St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Third Sunday in Lent

March 3                      NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Third Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Theme:  No obvious candidates this week, although there is a subtle theme running through these texts.  I've gone for "Judging Ourselves, Not others", but it's not a happy choice, and certainly no better than many other possibilities.  Perhaps something like "Divine Wisdom", or "The Source of All Wisdom".  Or for regular readers of The Lectionary what about "Self-Examination and Special Devotion"?

Introduction.  Just as I was about to start this section, some words from St Paul's wonderful hymn to Christ's humility (Philippians 2:5-11) came into my mind: "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped".  Perhaps those words get us nearer than most to the "subtle theme running through these texts".  The sort of horror events referred to in our gospel reading this morning can stir challenging questions in the hearts and minds of people of faith, and that certainly happened to the disciples in Luke's story.  Where is God in all this?  Isaiah has much for us to ponder in respect of such human questions and questioning.  If that's about our human propensity to make God accountable to us, St Paul reminds us of another human propensity – to turn to God when all else fails, and to turn away from God when the danger has passed.  Someone has said that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them: St Paul's point exactly.

Background.  The Lectionary designates the days of Lent as "Days of Self-Examination and Special Devotion".  "Self-Examination" has a sugar-coated, euphemistic tone to it: perhaps our Liturgy is more helpful when it says "we call to mind our sins".  But are those two expressions saying the same thing?  I'm not at all sure they are.  Let's start with the simpler one first: what does it mean to "call to mind our sins"?

[A theoretical complication arises immediately: in the Liturgy, we are in corporate (rather than private or individual) prayer, so that the emphasis should be on the sins we have committed collectively, as the Body of Christ in this place, rather than those each of us may have committed as individuals.  To get this distinction clear it may be helpful to reflect for a moment on the words used in the same context by our third Liturgy (page 478): "We come seeking forgiveness for all we have failed to be and do as members of Christ's body."]

In practice, whichever liturgical formula is used, I suspect that most of us respond by recalling our personal misdeeds, and bemoan the fact that we are never given enough time for the task!  (Perhaps liturgists have far less sins to call to mind than the rest of us?)  This idea of sins as discrete(!) acts or omissions is well-illustrated by a story I came across a few years ago of a church in Italy which had installed a "slot-machine" in the foyer to facilitate confession for passing tourists.  Apparently it displayed a list of sins (the figure I have in mind is 76, but I may have conflated this memory with a song about trombones that I've always loved), and the penitent tourist could punch in the numbers of the sins he/she was confessing.  That done the machine would then display the Absolution.  However crass, that idea is really only a parody of a particular understanding of "sin" as specific act or omission.

While that approach can lead to over-scrupulous "mind-scraping" that probably does the penitent more spiritual harm than good, carried out regularly and briefly, concentrating on anything that is genuinely troubling our conscience, it is a very important and beneficial practice.  But there is another, deeper approach to all this, and one which I believe is more in tune with the general biblical understanding of "Sin" with a capital S.

And here's another little quirky story to illustrate this.  One evening a party was held for up-and-coming Hollywood starlets on board a very splendid yacht moored in a private cove somewhere.  The rich and pretty were there in abundance and so was the alcohol.  One of the male guests finally succumbed to the soporific effect of the booze, the sun, and everything else that he had enjoyed to excess that evening, and flaked out.  He was last seen sleeping on the deck where he had landed.  Eventually everyone else went off to sleep somewhere.   During the night the wind got up, the yacht pitched suddenly, and the young man rolled off the deck, into the water and drowned.  The reason why I remember this story so well is the picture of his distraught girlfriend demanding to know, "How could a loving God allow such a terrible thing to happen to such a lovely guy as my Gerry?"

Yes, another parody; but a very good illustration of a common approach to personal tragedy or natural disaster.  Maybe we are not all quite so direct as that young heart-broken starlet; but most of us at some time or another have been troubled with that sort of question, I think.  Philosophers and theologians have feasted on the so-called problem of evil in a God-created world, but it's far more than a philosophical teaser when it happens to you or someone you love.

Today's gospel story illustrates an alternative approach that many adopt in such cases.  We try to "explain" what has happened to someone else in terms that can come very close to blaming the victim, and, indirectly, slandering God.  Clearly the people in discussion with Jesus here have been toying with the idea that the unfortunate Galileans who were killed in a building collapse, and those even more unfortunate Galileans who had been slaughtered by Pilate's lot, must have "deserved" their fate in some way.  And what that means is that God has carried out judgment on them as punishment for their sins.  (Pause for a moment and think about the image of God such an argument necessarily gives rise to.)  Crazy stuff; and yet we have had modern examples of this sort of approach.  Pat Robertson (or was it Jerry Falwell) in the United States asserted that Hurricane Katrina that did so much damage to New Orleans was God's judgment on that city for the sins committed there.  And closer to home, an Anglican priest wrote an article in the ODT after the September earthquake in Christchurch "explaining" why there had been no loss of life there compared to over 200,000 deaths in a similar earthquake in Haiti.

