Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sunday 31 July 2016 - Ordinary 18

Possible theme(s): Trust in God not in wealth // Be what you are

Sentence: Truly, no ransom avails for one's life, there is no price one can give to God for it. (Psalm 49:7)

Collect:

God of all the earth
You have given us the heritage
of this good and fertile land;
grant that we may so respect and use it
that others may thank us
for what we leave to them. Amen [Pent 24:2: NZPB p. 636]

Readings ("related"):

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-12
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Comments:

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Within wisdom literature in the Bible (Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Job) two perspectives on daily life stand in tension. Work hard, play fair, save for a rainy day, reap the rewards of sensible living is a perspective in Proverbs whereas in Ecclesiastes, represented in today's verses, life sucks. Working hard is hard work and tiring, according to Ecclesiastes. Playing fair is all very well but the end of the game is pain and death. Saving for a rainy day could mean one's children get to enjoy spending it, and, as for the rewards of sensible living, what about all the nights lying awake wondering if one can get through the next day?

Our calling as preachers is not necessarily to resolve each tension in Scripture. Ecclesiastes is gloomy in outlook but that might speak to the pessimists in the congregation. The point of Ecclesiastes (and thus a challenge to pessimists) is not revealed in these verses (one needs to jump ahead to the last chapters of the book). Ultimately gloominess is not the prevailing word but seriousness is. The wise person is serious about the importance of living well because God judges all our deeds (12:14).

The serious lesson in today's readings is that material gain may be in vain and thus the ultimate goal of life should not be defined by material success. That lesson ties in with the gospel reading.

Psalm 49:1-12

This psalm emphasises "wisdom" in its contents. Less a song than a sermon ("Hear this, all you peoples ..." v. 1, see also v.4), its message ties in beautifully with the gospel: 'tis foolish to trust in wealth since death denies its advantage to us (vss. 5-9). There is also a tie to the gloominess of Ecclesiastes: death comes to both the wise and to the foolish (v. 10).

Colossians 3:1-11

This passage is "thick", rich in content. It begins with strong encouragement about focus or priority for Christian life (and thus ties in well with the other readings for today): "seek the things which are above" (v. 1, repeated v. 2). But, typical of Paul, a call to action is undergirded by theological reasons for the action. Christians are those who have "died" (to self, to sin, through identification with Christ on the cross, v.3) and been "raised with Christ" (to new life, to holy living, through identification with Christ in his resurrection, v.1). So we are to "seek the things that are above" (i.e. in keeping with being a "raised with Christ" person, v.1), doing so in the understanding that our "life is hidden with Christ in God" (v. 3). To be a Christian is, in a Pauline phrase, to be "in Christ." We are participants in the very life of Christ himself, through mystical union in the Spirit of God: thus Paul calls us to live outwardly what is now the inward status of our lives.

The instructions through verses 5-9 make sense in this way: put to death the things that steer you away from the focus to which you are called. Verse 10 is the positive construction of new life in Christ: this new life is the life in which Christ remakes us to be what we are meant to be, people made in the image of God our creator (see Genesis 1:26-28) - it is elaborated further in verse 12 and following. The point here is not, "here are the rule of a morally upright life, obey them," rather it is, "You are called to live as Christ himself lives, thus these things can no longer be the way you live."

The final verse in today's passage reminds the Colossians that "in Christ" there are no divisions of people in the usual way (see also Galatians 3:28) and thus no excuses for how we are to live. Perhaps, particularly, Paul is urging that no one can claim an excuse for living badly on the basis of ignorance due to cultural background.

Luke 12:13-21

Any rich person should be uncomfortable reading Luke's Gospel! Whether we read Luke as aggressively attacking the rich or mildly challenging reliance on possessions, many passages in this gospel unashamedly talk about money, wealth and materiality with the edge that being rich is not a blessing.

Here Jesus takes an innocent request re a family inheritance and turns it into a warning to take care about greed and a statement about life itself. The abundance of possessions is not life. Kiwis keen on having a house to live in, a house at the beach, a boat to enjoy the sea and a large 4WD to take the boat to the beach, take note!

Then Jesus tells a memorable and pointed parable which speaks to all generations and all cultures about greed. A man, wise in the ways of the world, both accrues wealth and enlarges his storage of it, only to discover he has foolishly forgotten God who visits him in death and at a stroke takes the wealth away, leaving him standing before God in judgement with nothing.

If we read the parable itself as about the mega-rich and thus not about ourselves we should pay particular attention to 12:21: we each in our own way, even with the little we can set aside each pay day, "store up treasures" and thus should ask ourselves on what ways we are "rich towards God."

