St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Presentation in the Temple

February 3                  NOTES FOR REFLECTION             The Presentation in the Temple

Texts:  Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40.

Theme:  Perhaps the easiest solution is to stick with the official title, noting that in full it is "The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple".  Other possibilities include "The Law and the Prophets", or "The Faithful Family", or "Observing the Niceties".

Introduction.  Today's readings together strike me as a bit of a jumble, perhaps because they are struggling to make sense of the essential mystery of Jesus' true identity.  They are also, perhaps, trying to do too much.  First, by including this prophecy from Malachi the implication is given that Jesus' presentation in the temple on this occasion is in fulfilment of that prophecy, which frankly is a bit of a stretch.  As St Luke is at pains to stress, the presentation is in fulfilment of the Law, and Mary and Joseph were doing what all parents of good faith would have done.  (Of course, St Luke has far more in mind than legal niceties, but one of them was probably not Malachi's prophecy.) The writer to the Hebrews stresses the fleshly reality of Christ's birth, so that we are to remember that this little baby being brought to the temple today is just like any other human baby in his physical make-up.  That point made, however, the writer uses it as part of his teaching on the salvific value of Christ's life and death.

Background.  This is another of those early stories that we find in St Matthew and St Luke (and to some extent in chapter 2 of St John's Gospel) that may be more concerned with the truth of Jesus' identity than with the facts of an actual incident.  At first sight it might seem surprising to find it is this gospel, rather than St Matthew's: certainly verses 22-24 would seem the sort of thing that would concern St Matthew more than St Luke.  Again, this opening paragraph has something of the "shoring up of defences" or "responding to questions from the floor" about it.  It is, of course, very likely that Mary and Joseph followed the prescribed requirements in this way, because all practising Jews would have done, so wqhy does St Luke bother to mention it?  It may be that this was in response to some attack on Mary (and Joseph) designed to suggest that Jesus did not come from the right sort of family; but again this would be more likely to concern Matthew than Luke.

There is another, more subtle possibility.  In strictly legal terms, St Luke is a bit muddled.  He shows both Mary and Joseph in need of purification, but these requirements only applied to the mother, not the father.  The mother became ritually unclean by giving birth, not the father.  (One commentator, so concerned about this "mistake", suggests that Joseph must have helped in the delivery, thus rendering himself 'unclean'.)  This 'mistake' could have been inadvertent – St Luke lacking Matthew's expertise in legal matters: or it might have been that St Luke's agenda of the equality of sexes got the better of him.  Notice how Simeon (male) and Anna (female) play equal roles as the drama unfolds.

It would be useful to add in verse 21 to this story to get the full picture.  On the 8th day Jesus is officially named and circumcised.  He is given the name specified by the angel Gabriel: there is no argument over the name.  Why is that significant?  Because it contrasts with what happened with John the Baptist, as St Luke tells it in 1:59-63, so yet again the subtext is to distinguish Jesus from John.  (There may even be a hint of this in 1:80 compared with 2:40.)  So Jesus has received the sign of the Covenant – he is recognised as a descendant of Abraham, in short he is a member of the People of God.  Now, as the first-born male child, he must be consecrated to the Lord (a requirement, incidentally, that applied to the first-born male issue of their livestock as well: see Exodus 13:2, 12).

There is a particularly lovely pastoral liturgy in our Prayer Book that is, to some extent, an echo of this "presentation".  It is called Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child, and begins on page 754.  It is a modernised (not to say sanitised) version of the old service in the Book of Common Prayer commonly called The Churching of Women.  (Both are well worth reading as background for today's gospel.)  The old service did at least have the advantage of reminding us that child-birth can be a dangerous experience for the mother: "we give thee humble thanks for that thou hast vouchsafed to deliver this woman thy servant from the great pain and peril of child-birth".  This is somewhat muted in the modern version: the mother's prayer includes thanksgiving "for sustaining me through the pain of labour", and our prayer for the mother includes thanks "that she has been brought safely through the time of pregnancy and labour".

Interestingly, neither service seems to recognise the danger of childbirth to the child.  Perhaps that's worth thinking about this week, particularly by those who regularly lead intercessions in our services.  I often hear prayers for the sick and the dying: what about prayers for those who are about to give birth, or about to be born?  And, perhaps, to focus again on Mary's labour, and the real threat to her health and her baby's health in the actual, physical, real birth.  [Yes, we believe that he "was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became fully human", but that doesn't quite capture how it felt at the time to Mary (and the baby), does it?]

