August 24 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Theme: Obviously something about identity this week. Not, perhaps, so much about Jesus' identity – WE KNOW who he is, don't we? But in the light of his identity, who are we? That is, who do we claim to be? So perhaps a catchy theme might be "Who Do We Say We Are?" (And to whom do we say it?) A variation on this theme, with particular reference to our second lesson, might be "Whose Thoughts Are Our Thoughts?" A slightly different approach might come from our first lesson: as I reflected on it I found a sort of mantra forming in my mind – "Yes, But God". Yes, a lot of terrible things are going on around us, and even within us, and yes they are important, but underneath it all, and above it all, and within it all is God. And somehow that simple fact means that, contrary to all appearances, there is love in this world and there is hope for it. So perhaps our theme should be "Yet Shall We Love and Hope".
Introduction. Isaiah speaks to a frightened people, in danger of losing their faith as well as their hope. (We can't lose the former without also losing the latter.) Know your origins, know from what you are made and by whom you are made, and listen to the promises of your Creator for a better future. Salvation is assured and eternal. St Paul has finished his three-chapter interlude on the special position of Israel and now returns to his main theme of the universal love of God as manifested in Jesus Christ. Once again the key word "therefore" reminds us that, because of what has already happened (because of God's love for us), our response is now under consideration. What follows is NOT a prerequisite for salvation, but an appropriate way of expressing our thanks for salvation. The gospel passage returns us to the basic underlying truth on which all else rests: only if Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, or as we would say today God Incarnate, does anything else we affirm in faith makes sense. [Translation: a non-divine Jesus is incompatible with the Christian faith.]
Background. It's been another horrendous week, at home and abroad, perhaps best encapsulated by that chilling phrase "remember, the rule is give back double". That quote, of course, comes from THE BOOK, but our Minister of Justice is certainly not the only one who believes that the principle of an eye for any eye should replaced by a rule requiring two eyes for an eye. Only total blindness is sufficient punishment for those who dare to see things differently from the way we want them seen. Rightly do we speak of blind fury: blinded by the wrongs we believe have been done to us we seek to blind others, whether or not they are responsible for those wrongs.
A few weeks ago in these notes I wrote about the way evil works, drawing people into doing its work and fulfilling its purposes. THE BOOK gives a fascinating (and appalling) example of that. The whole thing started with someone questioning the right of the Minister of Finance, Bill English, to claim a housing allowance even though his permanent family home was then in Wellington. It was arguable either way, and a perfectly legitimate question to raise. To his great credit, Mr English reflected on the issue himself and decided that, whatever the technical rights and wrongs of the issue might be, it was not the right thing to do and gave up the allowance. (His comments this week show, once again, he is a man of personal integrity shaped by the Christian faith he professes.) There the story should have ended.
We now know it didn't. Apparently incensed by someone daring to criticise a National Minister a blogger, using information supplied to him by the Minister of Justice, launched an attack on a public servant whom he believed (wrongly, it now seems) to have leaked information to the Opposition about the housing allowance, even giving the personal contact details of the public servant. That person then received a flood of abusive emails and letters, including even threats of death or injury. So what began as a question about the eligibility or otherwise of one person to a housing allowance had somehow metamorphosed into a lynch-mob hounding a public servant. Such is the power of evil to spread, step by step, person by person, gaining in strength as more and more people are so blinded by their fury that they lose their ability to see what they themselves are doing and becoming.
I suppose that this particular instance has so rattled me because of my previous life as a public servant working in Parliament and specialising in the Justice portfolio. I found myself thinking back to some of the Ministers of Justice of the past, men like Ralph Hanan, Martyn Finlay, David Thompson and Geoffrey Palmer, incidentally two from the National Party and two from the Labour Party; all of them men of personal integrity, who did not simply administer the Justice portfolio but believed in and upheld in their own lives the fundamental principles of justice. None would have dreamed of having anything to do with the sort of scurrilous activities laid bare in THE BOOK.
And then there is the issue of faith. Two of those men were self-professed non-believers; I do not know whether the other two were Christians or not. But the present Minister of Justice has publicly described herself as an Anglican. She did so when criticising the Bishop of Wellington for holding a seven-day prayer vigil in a small container on the steps of his cathedral. She said she was "speaking as an Anglican myself", and said that the Bishop's behaviour was a perfect example of the sort of thing that is causing people to leave the church in droves.
