Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday 30 November 2014 - 1st Sunday of Advent

Theme(s): The Coming of Christ / The Second Coming of Jesus Christ / Return of Jesus / Facing crises

Sentence: Jesus will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:8).

Collect:

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
so that when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

Readings:

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Comment:

Just like that we have switched from the Year of Matthew (A) to the Year of Mark (B)!

Advent is the season of 'coming' or 'coming to(wards)'. Who is coming? When is Jesus coming? And, naturally, gulp, Christmas is coming and cards/presents/food/drink needs purchasing. It is difficult in Advent to focus on Jesus coming to us and on time coming towards its end and the new heaven and new earth coming soon to us.

Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah yearns for God to act, to intervene in the world, as in former days. Yet he acknowledges that God has been angry with Israel (5b) and with good cause (6-7). His plea is that God might treat them like potter's clay (8): that clay, when not conforming to what the potter wants, is able to be reshaped. It gets a second chance at becoming a pot!

Please God, Isaiah says, 'Do not be exceedingly angry' (9). I am not quite sure why the reading ends with this verse - the next few verses fits well with one of the themes in today's gospel reading.

Note verse 6: the prophet notes that relative to the utterly, absolutely pure holiness of God 'all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth' (6b). Do we too easily think we live in ways God approves because, well, we think we are okay by our lights?

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

If Mark 13:24-37 looks ahead to terrifying crises afflicting Christians, then this psalm may be read as a prayer to God to save us from the crisis and the terror.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

This reading is an 'advent' reading because after Paul's opening greeting (1-3) and complimentary prayer of thanks with a bit of teaching about spiritual gifts (4-7) he looks ahead to 'the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ' (7).

Currently Jesus Christ is obscured - seated at the right hand of God in heaven but invisible here on earth (save in the lives of his followers). Thus Paul looks ahead - as he often does in his letters - to the future revealing or making visible of Jesus Christ to the world. Ahead of us lies 'the day of our Lord Jesus Christ' (9).

To be ready for that great day we need to be going about the business of our Lord: it is a time of waiting but also a time in which we need every 'spiritual gift' which enables us to do God's will (7).

In this time of waiting yet exercising the spiritual gifts God has given us we should not be anxious. God is at work: 'He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ' (9).

The use of 'blameless' is an implicit reminder that the coming of Jesus Christ on that day will be for the purpose of judging the world.


Mark 13:24-37

This is a really tough passage of Scripture to comment on so let's start with the easy comments to make.

When Jesus says, "Keep awake" (37), he concludes a part of the passage with a consistent, comprehensible message. That message is that a day is coming when he will return but the hour of the return, indeed the day itself is known only to God the Father. Thus being ready for that hour, at all times, is important. That is the message of verses 32-37. In the season of Advent, when we recall the first coming of Jesus Christ and look ahead to his second coming, we do well to hear and heed this message.

What is much harder to comment on are verses 24-31. In these verses, almost but not quite contradicting verse 32 'about that day or hour no one knows', Jesus encourages his followers to look around them and see signs which point to the imminence of the day and hour.

In verses 24-27 Jesus draws on Old Testament texts to make a prophecy about the future coming of the Son of Man. In doing so he reinterprets Daniel 7:13 which concerns one like a son of man who represents the elect of God and comes towards God: here 'the Son of Man' (i.e. Jesus) will come towards earth to gather in the elect. But when will this happen?

In verse 28 Jesus says to learn a lesson from the fig tree: the way it puts forth its leaves is a sign that summer is near. Thus, he goes on to say, "So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates" (29).

'These things' are the matters Jesus has been forecasting in verses 5-23: there will be false teachers (5-6), wars and rumours of wars (7-8), earthquakes and famines (8), persecution (9-13), the setting up of the 'desolating sacrilege' in the Temple (14), terrible suffering (19) and false messiahs and prophets (21-22).

But here lie several difficulties.

1. Only one of these matters is specific (the setting up of the 'desolating sacrilege'). The rest are recurring features of human or natural behaviour through the ages.

2. The specific matter will relate to the coming of the Romans to destroy Jerusalem in 70 AD. Is this what Jesus has in mind? Is it only what Jesus has in mind? Note that most if not all of Mark 13 could relate to this event because the beginning of the chapter concerns a prophecy of Jesus about the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) which did occur in 70 AD. It does make sense of 'he is near, at the very gates' (29) - if we think of 'he' as the Roman general leading the forces against Jerusalem and equate 'the gates' with the gates of Jerusalem.

3. But if Mark 13 only relates to one future historical event then talk of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory is difficult to interpret in relation to this event because in 70 AD the elect of God were not gathered in 'from the end of the earth to the ends of heaven' (27).

4. Then there is the matter of the enigmatic claim in v. 30 that 'this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.' If Mark 13 refers to events in 70 AD then there are no problems: some people alive hearing Jesus say these things in the year 30 AD (+/- one or two years) would have been alive in 70 AD. But if 'all these things' refers further ahead, to the return of the Son of Man to gather in the elect, an event which still has not taken place, then 'this generation will not pass away' requires some interpretational fancy footwork. Could genea mean 'race' so that Jesus is saying that the Jews will not pass away before he returns? Despite serious attempts to exterminate the Jews such as the Holocaust, the Jews remain with us. Could 'this generation' have a timeless reference, e.g. the phrase refers to the church as the continuing followers of Jesus who hear and re-hear these words?

5. Is Mark 13 a prophecy on two levels? On one level some words look ahead to the events of 70 AD and on another level other words look ahead to the end of history. But if this is so, then the words are woven in with one another. Rather than being enigmatic, from this perspective the prophecy seems to involve obscurity: at various points it is obscure which level the words are working on.

