Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday 30 July 2017 - 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Wisdom. Kingdom of heaven. Understanding. Kingdom wisdom. Kingdom of heaven: priceless!

Sentence: All things work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28)

Collect:

God of mercy,
you have blessed us beyond our dreams;
you have set before us promises and perils
beyond our understanding
help us to struggle and pray
that the perils may be averted
and your promises fulfilled. Amen.

Readings (related):

1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Commentary:

1 Kings 3:5-12

Solomon has the world and its opportunities set before him but in his time and context there are three sought after possibilities, wealth, long life, or wisdom. He chooses the last and God is pleased to grant that to him.

In the gospel reading today, the kingdom of God offers a new way of life in which riches play no part and there may not be a long life, but true wisdom in the light of the coming of Jesus demands entry to the kingdom rather than its rejection.

Back to this reading: Solomon seeks wisdom in order to govern his country well. There must be something to say from this observation about the state of our world and about the choices we will make at our forthcoming NZ election!

Psalm 119:129-136

The psalmist shows a deep, passionate, intelligent appreciation for God's law through these verses. It is not just that God's 'decrees are wonderful' as decrees which govern life (129), they have power to do more for those who love God's law.

'The unfolding of your words gives light' (130a) and 'imparts understanding to the simple' (130b). Through reading and keeping God's law, the psalmist recognises that he is more able to understand the world and what is going on within it. The law provides wisdom and insight.

Realistically, the psalmist recognises that the words of the law do not by themselves empower him to keep the law: so he entreats God to help him to live rightly (133-135).

This passage is a good complement to Matthew 13:51-52.

Romans 8:26-39

Recalling last week's passage and comment, we remind ourselves that Paul is sequencing his way through several, related themes in this chapter, though always with an eye on the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer.

Here the themes are:
- prayer aided by the Spirit (26-27)
- the fulfilment of God's good purposes for those who love God (28-30) which anticipates the next and last section of the chapter in which Paul proclaims the unshakeable and unbreakable love of God
- God is on the side of God's people, not against them, demonstrated by 'not withhold[ing] his own Son' (31-32)
- there is no charge of sin against God's elect (33-34)
- nothing, absolutely nothing, not earthly powers nor heavenly ones, neither the fiercest opposition nor death itself can 'separate us from the love of Christ' (35-39).

This is a carefully worked out yet poetically expressed ending to this first part of Romans. The gospel indeed saves people and does more in the sense that it guarantees the salvation of people who respond to God's love for them in Christ with love for God through Christ, empowered by the Spirit of God who comes to dwell in believers.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

With this passage we complete the parables taught by Jesus as conveyed in this chapter of Matthew.

In each of the five parables 'the kingdom of heaven is like' something: mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a fine pearl, a net with all kinds of fish.

Our challenge, without interpretations provided for the parables (save that the interpretation in 13:36-43 would appear to applied to 13:47-50), is to understand what it means that the kingdom is 'like' something.

Without proposing that the following is an exhaustive set of interpretations, Jesus appears to be saying that the kingdom of heaven is:
- a growing phenomenon which starts small and becomes very large (mustard seed)
- a powerful influence working through the whole world (yeast)
- something utterly worth being part of and belonging to (hidden treasure, fine pearl)
- a bit messy because it grows and develops in such a way that both evil and righteous people are caught up in its life (fishing net).

Can we say with the disciples that we understand 'all this' (51)?

The passage finishes on a beautifully poetic note about scribes trained for the kingdom (52) who are also 'like' something - like a master of a house who brings out of his treasure what is old and what is new. But what does this mean? Who are 'scribes' in the kingdom (since we do not encounter these officials anywhere else in the gospels)?

A key word here is 'trained' which in the Greek means 'discipled'. Potentially 'scribes' could be all disciples, or scribes trained in the Law of Moses who are now discipled into the kingdom; or it could be one scribe in particular, Matthew who composes this gospel.

Either way, there is a strong hint here, as we recall Matthew 5:17-20, that Jesus is valuing continuity with all that is good in the past of Israel as well as asserting the value of what is now being taught through the parables of Jesus.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Sunday 23 July 2017 - 16th Ordinary Sunday [also Social Services Sunday]

Theme(s):Grace, mercy and kindness. Hope and glory. Patience and eager anticipation. Suffering and hope. Life in the kingdom. Judgment.

Sentence: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).

