St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 27 September 2012

September 30 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 26

September 30                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 26

Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Theme:  Not easy this week: I'm tempted to go with "More Salt and Less Vinegar, Please"; or "Ann More Complaints!"; or even "For God's Sake, Shut Up!"  For a more genteel approach, perhaps "Getting on with Life and One Another".

Introduction.  Another challenging week, as once again the spotlight of Scripture is turned on the people of faith to reveal our darker side.  Three days after leaving Mount Sinai with all that entailed for their relationship with God, the Israelites are back to their old complaining ways, creating their own version of the "good old days", which, of course, are pure fantasy.  There is even a complaint from Joshua (Moses' eventual successor) that God has been overly generous with the gift of his Spirit, which has somehow managed to fall on a couple of absentees as well as those who have turned up in the right place at the right time.  James brings his letter to a conclusion by exhorting his recipients to more prayer, and judging by the list of prayer topics he suggests they are not without their problems as a group of believers.  Then we find the disciples complaining to Jesus that someone outside their camp is exercising ministry in his name, and shouldn't be!  (Think protection of trade, logo, turf, etc!)  No wonder Moses had had enough; no wonder Jesus' teeth seem permanently gritted in this second half of this chapter 9.

Background.  There are at least two major links between our Old Testament lesson and our gospel passage today.  First, both show us the faith community at its worst just after a spiritual high-point.  Just as the Israelites started regressing three days after their escape from Egypt, so now that pattern is repeated 3 days after leaving Sinai.  In similar fashion, from the highpoint of the Transfiguration it has been downhill all the way for the disciples.  Read chapter 9 right through and compare the narrative of Jesus trying to lead his disciples into the Kingdom of God with that of Moses trying to keep his people heading in the right direction.  The similarities are striking.  [Compare Jesus' outburst in 9:19 with Moses' prayer in Numbers 11: 10-15.]

The second major link is in the attitude of the "insiders" towards "outsiders" in both passages.  In the first case Joshua (later to be Moses' successor as leader) is the toady who objects to Eldad and Medad receiving God's Spirit even though they didn't make it to the meeting; in the second case John reports that they have tried to shut down someone who was driving out demons in Jesus' name because "he was not one of us".  Notice how exactly that reflects the attitude of the Pharisees and others who criticised Jesus for healing on a Sabbath, completely unmindful of the well-being of the "patient".  And on that point, notice something else that may be going on here.  Immediately following the Transfiguration, we have the story of the Healing of a Boy with an Evil Spirit.  An element of that story is the fact that the disciples were unable to drive out the spirit.  John was not among them at that time, because he had been on the mountain with Jesus.  Was he eager to report this new episode to Jesus because it was an exorcism, and therefore (perhaps) a continuing source of embarrassment for the other disciples?

The whole atmosphere of the post-Transfiguration sections of chapter 9 is one of contention and quarrelling.  The question in 9:16 ("what are you arguing with them about?") is much the same as the question in 9:33 ("what were you arguing about on the road?")  They are arguing with "outsiders" and among themselves.  Recall last week's reading from James: I suspect I know where James got all that from!

One further connecting theme to bear in mind is the Source of all things.  The people who complain about the food forget that the manna they are being so critical of is the gift of God to them, so there is something here about foregoing the creature comforts of the material world (imaginary, in their case), represented by a plentiful and varied diet, in order to receive  the "spiritual food", the "Bread of Heaven" (Yes, we're talking Holy Communion, Eucharist, here!)   Likewise it seems that the disciples' failure to drive the demon out of the boy was due to their lack of prayer (9:29), and possibly also to their lack of belief (9:23).

In short, the people of God need constant purifying, of which the symbol today is salt.

Numbers.  We have three separate extracts – criminal lawyers might call them representative charges – from chapter 11.  The first is a charge of barefaced ingratitude.  The Lord God had miraculously brought them out of slavery in Egypt, wiping out the Egyptian army in the process, and equally miraculously had given them their daily bread.  In response, the people complained about the bread, and yearned for the good old days back in Egypt.  Strike one.

The second episode shows the less admirable (but more understandable) side of Moses' nature.  It's one thing to become aware of our own inadequacies; it is quite another to blame the whole thing on God, and then dispute God's ability to carry out his remedial plan.  Strike two.

