don't mean that by careful search we can find individual cases of specific contradictions: I mean that there are clear indications in the teaching of Jesus and of St Paul that such an approach cannot be sustained logically.  A quick example from St Paul is found in 1 Corinthians 7: compare verses 10 and 12, where he distinguishes between two commandments, one from the Lord and the other from himself.  As for the Lord, we only have to think of his attitude to the Sabbath to see that, at the very least, he believed in "interpreting" the written word, not just slavishly following it.

That is also my answer to the other popular description of the Bible (which really does get up my nose!) as "the Maker's Handbook", a sort of Divine Help Desk to which we turn when we have a problem.  Try that approach with any modern issues and you will soon find yourself in the hopeless bind that General Synod has been in for the last few years and is still in as I write.

So if the Bible is not the dictated word of God, nor the Maker's Handbook, what is it?  Those who have been reading these notes over the last few weeks will not be surprised to learn that I have become more and more convinced that what the Bible is essentially is a collection of accounts of religious experiences, human-divine encounters, individual and collective, collected over centuries, together with reflections on those experiences as the faith communities have tried to make sense of them.  To take just one example here, whatever happened or didn't happen at the Bethesda pool in today's gospel passage we can surely say that the cripple of 38 years had a life-changing experience that was out of the ordinary run of things.  It was personal to him, but becomes part of our tradition through the account we have in John's Gospel.  It becomes part of the record, the canon, by which we assess other experiences, our own or those of other people.  This is part of what makes an experience "religious"; we interpret it within the Christian tradition.  Has anything like this ever happened before?  Oh, yes, here is a record of a similar event in the Scriptures, or in subsequent accounts.

A central feature of this and most other such encounters is the spoken word: the experient hears words addressed to him or her.  When we are considering biblical accounts of people meeting Jesus in the flesh, as it were, we do not find anything particularly odd about that; we focus on what was said and meant.  But we should at least notice how often we are told that the crowds were amazed at what he said, as well as what he did.  He spoke with a particular authority, with great wisdom, and so on.  Where did he get this stuff from?  And, of course, his words were often "performatory" – they achieved his purpose (the storm instantly died down, this man immediately got up and walked).  One of the great characteristics of a religious experience is that it is self-authenticating, the experient "just knows" it is real.  Jesus' own explanation was simply that he did not speak his own words, but those given to him by the Father.

Isaiah.  This is surely one of the most joyful passages in the whole of Isaiah's wonderful book!  He is overwhelmed by the sense of God's bounty, his sheer goodness to us.  God is the source of everything, not just bare necessities, but wonderful treats ("the richest fare") as well.  (For more details of the menu see Isaiah 25:6.  If he was writing today you just know there would be references to chocolate in this passage somewhere!)  And included in the list of marvellous things that come from God is his spoken word.  The key verse here is 11: having referred to the rain and the snow that come down from heaven to water the earth and promote growth, the great prophet (speaking, of course, as God's mouthpiece) continues: so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.  Experience tells us that what God promises to do, he will do.  Here that is taken one step further: what God says will come to pass.

Taking It Personally.

·        Take a few moments to consider how you are feeling.  It's natural to feel a bit down in midwinter.  Nothing much is happening in the garden, the abundance and variety of food is diminished.  Lunchtime sandwiches are getting boring – cheese and what today?  Now cheer yourself up by listening to verse 1 over and over again until you have learned it by heart.

·        Ponder verse 2.  Reflect on your own priorities in your life at this time.  Do you need to make any changes?

·        Now verse 6.  Are you truly seeking the Lord?  Do you sense his near presence with you?

·        If you're inclined to try to "think your way to heaven", take verses 8 and 9 three times a day until you are cured.

·        Next time you hear a news item over the ongoing stoush about water rights, recall this passage: water is the gift of God for the people of God.