The other issue that might be floating around in the ether this week is the vexed question of infant baptism.  In the introductory notes to "The Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child" (page 754 of the Prayer Book) a very clear statement is made: This service has no connection with Baptism, which is the sacrament of initiation into the Church, the Body of Christ.  There is its great value.  I have used this service about 6-8 times, never in a church building (usually in the family home).  It provides for the naming of the child, his or her reception into the wider family, and an opportunity to give thanks to God for the gift of the child's life.  What it doesn't do is require the parents to make solemn professions of faith and promises to bring the child up in the faith, as the baptismal liturgy requires.  So, in my view there is no longer any excuse for baptising an infant whose parents are not themselves members of the worshipping community, nor have any intention of becoming so. 

And yes, I claim my position is totally consistent with the teaching (but sadly not the practice) of the Anglican Church in this Province.  On page 384 of the Prayer Book, in the "Presentation for Baptism", the bishop or priest says this: From the beginning the Church has received believers by baptism.  Believers' children have also been baptised so that with help and encouragement they should grow up in Christ and by the grace of God serve Christ all the days of their life.  I rest my case (for now).

Malachi.  This passage more seem more appropriate as a reading for Advent than for Candlemas (last year it was set for the Second Sunday in Advent, 9 December), or perhaps as a backdrop to the story of the Cleansing of the Temple.  It opens with the assurance that the Lord (also known as the messenger of the covenant), whom the people are seeking and whom they desire, will indeed come to the Temple (the good news), but for the purpose of bringing judgement (the bad news).  In particular, the target will be the Levites, the "staff" of the Temple, whose standards have fallen below an acceptable stand.  So this is essentially about the need for religious reform.  There is a need to return to the good old days when the offerings were made in righteousness and were therefore acceptable to the Lord.  But in verse 5 there are 2 changes.  First, it is now the Lord God (rather than the messenger of the covenant) who is to come to the Temple; and judgment will be applied to all the people on the ground of personal piety and of social justice.

Taking It Personally.

·        Are you "seeking" the Lord?  Do you "desire" him?  Make time this week for a personal spiritual stock-take, bearing in mind the sins referred to in verse 5.

·        Think about our church for a while, and about your own local faith community.  Are our offerings of praise and thanksgiving (worship) acceptable to the Lord, do you think, or do we need a shake-up?    What changes (if any) in our practices would you like to see?

·        How good or otherwise is our care of the vulnerable, the workers, orphans, widows and aliens?  Make this the subject of your prayers this week.

Hebrews.  A further and fascinating attempt by the author to get the balance right between our understanding of Christ as Son of God (his spiritual nature) and as a human being just like the rest of us (his human nature).  Hence the reference to flesh and blood as the introduction to the phrase "shared in their humanity".  Jesus was real like us: he had flesh and blood like us.  Nothing too startling there; but notice what comes next.  It was by his (human) death that he destroyed the devil "who holds the power of death".  What is this "power of death" rather than death itself?  The writer spells it out in verse 15 in graphic terms: and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  If we get our heads around nothing else in our readings this week, this one thought could transform us!  How often we are held back by "prudence" or "risk assessment" in our faith journeys.  And behind all this we are held back by our (natural) fear of death.  If we truly lost that fear how different our lives might be.  And, of course, that this passage tells us is that because of Christ, there is no longer any reason to fear death.  And the rest of the passage is pretty good, too.

Taking It Personally.

·     In a very moving interview broadcast on TV this week, Sir Paul Holmes admitted to an apprehension about what might be "over there".  Reflect on your own attitude to your own death.  Are you afraid of what might be over there?

·     Can you recall instances in your past when you have been held back from doing something, or going somewhere, by fear (whether of death, failure, embarrassment, or otherwise)?

·     What would you say to Sir Paul Holmes by way of comfort or assurance?

