St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 25 October 2012

October 28 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 30

October 28                             NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 30

Texts:   Jeremiah 31:7-9; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

[NOTE: Today is the Feast Day of St Simon and St Jude, Apostles.  Readings for that feast are given in the Lectionary.  Spare a thought for them today; St Jude has gone through history as Jude the Obscure, which is tough enough, but he is also the patron saint of lost causes!  As a long-suffering fan of Sheffield Wednesday I have always had a warm spot for him.  More seriously, these two remind us that not all apostles seek or enjoy celebrity status: the Kingdom of God is advanced by all faithful people, obscure as well as famous.]

Introduction.  Today's readings all strike a positive note as we head for the so-called "Kingdom Season" next week.  (Next Sunday is All Saints Sunday.)  Our first lesson is a short extract from Jeremiah's "Book of Consolations" (30:1-33:26) in which God makes his promises of re-gathering and restoration to both Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom).  The writer to the Hebrews concludes his long explanation of the role of Jesus as our Great High Priest by assuring us of Jesus' power to grant complete salvation, and of his constant intercession for us.  And our gospel passage gives us the wonderful encounter between Jesus and the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, on the main route to Jerusalem as it passes by Jericho.  After the struggles of the last few weeks, this is a day for raised spirits all round.

Background.  Not much to offer under this heading this week.  Perhaps the main thing is to stress again the importance of reading any particular brief passage of Scripture in its context.  As stated in the paragraph above, both of our lessons today are taken from sections of some 3-4 chapters, and to get a real feeling of what these passages are about it is helpful to read those whole sections.  Similarly, of course, the gospel story is given as one complete narrative; at best, it comes to us Sunday by Sunday rather like a serial in several episodes.  Today the clash between our biblical timeline and our liturgical one is particularly evident.  The encounter with Bartimaeus in Mark's gospel is followed immediately by the so-called Triumphal Entry: we are at most a day shy of Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week; whereas in our liturgical calendar all that is still some months away.  We are heading for the Kingdom Season, Advent, Christmas, the Epiphany and Lent before we catch up with Mark.

Over the last few weeks the theme of misunderstanding and spiritual blindness, especially among the disciples, has been highlighted; and it is probably no coincidence that we have this story of physical blindness as the last story before Jerusalem.  That is not to deny that this episode really happened, that it is literally true.  But it is a classic illustration of the way in which Scripture often operates at more than one level.  As a general rule, stories of the healing of physical blindness, true in themselves, are also about spiritual blindness, our own included.

The great theological virtues of faith, hope and love and love are all on show in these readings.  In Jeremiah hope predominates.  The inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom have been in exile for generations; those of the Southern Kingdom have either just gone into exile or are about to do so: it is to the defeated that Jeremiah speaks God's promises of future restoration.  In Hebrews, we are exhorted to put our faith in Jesus our Great High Priest who gives salvation to all those who trust in him.  In the gospel story Jesus' great love and compassion for others meets the beggar's faith and healing (restoration) comes to one more person.

Jeremiah.  This message is for the exiles from Israel.  In verse 7 the key term is "remnant": God has never allowed the complete destruction of his people, but has always preserved a faithful remnant.  He will do so again, and one day he will bring them back to their own land.  Probably the reference to blindness in verse 8 explains why this passage is prescribed for today, but the point is much wider than this.  The march back from exile draws on the imagery of the escape from Egypt.  Such rushed escapes usually mean "passengers" must be left behind.  But when God brings back the exiles no one will be left behind; even the blind the lame and the heavily pregnant will be included.  They will be "weeping", perhaps with joy or with contrition or both; and "praying", prayers of praise and thanksgiving, surely, but also prayers of confess and petition.  "Streams of water" contrast with the dearth of potable water in the wilderness: there will be no need to strike a rock and hope for a gusher this time.  The journey will be smoothed and no one will stumble on the way.  All this because of the special relationship between God and these people: that relationship is so much more than merely covenantal; it is the relationship of Father and Son.

Taking It Personally.

·       Do you have any sense of exile or estrangement from anyone or anywhere at this time; or looking back, is there someone or somewhere you wish you hadn't left behind?  How might today's passage offer you hope of some sort of restoration?  Make this a subject of your prayers this week.

·       How might this passage guide you in offering hope to someone else who is in difficulty at this time?

·       Is there an area of aridity in your life where a stream would be most helpful?  Ask the Source of Living Water to flow into that area of your life.

