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.
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).
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.
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 23, 2013
Possible Theme: 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 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
(Note these are the 'related readings' rather the 'continuous readings')
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 consists of 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 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 Paul railing 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 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).
A crucified 'flesh' (human nature) is dead. The dead do not exercise any freedom!
Paul doesn't say it, but later commenters have observed with witty seriousness, once crucified, our flesh should not be resurrected.
There are two parts to this 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 love 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 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).
Sunday, June 16, 2013
23 June (Ordinary Time 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 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).
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.
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 is a presupposition of the project:
"For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations."
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 and 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 worked out in the life of the church.
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 not to ignore it and 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.
Sunday, June 9, 2013
Theme Christ forgives us
Sentence Happy the one whose offence is forgiven, whose sin is pardoned. (Psalm 32:1)
Collect God our Father,
We rejoice in your forgiveness made available to us in Christ.
May we in turn forgive one another
So that the life of the Spirit flourishes in your church,
Through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
Galatians 2:15-21Luke 7:36-50
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
This reading starts off mid-story and it could be appropriate for the reader to have a one sentence introduction to the reading such as, 'This reading picks up the story of David and Bathsheba after they had committed adultery and David had arranged for her husband to die in battle.'
With that background the reading is focused on the role of the prophet Nathan in bringing David, via a parable, to a place where David admits his guilt, "I have sinned against the Lord" (12:13). To get there the parable works, as all parables intend to work, to convict the hearer of the need for action. David is drawn into the story as told to him and reacts with anger to the greedy manipulation of the villain and declares, as a king-with-power-to-judge, a fitting outcome for the villain's despicable action. That leaves David vulnerable to Nathan's parabolic twist. The story is not about a lamb stealing manipulator but about David: "You are the man!" (12:7).
The reading ends abruptly relative to the larger story. The child is ill (12:15c). In fact the child dies (12:18-19). The reading also confronts the reader with a huge theological issue at its end when it describes how "The Lord struck the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and it became very ill" (12:15b). Potentially many words could be expressed to respond to the many questions this kind of language raises. A commentary or three could be usefully consulted. Here we simply observe that this kind of language in the Old Testament, harsh though it may sound to our ears, is simply an application of the basic truth of God's sovereignty, that nothing happens in this life apart from God's rule over life.
Also potentially complicated is the reason why this reading is chosen to 'relate' to the gospel reading. Is it because sexual unfaithfulness is a strong theme in both passages? Is it because David's reaction to the parable of Nathan, the reaction of a righteous man unaware of his own sin bears comparison with the reaction of Simon in the Lukan story to the presence of a sinful woman? Or both? Something else?
This is one of seven penitential psalms (6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143). Traditionally Psalm 51 is held to have been composed by David after his adultery with Bathsheba. But this psalm includes sentiments which connect with a deep personal experience of guilt as a burden (32:3-4).
The actual themes in the psalm move from the penitential (verses 1-5) to preservation (verses 6-7) to pedagogy or teaching (verses 8-9)* to perseverance and purity (verses 10-11).
*It is difficult to work out whether the "I" here is David as psalmist instructing another (the reader? a family member? Israel?) or God or the personified Wisdom of God instructing us (or perhaps David himself).
Paul develops his argument about the central core of the singular gospel for which other versions are anathema.
Step One: as a Jew by birth he nevertheless knows (what is vital for Gentiles) that "a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (2:15-16).
In this context "works of the law" appears to be both the things that are done that make one a Jew (e.g. circumcision) and actions which signify one's Jewish commitment to God (obedience to the commandments of God).
But what is "faith in Jesus Christ", especially when (as many scholars argue) the Greek should be translated "the faith of Jesus Christ" (meaning the "faithfulness" of Jesus Christ or the "faith (in God demonstrated by obedience till death on the cross)" of Jesus Christ)? However these debates are resolved, Paul is arguing that through Jesus Christ justification is obtainable in a way not achieved by Jewishness and not previously available to Gentiles.
Step Two of the argument: Paul, using irony, swats aside the possibility that following Christ and ignoring the law makes Christ a servant of sin, and determines that the pursuit of righteousness through obedience to the law will not be restored (2:17-18).
Step Three: as a means of making Paul righteous before God, the law is dead, we might even say, dead useless, so Paul is dead to it and its claims on him, in order that he might "live to God." There is another way, through an exchange centred on Christ crucified on the cross and the believer's identification with the crucified Christ. Thus Paul has been "crucified with Christ" so "it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me." This means "the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God" (2:19-20).
In this last part of the development of his argument Paul is both spelling out the theory of salvation (Christ saves him not the law) and the method of salvation (Christ lives his life out through Paul).
So Paul concludes on an emotive note, 2:21, if the law does justify him then Christ has died in vain.
There is a lot going on in this passage but essentially there is a triangle. Simon invites Jesus to dinner. The dinner is crashed by a "sinner" woman with a jar of ointment. Simon makes a judgment about the woman but Jesus knows what Simon is saying to himself. To make a point to Simon, Jesus tells a parable about forgiveness (7:41-43) and traps Simon into admitting that greater love comes from the one forgiven most (7:43). He then schools Simon in hospitality, contrasting Simon's meanness with the woman's generosity (7:44-46) and draws the conclusion that she loves Jesus much and Simon loves Jesus little (7:47). Then it is back to the woman: "Your sins are forgiven" (7:48).
Jesus will let her go with an affirming message, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (7:50). But the dinner guests are muttering into their wine cups, asking who this bloke is who is claiming to forgive sins (7:49).
The themes of the story are great: faith, salvation, forgiveness, peace, grace, hospitality.
But perhaps the challenge in the sermon is for the hearers to work out who they are in relation to Jesus. Simon? The woman? The other dinner guests?