Finally, comes the inglorious episode with Joshua complaining that the two elders who missed the appointment nevertheless received the same deal as those who turned up on time.  (We can hear the whining tone by the snivelling Joshua, can't we?)  Moses will have none of it.  He looks for the time when all God's people will prophesy (code for receive the Holy Spirit), a time that came at Pentecost.

Taking It Personally.

·     Reflect on the present stage of your own spiritual journey.  Whereabouts are you?  In the wilderness, back in Egypt, enjoying the journey, or none of the above?

·     Are you inclined to live in an imagined past, or the real present?  Are you looking forwards or backwards?

·     Thinking of your prayer-life in the light of this passage, is it rich, varied and nourishing or the same dry thing day after day?

·     Do you sometimes feel God expects too much of you?  Have you thought of delegation – sharing your burden with others?

·     Are you jealous of others who appear to have been favoured by God undeservedly or more than you have?

James.  Many scholars believe that this epistle is very early, and may even be the first written of all those in the New Testament.   A reasonable guess is that it is written to former members of a (Jewish) Christian congregation based in Jerusalem who fled in panic after the stoning of Stephen.  Part of the reasoning for this is said to be the apparent "mutual ministry" model implied in some of today's passage.  For instance, they are encouraged to confess their sins to one another, and to pray for one another.  On the other hand, if someone is sick, the elders are to be called together for prayer and anointing.  Notice the close relationship between confession and forgiveness on the one hand, and sickness and healing on the other.  The prayer of the righteous person is powerful and effective: to be righteous one needs to be right with God, that is, not in sin.  There is another reminder that the brooding figure of Elijah is never far away from the thought of faithful Jews (even ones who convert to Christianity), as he is held up as an example of what can be achieved by prayer.  (See also Mark 9:9-11.)  Finally, a Christian has responsibility for the spiritual health of others: when others stray the faithful must attempt to bring them back to the fold.

Taking It Personally.

·     Focus on verse 13.  You may well pray when you are in trouble, but do you offer praises (in song or otherwise) when you're happy?

·     Have you ever asked your community of faith to gather round you and pray for healing?  Would you feel comfortable asking for such prayer, or would this breach your sense of privacy?

·     Have you ever confessed your sins to others, as suggested in verse 16?  Or to a priest?  What would you do if someone wanted to confess their sins to you?

·     Have you ever prayed for healing for others?  What was the outcome?  How did you feel about that?

·     Have you strayed from the path of faith in the past?  Did anyone come after you?  Have you ever attempted to bring someone back into the fold, or is it "none of your business"?

Mark.  Not, perhaps, one of the most coherent passages in the gospel narrative: it has the flavour of a few notes that couldn't be fitted in elsewhere.  But the general tone is clear enough.  John is worried about protecting the franchise from rogue operators, not because they might do harm to the unsuspecting public, but because they might undermine the unique appeal of the Jesus Team.  Notice that it appears that the man was successful: "we saw a man driving out demons", rather than "attempting to drive out demons"; and the disciples tried to stop him (setting the possessed free) rather than doing it themselves or helping the man in his ministry.  But please note, this is not a case for Christians working alongside other faiths or even other non-faith organisations, as some would have it.  The man is ministering "in Jesus' name", albeit without formal authority.  Far from worrying about "outsiders" doing good works, the disciples should ensure that they do not do anything that might cause others to sin.  In somewhat overheated hyperbole Jesus drives them to reflect on the harm they might be doing rather than the good others are doing.  In short, look closer to home.  Purify your own attitudes and for heaven's sake start living in peace with one another.  Quit the endless bickering.  Amen to that from James!

Taking It Personally.

·     It 's spiritual stock-taking time again.  Are you inclined to pass judgment on others on the basis of who they are rather than what they are doing?  Do you have a strong sense of us and them, insiders and outsiders?

·     Are you aware of any time when you may have done or said something that might have caused another person to do wrong?

·     Are you at peace with other members of your faith community?  All of them?


Thursday, 20 September 2012

September 23 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 25

September 23                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Ordinary 25

Texts: Jeremiah 11:18-20; James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Theme:  No, I can't resist it: I'm going with, "Mirror, mirror, on the Wall"!  There is a serious side to this: whose image do we reflect in our lives, the image of Christ or the image of his disciples?

