St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Notes for Reflection

March 2                                  NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 49:8-16a; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

Theme:  “Blessed Assurance Trumps Private Insurance!”  I know, crazy stuff, but that popped immediately into my mind when I started this exercise this week.  You could, of course, play it safe and cut it back to the first two words (and there’s one of the hymns chosen already).  And the old favourite, “Stay Calm and Carry On”, might be a reasonable summary of the larger part of the gospel reading this week.  But what about that smaller, more deadly part – verse 24?  How about the Dick Turpin classic, “Your Money or Your Life”?  Scoff not: isn’t that really what we’re being asked in that verse?  But if you want something a little gentler, what about the more modern pious platitude, “Let Go and Let God”?  For all its cuteness, that bumper-sticker slogan is a fair summary of today’s piece of the Sermon on the Mount.

Introduction.  We’ve had some hard teaching over the last few weeks as we have looked below the surface appeal of the Beatitudes – just made for posters or even tea-towels – and struggled with their implications as the Lord has applied them to particular topics.  Today we are reminded that we can only attempt the way of life he is teaching because it is rooted in divine love.  No one describes this better than Isaiah in our first lesson this week, in what must be some of the finest love poetry ever written.  St Paul takes this theme in a new but connected direction: we are stewards of God’s gifts, not absolute owners: we are accountable to him for how we carry out that stewardship.  And then we have a sort of half-time break in the Sermon on the Mount – with another blow to our self-image just before the ref’s welcome whistle.  Never mind that there is another torrid time to come (have a quick peek at chapter 7 if you dare) – right now we need a break.  Right now we need the Coach to tell us not to worry.  We might be well behind on the scoreboard, but that doesn’t matter.  Only the final result matters – and WE CAN DO THIS!   Not by worrying about what might happen tomorrow, but by living out our faith today.

Background.  In one brief radio news bulletin this week I heard two items which together had a greater impact than the sum of their parts (if you see what I mean).  The first announced the selection of “The New Zealander of the Year” – a title given to a GP practising in Northland.  The second concerned a huge pay increase given to the CEO of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council in recognition of his extra responsibilities in relation to the proposed dam.  Now this isn’t about those two individuals personally, but these two news items seem to me to illustrate wonderfully well the very issue that Jesus puts before us in somewhat blunt terms in verse 24.  Which master are we serving?  What is our motivation?

And we could come at this from a somewhat different angle.  Who do we most admire?  Followers of the news on TV1 will be familiar with the closing item on Sundays, “This Week’s Good Sort”, presented by Hayden Jones.  In two or three minutes we are shown someone, or sometimes a couple or small group, often facing their own struggles, reaching out to others in need, and providing marvellous support for them, not just in one-off emergencies but often week-by-week.  We may well know people like that in our own communities – “good sorts” is the right way of describing them.  Our New Zealander of the Year is very much a good sort himself: he provides a medical service to all those in need in his area, regardless of their ability (or, more usually, their inability) to pay.  Why does he do that?  Why does he take such an impractical approach to medical practice?  Doesn’t he know that a medical practice is a business and has to be run along prudent business-like ways?  Doesn’t he know (horror of horrors!) that his approach is “not sustainable in the long-term”?  Does he not realise that as his practice has grown and he has taken on more and more responsibilities he should be expecting a substantial increase in his take-home pay?

What if every doctor took such an approach?  Where would we be then?  Well, okay, we would be a lot healthier, and happier and far less stressed out; but surely our GDP would take a hit, or the tax-take, or something really important like that?  At the very least we should be calling in consultants to spend a lot of time and money to produce a proper cost-benefit analysis to be sure that the long-term reduction in hospital admissions would result in greater savings for the taxpayers than the reduction in taxes paid by medical practitioners...  

Do you remember the great share-market crash of 1987?  At that time I had a colleague who collected beautiful things, antiques, art works, and so on.  One day over morning tea she was telling us of her latest acquisition when someone made a rather snide remark (okay, it was me), something like, “it’s good to know the hard times haven’t caught up with you yet”.  She instantly reacted, insisting that she and her husband had worked hard over the years and had earned everything they had, etc.  What I should have done at that point was to apologise for my rudeness and changed the subject, but I didn’t.  Instead, I asked her: “And who gave you the strength and health and talents that have enabled you to do all that hard work over the years?”  In the context of social chit-chat that was, of course, outrageous, and it took a while to restore our relationship.  But years later we met at a funeral and she raised the incident, and told me how much she had reflected on that question, and how she felt it had gradually changed her outlook.  [Moral: God can use even our rudeness.]

So much of society’s goals we adopt for ourselves without really thinking about it, don’t we?  What do we tell our children to do when some other kid at school starts pushing them around?  Turn the other cheek?  Stand up for yourself – push him/her back?  What do we tell them to do at school?  Work hard so that they can – what?  Become “good sorts” – become like our New Zealander of the Year?  Or do we encourage them to reach for more self-centred goals?