Luke.  Apart from the opening paragraph (see above), this is a classic Luke story.  Notice the central role of the Holy Spirit in arranging the encounter between Simeon and the Holy Family.  Then we have yet another song (the Nunc Dimitis) to go with the Magnificat and the Song of Zechariah.  It is no accident that the welcoming party comprises a prophet and a prophetess; nor that the salvation Simeon has seen is for all people, the Gentiles and Israel.  In verse 38 we have another favourite theme of Luke's – the need to share the good news about Jesus with others.

Taking It Personally.

·        Another good passage for praying with imagination.  Put yourself in the Temple.  Look at the characters. Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, and the infant Jesus.  Listen to the words of Simeon.  What do you feel as you see and hear the drama unfold?

·        Notice the emphasis on compliance with the Law (religious, not civil).  Do you find that helpful or unhelpful to your own faith journey?

·        What do you think about infant baptism?  Should it be restricted to the infants of believers (however defined or determined) or should we "welcome all-comers" to the font, regardless of religious belief?

·        Notice that Jesus is completely passive during all this, and nothing was done to or for him that did not apply in the case of any other Jewish first-born child.  What do you make of that?

·        Follow Anna's example and share your faith this week with others.


Thursday, 24 January 2013


January 27                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:   Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Theme:  No obvious ones this week.  For some reason I can't get out of my mind those opening two verses from the Letter to the Hebrews ("In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways..."), so perhaps there's something here about "The Law, the Son and the Spirit", which would be a fair summary of this week's three readings.  But not very jazzy, I concede:  perhaps we could take a lead from the US this week and go with "The Inauguration", although "The Campaign Launch" might be more accurate.

Introduction.  A common link between the three readings may also be the "religious collective" – the people of God and the Body of Christ.  Great stress is placed in our Nehemiah reading on the inclusive nature of the great assembly "men, women and all who were able to understand".  The second lesson follows immediately after last week's, in which St Paul emphasised the unity of the Holy Spirit whose work is manifested in the diversity of spiritual gifts.  This week he emphasises the unity of all believers in the Body of Christ manifested in the diversity of individual functions or ministries.  And in our gospel passage, Jesus, while drawing on the history of God's dealings with the people of Israel, makes his point (rather too well!) by recalling two specific instances where God acted for two individual Gentiles.  To use the modern jargon, these readings are about unity and diversity.

Background.  My latest treat, courtesy of Kindle, is "Field of Compassion" by Judy Cannato.  In it she covers much ground, including an account of a psychology experiment (which I think I recall having read somewhere else some years ago) designed to test how much of what we see depends on our eyes, and how much on our brains.  The "game" was set up like this.

There were two teams of 3 players separated by a small distance.  One team was dressed in black, the other in white.  Each team had a basketball, which the members passed to one another in their own team for 30 seconds.  The test subjects were placed where they could see each team equally well, and their task was to count how many times each team passed the ball from one member to another during that 30 seconds.  At some point during that period a man dressed in a gorilla suit walked into the gap between the two teams, paused, beat his chest three times, then walked off.  At the end of the test period, the test subjects were asked three questions: how many times did the black team members pass the ball; how many times did the white team members pass the ball; and did they notice anything unusual while they were watching.  This test was repeated many times with many different subjects to get a statistically significant result.  The aggregated result showed almost a 50-50 split between those who noticed the gorilla and those who did not!  In other words, about half the people did not see the gorilla at all!

What such tests seem to show is that, to a much greater degree than we might think, what we see (or fail to see) is governed by what we are looking for or expect to see.  Presumably our eyes "report" what is actually there, but our brain dismisses or amends the report to accord with what it believes to be "out there" or "not out there".

Something similar seems to have happened in the synagogue that Sabbath day in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth.  We can picture the scene.  Although this has all the hallmarks of "a campaign launch", complete with a manifesto borrowed from Isaiah, it is clear from St Luke's introduction (verses 14-15), and from Jesus' own words in verse 23, that Jesus has already done some preaching and teaching in other synagogues in Galilee.  His reputation would have preceded him: perhaps the ruler of the synagogue had done some shameless advertising ahead of Jesus' visit (the sort we do when the Bishop's coming).  So a larger than usual congregation may have assembled to see the "local boy made good".  In other words, they expected to see the lad they had watched grow up – they had not expected to see a prophet, much less the Son of God.  So all went well when Jesus appeared to be what they had expected to see: verse 22.  If Jesus had stopped there, he could well have received a hearty round of applause, or even been mobbed by autograph hunters!

