St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Saturday, 24 September 2011

September 25 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Pentecost 15

September 25                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Pentecost 15


Texts:  Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-33

Theme:  I suggest "A Change of Mind".  At the literal level that applies pretty well to the tale of the two sons in the gospel passage.  But in the broader sense, repentance is a change of mindset or attitude, which both lessons talk about.

Introduction.  God makes all things new.  Fresh starts, fresh ways of thinking and looking at things.  Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and start all over again, as the old song had it.  Not great music, perhaps, but sound theology.  Repentance (Ezekiel), kenosis – self-emptying (Philippians), and essence rather than form (Matthew) are all ways in which this idea of being open to the new plays out in practice.

Background.  There is a specialist Christian ministry group offering to set us free from "generational sin".  This is not meant in the sense that politicians talk of generational poverty, unemployment or delinquency.  It means that the idea denounced in our first lesson today that we can suffer the penalty for sins committed by our ancestors is still not dead over 2,500 years later!  I have on more than one occasion been "advised" by a well-meaning (though not well-informed) Christian that X is suffering because his "Great Uncle Charlie" was a Freemason!  "Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past...' (Isaiah 43:18!

Every parent will have had experience of a child saying one thing and doing or not doing something else!  Jesus' story would immediately have heads nodding.

Ezekiel.  Even those who believe that we are punished for the sins of our forefathers consider it is unjust – and such a view is, of course, critical of God's law.  Their complaint is that God's law on this matter is unjust.  But it is also a very useful defence:  I am not the sinner; it was my Great Uncle Charlie who sinned.  So this passage is really aimed, not so much at defending God against their criticism of his law, but at blowing this would-be defence out of the water.  You are being punished for your own sins, not Great Uncle Charlie's, so grow up, take responsibility for your own faults, and repent.  However, we are not simply dealing with a common proverb here: see Exodus 20:5: for I, the Lord your God am a jealous God punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Repentance is the way out of the rut, the way back to God.  It is the way to "get a new heart and a new spirit" (v.31).  This is much more than confession of particular sins: this is a whole transformation of attitude and personality.  There is also a warning against "reverse repentance": if the righteous person turns to sin his former righteous self will not save him.  In a real sense we choose whether or not to be saved.  Freewill and salvation are intimately linked.  (Obvious connection with the story of the two sons.)

Important to note that God does not take pleasure in the death of anyone.  God is not in the business of meeting a quota!  His will is that all will be saved.

Taking It Personally.

·         Consider your genetic inheritance.  Are you aware of any weakness or disability you have inherited?  How do you feel about that?  If not, have you given thanks for your good genes?

·         Consider your upbringing.  Are you aware of any adverse effects on your personality, attitudes, etc?  How do you feel about that?  Have you ever caught yourself blaming your parents, grandparents, etc for some negative trait in your character?

·         Are you inclined to explain away your shortcomings and failures by blaming past experiences of any kind?  Is there "baggage" you need to let go?

·         Would you like to be set free from any part of your past?  What might such liberation entail?  Which Bible stories come to mind as you ponder these questions?

Philippians.  The centre of this reading is the much-loved "hymn of Christ's humility".  But this is preceded with Paul's teaching on the relationship between believers within the Body of Christ.  He starts with the "benefits" of being in Christ – encouragement, comfort, fellowship, etc; then exhorts the believers to be "like-minded".  Not that we must agree on every point, but that we should be "one in spirit and purpose".  This calls for less "I" and more "we"; less "me" and more "us".  Perhaps our democratic upbringing encourages each of us to push our own barrows in the hope that all our competing interests can somehow be mediated through the democratic process.  But in the church there should be no competing interest, because each of us should be as concerned with the interests of others as we are with our own.  So, out with self ambition and vain conceit, and in with humility.

