St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 30 August 2012

September 2 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 22

September 2                          NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 22

Texts:  Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Theme:  The phrase that kept coming to me as I pondered these readings was "Willing Obedience", so I'm going with that.  Note: we have been called by our Bishop to spend some time in prayer this weekend, not to tell God what our diocese needs, but to discern God's will for the diocese.  Can these readings offer any guidance to us in this process?

Introduction.  Today we return to Mark, and pick up the story where we left it six weeks ago.  Opposition to Jesus is beginning to consolidate around the issues of tradition and innovation, the familiar pattern whenever any "reformer" dares to suggest that it's time for a change.  Major change was facing the Israelites as they prepared for the death of their long-serving leader, Moses, and their entry into the Promised Land.  But one thing that doesn't seemed to have changed much from that time to this is human nature.  As we begin a series of teachings from the Epistle of James we will be constantly reminded of that!

Background.  I must confess that turning to today's gospel passage after the last 5 weeks feeding on the Gospel of John is rather like finding we're out of bread and having to make do with a dry cracker biscuit!  [And to be really honest, I am fighting the temptation to say that a Communion wafer is a poor symbol of the Living Bread!]  But perhaps this is the whole point of returning to Mark with this most mundane of passages.  It challenges us to ask ourselves, where do we as a Church put our time and commitment?  Are we committed to the things of God or are we hung up on the things of purely human concern? 

The matters that took up the time of our General Synod at its recent meeting in Fiji suggest that that is a very timely question.  The heading to the article in Anglican Taonga on that meeting was "Landmark decision on assets": no, it had nothing to do with the partial sale of State-owned companies, but was all about our financial relationship with our tikanga partners.    You may or may not be reassured to know "the fundamental issue at stake was not 'a grab for money' but tino rangatiratanga".  Put it in whichever language you wish and the sad truth remains the same: twenty years after our brave new Constitution came into force we are still arguing over who owns what, and who exercises control over the till.  Think about that for a moment in the light of today's readings (or, indeed any other passage of Scripture) and you will see why it's not only our diocese that needs to spend this weekend listening to God in prayer.

If the spiritual life means anything it is surely about opening ourselves to transcendence, recognising that there is something more to being human than our concerns as separate individuals.  At one level we recognise that through our law, our shared interests as a nation, our traditions, culture, and history.  We recognise that we have a shared story in New Zealand that is different from the story of other nations.  There is much that is positive in all that, although taken to ex cess nationalism ends in the horrors of Nazism.

Spirituality is about all this taken to a supreme level.  It's about transcending our individuality, our family commitments, our local communities, our national interests, and embracing the unity and wholeness of the entire creation.  Transcending, not abolishing.  That there is a vital distinction there has been brought home to me again as I have been reading the autobiography of Karen Armstrong, widely acclaimed today for her books on religious faith around the world and throughout history.  [I warmly recommend her "History of God".]  Her personal story is even more gripping.  At 17 she entered a religious order and spent 7 years in a convent trying to meet God.  This was in the late 1950's to early 1960's in Britain.  In the book she describes her struggle to submit to the unquestionable authority of the Mother Superior.  No doubt some of that clash was about personality and personal chemistry (not helped by the fact that at the time Karen was suffering from undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy).

But the real issue, it seems to me, was the fundamental approach of trying to "break the individual will".  We shouldn't point the finger at this particular religious order or this Mother Superior.  Throughout Christian history the idea of breaking the individual's will so that he or she can become completely surrendered to God was almost unchallenged orthodoxy.  I still come across it in modern books on prayer.  Yet I have never heard or seen the idea that Christ's human will had to be broken before he could become totally surrendered to the Father's will.   [Have a look at Hebrews 5:7-10.] My understanding is that Jesus' human will was perfectly aligned with the Father's will, not displaced by it.  At all times Jesus freely chose to obey his Father's will.  Isn't that what we believe?  And if it is, does it not follow that what we are called to do – as difficult as it is – is to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into aligning our will with that of the Father?

The question of obedience – whether in a convent or outside – is, then, whether it is given willingly in response to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Are the rules in question rooted in God or purely human creations?  Was the Mother Superior guiding Karen to hear and understand God's precepts, or was she demanding obedience to her own will because she was the Mother Superior and Karen wasn't?  Was the object to help Karen grow in willing obedience to God, or to become a compliant nun ever willing to obey her superiors?

Whenever we are faced with Scriptures about the need for obedience we need to remind ourselves that the Jewish understanding of the Law is very different from the modern Western one.  We are inclined to think of law as restrictive of our individual freedom, at best a necessary evil.  The Jewish understanding of the Torah is that it is a wonderful gift from a wise, generous and loving God.  It is no accident that by far the longest psalm in the Psalter is No.119, a profound and joyous meditation on the glories of the law.  It embodies the will of God: obedience of it, therefore, is the way to bring our will into perfect alignment with God's.  To obey the law is the fundamental spiritual practice of the Jewish faith.

Deuteronomy.  This entire book is presented as the final teaching of Moses, and ends with his death.  It is hard for us to realise how traumatic that must have been for the people whom he had led for so long.  Perhaps Nelson Mandela would be the nearest modern equivalent to a leader who has led his people out of slavery into the Promised Land, and whose death will be a time of heartfelt loss and anxiety as to the future.  The future for the Israelites was one of great excitement and great alarm.  They were preparing for the final push, assured of victory, but anticipating opposition from the tangata whenua.  They are still essentially a coalition of tribes, held together by common adversity and a tough leader.  Will the coalition hold together when these are removed?  The need, then, is for a foundational document, a charter or constitution, acceptable to all twelve tribes.  In worldly terms that's what we have in these laws.  They are together the instrument by which the tribes may hope to transcend their individual and tribal interests and enter into a new relationship with one another through their relationship with God.  Obedience to these laws is the practical way by which they may achieve this transcendence. 

Key terms abound in this reading, none more so than the opening phrase, "Hear now, O Israel".  Others include "the God of your ancestors", and the idea of the land as given to them by God, not taken by them by force of arms.  We find here the beginning of the idea that Israel is to be a light to the Gentiles: they are to live in obedience to these laws as an example to the nations.  And they are to hand them on to future generations.  Here is the idea of continuity, of history, and of story.

Taking It Personally.

·        How do you react to this whole idea of obedience?  Can an individual be free and obedient?  Does the idea of willing obedience make sense?