We’re back to that fundamental choice with which we have been faced over recent weeks – the choice between life and death.  This week we may paraphrase it: a choice between faith and worry.  Of the two possible role models, the man from Hawke’s Bay would seem to have the more secure future, wouldn’t you say? But less worries?

Isaiah.  As a prelude to this reading go back to the start of this chapter 49.  Recognise it?  Yes, it is the second of the so-called Servant Songs.  It is because of the Lord’s Servant coming to us that we can know of God’s unfailing love for us, a love that protects and nurtures and provides.   There may be tough times when it seems that God has forgotten us; but what sort of parent ever forgets her or his child?  So what are we fretting about – why are we so anxious?

Taking It Personally.

·        Sit for a while in silence.  Listen to your inner noise.  What is going on inside you?  What is bugging you – what are you dreading – what, in short, are you worrying about?

·        In what way does worrying help the eventual outcome?  Would the eventual outcome have been worse if you hadn’t worried about it?

·        Read this passage slowly out loud.  Try to listen to it.  Hear it addressed to you by someone you trust and you know has your welfare at heart.  Then reflect on your feelings.  Has the passage had a therapeutic effect on you?  Has it calmed you down?

·        Notice the change in tone between verses 12 and 13.  The reassurance having been given, your response is now invited.  Without frightening the cat, sing for joy, if that’s how you now feel, and if you don’t feel like that, why not?

·        If you have children, think about them for a while.  Remind yourselves of those times when they have pushed your parental feelings a bit hard.  Was there ever a time when you really gave up on them – when you forgot them?

·        Look at the palm of your hand.  Write on your palm the name of a person you love.  (Use something washable: if you want something permanent get a tattoo.)  Spend some time thinking about that person.

·        Then read verse 16a again.  Imagine God’s hand with your name inscribed on it.  Give thanks.

·        Any worries now?


Corinthians.  St Paul’s major complaint against the Corinthians in these early chapters of the correspondence is that they are competing with one another by boasting about their own spiritual gifts.  “I can speak in tongues and you can’t!”  They are forgetting that they are recipients of the gifts, and it is of the nature of those gifts that they are not earned – they are not rewards for something previously done by the recipient – and therefore are not proper grounds for boasting.  Secondly, of course, such boasting involves the judging of other members of the congregation.  St Paul takes this one step further by suggesting that judging ourselves involves only human judgment and is therefore likely to be suspect.  Only God can judge us.  I’m not sure what the proverb, maxim, or whatever it is in verse 6 means.  A rough translation may be “Stick to the Script” – do and say only what the Spirit tells you and don’t make up stuff for yourself.


Taking It Personally.


·        The converse of boasting about our spiritual gifts is denying we have any.  Are you guilty of that?  How would you feel if you gave someone a gift and they denied having received it?  So what gifts has God given you?  Give thanks.

·        Are you inclined to be too hard on yourself sometimes?  Who are you to judge yourself?  Isn’t that the question St Paul is asking here?  Is that helpful for you, or does it seem like an evasion?


Matthew.  Once again Jesus’ teaching comes straight at us.  Which is it to be – wealth or spiritual well-being?  He has never heard of the gospel of prosperity, it seems.  Once again it is a matter of a stark choice: which way do we choose to follow?  Around whom or what do we intend to centre our life?  What are the false gods or masters that we might be tempted to follow instead of him?  This week he names the most obvious candidate – made all the more dangerous because it hides behind many names.  But the NRSV gets it right:  it no longer refers to Mammon with a capital letter – a name that sounds like a shortened version of Agamemnon or some other shadowy figure from a long-forgotten Greek story.  Now it speaks of “wealth”, not quite as in-your-face as “the mighty dollar”, “dosh”, or bit-coins, but clear enough to strike a chord.  And it’s not too hard to see the connection between this and the rest of this passage, is it?  Get rid of our concerns about money, getting it, saving it, making sure nobody pinches it, investing it so as to get more of it, and so on and so on, and there isn’t much left to worry about, is there?


Taking It Personally.


·        Is God more or less important to you than your career, your home, or your family?  Monitor your feelings as you react to this question.  Who or what is your master?

·        Re-do the first two exercises suggested for the passage from Isaiah.

·        Now read slowly through verses 25 to 34.  Monitor your feelings as you respond to it.  Are you aware of any feeling or irritation?  Imagine you are having a one-on-one session with Jesus and Jesus is “counselling” you along the lines of these verses.  How long before you interrupt?  What do you want to say to him, even if your nerve fails?

·        Can you recall a situation where you gave up trying only to find that things worked out well from then on?