In our Lenten Studies session this week we spent some of our time looking at the classic "sin stories" of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel.  How do we react to those stories?  What are they really about?  Surely their underlying theme is our human tendency to grasp at equality with God.  Why shouldn't we eat fruit that is pleasing to the eye, good for food and for growing in wisdom?  Why did God plant the tree there if he didn't want them to eat from it?  Why did God show favouritism to Abel over Cain?  As St Paul's says, learn from the past.  We could say, learn from Job!  Who are we to call God to account?    His ways are not our ways: and the postmodern view that all ways are equally valid amounts, in this context, to blasphemy!

So perhaps this Lent we are called in our times of self-examination not to get too hung up on the word said, the thought entertained, or the act done that we now regret.  Instead, we may be led to go a little deeper and examine our own general attitude towards God.  When we seek wisdom, do we turn first to prayer, to wait upon the Lord, and seek his guidance, or do we assume we can nut it out for ourselves?  And in our times of Special Devotion, are we clear that we worship God whose ways are higher than our ways, his thoughts than our thoughts?

Isaiah.  Who cannot love Isaiah when he is in this mood?  To read this passage slowly and reflectively is to be nourished, refreshed, uplifted, energised, enthused, calmed, and a whole lot of other things that haven't yet occurred to me, but they're all here, too!  In a sense, it's a wonderful summary of the gospel message, delivered 700 years or so before the Advent.  Where do we find the good things in life, the food that truly nourishes and the water that truly refreshes? For those things we are graciously invited to come to God.  To whom should we listen for true wisdom, advice and guidance for our well-being?  We should listen to God.  Where may we find acceptance, forgiveness and pardon?  God freely offers them to all who seek him.  Where should we seek him?  He is near at hand.  And then come those wonderful poetic, musical but so profound verses 8 and 9.  When they become part of our inner song we will surely know what it means for "our soul to delight in the richest fare".

Taking It Personally.

  • A wonderful passage for the practice of lectio divina.  Read through the passage very slowly and prayerfully, word by word, phrase by phrase.  Stop and hover over any bit that resonates in a special way.  Take your time.  You don't have to finish the whole thing in one sitting.  Spread it out over the whole week – or even longer.  And notice how much better you feel!
  • Reflect on your own attitude towards God in the sort of situations discussed above (and in today's gospel passage).  Do you have a tendency to call God to account?
  • Remember that each day in Lent is for self-examination AND special devotion.  Using this passage as a guide, try to give equal time to both self-examination and devotion this week.

Corinthians.  Our faith history has proved over and over again that times of spiritual awakening are usually followed by times of spiritual backsliding: on the spiritual path one step forward is often followed by two steps back.  This is the concern that St Paul is addressing here.  Recall that the addressees are recent converts to the faith, and many have had highly exciting conversion experiences and manifested, or observed others manifesting, extraordinary spiritual gifts.  And yet, the old human nature is still there for all to see; the power games, the strained relationships, the gossip and back-biting.  All of which points to a fundamental problem in their attitude towards God.  Just as all the people were brought out of Egypt together (notice how St Paul uses the image of baptism here) but many turned away from God in the wilderness, so many of the believers at Corinth, despite their baptism in water and in the spirit, are turning back to their own egotistical ways.


Taking It Personally.


  • A much more obvious Lenten passage calling for serious self-examination!  A good place to start is with the promises made at your baptism and the commitments entered into at your Confirmation in response to God's gracious call to come to the waters.
  • Reflect on verses 7-10.  There are four possible "indictments" there – idolatry, sexual immorality, testing the Lord, and grumbling.  How do you plead to each of these charges?
  • Ponder verse 12.  Pride comes before a fall.  Do you need to pay particular attention to this warning at this time?
  • Does verse 13 accord with your own experience to date?


Luke.  The first part of this reading is covered by the comments above; but to drive home his point Jesus then widens the focus to include the whole of Israel.  To counter the national tendency to assume that our nation is better than those other nations, Jesus reverts to the well-known image of the fig-tree (or, sometimes, the vine) to represent Israel.  If Israel does not produce good fruit it will face the same judgment as others.  So far God has shown great patience and granted a little more time, and lavished a lot of care on Israel, but sooner or later the time will come when the fruit will be tasted.  Will it meet the divine taste test?


Taking It Personally.


  • Substitute a native tree or other plant of some kind and apply the parable to this country?  What is there about this country that may be characterised as good fruit, and what as bad fruit (or a failed crop)?
  • What might you do to "dig round it and fertilise it?  What might the Church do?