·        What role do "commandments" have in the Christian faith?  Do they show us how to live, or do they impose restrictions on us?  Can they help us to open ourselves to transcendence, to come closer to God?

·        If the Church is the new Israel, should it be an example to the nations?  Should our neighbours be able to looks at us and be impressed?

·        Who told you the Christian story?  How are you passing it on to succeeding generations?

James.  This is a curious book, one of those that Martin Luther thought should never have been included in the Canon.  Debate continues over which James actually wrote it.  Some scholars argue that it has so little merit it could only have been included because it was written by James the Lord's brother.  Others suggest that if he wrote it, he would have identified himself as the Lord's brother.  Whoever wrote it, it seems a little strange to address a Christian text (in verse 1) to the "twelve tribes scattered among the nations".  It also has a rather disjointed feel to it.  I wonder if it is actually a collection of "sayings" (along the lines of the sayings of the Desert Fathers) rather than one coherent letter.  It certainly lacks the depth of Paul's writings, being much more a sort of daily guide to dealing with particular problems.  That's probably where its greatest value is to be found: all those of us who have trouble controlling our tongues can recognise in James a fellow-sufferer!  Again, we are reminded to listen before we speak; and a typical element of James' teaching is to act on what we hear when we do listen.  Perhaps verse 25 sums up his whole approach: in modern terms he advocates both contemplation (silent prayer) and action (ministry to others.  This is spelled out in more detail in the succeeding verses, together with another exhortation to keep ourselves 'clean', not simply to be obedient, or even good, but to be spiritually healthy.

Taking It Personally.

·        A good passage for a spiritual stock-take.  Read through the passage slowly.  What particularly challenges you?  Are you more inclined to talk the talk without walking the walk?  Do you tend to leap into action without spending time listening to God?

·        Review the last week in terms of the things you have said to others.  Have you kept control of your tongue, or has it slipped the leash on the odd occasion?

·        Have you been angry recently?  Justifiably? 

Mark.  Notice that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law do not accuse Jesus himself of any breach (only his disciples); and notice that they do not charge a breach of the Law.  Their complaint is that they are not following the "tradition of the elders", giving Jesus an easy volley by playing Isaiah 29:13.  However, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in verse 15 Jesus is abrogating the dietary laws, some of which were most definitely part of the original Law.  We should have some sympathy for his opponents here.  Many of them would have sincerely believed that to follow the Law, and even the tradition of the elders, was the proper way to honour God and to open themselves to transcendence, to grow spiritually into a closer relationship with God.  It's as if someone has just tried to tell us that the Eucharist has no importance in the spiritual life because nothing we take into our bodies has any effect on us.  There is a real clash of understanding here and the stakes could not be higher.  God is the one who makes all things new; but he is also the one who gave them the Law and told them not to add to or subtract from it.

Taking It Personally.

·        Spend your time on this passage praying for the Diocese.  Pray for the gift of discernment  that we may know what is essential and what is only of human concern.

·        One of the arguments for detailed laws is that they helped to remind the faithful constantly of the presence of God. This week try this 'Law': every time you turn on a tap, confess that you take water for granted, thank God for the gift of water, praise Christ as the living water, and ask the Holy Spirit to flow more freely into your life.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Diocesan Prayer Weekend this Weekend

From John Franklin, Bishop's Chaplain.

As we approach our weekend of prayer for the diocese, I think "Let us breathe" is a good synonym for "Let us pray" because we are about drawing in life.  As in prayer we breathe in God-Presence, I think grace is as available as oxygen, and older.  Exciting!  So I am delighted to hear how different parishes are creatively responding to the call to prayer this weekend.  We all need to do what works best for us in our patch, but we are joining together in one big breath that seeks God.
We may have plans for how the future of the diocese might look, and we may have some creative imaginings and opinions. There may be some of us who don't even know what the questions are.  But we are with one voice saying "Your kingdom come, your will be done" rather than our kingdom and our will.  And we are praying together! 
So what is our prayer? We can encourage one another to trust the prayer that rises in our hearts.  As the old saying goes, 'Pray as you can, not as you can't'.  But specifically we pray for a God-centered, God-listening synod meeting that is graced with wisdom.  We pray for Bishop Kelvin as he considers how we may most efficiently and effectively structure ourselves for Christ's mission.  But above all, we are praying that we will be graced to be in total cooperation with what God is up to in this moment in history on this part of the planet.
No matter how few the words are, we are looking forward to hearing what you have heard in your prayer when the notebooks that parishes were supplied with are returned to the diocesan office for Bishop Kelvin by Friday 7 September.  Our prayer, with thanksgiving is letting our requests be made known to God.  And our prayer is listening for God's response.  
So let us breathe deeply of God-life, and let us pray deeply in the life- Spirit and welcome what God has for us.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Prayer Weekend

Friday, August 31 - Sunday, September 2

"Do not worry about anything,

but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving,

let your requests be made known to God.

Philippians 4.6

A Prayer for our Diocese

O Lord, who has not stopped forming us

since the hour of our beginning;

Who has come among us to save us from ourselves

and to teach us to love;

Who dwells beside us and within us

and below us and above us,

Give us the grace to think again.

May we know the joy of true discipleship;

May our relationships with you and with each other

be real and deep;

May we have the courage to give our best for the least.

In the name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Focus for Prayer

For the Diocese: Ministry Units/Parishes/Churches

in every part of Otago and Southland, and locally.

For renewal and re-direction,

for the gift and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

For Bishop Kelvin: as he works with the challenges of

and to reshape our structure and administration.

For Clergy, Lay Ministers, the Diocesan Office Staff

and all who exercise leadership.

Synod, meeting in mid-September.

For wise stewardship and use of resources

in the service of the Kingdom.

For wise discernment as we consider the coming implications of

the earthquake-worthiness and insurance of our buildings.

For imagination and faithfulness, for vision and voice

to be effective bearers and sharers of Good News.

That we will be open and responsive:

to what God will do

with and for us;

to what God would do

through us,

to what God will speak and shape

in us.

God of opportunity and change,

praise to you for giving us life at this critical time.

As our horizons extend, keep us loyal to our past;

as our dangers increase, help us to prepare the future;

keep us trusting and hopeful,

ready to recognise your kingdom as it comes.


Draw your Church together, O God,

into one great company of disciples,

together following our Lord Jesus Christ into every walk of life,

together serving him in his mission to the world,

and together witnessing to his love on every continent and island.