Collect:

God of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things,
graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish in us all goodness,
and of your great mercy
keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Commentary:

Isaiah 44:6-8

The choice of this reading looks ahead to a challenging (to understand) gospel reading. What God presides over a world in which the plan is to establish a kingdom for that God, yet an evil one is permitted to establish a rival kingdom? The prophet here acclaims the God of Israel as the one God of all the world ('besides me there is no god', 6, see also 8b).

For this God there is no question of a rival, not even an evil one sowing discord in the world.

Thus those who believe in the God of Israel do not need to be afraid (8).

Note a curious phrasing in 44:6, 'Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts.'

In part this is a condemnation of Babylonian claims about multiple gods controlling the world. No, says Isaiah, the LORD is the one God of all.

In another part, a seeming distinction between the LORD as the King of Israel and the LORD of hosts as 'his redeemer' anticipates the later christology in which the God of Israel is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Lord Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of Israel's God, the Son of God.

Psalm 86:11-17

It is sometimes said of the Old Testament that one, single, unifying idea cannot be found within it, which 'organises' its contents. But there is one great idea, one substantive teaching which shines through many of its pages, and these verses give expression to it: God is 'merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness' (15).

It is the God of this kind of love who brings the parable to us in today's gospel reading: a God who withholds judgment rather than hastens it.

Romans 8:12-25

If I am a Christian then I have the Spirit of God living within me (8:1-11). Paul continues to spell out what this means for you and me as Christians.

Essentially, we are under obligation, 'we are debtors' (12), our obligation being to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh (13).

But thinking this way takes Paul on a theological journey as he links one thought to another thought. He will come back to the battle between flesh and spirit (23, 26) but he moves on this journey as follows:

- the Spirit of God is not 'a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear', rather it is 'a spirit of adoption' (15);
-under the Spirit as our spirit of adoption we cry out to God as 'Abba, Father' (15c) which is also testimony that we are 'children of God' (16, also 14);
- if we are children of God then we are 'heirs of God' which also means we are 'joint heirs with Christ' (17a);
- but that last thought raises a 'check in', have we suffered with Christ so that we may be glorified with him? (17b)
- suffering now may be compared with glory to come, with the latter far outweighing the former (18);
- but thinking of what is not yet leads to thinking about 'creation' waiting 'with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God' (19);
- in turn Paul offers a deep reflection on creation as that which currently is subject to 'futility' (20) while yet able to anticipate being 'set free from its bondage to decay and [obtaining] the freedom of the glory of the children of God' (21), with the sense that creation 'until now' 'has been groaning in labour pains' we ourselves are involved as we 'groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies' (22-23);
- such anticipation of a better, fulfilled future is hopeful, in fact, 'in hope we are saved' (24a) which could mean, 'in hope we see what one day will be but which is not yet our completed experience';
- thus as an aside we have a few words about 'hope' (24) and its application 'we wait for it with patience' (25).

What does all this mean for the Christian today?

I suggest at least this: Paul faces the reality that in the battle between spirit and flesh, between living for God and living for self, between achieving ideal holy living and failing to achieve it here and now, it is very tough for believers. We are in the same position as 'groaning' creation. We long for that which we want but do not yet have. Whether this is a matter of suffering in itself (i.e the suffering of patiently withstanding temptation and living rightly) or we suffer as Christians simply for being Christians as enemies persecute us, Paul urges us to 'hang in there'. Hope tells us we will get to the end. The glory in that day will outweigh present trials. Don't give up!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The reading as selected from Matthew 13 focuses on one parable and its interpretation (in parallel with last week's reading, and both parables have 'seed' as a common motif).

Note that if the full reading, 13:24-43, were followed then we would have three parables of kingdom growth (24-33), deliberately joined together in a sequence. Further (and paralleling a missing part Matthew 13 in last week's reading) we would have a brief explanation concerning teaching by parables (13:34-35; parallel, 13:10-17): Matthew is a very sophisticated literary artist!

So, with that in the background, let's look at the 'parable of the weeds'.

The core idea is easy to understand, especially with the aid of the provided interpretation: the kingdom of heaven (= kingdom of God) consists (in this life, on earth) of 'children of the kingdom' and 'children of the evil one' (37).

This fact of the kingdom is visible and gives rise to thoughts of a human solution (27-29). But the master of the kingdom, God directs patience and waiting: the separation of the children of the kingdom and of the children of the evil one will take place at judgment and will be handled by the angels (30, 39-42).

The application of the parable - at first sight, straightforward, Wait and leave judgement to God! - is one tricky matter, another concerns how the kingdom can include both kinds of 'children'.