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Second Sunday in Lent


February 24                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Second Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36

Theme:  My first thought was something like "Past, Present and Future", as we look back to the beginning of the journey to Abram, we look at a present encounter with Christ, and we look ahead in hope to the future with St Paul's Letter to the Philippians.  But when I thought about it, it occurred to me that much the same could be said on any other Sunday.  (We remember the past, we look to the future and we experience God in the present.)  So what about "Listening to Him" as an alternative suggestion?

Introduction.  The Lenten Season is a time of paring back to remind ourselves of the basics of our faith, and today we have three readings to help us do just that.  We begin with the "old" Covenant, the basic promises God made to Abram.  At the heart of that deal is the fact that Abram listened to God, which is something much deeper in meaning than "heard" God.  Abram "heeded" God's word, he took it into himself, accepting its truth and thereby making it part of his own truth, the truth he would lead his life by.  It might be stretching it a bit to say that our epistle reading is also about listening to God, but it is certainly about choosing not to listen to our stomachs!  That is, it's about not listening to our selfish appetites and instinctual urges; and not listening to the clamour of the world.  It is about hanging on to the truth (the gospel) that we have heard, and standing firm in our faith until the Lord's return.  And, of course, at the heart of the story of the Transfiguration is the voice from heaven telling the startled disciples, "Listen to him."

In that sense perhaps the best background to this week's readings are last week's readings, and, in particular, St Luke's account of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness.  The question for Jesus throughout that encounter was, to whom shall I listen?  Portrayed as a debate with the devil, there is also a sense in which it could be described as a debate with "common sense", or with his own gut feelings, or even with his own instinctual drives.  Take the first temptation, for example; after fasting for 40 days it may well have been his stomach urging him on to use his powers to turn the stones into bread!  But with each of the temptations Jesus declined to listen to the devil's suggestions: instead he "listened" to the word of God as written in the Scriptures.

A failure to listen – at least, a failure to listen to God – is at the very beginning of our faith story.  Long before Abram came on the scene Adam and Eve faced a simple choice: faced with the fruit of the tree that had such sensuous appeal to them – "the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom" – they chose not to listen to God's health warning in respect of that fruit, and instead listened to the snake, which again could be interpreted as listening to their own instinctual drives, or as St Paul puts it, listening to their stomachs.

Our first lesson is a particularly good choice as a guide to all this.  Although Abram gives an outstanding example of listening to God when he accepts without question God's assurance that he will sire a son of his own – despite being, in the memorable phrase of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, "as good as dead" (Hebrews 11:12) – that part of the narrative begins with Abram giving an equally outstanding example of how to speak to God.  The dialogue opens with some rather bland remarks from God – don't be afraid, I'll protect you, and make sure you get plenty of goodies.  It's almost the gospel of prosperity stuff we get from people like Rick Warren or Joel Osteen in the USA.

And Abram doesn't hold back.  Perhaps we should look at the previous chapter to shed some light on Abram's feelings here, although his age and a lack of a legitimate heir are obviously preying on his mind.  Recall that God had uprooted his father, Terah, from his home base in Ur and had called him and the family to journey to a land God would show him (sometime).  In fact, Terah got only as far as Haran and bailed out of the whole adventure.  It was left to Abram to resume the journey, and it hadn't been easy.  Chapter 14 shows a land of warring tribes: Abram's nephew, Lot, had got caught up in all that and Abram had had to raise a fighting force to go and rescue him.  Throughout, Abram had remained faithful to the one who had called him; but still his dearest wish, a son and heir from his own body, had been denied him.  And he knew who to blame for that: "You have given me no children", he complains to God (15:3).

More about that below: the point here is that listening to God does not preclude "talking back to God" in appropriate cases (and in appropriate ways).  God wants honest dialogue with us, not dumb insolence.  Abram shows us how to listen and how to talk back.  And when God assures him of his inheritance of the land Abram doesn't hesitate to ask for some proof.

The ritual details surrounding the making of the covenant sound rather bizarre and more than a little gruesome to us, so a little background information may help here.  Apparently, in ancient societies in the region, where an important agreement was to be made, the parties would walk down an aisle flanked on both sides by pieces of sacrificed animals.  It seems that the idea was a sort of acted out imprecation: "may I suffer the same fate as these animals if I break this agreement."  There is a reference to this sort of practice in Jeremiah 34:18-19.

On a more speculative note, here's a couple of way out things to think about.  First, the commentaries suggest that behind the exhortation to "listen to him" is Deuteronomy 18:15: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers.  You must listen to him.  But what about the even more important exhortation in Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema:  "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord."  Yes, that might be a bit of a stretch, but notice that it is immediately after these words from heaven are spoken that Jesus is found to be "alone".