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sunday 24 July 2016 - Ordinary 17 - also Social Services Sunday

For Social Services Sunday resources, go here (for 2016 resources) or here (for 2015 resources)

Ordinary Readings - Possible Theme: Prayer or The God to Whom We Pray is Kind or Stick with Christ

Sentence: How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13).

Collect:

Father, we hallow your name
For you are worthy of our praise;
Your kindness and mercy give us confidence to pray
“Your kingdom come”;
So we ask and keep on asking that you will provide
Everything we need for life in your kingdom
In the power of the Holy Spirit
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings “Related”

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

Comments:


Genesis 18:20-32

Don’t get stuck on “Sodom and Gomorrah” as a theme for this reading. It “relates” to the gospel reading because the latter is about prayer and in Genesis 18:20-32, Abraham is an intercessor. Lot his nephew lives in Sodom and Abraham is concerned that the three visiting men will destroy Sodom and Lot with it. So Abraham addresses the Lord (seemingly, putting 18:16, 22, 33 and 19:1 together, one of the three) and done so in a, being blunt, manipulative manner. He asks the Lord if he will really sweep away the city if fifty righteous people are found within it. The Lord says that he will not, rather he will forgive the city. But Abraham’s “fifty” is a bargaining ploy. He beats the Lord down to ten (though no reader will be fooled as to whether the Lord is being manipulated or not). Ten (presumably) is the size of Lot’s household. In the end, Genesis 19 tells us that only four actually survived the devastation of Sodom, and then Lot’s wife disobeyed instructions and paid for that with her life.

What then does the passage say to us about prayer? Surely we are not meant to learn from it that prayer might be a manipulative tool in our hands to get God to do what we want!

No, what we learn from the passage is that God is open to requests which draw from him his characteristic work, which is showing mercy. The downward count, from fifty to ten, does not show us how to manipulate God but how kind God is: on the smallest pretext God will be merciful.

There is something else to mention. Abraham’s concern is that the righteous in Sodom might be destroyed as the wicked are punished. He appeals to God’s character in order to avert unfair disaster for those righteous: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (18:25).

That is a good question to bring to a number of issues. Nothing to do with the other readings today, but the key to understanding hell lies in this question. You may need to think about why for a few moments.

Psalm 138

What kind of God do we serve, in daily life and in liturgy? What do we have to give thanks for? This psalm answers these questions: a God of steadfast love and faithfulness who has ‘exalted [his] name and [his] word above everything’ (v. 2); a God who answers the prayer of the psalmist and increases the strength of his soul (v. 3); a God whose glory is great and words impressive (v. 4-5); a God who looks for the “lowly” and cares little for the “haughty” (v. 6); when the psalmist walks in the midst of trouble, God preserves him from the wrath of his enemies and delivers him from trouble (v. 7); and, finally, “the Lord will fulfil his purpose for me” and the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever (v. 8).

We serve and worship a great and wonderful God!

Colossians 2:6-15

Why has Paul written Colossians? If all were well and going to remain well with the church in Colossae, it is scarcely conceivable that he would have made the effort. In fact, Paul is concerned that either something is wrong or about to go wrong for this church.

His most urgent concern is that the Colossians would move from Christ as the centre of their faith and life. “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him,” (2:6). They have started well. They must not now stumble. What they especially need to avoid is being captured by some other claim to truth which is actually an “empty deceit” (2:8).

So Paul warns them and then pretty much goes over similar ground (2:8-15) as in chapter 1 (especially verses 15-23 – indeed 1:23 is a precursor to 2:6-7). Paul must have been very concerned for the Colossians.

What Paul is saying, in summary terms, is that Christ is all the Colossians need, Christ is supreme and in need of no supplementary or complementary figure, and on the cross Christ has achieved all things necessary for forgiveness from the past and making people alive for a new future.

Luke 11:1-13

There is a lot here and there is no need to comment on many matters which will be well-known to the preacher and congregation. A challenge with this passage is to expound what it says with freshness. But one way to do that could be to draw people to the importance of prayer about any and every situation in life: that is a fresh truth for most of us because … we forget to pray, we avoid praying, we allow busyness to clutter up our days and distract out nights.

The passage is suggestive of several sermons. Just preach one of them!

One sermon could be on the Lord’s Prayer. Luke offers a shorter and slightly simpler form of the Matthean version. It appeals to God as Father to bring his kingdom into being, a kingdom in which its citizens have food to eat, forgiveness of sins (and who forgive sins) and protection from trial.

Another sermon could be on perseverance and persistence in prayer.

A third possible sermon could be on the Father to whom we pray. The last verse of the passage challenges and inspires us to believe that the Father to whom we pray is kind and generous, like a good human father only much more so.