In short, out attitude should be the same as Christ's.  The key concept here is "kenosis" – Christ emptied himself of all his divine rights and prerogatives, and made room for God and other people.  He gave himself entirely to do his Father's will in all things and at all times.  "...yet not my will but yours be done" (Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:42; see also Hebrews 10:7; and the Lord's Prayer "your will be done".

Taking It Personally.

·         Reflect on your present relationship in and with Christ?  Do you draw encouragement from it; do you gain comfort from his love, and fellowship from his Spirit?  Are you more tender and compassionate towards others because of your faith?

·         Reflect on your relationship with others in your local church.  Are you ever tempted to push your own barrow?  Do you consider them better (more Christlike) than yourself?  Are you as mindful of their best interests as of your own?

·         Would you describe yourself as humble?  How would you feel if someone else described you in that way?

Matthew.  Suddenly, we are in Jerusalem.  We are past the triumphant entry (Palm Sunday and all that) and past the cleansing of the Temple.  It's probably that episode more than anything else that has caused the chief priests and the elders to come to Jesus and demand to know what authority he has to do these things, and from whom?  From the very beginning this issue of Jesus' authority has been bubbling away.  Early on we were told that the crowds marvelled at his teaching, because he taught as one having authority, and not as the teachers of the law who relied on precedents and rulers from other scholars: Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:27.

Jesus is reluctant to give a direct answer; he is not accountable to them.  Instead, he asks a question of his own concerning the authority of John the Baptist.  When they kick for touch, so does he.

His authority does not arise from his training, education and experience, but from his identity.  This provides our link with the parable of the two sons.  Neither son questions his father's authority for giving the command he does:  He is the father and that is the source of his authority over them.  In refusing to do as he is told, the first son rejects his father's authority and thereby rejects his father.  But then he changes his mind – he repents – and thereby restores his relationship with his father.  The second son does everything in reverse.  At the end the test is, which son is in right relationship with his father?

Obedience, in the religious sense, is recognising who God is and accepting his authority over our lives.  In refusing to listen to John the Baptist who was God's prophet (authorised spokesman) the religious leaders are rejecting God's authority; in heeding John's message, the prostitutes and publicans are accepting God's authority in their lives.

Taking It Personally.

·         Can you recall an occasion when someone challenged your authority – "Who do you think you are?"  How did you respond?

·         What is your general attitude towards those in authority?

·         Which of the two sons are you most like?

·         How is God's authority over you manifested in your daily life?

Friday, 23 September 2011

All Creatures Great and Small!

All Creatures Great and Small! - Thanksgiving Service for Pets at St Stephen's Hampden 2pm on Sunday 2nd October. All pets and owners welcome!

Friday, 16 September 2011


September 18                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION                    PENTECOST 14


Theme.  I suggest something like "The Sting of God's Grace".  We are used to being told how fortunate we are to be the recipients of God's grace.  Today we are challenged to recognise that part of our human nature that is not quite so thrilled when some thoroughly undeserving person receives that same grace.

Introduction.  Two great stories today, both clear in their meaning and requiring little exposition.  Jonah may be guilty of a little re-writing of recent history, in his assertion that the reason why he fled to Tarshish (Spain) was because he knew that the Ninevites would repent and be saved.  They were, after all, Israel's enemies, so a more likely initial concern for Jonah may have been a natural fear for his own safety.  However, the point of the story is clear enough: he wants God's favour for himself, and God's disfavour for his enemies.  The Parable of the Vineyard has a similar twist.  The workers hired first object to the master's generosity to others, even though they are receiving what they were promised.  St Paul's plea is that, whatever happens, in good fortune or bad ("for better or for worse"), we stand fast in the faith, for only our relationship with Christ truly matters.

Background.  The famous childish cry, "That's not fair!" sums up these stories today.  Children have an innate expectation that they will be treated fairly, and protest vigorously if they feel that they have been hard done by.  They rarely have any concern if some other child is the victim of injustice.