We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Diocese of Dunedin

Thursday, 23 August 2012

August 26 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 21

Texts: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Theme: Not the easiest group of readings for today's desire for pluralism, mutual respect, tolerance and inclusivity!  All three give us a stark choice, none more so than the climactic passage from chapter 6 of St John's Gospel.  We could try one last variation on the theme of heavenly food, but I think something closer to Peter's rhetorical question would be better.  I'm going for "What choice do we have?"  NOTE:  In our Church Calendar, today is designated Anglican Communion Sunday, so we should keep at least one eye open for any useful guidance in these readings for our Church.

Introduction.  Joshua is not one of my all-time favourite Old Testament books, and even today's passage, usually presented in its most positive light as a ringing endorsement of true faith – and the importance of making an individual commitment – has a decidedly dark overtone when read in the context of the earlier chapters.  But the main point is clear: we have a choice and we must make it.  Are we committed to the God of Israel or to some other god?  St Paul reaches the end of his wonderful letter to the Ephesians (my favourite Epistle!) with a somewhat laboured image drawn from the Roman military.  But the call is equally clear: we must take our stand.  And the end of chapter 6 of St John's Gospel shows Jesus' erstwhile followers deeply divided over his insistence that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood if they are to have eternal life.  Today is not for the indecisive or the faint-hearted!

Background.  Once again the challenge before us is to be true to the Scriptures – that do consistently demand exclusive commitment – while trying to avoid coming across as somewhere between Ian Paisley, a mad mullah and an evolution-denying Southern Baptist.  So here's a little story from the great Egyptian Father of Monks from the Egyptian desert of the 4th century:

When Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, 'Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age?  Why are there those that are poor and those that are rich?  Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?'  He heard a voice answering him, 'Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.'  [Source: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Sister Benedicta Ward, S.L.G.]

Along similar lines is the famous response of the Risen Christ to Peter's impertinent question about what was to befall the Beloved Disciple: John 21:22.  The sorts of questions that were perplexing St Anthony in the desert – and have bothered people down to the present day – are all very interesting to the human intellect; but ultimately they are what Jesus called things of human concern rather than things of God.  The invitation of come to God is direct and personal and calls for a direct, immediate and whole-hearted (and single-minded!) response.  St Anthony's questions, wittingly or unwittingly, are diversionary tactics at best; at worst they are attempts to negotiate an arrangement with God.  In effect, in raising such issues, we are really saying to God something like this:  "Well, I have received your invitation and am prepared to consider it.  But first I need to cross-examine you on a number of matters.  Whether or not I ultimately accept your invitation will depend on how satisfactory I find your answers to my questions."

Here's a couple of shorter ways of approaching this issue.  First, consider mountaineers attempting to climb a particularly difficult mountain.  Their best chance of success lies with choosing which route they will follow and sticking to it.  It may not be the only route that leads to the top, but if they start off, then abandon it and try another one, they are likely to be going up and down without getting anywhere.  Commitment to the one route chosen freely is the best plan.

Now, having perhaps exposed my ignorance of mountaineering, here's a safer analogy.  To join a faith community is to enter into a particular narrative or story.  Our story begins with Abraham, continues through the entire Bible, and on through the history of the Christian Church right up to today.  If we suddenly decide that we don't think this story quite fits us anymore and we need to try a different story there is again a sense in which we have to go back to the beginning and start all over with a new chapter 1.

And here's a bonus.  The athlete who is training for the javelin event in the next Olympic Games would be unwise to give up half-way through the training and switch to pole-vaulting!

We believe (don't we?) that our spiritual quest begins with God's initiative.  God calls us and we respond.  We are on the journey along the Christian route because that is the route that God has called us along.  That is not to say that there are no other routes, or that God cannot call other people to him along other routes.  But what is that to us?  We are called to follow Christ, hard teachings notwithstanding.

Joshua.  There is no escaping the fact that this is the Book of Conquest.  It calmly records what today we would consider gross acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, etc.  But that's not why I think today's passage speaks to us particularly well on this Anglican Communion Sunday!  Go back a wee bit in this saga and we find that this is part of Joshua's farewell address.  He is now nearing his death, so it's a time of monumental change for the people.  They are still trying to move from a tribal to a national identity.  Chapter 22 illustrates the ongoing tensions and suspicions between the eastern and western tribes which almost spilled over into civil war.  So the background to this general assembly of all the people is that all is not sweetness and light.  The community is deeply divided.  Yet the conclusion of chapter 22 sends the clear signal: the one thing that unites them is their faith in the one God.  And because they worship the one God they share in a common story.

Today's general assembly, then, comprises ALL the tribes of Israel, and all the elders, leaders, judges and officials are called forward.  Joshua addresses them with a message from "the Lord, the God of Israel", which starts with a recitation of their shared story.  Only when that has finished does the point of the message become clear: it is time to choose.  No more keeping the old household gods in the cupboard for emergencies.  No more each-way bets.  It's time for total commitment.  You are either totally committed to the God of Israel or you are not committed to him at all.  The choice is yours.

Taking It Personally.

·        Joshua expressly refers to the gods of their ancestors and to the gods of the Amorites among whom the Israelites were living.  We might see them as representing the values of a past age and of our surrounding society.  Which are more tempting to you?

·        On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to following the way of Christ?

·        How would you apply this passage to the Anglican Communion today?  Is the call for unity a smokescreen to hide diversity and cases of injustice?  Or is unity at the heart of God's call to his people?  Can our modern version of tribalism be overcome through prayer and worship?

·        As we again ponder the future of our diocese what can we learn from this passage?  Are we too committed to past gods, or present-day values?  Will our version of tribalism (congregationalism?) prevent us from being open to fresh pastures?

·        Now pray for our Church in all its variety, perplexity, and human muddle.

Ephesians.  I must confess that I struggle with this military image, and the rather laboured series of analogies.  But the thrust is helpful.  "Armour" is essentially defensive or protective; and it's noticeable that the only weapon mentioned is a sword which represents the Word of God.  We are called to be strong "in the Lord" and "in his mighty power".  This is not a call to launch a crusade or jihad against those we perceive as enemies (of God).  Indeed, it could be argued that this is a pacifist charter: in contrast to the Roman Centurion from which Paul has taken this image, who was famed for his exploits in war and conquest, what this passage seems to call upon Christian "warriors" to do is simply to STAND.  It's a call to resist, to refuse to surrender, not a call to attack.  Think about that word "stand" for a moment.  We "stand up" to someone.  We "take a stand" on a point of principle.  We "stand firm (or tall)".  That's the sort of sense in which we are to take this exhortatory passage, I think.