If we then acknowledge the difficulties in the passage, what are we to make of it?

We should not allow the difficulties to block our reception of the clarities within the passage. Acknowledging that Jesus is speaking in a manner which recalls to us other modes of apocalyptic communication, i.e. disclosures of God's plan for the present and the future in colourful, dramatic, metaphorical and thus often obscure language (think Daniel, Revelation), then we can hold the difficulties in tension with points of clarity rather than worry ourselves to death over their resolution.

The clarities are:

1. Jesus' followers face at least one, if not many crises prior to his return. In these crises extraordinary pressures, including devastating suffering are likely to be experienced. We see such crises for believers unfolding in the world today, especially in the Middle East and in Africa.

2. We are asked to 'endure to the end' whatever we face for the sake of Christ (13).

3. We should 'be alert' (23, 33) and 'keep awake' (35, 37) at all times, that is, be ready for the return of Christ. In application that means, Today, am I faithful to Jesus? Today, have I confessed and repented of all sin? Today, am I going about my master's business? (34-36)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday 23rd November 2014 - Christ the King Sunday / 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time / Sunday before Advent / Aotearoa Sunday

Theme(s): Christ the King / Preparation for the coming of Christ

Sentence: And I, the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them' (Ezekiel 34:24).

Collect: a traditional collect for this Sunday as the Sunday Before Advent, in modern form, but retaining the words leading to this Sunday being nicknamed 'Stir Up' Sunday follows, from NZPB p. 641:

Stir up, O Lord
The wills of your faithful people
That, richly bearing the fruit of good works,
They may by you be richly rewarded;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Comments:

I am particularly reading the readings through the lens of "Christ the King."

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

The combination in David of shepherd and king becomes an enduring theme in the Old Testament and spills over into the New Testament (where Christ is both king and good shepherd).

Here God speaking through Ezekiel promises Israel that he will be a shepherd to them, with special care for the lost and threatened sheep, But God the great shepherd of Israel will also appoint a shepherd in the Davidic mold (23-24). He will 'feed them and be their shepherd' (23). For Christians reading Ezekiel there is only one candidate for identification as this shepherd king: Jesus Christ.

Psalm 100

What does a true king, a ruler who loves and care for his subjects (like a shepherd caring for his sheep, 3) deserve more than anything? Payment of taxes is the wrong answer! The correct answer is our praise and adoration. Today's psalm (or its alternative, Psalm 95) is the perfect set of words to express our delight in Christ the King.

Ephesians 1:15-23

There would not be much point to Christ the King if he were not in charge of a kingdom. To be in charge of Israel, as a descendant of King David was a reasonable ambition, or so it seemed to those in the gospels who thought that Jesus was that kind of king.

Here, in the concluding part of Paul's great christological essay on the blessings of God poured out on the world through Christ, with specific reference to those elected by God to be 'in Christ,' we find the crescendo of praise and adoration building to a royal climax.

Christ, raised from the dead, has been seated by God 'at his right hand in the heavenly places' (20). This position of might and power is the ultimate kingship since Christ is now 'far above all rule and authority and power and dominion' (21a). There is more: Christ is above every name, not only those known in this age, but also in the age to come (21b). In case of doubt Paul offers this flourish: God has 'put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things' (22). A true summary would be 'Christ is King of kings and King over everything.'

But Paul is ever mindful that God's power is purposive. The majesty of Christ the King is not majesty for majesty's sake. The purpose of Christ's rule over all rule is expressed in three words deliberately omitted in the citation from v. 22 above: 'for the church.' What God is in and through Christ is for the sake of God's people. The church is the object of God's power and authority displayed in Christ. God wants nothing more that the church to be protected and provided for by the one who is in charge of everything.

And why not, because the church is not some group outside the being of God in Christ, mercifully and unexpectedly included in the Godhead. No! The church is Christ the King's 'body, the fullness of him who fills all in all' (23). Christ takes care of his body.

Our question as the church could be whether we have a big and bold vision of who we are in Christ?

Matthew 25:31-46

The starting point for this passage is the coming in glory of the Son of Man (31) with the nations gathered before him (32). By v. 34 the Son of Man has become 'the king' and thus we have a great passage for Christ the King Sunday -Christ reigns over the nations and brings judgment to them.

This passage is sometimes called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This is partially true because Jesus makes a comparison (or 'similitude') in vss. 32-33 between the separated people before him as king and a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. But the greater truth is to describe the passage as a vision of the future judgment.

It is hard (in my view) to read this passage properly because it has (in my experience) been used in sermons to forward various agendas which do not receive direct support from the passage though they are worthy agendas in their own right. The problem is that the passage looks like a passage supporting  general social services and social justice when it does no such thing. The provision of social services and the work of social justice in the world at large does receive support from other passages in Scripture, but not here.

The reason for saying this is that Jesus specifically makes the criterion for judgment between the sheep and the goats the criterion of action or inaction towards 'the least of these who are members of my family' (40, 45). Unless we wrench the meaning of other Scriptures to define 'members of my family' as 'everyone', this passage is about the world's treatment of Christians and not how Christians treat non-Christians or non-Christians treat other people.

Understanding this matter is vital for the standing of the whole gospel as a Christian gospel in the context of the New Testament's message that salvation comes through the grace of God and not through good works. On the face of it, overlooking verses 40 and 45, Matthew 25:31-46 looks like a straightforward endorsement of good works as a means to salvation: feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, welcomes strangers into your home and God will be pleased with you. And the converse applies: you have been warned. But this is not so.