·       Is there something particularly challenging facing you in the near future?  Ask God to go before you to smooth the way.

·       A good day to pray for refugees and all displaced persons around the world.

Hebrews.  As stated above, in this passage the writer brings his long explanation of his understanding of Jesus as the Great High Priest to a conclusion, although in the next chapter he uses the idea so segue into the next section on temple worship. Today his main theme is to contrast the human (mortal) priesthood of those who stand in the line of Aaron with the eternal priesthood of Jesus.  Verse 25 is particularly interesting in linking salvation through Jesus with intercession by Jesus.  The thought here seems to be based again on the idea of the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies bearing on his clothing the names of the clans of Israel.  Thus he "took with him" all the people into the presence of God, and all their sins were forgiven through the rituals of that day.  Through intercession for us Jesus bears our names into the presence of the Father thereby obtaining forgiveness and salvation for us all.  At the root of all this, of course, is the idea of priestly sacrifice: in place of the daily offerings that had to be offered by mortal priests, Jesus, having first been made perfect, has offered himself for all who put their trust in him.  No further sacrifices are necessary hereafter.

And here's our wonderful bit of liturgy for this week: Accept our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving which we offer through Christ our great high priest.  [Prayer Book, p.423.]

Taking It Personally.

·       When you pray for someone, take a moment to recall this verse 25.  "Consciously" bear the name of the person (perhaps even write it on a piece of paper and hold it as you pray) into the presence of God.  Ask Jesus to pray with you for that person.

·       Thank Jesus for interceding for you.

·       Read verse 26 through slowly several times.  Let it lead you into a time of praise.

·       Ponder the relationship between this passage and the one from our liturgy above.

·       Pray for all priests today.

Mark.  Consider this structure:

10:17-31         Rich Young Man – "what must I do (for myself)".

10:32-34         Jesus predicts his death – "what I will do for others".

10:35-45         James and John – "what do you want me to do for you?"  Wrong response.

10:46-52         Bartimaeus – "what do you want me to do for you?"  Right response.


9:32:               "They did not understand what he meant, and were afraid to ask him..."

10:52              "...he received his sight and followed Jesus".

Where the disciples did not see and were afraid to ask, the blind beggar wanted to see and was not afraid to ask.   

The geographical setting of this encounter is very important.  The road they were on was an important pilgrimage route (and hence a good place to beg).  They had come to Jericho; but which Jericho was that?  As the difference in details between this account and the ones in Matthew and Luke  suggest, there were at the time two cities, the old largely destroyed and abandoned one, and the new one built by King Herod.  Probably the party were passing the old one and nearing the new one: passing from the old to the new is a good backdrop to his story.  Here Jesus encounters one beggar, who has a name: in Matthew's account there are two nameless beggars (prompting the temptation to make a silly remark about double vision, which I will firmly resist).  This blind beggar calls Jesus by the Messianic title of "Son of David", the only person in this gospel to do so.  There is nothing wrong with his insight.  The sighted crowd are the blind ones as they try to shut him up.  Jesus stops for him, and has him called.  The man casts aside his one possession of any value (his cloak) and jumps up in response.  Then comes the question, and his fearless and faithful response: "I want to see."  Jesus tells him to "go", but he chooses to follow Jesus along the road (to Jerusalem, remember). 

Taking It Personally.

·        This is a wonderful story for praying with the imagination.  Place yourself in that narrative?  Where do you see yourself?  Are you in Jesus' entourage or a curious bystander?  Are you interested when the beggar cries out, or are you one who wants him to shut up?  Do you laugh when he asks for a miracle?  How do you feel when his sight is restored?  Amazed?  Fearful?  Happy for him?  Envious – wishing Jesus had paid you some attention?

·        Again, what do you want Jesus to do for you?  What do you want to see?  Ask him.

·        Notice how Jesus allowed himself to be interrupted.  How ready are you to set aside your own agenda when someone seeks your attention?

·        How ready are you to cast aside your possessions and jump to it when Jesus calls?

·        Give thanks for the gift of sight.  Ask for more insight.

·        Pray for the blind, and those who work for their welfare and minister to them.


Friday, 19 October 2012

October 21 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 29

October 21                             NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 29

Texts:  Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; Mark 10:35-45

Theme:  Something about ambition, power games, boys behaving badly?  I'm going with "They Did not Understand".

