Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday 24th September 2017 - 25th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): God's generosity / God's mercy / the first will be last / living worthily of the gospel

Sentence: Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.(Philippians 1:27)

Collect:

God our ruler and guide,
when we come to the place where the road divides,
keep us true to the way of Christ,
alive to present opportunities,
confident of eternal life,
and ever alert to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings (related):

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Comments:

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Paul (in Philippians below) is delighted that Philippians have heard the gospel and become Christians. There could not be a greater contrast re preaching and its outcomes than between Paul's delight and Jonah's sulkiness.

Jesus tells a parable (in Matthew below) in which early recipients of an employment contract are bitter about only receiving the same pay as late recipients of a contract. This bitterness has some common ground with Jonah's bitter response to people responding to his preaching and repenting because of it. In both cases there is a lack of joy that people not in 'my group' receive a blessing I thought only belonged to that group.

Psalm 145:1-8

In this psalm we read/sing beautiful, comprehensive, inspiring words of praise to the God whose greatness is 'unsearchable' and whose character is 'gracious and merciful.'

Philippians 1:21-30

I have no idea why we have switched out of the last chapters of Romans to Philippians!

But what a great passage to switch to. Nowhere in his writings does Paul better declare his passionate devotion to Christ than in this chapter. Writing from a dank prison cell, in verses 21-24 he expresses his torn desires between living in this world (fruitful labour as he encourages the churches and preaches the gospel) and departing this world to live in eternal, full-and-intimate fellowship with Christ.

He will remain (25) for the sake of the Philippian church (25-26).

Paul lives and dies for Christ but the church is very close in his passionate commitment: he will stay physically alive for the sake of the life of the church. How devoted are we to Christ and to his church?

But the Philippian church are not babes to be nannied by Paul. His role is to assist their development as Christians, not to do everything for them. He expects them to be mature in their faith. Hence verses 27-30.

They, and we, are asked to 'live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' (27).

Presumably that includes matters such as forgiving others (since the gospel tells us of God forgiving us) but here Paul emphasises three matters (27b-28) after 'so that' (27a):

1. 'standing firm in one spirit'
2. 'striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel'
3. 'in no way intimidated by your opponents.'

In other words, living lives worthy of the gospel is living lives in solidarity with other disciples, sharing the intention to both proclaim the gospel (evangelism, see 1:1-18) and defend its truth (chapter 3), all without fear of what opponents may do.

That opponents of the gospel cause suffering, such as Paul himself is experiencing, is a real possibility. The Philippians are experiencing that but Paul reminds them that this is actually, under God, a 'privilege' (29-30).

Matthew 20:1-16

We could call this passage 'the parable of the gracious employer' or we could call it 'the parable of the ungrateful employees'.

Following on from last Sunday's passage about generous forgiveness (18:21-35), we read here that the kingdom of heaven is as equal a blessing to those who turn up to it early as to those who enter at the last minute.

God's generous welcome into the kingdom is not proportioned to give more to those who commit to the kingdom from the first, with crumbs of blessing given to those who come last.

The parable (20:1-15) is framed by the comments in 19:30 and 20:16 about the last being first and the first being last.

In part this refers to the inclusive and expanding nature of the gospel (cf. Matthew 28:16-20): as the Gentiles are included in the scope of the gospel, Jews may be resentful that the Gentiles are the 'Johnny comes latelies' as recipients of God's blessing. Jews in Matthew's community of gospel readers/hearers must understand: the last are equal to the first.

In part this refers (noting what precedes 19:30) to a general lesson to all disciples: God loves all equally and welcomes all into eternal life which is without distinctions between those who respond early and those who respond late.

Such parables drive certain values deep into Christian consciousness: (1) God is gracious, (2) no Christian is more meritorious than another, whether we are lifelong Christians or deathbed converts we are all one in Christ.

Very importantly, all people are equally worthy of hearing the gospel, of receiving our charitable actions and of being the objects of our prayers.

In practical and political terms, a recently arrived refugee is as valuable a citizen as a sixth generation descendent of early settlers from Europe or as Maori descended from the arrivals in the tenth century.

In the life of our churches, it can be a challenge to treat the newest newcomer with the same Christian affection as the longest standing members. All too often a natural reserve inhibits our deepest inclusion of newcomers. Today's gospel challenges us to overcome such hesitation.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sunday 17 September 2017 - 24th Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Forgiveness. Quality not quantity. Accepting those who are weaker than us. Accepting those who think differently to us. Conflict resolution. Judge not for you will be judged.

Sentence: Forgive your brother or your sister from the heart (Matthew 18:35)

Collect:

God of infinite mercy,
Grant that we who know your pity
May rejoice in your forgiveness
and gladly forgive others in the power of the Spirit
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Comments:

Genesis 50:15-21

This is a very naughty story! When the general run of the Bible speaks of the importance of genuine repentance and of freely given forgiveness, here we find the brothers of Joseph manipulating their brother into forgiving them (i.e. formally, publicly forgiving them) by lying about what their father said.