But, of course, he didn't stop there; he became something they were not able to see, being blinded by their preconceptions.  The traditional approach to this story is also "to stop there"; to focus on the blindness of the people (and to pretend that we ourselves would not have been so blind had we been there).  But a good question is, why did Jesus not stop there?  Why did he suddenly become so provocative, even rude?

The first thing to note is that this story is a Luke exclusive; so it may be that we should use the same sort of approach I have been adopting in these Notes recently in respect of some of the "exclusives" in Mathew and John: is this another construct designed to show the truth of the general response to Jesus within the official faith communities (synagogues) of the time, whenever he tried to move them out of their comfort zone and into the riskier world of God's zone?  There may be something of this, but I think there is another possible approach worth thinking about here. 

Perhaps St Luke is right in recording this event as being very early on in Jesus' public ministry.  Reading this story as a whole I get a very strong impression of an enthusiasm, and perhaps even a naivety, in Jesus' approach that suggests that he has still to learn just how much resistance any "reformer" will face from those who have no desire and see no need for reform (more Obama Inaugural Speech No.1 than No.2).  Perhaps Jesus' initial sorties had been well-received; perhaps he was unduly heartened by the initial response of his hometown congregation to such an extent that he felt emboldened to start challenging them with some more difficult stuff.

There is no doubt that the whole tone and atmosphere changed dramatically from verse 23 onwards.  Perhaps Jesus sensed that they were waiting for the spectacular stuff to start: yes, he's an impressive preacher alright, but when's he going to get to the miracles?  That seems to be behind verse 23, and from then on it was downhill (almost literally) all the way.  It's not that what Jesus said was wrong: it's just that it seems unnecessarily provocative at such an early stage of his ministry.  Or was he simply trying to emphasise that he had cut the apron strings and was his own man now?

Nehemiah.  The first lesson is also about a fresh start, an inauguration of sorts.  Following Cyrus' conquest of Babylonia and his decree allowing the Jews to return home there had been a very mixed response.  Not every Jewish exile found the lure of a ruined homeland more appealing than a reasonably comfortable life in Babylon.  (It remains a curious fact of history that from the time of the Exile, a majority of Jews have always lived outside of Israel.) Probably not more than a third who were entitled to return ever did so.  But some did, of course, and by many trials and errors they managed to re-build some sort of normalcy in their beloved Jerusalem.  In particular the walls of the city and the all-important temple were re-built: the physical stuff was done (think Christchurch re-build here), and now attention was given to rebuilding the people themselves.  That meant returning to God, rebuilding their nation on the rock of God's will for them.  That in turn meant rediscovering the "Law", probably the whole Torah or at least the Book of Deuteronomy.  Thus all the people were called to a great national assembly to hear the reading of the Law, and to have it explained by various teachers, a sort of mass Bible study lasting many hours.  Notice that the people heard it and wept (at their sins?), but their leaders insisted this was a time for joy, feasting and celebration.

Taking It Personally.

·        The challenges facing our Church post-Christchurch raise the sorts of issues dealt with in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  Think about the issue in the context of the Christchurch Cathedral.  Is it important to rebuild that sacred place come what may, or is this a time to get back to the roots of our faith and put our resources into teaching, prayer, listening, and generally re-building our relationship with God?

·        Do you more often find the Scriptures challenging to the point of tears or uplifting and encouraging to the point of cheers?  What about your experience of services in your local church?  Do they seem more like times of feasting and celebration or times of mourning and grief?

·        When the Scriptures are being read during a service do you listen attentively, or are you inclined to drift off?  Do you truly attempt to "hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church"?

Corinthians.  This is the core of St Paul's great teaching on the "Body of Christ".  To me it had always been just an interesting metaphor used by St Paul as he battled against the rampant individualism he found in the faith community at Corinth (and elsewhere in the infant Church), until very recently when I read Teilhard de Chardin's  "The Divine Milieu", and now I can't get his understanding of this teaching out of my mind.  He says that the Body of Christ is evolving, growing as more and more of Creation is redeemed and incorporated into it.  There is only one life – and that life is incarnated in the Body of Christ.  The body that hung on the Cross at Golgotha was the Body of Christ in this sense – all creation was crucified in Christ.  Big stuff – far too big for these Notes today, but well worth pondering.  And to start the pondering here is a simple exercise.