Timothy.  A modern translation of this charge from the old hand, St Paul, to the rookie, Timothy, might be "Stick to your knitting."  As I said at the start of these notes, the Scriptures are our core business.  While Paul tells Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry", the heart of that ministry is summed up in three words in 4:2: "Preach the Word".  Timothy has already begun, so Paul in effect is telling him to stick at it: not to be diverted or discouraged, and not to change the message to please the punters.  He reminds Timothy that he has been brought up on the Scriptures and has been convinced of their truth.  First lesson: no one should preach if they are not themselves convinced of the truth of the Scriptures.  The key verse in this passage is verse 16, which requires careful pondering if we want to have a biblical attitude towards the Bible.  All Scripture is "God-breathed" we're told – a happier phrase would be "inspired by God"; and I would want to say something more about the ways in which Scripture is inspired.  Scripture is only words on the paper unless it is read and heard, when an encounter between the human and divine becomes possible.  Yes, I believe that the writers were inspired by God (through the Holy Spirit) in the writing; but the Spirit also guided those who decided over the years what was and what was not to be included in the Bible, and preserved those documents to ensure that they were not lost to us; and the Spirit guides the listener/reader to hear and receive the message in the Scriptures.


And there's more.  The Scriptures are "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness".  We must take them seriously, and seek guidance from them; but in the context it is clear that they are to be used as a teaching tool, not an infallible manual.

One final point before we get to the gospel passage.  In the Collect suggested for this celebration we ask God to grant that by patient study of the Scriptures we may follow more closely the way that you set before us.  We are used to talking about self-fulfilling prophecies; here is a self-answering prayer.  How else might God answer this prayer if we are not prepared to commit ourselves to patient study of the Scriptures?


Taking It Personally.

·        Commit yourself to patient study of the Scriptures, say 30 minutes daily for at least a month, and see what happens.

·        Focus on verses 3 and 4 (Chapter 4).  How eager are you to seek spiritual wisdom from other sources than the Bible?  How accurate do you think Paul's prediction is as you look at our society today?


John.  And if we really want to acquire a biblical attitude towards the Bible, we need to set aside ample time to study today's passage from Scripture.  And do read the whole chapter to get the full flavour of what Jesus is saying here.  Verse 39 makes particular sense when you understand that this ongoing debate was triggered by Jesus' healing of the paralytic at the pool.  Notice that his critics have turned on the beggar himself because he was seen carrying his mat on the Sabbath!!!  Take a moment to laugh out loud at that.  This guy has been paralysed for 38 years, he's been healed, and all the religious people can say is not "Whoopee!", but how dare he carry his mat home on the Sabbath.  They were treating Scripture as The Maker's Handbook; they were taking literally the Scriptural prohibition against doing any work on the Sabbath.  Yes, we could quibble over their interpretation of the word "work", but that's hardly the point.  The point is they are so focused on Scripture that they have lost sight of God, even though he has now come among them.  They diligently study the Scriptures, says Jesus, because they believe that's the way to get salvation.  There's the warning for all those who focus entirely on the Bible instead of on Christ.  He is the Saviour, not the Bible.


One further word on this passage.  It sometimes seems a bit cheeky for Christians to insist that the Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) is about Christ, as Jesus himself says today.  Yet that attitude comes out of the Christian experience: as they pondered the whole Christ event they looked to their Scriptures for guidance.  We can see this in the Road to Emmaus story and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  That is the way in which we still use Scripture to evaluate our own religious experiences today.


Taking It Personally.


·        If a friend asked you how you felt about the Bible, what would you say?  Is it important to you?  How important?  Why?  How do you show that?


Thursday, 5 July 2012


Texts: Ezekiel 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Note.  In the Church Calendar today is designated Sea Sunday.  The readings for that are given as Job 38:1, 4-11; Acts 27:27-32, 39-44; Luke 8:22-25.  However, I said all I wanted to say about that Job passage 2 weeks ago; and today's Ordinary readings are far too tempting!

Theme:  Short and simple this time: I'm going with "Just Say the Word".  [Whether or not anybody listens or takes the faintest notice of what you're saying is beside the point.]

Introduction.  It is sometimes said that Christianity (along with Judaism and Islam) are Religions of the Book.  I prefer to say that Christianity is a Religion of the Spoken Word.  The great prophets were not told to sit down and write something for eventual inclusion in the Bible; they were told to go out and preach (proclaim) the messages God gave them (orally).  Ezekiel is given that clear instruction today.  John the Baptist stood in that tradition, and Jesus, too.  Today Jesus sends his disciples into the world and they start off exactly where John and Jesus began their public ministries, by calling upon the people to repent.  St Paul is famous for his letters, of course, but before he wrote it all down he preached and taught it.  The other common theme in all this is that very few listened to Ezekiel, Jesus or Paul: in the wonderful phrase I associate with Moses, the people were (as we are inclined to be) "stiff-necked".