·        This week practice living day by day.  Try not to think about what may or may not happen tomorrow.  Concentrate fully on whatever is before you at the time.  At the end of the week, review this practice.  Has it been easy, difficult, maddening, helpful, or what?


Thursday, 20 February 2014



Texts:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Theme:  Immediate thoughts include “Run For It!”, “No More Wriggle Room”, or perhaps, simply “We Surrender”.  Last week we were invited to choose between life and death; this week some would say we are being urged to “Choose Death”.  I’m going for “Disarming Love”.  An alternative approach may be to go deeper into these readings and focus on what they are really about – becoming like God.  Something like “Becoming Holy”, or “Becoming the Temple of the Spirit”, or “Becoming Perfect”, say; or, to be a little more subtle, “The One True Role Model”.

Introduction.  There is a real “in-house” feeling to all three of these readings today, and we can easily get ourselves into hot water if we overlook it.  These readings (like the whole of Scripture, really) are directed to the people of faith, rather than to the world at large.  They DO NOT mandate a national policy of disarmament and pacifism: what they do mandate is a complete reversal of our own attitudes and behaviour towards those we, the people of faith, consider our enemies.  And within that framework there is a clear tension discernible in these readings between the universal scope of this teaching, and its application specifically to our fellow members of our faith community.  A clear example of this is found in our first lesson; in verse 10 the rights of the alien are to be recognised, but in verses 17 and 18 the focus has narrowed to “your kin” and “your people”.  St Paul’s teaching is unashamedly in-house, and I would contend that the whole of the Sermon on the Mount is directed to those who are, or are considering becoming, followers of Jesus: see Matthew 5:1 – “his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:”.

Background.  I sometimes suspect that one of the reasons we prefer to concentrate on the actions of Jesus, including his miracles, is that they tend to keep our minds away from his teaching.  When we are confronted by that – and if we allow ourselves to really listen to it – we find that being a spectator is more fun than being a participant – or should that be, “a target”?  Because that’s what it so often feels like, doesn’t it?  Depending on our own particular life experiences, we might be more likely to squirm at his teaching against materialism, or divorce, or anger, or whatever.  But nothing quite stirs our blood as much as his teaching on forgiveness, and, in its full-blown version, loving our enemies and refusing to hit back when attacked.  What on earth are we to make of all this?

Well, first let me stir your blood with this thought: “One hundred years after Samuel Marsden first preached the good news in this land the First World War started.”  Now pause and check your response (and your pulse) to that statement.  It is, of course, factually correct: this year happens to be the centenary of the outbreak of the war and the bicentenary of Marsden’s famous Christmas Day sermon.   But so sensitive are we about our attitude as Christians towards war, that we immediately reacted to that statement because of the natural inference that those two events are in some way linked, and we don’t want them to be, do we?  We don’t want any suggestion that, as the Bishop of Dunedin leads a Hikoi of Joy around his diocese during Lent to mark the bicentenary of Marsden’s proclamation of peace, he might need to acknowledge that many of those who held equivalent rank in this country and in Britain were unashamed and outspoken supporters of the war that broke out in 1914, to the extent that many were described as “very effective recruiting agents”.  What is certain is that in this country conscientious objection was just as unacceptable within the Church as it was in the country at large.

Now, here’s another thought that those of a more pacifist persuasion might need to ponder; and by way of introduction I want to use a very interesting example put forward by one of New Zealand’s top diplomats of his day, a man of faith, and of great integrity.  Addressing the Annual General Meeting of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship some years ago he began with this: “What should the Good Samaritan have done if he had arrived on the scene an hour or so earlier when the assault was taking place?”  He is lauded for his “mopping-up operation”, and two thousand years later his “name” is still synonymous, even with those who do not consider themselves Christian, with loving service to those in need.  But what if he had arrived when the attack was taking place?  Should he have simply stood by and waited until it was time to clean up? Would he be lauded today if he had resorted to armed force in order to drive off the attackers?

This “argument” was grounded for me when I attended a talk given by Fr Michael Lapsley, a New Zealand born priest who supported the ANC in South Africa, and who was severely injured when he was sent a parcel bomb by the South African Security forces.  Fr Michael said that at one time he would have described himself as a Christian pacifist, but not any more.  However, it wasn’t the injuries to himself that had changed his views: that change had come about much earlier when he had witnessed security forces open fire on a crowd of unarmed youths and children who were demonstrating.  He realised that, if he had been armed at the time, he would have felt compelled to open fire on the attackers as the only way to save those young people in that situation.