Introduction.  We are shown the world, and raw human nature, as they really are today, in themselves, and in contrast to what they could and should be.  Jeremiah has been warned by God that his own people are plotting his assassination.  Why?  Because they are sick of his politically incorrect messages proclaiming national disaster.  So bad for morale, don't you know?  James, as blunt as ever, goes for the jugular.  Disputes and quarrels (yes, even among people of faith!) have their cause in frustrated personal ambition, bruised egos and ruffled feathers.  And for a perfect illustration of all this we have only to look once more at Jesus' own hand-picked tight twelve.  (Should we despair that even they were riven by personal jealousies, or be reassured that we're no worse than them?)

Background.  The Bible tells us that where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name he is present with them.  Experience tells us that where two or three are gathered power struggles won't be far away.  They are so natural to us that they do not surprise us.  That's democracy, we might say.  In a free society we are all entitled to express our own opinion, defend our corner, or push our own barrow.  It's only when someone challenges such an obvious "truth" that we might have to think about it a little more deeply.

Which reminds me of a little episode in my former existence in the parliamentary milieu.  A Select Committee was hearing witnesses making submissions on some proposed changes to the Sale of Liquor legislation.  As usual, all the witnesses had put forward entirely predictable arguments.  The Liquor Industry Council objected to any restrictions on their business interests, the Licensing Trusts Association wanted more rights for its members, so did the Chartered Clubs Association, and so on.  Then came a shocking witness.  She was the proprietor of a licensed restaurant, and she argued for an amendment that would clearly have been contrary to the apparent interests of establishments such as hers.  One of the members, assuming that the poor lady didn't understand what she was saying, gently pointed out to her that her own interests would be adversely affected if her proposal were adopted.  "Yes, that's true," she said, "but this isn't about me and my personal interests, is it?  This is surely about the best interests of our society as a whole."

Imagine the shock that caused!  One of David Lange's famous one-liners came at the end of a Budget speech: "Now let the chorus of complaint sing forth throughout the land!"  These days, Budget Days are damp squibs; but in those days they contained a large number of proposals, and as soon as they were read out the media would contact all the separate interest groups and the "chorus of complaints" would, indeed, sing forth.  Federated Farmers would complain there was nothing in it for the agricultural sector; the Manufacturers Federation would bemoan the lack of incentives for their sector, and so on and so on.  And no one would think that was strange, let alone unhealthy or improper.  That's democracy, we say.  In a democracy we are all entitled to have our say.

But what that lone, courageous restaurateur showed us so unexpectedly that day is a whole different way of conducting our democracy.  Instead of insisting that everyone has the democratic right to push their own selfish interests, she was exercising her democratic right to be involved in discussing what would be best in the interests of our society as a whole, even if it was against her own personal economic interests.  How different, and how much healthier, our democratic society would be if we all followed her example!

I thought of that woman as I started to ponder this week's readings.  Jeremiah spoke the words of God to the people of God, warning them of pending disaster.  But the politically powerful would not listen, preferring instead to defend what they thought were their own best interests.  They saw him through that lens, not as God's agent sent to help the nation as a whole, but as their personal enemy who needed to be eliminated.  As James puts it, fights and quarrels are inevitable when we are motivated by our own personal ambitions and desires.  The restaurateur tried to show us a different way, but she was talking to a committee of politicians.  She was never going to be understood, much less successful in getting her argument accepted.

Jesus found himself in a similar situation with his disciples; and, it has to be said, was no more successful in winning over his audience than she had been.  Of course, men are going to jostle for position: it's not just democracy, it's human nature!

Jeremiah.  Not only is Jeremiah the longest book in the Bible, it is also the most self-revealing.  We know more about Jeremiah than any other biblical writer, because he reveals more of himself, good and bad.  He is a sort of Old Testament version of St Peter, swinging from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again.  In this short passage today we see him as naive, apparently quite unaware that people are planning to knock him off; as the man of prayer open to 'a word of knowledge' from God, warning him of his predicament; and as a man of vengeance urging God, not to protect him from his enemies, but to exact terrible revenge on his enemies.  No doubt the fact that the conspirators were from his own home-town increased his sense of outrage.

Taking It Personally.

·        Has there been a time when you discovered someone was conspiring against you in some way?  How did you feel about that?

·        Was it enough for you that you had "uncovered the plot", or did you seek to retaliate in some way?  Is there someone you still need to forgive – or to seek forgiveness from?