Introduction.  At first sight it seems a little odd to be starting with the major "Servant Song" when we are still 5 months shy of Good Friday.  Similarly, the tone of our second lesson would suggest it belongs somewhere nearer the Cross.  It's only when we focus on the context of our gospel passage that we may get the point the Lectionary is trying to draw to our attention.  For the second time, the disciples are playing power games and for the second time they are doing so immediately after Jesus has been talking about his forthcoming Passion.  The purpose of our two lessons today is surely to spell out in graphic detail the full horror of what was then weighing heavily on Jesus' mind and contrast it with what was going on in the minds of his chosen disciples.  More about this anon.

Background.  Somewhere in the dark ages of my misspent youth I saw my share of third-rate horror films; and included among them were some involving the invasion of the earth by aliens from faraway galaxies.  For some reason the advance guard of the invading force would always point their strange looking weapons at some hapless earthlings and demand, "Take us to your leader!"  About the only thing of any possible interest in this is the assumption that any community must inevitably have one or more leaders, even the relatively un-evolved people discovered on this strange planet.  [It was never explained to the aliens that the average inhabitant of Britain at the time probably had no idea who their leader was, and certainly would not have been able to provide the aliens with access to him.]

Last week I read of the annual meeting of representatives of local chambers of commerce, and was interested to read their slogan for the conference was "Leading the Leaders".  Think about that for a moment.  Does it mean ANYTHING, and, if it does, what?  If you were the hapless soul held up at ray-gunpoint, wouldn't you rather assume that the leader you were being urged to introduce was the Prime Minister – doesn't the expression "the leaders" bring to your mind members of the political power elite?  So at the conference of these worthy titans of the commercial world, were they discussing how to lead the leaders, and, if so, where to?  Or by which part of their anatomy – were they, perhaps, discussing how to lead our leaders by the nose?

Of course, even in politics views of what leadership involves vary considerably.  Bill Rowling (remember him?) was derided for being too nice; Muldoon (you certainly remember him!) was ultimately unmasked as a bully; Helen Clark was too controlling and John Key is now said to be paying the price for not exercising enough control.  Outside of politics we find different ideas of leadership.  Richie McCaw is lauded for leading by example, putting his body on the line, etc. and rarely trying to tell the other team members what they should or shouldn't be doing.  Ross Taylor is too quiet, and what the Black Caps need is someone like Brendon McCallum who tells it as it is.

And then there are Bishops!  If they try to lead from the front they are ungodly and power- mad: if they sit back and wait for consensus to emerge they are weak and vacillating.  So what is leadership about, and, come to that, what is "followship" about in the context of the Church?  Jesus undoubtedly exercised leadership; he called others to follow him; he set the agenda for discussion; and he was always in control of the day's itinerary.  Yet we do not see him as power-hungry or despotic, do we?  We see him as setting the standard in all aspects of life, by example and by teaching.  Included in that, indeed, at the centre of it, was sacrificial service of others, ultimately on the Cross, but before that in time, attention and sympathy.  When we see those qualities in someone we know that we are in the presence of a true leader, one whose calling is to lead others by serving their best interests, not his or her own.

And finally, here's another lovely bit of liturgy (from page 487): Blessed are you, most holy, in your Son, who washed his disciples' feet.  "I am among you," he said, "as one who serves."  How many leaders have you come across who could say that with a straight face?

Isaiah.  This is part of the fourth and longest of the so-called "Servant Songs" we find in Isaiah.  (The others are to be found in chapters 42, 49 and 50.)  Although somewhat mysterious, the Servant can at least be recognised as Israel in ideal form.  The people of Israel were called to be a nation of priests [Exodus 19:6].  The Servant, soon recognised as the Messiah who was to come, was to be the High Priest who would atone, not just for the sins of Israel, but for the sins of the whole world.  In verses 4-6 we have the classic theology of the Cross expressed in terms of Christ's death in substitution for ours.  We are not spared the awful agony of that death, even in this prophecy some 750 years before the event.  The whole idea of the religious practices associated with the Day of Atonement underlie this passage, including laying the sins of Israel on a scapegoat that was then driven off into the wilderness to perish.  But suddenly the whole mood and content of the imagery changes as verses 11 and 12 look ahead to the Resurrection.  Here the central image is of the King who has won the war and is now sharing out the spoils with his top brass.

Taking It Personally.

·       Read slowly through verses 4-10.  Notice the words of suffering: "despised and rejected"; "smitten and afflicted"; "pierced"; "crushed"; "oppressed and afflicted"; oppression and judgement".  Notice the loss of a chance of descendants, and the dishonourable burial.  The full horror of death is here.  Spend some time in silence – what is there to say?