Two other points.  We're likely to be a bit iffy about talking in terms of spiritual warfare today.  We shouldn't be.  Paul couldn't be clearer about evil in the spiritual realm.   Personally, I do not doubt the reality of spiritual evil: the evidence for it is all around us.

Secondly, notice that the passage ends with a call to continue to pray, and notice whom we are to pray for.  We are called to pray for ourselves, our fellow believers and for the Pauls among us – those who are called to preach the gospel.

Taking It Personally.

·        Meditate on the petition in the Lord's Prayer, "Deliver us from evil". What does that refer to?  Do you agree that it must include the evil in the spiritual realm that Paul is talking about in today's passage?

·        Pray for your present needs; be specific.

·        Pray for each member of your faith community by name.

·        Pray for our Diocese, and for Bishop Kelvin.

·        Pray for the Anglican Church in this country.

·        Pray for the Anglican Communion worldwide.

·        Pray for all those who are called to preach.

·        Set yourself a daily commitment of time for prayer.  Take your stand on that and refuse to yield in the face of distractions, boredom, stiffness, or anything else.  This is a good way of learning to take your stand with and for Christ.

John.  And so this tremendous chapter reaches its dramatic climax.  If you have been following these notes for some time, you can now evaluate for yourself Raymond E Brown's argument that this gospel comes out of a deeply divided community, suffering sectarian disputes and mass defections (excuse the pun); and that one of the central issues was the practice and meaning of the Eucharist.  Verse 66 is the key: From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.  That word "disciples" is vital.  These are not fickle crowds, people who followed him for a show, and fell away when the mood took them.  This is a reference to people who were committed to Christ but have now abandoned their faith (in John's view), and (if Brown is right) left the community of faith from which this gospel came.  The question to those who remain is, "You do not wish to leave, too, do you?" and Peter answers for all true disciples, "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life?"  That this is in essence a spiritual struggle is again stressed by John in verse 63; and he again reminds us that we can only come to Jesus if God enables us to do so.

Taking It Personally.

·        Read through the whole chapter slowly.  What verses, phrases, or thoughts strike you particularly?  Take those into prayer.

·        Have you ever been tempted to "turn back and no longer follow him"?  Why?  By what?

·        Is it possible to leave the Church without leaving Christ?  Where then would you receive Communion?  Do you agree that this chapter insists that Communion is essential to spiritual health?

·        Ponder verses 68-69.  Does Peter speak for you?

Friday, 17 August 2012

Diocesan Prayer Reminder - Weekend of Prayer for our Diocese

7pm Friday 31 August - 7pm Sunday 2 September

O Lord, who has not stopped forming us since the hour of our beginning;
Who has come among us to save us from ourselves and teach us to love;
Who dwells beside us and within us and below us and above us,
Give us the grace to think again.
May we know the joy of true discipleship;
May our relationships with you and with each other be real and deep;
May we have the courage to give our best for the least.
In the name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

August 19 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 20

August 19                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 20

Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Theme:  The "bread of heaven" motif continues this week, so some variation on that could apply.  But the connecting link between our readings seems to be wisdom, divine and human.  So I'm going with "The Wisdom of God".

Introduction. In our first lesson Wisdom personified calls the simple to come to her and receive understanding.  In the second St Paul cautions us against foolishness; and our journey through chapter 6 of St John's gospel moves ever closer to next week's dramatic climax, with the familiar theme of misunderstanding.  The wisdom of God confronts the wisdom of the everyday world, and at the heart of this clash is the sacrament of Communion.

Background.  In the weekly posting from the Diocesan Office, the Bishop's Chaplain, John Franklin, has drawn attention to the lessons that we people of faith can learn from the Olympic Games, as St Paul so often did in his writings.  (I particularly liked John's image of the great Communion of Saints cheering us on as we run our race of faith!)  If you listened to some of our returning athletes this week you may have detected a common theme: they were all looking forward to sleeping in their own beds, catching up with family and friends, having a party, or simply a good feed.  In other words, they were looking forward to the simple pleasures of life that most of us take for granted, but which top athletes have to deny for themselves as they prepare for the Games.  Success can only come to them through single-minded determination, backed by onerous training regimes.  And human nature being what it is, the darker side of Olympic competition also threw up another lesson.  There are no short-cuts to physical excellence.

When we turn from the "super-physical" to the "super-spiritual" we find the same pattern of single-minded determination backed by onerous training regimes, years spent in solitude and enclosure, hours of every day taken up in prayer and worship, extreme hardship willingly suffered, and so on.  Many of the "all-time greats" illustrate this pattern well, including St Francis, St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross and St Ignatius of Loyola.

But just as only a very few become Olympic champions so a very few are called to be "spiritual giants".  The rest of us are called to a life  of health, wholeness and joy – in short, a life in Christ.  A life of balance – a life somewhere between the Olympic champion and the couch potato.  There is a difference between being self-aware and self-obsessed: there is a need to pray and care for ourselves, but not to the exclusion of praying and caring for others.  If there is one caution that comes from the example of our athletes it is surely this: the pursuit of personal glory must never come at the cost of turning away from the glory of God.  The true life of faith is like the tide, it comes in and goes out, as we receive the love of God and give it out to others.

The great champion of the balanced life is St Benedict, and it is no accident that his great Rule of Life has lasted for centuries as the pre-eminent rule for monastic communities.  He insisted that the physical needs of the monk must be met if he is to lead a holy and productive life.  The Rule provides for 8 hours sleep a day, a sufficiency of food and drink, a considerable period of physical labour, and about 3 hours a day in formal prayer and worship.

Of course, few of us could follow even that timetable in our everyday lives; but the challenge is still there for us.  What is a reasonable training regime for us if we wish to be the best we can in our chosen event, the walk with and to God?  How best can we develop what John Franklin has called our "spiritual muscle"?  Following the completion of the London Games, all the talk is now of their "legacy".  Can our personal legacy from the Games be a new commitment to improve our spiritual fitness, through prayer, worship, Bible study and reflection, ministry to others, and so on?  The crowds may have gone from the Olympic stadia but we are still surrounded on every side by a great cloud of witnesses, countless as heaven's stars, cheering us on to the end of the race!