There is then a Postscript: for whatever reason some situations require persistence in prayer, it is not because God is mean and tight-fisted.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sunday 17 July 2016 - Ordinary 16

Possible theme(s): Only One Thing Needed or Christ Alone

Sentence:

You O Lord are my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in you and I am helped; therefore my heart dances for joy, and in my song I will praise you. (Psalm 28:8)

Collect:

Father,
Let us not serve you grudgingly like slaves,
But with the gladness of children
Who delight in You
And rejoice in your work
Empowered by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings ("Related")

Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Comments:

Genesis 18:1-10a

Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to three strangers.

The providing of hospitality is the common theme with the gospel reading today. Abraham directs Sarah what to do. (By the standards of the day and the location) a sumptuous meal is provided. Abraham is mostly exhibiting a cultural norm of being hospitable. But we can see an element of grace: Abraham welcomes three men with no particular claim on him through family or other ties. Without obligation to do so, the men indicate that Sarah will (finally) become pregnant with the child promised of God.

In entertaining strangers, Abraham and Sarah have welcomed angels (see also Hebrews 13;2). We may even say, stretching a theological bow from the Old Testament to Trinitarian orthodoxy, they have welcomed God in Three Persons. Google "Rublev's Icon" for a perfect, profound illustration of this Trinitarian meal!

Psalm 15

The perfectly formed Christian character finds its description in this psalm! Note that this character includes both personal piety and integrity, social relationships, and community dealings.

That this psalm is a psalm (a song for worship) is justified by the opening verse: the perfectly formed Christian character is not a list of moral attributes but a description of the person who may live in the close presence and intimacy of God.

Colossians 1:15-28

Paul is "all Christ" in this passage as he sets out his understanding of the significance of Jesus of Nazareth. There are various ways in which we could break his praise-poem (doxology) of Jesus Christ into categories.

One way is Christ the creator (vss. 15-17), Christ the head of the church (vss. 18-22), Christ in the life of the believer (vss. 23-28).

Another way is to think of vss. 15-22 as a creed, this is what Christians believe about Jesus Christ, and vss. 23-28 as code of discipleship, this is how Christians live out the gospel. A sermon along these lines might reflect on the significant development in roughly 30 years, between the initial understanding of Jesus as a carpenter from Nazareth who performed miracles and taught as other rabbis of his day did (c. 30 AD) and this christological exposition of Christ as the fullness of God (c. 62 AD).

A third division could be to think about what is said here about the gospel: Jesus as the centre of the gospel message Paul proclaims, the content of the gospel (especially vss. 20-22), and the aim of the gospel (especially vss. 27-38).

Nevertheless the passage flows from one verse to another, each of which has 'deep content' about important matters in the life and belief of Christian people. Whole sermons could be preached on verses such as 15, 16, 17, 18, and, well, each of the other individual verses!

Luke 10:38-42

Mary and Martha are enigmatic characters in the gospel, appearing twice only: here as a pair of sisters and, in association with their brother Lazarus, in John's Gospel. Luke almost certainly tells us this story to illustrate aspects of discipleship.

As a follow up to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story is an illustration of loving God and loving your neighbour, the story of Mary and Martha illustrates love of God (through Mary's devotion to Jesus as her Lord) and love of neighbour (Martha's practical service). In respect of discipleship alone, the story illustrates the priority of the disciple: to sit at the feet of the master teacher, learning as much as possible, even prioritizing this over the ordinary work of life. Typically of Luke, this story underlines that female disciples are important in the kingdom of God (see also Luke 8:1-3).

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sunday 10 July 2016 - Ordinary 15

ADDED (Courtesy Andrea McDougal, Vicar St Luke's Oamaru, honouring Te Reo Maori Language week):

the sentence and collect for te wiki o te reo:
Nā te Atua nei tātou i whakaora mai i te kaha o te pōuri, ā, whakawhitia ake tātou e ia ki te rangatiratanga o tāna Tama aroha. (Korohe 1:13)
E te Atua kaha rawa,
ko te whakaakoranga o tāu kupu ko te aroha te whakaritenga o te ture.
Āwhinatia mai mātou kia tino aroha ai mātou ki a koe.
ā ki te aroha hōki ō mātou hoa tata ānō ko mātou;
ki te ingoa ō Ihu Karaiti,Āmine
"[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son." (Colossians 1:13)
Almighty God
you teach us in your word
that love is the fulfilling of the law:
grant that we may love you with all our heart
and our neighbours as ourselves;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.
ORIGINAL
Possible theme: The good Muslim (referring to the gospel reading) // Rescued from darkness (referring to the epistle reading).