·       Ponder verse 10: could it really have been God's "will to crush him and cause him to suffer"?  How do you feel about that?

·       Now enjoy verses 11 and 12.  [Recall that every time Jesus predicts his death he also predicts his resurrection.]

Hebrews.  We are now well into the writer's lengthy examination of the image of Jesus as "The Great High Priest."  Verse 4 should have been included in this reading: on it is based our doctrine of calling.  It is particularly important in the light of the fact that, at the time of Jesus, one family had bought the rights to the office!  Hence the writer's insistence that no one can seek or apply for the job, only God can call someone to that office.  The figure of Melchizedek (first met by Abram way back in Genesis 14) is a mysterious character to say the least: he may represent the old order – the mists of time – the pre-human organisations idea – a sort of mystical order that derives its authority directly from God and not from people or institutions.  The main text I have commented on recently.  It is another text that underlines again the biblical position that Jesus had to "grow up in Christ", so to speak.  He became perfect through perfect obedience to the will of God, tested and proven through extreme suffering.   Only then did he become the source of salvation for the rest of us.

Taking It Personally.

·       Spend some time calling to mind and reflecting upon your image of Jesus.  Think about his face.  How do you usually "see" his face?  Smiling?  Kindly?  Peaceful?

·       Now ponder verse 7.  Reflect how your image may differ from that outlined in that verse .  How does that image make you feel about Jesus?

·       Do you have any difficulty with the idea of Jesus having to "learn obedience" and "become perfect"?  Does that change your understanding of, or attitude towards, Jesus?  In what way?

Mark.  Here we go again!   Just one chapter after the last round of jockeying for position among the disciples, for which they were taken to task by Jesus, they're at it again.  What we might call their besetting sin – evidence of a deep-seated problem.  And all in the context of a series of misunderstandings between Jesus and his disciples that shows no signs of abating any time soon.  Consider:

9:31.               Jesus predicts his Passion.

9:33-37.          First power play – who among us is the greatest?

10:1-12.          Teaching on divorce – disciples seek further clarification.

10:13-16.        Disciples try to shoo away children – Jesus welcomes them.

10:17-31.        Rich young man – disciples astonished – seek more than clarification!

10:32-34.        Jesus again predicts his Passion.

10:35-45.        Second power play – James and John seek to book the best places.

All this when they are already on the way to Jerusalem!  The end is in sight and it is clear that the disciples still have not 'got' Jesus – they still have not 'changed their mind' from the material to the spiritual, from the kingdom of the world to the kingdom of heaven.  9:32 says it all: But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

Today's episode is all the more poignant because it involves two of Jesus' inner circle, James and John, who with Peter had witnessed the Transfiguration.  Even that profound experience had failed to transform their inner selves.  Look at their outrageous opening line – "we want you to do for us whatever we ask"!  They have been called to follow Jesus, but instead they want him to follow them, to do their bidding.  Jesus puts to them the same question he will soon put to blind Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho (10:51) – "what do you want me to do for you?"  The beggar asks for sight – they ask for prestige and status.  Jesus tells them that they do not know what they are asking, perhaps a veiled reference to Peter's babbling nonsense at the Transfiguration (9:6).  To "drink the same cup" was a Jewish saying, meaning to "share the same fate".  Their boastful assurance "we can" looks forward, perhaps, to the blustering boasts of Peter prior to cock-crow.  When the other ten get to hear of all this they are indignant – as any caucus would be on learning of an attempted leadership coup that doesn't involve promotion for them.  Once more Jesus turns the whole concept of leadership on its head: we can be fairly confident that they didn't understand what he meant but were afraid to ask him about it.

Notice how Matthew re-writes the story – this time it's the boys' Mother who seeks the favour on their behalf: Matthew 20:20-21, but then he forgets to change the rest of the text accordingly!  A difficulty for the biblical literalists, no doubt, but a wonderful illustration of the way in which stories can get touched up when reputations are at stake.

Taking It Personally.

·       Take some time to reflect on how Jesus must have felt as he realised that he had failed to get across to his disciples his whole vision of "the Kingdom of God".  Try to experience something of his sense of disappointment, disillusion, defeat, - his sense of being fundamentally alone as he heads off the journey to the Cross.

·       Can you recall a time in your life when you felt misunderstood, isolated from those around you, unable to get through to them?