What these two cases made me realise is that our Lord’s teaching forbids SELF-DEFENCE; but he does not seem to have addressed the issue of the defence of others.  If I am attacked I should not retaliate; if the Christian community is attacked, it should not retaliate.  That, I think, is undeniably the teaching of Christ.  Indeed, even among those scholars who spend their entire careers trying to discount so much of Christ’s teaching as the creative work of the gospel writers themselves, there seems to be near unanimous agreement that this teaching can only have come from Jesus.  It is so counter-cultural – and so “unacceptable” to all right-thinking citizens – that no gospel writer would have invented it.  Spreading the message would have been so much easier without this bit in it!

And we also have the witness of the practice of the Church in the first three centuries of its existence.  Until the fourth century when Constantine and his successors decided to divide the world into the Christian Roman Empire and everyone else, to bear arms, to be a soldier, was officially considered to be incompatible with membership of the Church.

So where does all this leave us?  In need of protection, perhaps, from the warring factions of pacifist zealots and their militaristic counterparts.  My personal difficulty during my years as a member of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship was to resist what I saw as a form of pacifist legalism, or extremism, which came to a head when the majority insisted that the Fellowship should oppose armed intervention by an international peace-keeping force with a mandate to keep warring factions apart while a peace agreement could be worked out.

All Jesus’ teaching is surely first and foremost about love.  The question for us as we seek to follow him is always the same: what in this particular situation I now find myself in is the most loving thing to do?  People like Fr Michael have taught me that to sit on my principles while others are massacred may not meet that test.  The harder part is to accept, as the shadow of the cross begins to fall across our path, that our own life is not to be saved at the cost of our enemy’s.

Leviticus.  It is somewhat ironic to move from a struggle against legalism to a consideration of a passage from the Book of Leviticus!  Yet it has one marvellous point we should not skip past as we read or listen to it.  The reason why we should follow all these “rules and regulations” is not so that we may avoid penalties for infringements or earn Brownie points for compliance, but so that we can become holy – that is, we may become like God.  Of course, some of the specific prohibitions in the Book of Leviticus strike us as bizarre (thank goodness this reading ends at verse 18!), but that’s not the point.  The point is, now I come to think of it, an earlier version of what I said above about the guiding principle of love.  In EVERY situation, says the Book of Leviticus, seek the will, the teaching, the instruction, of the Lord your God.

Taking It Personally.

·        Focus on some routine, everyday activity and ask yourself how you might apply these principles to that activity.  For example, when you clean your teeth, how might you do it in a thoughtful, faithful way?  You may give thanks for the gift of water (or your teeth!); you may remember those who do not have a safe and secure water supply; you may commit yourself to be even more careful in your use of water, and so on.  In other words, what is the most loving (or godly) way of cleaning your teeth?

·        Libel/slander has been much in our news this week.  Reflect on your own “record” this week.  Have you spoken ill of anyone – even under your breath?

·        Similarly, review your week in the light of verses 17 and 18.  Is there anyone to whom you need to be reconciled, or to whom you owe an apology?  Are you bearing a grudge or other ill-feeling towards anyone else at the moment?


Corinthians.  St Paul has now worked himself up into one of his periodic lathers, although he is not quite ready to change the subject.  For our purposes this week I suggest verses 16 and 17 are the heart of the message.  Just as each one of us needs to live our lives of faith guided by the Spirit in each and every circumstance, so collectively we must recognise that, as a community of faith, we are being built into a temple for that Spirit.  Our neighbour should see in each one of us, and in our community of faith, the better way.


Taking It Personally.


·        A time for spiritual stock-taking.  Can your neighbour see in you a little more each year of the difference your faith is making in your life?  Are you a better advertisement for the Christian way of life than you were a year ago?

·        What evidence might there be of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your local church compared to your local supermarket?

·        Are you aware of any divisiveness or factionalism in your local church?  If you are, have you contributed to it in any way?  What can you do to help heal the wounds?


Matthew.  To a persecuted minority in an occupied country Jesus gives this teaching.  And notice how personal he makes it.  Sometimes we might try to turn this whole issue into major debates and intellectual discussions, or at least into political arguments.  [Watch what our politicians and our press make of the centenary of the start of World War I.]  To Jesus, and to his listeners, this is no philosophical debate: this is tough every day stuff.  I was going to say, this is about everyday survival, but, of course, following this teaching did not promote his or their survival – it severely lessened their chances.  We have only to “transplant” it into any of the myriad places that fill up our TV news bulletins each night to realise how it must have sounded to the people who heard him.  If we are slapped around we must not strike back; if we are robbed we must not demand restitution; if our churches are burned down we must not burn down our attackers’ mosques.  There is a better way and we can only demonstrate it by the way in which we live and die.  A hearty chorus of Te Harinui is not enough.


Taking It Personally.


·        You know what to do with this – line by agonising line.  This way – and only this way – lies spiritual growth.  Good luck!