Sentence: "[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son." (Colossians 1:13)

CollectPent 23:1

Almighty God
you teach us in your word
that love is the fulfilling of the law:
grant that we may love you with all our heart
and our neighbours as ourselves;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings ("related' rather than "continuous")

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-10
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Comments:

Deuteronomy 30:9-14 (I suggest 30:8-14 would be better)

Behind the zeal of the questioner of Jesus in Luke 10:25-37 is a desire to obey the Lord because, according to Deuteronomy, the Lord will make the obedient Jew 'abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings' (30:9).

Psalm 25:1-10

The psalmist is keen to follow in the Lord's way. He tells the Lord he puts his trust in him and asks for support - to not be put to shame, not to have his enemies exult over him. That is the negative, what the psalmist does not want to happen. What he wants to happen is that he is made to 'know your ways, O Lord' (v. 4) and is led by the Lord 'in your truth' (v. 5).

Why this enthusiasm? The psalmist does not appeal to the blessings of prosperity promised in Deuteronomy, though what he seeks is a blessed way of life:

'All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees' (v. 10).

Colossians 1:1-14

Colossians is a great letter. It is philosophy and piety bound in a proclamation of the gospel and bathed in prayer.

Today we start a series of four readings from the letter. Paul sets out the gospel and its concrete application in the life of the believer.

Note the 'therefores': 2:6, 16. Paul is saying this is the gospel (you are set free, transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, etc) therefore act accordingly (do not let people enslave you or condemn you or be taken captive by another philosophy).

Here in these first fourteen verses of the letter, Paul begins in his own classic style.

There is a greeting with theological depth (vss. 1-2: address to 'saints and faithful brothers and sisters'; 'grace', 'peace', 'God our Father.') There is expression of prayerful love for the Colossian readers (vss. 3-14) - as well as love of praying for them. Paul never wastes words and these verses both flatter the Colossians and remind them of theological truths (e.g. 'we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints' (flattery) 'because of the hope laid up for you in heaven' (theological underpinning of Colossian virtue), v. 4-5).

Yet Paul's entreaty has no complacency or sense of achievement or completion of spiritual perfection. He prays that his readers 'may be filled with the knowledge of God's will ... so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord ... May you be made strong ... may you be prepared to endure everything ...', vss. 9-11. The Colossians know Christ and follow him, but there is more to know and a stronger following in Christ's way to be continued.

With these words Paul sets out the structure of the letter. Here as he writes these opening words, and in the remainder of chapter one and into chapter two, he will teach them 'knowledge of God', that is, knowledge of the God they meet in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. Through chapter two and beyond Paul will spell out practical aspects of living lives 'worthy of the Lord.'

What then is the 'word of truth, the gospel that has come to' the Colossians (vss. 5-6)? Paul states it in a unique form in verse 13 (with a more familiar refrain in verse 14):

'[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.'

Here, in a nutshell, is the importance of the gospel (without it, humanity is in the grip of the power of darkness), the power of the gospel (our response to it becomes a release from the power of darkness and entry into the kingdom of Christ) and the content of the gospel (God loves us, out of that love rescues us from slavery to sin, guilt from sin (see v. 14), and receives us into his kingdom).

Luke 10:25-37

One way to get to grips with the depth of the challenge Jesus offers to his questioner is to substitute 'Samaritan' with another word, one which gets to the heart of present day challenges about loving those who are different to us, who threaten us by their existence, whose identity identifies them as our enemy.

Depending on what people group we identify with, there is likely a people group whose existence challenges us, as Samaritans once did for Jews.

What impact does the parable of the Good Samaritan have if we are Palestinian readers and the parable is the parable of the Good Israeli? Ditto: if we are a GLBT community and the parable is the parable of the Good Homophobic Bigot, or if we are part of the Western world subject to fears of terrorism, if not subject to actual acts of terrorism* and the parable is the parable of the Good Muslim or the parable of the Good Illegal Immigrant.

(*As I write in early July 2016, terrible acts of violence and murder at the hands of terrorists have been wrought on people in Istanbul, Dhaka and Baghdad.)

The point of the parable is striking when we press into it. To a question about who our 'neighbour' is, in respect of the second great commandment, Jesus answers with a story about an enemy! The questioner is perhaps wondering if 'neighbour' means everyone in the street, or just the person who lives next door. Jesus blasts any such small-mindedness out of the, well, neighbourhood. Our neighbour can mean our enemy. If so, then our neighbour is anyone. And everyone.