The other point concerns the darkness that features in both the story of Abram and the Transfiguration.  As I read these passages in preparation for these notes, into my mind came the phrase "bringing the curtain down" on something, meaning something like bringing it to a close, or forgetting it or finishing with it.  (Presumably it comes from the theatre, when the fall of the curtain means the end of the act or even the whole drama.)  Could it be that in both these passages something has now ended and a new beginning is to take place?  (Moses, the Law-giver, and Elijah, the Prophet, have now exited the stage, and Jesus is the new actor for us to listen to?)

Genesis.  This is a primary religious experience.  The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.  Classic language describing a subjective experience of the Divine.  But notice that (somewhat unusually) the encounter seems to get off to a poor start: the Divine and the human are out of sync.  God is bringing assurances of safety, protection and abundance, but none of these have any value to Abram: what he wants is a son and heir.  In the absence of such, Abram has either already followed, or is planning to follow, the custom of the time whereby a childless man would adopt one of his male servants as his heir and the executor of his estate.  Notice that God doesn't just promise a son; he promises descendants too numerous to count.  And then he promises Abram the land he is standing on as an inheritance, revealing to him: "I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it."  And the rest is a very troubled history, indeed!

Taking It Personally.

·        Take the next opportunity you have to look up at the stars.  Remember how much clearer and numerous they look in the desert (the absence of artificial light).  Reflect on how amazing God's words must have sounded to Abram.  And then fast forward to today, when Jews, Christians, and Moslems all recognise Abraham as the great patriarch.  How do you feel about that?

·        What is your most heartfelt desire at this time?  Have you asked God for it?

·        Do you feel that God has failed to give you something – are you disappointed or even angry with God on any such matter?  Can you talk to God about it?

·        Ponder verse 12.  What do you feel about that?  Is darkness for you a symbol of the presence or of the absence of God? 

Philippians.  This whole chapter 3 is worth reading in this season of Lent.  St Paul is trying to underline again the complete transformation that conversion to Christ entails.  Nothing can compare, nothing is of any value, besides our relationship with Christ.  Yet, he says, some go on with their worldly lives as if nothing has changed.  Remembering how important Roman citizenship was, he nevertheless insists that our true citizenship is in heaven: our primary commitment is to Christ, and not to any earthly ruler (even the Roman emperor).


Taking It Personally.

·        Focus on verse 17.  Do you have any role models who inspire you in living the Christian life?

·        A good passage for a Lenten spiritual stock-take.

·        Has there ever been an occasion where the demands or expectations of the State have clashed with your faith?    Should a Christian employer be able to give priority to Christian applicants for a job?

Luke.  Again, we have another example of a religious experience, but in this case it may not be clear who is having it.  When we read the text carefully we find no reference to Jesus himself experiencing anything.  It seems that it was the three disciples who experienced whatever was happening there.  Notice how often the word "appearance" or its correlates occurs in this account.  But appears to whom?  The "Transfiguration event" took place "while he was praying".  What exactly happened?  Well, first of all "the appearance of his face changed": how would Jesus himself be aware of that?  He could, perhaps, have noticed his clothes shining brilliantly, but again it may be that Jesus was lost in prayer and all this "appeared" only to the witnesses.  Interestingly, the word used in verse 31 for "departure" is the same word used for "exodus".  We should no doubt have in mind, too, Jesus' baptism; but notice the different words from heaven.  At his baptism, the words from heaven were addressed to Jesus ("You are my Son whom I love"); here the words are addressed to the witnesses ("this is my Son whom I have chosen").  Then comes the command to "listen to him".  Typically, St Luke the brilliant storyteller immediately shows us examples of their inability to do just that.  St Peter comes up with a hare-brained scheme of his own; and when they come down from the mountain, things go from bad to worse.  They fail to heal the boy; they cannot understand what Jesus is talking about when he predicts his own death; and, worst of all, they nearly come to blows over their respective rankings within the group.  When we stop listening to God...

Taking It Personally.

·        How often do you listen to God compared to the time you spend talking to God?  If you ask God something, do you give him a chance to answer?

·        When lessons are read in church, do you really try to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church, or are you more inclined to wander off the mental track?  By the time you get home can you remember all three readings?

·        Have you ever had a "transfiguring" experience – have you been looking at something when its appearance suddenly seemed to change?  What effect did the experience have on you?  Was it a lasting effect?

Thursday, 14 February 2013

First Sunday in Lent

February 17                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION             First Sunday in Lent

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:13

Theme: Plenty of safe options to choose from on this First Sunday in Lent: "The Temptations in the Desert"; "Resisting Temptation": or some variation on those.  But for something a little more adventurous I'm going for "Alone Together", which seems to me to sum up the heart of the human condition.  The tension between our individual needs, desires, and personalities and our relationship with others and with God.  Love is about resolving that tension in a life-enhancing way; sin, the opposite of love, is about giving in to it.