Effectively Jesus is expanding on something he has already said about the treatment of his disciples being the treatment of Jesus and thus of God himself:

"Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me."

This is Matthew 10:40 (read the larger section, 10:40-42) and can be read alongside Matthew 18:1-7. In these passages Jesus begins to develop a theme which comes to a climax in our present passage: how disciples of Christ are treated is extraordinarily powerful in respect of consequences. God is in Christ, Christ is in Christians, bless (or curse) a Christian and you are blessing (or cursing) God.

So in Matthew 25:31-46 we have the extraordinary spectacle of the nations being gathered before Christ the kingly judge and the judgment turning on how they have treated Christians. As we look around the world today we rightly think that some nations should be terrified of that future judgment because their treatment of Christians has been utterly appalling.

Of course some Christians have treated other Christians very kindly and some have treated them very badly. That also is pause for considerable thought about what Christ the kingly judge will make of our treatment of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

How then does the passage read in terms of 'faith versus works'?

The previous two passages (Bridesmaids, 25:1-13; Talents, 25:14-30) have worked on recognition or knowledge between God/Jesus and people. The rejected bridesmaids are not known to the bridegroom and the worthless slave who buries his talent does not recognise who the master really is and what his character is like.

It is the faith which recognises God as God which counts. But Jesus offers a twist of considerable mercy in this third passage: at least recognising a Christian as a bearer of the life of God counts as saving faith in God himself.

For clarity: there are plenty of reasons for Christians to treat all people well, and especially those on the margins of life, whether or not you agree with the explanation given above!


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday 16th November 2014 - 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Growing in the faith / Sharing our faith with others / Alert and awake for Christ's coming

Sentence: So let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober (1 Thessalonians 5:6)

Collect: (used with permission Rev. Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )

God our end,
as the sun of righteousness rises with healing in its wings,
save us in our time of trial,
so that we do not succumb,
but endure in your eternal embrace;
through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer,
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

Readings:

Continuous: Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Related: [comments below]

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Comments:

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Ouch! Zephaniah leaves nothing out as he forth-tells the terrifying prospects of the 'day of the Lord' (7).

But the terrifying prospects are not to the genuinely righteous (i.e. in a healthy, right relationship with God) but to those who are complacent (12) and rely on their accumulated wealth to save them.

Whether the complacency of the wealthy is because they think their money can save them from the wrath of God or because they think it a sign that God has blessed them and thus they are safe, we cannot tell.

The connection with our gospel reading as a 'related' reading is tangential. The third slave in the parable is complacent. But he does not rely on his meagre talent saving him per se.

Psalm 90:1-8, 12

This psalm speaks to the delay in time as we wait for the coming of Christ. Versus 4 makes the relevant statement that time is different for God compared to our experience of it.

Verse 12 concludes the reading with a careful warning to use the time of our lives well: learning from God so that we gain a 'wise heart.'

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

When will the Lord return? Paul says that his readers do not need any information because they already know that the 'day of the Lord' will 'come like a thief in the night' (2). That is, we do not know except that it could be at any time.

What we do need a bit of reminding, as Paul goes on to do, is that we must not become complacent (3a) and certainly should not think that the end will never come (3b - there is no escape from labour pains for the pregnant woman who is tempted late in pregnancy to think her baby is never going to arrive).

Consequently, awake and alert believers should not be surprised (4). Picking up the idea of the suddenness of the coming of the Lord being like a thief in the night, Paul then urges his readers to behave as people behave in the daytime rather than in the night, a period associated with wicked behaviour (5-7).

The key to warding off complacency and sinful behaviour is not greater effort to do good but the Christian basics of 'putting on the breastplate of faith and love' and 'the helmet of the hope of salvation' (8). The latter is decisive: for what lies ahead of us, we live our lives in the here and now in such a way as to be ready for the coming of the Lord. God destines us for salvation (9) so let us not miss out. Great help lies within the Christian community: we should encourage one another and build up each other in faith, love and hope (11).

Matthew 25:14-30 The Parable of the Talents

As with the previous parable, this parable is memorable partly because of the maths. Then it was 10 bridesmaids who are divided into two binary groups of 5, the wise and the foolish. Here elements of wisdom versus foolishness are implicit but not named (e.g. the foolish slave is described as 'wicked and lazy' (26).) The maths moves from 10/2/5 to 3/5/2/1: 3 men, given 5,2 and 1 talents respectively with the first two men making a matching 5 and 2 talents.

There is a binary element, however, in that the first two slaves are deemed 'trustworthy' (21, 23) and the third, as noted above is 'wicked and lazy.

Whether Jesus took some existing story doing the rounds within Middle Eastern story or created a story fit for his teaching purposes, a few phrases alert us, well before the concluding verses, to the inherent purpose of the story. The master goes off 'on a journey' (14) and returns 'after a long time' (19) means the story is about the return of Jesus. The invitation to the first two slaves to 'enter into the joy of your master' (21, 23) points forward to the great messianic feast or banquet (e.g. the wedding feast of previous parables, including last Sundays 25:1-13, and 22:1-14).

Much as the parable is interesting about how we might use the resources God gives us, whether we focus on talent = money and discuss the merits of trading versus storing banknotes under a mattress versus faith in the capitalist system via investing funds in an interest bearing account, or talent = talent, the gifts and abilities God grants us, our focus on the point of the parable must engage with verse 29.