·       What do you want Jesus to do for you today?  Ask him.


Friday, 12 October 2012

October 14 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 28

October 14                             NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 28

Texts: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Theme:  A need for restraint here!  Nothing like "Fat Cats Get their Come-Uppance" should cross our minds for even a moment.  I'm going with "A Need to Prioritise", which is both a modern-day political mantra and a good summary of what our readings are on about today.

Introduction.  The suggested theme gives us a good starting-point, I think.  When we hear reference to the need to prioritise in our society it is always against a background of real or imagined financial difficulties.  The Government is short of money, or New Zealand Inc is going through hard times.  The opposite is true in the spiritual world.  It is precisely when we are doing well financially that we are most likely to forget that the first call on our time, commitment and love should be God.  This is the message of Amos, who was carrying out his prophetic ministry around 750BC in the northern kingdom of Israel at a period of great national peace and prosperity.  Religious observance had become pro forma, something to be got over with as soon as possible so as not to interfere too much with trade and commerce.  (Another example of the ability of Scripture to seem always contemporaneous with our own times!)  The eager young man who approaches Jesus seems to have a similar need to re-prioritise.  He's a good person, doing a lot of good things; but when Jesus confronts him with the stark choice between material and spiritual wealth he goes sadly away.  Such is the sharpness of the Word of God, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us today.

Background.  We often hear complaints that our society is obsessed with sex: advertisers use it more and more explicitly to sell even the least sexy imaginable items, and more and more films and TV programmes feature so-called "adult themes" (an interesting expression in itself).  Others make similar complaints about alcohol.  Few seem to notice the real obsession in our news media, sometimes treated almost as reverentially as rugby, is that mysterious family of personified forces called "The Market", with all its off-springs scattered around the world but still bearing the family name, "the markets" (sometimes individually identified as "Wall Street", and so on).  Another prominent member of this family is" The New Zealand Dollar".  Sometimes they are treated as mere humans; in which case regular "medical bulletin" are issued through our media.  They might have had a quiet night – they might be treading water awaiting some announcement or other – they might be a little stronger today – they might be rising or falling or a bit flat.  More ominously, they are given a divine status, attended by a watchful priesthood drawn from the Gnostic ranks of Credit Agencies.  Those whom we, as humble electors, thought we had elected to power are required to propitiate these supposed deities, and will undoubtedly experience their wrathful judgment if they presume to exercise their power in a way that does not accord with the will of these gods.

And so to the markets.   As regular listeners to the National Programme will know, we get regular market updates about how the markets are doing, not just our own share market and our own currency, but those in the UK, US and Australia; and on a good day we might even have a few bits from some of the European markets as well.  Such market updates tend to crop up as often as weather forecasts and sports headlines.  Yet I heard the other day that only 7 percent of New Zealanders own shares.  Presumably, some of those are professionals who would need far more detailed information than we get on the radio, so why are we given all these regular updates when very few listeners have any interest in them?  Because there is an unspoken assumption that all things economic and financial are of real importance – even though, at most, 7 percent of the public is actually listening.

We are often told, too, about the ever-declining church membership, and how fewer and fewer people in this country have any religious beliefs.  I haven't seen any figures for that recently, but I suspect that even now we could must a figure in excess of 7 percent.  Can you imagine the reaction if Radio New Zealand decided to broadcast regular "church updates", along with weather reports and sports bulletins?  But why would that be ridiculous, whereas it makes sense to constantly tell us that "Wall Street is holding its breath awaiting the outcome of a state election in Germany"?

It's all a matter of priorities, isn't it?  And when the markets are doing well, who needs prayer?  Time enough for that when the bubble does what all bubbles eventually do (often to the great surprise of some of the market acolytes).

Amos.  Like many prophets, Amos was a reluctant starter.  He was quite happy working on the land, tending sheep and trees in the southern kingdom of Judah.  But somewhere around the middle of the 8th century BC God called him and sent him on a mission to the northern kingdom of Israel with a rather unwelcome message.  Things had gone well for Israel.  It had enjoyed a few decades of peace and prosperity.  Markets were bullish: the rich and powerful were becoming ever more rich and powerful.  Market regulation had yet to put in an appearance: the eastern equivalent of the Wild West approach was in full swing.  Fortunes were being made, mansions built, and land accumulated.  The art of creative book-keeping was born, along with ever more inventive approaches to lending, borrowing, racketeering, money-laundering and many other elements of market life that we, in our arrogance, believe that our generation have invented recently.  As ever, ethics did not develop quite as quickly: cheats and frauds benefitted greatly, and, of course, the poor and the dispossessed suffered grievously.  All this from the chosen people, the people who had been rescued from slavery, and led into the Promised Land to become a light to the Gentiles, a working model of a righteous society.  They were living in a bubble of their own creation: that bubble was about to burst.  Amos was sent to warn them.  They did not listen.  Their kingdom fell to the Assyrians.  The God whom they ignored during the "good times" declined to intervene when everything turned to custard..