And so for all these reasons I have been really stirred up this week. I have found myself mentally conducting interviews (or cross-examinations) of the present Minister of Justice, or hoping others would, challenging her to explain how her attitudes and conduct are consistent with her faith; how she had the gall to criticise Bishop Justin at the very time that she was behaving in such a manner. I found myself hoping that someone in the media would at least ask her the direct question, is there anything in the disclosures of which she is personally ashamed, or which she considers unethical? I found myself hoping that the Prime Minister would sack her, or that she would finally do the decent thing and resign. I found myself...
And there we have it, don't we? There is the power of evil blinding me to what I am doing and becoming. I am wanting to "give back double": I am forgetting the principles of justice for which I worked for 20 years and still believe in to this day. Worse, I am betraying the one I call Lord and Saviour. I found that I had lost myself.
St Paul has the perfect penance for me. I am to learn BY HEART Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Isaiah. This passage is addressed to the people of faith – "those who pursue righteousness and seek the Lord". We are to "listen" (verses 1 and 4) and to "look" (verses 2 and 6): that is, we are to give our total attention to the word now being addressed to us. We are to remember our past, our origin, in both the material and spiritual sense. We are made from the earth, hewn and quarried from the physical creation. We are descendants of Abraham and Sarah. We are part of them and they of us. Secure in the truth of who we are, we can now hear the promises made to us for the future. God's salvation will come forth in teaching and justice. Nothing is more certain than that. It will outlast even the created universe from which we have come.
Taking It Personally.
· A good passage for lectio divina. Read it slowly, word by word, phrase by phrase, waiting for the Spirit to prompt you to pause and reflect. What is the Spirit saying to you through this passage?
· How would you identify the feelings this passage arouses in you? Does it calm or even heal you in some way? Does it reassure you and strengthen your hope? Does it annoy you, perhaps, describing a situation so different from your own reality at this time?
· What do you make of verse 6? Is it hopeful or depressing?
Romans. The expression "body and soul" comes to mind as I read this passage. St Paul exhorts us to offer our "bodies as a living sacrifice" to God, and then describes such an offering as our "spiritual worship". Then he turns to our minds. I had this verse 2 in mind (sorry, unintentional!) when I suggested as a possible theme "Whose Thoughts Are Our Thoughts?" We are all influenced for good or ill by the thoughts of others, not just the thoughts of other individuals, but the thoughts of our society as a whole. The defence of, "So what? That's the way we do politics" is just one more example of this, but there are countless others. "That's just human nature", or "I'm only human"; Shane Jones said he watched blue movies because he was a red-blooded male; and so it goes on. We must grow more, earn more, have more, and consume more because that's the way the economy works. "There is no alternative" was Treasury's mantra during the major economic policy changes of the 1980's. And, of course, if anyone challenged such group-think – they were dismissed as idiots, communists or whatever. St Paul would not have fared well in New Zealand at that time, or even today. Yet we believe that there is a different way, and a different truth, and a different life and his name is Jesus the Christ.
Taking It Personally.
- By whom or what are you most influenced in the views you hold and the opinions you express on issues that concern you?
- What effect, if any, do opinion polls have on your views and opinions?
- Do you consider yourself a natural conformist? Or would you be offended if someone said you were?
- Consider verse 3. Do you tend to consider yourself more highly, or less highly, than you should?
- How well do verses 4 and 5 describe the reality of your local faith community?
- In the light of verses 6 to 8 what are your particular gifts; are you offering them fully and generously to your faith community?
- Did you include in your answer to the first question in this section the name of Jesus of Nazareth?
Matthew. This passage needs little explication, surely? Standing in a town reeking of political power Jesus asks first about the talk on the street: who do people think he is? Then comes the all-question to the disciples: Who do you day I am? Peter speaks up, given the answer by divine inspiration. Perhaps the real importance of this episode is the context in which it is set in the gospel narrative. It is immediately preceded by yet another instance of misunderstanding and confusion among the disciples over what Jesus has said to them about the "yeast of the Pharisees". It is followed by a whole new direction in Jesus' teaching, as for the first time Jesus starts to speak about his forthcoming passion.
Taking It Personally.
- Who do you say Jesus is? And to whom do you say it?
- Do you agree that public figures should be challenged to reflect on their actions from an ethical perspective?
- Do you agree that, in the case of such figures who have publicly professed a religious belief, it would be appropriate to challenge their conduct in terms of that belief?
- What do you make of verse 19? In the last week or so, what might you have "loosed" on earth?