We have already encountered 25:29 at 13:12. There the increase/decrease of what we have or do not have is associated with the reception of the parabolic teaching of Jesus. That suggests that we do not think long about the economic of social capital aspects of the parable - nor even about the ecclesiastical aspects of it. (With respect to the last, tempting though it is to use this parable as an occasion to rally the parishioners to give more of time and talents to the life of the parish, that is not why Jesus told the parable!)

Rather, Jesus, continuing a theme developed in 25:1-13, challenges his hearers to be ready for his return by growing in the faith he is teaching them. Through his teaching, the disciples (then and now) have been 'entrusted his property' (14). The delay between his ascension and his return is our opportunity to use the property well and gain an investment return on it. Fast forwarding to the Great Commission, 28:16-20, we properly understand the parable when we grow in our knowledge of Jesus, bear witness to him in the world, and make disciples so that the body of followers of Jesus grows.

To keep our faith to ourselves, to make no progress in growing into Christian maturity, and generally to ignore Jesus' commands about how we are to live in the world is the equivalent of the third slave who 'hid your talent in the ground' (25).






Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sunday 9 November 2014 - 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Justice / True worship / Christ's return / Readiness for Christ

Sentence: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (Matthew 25:13)

Collect: (used with permission Rev. Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )

God of new beginnings,
you hold life and death in your hands;
may our hope in your power and love
strengthen us to live creatively,
not fearing the future,
but knowing that in the end all shall be well;
through the Risen Christ,
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen

Readings:

OT (continuous, not commented on below): Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
OT (related, commented on below): Amos 5:18-24
Psalm (continuous, no comment below): Psalm 78:1-7
Psalm (related, comment below): Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Comment:

Amos 5:18-24

There is a way of talking about meeting God which heightens excitement and anticipation. This passage sobers up any intoxication!

Amos points out that the specific meeting with God, the 'day of the Lord' (18), is a terrifying day. (Presumably some of the hearers Amos addressed looked forward to this day in ignorance of what it would involve). Verses 21-23 (if we read no other part of Amos) tells us why and thus, by implication, for whom the day is terrifying and to be feared rather than looked forward to.

God hates what he sees and hears in Israel's worship (21-23). No specific reason is stated in these verses as the ordinary practice of Israel's worship is summarised: festivals, grain and meat offerings, songs of praise. But when verse 24 begins 'But let' we look for what Amos says should be happening as a clue to what causes God's great unhappiness. God is looking for justice and righteousness. Let them roll rather than chords on stringed instruments. Work for justice not for an even better festival than last year's amazing celebration. Be in right relationship with God and with neighbour before you gather fine grain and fatted calves for offering. That is the implication of verse 24.

Thus Israel, thinking they are in God's favour look forward to a day which will be terrifying because they are not in God's favour.

For ourselves, is it difficult to translate this passage to our day, when we have calendrical church festivals, make sacrificial efforts to ensure the finest of linen and richest of communion vessels, and love festal music? Let justice roll down like waters!

Psalm 70

David to a degree shares the concerns of Amos in this psalm. But the victim of injustice and bad treatment is David himself.

The note on which the psalm ends is important: David's trusting plea is to God as 'my help and my deliverer' (5).

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

If we simply read this passage as an anticipation of our future life in Christ, joined with all the saints who have died before us, then Paul sets out a hopeful, triumphant and exciting picture of future reality.

If we ask questions of the passage, as many Christians have done through the centuries, then our excitement is liable to be diverted to debate and discussion!

The great question here concerns the state of 'the dead in Christ' (16) between their death and the return of Christ to earth ('For the Lord himself ... will descend from heaven', 16).

On the face of it, this passage implies that dead Christians are not currently with the Lord in heaven, but in some state of waiting for the return of Christ. We should not miss the important footnote to the NRSV translation of verses 13 and 15, which notes that the Greek translated as 'those who have died' is literally 'those who have fallen asleep.' (The NIV hedges its exegetical bets in v. 13 with 'those who sleep in death' but offers 'those who have fallen asleep' in v. 15) Paul is saying that the state of the physical body of these Christians is death but the state of their life in Christ is as though asleep relative to waking up to new resurrection life.

To further sharpen our question or questions here, Paul says that what he is claiming here is declared 'by the word of the Lord' (15). (Whether this means Paul is claiming that Jesus himself taught this while on earth or has been received from Jesus by the church subsequently (e.g. through prophetic utterance) is not possible to determine).

Nevertheless, interesting though a discussion about whether Christians who die are immediately taken up into heaven or enter a state of 'sleeping' or waiting until the Lord returns, we should not lose sight of the central theme of Paul's writing here which is the certainty of resurrection for those who are 'in Christ', whether we are 'dead in Christ' or alive at the temporal moment when Christ returns.

'so we will be with the Lord forever' (17) is the most exciting truth in the Bible! Verse 18 is indeed correct in its urging in the light of verse 17: 'encourage one another with these words'.

Matthew 25:1-13

This reading is accidentally (or divine coincidentally) related to the epistle reading, since the epistle cycle is not intended to relate to the gospel cycle of readings. Both readings speak of the return of Christ and how we respond to living in a time of 'waiting' for that return.

One of the reasons, perhaps the main reason why I remember this story from my childhood when (in memory) it featured regularly in Sunday School lessons is its simplicity as a narrative: neat symmetry (five wise bridesmaids, five foolish), simple plot (waiting into the night, lamps burning, running out of fuel, going out to find new fuel) and memorable, challenging conclusion (the wise go in, the foolish are shut out, therefore be like the wise ones).

What I do not think I would have thought of then is its twisty ending, 11-13, which segues from (a) shut out bridesmaids at a wedding because they did not have the forethought to bring spare oil to (b) refusal to open the door on them because 'I do not know you' to the application (c) 'Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.'