The key verses for me are vv. 6 and 14: "Seek the Lord and live"; and "Seek good, not evil, that you may live."  The "good life" is to be found in God, not in the markets.  And notice the second half of verse 14: "Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you just as you say he is."  They believe that God is with them despite their shady dealings and exploitation of the poor.  In other words, their belief in God is not deep enough, real enough, to cause a change in their behaviour.

Taking It Personally.

·         A day for deep reflection, perhaps with your bank statement, your cheque-book, and your Bible spread out before you.

·         Do you take comfort from the fact that this passage is not about the accumulation of wealth in itself, but about dishonest dealings?  Is God concerned only with the harm done against the poor, or the lack of help given to them as well?

·         Should we attempt to critique our country's economic and political policies against the prophetic writings of the Old Testament or not?

Hebrews.  After the joyous good news of last week, we have a much more mixed message this week.  The passage falls into two halves.  First, the bad news: we all face the judgment of God.  The Word (or, for the more visual among us, the eye) of God cuts through all our attempts at evasion, compromise and obfuscation.  We have no choice but to be completely real with God.  Another image may be that we must come naked before God, completely open, vulnerable, just as we are.  Based on this passage is our wonderful Collect for Purity, which we so often dash through as we settle into the service.  Here it is: Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, so that we may truly love you and worthily praise your holy name; through our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

And, of course, the second part of this passage tells us why we offer this prayer "through Jesus Christ our Saviour".  It is because of his saving work that we can approach God "with confidence"; some translations even say "with boldness".  So begins the writer's long reflection on the Office of the High Priest, which he now sees passing to Jesus.  Just as, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would disappear from sight into the Holy of Holies, so Jesus has "gone through the heavens" (quite possibly a reference to the Ascension).  And again the writer is at pains to stress the full humanity of Jesus: he is a High Priest who can sympathise with our weaknesses precisely because he experienced all the temptations we experience.  He resisted them, so that is humanly possible with the help of the grace of God which is now available to us on request.

Taking It Personally.

·         Do you feel the sharp edge of these readings today?  Does Scripture sometimes cut you to the bone?  How do you react?

·         Spend time meditating on the Collect for Purity.  Make it part of your prayers every day this week.

·         What special help or grace do you need from God at this time?  Approach the Throne of Grace confidently and ask accordingly.

Mark.  Last week the topic was divorce: this week its personal wealth!  And critics still think we make this stuff up, that it's some sort of wish-fulfilment?  Give us a break!  The passage gets off to a very interesting start: a young man runs up to Jesus and falls on his knees before him.  That's not the first time that's happened in the gospel narrative, is it?  In 1:40 a leper approaches Jesus in that way, seeking healing for himself; in 5:22-3 Jairus comes asking for a cure for his son; and, of course, in 7:25 the Syro-Phoenician woman does likewise on behalf of her daughter.  But this time it's different: this man is not seeking physical healing; he is seeking "a word", as it was known when someone approached a wise spiritual teacher for guidance in the spiritual life.  "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  Jesus challenges him first about his use of the word "good": it should be used only of God.  Two schools of thought here: either Jesus is clearly distinguishing himself from God, or he is inviting the man to join the dots and recognise that Jesus is God.  Take your pick.  Jesus reminds the man of the Commandments, but interestingly not all of them.  He leaves out the ones owed "directly to God", the first three.  It seems that this guy is very good to his neighbours but perhaps lacks something in his love of God.  Then comes the two-edged sword, and the man is cut to the quick.  Notice the amazement of the disciples; they took for granted the local version of the "Gospel of Prosperity" – the rich must be doing something right in the eyes of God, otherwise they wouldn't be rich.  Notice, too, verse 27: it is not humanly possible to enter the kingdom of God, only God can do that for us.  There is some suggestion that the closing line, verse 31, might be a bit of a put-down of Peter for his boast in verse 28.

Taking It Personally.