Clearly, in practical terms, evil people need separating from non-evil people: a murderer should be imprisoned, a paedophile kept well away from children ... a heretic denied a pulpit and a thief kept off the church silver cleaning roster. It would be absurd to suggest the parable means that in specific instances of these kinds, whether thinking of society broadly or more narrowly of congregational life, we should just let people be and allow them to carry on their evil ways.

But, if that is so, are there other 'evil' people whom we can tolerate between now and judgment day? That sounds a bit absurd. Especially if we focus on the life of the congregational church: it is hard work putting up with evil people who (say) disrupt congregational harmony, damage people through (say) gossip and putdowns, manipulatively abuse power. Much easier to expel the troublemakers!

But two such absurdities perhaps will make us think, 'what is the kingdom in this parable?' Perhaps we shouldn't think so much about an equation between kingdom and church (as often Christians have done). Indeed, not far away in Matthew's gospel, chapter 18, we have Jesus giving instruction for how to manage discipline in the church. Further, the emphasis on the judgment in the parable and its interpretation is on final judgment ('furnace of fire,' 42), not the outcome of a church tribunal. So, what is the kingdom in view here?

A strong clue seems to be in verse 38, 'the field is the world.' Jesus has the whole world in view here and the spread of the kingdom of heaven through it. More than church congregational life is being considered in this parable. Life in the world, lived under the rule of God (i.e. the kingdom of heaven) involves the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one mixing together socially. The parable and its interpretation is a specific command for the kingdom children to refrain from attempting to carry out God's judgment (1) before it is due according to God's timetable, (2) when it is not the designated role of the children to do so.

What are children of the kingdom to do? The application is, in the end, plain for us: remain faithful to our calling as children of the kingdom, bearing grain (i.e. living fruitful lives for God) (26), avoid becoming weeds, refrain from playing the role of God as judge, patiently endure the presence of evil people in the world.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sunday 16 July 2017 - 15th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): The mission of Jesus / The multiplying mission of Jesus / Gospel fruitfulness. Set free by the Spirit. Victorious life in the Spirit.

Sentence: There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)

Collect:

Almighty God,
in your Son Jesus Christ
you have created a people for yourself;
make us willing to obey you,
till your purpose is accomplished
and the earth is full of your glory. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Commentary:

Isaiah 55:10-13

God's word (here, in context, God's covenantal promise to restore Israel from exile, see 55:3) is powerful in its purpose (it will achieve what it sets out to do) and purposeful in its power (it intends to do good). It will be fruitful - Israel will 'go out with joy and be led forth in peace' (12).

This same word is the word of the gospel as taught and proclaimed by Jesus (see gospel below).

Psalm 65:9-13

This is a lovely picture of God blessing the earth. The psalm is chosen to complement the gospel reading. As the word of God brings forth fruit in people's lives, its warmth, beauty and loveliness is illustrated by this parallel scene in nature. Over both kinds of fruitfulness God is the caring farmer!

Romans 8:1-11

This 'continuing' reading through Romans brings us into a great chapter which represents an important stage in Paul's argument through the whole epistle.

Through seven chapters Paul has been expounding the grace of God, a grace which includes Jew and Gentile, which covers every sin, and is freely available because of what Christ has done. So he begins this chapter, 'Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' (1) which is a fair summary of his argument to this point. But what now? What is Paul's next stage? What point does he now seek to make?

In part Paul continues a theme he has been developing through chapters six and seven: life in Christ does not mean continuing in sin in order for grace to abound, nor does it mean despair over continued sinning for a new way of life is available through identification in baptism with the death and rising of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless there is a new development, presaged in Romans 5:5 with mention of the Holy Spirit, in which Paul reminds his readers that the Holy Spirit is at work in them in the battle between doing good and doing wrong, between allegiance to God and allegiance to the sinful nature within them.

Effectively Paul repeats his argument through chapters six and seven but revises it to now talk about the Spirit of God and the work of the Spirit which every believer may expect and rely on.

Along the way Paul sets out some facts about the Holy Spirit. One is that the Spirit of God lives in each person who 'belongs to Christ' (9). No Christian should think they do not have the Spirit, and certainly no Christian should run around congregations suggesting that some members do not (yet) have the Spirit (but if you pray this prayer etc then you will have ...). Secondly there is no division in the working of God between Christ being in the believer and the Spirit being in the believer (9-10). Thirdly, the power available to the believer is the power of the one and same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead who now dwells within the believer (11).

Thus Paul, at the beginning of the section, can confidently teach that the Christian believer is able to be victorious in overcoming sin (1-4) because there is a new, lively power at work in us (2), enabling us to meet the requirements of the law in a way which the law itself is not able to do.