The connection between (a) and (c) is partial. The story is about waiting and being prepared for the waiting extending longer than anticipated, which ties in with the teaching of Jesus through chapter 24 and into these verses about his second coming being at an unexpected hour. But the foolish bridesmaids are not foolish because they have not stayed awake. Indeed, all the bridesmaids, wise and foolish,'slept' according to verse 5.

There is no direct connection between (a) and (b). We are entitled to think that all the bridesmaids are 'known' to the bridegroom and thus refusal for them to enter on the basis that 'I do not know you' seems strange on the basis of the bare narrative of the story as a contrast between wisdom and foolishness. The reader has to supply the connection along the lines of 'the foolish bridesmaids are like foolish people, though for different reasons because the foolish bridesmaids have forgotten to bring spare oil and foolish people have ignored Jesus and been found out not to know him' or 'knowing Jesus is like having oil to keep a light going, a light which shows we know Jesus when we keep it going for as long as it takes for him to return' (cue, thinking of some decades ago, the singing of 'Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning').

A possible integration of (a), (b) and (c) together is this: Jesus asks his followers to be ready at all times for his return, those who know him and maintain their relationship with him are ready at all times for that return, but those who are not ready for his return are those who have either never known him or, having once known him, have ceased to be in relationship with Jesus.

The practical effect of this passage, all the way through to verse 13, is this: be faithful to Jesus, to the very end, whether we die or remain alive until his return.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday 2 November 2014 - either All Saints Day or 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

In this post I offer a brief excursus on All Saints Day and a fuller set of comments re the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Some churches will have celebrated All Saints Day on 1 November itself and thus Sunday 2 November will be the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Others will choose to transfer the All Saints feast day to Sunday 2 November.

ALL SAINTS DAY 2014

Theme: All Saints (For All the Saints) Who are the Saints?

Sentence: Know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of the glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God's power in us who believe. (Ephesians 1:18-19)

Collect:

Eternal God,
you have always taken men and women
of every nation, age and colour
and made them saints;
like them, transformed,
like them, baptised in Jesus' name,
take us to share your glory.


Readings:

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Comments:

All Saints Day is an occasion to think forward (to all the saints, on heaven and on earth, being joined as one body of Christ undivided by time or space), to think backwards (in thanksgiving for the saints who have gone before us, leaving us an example and (perhaps, there are arguments here) praying for us (see Revelation 8:1-3) and to think imaginatively (in order to envisage that we on earth living holy lives are part of a great company of unseen saints on the other side of the gate of glory).

For some, celebrating All Saints is an acknowledgement of the saintliness of all holy people (whether known as 'St. X or not); for others the emphasis falls on acknowledging the saints who have recently departed from our midst (though that is something we might do in conjunction with All Souls Day, 2 November): thus some churches use this Sunday to gather families together who have mourned the loss of a loved one in the past twelve months.

Our readings touch on elements of the two paragraphs above. 

Revelation 7:9-17 is part of John's vision of the victory of the saints in heaven, where there is no more pain or tears, but their is plenty or praise and adoration of God. 

Psalm 34:1-10 encourages God's "holy ones" (= saints) to trust God to save, protect and provide for them. 

1 John 3:1-3 urges readers to be open to God's wonderful future for the saints - a future unknown to those of us on earth, but known to those in heaven, in which 'what we will be has not been revealed' (2), except that, in a general sense, we 'do know ... when he is revealed, we will be like him' (2). With this hope, holy ones do what? They 'purify themselves, just as he is pure' (3).

Finally, Matthew 5:1-12, sets out the blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. They are addressed to the disciples. They are promises of consequences for faithfulness to Jesus. The consequences are not rewards of prosperity and power but if fulfilment of divine longings. Those who are pure, for instance, will see God (8).

31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Theme(s): Hypocrisy // True versus false teaching // Walking the talk not talking the talk // Saying one thing and doing another thing (or, Saying one thing and doing the same thing)

Sentence: All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Matthew 23:12).

Collect: (used with Permission Rev Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )

Banqueting God,
unworthy though we are
you call us to your table;
may we rejoice in your presence,
and share your bounty abundantly with others;
through Jesus, the Bread of Life,
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

Readings:

OT (Continuous): Joshua 3:7-17 (not commented on below)
OT (Related): Micah 3:5-12 (see below)
Psalm (Continuous): Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 (not commented on below)
Psalm (Related): Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Comments:

Micah 3:5-12

This passage denounces religious leaders of Micah's day who spoke falsely and taught wrongly. An obvious parallel with today's gospel passage may be made.

Of particular concern for Micah is the false assurance of 'peace' which comes from these false messengers purporting to tell out what God himself is thinking. The worst form of false teaching in our day is that which lulls people into thinking everything is OK when it is not.

Psalm 43

The psalmist walks in the midst of 'an ungodly people' (1) and cries to God for deliverance from 'those who are deceitful and unjust' (1b). This could be Jesus amidst the scribes and Pharisees (see today's gospel reading).

Importantly, also relative to the gospel reading, the psalmist yearns for 'your light and your truth' - the direct communication of God's Word which will lead him to God's 'holy hill' (3b).

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

This passage forms a nice counterpoint to the gospel reading in respect of the concept of spiritual fatherhood! 

Paul writes about the days when he and his companions 'worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God' (9). As they did so their conduct was blameless (10) and they acted as spiritual fathers to the newly formed Thessalonian Christians (11) whom they urged to live a life worthy of God (12).