Introduction.  Our two Lessons show what happens when we give in to it, but in opposite ways.  The first Lesson is about our propensity to forget God when things are going well for us.  When we are in a wilderness – when we finally recognise that we cannot solve our own problems – we are much more likely to recognise our need for God and call out to him.  But when our struggles are over (for the time being) – when we have at least a taste of life in the Promised Land – we are more inclined to congratulate ourselves on how well we are doing, or have done: "I've worked hard for everything I've got, and now I'm going to enjoy the fruits of my labour."  We forget who created the land, sent the rain, caused the crop to grow, and gave us the health and strength to play our part.   In the second Lesson we see the opposite side of the coin: the people St Paul is talking about (of whom he was formerly a prime example) are those who work very hard that their relationship with God, so hard, in fact, that they believe it all depends on them.  They leave no room for grace: theirs is a contractual view of relationship, believing that they must fulfil their side of the contract if they expect God to fulfil his.  In our gospel reading the essential issue is highlighted with great clarity: the choice is not between that which is inherently good and that which is inherently evil.  The choice is God's way or ours.

Background.  As I wrote that last sentence one of St Augustine's more provocative aphorisms suddenly came to mind: "Love God and please yourself."  At first blush, what the great saint seems to be advocating is a bizarre mixture of personal piety and hedonism!  So long as I love God, I can do whatever I want to do.  Well, in a sense he was saying that.  He was saying that if we truly love God, what we will want to do is please him, and we will not want to do anything that would displease him.  Which is a gentler way of saying that our journey of faith (of spiritual growth) is a journey of love, a journey of seeking more and more to bring our will into unity with the Divine Will.

We're talking attitude not actions here.  Classically we focus on "sins" rather than a sinful nature or attitude.  We concentrate, in other words, on the symptoms rather than the illness.  If I am confessing my sins (or examining my conscience) I might recall the occasion on which I snapped at one of my colleagues; I might recall the words I used, and the circumstances in which I used them.  I might sincerely regret using them, and even succeed in not seeking to justify them by reminding myself of what my colleague did or said.  I might sincerely ask God to forgive me for that incident.  All that is well and good.  But will I then reflect on what this one incident shows about my general attitude to others?  Will I acknowledge that this was yet another example of my propensity to push my own views, my own opinions, my own need to win the argument, my own need to puff myself up by deflating the other person?  In short, will I acknowledge my fundamental lack of love for others?

A useful exercise here might be to have a look at the penitential provisions in our three liturgies.  In the first (page 407) our focus is very much on our acts and omissions: "we call to mind our sins", and we confess that "we have sinned in the wrong we have done and in the good we have not done".

Our second liturgy offers three forms, and it's interesting to compare them (page 458-9).  The first is very much in line with the approach in the first liturgy: "I will confess my sins to the Lord, I will not conceal my wrongdoings."  However, the second and third forms are tending away from the particular to the general, although still, perhaps, focussing on the effect of our acts and omissions rather than on our attitude that leads us to commit them.  Perhaps the most interesting line here is in form 2: "Giver of life, we too often choose death."  That perhaps takes us closer to the idea of choice between God's way and ours, of which the battle of wits between Jesus and the devil in the wilderness is the perfect illustration.

The third liturgy is at least an attempt to go deeper (page 478): "We come seeking forgiveness for all we have failed to be and do as members of Christ's body."  The reference to being as well as doing is helpful, as is setting this in the context of our membership of Christ's body.  It reminds us that "sin" is a spiritual concept, and is only to be understood in the context of our relationship with God.  It is not simply another name for ethical propriety, much less for illegality.

I am always intrigued by the language used in the media when a public figure is accused of something.  The denial usually takes the form of "I have done nothing wrong".  It seems to be generally accepted on all sides that what this means is "I have not broken the law".  When did you last hear the interviewer ask as a follow-up question: "Accepting that you may not have broken the law, have you acted unethically?"  [Incidentally, why does "unethically" sound more polite than "Immorally"?]  And then there is a follow-up question that is NEVER EVER asked: "Have you acted sinfully?"

And here's a classic illustration of all this that is once again in the news: the supposed distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance.  Lawyers, accountants, business people. Journalists and just about everyone else who enter public debate on this issue seem to agree that the two things are quite different.  Tax evasion is illegal: in essence, it is a failure to pay tax by the person liable under law to pay it.  Tax avoidance is legal: in essence, it is conducting one's business in a way that will incur the least possible liability for tax within the law.  But looked at from a spiritual point of view, is there any difference?  In each case, the individual taxpayer is putting his or her own personal interest ahead of the interests of others.  The taxpayer is seeking to reduce his or her contribution to the shared costs of our health services, our educational services, and all the other services that we provide together through our taxes.  Either those services have to be reduced, or others have to pay more because we are paying less.  Is that God's way or our way?