However the whole story of Joseph suggests that he would not have been fooled by their attempt to claim knowledge of something their father Jacob had not himself shared with his favourite son! Thus we can think of Joseph forgiving his brothers because he chooses to do so. A forgiveness which extends to include forgiving their continuing brazen attempts to save their skins.

Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13

With an eye looking ahead to the gospel reading, on forgiveness, who is the God who calls us to forgive one another? It is the 'merciful and gracious' Lord (8) who 'does not deal with us according to our sins' (10).

Romans 14:1-12

If Paul has been focused in chapter 13 on what it means to be a Christian and a citizen in the Roman Empire, he now turns to what it means to be a Christian and a member of the church, with special reference to a matter which must have been of grave concern to the early church (see also Acts 10 and 15, 1 Corinthians 10, the letters to seven churches in Revelation 2-3, Mark 7).

That matter was what food Christians may eat with clear conscience.

There were two significant factors at work in disagreements over these matters, one concerning the movement from Jewish constraints on diet to Christian openness to eating all kinds of meat, the other concerning the provenance from which meat came or was intended for, that is meat 'sacrificed to idols' (Acts 15:29). Jewish Christians seemed to have both concerns on their minds (as here in this chapter), arguably the concerns Paul tackles in 1 Corinthians 10 were concerns Gentile Christians had as they sought to demonstrate exclusive loyalty to Christ.

The problem Paul is tackling is subtle and complex. In the Roman church (so his informers were telling him) were some with such a strong faith (and appetite!) that they could and would eat anything (any meat, sacrificed to any idols) and there were some with such a weak faith that they avoided any difficulties over meat by eating only vegetables (1-2).

While presumably this caused some practical problems at shared meals, the problem Paul tackles is the attitude of each group to the other. Each appears to think they were not only in the right but had a moral platform to cast judgment on the other (4). Paul instructs both sides to not 'despise' nor 'pass judgment' on the other (3).

His point is that there is one judge, the Lord, and each side is accountable to the Lord and only to the Lord (4, also 12). But to make this point he himself must have believed that each option was honourable and holy. One option might be less preferable to the other, a point seemingly indicated by his description of the 'the weak' as eating 'only vegetables' (2, but note that he might have simply been using the language of the debate going on in Rome), but Paul sees no inherent difficulty before God for either approach.

The verses between his initial opening statement and closing statement (with reference to our selected passage), i.e. verses 4-11, offer two matters for reflection by his audience.

First, on these matters of indifference, each must act in accord with their conscience, a conscience that should be informed futuristically by what it will mean to account for their actions before the Lord.

Secondly,  we should not be passing judgment on one another over such matters. Only the Lord is fit to make such judgment and only to the Lord do we owe account for how we have eaten.

Matthew 18:21-35

This passage follows on neatly from last Sunday's reading about resolution of conflict in the life of the church. Note how Peter's starting question involves 'if another member of the church sins against me' (21). When we flow from last week's passage to this week's we effectively have, in 18:15-35, a charter for conflict resolution which involves both a mechanism for resolution and a means for making that resolution effective: the injured party forgives the one who wounds.

Peter's supplementary question, 'As many as seven times?' (21) demonstrates both his embeddedness in Jewish culture and theology (see Genesis 4:24), and his generous spirit, no doubt infected by the gracious example he was already seeing in his Master's life.

But Jesus' response is challenging. To forgive seven times is extensive - most of us won't return to a relationship in which we need to forgive for an eighth time! Yet Jesus says 'seventy-seven times' we should forgive the one who sins against us (22, noting, according to a footnote, this might even be translated as 'seventy times seven').

On the one hand, this much larger number is a way of saying "there is no count to be put on forgiveness, Christians keep on forgiving through all of life."

On the other hand, this much larger number underlines something about church relationships: once in the church we are to stay in the church, to stay in relationship with brother and sister Christians, just like (say) marriage, for it is that kind of relationship in which one does not walk away after seven wounds but may, literally, need to forgive the other seventy-seven times, even on seventy times seven occasions.

The story which is then told, a parable (noting its parabolic introduction, 'the kingdom of heaven may be compared to ...' (23)), does not deal in numbers of times re forgiving but in numbers re 'amount' of forgiveness.

Two slaves owe two different amounts. One owes ten thousand talents to his master and pleas successfully for mercy. The other owes one hundred denarii to the first slave. The first slave, despite having had a debt of 60 million denarii (= 10k talents) forgiven, will not forgive a debt of 100 denarii!

The parable concludes with the point being made that all the numbers involved in verses 21-34 amount to this, Christians must 'forgive your brother or sister from your heart' (35). In an important sense, what begins with 'quantity' ends up with 'quality.' There are two lessons in the parable.

(1) Our multiple forgiveness of others should not be superficial: each act of forgiveness is to be from the heart.