The story is told of God's horror on discovering that so far only one person had made it into heaven.  He summoned St Peter to explain.  St Peter insisted that it was God's fault: God had set the entrance standard too high.  Only one person had managed to comply with all ten commandments throughout his entire life.  God reflected on this, and then agreed to reduce the requirement from 10 to 5.  Millions then became eligible.  On hearing about the change the one resident of heaven was heard to yell, "That's not fair!"

Another story – this one true.  In a bible study group the conversation turned to a recent gruesome murder in the locality.  The offender pleaded guilty, expressed deep remorse, and hoped that one day the victim's family might find it in their hearts to forgive him.  One of the group, a lifelong member of the Church, asked what would happen to him eternally if he truly repented.  When told that he would receive God's mercy, she protested: "You mean, that scumbag would get the same deal I'll get after a lifetime of service to the church?"

Jonah.  It may be worth noting this story is set in modern-day Iraq.  Jonah, a Jew, is called to go there and warn the locals that they are on the wrong track – to call them to repentance.  Jonah wants none of that and takes ship to modern-day Spain, with near-fatal consequences.  Despite his near-death experience his inner nature does not seem to have been transformed for the better.  His obedience is grudging, and he hopes with all his heart that his call to repentance will be rejected.  Indeed, he sits down to watch what he hopes will be their mass extermination, concerned only with his personal well-being.  Even when challenged by God he puts up robust resistance.  He is, if nothing else, one of the most honest people we come across in the Scriptures.

Taking It Personally.

·        How much of a Jonah is in you?  Can you recall an occasion on which you felt cross because someone did not get their just desserts?

·        Are you as quick to give thanks when things go well for you as you are to complain when they do not?

·        Notice that the story ends with an unanswered question.  What unanswered questions do you have as you read this story?

Philippians.  St Paul is in prison and in chains.  He is quite clear that this is a direct consequence of his proclamation of his faith in Christ.  He is well aware of the danger he faces – he could be executed.  Far from being terrified at the prospect, he calmly weighs up whether he would prefer to die, and so be with the Lord immediately, or remain alive so that he can continue his ministry.  On balance, he thinks the latter option is preferable because it is in the interests of others.  Whatever happens (and his implication is that nothing of a worldly nature matters too much), the important thing is to stand firm in the faith, and to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Taking It Personally.

·       Note the blunt realism of Paul's approach.  Take a few moments to ponder his physical situation as he writes this message.  Then read this passage through again.  How would you describe Paul's feelings at this time?

·       Notice his reference to joy in verses 24 and 25.  How is it possible to be joyful in such dismal personal circumstances?

·       Reflect on your own conduct over the last week.  Has it been worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Matthew.  Another of Jesus' major parables, and perhaps the one that is most complete.  It is self-explanatory – even the disciples seem to get it!  It is a kingdom parable – this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Some of the features include the fact that all the workers respond positively when called, the first and the last.  No one gets less than he is entitled to.  A denarius is usually described as the labourer's daily rate of pay: it is perhaps better to describe it as the average daily cost of living for a labourer and his dependents.  Thus, each worker in this story has his needs met regardless of how long he worked.  "Give us today our daily bread."  A question not often asked in respect of this parable is this: if the vineyard represents the kingdom of heaven and the landowner is God, should we not be envious of those first hired, because they entered into the presence of God earlier than the others?  We are assuming the opposite, but why?  Notice there is no harsh condemnation at the end of this parable, as there was with the parable of the unmerciful servant.  The landowner simply explains his position and asks another unanswerable question – in fact, two unanswerable questions (v.15).

Taking It Personally.

·       Where do your sympathies lie?  Do you find yourself on the 'wrong side of this parable' again?

·       How might a Christian be guided by this parable in an employment situation?  Should it matter if a fellow employee appears to be on a higher rate for the same work, so long as the employer is paying the agreed amount to the Christian employee?

·       Does generosity to one person always imply injustice to another?

