St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

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?


No comments:

Post a Comment