Paul thanks God that what the Thessalonians received was not a 'human word' but 'God's word' (13). Only such a word is able to enter into the soul and mind to work powerfully.

What about spiritual fatherhood in the light of the gospel passage today?

An important word is that Paul says their dealings were 'like' a father with his children. Paul makes no claim to the role of God the Father himself, nor to a title 'Father.' His claim is that in the process of spiritual rebirth and initial stages of growing as an infant in Christ, Paul's role has been similar to that of a father bringing up a child.

Matthew 23:1-12

These verses are the opening salvo in a sustained, systematic and searing attack on the scribes and the Pharisees through chapter 24. Jesus 'has it in for' his opponents and it is worth asking, "Why?"

What he does not seem to object to is the Law of Moses itself. Already in the Sermon on the Mount (5:17-20 in particular) Jesus has upheld the law, on some matters even intensifying its demands. Now he says, "Do whatever they teach you [from Moses' seat, 2] and follow it." What he then says is the clue we need to understand how Jesus can be so aggressively antagonistic towards them:

"but do not do as they do ... they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others ... They do all their deeds to be seen by others' (4-5a).

Thus Jesus first is concerned - angry, we should say - at hypocrisy (not doing what one teaches) and "Woe to you ... hypocrites" is a recurring refrain through the chapter; secondly, at teaching the application of the law in a way which oppresses people rather than gives life (the primary purpose of Moses' Law) and made worse by then not doing a thing to help people (4b); thirdly, at the lack of recognition of God: what deeds are done are done to receive praise from others rather than praise from God.

A definite question for the church is whether we are acting in scribal and Pharisaical ways: Christians are not automatically immune from hypocrisy, from translating the 'law of Christ' into a new set of burdens, or from seeking the praise of others ahead of the praise of God.

Jesus goes on in verses 8-11 to say of his disciples that they are not to be called by titles such as 'rabbi/teacher' or 'father' or 'instructor'. Before we discuss application of this today, let's note the reasoning of Jesus in giving this edict: there is one and only one teacher of the faith, Jesus the Messiah himself. In the light of that simple observation about life in the kingdom of God, we should underline verse 11 - which is repeated, more or less, many times in the gospels: "The greatest among you will be your servant." And then repeat to ourselves verse 12, also a recurring gospel theme.

What is the application of these verses today, especially in churches which are hierarchical to the point where people are addressed as 'Bishop,' 'Reverend Father or Mother,' 'Archdeacon,' or 'Canon'? (Yes, fellow Anglicans, I am asking you!)

Given the history of these titles and the length of their usage, the next few words are not going to resolve a potentially distracting debate when  other things are more important. 

But I suggest, first, that all those who receive and are addressed by such titles do a conscience check and ask whether it matters if an addresser forgets to use the title. If it matters, has the title become important in a way which is at variance with Jesus' teaching?

Secondly, for those of us who address people by title, do we do so in a way which means we are placing a trust in them and forming a dependency on them and their office which is at variance with the point Jesus makes here in this passage, that he is our supreme teacher and leader?

We might usefully juxtapose for our reflection the specific direction against 'titles' such as father with Paul's endorsement of the role of spiritual fathers in the epistle reading for today.

A final, general observation: for those of us who do teach other Christians, we are more prone to charges of hypocrisy etc. Is it not a relief to think that the one teacher of the kingdom is the One who is beyond hypocrisy?



Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday 26 October 2014 - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Loving God, loving neighbour // The Great Commandment //

Sentence: Love your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)

Collect: (used with Permission Rev Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )

Forgiving God,
your covenant is firm;
be merciful to us,
and grant us to live in your presence, ever singing your praise;
with Jesus, the Way,
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Readings:

OT (continuous): Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (not commented on below)
OT (related): Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm (continuous): Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 (not commented on below)
Psalm (related): Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Comments:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

This reading gives the context for the 'second commandment' (see gospel reading below): love your neighbour as yourself. Israel is to be holy (1-2) yet also kind to the poor (9-10), respectful of neighbours (including, by not stealing from them or lying about them, 11-14). Holy Israel is to treat people justly, especially 'neighbours' (15-16) and lovingly (with a love that forbids hatred yet may reprove, 17-18).

Thinking along these lines, 'love your neighbour as yourself' (18) is a neat summing up of what has gone before and a handy guide to general conduct: since we treat ourselves justly, even generously, do not defraud ourselves, occasionally reprove ourselves and often speak well of ourselves (see verses 9-18) we can safely say that for other aspects of life, what we would do to ourselves is a benchmark for the way we should love our neighbours.

Psalm 1

Given the use of Psalm 110 in the gospel reading below, it may be surprising that Psalm 1 is the 'related' psalm for today. This psalm speaks of two approaches to the law, one affirming and obedient, the other denying and disobedient. From that perspective common ground with the reading lies in Jesus affirmation of the two greatest commandments as a summary of the law and the prophets.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Paul reminisces about his gospel ministry among the Thessalonian Christians but this is scarcely an exercise in nostalgia as he laces his memories with theological affirmations.

Three matters stand out:

Paul and his companions preached the gospel to obey and honour God. Convinced that this was their calling (as the sent ones or apostles of Christ, see 'apostles of Christ', v. 7), they preached in the face of opposition (2, 4, 8).

Their preaching was from pure motives (including pleasing God) and their content and style avoided pleasing men and women ahead of honouring God (4, 6).

Their preaching ministry was pastoral (7b) and personal (8b). While the content of their message - entrusted to them by God (4) - was important, their role was not simply to impart a set of words. They cared for their hearers (7b) and they engaged with them in such a way that they shared their lives with them (8b).