James.  Having exhorted us to learn to control our tongues, James turns his attention to our inner motivation.  He draws a sharp distinction between God's wisdom and worldly wisdom.  If we are guided by God's wisdom it should be manifested in both good works (service of others) and increasing humility.  If we have envy or selfish ambition – an agenda of our own – we can be sure that we are not being guided from above: that sort of 'wisdom' is "earthly, unspiritual, of the devil".  It is manifested in fights and quarrels, disorder and every evil practice, the inevitable result of frustrated selfish desires.  The remedy is to submit to God and resist the devil.

Taking It Personally.

·        Today's challenges by James are directed at each of us individually and as a community of faith.  Start with yourself: what particular phrase or thought strikes you as particularly pertinent to you?

·        Are you ambitious?  For what?  Are you aware of any feeling of frustration in achieving any personal goal?  Are you envious of anyone?

·        How does your local faith community stand up to James' scrutiny today?  Does verse 17 accurately describe it or is it more like verse 16?  Are you part of the solution or of the problem?

·        Do you consider yourself a peacemaker?

Mark.  As always its helpful to look back over the last few episodes in Mark's narrative to set today's passage in context.  In short order, we've had Peter's Confession of Christ; Jesus' first prediction of his death, and Peter's opposition to that idea; the Transfiguration, witnessed by Peter, James and John; the disciples' failure to heal the demon-possessed boy, whom Jesus exorcised; and now today's events.    Jesus leads them through Galilee, and once more we are told that he tries to keep his whereabouts secret, because he wants to spend some time teaching his disciples.  Jesus again predicts his death, but we are told his disciples can't understand what he means.  They arrive in Capernaum and Jesus has noticed that on the way they were arguing among themselves.  He asks them what they were arguing about but they fall silent; presumably they are ashamed to tell him.  They had been arguing about who was the greatest.  Jesus uses this as a subject to begin his teaching, and turns their value system on its head.  The greatest shall be the least, the servant of all.  Then he uses a little child to make a barely connected point.  It's instructive at this point to read Matthew's "correction" of this passage: see Matthew 18:1-5.  Notice how Matthew has changed the facts to show the disciples in a better light!  But he does make better sense of Jesus' use of the little child to illustrate his point.



Taking It Personally.

·        Ponder this passage slowly.  Perhaps use it for prayer through your imagination.  Notice how Jesus' second prediction of his death meets with a sort of blank non-comprehension, and seems to be set aside so they can go on with their power-plays.  How must Jesus have felt in that situation?  Can you recall an occasion on which you were telling someone something of great seriousness and importance to you, only to find that they were not really switched on to you, but were just awaiting their time to say something about themselves?

·        Can you recall an occasion when you were asked what you have been doing or saying, but would really rather not go there?

·        Notice how these last few episodes, taken together, illustrate the ups and downs of the spiritual journey.  Has that been your experience?  Brief moments of clarity and conviction, or of firm resolve, followed by backsliding and stuff-ups?  Take heart – it seems to be the experience of all who take the journey seriously!

·        Praise God for the ups, confess the downs, thank God for his patience and understanding, and pray for the grace to do better in the future.

·        Then treat yourself to something nice as a token of God's love for you through all the ups and downs of your relationship with him.


Friday, 14 September 2012

September 16 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 24

September 16                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 24

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Theme:  Three options suggested themselves to me.  First, that great question Jesus asked (and still asks) his disciples, "Who do you say I am?"  Secondly, "Listening before Speaking"   (or, perhaps, "Listening to the Right Voice)".  Thirdly, "Letting Go of Human Concerns", which is the one I have finally gone with for reasons that I hope will become clear as we go on.

Introduction.  The great prophet Isaiah manages to say an enormous amount about prayer, listening to God, and suffering the consequences graciously in just a few verses.  As all true prophets remind us, when they speak their words are not their own: they speak only the words they first hear from God.  [Jesus said the same thing about himself: see John 8:28.]  James is back to his favourite subject – the unruly tongue – which we use both to praise God and to harm others.  And Peter gives us a working example of this very truth, confessing (with his tongue) the great truth of Jesus' identity, and rebuking (with his tongue) Jesus for talking about his death.