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Notes for Reflection

February 16                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Theme:  The first thing that popped into my mind as I started to think about the theme of this week’s readings was a rhetorical question: “Is this any way to live?  Or perhaps, if we are really going to use this approach for a theme, we should pick something a little more assertive: “This is the Only Way to Live.”  Whatever else our readings are about this week they are surely about reminding us that real faith is about real life – about real issues that confront us in the real world.  It’s not primarily about making a difference, but living differently.  We will only become a light to others when we become “brighter” than others!  So something a little more up-market might be “Living the Vision” or “The Lifestyle Choice”: but please, NOT “Our own little bit of Paradise”!

Introduction.  We start with Deuteronomy this week, which spells out the choice of lifestyle theme in black-and-white, and the importance of making the right fundamental choice.  It really is a matter of life and death.  St Paul sets the theme for the gospel by showing the community of faith at Corinth what their present style of life is really like.  And Matthew disturbs our peace of mind with another challenging extract from the Sermon on the Mount.

Background.  Now in my golden (=gold card) years I tend to look back almost as much as I look forward.  What may be described rather loosely as my working life can be divided into two halves, one focussed on the law and the other on faith, and the product of all those years comes down to this: the purpose of law is to restrain human nature; the purpose of faith is to change it.  [That may not seem a lot to show for the last fifty years or so, but it’s all I can offer at the moment so do your best to look impressed.]  The events of this week illustrate that maxim pretty well, and the readings do the same.

Just think of some of the names that were in our headlines this week: Vice-Chancellor (or should that be CEO?) Harlene Hayne; Jesse Ryder and Doug Bracewell; Major Campbell Roberts; Kim Dotcom; Mallory Manning and the Mongrel Mob;  Shane Jones and the Aussie supermarket brigade;  Shapelle Corby; and, of course, a large number of people who passed out of the Wellington Sevens tournament and into the Emergency Department of the Public Hospital suffering from self-inflicted harm.  What’s the common theme there?  Major Campbell Roberts said it all: it’s about lifestyle.  Until we stop choosing a life of self-interest and start caring about other people, the problems we face as a country (and as individuals) are only going to get worse.

Do we want a society in which education is just one more product, alongside beer, to be sold to the highest bidder?  A world in which huge salaries are paid to sportsmen who need regular hospital treatment offered by people who are far better qualified and paid far less than those great role models?  Do we want a world in which prostitution is held-up as a legitimate lifestyle choice (even a career path) with all the degradation, drug abuse, violence and criminal offending attendant on it?  Do we want a world in which competition is to be glorified even when it leads to tactics in our supermarkets that smack of extortion?

So where is the law in all this?  The best that we can say for the law is that things would be even worse without it; and, sometimes, the law can at least give us the satisfaction of seeing someone held to account.    

Then what about education, training, or (as was seriously suggested for Jessie Ryder this week) “a little more guidance and support”?  Of course, this ought to make sense.  Education ought to be the route to better decision-making.  But whenever I start to believe this I remember the question put by Dr Erich Geiringer to a witness before the Royal Commission on Liquor in 1974 to a witness who was passionately propounding the case for education as the means of tackling alcohol abuse: “If knowledge of the harm caused by alcohol abuse reduces the incidence of alcohol abuse, why does the medical profession have the highest rate of alcohol abuse among all the professions in this country?” I rest his case.

To sum up, the law can give us practical, rational reasons for not doing something that is harmful, either to ourselves or to others (and usually to both).  So, too, can education, of course.  But if they were enough in themselves the world would be a very different place, and its human inhabitants would be a very different species.  The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that the Law, even when handed down from God, and even when backed by centuries of education, training and practice, are not enough in themselves.  As a species we need something more.  We need the power to transcend our natural selves, to overcome the dictates of our natural instincts bred into us through the millennia of evolution.  We need to be set free to choose the better lifestyle.  We need saving from ourselves.  We need someone, not only to show us the way to live, but also to empower us to live it.  We need God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And we need to remember that WE are God’s target audience.  It is all too tempting to forget that the Scriptures are not directed to the human race in general, but to the people whom God calls to himself to be his people, the people of faith.  As someone has said (well, okay, it was me but even so it was quite wise), God’s will does not need enacting, it needs following.  All too often in the past we have looked to Parliament to enact a law to make people change their ways, when what God really wants us to do is adopt his ways.