Taking It Personally.  Pick up a piece of paper in your hand.  Hold it there.  Now crunch it up.  Now release your grip and look at the crumpled form.  Now drop the paper on the floor, leave it there for a few moments, then pick it up again.  Do all this slowly and with full attention.  Now think about this.  Did your hand do it all or did you do it?  Did you do it with or through your hand?  Was only your hand involved or were other parts of you involved – your brain, your eyes, your arm, and what about your cardio-vascular system, your metabolic system, your immune system, and so on?  Then go inside your hand, to the muscles, the bones, sinews, ligaments, arteries, veins, and so on.  Then go inside them, to the tissues and membranes, the cells of various kinds, and so on.  A vast number of cells were all involved in doing a very simple exercise with a piece of paper: the "success" of the exercise resulted in each of those cells performing their function in co-operation with all the others.  That, says St Paul, is equally true of the Body of Christ.  Whatever we do, we do within and as part of the Body of Christ:  put another way, through us the Body of Christ does it.

Luke. One or two other comments in addition to those already made above.  Notice at the start of this passage that Jesus is ministering "in the power of the Spirit".  Secondly, in verse 16 St Luke makes it clear that Jesus regularly attended synagogue services.  Thirdly, Jesus did what these Notes have always tried to encourage us to do: he took the reading personally: verse 21.  There is surely a lesson here for us. He read well, and the people loved it; he spoke well and they loved that, too.  But then he took the reading personally – another way of saying that is that he took it seriously, not as something that sounds nice, but as something that demands a personal response.

Taking It Personally.

·        Are you troubled by the suggestion that perhaps Jesus was "a bit green" when he began his preaching career?  That he had to develop his preaching skills as he went along?

·        Are you inclined to look for the spectacular (the miracle)?   Or the "impressive" preacher, the one who brings comfort and reassurance, rather than challenge?

·        What most offends you about Christ's teaching?  Have you ever felt like "throwing him over the cliff" and have done with him?


Thursday, 17 January 2013


January 20                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Theme:  No overwhelming favourites this time.  I rather like "The First Sign", except that it implies a chronological scheme that really doesn't fit with St John's approach.  Something more liturgical, perhaps, such as "Ritual Water into Gospel Wine" or, in similar vein, "Taste the Difference".

Introduction.  In keeping with the "Epiphany" theme of recent weeks, our central story today is one of those that is more concerned with the truth about Jesus than the facts of what happened.  We sometimes say of someone, "With him what you see is what you get."  With Jesus it would be more accurate to say, "What you see is only a small part of what you get."  The synoptic gospels emphasise what people saw (and heard) when Jesus was present:  St John is concerned with the much larger question of what we get with Jesus.  Our first lesson continues with the theme of identity in, and relationship with, God; and our epistle reading reminds us yet again of our besetting sin of individualism.  The connecting theme between the three readings is not immediately obvious (to me), but here are some guesses.  Isaiah is using the metaphor of marriage to emphasise the close and loving relationship between God and his people, so there's a link with the gospel setting.  St Paul is trying to get the people of Corinth to see through the manifestation of the gifts (in which the recipients were taking boastful delight) to see the donor of the gifts, the Holy Spirit – a sort of revelation in itself, perhaps.  But if this is the intended link, to call it tenuous would be rather generous. 

In desperation, I have departed from my usual practice of ignoring the psalm of the day.  [Yes, I know – I am supposed to love the psalms, but somehow I have never managed that yet.]  Today's psalm is 36:5-10.  Verse 8 (in the Prayer Book version on page 237) is very lovely: They feast on the rich abundance of your house: you give them drink from the stream of your delight.  It provides a reasonable response to the first lesson, and a good link with the gospel.  [But while I am in the mood for a good rant, I suspect that one of the things that prevents me from falling head over heels in love with the psalms is the irritating practice adopted by the thought police behind our Lectionary who seem to cherry pick the psalms to ensure that nothing too negative should be allowed to enter our tender minds.  Today is a classic example of the wielding of the censor's red pencil or steel scissors.  Out of the 12 verses, only 6 are considered fit for our ears.  Read the whole thing: are you damaged by it?]