Background.  Once again we are reminded that all our faith history – and all our theology - is rooted in the human experience of the divine, in what I have been referring to in recent notes as "religious (or spiritual) experiences".  Today we have some further examples, very much towards the "mystical" end of the spectrum.

To grasp today's passage from Ezekiel, we need to read chapter 1.  There is described an astonishing vision of the Divine Being that Ezekiel saw.  Totally overwhelmed (today's much over-used expression "mind-blowing" might really apply here), Ezekiel prostates himself, and it is while he is face-down on the floor that he hears God speak to him.  Perhaps I should pause at this stage to deal with the inconvenient truth of what follows today's passage.  Ezekiel is given a scroll on both sides of which were written "words of lament and warning and woe".  But the interesting thing is that Ezekiel is told, not to read the scroll, but to eat it.  It seems that this is his "ordination service" – he is being ordained to the office of prophet, rather than being given an express message to pass on to the people.  His actual ministry as a prophet doesn't start until seven days later; he needed a quiet period to recover from his extraordinary experience(s).  Perhaps, then, what we have here is a preparation period, beginning with the vision in chapter 1, then his call as a prophet, and his instruction to feast upon the word of God (almost literally – we still talk about "inwardly digesting" something we are told); and, even bigger perhaps, the significance of the description of the words on the scroll (2:10) is that Ezekiel is first to take in to himself God's own anguish at his people; he must enter into the divine "lament and mourning and woe", as the scroll enters into him.  He must take to heart not only the words of God but God's feelings, too.

St Paul's attempt to describe his own mystical experience is wonderfully jumbled – illustrating just how ineffable such experiences are.  He is clearly conflicted as to whether he should talk about it at all: that's why he makes a confused attempt to pretend he is describing an experience someone else had.  It had happened 14 years ago – the implication being that he had never spoken of it before.  And basically he tells us very little about the experience and in doing so conveys its enormity.  He didn't know whether the experience was internal or external (in the body or out of it); he was "caught up to the third heaven" (verse 2) or to "paradise" (verse 4): there he heard "inexpressible things" (presumably meaning he could not put them into words), and even if they were expressible they were "things that human beings are not permitted to tell".

In both cases, the experience was private, uniquely for Ezekiel and St Paul respectively.  {I've seen it written that this is true of all religious experiences, but I remain hopeful that I can find exceptions to that rule, either in Scripture, or in the accounts of others recorded in the archives of the Religious Experiences Research Unit, or elsewhere.  Join the hunt: let me know if you come across accounts where two or more people had a simultaneous vision, or heard the same voice.)  In the gospel stories we have something different: crowds hear Jesus speak, and see him in action.  And yet, for all sorts of reasons, only a few recognise that God has come among them.  The majority in his day – as in ours – were far too clever to believe such an extraordinary idea.

Ezekiel.  Notice that the first thing God tells Ezekiel to do is to stand up.  Why does he need to stand up (he has prostrated himself before the living God, surely an entirely appropriate response – and an involuntary one!)  He is told to stand up as a precursor to God speaking to him.  There is something there about the grace of God and the dignity of humanity in God's eyes.  It is not that Ezekiel's response was wrong, but having made it he is now to be raised up to new life in the Spirit.  (Ring an Easter-Pentecost bell at all?)  Notice it is the Spirit that raises him up: he doesn't have to clamber up himself.  And notice, too, that God does not expect that his people will listen to Ezekiel because they never listen to him either (see 3:7).  That's not important, nor does it mean that Ezekiel should save his breath.  What is important is that "they will know that a prophet has been among them".  His presence among them will be enough to remind them that they are God's people.

Taking It Personally.

·        Read 1:1; notice the specific historical details.  This is not a fairy story – this is something that happened in real time, and Ezekiel can remember the date to this day.  Can you recall any specific incident in your faith journey in such historical detail?