Deuteronomy.  We’ve heard a lot about last chances and final warnings this week; and there is a sense in which the last few chapters of this Book can be understood in that sort of light.  The escape from slavery in Egypt was God’s doing; the extraordinary survival in the wilderness was God’s doing.  We might say that the Exodus was the birth event for the Hebrews, and the wilderness years constituted their infancy, adolescence, and youth, during which they were brought up by God, guided, protected and instructed by him.  Now they are on the verge of adulthood.  God is still with them, of course, but they are now ready to take more responsibility for their own well-being.  They are given a new freedom, a new opportunity, a fresh start.  This passage spells it out.  They are now free to live the life they have been taught, or to reject it and choose their own path.  And let’s be clear about the meaning of this choice.  Perhaps we have in our minds a life to be lived under divine surveillance: if they follow the right path God will reward them accordingly: if they do not, God will punish them severely.  That is not what this passage means.  It teaches that a life lived in accordance with God’s will is a blessed life, an enjoyable, enriching life, not one of drudgery to be lived in order to be rewarded (compensated) later. Equally, a life lived in contravention of God’s will is an unhealthy one, leading ultimately to our own destruction.

Taking It Personally.

·        Are you put off by the legalistic language in this passage?  Try writing it out in the language of advice or guidance.

·        Notice how changing the tenor of the language changes your image of God (perhaps from Commanding Officer to loving parent or teacher).

·        Looking back, are you conscious of having made a “whole-of-life” choice at some stage to follow God in the way envisaged by this passage?

·        Have there been times when you have been “led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them”?  How would you name those gods – success, career, popularity, money, family, self-indulgence?


Corinthians.  St Paul uses that theme of infancy and immaturity as he continues to upbraid the relatively new believers at Corinth.  Their behaviour reveals their immaturity.  They are squabbling like fractious children.  There is “jealousy and quarrelling” among them; and, most apposite of all, they are “behaving according to human inclinations”.  They have lost sight of God.


Taking It Personally.


·        Looking back, are you more mature in your faith than you were, say, 5 years ago?  What differences can you see in the way in which you live out your faith day by day?

·        St Paul’s imagery gets a little confused here.  Are you a planter, a waterer, a field or a building?  Or maybe one of God’s servants?

·        To whom do you belong?  In what sense?

·        Is there division within your local church?  Are you responsible for it?  What can you do to help heal any such divisions?


Matthew.  This week we have a second instalment of the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus “unpacks” the Beatitudes.  Cast as maxims or broad principles they can easily sound good to the ear without penetrating much deeper; but now we get to go a little deeper and they begin to sting.  “Blessed are the meek” sounds rather nice, if counter-intuitive.  But verses 21-26 spell out just some of the implications of this sweet-sounding principle.  It means never losing our temper with other members of our fellowship (even during a vestry meeting), and never insulting them or even calling them rude names.  Tougher still, perhaps, it means never pretending that all is sweetness and light between us when it isn’t, even to the point of not taking Communion until we have sorted the issue out.  And it also means that if we are in dispute with someone in the church (even if he is the Bishop) we don’t start legal proceedings – we sought it out within the community of faith.

“Blessed are the pure in heart” is another one that sounds gentle and almost reassuring, until we test it in the light of verses 27-30.  [By the way, what happened to gender-inclusive language here?]

Verses 31 and 32 are even more problematic.  First it is notorious that Matthew has tampered with the teaching here, by inserting the proviso “except on the ground of unchastity (terrible word for which the NRSV must take responsibility)”; the proviso is not in Mark’s or Luke’s version.  Matthew’s approach turns what is clearly a matter of broad principle into something more like a technical piece of law.  Secondly, we need to be particularly careful about the pastoral issues surrounding these verses.  It is one thing to uphold the ideal, quite another to treat divorced people in the way that has all-too-often happened in the recent past.

We finish with a peculiar concern about oaths that does not seem to us of quite the same importance as it did in Jesus’ time.  As a matter of personal practice, I do not swear on the Bible; on the two occasions I have been called to give evidence in court I have made an affirmation, but I’m not sure why.  And Moses seems to have had a different view: Deuteronomy 30:19.

Taking It Personally.

  • Read slowly through the whole reading first, remembering that it is a small part of a long block of teaching that Matthew has collected together in chapters 5-7.  Notice the range of topics covering both personal issues and inter-personal ones.  Can you detect any common threads?
  • Which of the particular issues covered this week causes you the most anguish?  Why?  Can you talk to anyone about it?  Can you pray about it?
  • Is there anyone you are cross with at this moment?  What can you do about it?
  • Is there anyone within your community of faith with whom your relationship is strained at present?  What can you do about that?
  • How would you summarise the type of community envisaged in the Sermon on the Mount; and how does that compare with the community we presently have within the church?
  • Do you have any suggestions to offer at your parish AGM?

Friday, 7 February 2014

Notes for Reflection

February 9                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Isaiah 58:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20*

[*Note.  Our first challenge this week is to consider how much is enough of each of our lessons, the Lectionary giving us shorter and longer options.  I’ve gone for a compromise in respect of the Isaiah reading, because the imagery in 10b ties in nicely with the theme of light and darkness that has been so much a part of our readings in the last few weeks.  However, with St Paul on such fine form and in full flood I think we should let him go to the end of the chapter.  If you want to cut him short, be it on your own head!]