There is something grimly fascinating about the Corinthian correspondence – it always strikes me as being extraordinarily contemporary.  From time to time I still come across people in the Church who wish we could return to our roots and become more like the infant Church.  For goodness sake!  Read the Corinthian correspondence and lament the sad fact that in 2000 years we do not seem to have made any improvement at all!  We are exactly like the infant Church.

Among the books I am reading at the moment (yet another fruit from the University Bookshop's continuous sale) is Nicholas Wade's The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures.  One of the issues he brings out very well concerns the great bind that social animals have always faced in their evolutionary development: how do we move from extreme to limited individualism?  How do we go from 'every man for himself', to 'every man for our group'?  The fundamental instinct for survival at all costs that operates at the individual level has to be modified somehow when survival of the individual depends more and more on co-operation with certain other individuals.  A careful balancing of competing interests is required, designed to tone down natural aggression and hostility between competing males within a group, while ensuring that they remain aggressive and hostile towards "outsiders", members of other groups.

It's Wade's argument, that the development of religion was the key element in solving this challenge, but I don't want to engage in that argument here.  What fascinates me about this part of his book is the light it sheds on our human nature as it is today, and, in particular, how it operates in the Church today.  In our hunter-gatherer stage of development, groups were very egalitarian.  Foraging for food was labour intensive and a willingness to share both the work and the harvest was essential.  Surprise, surprise!  Not every individual was as well adapted to this way of life as others.  Their mal-adaption took two forms, bludging and bragging.

Almost from the beginning, apparently, certain individuals have been more willing to accept the benefits of group membership and less willing to meet the obligations that go along with it.  The laziest member of a foraging party would suddenly become energised when it was time to share the spoils.  And here is a classic example of what clever people today call moral hazard.  If the group does not deal with such a member, it won't be long before other members think such free-loading is the way to go, and eventually, of course, the group gets to the point where it is not gathering enough food to sustain its members.  Discipline is required.

The other side of all this was the "Superman" syndrome.  A member of the group would throw himself energetically into the work of the group, and make sure all the other members of the group (especially the female ones) realised that he was head and shoulders above the rest of them.  Naturally he would expect to be rewarded, and he didn't just have in mind an extra portion of nuts and berries.  Again, this would cause tension in the group and would need to be dealt with.

Fast-forward several thousand years to around 40-50 A.D and look at the infant Church, or more accurately, the infant churches.  Problems of fair distribution arose immediately in Jerusalem: Acts 6:1.  And a sort of Spiritual Gifts Olympiad was dominating proceedings in the Church at Corinth.  In the first case, wise leadership found a practical solution.  In the second case an outraged apostle tried to bring them to heel.  The essence of St Paul's teaching is found in verse 7: put the group first.

And so to Cana in Galilee.  Notice first that this is one of a pair of stories, the succeeding one being St John's version of the Cleansing of the Temple.  Here immediately we see his complete disregard for the principle of chronology in narrative formation.  The other gospels are clear: the cleansing of the Temple took place in Holy Week, after Jesus' Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem.  It makes no sense to suggest that Jesus would have taken such direct action at the beginning of his ministry.  So these two stories are "opening summaries":  St John is setting out his basic position that in Christ God has made all things new, not by scrapping everything and replacing it with new stuff, but by transforming the old stuff and making it new.  The water that sustains life becomes the wine that enriches life: the Temple is not destroyed; it is transformed from being a shoddy business centre to a place of prayer and worship.

Perhaps the real giveaway here is the last sentence of this passage.  He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.  Oh, if it were only that simple!  Much more water had to flow under the bridge before any of the disciples came even close to doing that.  More intriguing is verse 9, contrasting the "innocence" of the master of the banquet with the "inside knowledge of the servants".  St John is surely making a point here, but what is it?  That the truth has been revealed to the lowest of the low but withheld from the people of power?  And what did the servants make of it all?  If in that event "Jesus revealed his glory", did the servants recognise it?  Or do they (for John) represent the spiritually blind, in contrast with the disciples, who, he implies, see with the eyes of faith?