Matthew 22:34-46

Jesus turns the tables on his interlocutors!

Matthew 23 will  be the damning conclusion (against the scribes and Pharisees) of this part of the gospel which has seen an ongoing series of traps set for Jesus, each of which he springs free from. In this last part of chapter 22 there is a final question from the Pharisees (22:34-39, after a failed attempt from the Sadducees, not part of this sequence in the lectionary, 22:23-33). Then Jesus himself poses a question to the Pharisees (22:40-46).

The question put to Jesus scarcely holds any traps (36) and Jesus answers it not only with ease but with an irrefutable simplicity: the greatest commandment is this ... a second great commandment is that ... (37-39). To this day this 'summary of the Law' is imprinted on the minds of most Christians. It reflects a simple but important division of perspectives, upwards (to God) and outwards (to others).

What might be useful in our reflections via a sermon is less pondering on these two commandments as a summary of 'the law' (40) and more thought on these two commandments as something on which 'hang' both 'the law and the prophets' (40).

One thought is this: 'the law and the prophets' is effectively a summary of what we now call 'the Old Testament' (including Psalms and wisdom literature). Jesus - the biblical interpreter par excellence - is saying that the summary of the whole of the OT consists of these two commandments.

Given that some biblical scholars argue that there is no 'centre' to the OT nor overarching thematic structure (which is true to a considerable extent), nevertheless the greatest OT scholar of them all is saying, the diversity of the OT is unified around these two points.

The first part of our gospel reading is remarkably clear, memorable and straightforward to explain. The second part (41-46), much less so because it involves some riddle wordplay around the words 'Lord/lord'.

In this part of the dialogue Jesus has gone on the offensive: he asks the questions of his questioners.

What he is trying to draw out from them is recognition that the Messiah is God's Son as well as David's son (i.e. descendant of David). When they are answer his question with 'The son of David', they answer correctly, competently and incompletely.

Jesus draws their attention to Psalm 110:1. Jesus knows that they know this text, but it seems to have slipped from their memories. This text makes the unexpected point - when sons normally defer to their fathers and not the other way around - that David says that the Lord (God) addressed his son as 'my Lord'.

When Jesus asks the pointed question which challenges the incompleteness of their first answer (45), the Pharisees do what many a politician does in an interview: 'duck for cover'!

For Christian readers of Matthew's Gospel there was no need for Matthew to explain the citation from Psalm 110 any further. This psalm was a favourite 'Messianic Psalm' of the early church which often drew on it to expound the relationship between Jesus and God (see also Acts 2:34,35; Hebrews 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 10:13).








Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sunday 19 October 2014 - 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Pay your taxes! / Give to God what is God's / The power of God's Word

Sentence: The gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (1 Thessalonians 1:5)

Collect: (used with permission of Rev. Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )

Holy One,
nameless, you stay with us;
even when we wrestle in the darkness
may we never lose heart
until your justice is fulfilled;
through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer,
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God,  now  and for ever.
Amen.

Readings (Related):

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Comments:

Isaiah 45:1-7

When Jesus says in the gospel reading today that it is ok to pay to Caesar taxes required by Caesar, he stands in a theological tradition in which this Isaianic passages plays a role: ungodly rulers serve God's purposes, they may even be described by the Lord God as 'his anointed' (1).

The whole passage makes clear that the Cyruses of this world are (in a sense) mere pawns in the great chessboard of God's plans. Would that megalomaniacal rulers understood how puny they are compared to the one God ruling over the universe.

Psalm 96:1-9

If we start by contemplating the might of mighty rulers, and then (in accord with ancient world views) consider the 'gods' who allegedly empower those rules (4-5), we - who understand that such gods are 'idols' - may praise God with greater joy for there is only one God, the Lord who 'made the heavens' (5).

With a nod to our gospel reading and Jesus' affirmation that what belongs to God should be given to God, note that our praise to God should not only be words but also come with an 'offering' presented in his 'courts' (8).

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

This letter is widely accepted as the first of Paul's letters to be written. It is a team effort, coming from 'Paul, Silvanus and Timothy' (1).

As with other Pauline letters, the beginning here is marked by thankfulness. The writers use the opportunity to tell their recipients that they thank God for them to also tell why they thank God.

If this Pauline team were writing to our church - perhaps after a parish review - would they be able to say of us what they say here?

Note the way in which the 'history' of the Thessalonian church, including the progress of the gospel among the members of the congregation (5, 9b), their 'imitative' discipleship (6a), their experience of persecution (6b), and their spreading reputation (7-9a), is woven together with 'theology' of Christian living and church life.

That is, note the important theological triad of faith, love and hope (3), the role of God in 'choosing' them to become his 'beloved' (4), the correlation in true preaching of the gospel between 'word', 'power', 'Holy Spirit', and 'conviction' (5), along with characteristics of reception of the gospel, 'joy inspired by the Holy Spirit' (6b), changed lives (7-9), as well as a new horizon for the future (9) and, finally, the Christology which affirms Jesus as 'Son' whom God 'raised from the dead' and the saviour 'who rescues us from the wrath that is coming' (9).

Perhaps all is well in our church and we can receive this passage as an endorsement of the work of God in our midst.

Perhaps all is not well in our church. How might we receive this passage?

On the one hand, could it be that we need a renewal of the basics of Christian life? A renewal of vital faith, energetic love and patient hope? Could a key to that renewal be a renewal of the importance of preaching as preaching of God's powerful, convicting, Holy Spirit inspired and illuminated word?