Deuteronomy.  This passage, like most of the Book of Deuteronomy, is concerned with the temptation the people will face in the Promised Land to forget the Lord their God.  They are entering upon a new way of life.  They will not know how to grow their own stuff or manage their own land.  One temptation will be to follow local custom, including praying to (or seeking to appease) the local fertility gods.  So this passage seeks to hammer home the message: the land is a gift to you from the Lord God.  God is the one who gives life and causes your crops to grow.  Not only that: you are in this land only because the Lord God rescued you from slavery in Egypt and brought you through the desert.  Everything you will have and enjoy is from the Lord your God, and don't you forget it!  And so rituals are prescribed, primarily as aids to their memories of the goodness of the Lord their God.

Taking It Personally.

·        If you have a Prayer Book handy, have a look at the Prayers of Great Thanksgiving in our three liturgies.  Notice how much is in the form of historical recital.  To recall God's past goodness is to build our faith (trust) in God.  What are you most thankful to God for at this time?

·        Give thanks for this land in which we live.  In what sense do you feel it has been given to us as an inheritance by the Lord our God?

·        Give thanks for the home in which you live.  In what sense do you experience that as a gift from God?

·        If you are a gardener, give thanks for the "first-fruits" of each crop you grow (and the first blooms from your flowers!).

·        Reflect on the offerings you make to your local church.  Do you consider making them an act of worship, one way in which you express your thanks to the Lord your God, or simply a practical matter of meeting your share of common expenses?  Does this reading have anything to say to you on this issue?

Romans.  This is an extract from a long passage (chapters 9-11) in which St Paul turns his attention to the particular "status" of his own people.  Although his calling is to be an apostle to the Gentiles, he cannot be indifferent to the "fate" of the Jews.  Behind all this are two incontrovertible facts of St Paul's own experience.  First, he has found that Gentiles are far more open to the Gospel than Jews; but how can this be given that they are God's own people and should therefore be open to God's own plan for salvation?  And secondly, of course, is St Paul's own life story.  If someone as dedicated to the Jewish religious practice as he was can nevertheless accept the Gospel, why cannot his compatriots see it?  Apathy and forgetfulness are not the problem here: these people are "zealous for God".  So what is the problem?  "Their zeal is not based on knowledge".  They assume that righteousness comes from their own efforts to obey the Law; they have not grasped that in Christ God offers us his own righteousness.  They struggle and strive as if God is far away – in Christian terms as if we have to reach up to heaven or down to the realm of the dead – to find God.  They do not yet know that through Christ God has come to us; indeed, he is not just with us but within us.  We have only to accept that God has raised Jesus from the dead, and give voice to that conviction, and salvation is ours.  The first is an issue of belief: do we believe in the fact of the Resurrection.  The second is one of submission to Christ's authority over our lives (do we accept him as "Lord")?

Taking It Personally.

·        Are you more comfortable in speaking of Christ as "Jesus" or as "Lord"?  Why?

·        In what sense has Jesus authority over your life?

·        Do you truly believe in the Resurrection?

·        Can you freely confess (tell others) that Jesus is Lord?

·        Do you consciously try to "please God"?  Why?

Luke.  All three synoptic gospels record that Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness immediately after his baptism  Mark's account is typically brief; Matthew's is similar to Luke's, although he has a different order of temptations.  John has no such record in his gospel.  The temptations are carefully chosen to strike at our very basic needs as human beings.  Most basic is our need for physical sustenance.  When we are hungry we can think of nothing else but food.  Allied to this is our need for physical safety and security, and that is part of the power of the second temptation (Matthew's order) or the third temptation (Luke's order).  But it is also pitched at another need, for approval, admiration or affirmation.  Surely the idea is not to do a base jump in absolute privacy, just so that Jesus can prove to himself that God will save him from the consequences of breaking the law of gravity?  The idea is to wow the crowds of onlookers who would marvel at such a leap off the highest point of the temple.  And our third need is for some sort of power or control in our lives.  We may not want the world domination on offer here, but every now and again we do like to feel that we are being listened to, that we have a contribution to make: we are not a nobody.  We like to feel we can make a difference.

Taking It Personally.

·        Which of these temptations do you find the most tempting?

·        Are any of them an invitation to do something that is inherently evil?

·        Do you agree that the real "contest" is between God's way and another way?

·        Which basic human need is the most likely to lead you astray?

·        Is your will more aligned with God's now than it was, say, ten years ago?


Friday, 8 February 2013


February 10                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Theme:  As this is the last Sunday before Lent, we could get ourselves in the mood with something like "Unworthy Though We Are"; but if you think the Season of Lent is quite long enough as it is, you might prefer something more positive, such as "Called, Forgiven and Sent".