·        Read slowly through chapter 1.  How do you feel about this vision?  What words come to mind to describe it?  Compare it with the vision Isaiah saw in the Temple: Isaiah 6:1-8.  How does it compare with your present "vision/image" of God?

·        Ponder the emphasis on body positions in this story.  Recall that by tradition those being consecrated/ordained as bishops prostrate themselves before the Holy Table.  Why?  Now prostrate yourself and pray in that position.  How do you feel about that?

·        Reflect on the three positions we usually adopt at different parts of a service, standing, sitting, and kneeling.  Do they signify something important or is it just something we do?

·        In what way might your presence among other people remind those people that God is among them?

Corinthians.  Paul, it seems, was constantly subjected to the sort of "who does he think he is" abuse that we see in today's gospel reading when Jesus returned to his home-town.  Paul responded often by feeling he had to prove his own credentials as an apostle, even though he realised it must come across as boasting.  So he starts today's passage by acknowledging that he is boasting, and, in a feebly disguised account, says in effect, well, I do have something to boast about (in addition to his long list of suffering that he had boasted about earlier).  The fact is that this experience he reports today must have been for Paul almost as important – if not equally so – as his more famous experience on the Road to Damascus.  (Now I come to think of it, why is today's story less well known than that other one – does it make us feel more uncomfortable – do we think he is simply bragging – or is that sort of experience best kept to himself?)  Perhaps his diffidence has led him immediately to give the bad news – some sort of affliction that God has refused to take away from him, despite prayer.  (See – even St Paul knew what it was like to have unanswered prayer!  Okay, technically God did answer his prayer, by turning down his request, but you know what I mean.)

 Taking It Personally.

·        Do you struggle with this whole issue of being boastful/ honest about yourself?  How do you respond when someone praises you?  Can you still hear "parental voices" warning you not to get big-headed (blow your own trumpet)?

·        Do you feel St Paul has simply given into temptation?  Should he have held his tongue, turned the other cheek, etc?  Are you put off by his boasting?

·        Are you glad he reported his "spiritual experience"?  Do you find it encouraging or off-putting?   Why?

·        Now reflect on "the mysterious thorn in his flesh".  Have you found yourself wondering what it was?  Why?  What difference would it make?

·        Have you suffered from some recurring illness or condition that might be so described?  Have you prayed for it removal?  Can you draw strength from St Paul's argument here, or is it all just words?

·        Ponder the last sentence: For when I am weak, then I am strong.  Does it make sense to you?

Mark.  Jesus has calmed a storm, healed the sick and demon-possessed, and even brought a dead child back to life.  Even without today's press and social media, news of some of this must have filtered back to his hometown.  Yet when he gets home and is invited to speak at the local synagogue, the crowds take offence at him.  Who does he think he is?  He's too big for his boots.  He's a carpenter's son, not a blinking rabbi!  Despite their amazement at his teaching – and despite acknowledging that he has performed miracles – they couldn't see past their pre-conception of him.  Kids from around here don't reach those dizzy heights.  He's just a lad from the village; while he's been away he has forgotten his roots, but we haven't.  Notice that Jesus is not shocked at their lack of welcome, or their rudeness, but their lack of faith.  Are they really refusing to believe that God can and will do among them and for them what Jesus has been doing?  Do they believe that God heals people, or calms storms, or raises the dead to new life?  Jesus has exposed their lack of faith in God.  He has challenged their understanding of God.  It was into such a world that Jesus sent his disciples two by two.

Taking It Personally.

·        Reflect on the story so far.  Read slowly through chapter 5, then ask yourself as honestly as you can, "Do I believe that Jesus did these things?"  "Do I believe that God was in Jesus doing these things?"  "Do I believe that God in Jesus continues to do such things today?"

·        Would Jesus be amazed at your lack of faith, or pleased by your faith?

·        Ponder Jesus' instructions to his disciples in verses 8-11.  Are you a disciple of Christ?  Do you still want to be?

·        Ponder their response in verses 12 and 13.  Notice the two strands to their ministry, word and action.  What do you take from these verses for your own faith journey?

·        Where in the Church have you seen this sort of ministry being undertaken faithfully?

·        If Jesus was doing an ERO-type review of your local faith community how would he rate it, do you think?