(2) We forgive from the heart, we forgive multiple times, we keep on forgiving because no matter how many times we forgive or how deeply we forgive, it is tiny in comparison to the extent of the forgiveness God offers us.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sunday 10 September 2017 - 23rd Ordinary Sunday

Theme(s): Church decisions / church discipline / dealing with relationship breakdown / when Jesus is present / love as fulfilment of the law

Sentence: How good and pleasant a thing it is when God's people live together in unity (Psalm 133:1)

Collect:

Creator God
you have made us
not in one mould, but in many:
so deepen our unity in Christ through the Holy Spirit
that we may rejoice in our diversity. Amen.

Readings (related):

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Comments:

Ezekiel 33:7-11

What is the role of a prophet? Here the role is that of a 'sentinel' (7), someone who watches out for coming danger. In this case the prophet is to warn of the dangers of wicked living and to urge the wicked to turn from their ways (8-9). This role flows from the character of God: God cannot stand wickedness yet God does not wish to see the wicked die in their wickedness but repent and turn back to God.

Psalm 119:33-40

The psalmist praises the law. His desire to keep the law is heartfelt. I think the psalmist would have approved of what Paul wrote in the epistle today!

Romans 13:8-14

In continuity with earlier chapters in Romans, Paul loosens focus on the Law of God given through Moses from its details to its principles. In a subtle piece of writing he manages to move from the payment of taxes and giving of honour to those who deserve it (13:7) to guidance about debt ('Owe no one anything') to love for one another (13:8). In highlighting love for one another he is able to announce, 'the one who loves another has fulfilled the law' (8b). He then takes the commandments among the ten commandments associated with social relationships and sums them up, in agreement with Leviticus 19:18, and with Jesus, as 'Love your neighbour as yourself' (9b).

To be clear, this does not mean that we might find occasions when it is loving to (say) steal from our neighbours. 'Love does no wrong to a neighbour' (10).

The succeeding verses then make the point that while we are free in Christ we are to live not only as those who love one another but as those who live in the light. The day of reckoning is coming so we should live as we will live the day after that, in the full glare of God's presence.

Matthew 18:15-20

Only Matthew's gospel uses the Greek word for 'church,' ekklesia, and all the occurrences are in 16:18, this passage and the next verse, 18:21! An obvious inference to draw is that Matthew wrote this report of Jesus' teaching (remember, originally it was in Aramaic, not in Greek) with needs of the church his day in mind.

And what a useful passage it is! Matthew outlines a three stage process for dealing with conflict or wrong-doing in the church. In my view this process, albeit adapted, lies at the heart of our church's official, canonical process for dealing with conflict or wrong-doing (see Title D On the Maintenance of Ministry Standards). The move is from keeping the matter as low-key and personal as possible, through a stage in which several people are involved through to the full glare of congregational consideration.

However it might not be the best sermon to preach this Sunday if we were to outline this process because talk about how it might be implemented in the life of your congregation might raise more questions than you would like to answer at morning tea afterwards. Who do you have in mind, O preacher, who needs dealing with?

Perhaps, however, it would be a timely sermon to work from the passage to how each of us deals with interpersonal conflict as some of us have a propensity to want to get to the last stage before moving through the first two stages! In today's world we could perhaps talk about dealing with conflict via face to face conversation rather than trying to do so via text or email. We might also nod in the direction of the dangers of conflict in Facebook conversations ...

There is also a question within the passage of what verse 18 means (see also 16:19). Does this verse refer to some kind of absolute power of the church (e.g. to settle doctrinal matters in an infallible manner)? Or is this absolute language merely refering to the binding nature of church decisions when arrived at after due consideration of the matter at hand, in a fair and reasonable process? That is, is the language hyperbolic (as some language of Jesus is), so that what is being referred to here are the ordinary decisions of the church (to be respected and implemented) rather than the extraordinary decisions of the church (which, sometimes, contribute to an exercise of ecclesiastical power with unfortunate repercussions, including the practical impossibility of people implementing the decision).

We might note, incidentally, that the 'you' in verse 18 is the congregation and not the apostles (which, arguably, is the scope of authority granted in 16:19). But does the congregation here mean literally 'the congregation' as in the worshippers gathered together or some kind of meeting of the church as a council or synod? (Acts 15 is an example of the early church meeting together as a council and making a binding decision).

Verse 19 extends the power of the church when in agreement to prayer itself. Whether we feel we can explain this or not, it is an extraordinary claim to consider. The words can be read as, 'the Father waits for the church to agree what it will tell him to do'! On the one hand, God as Father is our loving father and wishes to assist and help us (and in that sense is willing for us to 'tell him what to do'). On the other hand, God is God and needs no one, let alone the church to tell him what to do!

In context, verse 19 must at least mean that God supports the church as it puts into effect its decisions when it makes proper decisions after due process.

Verse 20 also offers this twist to considering verse 19: when we gather as the church, Jesus is in our midst (even when we are the smallest of churches). This implies that Jesus assists the church in making its decisions and in arriving at agreement with what it asks of the Father. Thus the church being promised that the Father will do for us what we ask implies that this will be so for requests made which Jesus himself agrees to.