Back to the Fourth Gospel.  If Raymond Brown is right in his belief that this gospel (and the epistles) came out of a deeply divided community (probably along the Jewish-Gentile fault line), then we can understand that one of the great issues in dispute was the need for Communion.  One of the peculiarities of this gospel compared to the other three is the absence of the "institution narrative" in its account of the Last Supper.  St Paul, as well as the other three gospels, are all clear that Jesus instituted Holy Communion At the Last Supper, and we recite that fact every time we celebrate the Eucharist.  But no such account appears in St John's gospel.  Why not?

While some scholars dispute this, it seems to me that the clear answer is that John has already addressed this issue here in this chapter 6.  If he is not now talking about the Eucharist, what on earth are we to make of today's passage, last week's passage and next week's conclusion?  If eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood is not to be understood in sacramental terms – in terms of the bread and wine we receive in Communion – what possible sense can we make of the text at this point?  To me, the whole tone here is polemical; St John is clearly pressing an argument, and doing do so unflinchingly.  He is pulling no punches, leaving himself no wriggle room.  Just how controversial this still is was brought home to me in one of my former parishes when a staunch member of the church, clearly furious with me, accused me of saying that her dear friend (who had excluded herself from the church over some real or imagined grievance) was destined for hell because she no longer received Communion.  I did not say that: what I did say, quoting this passage, was that its meaning is clear: if we do not receive Communion we do not have eternal life.  [Hey, don't shoot the messenger!]

And if Evelyn Underhill is right, this whole gospel is written by a mystic trying to convey spiritual truths to people who are still blinded by their literal, mundane blinkers.  People who may be full of human wisdom find it particularly difficult to understand the wisdom of God, as today's readings make clear.

Proverbs.  This is not one of my favourite books of the Bible, but this chapter is worth reading if only for the wonderful verse 17.  In opposition to the Person of Wisdom we have the Person of Folly.  She calls out to the same people as Wisdom has called (verses 4 and 16 are identical), but her lure is wonderfully enticing: "Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious."  We'll leave the first bit to our politicians to argue over, but who among us cannot recall the pleasure of a secret midnight feast?  Wisdom, of course, is offering her own food, but with a very different menu.  Verse 5 is very similar to the opening invitation in Isaiah 55, which underlies Jesus' own call in John 6:35.  But verse 6 is the key here.  The invitation is to be transformed: we are called (from "the highest point": verse3) to leave our "simple ways" and "walk in the way of understanding".  And notice the little phrase in between: "and you will live".  The way to have "life" is to abandon our simple ways (our present mindset) and grow in understanding (God's wisdom, spiritual truth).  And all this is in the context of table fellowship: we are invited by Wisdom to eat her food and drink her wine.

Taking It Personally.

·        As you prepare to receive Communion next, ask God to grant you greater understanding of his wisdom.

·        Reflect on the contrast between the free feast offered by Wisdom and the stolen water and secret food lauded by Folly.  Does that say anything to you about your own attitude to the spiritual way?

Ephesians.  This passage also draws a distinction between the wise and the unwise, and between being foolish and understanding what the Lord's will is.  As Paul continues to guide us in our everyday lives he is very much down to earth.  We are to be "very careful", and to "take every opportunity".  He doesn't spell out what we are to be very careful about or to take every opportunity for, but in the context it must be to exercise our faith, to be constantly aware of our calling, and to remember we are in the presence of God.  The 'days are evil" so every day we have the opportunity to resist and overcome evil: we are not separated from the real world, but immersed in it as people of faith.  And then verse 21 is the sting in the tail: how different our Church would be if we followed this approach, rather than insisting on our democratic right to push our own barrow as hard as we can!

Taking It Personally.

·        A brief daily "examen" is a good spiritual practice.  Before going to sleep, look back over the day.  With the benefit of hindsight, what "opportunities" did you have, which ones did you take, and which ones did you miss?

·        On the "wisdom-foolishness" spectrum how did you rate?  Were you "careful" or "careless"? 

·        End with a brief reflection on verse 20, and give thanks.

·        Oh, and what about verse 21?  How did you go on that?

John.  Temperatures are now rising towards boiling point!  It is hard to think of anything more provocative to Jews than verse 53.  They would not eat the flesh of animals until the blood had been drained from it, and now they are confronted with a demand that they eat human flesh and drink human blood!  Only so will they have life in them.  It is impossible to think of Jesus in his bodily life saying this: it would have been outrageous nonsense and probably led to his immediate death at the hands of the crowds.  If you have not been convinced by Evelyn Underhill's approach up until now, this surely is the clincher.  This is pure mysticism; this is the attempt of a mystic to convey something of the inner experience of Communion.  His experience is that in Communion he is enlivened, revitalized, energised, strengthened and empowered.  Just as we feel more alive physically after we have eaten a healthy meal, so John feels more alive spiritually after he has received Communion.  Therefore, he concludes that this quality that he calls "eternal life" is conveyed to us in the bread and wine of Communion, and without that we will not have this life.  Of course, in worldly terms the whole idea sounds as ridiculous as it does outrageous.  Hence "the Jews" (representing all who operate at the worldly rather than the spiritual level) explode in uproar (verse 52).  As we shall see next week, some believers find this a bridge too far and turn back.

Taking It Personally.

·        Spend some time in silent reflection on this passage.  Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into ever deeper understanding of its meaning.

·        How important to you is Holy Communion?  Do you sometimes "drift off" during The Great Thanksgiving?  Would you just as soon have a non-Communion service?

·        Has Communion become more important to you over the years?  Is it a "real" experience for you, or just something we do in church?  Does your experience of it vary from week to week?

·        What do you do to prepare yourself to receive Communion?  Read 1 Corinthians 11:23-32.  Is there something there you need to take on board?



Friday, 10 August 2012

August 12 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 19

August 12                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 19

Texts: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Theme:  Some variation on the bread theme would be an obvious choice, but I'm going for something a bit bolder.  My choice is "The Mystic Way", largely because the first lesson and the gospel cannot be understood otherwise than mystically, and even Ephesians can be understood as guidance for the purgative stage of the Mystic Way.  And I am still engrossed in Evelyn Underhill!