·         Try to hear (or read) this story as if you for the first time.  How do you feel about it?  Are you already trying to construct your "defence case"?

·         Some commentators suggest that Jesus was not laying down a general principle, only giving specific guidance to this one person?  Do you agree?  (The correct answer is "no", but it's tempting, isn't it?  The fact is the teaching is given to the disciples after the man has gone sadly away.)

·         Try to imagine "losing everything" – perhaps in a natural disaster, or a fire.  What would you most miss?  Why?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

October 7 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 27

October 7                               NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Ordinary 27

Texts: Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Theme:  Not easy this week.  The readings are a little disjointed (even in the gospel passage it's not immediately clear what the connection is between the two topics).  I'm going with "From God, to God", because I think if we scratch the surface a little we find the spiritual journey in miniature.         

Introduction.  For me the central reading today is the epistle which makes some astounding comments on Jesus' spiritual journey and our own.  In the light of that reading, we are shown in the other two something of our human propensity for descending into pointless arguments about peripheral matters.  Faced with the wonderful truth that God is our creator, we descend into silly debates about evolution versus creationism.  Faced with the gospel of love and grace we prefer legalistic arguments about divorce and remarriage.  Today for me all that is shown up for what it is by the wonderful light shining through these two short extracts from the Letter to the Hebrews.

Background.  For some time now I have been reading a variety of writers who have brought their wisdom to bear on the whole issue of how we may reconcile our biological development – our evolution into and as Homo sapiens – with our spiritual development.  Among such writers, which include biologists, philosophers and theologians, a consensus has developed around the understanding that our species has, in the course of its evolution, developed spiritually, just as it has physically and mentally.  Somewhere along the line our species became aware of Transcendent Reality – something more to life than met their eye.  It wasn't that something in our environment changed – something that wasn't there before suddenly arrived in our environment – but that something within us changed or developed.  We developed an ability to apprehend something otherwise than through our senses, that we were not previously capable of apprehending.  In short, to put it in religious terms, although God has been present for ever, our species only developed the capacity to become aware of God's presence at some stage of our evolutionary development.

As that development continued over the passing centuries, so that spiritual capacity (to give it a name) evolved and strengthened, and we came to understand a little more about this Transcendent Reality.   In particular we came to understand it as Personality rather than some sort of impersonal force or power.  To put all that in theological terms, God has chosen to reveal himself to us slowly over time, as we have become more and more capable of receiving that revelation.  As with other areas of our evolutionary history, each new breakthrough would have started with one or two individuals, spread to others, and then – in a way that still baffles even expert Darwinists - at some point it breaks out into the whole species.  [The idea made famous some years back with the concept of "The Hundredth Monkey" gives us some illustration of this breakthrough.]

We can see some idea of this in our biblical tradition.  The first eleven chapters of Genesis summarised our "cloudy past" as our faith ancestors become aware of God but have difficulty establishing a relationship with him.  This new stage is reached with Abraham, and continues through other individuals, the patriarchs, the judges and so on.  Through Moses another new stage is reached with the idea of a relationship between God and a whole people.  God continues to speak only to specially chosen people, the prophets, and so on, but the social relationship is at the heart of the whole idea of the covenantal relationship with God.  Karen Armstrong and others have written of similar clear stages developing in the other great world religions.

Then a major new stage breaks out with the coming of Jesus.  For the first time we have a person who completes in himself the human journey of growing awareness and openness to the Transcendent Reality we now call God, the journey that begins at birth and ends in complete unity with God.  As with other "evolutionary developments" his breakthrough, because he is a human being, is achievable by all other members of the species.  How?  By following the path he has cut for us – or, as he himself put it, by following the Way he is.

All this is necessarily a very brief summary of these ideas, and I need to do more work on them yet; but I have outlined them here because I think they help us to understand something of the message of our epistle reading today.

Genesis.  One of the great truths we get from biology is that life is continuous.  It doesn't die out, and then start all over again a few million years later.   However it started, it has kept going ever since, with increasing diversity and complexity, until today there are millions upon millions of different species, sub-species and who knows what.  Along the way, of course, there have been many "evolutionary failures and dead-ends", but every species has "inherited" life from its biological antecedents.  We can still claim God as the author of life, therefore, without needing to insist that he fashioned each and every species out in his workshop somewhere.  The authors of Genesis needed some sort of general starting-point, and so had this image of God the Creator making individual creatures "by hand".  Today we might say Adam and Eve represent for us the firs emergence of Homo sapiens, from whom all of our species are descended.  That the whole human race is related – is one species – is one important truth that we need to draw from these early writings. 