So no one can be left behind, no one passed by on the other side of the road. If we are serious about inheriting eternal life (see also Colossians above about inheriting the kingdom of God's beloved Sin), then this story of a lawyer intent on so inheriting and the response of Jesus pointedly enlarging the scope of what must be done in order to be fit for that kingdom, should cut deeply into us. Cutting away, for instance, our prejudices about certain people. Cutting away our rationalizations about why we should not show mercy to certain people. Cutting down our limited vision of community action and opening up a new vision for love in the world.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday 3 July 2016 - Ordinary 14

Possible Theme: Gospel for a New Creation

Sentence:      Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God (Isaiah 41:10)

Collect:          God, you are working still,
                      breaking down and building up;
                      open our eyes to discern your hands
                      so that we may take our place
                      as labourers together with you
                      in the power of the Spirit
                      through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:1-6, 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Comments:

Isaiah 66:10-14

At the end of the great book of Isaiah, Jerusalem  is envisioned as the mother city of God's new world. That new world begins to come into being as the mission of God through Jesus Christ spreads throughout the world, an anticipation of which is found in the story of the sending out of the seventy (Luke 10).

Psalm 66:1-9

Here is a psalm which gives thanks and stiffens the backbone. In thanking God for God's awesomeness there is a particular recall of the Exodus (v. 6). Verses 8-12 speak of a new test (vss. 10-12). Israel needs God to again bring them through. The psalmist is confident that God will do it. God will bring 'us out to a spacious place' (v. 12).

Galatians 6:1-6, 7-16

This is our last week in Galatians. Paul's theological 'yell' is coming to an end. That yell has been a cry of the heart against the diminishment of the singular gospel of Jesus Christ: there is no other gospel, there is not a gospel with additions added on. In this chapter Paul largely continues the work of chapter five: how does a Christian live as a grace-filled person, freed from the law, freed to live in total freedom in Christ?

Christ has set the Christian free yet we saw in chapter five that this freedom is not freedom to licentiousness but freedom to 'through love become slaves to one another' (5:13). In 6:2 Paul states this irrevocable law of Christian freedom in this way: 'Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ'.

('The law of Christ' is an unusual phrase. See also 1 Corinthians 9:21 and Romans 8:2. Could Paul also be picking up tradition which found its way into Johannine writings as Christ's 'new commandment' to 'love one another'?).

Galatians 6:1-6 each offer practical instruction to the Christian seeking to live a life worthy of the gospel. 6:7-9 takes us back to Paul's theme of life in the Spirit (5:16-26), striking a note of encouragement to those who may have become weary of doing good. Verse 10 then completes both sections, 6:1-6 and 6:7-9.

6:11-18 then completes the letter with some standard conclusion features, 'See what large letters I make ...' (v. 11) and 'May the grace of our Lord Jesus ...' (v. 18). But in between Paul has one last go at making his case about the uniqueness of the gospel: 'May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!'

Paul, in other words, steadfastly denies that the gospel is 'cross plus circumcision' saves. Only the cross saves. And what a salvation it is: 'a new creation' is inaugurated through Christ's death on the cross.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The lectionary lets us down with the verses omitted here! Terrifying though judgement is, these omitted words are the words of Jesus. At the very least they should be included to underline the point of the verses which are appointed, that the mission of Jesus is vital and decisive for humanity. The decisiveness of the mission is captured in verse 16:

'Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.'

With this verse in mind we might reread 10:1-11 and read 10:12-15: the disciples on mission speak for God. They are the Lord's labourers. When rejected it is God himself who is rejected. When accepted, it is the Lord who is accepted. The kingdom of God is indeed 'near' people when the disciples are present (v. 9).

Verses 17-20 are challenging - a commentary might be well consulted. But the seventy disciples are assured by the Lord that their well-being is in his heart.

There are many things a preacher could stop and pause to reflect on through these verses.

Consider:

v.3: what does it mean to be lambs among wolves?

v.4: is it practical to take nothing with us on the road?

v. 2: why are there few labourers for the plentiful harvest?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sunday 26 June 2016 - Ordinary 13

Possible Themes:
- Cost of discipleship (if focusing on OT/Gospel)
- True freedom (if focusing on Epistle)

Sentence:             You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence (Psalm 16:11) 

Collect:                  Lord Jesus, wherever you go
                                We will follow you.
                                Use us to light the world,
                                Through the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Readings ("related"):      

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalm 16              
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Comments:

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 Elisha follows Elijah

The relationship of this passage to the gospel reading is enigmatic. Straightforward is the calling of a disciple (Elisha) by a master (Elijah), with the twist that Elisha will succeed Elijah. In the gospel would be disciples come to the master Jesus - ultimately disciples succeed Jesus in in his work on earth. Less straightforward is the character of the parallel between Elisha wanting to return to his parents before following Elijah and the would be disciples in the gospel wishing to undertake domestic tasks before following Jesus: does Elisha actually return to his parents, or not? Is Elijah's reply, 'Go back again ...' (v. 20) a way of saying to Elisha, either follow me or do not bother?