·       Is this just another example of the unrealism of the kingdom of heaven compared to the ways of the world?  Should we confine such biblical teaching to the Church, and not seek to apply it to the secular world?


Friday, 9 September 2011


September 11                                    NOTES FOR RELECTION                           Pentecost 13

Texts:  Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Theme:  This week it picks itself.  It is at the heart of the Lord's Prayer, and at the core of his teaching.  The unforgiving are not forgiven.  God's love may be unconditional, but his forgiveness is not.  We are forgiven to the same extent that we forgive others.

Introduction.  There is probably no more difficult challenge to those of us who try to follow Christ's teaching than this apparently indissoluble link between our forgiveness of others and God's forgiveness of us.  No wonder it tends to bring out the legalistic hair-splitting side of our nature, so well represented by Peter in today's gospel passage.  Recall that this passage follows on the teaching about dealing with an offending party within the community of faith.  Peter wants to know about the serial offender: how many times should we put up with it until we finally give up on him?  His suggestion of seven strikes and you're out seems pretty generous by our standards; but Jesus blows the whole idea of such counting and record-keeping out f the water.  (Love, says St Paul keeps no record of wrongs: 1 Corinthians 13:5).  Likewise, Joseph embodies the grace of God in contrast to the worldly approach of his brothers.  Ultimately, says St Paul, we can leave it all to God as all of us will be called to account by him.

Background.   In his book Living Prayer Metropolitan Anthony has a chapter on the Lord's Prayer.  He draws a fascinating parallel between the development of the prayer, read from the end back to the beginning(!), and the Exodus journey.  Here is an extract of what he writes about the petition 'Forgive us our trespasses...":

There is one thing that stands as a line of demarcation between Egypt and the desert, between slavery and freedom; it is a moment when we act decisively and become new people, establishing ourselves in an absolutely new moral situation.  In terms of geography it was the Red Sea, in terms of the Lord's Prayer it is 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...'  This 'as we forgive' is the moment when we take our salvation into our own hands, because whatever God does depends on what we do; and this is terribly important in terms of ordinary life. If these people who are moving out of Egypt into the promised land take with them, out of the land of Egypt, their fears, their resentments, their hatreds, their grievances, they will be slaves in the promised land.  They will not be freemen, even in the making.  And this is why at the demarcation line between the trials of fire and the beguilement of old habits, stands this absolute condition that God never relaxes: as you forgive, the measure which you use will be used for you; and as you forgive, you will be forgiven; what you do not forgive will be held against you.  It is not that God does not want to forgive, but if we come unforgiving, we check the mystery of love, we refuse it and there is no place for us in the kingdom.  We cannot go farther if we are not forgiven, and we cannot be forgiven as long as we have not forgiven everyone who has wronged us.  This is quite sharp and real and precise, and no one has the right to imagine that he is in the kingdom of God, that he belongs to it, if there is still unforgiveness in his heart.  To forgive one's enemies is the first, the most elementary characteristic of a Christian; failing this, we are not yet Christian at all, but we are still wandering in the scorching wilderness of Sinai.

Tough stuff indeed!  A failure to forgive is a failure to love; a refusal to be reconciled is a breach of fellowship or communion.  To understand the eternal consequences of that we have only to reflect on the story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:18-31).

Genesis.  A wonderfully dramatic conclusion to the long and all-too-human saga of the Bible's most dysfunctional family, whose members became the founding fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel!  Jesus surely had this episode in mind when he told the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Like the son, these brothers realise that they have got themselves in a hopeless position.  They have surely forfeited all right to fraternal love, so they devise a survival strategy.  They concoct a story about their father's dying wish, and when they are brought into Joseph's presence they declare themselves his slaves rather than his brothers.  But Joseph, the servant of God, is gracious to them, and assures them of his care and protection for them and their children.

Taking It Personally.