Introduction.  This is one of those wonderful Sundays when all three readings seem to be saying the same thing: in one word, Grace; in more words, God does not wait for us to become perfect before calling us into his service.  We do not know much about Isaiah at the time of his vision, but his reaction tells us what he thinks of himself in God's presence.  He not only declares himself to be a "man of unclean lips"; he declares that his people share the same condition.  St Paul reminds himself, the people of Corinth, and us that he was an arch-persecutor of the Church at the time of his encounter with the Divine on the road to Damascus, not exactly an ideal C.V. for someone to be appointed an Apostle.  And Peter the fisherman, in a moment of profound spiritual insight, turns his attention from the biggest catch of his career to the enormity of his sins.  And the outcome is the same in all three cases: not disqualification from office, as each might have supposed, but commissioning for office.  God not only saves sinners, he employs them!

There is, too, I think another common theme to these readings.  Again with the caveat that we do not have direct information about Isaiah, it seems that all three of them were, at the very least, unaware of their true spiritual state until they had these encounters.  My guess is that Isaiah was a good, faithful man, perhaps a bit of a "pew-sitter", religious in an ordinary conventional way.  He needed his vision broadened: he needed to experience the reality of the God whom he worshiped in the proper manner.  When he saw that, he also saw the raw reality of himself; not Isaiah the decent bloke, but Isaiah the man of unclean lips: not Isaiah the good man, relatively speaking, but Isaiah the man who was no better than the common herd.  One man with unclean lips among many with unclean lips.

St Paul (yes, I should be calling him Saul at this point, but it all gets a bit confusing when I do) was a very different person, and therefore needed a very different experience.   By no stretch of the imagination could he ever be described as a pew-sitter, or as being religious in an ordinary conventional way.  Before his conversion he was as zealous in his faith as he was after it.  It was his vision of God that changed.  He always reminds me of a man in one of my former parishes who had had a specific "conversion experience" in the not too-distant past and was quite convinced that the rest of us needed a similar experience to become real Christians.  A man who had known him for years, before and after his conversion, described him to me like this: "Before his conversion he was the biggest bigot in the town: after his conversion he was the biggest Christian bigot in the town!"  Unkind, perhaps, but not entirely untrue.  Much the same could be said of St Paul.

And completing this extraordinary triumvirate of giants of our faith history is the one who is, perhaps, the one most like us, Peter the fisherman.  Can't you just see him in shorts and a black singlet?  Stocky, with strong thighs, and huge upper-body strength.  Put the three of them in an identity parade and we would have no difficulty picking him out.  His language was probably as salty as his skin: personal hygiene was not high on his list of interests.  Nor was naval-gazing: he had probably never been in touch with his feelings, much less his feminine side.  But few could match him when it came to practical matters; above all he knew about fishing.  Never an easy way to make a living, that would have been as true then on Lake Galilee as it is today on any other stretch of water where rapid weather changes are common.  Courage, staunchness, endurance and sheer bloody-mindedness made him the fisherman, and the man, that he was.

And then, in an instant, all that was stripped away.  In an instant everything that he valued, everything that gave him manna in the local community, was revealed to him in a new light.  He discovered that behind his public persona, behind his false self, there was a real self, a vulnerable, needy self, a self that needed healing, forgiveness, acceptance and love.  Without wishing to be too insensitive, I have to say that the image that comes to my mind as I ponder all this is that of Sir Paul Holmes in his last T.V. interview just before his death, underlined as scenes from his "glory days" were interpolated.  Gone were all those attributes out of which he had built his career and reputation; his egotism, his cockiness, his bluster, his bullying, his smarminess – everything we associate with the little man trying to look bigger.  Filmed in his large estate in which he had expected to live many years in luxurious retirement, he allowed us to see him physically weak, and fearful of what lay ahead, his imagined future exposed as mere fantasy.

There before us was the human condition in all its reality – or perhaps that should be, the human condition in the presence of All Reality.  There is something here about losing our life to gain life.  There is some echo here of the words Jesus spoke to Martha at Bethany: "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed."  There is something here of Isaiah, of Paul and of Peter.  There is something here of you and of me.

I hope there was someone with Sir Paul who could pronounce the Absolution, who could assure him that, through the cross of Christ, God did have mercy on him, had pardoned him, and had set him free.  That he could be at peace.  Isaiah experienced forgiveness in the most direct way.  With Paul and with Peter it was more like the forgiveness the prodigal son received when he returned to his father, his mumbled confession smothered in his father's joy.  But in all three cases it was the gateway to new life.

And one final lesson, courtesy of Waitangi Day.  If we wish to feed on the manna from heaven we must be willing to sacrifice our own personal mana.