What is clear, however, is that Elisha does follow Elijah and does so after finishing with his old way of life. He burns the yoke of his oxen in order to cook up the oxen for food which he distributes to the people. Sometimes our discipleship necessarily involves a complete break with the past.


Psalm 16 "In the presence of the Lord there is fullness of joy"

Just as there is a group of psalms called 'lament psalms' and another group called 'psalms of ascent', there ought to be a group of psalms called the 'lovely psalms'. If there were, then this would be first or second in loveliness!

David sets out the blessing of knowing the Lord, trusting the Lord, keeping close to the Lord and praying to the Lord. Life turns out well for David but he says it with brilliant poetry:

'The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; 
I have a goodly heritage' (v. 6). 

He would have said the same if he had been a Kiwi.

But it is not just that life is generally pleasant for David and that he is glad about the material comforts of that life. David feels secure and protected (vss. 1, 5, 7-8, 9-10).

The summary of this blessed state is the climax of the psalm. Summing up many parts of the New Testament which speak of blessing, it should be the profession of every Christian:

'In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore' (v. 11).

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Like many Pauline passages 'there is a lot here'. We could, for instance, embark on a sermon series (as many have done before us) on 'the fruit of the Spirit', one sermon for each of 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control' (v. 22-23). We could (and should) pause on the phrase 'Live by the Spirit' (v. 16; cf. 18, 25) since that phrase sums up the Christian life. Here I want to mention three matters in the passage in particular but do so in full acknowledgment that many matters here are worth paying great attention to.

(1) Christian freedom (v. 1). 'For freedom Christ has set us free.' This acclamation  challenges us. Do we live in freedom as Christians? Alternatively, are there ways in which as Christians we live without freedom because we are bound by things which should not and need not bind us? In part, Galatians is a letter in which Paul rails against all so-called Christians (not just certain Jewish Christians of his day) who add rules and regulations to the gospel of Christ. Here Paul does not rail against such opponents of true Christianity but appeals to true Christians who may be tempted to constrain the freedom Christ has set them free for (5:2-12 provides a specific case study). Many Christians (including this writer) find great comfort in following rules and regulations, sometimes even in creating them. Do we need to reconsider these rules and regulations so that we experience the full depths of the freedom for which Christ has set us free?

(2) Christian behaviour (v. 13-25). Yet the appeal for freedom to be lived out creates a dilemma for Christians. What is the nature of this Christ-ordered freedom? Is it freedom from every rule and from regulation of all kinds so that I am free to do absolutely anything, even things which are sinful? Paul's clear answer is 'No.'

'For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not let use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another' (v. 13).

Christian freedom, Paul seems to be saying, is a freedom to do anything but (or, BUT) exercising that freedom in self-indulgent living is to choose death (see vss. 14-15, 16-21). So freedom for Christians ought to be constrained in the direction of life. To choose life rather than death as an expression of our freedom means choosing to love one another, 'through love become slaves to one another.' Christian freedom involves a paradox: we are truly free of unnecessary rules and regulations when we becomes slaves to one another.

Although Paul then changes themes from freedom/slavery to life in the Spirit (vss. 16-25), he is pursuing the question of Christian freedom and the potential to understand that as freedom to indulge. From the perspective of life in the Spirit the answer is the same as above. Christian freedom is not being exercised when we 'gratify the desires of the flesh' (v. 16). This leads to Christian death or loss of inheritance (v.21). Further, it works against the work of the Spirit of God within us. Christ has set us free AND given us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works to constrain the exercise of our freedom in the direction of goodness, particularly love for others. Indulgence works against that direction.

(3) Christian power (vss. 16-25). Rippling through the same verses that bring us Paul's concern about how we exercise Christian freedom is Paul's concern that we understand the nature of divine power in Christians. If our behaviour as Christians is to be oriented in the direction Christ wishes us to follow, we need spiritual power to live well. Where does this come from? Earlier in the letter Paul has denied that that power exists in the law of Moses. Now he takes up an observation made in 3:2 about where the Spirit of God has come from. The power to live a godly life is first the power of the Spirit of God living within us.

So, Paul says, paraphrased, 'Live by the Spirit which God in Christ has given you (and not by the law which cannot give the power to live well).'