·        Take a moment to recall the enormity of the ill-treatment Joseph's brothers had inflicted on him.  How would you describe it?

·        Reflect on your own family relationships.  Are you estranged from any family member?  Do you feel any resentment towards any member for past behaviour towards you?

·        Are you aware of any occasion on which some wrong was done against you and God subsequently used that to good purpose?  Does that make it any easier to forgive the wrongdoer?

Romans.  This reading departs somewhat from our main theme.  It deals mainly with our tendency to judge our fellow believers on somewhat peripheral matters.  Whenever we catch ourselves thinking, 'If he was a real Christian he wouldn't have done that', we should re-read this passage.  It's that sort of attitude that St Paul is taking aim at.  He opposes it on three grounds.  First, on relatively unimportant issues (meat-eating is one of his examples) the unity of the fellowship is too important to risk in argument.  Secondly, every Christian is a servant of the Lord. It is not our place to judge someone else' servant: that is a matter between the servant and the master.  Thirdly, each of us must give our own account to God.

But there are some connecting threads between these ideas and our theme of forgiveness.  Forgiveness pre-supposes some element of judgment: I cannot forgive someone unless I understand that he has offended against me.  And here is a question to ponder: does our forgiveness wipe clean only the offence against us, leaving the offender to make his own account to God; or does our forgiveness also wipe out the offence against God?  [See Matthew 6:14-15; 16:19; and 18:18]

Taking It Personally.

·       Are you inclined to be critical of other Christians whose beliefs and practices differ from your own?

·       How do you distinguish between "disputable matters" (v.1) and core, non-negotiable ones?

·       How do you feel about the prospect of giving an account of yourself to God?

·       If you do not already do this, consider ending each day for a week conducting a brief review of the day and giving an account of yourself to God for that day [a practice sometimes called "an examen of conscience"].

Matthew.  Surely one of the hardest and most direct of all the parables.  It covers all three classes of parable, kingdom, grace, and judgment.  It shows the conduct required of us to live in the Kingdom of Heaven.  All the details are grossly exaggerated.  We're talking Bernie Madoff figures here!  No servant could possibly have run up such a huge debt; and certainly any promise to repay, even by instalments, is complete nonsense.  The whole point is to stress the extraordinary mercy shown by the King in forgiving the debt; and equally, the paltry sum owed to the servant by his fellow servant.  The plea for patience made by each servant is the same; so again the comparison is between the attitude of the King one the one hand and the first servant on the other.  Legally, the story doesn't work too well: once the debt had been forgiven the King could not reinstate it – it had ceased to exist.  But this story is not a case study in contract law: it's about the response required of the recipients of God's grace.  The servant's failure to extend forgiveness means that he has rejected the grace he received; the consequence of that is that he condemns himself to hell.  Verse 35 makes it all too clear what Jesus is really warning us about.

Taking It Personally.

·        Pray the petition "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" slowly several times.  Then re-read this story.

·        Ask God to draw to mind any matter that you may need to address by forgiving someone else.

·        Re-read the passage quoted above by Metropolitan Anthony.  Do you agree or disagree with the importance he attaches to this subject.  Why?


Friday, 2 September 2011


September 4                                                      NOTES FOR REFLECTION                               Pentecost 12

Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Theme:  "Confronting Wrongdoing", perhaps, or (with apologies to Cain) "I AM My Brother's Keeper".

Introduction.  Our readings don't get any easier!  And they don't get any less counter-cultural, either.  Today the language of "sin" is heard only on the lips of American televangelists or Tea Party political aspirants.  In this country we even shy away from words like "moral" or "ethical".  People under suspicion routinely stress that they have done nothing "illegal"; rare is the interviewer who follows up with the obvious question, "Well, how about immoral or unethical – have you done anything of that nature?"  To suggest that somebody may have done something immoral or unethical is to invite immediate protest.  Who are we to judge?  Being though t judgmental  is the pits.