On the other hand, could it be that, unconsciously, we have reversed the course of conversion. We have turned back from God to 'idols' (9b)? We may need to identify what have become idols in our particular congregational life, but once identified we can turn again to the living and true God.

Matthew 22:15-22

I wonder how many preachers this Sunday will be bold enough to firmly and loudly urge their congregations to pay all their taxes and with the same earnestness and enthusiasm that they obey all the other commands of our Lord!

Yet, seriously, one of the applications of today's passage is: pay your taxes!

How do we get to that application?

Jesus is continuing a series of exchanges with religious leaders. If he is not provoking them, they are provoking him. Keen to get rid of him, they have tried to trap him. Today's trap is particularly vicious as a wrong answer on tax to be paid to Rome could see Jesus going straight to a Roman court with no need for the extraordinary persuasion exercise Israel's leaders would eventually have to engage in so that Rome could do their dirty work for them.

Remembering that the Israel of Jesus was a theocracy wrapped inside an autocracy, with the extra layer of local hegemony via Herodian rulers (of different parts of Israel) wrapping round the theocracy and helping the Roman emperor to exercise his power, we note the trap is set by a group of Pharisees as well as some Herodians (15-16). Pharisees, let's recall, were keen to live out the law of God, determined to be faithful to God while under the thumb of Roman and Herodian rule, yet resisted temptation to isolate themselves monastically (as the Essenes did, in the desert) as well as to ingratiate themselves with the rulers (as the Sadducees did, via Israel's leadership through priesthood and Sanhedrin [council]). The very fact that the disciples of the Pharisees combined with the Herodians in this entrapment tells us that significant issues were at stake politically and religiously.

The wrong answer, Jesus, re tax to Caesar and the Herodians will be off to Pilate quick as a flash.
The wrong answer, Jesus, re giving to God and the Pharisees will be off somewhere (making mischief with the crowds, perhaps?).

The question itself is a Pharisaical question because it is framed in terms of what is 'lawful' (17). It is a good question, almost a clever question, because it asks Jesus as a 'rabbi' or 'teacher' (16) to give a legal ruling which, in turn, invites Rabbi Jesus to engage with the Law of Moses, a set of rules with lots to say about giving to God, making offerings to God, including, of course, the giving of tithes to God. In the theocracy presupposed by the Law, nothing is said about paying taxes to foreign rulers of Israel.

Thus the trap in the question is twofold. A simple 'Yes' it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor would mean a denial of the Law of Moses in favour of obedience to imperial law. A simple 'No' it is not lawful to pay such taxes could have been an assertion of the Mosaic Law's authority over Roman law but the Pharisees would not have wasted time complimenting Jesus on his rabbinical faithfulness. A quick nod of their heads to the Herodians and off to court Jesus would have gone.

Jesus knows he is being put to the test and declares that in a voiced complaint (18). 'you hypocrites' is a valid charge here because the questioners are play acting. Theirs is not a genuine intellectual question but an enticement to support breaking the law.

In what is now 'typical' fashion for Jesus, he answers a question with a question. He asks for the coin in which the tax is to be paid (19) and puts the question, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" (20).

There can only be one answer to the question (21a) but what Jesus then says likely surprised his hearers and likely continues to challenge us, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's" (21b).

Our first interest in the reply is the manner in which it answers the entrapment question. Effectively Jesus says, "Yes, it is lawful to pay tax to the emperor." But he does so in a way, with a 'both ... and' that makes no diminution of the Law of Moses regarding tithes and offerings. He is, to coin a phrase, politically correct and theologically correct. Ironically, he gives the same answer that the Pharisees and Herodians would have given if the question had been put to them.

Our second interest in the reply is the content of the answer in respect of life for each Christian in every country where (with the exception, perhaps, of the Vatican State - but I claim no familiarity about how taxes work there) taxes are claimed by governments that make no claim to do the will of the God of Jesus Christ (indeed, may even make the claim to be opposed to that will).

The balance in the statement between emperor and God, along with the significance of paying taxes to an enemy ruler over Israel commends what Jesus says as a timeless principle.

Governments have the right to claim taxes from us since they are authorities instituted by God (see Romans 13) and the costs of their work in guarding, guiding, and caring for us need to be met. God has the right to ask us to give, both because everything we have has come from God as Creator and Sustainer of all things, and because the mission of God (God as Redeemer redeeming the world from sin) has costs.

(I leave for another day the difficult questions of when we might stop paying taxes because the benign government envisaged in Romans 13 becomes malign. Save for sheer fear for life itself, should any Christians remaining in IS controlled areas of Iraq and Syria willingly pay taxes claimed from them, simply because they are Christians?)

Our third interest - potentially - in what Jesus says in verse 21 lies in the presumption the statement makes: that the 'world' or 'worldly' system of money - expressed through coins minted by due authority - is what it is, when we engage in it we must honour the obligations of it, but no thought is given here to (say) opting out of the system, or railing against it, let alone changing it.

There might be some challenging morning tea conversations if we pursue this thought!

A fourth interest, possibly, lies in the distinction Jesus makes between (so to speak) the worlds of Caesar and of God. How far do we press that distinction? Occasionally we hear stories of Christian businessmen who are grace-filled on Sundays and 'hard', 'mean', 'sharp', 'worshipping the almighty dollar' in the practice of their business life Mondays to Saturdays. Is that a distinction which may be justified from this saying of Jesus? Or, to head in a different direction re engagement with business life, as consumers, are Christians doing what Jesus wants if they shop like everyone else for the latest clothes and gadgets, just so long as on Sundays there is a decent offering in the plate?

Food for thought!