For the sake of clarity Paul spells out what this living by the Spirit looks like. First: what it does not look like (fornication, impurity, licentiousness ..., vss. 19-21; and, 'conceited, competing against one another, envying one another, v. 26). Secondly: what it does look like (love, joy, peace ... vss. 22-23; but we could add 6:1-10 to the picture).

In the course of all of this Paul makes another point about Christian power. If "live by the Spirit" is one general injunction, another is implied in these words,

'And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires' (v. 24).

That is, those who live by the Spirit in the freedom of Christ have died to sin.

A crucified 'flesh' (human nature) is dead. The dead do not exercise any freedom to sin! 

Paul doesn't say it, but later commenters have observed with witty seriousness, once crucified, our flesh should not be resurrected.

Luke 9:51-62

There are two parts to this gospel passage. The first part, 9:51-56 tells the story of the beginning of Jesus' intentional journey towards Jerusalem and death. Scholars call the whole section 9:51-19:28 the 'Travel Narrative'. This journey will be an actual journey from village to village (so in these verses) as well as a journey in discipleship for many of Jesus' most famous teachings are taught in this section, as well as much loved parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

In 9:51-56 we find that Jesus' journey is not universally welcomed, a village of Samaritans in particular rejecting him, perhaps because of his Jerusalem-centric intention. (Samaritans did not honour Jerusalem as their preferred centre of worship, see John 4).

This opposition is a sign of what is to come, including rejection in Jerusalem itself. James and John gallantly offer to help Jesus out by reigning down judgmental fire on the Samaritan village. Jesus' rejection of that offer is in keeping with his merciful character on display in Luke's Gospel.

Thus the journey is off to a challenging start on a number of counts and this sets the background for the next incident, vss. 57-62, in which the theme of discipleship is addressed by way of three dialogues with would be or 'wannabe' disciples.

In summary, a disciple is wholly committed to Jesus, without entanglements and compromising other commitments.

But the detail of the three conversations is worth pondering.

- each would be disciple understands what all disciples should understand: a disciple is a follower of Jesus. The first and the third each say, 'I will follow you.' The second engages with Jesus directly calling him, 'Follow me.'

- the first would be disciple has a deep understanding of discipleship. 'I will follow you wherever you go' (v. 57). Yet Jesus does not accept this. Why not? His enigmatic response seems to say to him (and to us as readers), 'Do you understand that where I go there is no security, no comforts, no prospects except the prospect (implied by the use of 'Son of Man') of suffering?' The would be disciple has - in reality - reckoned with only some, not all the cost of discipleship.

- the second and the third would be disciples appear to be similar in procrastination, even though their reasons are slightly different. Jesus lacks sympathy for their (quite reasonable) appeals to family obligation. Discipleship is more important than the previously most important of human obligations and more urgent than any other pressing task. It requires focus on the task at hand, 'Proclaim the kingdom of God', with complete concentration and no backwards look to pre-discipleship life (v. 62).

Finally, we might note here, looking back to the 1 Kings passage and the call for Elisha to follow Elijah, that Luke presents Jesus here as one who is greater than Elijah: Jesus has more disciples and asks of them a greater commitment than is asked of Elisha.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Sunday 19 June 2016 - Ordinary 12

Theme                  Who is Jesus?   

Sentence             O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. (Psalm 63:2)

Collect                  Jesus, we believe you; all we heard is true.
                                You are the Christ, the Son of the living God;
We confess the truth about you,
                                And ask that through the power of your Spirit,
                                We may boldly proclaim you through all the world. Amen.

Readings (related):

                       Isaiah 65:1-9
                       Psalm 22:19-28                                  
                       Galatians 3:23-29
                       Luke 8:26-39

Comments:

Isaiah 65:1-9

This reading makes sense when we hear the gospel as well because it includes a complaint from God about the rebelliousness of his people, including their eating 'swine's flesh' (vs. 4) which was forbidden for Jews/Israelites. Later in the gospel reading a swineherd will feature which is destroyed.

In its own right the reading is both a complaint against the unholy behaviour of God's people and a forecast that a remnant of 'Jacob' (i.e. the northern kingdom of Israel) and 'Judah' (i.e. southern kingdom of Israel) will yet inherit a new or renewed land (vss. 8-9)

The language is strong in its pictures. To give just one example: the actions of rebellious Israel are 'a smoke in my nostrils' (vs. 5).

Psalm 22:19-28

This psalm, also related to the gospel reading, is often read in conjunction with Jesus' own suffering on the cross. Here a section is read which relates to one who is oppressed and then delivered by God with the result that God is praised by the one who is delivered (vss. 22-28). This fits the circumstances of the man called Legion in the gospel reading.