Theme:  From time to time I get exasperated by people who tell me that they are not into religion, they’re into spirituality, which is rather like someone saying they are not into botany, they are into plants.  So given our readings this week I’m tempted to suggest that we all stand in our sacred places and scream something like, “Listen, you knockers, this is all about spirituality!”  If you are tempted to join in such an unusual start to this week’s worship (and please do not mention where you got the idea from) you may wish to focus on our second lesson, in which case something like “The Wisdom of God” should suffice.  Matthew is entering into a period of teaching drawn from the Sermon on the Mount, and also starts with an exhortation to be noisy and visible.  So “Coming Out for Christ” comes to mind, though it might be open to misinterpretation.  And as for Isaiah, what about “Get Real!”  Come to think of it, I think that last one might get my vote: “Getting Real” is surely the very essence of spirituality.  Or what about going for broke and simply using his opening line: “Shout Out, Do Not Hold Back!”  (Perhaps not suitable for an 8.00 am service?)

Introduction.  The short snappy paragraph intended for discussion of possible themes seems to have morphed into something more like an introduction, so just a few (relatively) brief comments here.  I like the heading given to chapter 58 of the Book of Isaiah in the NRSV – “False and True Worship”.  No one is more devastating than Isaiah in denouncing “rote” worship, which is a constant danger to Anglicans with our commitment to written liturgy and set prayers.  (How many of us have suddenly realised that we have recited (rather than prayed) the Lord’s Prayer while our mind has been on other things!)  Here, Isaiah is pointing to another common complaint that can also strike any congregation – the disconnection between our Sunday-morning faith and our rest-of-the week practice.  St Paul reminds us that his teaching is not something he or some philosopher has dreamed up – it is the wisdom of God revealed through the Spirit.  And Matthew reminds us that spirituality might begin at home (or anywhere else) but it is never a private deal between God and a single worshipper.  We are called together to preserve and illuminate the world.  How’s that for an example of what sports commentators used to delight in calling “A Big Ask”?

Background.  I have often noted the astonishing ability Scripture has to comment on the events of the week through readings chosen months if not years ago.  This week it has really come up trumps.  I am writing these notes on Waitangi Day, with the events on the Treaty Ground once again filling our news media.  Isaiah provides the perfect passage for reflecting on all that.  It is, we are told, the annual opportunity for people to express their displeasure with the Government of the day; and so there is plenty of shouting out and not holding back, announcing rebellion of all sorts.  It is easy for us who are looking in from a distance to start talking about “they” rather than we, while hardly drawing breath before proclaiming that we are all one nation.  Can we really claim that if we wish to exclude those who offend us on OUR national day?

Look especially at verses 6 and 7.  Can we not hear something of the marae hospitality in these verses – a place open to everyone, a willingness to feed whoever turns up and in whatever numbers?  Why doesn’t it all break down in the way that we see so often with vast numbers inviting themselves and gate-crashing social functions?  And yet – what are we to make of the so-called “break-through” being celebrated this week as women are allowed to speak for the first-time.  Surely what we have here is a reminder that all cultures reflect that dual capacity of human beings to be so contradictory – to be capable of wonderful openness and generosity on the one hand, and terrible narrowness and mean-spiritedness on the other.  As we marvel at the hospitality of a marae perhaps we should wonder why it has taken so long to break that one particular yoke.  

And perhaps we should look at our own homes and our own churches.  Are we as hospitable and welcoming as we could be?  Are there particular yokes we still need to break so that others may be free?

The second issue that received somewhat excessive attention this week was the battle of the jackets.  It would be easy (especially for men!) to dismiss it all as silly political nonsense – surely proof that the idea that more women politicians would lift the behaviour of the House is pure myth!  But there is an issue here that Isaiah would recognise.  Can we advocate for the poor without being one of them?  Isn’t it an essential part of the Gospel of Christ that he gave up everything to become one of us?  Wouldn’t his so-called “social teaching” have a hollow ring if it had emerged that he had salted away millions in a Swiss bank account – or if he had worn an expensive designer-label tunic as he preached the Sermon on the Mount?  This is not about Metiria Turei’s lifestyle – it’s about ours.  Hear what the Spirit is saying to THE CHURCH!

And so to St Paul and the new Leader of the Act Party!  Act have chosen as their new leader a professional philosopher!  How’s that for synchronicity!  What would St Paul make of that?  Read the whole chapter and marvel; or if you are in a hurry and want a cheap laugh, just read verse 6.  Again, I must add a disclaimer: this is not about the Act Party or its new leader.  It’s about us, and the perennial temptation to substitute our own wisdom for the revealed wisdom of God.