Isaiah.  As noted above, we don't know the background or personal circumstances at the time of Isaiah's call.  It is curious that this story does not appear at the beginning of the book (as it does in the case of Jeremiah and, more or less, in the case of Ezekiel).  One possible inference is that Isaiah was already carrying out some sort of ministry (perhaps as a priest, hence his vision being set in the Temple, or as a "self-appointed" prophet).  Isaiah's experience is a classic "religious experience", both visual and auditory, but it is a little more unusual in that it becomes something of an inter-active narrative.  Initially stunned by the vision, he fears for his life.  In Jewish belief, no one can see God and live: sinful nature will be destroyed when exposed to the holiness of God.  It is interesting that the focus of his sinfulness is his lips – in stark contrast to the obsession many believers have with our sexual organs.  [Isaiah has the Bible on his side on this one: there are far more references to our verbal sins than our sexual ones.  Have a look at the Letter of St James, for example.]  So his lips are cauterised in the vision – a good example of how God meets the individual at his or her point of need.  That done, Isaiah is able to hear God's voice – before that he heard only the seraphs; and, of course, he is able to make the classic response of faith: Here I am – send me.  Notice that God does not order Isaiah to do anything: he volunteers.

Taking It Personally.

·        Surely an invitation to reflect on your own vision of God, and your personal response to God.  If a friend asked you, "what is God like?" what would you say?

·        Have you ever said to God "Here I am - send me"?  Do you feel able to say that, wholeheartedly and unconditionally, today?

·        What might hold you back?

·        Review the last few days.  Has there been an occasion when you have said something you regret saying?  If so, put a finger to your lips, recall the words you spoke, express your sorrow, and ask God to cleanse your lips and take away your guilt.

Corinthians.  Apart from chapter 13 (on love) this chapter 15 is probably the most important, and certainly the most quoted, chapter in this long letter.  St Paul's main topic is the Resurrection, but before he gets into a detailed examination of the "biology" of the resurrected life, he starts with the evidence for the fact of Christ's resurrection.  This takes the form first of a list of the eye-witnesses, people who encountered the Risen Christ, face-to face, so to speak.  He says there were 500 or more.  [Notice that he says that most of them were still alive at the time of writing: subtext, if you don't believe me, ask them.]  Then he adds his own personal testimony, this time not recounting his actual conversion experience, but making a brief reference to his prior life as a persecutor of the faithful.  His unstated point is surely this: to truly encounter Christ (God) is to be completely transformed, inside and out.

Taking It Personally.

·        Do you find this list of eye-witnesses convincing?

·        Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth died, was buried, was raised from the dead, and was seen by over 500 people?

·        What personal evidence do you have that Christ is alive today?

·        What difference has your faith made to your life and to you as a person?

·        Read verse 14. Do you agree?


Luke.  A wonderful example of Luke's story-telling genius!  Notice how well it operates at two different levels.  At the literal level it smacks of realism.  It seems likely that Peter must have already met Jesus before, or had a pretty good idea who he was; but even so, Peter was not in the crowd listening to Jesus teach that day.  He was too busy for that: he and the other fishermen had nets to mend.  Nevertheless, when Jesus asked Peter for a favour, Peter obliged.  After he had finished his teaching, he told Peter to move out to deeper water and start fishing again.  Through gritted teeth, and very much under protest, Peter obeyed.  Then comes the huge haul.  Notice what happens next.  The first response is that of the practical fisherman: Peter summons help and together they just manage to land the fish.  Only when that is done do we get the sort of spiritual response that we get instantly with Isaiah and St Paul.  So let's see how the story operates at the symbolic level.  First, the night is over, the day has come.  During the night the professional fishermen did their darnedest but caught nothing.  With Jesus present the night of scarcity gives way to the day of abundance.  Peter has to move from the safe and familiar; he has to go further out, and deeper down.  But notice again, Peter had the choice.  He could have refused: he could have told Jesus to get out of the boat (his life): he could have resented being told by a carpenter how to catch fish (pride).  He could have feared becoming the laughing-stock of the fishing community if he had followed Jesus' directions and caught nothing (fear).  But there was something in Peter that recognised something in Jesus; and neither he nor the world was ever the same again.


Taking It Personally.


·        Jesus starts with a polite request, and follows with a command.  Peter starts with a courteous response and moves to grudging obedience, a snapshot of spiritual growth.  Whereabouts are you on this spectrum?  Is your attitude towards Christ more polite and courteous, or submissive and obedient?

·        This is a good passage for praying with imagination.  Place yourself in the story.  Watch Peter in particular.  Try to enter into his tiredness, his frustration, his irritation, and so on.  How would you have reacted in his position?

·        At what stage of the story are you?  Has Jesus got into your boat?  Have you agreed to go a little way out with him?  Is he asking you to go out further into deeper waters?  Has he asked you to abandon everything and follow him?

·        What might be holding you back?  Pride?  Fear?  Something else?