Another is this.  Whatever we are to make of the use of Adam's rib in the creation of Eve, this story affirms that women, just as much as men, were created by God.  The high importance given to the creation of both genders should remind us once and for all that all attempts to belittle one gender or the other are ungodly, and therefore unworthy of any person of faith.  When it comes to the so-called gender wars conscientious objection is the only proper stance for people who profess a belief in God our Creator.


Taking It Personally.

·        Do you accept that you are descended from "Adam and Eve", and through them you are related to all other human beings?  How does that affect your attitude to others?

·        If God chose to create two genders, does it follow that God "created" sex?  If so, how does the Church's attitude to sex reflect an understanding that sex is good because part of God's creation?

·        Give thanks for both your parents today.

Hebrews.  Here we see that evolutionary or historical understanding that in Christ a new age has dawned.  Previously God spoke through the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken through his Son.  Notice the very high Christology in these first few verse, every bit as high as St Paul and the Fourth Evangelist.  Jesus is God's appointed "heir of all things"; indeed, it was through him that God made all things.  He is also "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being".

Fast forward to the second extract, and we find two astonishing ideas.  First, that Jesus, being fully human, started off like the rest of us (a little lower than the angels) but became crowned with glory and honour: in other words Jesus moved along the path of spiritual growth from birth through suffering to union with God.  He became perfect, not by birth but by growth.  That's shock number one.

For shock number two we pass to verses 10 to 12; and we find that we, fellow members of the human race, are invited onto the same path of spiritual development.  Don't take my word for it – read it for yourself!  And be amazed!

Taking It Personally.

·        Open in praise and worship of Christ the Son who "is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being".

·        Now ponder verse 9 slowly and deeply.  Jesus was "made a little lower than the angels" – that is, he started life fully human.  But now he is crowned with glory and honour.

·        Pause.  Have a break.  Take a deep long breath.  Then, when you're sure you're ready, read verses 10-12 very, very slowly, phrase by phrase, taking as long as you need to let it all sink into your consciousness.

·        Now sit in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eye, and say, preferably out loud, "Like Jesus, I was made a little lower than the angels.  Through Jesus I have been made a son/daughter of God, a brother/sister of Jesus, a member of his family, and with him a co-heir of all there is.  He is bringing me to glory and honour with God."

·        Now give thanks!  [And if you still have any doubts read Romans 8:16-17, and 1 John 3:1-3.  The writer to the Hebrews, St Paul, and St John can't all be wrong, can they?]


Mark.  This is yet another passage where the ghost of St John the Baptist hovers in the background.  Some Pharisees come to Jesus to test him: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?  Their apparent hope is that Jesus will either say no, deeply offending Herod who had John imprisoned for challenging his right to marry Herodias, his brother's wife; or, if he says yes he will upset john's followers.  It's often assumed that Jesus simply outlawed divorce, but his answer is far more subtle than that.  Notice that he asks them, "What did Moses say?" perhaps subtly laying the ground for his subsequent suggestion that this Law came from Moses, rather than God.  They reply that Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife so long as he followed the correct procedure of giving her a certificate of divorce.  Jesus then goes behind (or above) the law by drawing on our passage from Genesis.  In effect, he says that God intended marriage to be forever and the Mosaic Law was simply a concession to the weakness of human beings. (As the Pharisees believed in the legality of divorce that must have stung his inquirers!)

Jesus then went on to talk about remarriage, which went beyond the original question, and was, in fact, what King Herod was guilty of.  Further, he implied that women could divorce their husbands, which would have been even more of a shock to the Pharisees.  Then, for no obvious reason, Mark changes the topic entirely.  Parents are bringing their young children to Jesus for a blessing.  The disciples try to shoo them away, only to be told off by Jesus, for "the kingdom of God belongs to such of them".  To enter the Kingdom of God we must be born again, become like little children, open and aware and trusting, not distracted and blinded by our tiresome adult games, our quarrels and arguments, our disagreements over evolution, sex...

Taking It Personally.

·        Compare this reading with the epistle.  Which do you find the most life-giving?

·        Are you childlike (not to be confused with childish)?

·        Can you recall any spiritual insight or learning you gained from watching or listening to a child?

·        Pray for those who are going through the pain of a broken relationship at this time.  Is there any way in which you could help any such person at this time?