Introduction.  The great prophet Elijah, having won the gold medal in the Battle of the Bonfires, has now come crashing back to earth.  Queen Jezebel has sent him a message threatening revenge, and he's done a runner.  Exhausted, disgusted with himself, and wallowing in self-pity, he contemplates suicide, only to receive a very different message from a higher source.  Paul turns from the heights of his mystical vision to the practical guidance of souls on the mystic way; and John continues his profound meditation on the image of Christ as the one who nourishes and refreshes us.

Background.  Evelyn Underhill is best known for her magnum opus, Mysticism, but I am presently finding even more helpful another gem from her called The Mystic Way: A Psychological Study of Christian Origins.  Basically, it is an overview of the New Testament from a mystical standpoint.  The nub of her argument is that "John" (the author of the fourth gospel) and Paul were great mystics, whereas the other gospels were written by men of great gifts, but were not mystics.  In her view, what the "good news" is about is that the life lived to perfection by Jesus in continual union with God has been made available to all humankind who will open themselves to the Spirit and journey along the mystic way through the classic stages of purgation (overcoming our self-centred desires – dying to self), illumination (receiving the Holy Spirit and being led into all truth), and union with God.  This, she says, was true of the very early Church, and has been true sporadically ever since in various "spiritual revival"s; but during much of our history the general approach has been to leave all that stuff to special individuals (Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, etc), while the rest of us try to believe the Creeds and behave ethically.

That summary does not do justice to the value of this work, but must suffice for present purposes.  I have found her particularly interesting on the subject of St John's gospel.  She says it is the work of a great mystic, astonishingly gifted both poetically and philosophically.  She dates the book rather later than many scholars would, describing it as early second century.  She says John almost certainly lived in Ephesus, was highly educated, and Greek was his first language.  Above all, he was a great mystic who had passed through to the unitive stage.  He was completely open to God through the Spirit: he had had many "mystical experiences", and that what we have in his gospel is his attempts to open our eyes to the Reality of the One we call God.  In other words he is writing to us in our "physical" world to tell us that there really is a much greater reality, which we might call the spiritual realm, which he calls "life" or "eternal life", and which Jesus called "the kingdom of Heaven".

Again, that's a hopelessly inadequate summary of Evelyn Underhill's book, but I will limit myself to one example that may shed some more light on her argument.  One of the great features of the first 11 chapters of the gospel is the wonderful dialogues between Jesus and an individual who fails to grasp what he is on about.  Jesus is talking spiritually and the other person is mistranslating into worldly terms.  Thus, Jesus speaks of a re-birth to Nicodemus who wonders how we can re-enter our mothers' wombs.  Jesus talks of providing living water to a Samaritan woman who wonders how he can do that without a bucket.  Underhill suggests that John has had these profound times of mystical contemplation, and in attempting to share them with others draws upon the Jesus tradition, gleaned from the other gospels, perhaps, and uses them to illustrate what he is trying to say.

Apart from anything else, her approach is to me one of the most convincing explanations I have come across as to why this gospel is so very different from the other three, even though it contains some of the same stories as they do.  Like Paul, she says, John never met Jesus; but he has clearly met the Risen Christ in the Spirit.  Perhaps in those encounters he has "discussed" with the Spirit of Christ the topics he deals with in these dialogues; or perhaps he has created these dialogues to illustrate his understanding of the work of the Spirit in the life of Christ's followers.

One more general point at this stage before turning to today's readings.  Underhill's vast knowledge of mysticism and mystics is not limited to those within the Christian tradition.  She has an amazing command of the literature in the Hindu, Buddhist and Moslem mystical traditions as well; and this enables her to point out an important distinction.  She insists that Christian mysticism (and the same is true of the Moslem mystical tradition) does not end in individual "nirvana", but manifests itself in love and service of others.  (She is quite scathing in dismissing some within our own mystical tradition who sought union with God for their own personal benefit, which she insists is a form of self-centredness that we are supposed to have got rid of during the purgative stage.)

Kings.  This short passage is a wonderfully condensed summary of the mystic way.  We find the great prophet Elijah in desperate straits.  Having shown the mighty power of God in contrast to the powerlessness of the prophets of Baal, Elijah massacred his opponents.  Not a good career move as the autocratic Queen Jezebel was their patron.  She sent Elijah a message to the effect that he was now Public Enemy No. 1, and would be hunted down and executed.  Elijah, very much back in the all-too real world, has run away and we pick up the story with him under a tree ready to die.  In other words, he is at the purgative stage.  He is face to face with his own powerlessness and inadequacy.  He has withdrawn to the desert.  He surrenders his life to the Lord.  He confesses his sin: "I am no better than my ancestors" (presumably he had thought he was!).  In abject poverty of spirit he falls asleep, or perhaps enters a mystical trance.  Either way he encounters an angel, an entity from the spiritual realm, who touches him, speaks to him, and even provides him with hot bread and water.  The recovery has begun: he eats and drinks, taking in this heavenly nourishment.  But once is not enough.  He falls down again, and the whole experience is repeated; but notice the extra words the angel speaks this time, "for the journey is too much for you".  He cannot complete the journey back to God in his own strength; he needs to continue to draw sustenance from this heavenly bread and water.  This is the basic truth learnt at the illuminative stage.  That done, Elijah sets off on a journey of forty days and nights (think of the connections we can make with that period) until he comes to "the mountain of the Lord".   He has reached the unitive stage.

Taking It Personally.

·        This is a good passage for the prayer of imagination.  Enter into Elijah's experience as much as you can.  Feel his fear and exhaustion, as he realises that there is nothing he can do to improve his lot.  But a fresh start is given to him, and he meets God.

·        Can you recall an occasion in your own life where you were dominated by feelings of fear, or hopelessness, or inadequacy?  Who or what got you through it?

·        Continue to be very aware of this wonderful symbol of bread whenever you eat any.

·        Have you had a "mountaintop experience" when you felt particularly close to God?

·        Between the tree of hopelessness and the Mountain of God, where are you at this time?

Ephesians.  After some of the marvellous visions of the big picture variety, St Paul brings us right back to the nitty-gritty; and in doing so gives us two things.  First, here is a classic illustration of the work to be done by anyone who wants to start out on the mystic way.  It begins with purgation.  And secondly, in harmony with Evelyn Underhill's argument, he emphasises that the whole point of the life of faith is the benefit of others.  We must abandon falsehood and speak truthfully "to our neighbours".  We must not steal, but work honestly "so that we may have something to share with those in need".  We must control our tongues and speak "only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen".   Turning from the negative to the positive, we must strive to be "kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other".  In short, we are to be "imitators of God...and live a life of love".  Evelyn couldn't have put it better.