Background.  In some ways today's readings form a climax to all I have been on about in these Notes since Pentecost.  They sum up the clash that goes on in our inner selves between the spiritual life into which we are re-born through the appropriation of the gift of the Spirit in baptism, and the material, physical life we were born into from our mother's womb and have been living ever since.  For the prophet, that clash is highlighted by the delight of listening to God morning by morning, and the physical abuse and mockery he receives from those who do not like his prophetic message.  For James it is manifested in the fact that we use our one tongue for the highest purpose, to praise God, and for the lowest, to abuse others.  And in the gospel reading, Peter shows great spiritual insight (emphasised in Matthew's account of this episode: Matthew 16:17), and then, led astray by his own natural fear of death and/or fear of losing his friend and teacher, he listens to the devil instead of the Spirit.  As Jesus puts it, Peter gives priority to human concerns instead of the concerns of God.  (Perhaps we are to hear in Peter's rebuke an echo from the wilderness where Jesus was tempted (Matthew 4:6), and even a "pre-audition" of the mockery on the cross (Mark 15:29-32).

Last week I suggested that Jesus' encounter with the uppity woman from Syro-Phoenicia was a growth moment for him, as he seemed to suddenly realise that his mission was to the whole world and not just to the House of Israel as he had previously thought.  This week we see Peter on the same sort of cusp, but not yet sufficiently empowered (Pentecost had not yet come, of course,) to make that final leap into the Kingdom of God, the new realm of consciousness that is open to the presence of God in the new and powerful way that Jesus is trying to show his fellow men and women.  Peter gets only half of it: he understands that Jesus is "something new" but he does not understand that, to follow Jesus into this new life, he, Peter, (and of course all the rest of us) have to let go of the old life, with its natural desire of self-preservation at all costs as its foundation.  In the language of the Christian mystical tradition, Peter seeks illumination and even union but does not want to pass through the necessary first stage of purgation.

Back to the tongue.  Lest it be thought that James has a peculiar obsession with the tongue (he does say some pretty strong things about it in today's passage), I can report that I once did a Bible search on this very topic and came up with an amazing number of instances where the danger of the tongue takes centre stage.  Here's a few to be going on with: Job 33:3; Psalms 12:2-4, 15:2-3, 34:1, 50:19-20, and 120:2; Proverbs 6:16-19, 12:18-19, 15:4, 18:21, and 21:23; Isaiah 6:5-7; Matthew 12:33-37 and 15:18-20; John 8:42-44; Ephesians 4:29-31, and Ephesians 5:4; as well as James 1:19-21, 1:26, 3:5-6, and 3:7-10.

And perhaps we get some understanding of all this from the glorious opening to John's gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  The sacredness of all language is rooted here in divinity.

[And for all those who have been yelling at these Notes, "Hark who's talking!" yes, I do know I have a problem with that.]

Isaiah.  Here we have a beautiful picture of a true man of prayer.  Each morning he awakens to the sound of God's voice.  He doesn't so much say his prayers as "listens" his prayers.  The Daily Office becomes for him a period of learning from God, not just when he has time, or when he feels like it, or when he's got nothing more pressing to do, but "morning by morning", so that, over time, he has acquired "an instructed tongue" (a marvellous phrase).  It means that he has not just stored up knowledge or wisdom in his mind, which he may or may not choose to use to bridle his tongue, but the tongue itself now knows what to say!  But wait – there's more!  How does Isaiah know that he is listening to God and not to some other spirit?  By the effect of the words he hears and passes on to others.  The true word, the word of God, "sustains the weary"; if the words we speak do not have that effect on others, we are not speaking the word of God.   The initiative as always is with God (God has opened Isaiah's ears and given him an instructed tongue), but a response is called for, a response of acceptance and surrender: Isaiah has not been rebellious, he has not drawn back.  There is great personal cost to all this.  In his case he is subjected to physical abuse and mockery; but he is able to accept all this graciously because he knows that God is with him.

Taking It Personally.

·        Meditate on verse 4.  After a few minutes, jot down anything you have learnt during this period. 

·        For one week, try saying to God, as soon as you wake up, "Lord, please teach me something today you want me to learn."  Wait in silence for a few minutes in case of an immediate reply!

·        In the evening reflect on the day's events.  How has God answered that prayer during the day?

·        How have you used your tongue that day?  Did you say things that you shouldn't have?  Did you control your tongue well?  Did you use it to edify and encourage others?

·        Has your faithfulness to God cost you anything?  Have you suffered for your faith?

·        Have you been aware of God's presence with you during the day?