As I pondered this remarkable week as a whole, I found myself coming back to the famous question we find from time to time in the gospels: “what must I do to be saved?”  I’ve always thought that the question itself is fundamentally flawed.  Taken literally, the answer must be: there is nothing you can do  - that’s why you need a Saviour.  A slightly better question might be: what must I become to be saved?  That at least would point us in the direction of the Sermon on the Mount.  Become like that and you will be saved.  But even that isn’t quite right, is it?  We must let God become in us what he became in Christ.  That’s more like it, I think.  On that, Isaiah, Paul and Matthew are in agreement.  They should have our vote, whatever they’re wearing.

Isaiah.  You may be tired of my raving on about the marvels of Isaiah, but I’m not, so brace yourself.  Here again is another passage of sheer brilliance in which all his gifts are on display.  Feel the passion as he warms to the subject.  Cringe at the lash of his satirical tirade (verging on sarcasm) in verses 2 and 3b.  Above all, see him thrust a mirror in front of us as he demands that we take a look at ourselves, at our hearts, and at the authenticity of our worship.  It is one thing to hail Christ as the light coming into the world, but now it is our turn (10b).

Taking It Personally.

·        A thorough checklist for the state of our spirituality, individual and collective, as we head towards Lent.  Go through the passage very slowly, asking the Spirit to highlight any word or phrase you particularly need to focus on.

·        Do you delight to know God’s ways?  And if you do, is it head-knowledge that delights you?  Is there any disconnection between your knowledge of God’s way and your commitment to follow those ways in your daily life?

·        Turn now to verse 3a.  Reflect on the subtext. Is there any element of seeking to earn God’s reward in your worship?  Do you want God to notice what you are “doing for him”?  Or are you giving praise and thanksgiving because of his love and goodness, regardless of whether God is watching and listening or not?  In short, is your worship self-serving or God-serving?

·        Verse 4 invites us to reflect on our relationships with others in the faith community, so how are they at the moment?

·        Verse 5 challenges are propensity for privatising our spiritual practices.  How do you respond to that challenge?

·        And verses 6-10 just plain challenge us!  Don’t be too hard on yourself, but let the Spirit be as hard on you as he wishes to be.  This exercise should never be about self-flagellation, but a quite brave openness to the corrective therapy of the Spirit.


Corinthians.  Has there ever been correspondence quite like that we find in St Paul’s letters to the Corinthians?  They were a proud, bumptious and self-admiring lot – not the easiest of people to teach.  Obviously St Paul feels that not all of them respect him for who and what he is; so one of the threads we find throughout these letters, and in this passage this week, is St Paul’s attempts to defend himself.  We always have to construct the views of his critics from what he says to them in rebuttal, but as in the opening verses of this passage, that’s not usually too difficult.  Presumably, St Paul did not have a commanding presence – he did not ooze personal charisma.  He was not over-endowed with the gift of the gab – he had not kissed the blarney-stone, as the Irish would say.  Worse still, what he taught seemed to the intelligentsia of his day (as it still does to those of our own day) to be childish nonsense.  St Paul makes no apology for that, attempts no watering-down of his message, and never adds any verbal sugar-coating.  To do so would be quite wrong because the message is not his to change.  He is only the spokesman – he is, as it were, simply quoting the original author’s words.  The message is God’s.  To understand it, we need, not higher mental powers, but wider spiritual openness.


Taking It Personally.


·        Have you ever attempted to “explain” your faith to someone who just doesn’t “get it”?  Does this passage help you to understand what was going on in that encounter?

·        What image do you have of St Paul?  Now read verse 3 again.  How does that fit with your image of him?

·        Can you recall reading something, or listening to someone preaching or teaching, and suddenly the penny dropped?  Something that you had never understood or accepted suddenly made sense?  Is that an instance of what St Paul is writing about here?  Do you try to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church (or to you)?  If you preach to or teach others, do you think of something to say, get something off the internet, or try to hear what the Spirit wants you to say others?


Matthew.  As we go through this period of teaching this week and the next three weeks, we should remember that we are really being led deeper into the Beatitudes.  We can, perhaps, divide this reading into two halves - a scary half (verses 13-16), and a surprising half (verses 17-20).  Yet another simple temptation we can often fall into is the dismissal of the Law (the Old Testament) as irrelevant to us.  The Lord teaches that the Law is not repealed by him, but fulfilled in him.  We should not criticise the Pharisees for trying to keep the Law, but for failing to surpass it.


Taking It Personally.


·        In what way are you salt of the earth?  Have you lost your saltiness?

·        How do you “let your light shine before others”?

·        Reflect on “The Summary of the Law”.  In what way might it answer the question, “what must we do to be saved?”

·        Compare the Beatitudes.  In what way might they answer the question, “what must I become to be saved?”