Taking It Personally.

·        This is a clear invitation to do our own spiritual stock-take.  Work carefully through the passage.  Which part strikes you as most challenging?

·        Notice verse 26 assumes that we will be angry from time to time: it's what we do in that state that he warns about.  Does that help?  (However, in verse 31 he tells us to get rid of anger, so perhaps it doesn't!)

·        Notice, too, the reference in verse 30 to the Holy Spirit.  Again, he assumes that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, prompting and guiding us along the way.  To "grieve the Holy Spirit" probably means to "decline to follow his promptings".  Are you aware of doing that from time to time?

·        When you have finished your stock-take, confess your sins to God and be assured of his forgiveness.  Is there anybody you need to forgive?

John.  This is the third instalment out of five passages drawn from chapter 6 of St John's Gospel.  Following Evelyn Underhill's approach, we can say that John found that one element of his experience of union with God could be described as nourishing or sustaining, the obvious symbol of which was (and is) bread.  And so he has constructed this chapter to try to convey the richness of this aspect of his experience to the people in his faith community at Ephesus.  First, he draws on the "Jesus tradition", finding the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand", and gives it his own take.  Two weeks ago I drew attention to the rather strange interlude of the walking on the water.  What has that got to do with bread; and if the answer is nothing, why is it in this chapter that otherwise deals exclusively with bread?  Well, I'm still pondering, but here's a wild suggestion.  Given that we return to the non-comprehension, material-spiritual confusion in verses 26 and 27, could it be that this interlude illustrates that the disciples are still at the point where they can only receive Jesus (let him into their boat) when he comes to them on the surface of things?  They are not yet ready for anything g deeper?

Just a thought: back to today's passage.  John clearly has the wilderness feeding in mind as he ponders the experience of being nourished or fed or sustained through the Spirit of Christ.  Is Jesus then another Moses?  In a sense, but Jesus is far more than that.  Jesus is not just the medium through which God supplies bread to his people, Jesus is the bread himself.  Where could such an extraordinary idea have come from?  Answer, the Eucharistic practice of the Church that would have already been well established by then.

Three other things here.  First, we have the classic misunderstanding between material and spiritual bread throughout this passage.  Secondly, in verse 42 we have a wonderful example of how John borrows from the Jesus tradition and uses it for a very different purpose: see Mark 6:3, and Luke 4:22.  Thirdly, in verse 43 there is the clever use of the idea of the people "grumbling among themselves", which immediately takes us back to the Israelites in the desert. 

Finally, John gives us an "Underhill" clue in verse 45.  Drawing on Isaiah 54:13, Jesus reminds us that one day everyone "will be taught by God" – that is, we will no longer have to rely on particularly gifted prophets and mystics.  See also Numbers 11:29.  This is the meaning of Pentecost, as Peter explained it in Acts 2, drawing on Joel's prophecy in Joel 2:28-32.

I rest Evelyn's case, and  I invite you to take it personally.  


Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Diocesan Prayer

O Lord, who has not stopped forming us since the hour of our beginning;
Who has come among us to save us from ourselves and teach us to love;
Who dwells beside us and within us and below us and above us,
Give us the grace to think again.
May we know the joy of true discipleship;
May our relationships with you and with each other be real and deep;
May we have the courage to give our best for the least.
In the name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Reminder  - Weekend of Prayer for our Diocese
7pm Friday 31 August - 7pm Sunday 2 September

Thursday, 2 August 2012

August 5 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 18

August 5                                 NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Ordinary 18

Texts: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:16; John 6:24-35

Theme:  It seems to me that there is a real issue about unity and division in our readings today, so I'm going with "We're all in this Together".  An alternative might be to focus on the daily in "Our Daily Bread".

Introduction.  In our first reading the emphasis is on "all the people": they're all fed up, all are grumbling, all are assembled together, all are given the same message from God, and all receive the same meat and bread.  In our second lesson we have another passionate appeal to maintain unity within the Body of Christ; the things that unite us are far more important than any personal differences we may have.  And in our gospel passage, arguments are heating up within the deeply divided community from which the Fourth Gospel (and the three epistles of John) emerged.

Background.  Background, foreground and middle-ground, all seem to be dominated by the Olympic Games at the moment.  There should be some ways of making connections here.  An obvious one is the call to be the best we can be.  We can't all win medals but we can all set PB's, we're told.  Can we translate this slogan from the Games to our lives of faith?  Can we strive to be the best Christians we can be, and, if so, what might that involve and what might the outcome look like?  Certainly we can call to mind that St Paul often drew on the language of athletics in his writings, though whether we should see our faith as a competitive sport is at best debateable!

But certainly the element of sacrifice required to achieve the best results in the sporting arena should give us pause the next time we find ourselves claiming that we simply haven't the time for prayer each day.  But there are also warnings to heed from this "Greatest Show on Earth."  The cult of the individual can be all too obvious, even if the more carefully schooled athletes remember to pretend that they are doing it for their country.  And support for "one of our own" can easily slip into jingoistic backslapping and xenophobic abuse.  And the number of disqualifications so far should tell us about wanting something so much we will stop at nothing to get it.

On a similar theme, we might reflect on a couple of other matters that have managed to get a little attention this week.  John Banks is simply the latest in a long line of public figures who apparently believe that "I have done nothing illegal" means the same as "I have done nothing wrong", particularly sad in the case of a leader who has always identified himself publicly as a Christian.  Perhaps the next time we are told about coming down hard on those who break the law we should ask if the campaign can be broadened to include those who act unethically as well.  And the further charges to which Ewen McDonald has pleaded guilty underline again the darker side of human nature, famously described by his defence counsel as just an ordinary Kiwi joker.  There may be some points of connection there.