James.  If the epistles give us an insight into the sort of people they were addressed to, James' intended recipients must have been a right bunch!  He's back on his favourite topic of the dangers posed to our spiritual health by our tongues.  He starts with the special care needed by teachers, presumably as they may lead others into error if their teaching is wrong.  But there is more to these opening verses than that.  In verse 2 he writes, Those who are never at fault in what they say are perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.  In other words, if we can control our tongues, we control ourselves in every way.  [Tell that to those who sometimes seem to think that the only kind of sins condemned by the Bible are of a sexual nature!]  James is not the best writer in the Bible; he labours the point with a collection of metaphors that are at best clumsy and at worst somewhat juvenile; but his point and his passion cannot be denied:  The tongue "corrupts the whole person" (verse 6): "It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." (verse 8)  But perhaps his last argument is best: how can we use the same instrument to praise God and to curse people made in the image of God?  At the risk of adding to his rather large pile of images, we might ask, how can we use a vessel for Eucharistic wine and for washing out our paintbrush?

Taking It Personally.

·        This is the passage for your own spiritual stock-take.  Look back over the past week at the things you have said, and at the things that you have failed to say, and confess any failings to God.

·        Select three other passages relating to this topic from the list given above, and ponder them.  Notice that foolish talk, gossip, and coarse jokes are all included along with straight-out insults and lying.  Have you gossiped this week, or shared any scandal?

Mark.  A central point in the gospel narrative is reached today, beginning with this passage, and including the story of the Transfiguration which succeeds it.  The setting is important.  It takes place in the area around Caesarea Philippi, a Roman garrison city and administrative headquarters, designed to make a statement to the local inhabitants about the unchallengeable power of Rome.  Against that background, Jesus and 12 very insignificant Galileans hold this extraordinary discussion.  Some commentators have suggested that verse 28 implies a popular belief in reincarnation.  That is possible, but unlikely (at least among Jews) in the broad sense, but there was a belief that particular individuals (Elijah being the standout example) might return at some stage.  This verse may mean that people think Jesus might be another Elijah in the way that rugby fans are hoping that Aaron Cruden may prove to be another Dan Carter, or Sam Cain might be the next Richie McCaw.

Peter's famous "Confession of Christ" signals to Jesus that he is making progress in getting through to Peter and the other disciples that in him the new age is dawning.  It also signals to him that it is time to make it clear that his Messiahship is not inaugurated in power but in suffering love.  Peter's instinctual response is immediate and blunt: he "rebukes" Jesus, the word used in the Scriptures for acts of exorcism when Jesus "rebukes" an evil spirit.  Think about that for a moment, and about the sheer arrogance of thinking that he has the right to contradict the One whom he has just acknowledged as the Messiah!  It is precisely that "old mindset" – the one dominated by "human concerns" - that we have to lose if we wish to follow Jesus into this new Kingdom, this new spiritual way of living in the World of Reality where God is, as opposed to what we call the real world.  That is the life we must lose for his sake and for the gospel: only thus are we "saved".  In classical terms, this is purgation in its most complete form.

Taking It Personally.

·        This is a good passage for praying with your imagination.  Put yourself in that group in the shadow of the big impressive buildings in Caesarea Philippi.  Are you looking at Jesus or are you more interested in the buildings?  With Jesus, are you a spectator or a participant?

·        Can you recall an occasion of insight and conviction when you could have stood with Peter and proclaimed your faith in Christ; and an occasion on which you found yourself "disagreeing" with any aspect of Jesus' teaching?

·        Ask God to show you anything that you might need to let go if you are to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly.


Thursday, 6 September 2012

September 9 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 23

September 9                          NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 23

Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Theme:  Nothing very obvious this week.  Something about healing is one possibility, though that would only cover James indirectly.  Given the approach I'm taking to the gospel passage this week, I'm going with "Meeting our Principles in the Flesh".  This would certainly cover James, Part 2.

Introduction.  Isaiah offers the promise of a better future to a people who have hit rock bottom.  The Lord himself will come to his people, and when he does he will bring healing and wholeness, not only to the people, but to the whole of creation as well.  This vision is behind the presentation of Jesus' ministry in the New Testament (including today's gospel passage) where the advent of Jesus is accompanied by amazing healing and other miraculous signs.  [Remember the response to John the Baptist's agonised question from the depth of despair in Herod's dungeon: see Matthew 11:2-5.]  Meanwhile James shows his gift for satire as he mocks our fawning attitude towards the rich and powerful, and our preference for giving platitudes rather than practical aid to those in need.