Isaiah.  Here Isaiah seems to be speaking his own message, rather than purporting to speak God's words to his people: he is more teacher than prophet.  Again, the theme is one of renewal, in the sense of transforming something already in existence into a new condition.  First, he makes it clear that his message is for the good of the people: he is not into self-aggrandisement (Corinthians, please note).  The land that has been desolate and abandoned will be restored, rebuilt and renewed, and this is, in part, metaphor for the restoration, rebuilding and renewal of God's relationship with Israel.  After a long and stormy courtship and engagement, that relationship is now to be consummated in marriage.  Like any bridegroom God will delight in and rejoice over his bride, the people; and the land will be renamed to proclaim this new state of affairs.

Taking It Personally.

·        How would you characterise God's relationship with this country?  Does it even exist?

·        If God were choosing a name for this country to describe his relationship with it, what name might he choose?  What name might you choose for it?

·        Focus on verse 2.  What might other nations see when they look at us?  What sort of light might we be shining to the world?

·        Pray for our country in the light of your ponderings.


If you remember the worst excesses of the Charismatic Movement of the seventies and eighties this passage may bring back painful memories for you!  Humility was certainly in short supply: speaking in tongues, healing the sick, and exorcism became the only true marks of a real Christian, andscorn would rain down on anyone who was honest enough to deny being in receipt of any of those particular gifts!  Corinthians were everywhere in those benighted days!  Faith, hope and love hardly featured: what mattered was an ability to speak in words no one (including the speaker) understood.  Perhaps the most damaging part of all that was its emphasis on individualism: more and more "freelance" speakers toured around displaying their wondrous gifts, especially gifts of healing, which seemed to be particularly effective in large stadia but rarely in hospitals and hospices.  This is just the sort of thing St Paul was up against in this correspondence.  These are gifts – not acquired skills – given by the Holy Spirit "for the common good".  [Now there's a quaint term we don't hear much today!]

Taking It Personally.

·        What are some of the gifts you most admire in your fellow church members?  Are they gifts of the Spirit, natural (innate) talents, or acquired skills, do you think?

·        Which of the gifts mentioned in this passage do you have?  Are you thankful for them?  How do you exercise them for the common good?

John.  In addition to the points made above, here are a few more observations for what they are worth.  The relationship between Mary and Jesus in this story is intriguing.  I have often commented in previous Notes about the great delicacy shown in the gospels in dealing with the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.  Is it possible that something similar is going on here?  Is it possible that there was a time when Mary was seen to have too much influence, and so she is here shown as "passing her authority" to Jesus?  On safer ground, notice in verse 10 how we have a mini-version of the author's favourite device of talking past each other, so well developed in some of the longer stories such as those involving Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the man born blind.

Taking It Personally.

·       A perfect story for the prayer of imagination.  Place yourself with the servants.  Watch, listen, even lend a hand.  What do you feel when you realise what has happened?

·       Faced with such a "miracle", how would you react?  Would it scare you witless, intrigue you, or inspire you to seek further understanding?

·       On the spectrum of water to wine, where is your faith at the moment?  Where is your prayer life?  Where is your faith community?

·       Have you seen God's glory?  When and where?


Friday, 11 January 2013

The Baptism of the Lord

January 13                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION             The Baptism of the Lord

Texts:  Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Theme:  There is probably no need to go beyond the obvious – "The Baptism of the Lord".  Another contender might be "Revelation at Baptism" to link in with the Epiphany theme, but for reasons discussed below I have some quibbles about that.

Introduction.  After the somewhat romanticised stories of the Christmas Season it's a relief to get back to some straight reportage.  All three of the Synoptic gospels report that Jesus was baptised in the Jordan, and the Fourth Gospel alludes to it.  At the heart of the event is the deeply mystical experience in which Jesus' growing sense of identity and of his relationship with God were wonderfully affirmed.  The words spoken from heaven seem to be drawn from Isaiah 42:1, but today's passage from Isaiah 43 is also apt, in that it deals with the issues of identity, relationship and calling.  The choice of the second lesson from Acts 8 is an obvious one, and is primarily of interest in the light it sheds on the early development of baptismal liturgy and theology.

Background.  As always it is helpful to look carefully at each of the gospels when reflecting on an event common to them all.  In the Synoptic gospels, notice particularly the words attributed to the voice from heaven.  Mark, the earliest gospel, says this (1:11): And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."  The words are addressed to Jesus ['You are', not 'This is'.]  This is consistent with his language in verse 10 concerning the vision: As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  Again the experience is subjective, not objective.  There is nothing to suggest that anybody else who was present at the time (including John, of course) saw or heard anything.  Hence my quibble about whether this was a revelation of Jesus or to him.