One way to summarise all that is going on through chapters 6-8 is this: Christians, be what you are!

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Parable of the Sower

A challenge for the preacher this week is to take a very familiar passage and say something fresh from it!

Something to observe is that Jesus tells the parable when 'such large crowds gather round him' (13:2). It is as though Jesus is sizing up the crowd and telling them that they will not all be found faithful to the word he is teaching them. Even at a high point of 'success' for his movement, measured in terms of interested listeners, Jesus recognises the reality of life.

Between the parable (1-9) and the interpretation (18-23), what Jesus recognises is understandable in every generation, including ours. Some simply do not 'get' the gospel message (4, 19); some hear the message and respond joyfully, but the hearing has no depth and when trouble comes, they fall away (5, 20-21); some hear the word but their response is quickly choked out by the worries of this life and the deceitful claims of wealth - materialism trumps spirituality (6, 22); some hear, understand, with joy, deeply, without choking (7, 23).

What does the reference mean to the crop being produced hundred, sixty or thirty times was sown (8, 23)? We might investigate what this meant in terms of the agriculture of Jesus' day. But more relevant could be investigating what this meant in terms of Jesus' own mission.

If the starting point above is valid, that Jesus was seeing beyond the crowds to the few who would be faithful to his word, then the multiplying of the seed is about the value of the faithful few: they will take the word and multiply it, in terms of more faithful adherents around Israel and, later, throughout the world.

The very fact that you are reading this, that a congregation will hear your sermon this Sunday is testimony to what Jesus taught about the word. We are evidence of the multiplication!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sunday 9th July 2017 - 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Come to me / Father and Son / Lifting burdens / God's rescue from sin

Sentence: Come to me all you are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28)

Collect:

Almighty God
you have made us for yourself
and our hearts are restless
till they find their rest in you;
so lead us by your Spirit
that in this life we may live to your glory
and in the life to come enjoy you for eve;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Readings (related):

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Commentary:

Zechariah 9:9-12

Chosen to complement the gospel reading, this passage is certainly 'at home' on Palm Sunday. In today's gospel context it speaks of the 'gentle and humble heart' (Matthew 11:29) of Jesus.

Psalm 145:8-14

These verses are a perfect complement to the final verses of the gospel reading. Just as the Lord known to Israel is 'gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love' (8) and One who 'upholds all who are falling' (14), so the Lord revealed in the gospel passage is one who lightens the burdens of his people and gives them rest.

Romans 7:15-25a

The first sentence of the section below re the gospel reading applies in this section, swapping Jesus for Paul, also!

A recap: Paul has been arguing in preceding chapters that faith counts not works in respect of being counted among the righteous. The grace of God which enables this to be so, on the basis of Jesus Christ fulfilling all the sacrificial requirements of the Law, is not to be taken advantage of by living licentiously (chapter six). To do that would be to misunderstand the spiritual transformation which takes place through baptism into the death of Jesus.

In the first part of chapter seven Paul develops a sophisticated argument about the role of the law in our sinning, even asking the question whether the law is sin (7a). In part the argument is that the law has a role in sinning, because by naming what we should not do we then law what sin we might commit (7b) but in another part the argument is that sin is an enslaving power working within Paul, me and you, manipulatively taking even the good Law and making it have a role in our sinning.

Thus verse 14 captures the argument to the point immediately preceding the beginning of our reading: 'For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh sold into slavery under sin.'

Our reading is then an insight into how sin works within humanity.

The essence of the insight is that humanity, each human being has a divided inner being. There is an 'inmost self' (22) which delights in the law of God (22), wants to do good (19, 21) yet is at odds with 'the flesh' or (some translations, sinful nature) which does things the inmost self does not want to do (15b, 16a, 18, 23).

Whatever we make 'psychologically' about this way of seeing the psyche of the human person, Paul is touching on a profound human experience of letting God down, hurting others and damaging ourselves through sin: we 'do not understand [our] own actions' (15a), we do things we cannot understand ourselves doing (15b-16), we tend to blame such situations on something within us we cannot control (17), we set out to do right and end up hurting others (18b-19).

Cleverly Paul sets up this 'internal dialogue' in such a way that by verse 23 we are applauding Paul's insight into our own behaviour even as we feel crushed by the seeming prison of desire and sin in which we are trapped. We are doomed, it seems, with no way out. Or not?

In verse 24-25a Paul leaps from the prison. Having faced what a 'wretched man' he is, he asks, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

There is only one answer, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (25a).