Background.  In Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New, the hymn book used at St Barnabas Warrington, two versions of that cringe-making carol, Away in the Manger, are given (No.776).  Someone called Michael Forster has done us all a great service by writing an Alternative Version of verses 2 and 3.  Some of his changes seem trivial and unnecessary, but the major change was vital to bring the verse into line with orthodox paediatrics.   The traditional verse reads: The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes, a sure sign that urgent medical attention is necessary.  The revised version reads: The cattle are lowing, they also adore the little Lord Jesus who lies in the straw.  Still not great poetry, but a better guide to new mothers, I think.

The serious point of all this is the question of the perfection of Jesus at birth.  Did he arrive already fully equipped, fully self-aware, already perfect in every way; or did he have to learn, to grow and mature, to discover his Father's will, as the rest of us do?  Was he a normal human baby, or something else?  [I once got into strife with a parishioner for stating that in my view Jesus the baby not only cried, but probably burped and pooped in his nappy just like any other baby.  That's a hard idea to sell; try finding an icon of Madonna and Child at the changing table.  Yet the evidence of Scripture is there: Luke 2:40, 52; Hebrews 5:8-9: Jesus had to grow up.

Which gets me to my take on chapter 7 of Mark's gospel, and in particular this extraordinary encounter between Jesus and the spunky Syro-Phoenician woman.  Before getting to the details of that story, I am intrigued by the structure of this chapter.  [Yes, I know the original texts were not divided into chapters and verses, but the order of the text comes from Mark.]  So we start off with Jesus' teaching about what is and is not 'clean', in the course of which he virtually repeals the dietary laws.  Whatever we may think of such an astounding teaching, the connection with the two following stories does not seem to be related to this subject-matter.  Why does Mark suddenly switch from tough teaching about dietary laws to stories about the healing of a possessed daughter and a man born deaf and mute?

Well, here's my unorthodox (if not actually heretical) take on this.  The implications of the abolition of the dietary laws are widespread, and perhaps even Jesus hadn't thought about them fully.  If Jews are no longer required to follow a different dietary regime than that followed by Gentiles, why would the two groups need to eat separately?  And if they no longer need to eat separately, what has happened to the idea of separate communities?  Jesus has just enunciated in principle the breaking down of the walls that divide: he is now confronted with someone "from the other side of those walls".  She is the embodiment of that principle.  And Jesus' initial response to her approach suggests that he wasn't quite ready to grasp the enormity of what he had just taught.  He had more learning to do, and he did it in this encounter.  He taught his disciples a shocking new understanding of the Law: she taught him the practical implications of the teaching in the real word of flesh and bones.

Notice that the next story is also set in Gentile country, the Decapolis on the south-eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, so it is likely that the man born deaf and mute was also a Gentile.  Now Jesus does not hesitate: he has resolved to his own satisfaction the dilemma he first faced with the pushy mother from Syrian Phoenicia.  He had thought that his mission was only to the House of Israel: he had now realised that it was to the whole world: see Matthew 10:5-6; 15:24.

A startlingly brilliant example of the way in which a principle in which we sincerely believe can turn on us when enfleshed in a real person is found in Miroslav Volf's wonderful book Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation.  Volf is a Croatian theologian.  In 1993 he gave a public lecture in which he argued that "we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ".  Great principle, eh?  We can just see his audience quietly nodding their agreement.  But one member of the audience was the great German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, and he had a question for Volf: "Can you embrace a Cetnik?"  Cetniks were the notorious Serbian fighters who for months had been devastating Croatia, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities in Croatia.  Could this man who enunciated the Christ-given teaching of loving our enemies embrace a Cetnik?  Volf wanted to give a short answer, in itself brilliant: "No, I cannot – but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to", but his full answer filled this extraordinary book.

In the Preface he gives us an insight into how difficult the task of facing Moltmann's question was: My thought was pulled in two different directions by the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God's Lamb offered for the guilty.  How does one remain loyal both to the demand of the oppressed for justice and to the gift of forgiveness that the Crucified offered to perpetrators?