One of the most interesting and helpful books I have ever read in relation to me faith is The Community of the Beloved Disciple, by an American scholar called Raymond. E. Brown.  This is not so much a commentary on St John's Gospel, as an attempt to provide the context out of which this wonderful Gospel emerged.  His basic position is that a distinct community of Christian faith had established itself in Ephesus by about 55AD, and was predominantly Jewish.  Its broad belief in those early days was not all that different from the other communities that produced the other three gospels, but that had changed quite drastically by the time the gospel was written in about 90AD.  Four major events caused this widening gap, according to Brown.  First, there was a considerable influx of Samaritan converts, bringing with them some of their own faith traditions (think woman at the well, chapter 4); secondly, there was the unsuccessful uprising against the Romans, culminating in the destruction of the Temple in AD; thirdly there was the expulsion of Christian Jews from the synagogues, probably completed by 85AD; and fourthly, throughout this whole period there was an increasing percentage of Gentile believers joining the community.

Add all this together, according to Brown, and we get considerable guidance in attempting to understand the various "argumentative passages" we find in the text as we have it today, including in this wonderful chapter 6 that we are presently grappling with.  Two key contentious issues were clearly the divinity (or otherwise) of Jesus, and the necessity (or otherwise) of the Eucharist.  Keep those in mind as we look at today's passage, and those that follow this month.

Exodus.  As stated above. The people act and are responded to as one body.  Notice that they are "grumbling", a term that John uses a little later in chapter 6 of his gospel.  Faced with a difficult and challenging present, they crave a return to a golden past that never actually existed.  How prone we are to do that ourselves!  So they set up this "there-here", "past-present" duality that is pure illusion in fact but real to their imaginations soured as they are by self-pity.  There (then) we had all the food we wanted: here (now) we are starving to death.  Yeah, right!  Their complaint is really directed to God, but notice that they pretend it's all the fault of Moses and Aaron.  They are our shepherds: they should have led us to green pastures, but instead they have led us into the desert.  However, God has heard their grumbles, and announces his plan, not directly to them, but to Moses.  In those days God preferred to deal through a mediator.  The promise is to "rain down" bread from heaven, an interesting expression in the context (and in the desert).  They will be able to gather enough each day; and God indicates that this will be a test to see if they will obey him.

So the people are gathered together in a great assembly and are told what is to take place,  They are told the Lord has heard their grumbling.  Now they look across the desert and see the glory of the Lord in a cloud.  Things are looking up – their mood is lifting in.  They are promised an abundance of meat at twilight and bread for breakfast.  Why?  So that they will know "I am the Lord their God".  Things turn out as predicted, but the people do not know what the manna is.  Moses has to explain it to them.

Taking It Personally.

·        Can grumbling be a form of prayer?  If the Lord hears and responds, why not?  Is there something you want to grumble about to God today?  Go ahead!

·        Are you tempted to look back to the good old days to escape the difficulties of your present circumstances?

·        In a review of a book on world finances published in the ODT last Saturday, the reviewer started with a reference to Exodus, and the model that each had enough, and none had too much.  What can we learn from this biblical approach?

·        Continue to give thanks every time you eat bread this week.  Make it a deliberate act of worship: call to mind this story of divine providence, even in a desert.

Ephesians.  As stated above, this is a sustained plea for unity within the faith community at Ephesus (if Raymond brown is right, the community that would give birth to the Fourth Gospel in due course).  We can assume, therefore, that divisions are already arising.  The key verse may be 3, so beautifully adopted into our Eucharistic liturgy at The Peace: make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.   This is followed by what may have been an early "mini-creed" in verses 4 and 5.  If it's any consolation to you, I don't understand verses 7-9 either: to me they read like a gloss written in by some overly pedantic monk, but I might be quite wrong about that.  All I can say is that if we leave out the bit in parenthesis the text reads better and makes better sense (at least, to me).  Verses 11-13 are also central, showing the importance of balancing diversity of gifts and unity of purpose.  We all have different ministries, but they are for the benefit of all, so that all may come to ever greater maturity in Christ.  And if we want an analogy with the Olympic Games, try this one: the personal best we are to aim for is the "attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ"!  That's the gold medal standard – and a tie between all participants is the best possible outcome!

Taking It Personally.

·        Ponder the versicle from our liturgy on page 418: Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace/ Amen.  We are bound by the love of Christ.  Spend time with it (we're usually too busy clambering to our feet to exchange the Peace).  Let the words seep into you.

·        Repeat the same exercise with verse 5.

·        Then with verse 13.  Learn this one by heart.  Savour it.  Come back to it time and again over the coming week.

·        Finish off with verses 14-16.  And for another taste of the Olympics think about the farcical match-fixing in the badminton as you reflect on the "cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming". (Nobody said it was illegal: they said it was a breach of the spirit of the Games - another interesting expression.)

John.  The background to this passage is the Feeding of the Five Thousand.  Here's a series of ideas that that passage may give rise to.  Level 1: it is a parable about sharing, following the good example of the little boy (overlooking the possibility that he didn't so much offer his lunch as had it commandeered by Andrew).  Level 2: the story shows that Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition, performing similar miracles to those of Elijah and Elisha.  Level 3: the story shows that Jesus is divine, doing what God did for the people in the wilderness.  Level 3 is what is behind today's argumentative passage.  So, too, are other aspects of the Exodus tradition.  We open with a few pointless questions about how Jesus got to be where he is today.  But Jesus cuts through all that, zooming in on their motives.  Why are they searching for him?  Because they want another free lunch – that is, like their ancestors in the desert, they should have interpreted the miraculous sign as pointing to the Lord their God, but they missed it.  "Do not work for food that spoils", says Jesus, recalling the "excess manna" that went rotten overnight.  So they ask the obvious question (like the rich young ruler in Luke), what must we do – what does God require of us?  Jesus tells them that they must believe in the one whom God has sent to them.  And here comes another example of John's love of irony: they ask for a miraculous sign to prove his identity!

Perhaps the segue to manna from heaven is a little forced here, but it makes sense.  You might have fed a large crowd here (a place where there was plenty of grass – verse 10), but our ancestors were given manna in the desert.  Can you beat that?  That's what they are saying, and in a way that implies that Moses gave them the manna and Jesus is no match for Moses.  So Jesus dismisses that, and introduces the idea, that will be developed further in this chapter, that he himself is the true bread that comes down from heaven.

Taking It Personally.

·        Why are you looking for Jesus?  For what you can get from him, or for what you can offer him?

·        Evelyn Underhill says that the difference between mysticism and magic is that the mystic seeks to give love to God, and the magician seeks to obtain something from God (or from the spiritual powers).  Where does that leave intercessory prayer?

·        Meditate on verse 36.  Digest it, make it your own.  Believe it in the deepest part of your being, and give thanks.