But Scripture says otherwise.  We warn people who are in physical danger: Scripture says we should also warn them when they are in spiritual danger.  Ezekiel is told a failure to do just that would render him accountable to God for the harm that befalls those he does not warn.  St Paul directs our attention to our own behaviour; and St Matthew outlines what is to be done when one of our fellows transgresses against another.

Background.  In his commentary on St Matthew's gospel, David E Garland comments on today's passage as follows:

These instructions picture a community where every member watches over another, the whole church assumes responsibility for every member, and every member is accountable to the whole church...  This may seem unduly intrusive to modern readers imbued with the spirit of rugged individualism, but a sense of household solidarity offered the early Christians security in a hostile world.

We might contrast that with our modern obsession with the Privacy Act, due process, the right to silence, and scandalous cover-ups.

Ezekiel.  At the heart of Ezekiel's prophetic call is his role as the nation's "watchman".  A watchman kept look-out on the city walls to warn the populace of impending attack.  Ezekiel was to warn the people of the catastrophic consequences if they didn't repent and return to God.  If he failed to warn them, their death would be on his head.  If he warned them and they failed to heed the warning, they would suffer the consequences but he would be saved.  A key verse is v.11; God does not want the wicked to die, he wants them to repent.

Taking It Personally.

·         If you saw someone doing wrong would you intervene?  Would you distinguish between something illegal and something unethical?  Would you remonstrate with that person, or report him/her to the appropriate authority?

·         Would you be more or less inclined to intervene if the person were known to you?  A family member/colleague/friend/member of your church?

·         Do you feel any responsibility for the wrongdoing of others?

·         Would you be more likely to intervene to prevent self-harm or physical harm to another?  What about spiritual self-harm?

·         How would you react if your behaviour was challenged by a fellow church member?

Romans.  St Paul shifts our focus from the wrongs of others to our own wrongs.  Notice that this passage is not cast in terms of warning – behave like this or else!  This is the way to live, not to avoid God's wrath, but to respond to his love.  In essence, we should seek to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to live lives that can withstand the light of day.  It is important to remember that the letter is addressed to the whole congregation, not to an individual.  In that context, "dissension and jealousy" are to be treated just as seriously as "sexual immorality and debauchery".

Taking It Personally.

·         This is another good passage for a spiritual stock-take.

·         Remember that the measure is Jesus himself, not our neighbours and fellow church members.  To what extent have you "clothed yourself with Christ"?

Matthew.  Here is a very practical procedure for dealing with wrongdoing within the church.  The first point to note is the placing of this passage within the context of chapter 18 as a whole.  First comes the disciples' question about status within the kingdom of heaven.  The answer is that childlike humility is to be the hallmark of greatness within the kingdom.  Then comes the truncated version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  We should spare no effort to draw the stray back into the fold.  Then comes today's passage, and this is followed by the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.  In short, today's passage is to be understood within the context of humility, reconciliation, and unlimited forgiveness.

But it's also about truth.  Wrongdoing within the fellowship must be confronted, not so that the wrongdoer can be punished, but so that he can be brought to see the error of his/her ways and repent.  To turn a blind eye – to keep the peace and avoid a fuss – is not being kind or holy: it is being literally irresponsible.  It is failing to take responsibility for bringing the wrongdoer back to the right path.

Note that the whole passage is probably intended as one coherent teaching.  Verse 18 emphasises that the church has authority to determine the outcome of such disputes; and verses 19-20 promise the guidance of God's grace, through the presence of Christ, in those deliberations.

Finally we should note that the initiative lies with the aggrieved person, not with the offender.

Taking It Personally.

·         Have you ever felt aggrieved by the action or word of a fellow member of your church?   What did you do about it (if anything)?

·         Has anyone ever confronted you in this sort of way?  How did you respond?

·         In general, how do you deal with personal conflict?  Do you prefer to have it out, or shut it away?