One final thought before turning to the readings.  Perhaps the connection with all this and the healing of the deaf mute is that the causes of deafness are not always physical.  Sometimes we do not hear because what is being said conflicts with what we already think we know, or with what we want to believe.  Jesus had not yet fully heard his Father's mission for him until the Syro-Phoenician woman's effrontery commanded his ears to be opened further.   Miroslav Volf had heard only part of the commandment to love our enemies: he was deaf to the idea that for him that included the Cetniks until Moltmann's question opened his ears to the enormity of his own teaching.  "There's none so deaf as those who will not hear."

Isaiah.  A short messianic prophecy, given to a devastated people who know the reality of defeat, captivity, and exile, as well as the harshness of life in the wilderness.  Here we have wonderful poetry (it would make a great Advent Hymn – in fact, I seem to have a vague idea that there is an Advent Hymn based on this passage somewhere.)  The short point is that when the Lord comes it will not be just a spiritual event, but one that will have dramatic effect in the physical realms.  Restoration meant for the people of the time a return to Jerusalem, but it means much more than that in our faith tradition.  Ultimately, of course, it means full restoration of that relationship we had with God before the Fall.  Its great symbol for Isaiah the prophet and poet is streams of water flowing in the wilderness.

Taking It Personally.

·        We claim that the Lord has come, so where is the evidence for that?  What would you point to in your life to show the fulfilment of this prophecy?

·        Ponder verse 4.  What do you understand by the references to "vengeance" and "divine retribution"?  Does the coming of the Lord necessarily mean bad news for some as well as good news for others?  From what (or whom) does the Lord save you?

·        Is the wonderful work of the Fred Hollows Foundation part of the fulfilment of this prophecy, do you think?  Pray for those you know who are bringing sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and mobility to the lame.

James.  Do you get the impression that James would have been a difficult fellow to have in your local church?  Last week he lectured us on the need to control our tongues: this week he displays his own biting tongue, with two satirical pictures apparently drawn from his observations of local congregations.  Priority is given to those who are rich (even in those days, perhaps, the need for funds was never far from the minds of local faith communities!)  And as for verse 16!!!.

Taking It Personally.

·        Are we inclined to have favourites?  Do we tend to exclude?  Isn't that simply human nature?  Isn't it natural to feel most comfortable with those who are most like us?

·        Have you ever attended a church and felt excluded?  How did that feel?  How did you deal with it?

·        Does the Church have the right to expect visitors to comply with "reasonable" standards of dress and behaviour?

·        Is James going too far the other way?  Would the rich be welcome in the light of this teaching?

·        If a VIP comes to a church service (The Governor-General, say, or the local mayor), should he or she be accorded a special welcome, or is that showing favouritism?  If all are equal in the eyes of God should all earthly honours, titles, etc, be left at the doorway?


Mark.  The text is clear (and even clearer in Matthew).  Jesus initially rebuffs this woman quite sharply.  It may be that he is frustrated that once again his desire for some private space has been thwarted; or, as suggested above, he hasn't yet grasped the breadth of his God-given mission.  Whatever the reason, the usual "defence" offered on Jesus' behalf, that he was testing her faith, finds no support in the text.  This woman has great faith and great courage.  She has obviously heard about Jesus' ministry and on the basis of what she has heard (her ears have been opened to the good news) she has come across the cultural and gender boundaries that "ought" to have excluded her.   She prostrates herself and calls him "Lord"; and she will not accept his rebuff.  Then her faith shines through in her immediate acceptance of Jesus' assurance that her daughter has been set free.  She returned home without any way of "knowing" the truth of that assurance until she arrived.


The healing of the deaf mute is somewhat odd in the amount of detail that we are given.  In most cases the word or touch of Jesus is enough; and as we have just seen sometimes the patient does not even have to be present to receive healing.  Here something much more elaborate is necessary.  I'm not sure why, but I wonder if it has something to do with working with the local belief system.  Remember the famous complaint from Naaman, the Syrian commander who had a very clear idea how a faith healer should go about his business (2 Kings 5:11).  Perhaps Jesus adopted a local practice so that the patient may believe in the healing.  But who knows?  It probably is significant that the lack of hearing prevented the man from talking properly, and when the deafness is cured the man is able to speak plainly.  There is a spiritual as well as a physical truth here, I think.


Taking It Personally.


·        Both these stories lend themselves to praying with the imagination.  Put yourself into these situations and see what happens.

·        Pray that your ears may be fully opened to hear the quiet whisper of God.