Note that, in conjunction with Luke's overall project through his Gospel and through Acts, to tell the story of the kingdom of God spreading from Jerusalem to Rome, vs. 28 of the Psalm reading is a presupposition of the Lukan project:

"For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations."

Galatians 3:23-29

Paul's argument about the gospel in relation to the law reaches an apex in these verses. At this apex Paul both looks back on the course of the argument, offers a summary of it and looks forward to the consequences of the gospel replacing the law.

His summary: there was an era in which 'the law' played a decisive role in the life of Israel (as guard, as disciplinarian) but that era is now over with the coming of Christ, so that justification comes by faith, and comes for 'all' (i.e. Jews and Gentiles).

His forward looking vision: a new people of God is being created through Christ, in which those who are baptized into Christ are all accounted as Abraham's offspring and heirs of the promise made to Abraham. These offspring are one people (for all of you are one in Christ Jesus), no longer divided by race (no longer Jew or Greek), class (no longer slave or free), gender (no longer male and female).

This new people of God are a special people. Just as the people of God known as Israel were distinguished by mark of entry into Israel (male circumcision) and by lifestyle (obedience to the law), so Christians are distinguished by entry into God's kingdom (baptism, vs. 27) and by lifestyle ('clothed yourselves with Christ', vs. 27).

Arguably, as the church of God in the 21st century engages with issues of gender, race, sexuality and class, we can say that the full implications of Paul's vision of the consequences of the new era coming are not yet fully explored and are still being worked out in the life of the church.


Luke 8:26-39

To our ears this may seem the strangest of gospel stories, perhaps the more so because Luke tells it to us. Our favourite Lukan stories of Jesus likely do not include this one. So our challenge is both not to ignore it and to press for the purpose of Luke as he includes it in his gospel. 

One way to take up the challenge is to step back from the story and look at the stories preceding and succeeding it. Before this story we have the stilling of the storm (8:22-25) and after it we have the healing of Jairus's daughter and the woman with haemorrhages (8:40-56). In each case Jesus displays his power and authority: over the forces of nature, over the forces of death and illness (and an associated social exclusion). We could go further back and note Jesus' authority to forgive sins (7:36-50) and further forward to note Jesus giving 'power and authority' to the disciples 'over all demons and to cure diseases' (9:1-2).

Thus today's story is part of a sequence in which Luke presents the power and authority of Jesus over forces which inhibit human flourishing, both forces working against physical life (e.g. illness), spiritual life (e.g. guilt, demons), and social life (e.g. social exclusion, as experienced by the sinful woman (7:36-50), Legion (this story), and the woman with haemorrhages (8:43-48)). In summary terms: no force of nature, the devil, sickness or human behaviour can resist the power of Jesus. The kingdom of God, that is the effective ruling power of God over life, is being inaugurated through the work of Jesus.

Some details within the story of the deliverance of the demons from the man called Legion are helpful to explain:

- the country of the Gerasenes (v. 26) was largely inhabited by Gentiles; Gentiles ate pork (forbidden to Jews) and thus 'a large herd of swine' (v. 32) was unsurprisingly nearby to the place where the encounter takes place.

- conversely, the forbiddenness of pork to Jews means that the loss of the herd would register to some readers of Luke as inconsequential and to others as disturbing, as it was to the people of the Gerasenes who saw not only a display of spiritual power but the loss of livelihood (v. 37)

- Legion as a name is drawn from Roman military life (a legion was a force of many soldiers). A very, very subtle implication of the story is that Luke, in presenting Jesus as a man of power and authority in the context of the Roman empire, hints that Jesus' power is greater than that of the Emperor, the chief commander of all military legions.

- deliverance of demons is a common occurrence in the ministry of Jesus but in many parts of the world today it is not a common occurrence, so questions arise because of this difference. One answer given from our modern perspective is that this man was psychotically disturbed. This answer is not necessarily incompatible with the traditional answer that demons exist and can inhabit places and people. Another answer is that Jesus coming into the world provoked the fury of demons opposed to the kingdom and thus we see in the gospels an intensive demonic presence which is at variance with our day.

At the end of the story a very interesting comparison can be made. Jesus commands the man, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." But Luke reports that what the man actually did was to go away "proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him" (vs. 39). This does not mean that the man has suddenly become a Trinitarian orthodox Christian who believes that Jesus is God! But it does mean that Luke is comfortable presenting Jesus to the world through his gospel as one who is identified as God. Of such seeds will the later fruit of Trinitarian belief grow.

As an application of the story we might note that Jesus calls people to follow him and to proclaim the gospel, but some are asked to go to the rest of the world, and others, as here, are asked to stay at home.