From that exuberance Paul turns back to the course of his insight. Perhaps looking ahead to the renewing of his mind through God's transformative power (12:1-2) Paul makes the point in conclusion that

'with my mind [equals saved and transformed by God through Jesus Christ our Lord]
I am a slave to the law of God,
but with my flesh (where the power of sin still has hold of me)
I am a slave of the law of sin." (25b)

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Preaching on this particular selection definitely requires a word about what has gone before the launch in to Jesus saying, "But to what will I compare this generation ..." (16).

The prelude to our passage is Jesus in conversation, indirectly, with John the Baptist languishing in prison (11:1-15). His reflection on their respective ministries is that both, though completely different in style (see 18-19), have provoked opposition: scorn, doubts, and derision.

We may not expect what Jesus then says. Perhaps we would have said, "But God will deal with the naysayers." Jesus simply says, "Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds" (19). In a brief, simple sentence, Jesus links the pre-gospel message with the gospel as both messages are 'wisdom'. Here 'wisdom' is the revelation of God to the world, an active word of God which brought the world into being (see Proverbs 8:22-31).

Scholars speak of 'wisdom christology' in Matthew: here is a seed of understanding, that Jesus embodies wisdom (as does John the Baptist), which will come to fuller flowering in John's Gospel with the declaration that 'the Word became flesh' (1:14) and in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians when he declares that Jesus is 'wisdom from God' (1:30).

Jesus' point is that the wisdom shared between himself and John the Baptist is vindicated - we could say, 'proved to be true' by deeds - by the miracles described in verses 4 to 5.

We then skip a passage which is a pity, as verses 20-24 make the converse point: to deny that the wisdom of God comes through John the Baptist and Jesus, especially when so powerfully illustrated by the latter's miracle working deeds, is to invoke God's judgment.

If the end of verse 19 offers a 'wisdom christology' we zoom very fast in verses 25-30 to a 'Son of God christology'!

Verse 25 has an ironic note concerning 'wisdom': what God reveals through Jesus is 'hidden' from the 'wise and intelligent' (that is, they don't get it), instead the ones who show their understanding by responding to Jesus are 'infants', that is, the disciples.

Verse 26 offers an interpretation of this state of affairs: 'yes, Father, for such was your gracious will'.

The Father's grace offers this revelatory wisdom to all, including to those not deemed in the world's eyes to be 'wise and intelligent', but this revelation is beyond the ability of the wise and intelligent to grasp it. It may seem ungracious that it is 'hidden' from them, but it certainly is gracious that God's revealed truth through Jesus is not restricted to the brainy scholars among us!

Verse 27 is an oddity within Matthew, Mark (not found) and Luke (repeated in Luke 11:21). It seems a statement more at home, indeed completely at home in John's Gospel. Indeed this verse is sometimes called the Johannine thunderbolt (prompted by Luke 10:18), a statement akin to a 'meteor from the Johannine sky.'

Nevertheless in this verse, whether uncharacteristic of Matthew or not, we have a remarkable statement about the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son: Father and Son are identified around the point of knowledge (i.e. wisdom).

'All things' have been handed over to the Son (power to redeem as well as create the world?). Father and Son know each other intimately and completely. When the Son reveals things, what is being revealed is God's word and God's will. In particular, it is through the Son that we may know the Father.

Verses 28-30 then seem slightly at odds with this christological discourse, having more of a pastoral flavour. What must have been important in the remembering of these words of Jesus is that a pastor who says 'Come to me' and I will take care of your burdens is no ordinary pastor when he is the Son to whom the Father has handed all things and who is the way to the Father.

Might we be encouraged also as we come to Jesus today with our burdens and cares?

The specific image of the 'yoke' is highly suggestive of one aspect of 'burden' which a religious person might carry, in particular a fellow Israelite in Jesus' day. 'Yoke' spoke of the requirements of keeping the Law or Torah. Many statements in the gospels suggest that interpretations of the Law by Jewish teachers of the Law added to the burden these requirements made. If so, then Jesus is saying that his teaching is a way to lighten the load by re-finding the true meaning of the Law, which is to give life rather than to squash it. 'Yoke' also suggests two oxen yoked together in order for their walking around the millstone to crush grain into flour - often one of the oxen being senior to the other. Again, if so, then Jesus is saying not only that his teaching is 'lighter' than that of his contemporaries but that his way of life is easier because he shares with each disciple the burden of living it.

Postscript: I love the rendering of 28-30 which Eugene Peterson gives in The Message:

'Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest.
Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.'