Next up is Matthew, who seems to blur the issue somewhat (3:16-17): As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water.  At that moment heaven was opened [objective] and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him [subjective].  And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased [objective].  It is also characteristic of Matthew that he alone records a short debate between Jesus and John as to the propriety of John baptising Jesus.  Once again this has the flavour of Matthew answering a "question from the floor".  Some Smarty has asked why, if Jesus was sinless, he needed to be baptised by John, given that the purpose of John's baptism was said to be the forgiveness of sins.  Whether Matthew's answer through Jesus in verse 15 gets us anywhere is a moot point.

We now call Luke to the witness box.  Rather like Matthew, his approach is mixed (3:21-22): When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised, too.  And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove [objective].  And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased' (subjective).

Before turning to John's version, there is one other curious note in Luke's account.  Whereas Matthew and Mark are clear that John the Baptist baptised Jesus, Luke does not say so directly.  Indeed, his account of Jesus' baptism follows immediately after his report of John's imprisonment by Herod, with the implication that the baptism occurred after the imprisonment.  However, that probably shows how much more importance we attach to chronological order in our narratives than was attached by the gospel writers.  Matthew says that Jesus moved to Galilee after John's imprisonment (4:12), and, perhaps, began his public ministry only then, but by that stage in his narrative he has already recorded Jesus' baptism.  It is possible that Matthew is suggesting that after his baptism and temptation in the desert, Jesus did not immediately "go public": perhaps, like Paul, he needed a period of seclusion and private reflection.

In the Fourth Gospel we do not have a direct account of Jesus' baptism.  Instead, we have the Baptist's testimony (1:32-34): Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.  I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.'  I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.  We notice immediately that, while the "vision" is reasonably consistent with the synoptic accounts, here there is no "audio".  John himself provides a commentary.

To get an idea of the difference in approach followed in this gospel, we have only to apply the Ignatian approach of praying with the imagination.  When we use it on the synoptic accounts we find ourselves in or near the river, with Jesus and John.  When we apply it to the account in the Fourth Gospel, we find ourselves in an unknown locale, listening to John but with Jesus nowhere to be seen.  For me, what the Fourth Evangelist has done is "elevate" the baptism of Jesus from the material level to the spiritual: he has removed it from something that actually happened to Jesus in the same way as it happened to crowds of other people, to something that happened within the Godhead, the Father in heaven communing with the Son on earth through the medium of the Holy Spirit.  St John's account is that of the mystic and the sacramentalist, rather than a piece of mere reportage.

Which gets me to Fr Pierre Teillhard de Chardin, whose vison has something of the depth and width of St Paul.  He suggests that a link between Jesus' birth and his baptism can be described in this way: at his birth (or more accurately, perhaps, his conception) the Son plunged into our humanity or into all living creatures, represented by Mary.  At his baptism the Son plunged into the rest of creation or the non-living elements of creation, represented by the water of the Jordan.  In that sense, his baptism "completes" the Incarnation: Jesus "joins" the Spirit of God to the entire Cosmos.  All matter becomes indwelt by the Spirit.  Staggering stuff, eh?

Isaiah.  Another wonderful passage of reassurance for the people of Israel.  In the clearest possible terms God identifies himself as the God of Israel.  He has created them, redeemed them, and called them by name.  Accordingly, they need have no fear.  Verse 2, although phrase in terms of future trials and tribulations, may well be intended to remind the people of God's great act of deliverance from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.  Equally, it may play on Israel's traditional fear of the sea, and of flooding.  Verse 3 may again refer both to actual hazards caused by fire; but also mean that because God has redeemed them they have nothing to fear from the fire of judgment.  The second half of the passage looks ahead to the restoration of Israel and the return of the exiles, and perhaps further ahead  when the return of the people will be followed by the great in-gathering of the Gentiles at the end of the age.

Taking It Personally.

·        Call to mind your mother or father, who, in one sense, may claim to have created or formed you?  They also chose the name by which you have been called, presumably.  What is your principal feeling as you ponder these things?

·        Were there times when you felt estranged from your parents?  Were they 'there for you' in the hard times?

·        Can you give God unconditional thanks for your parents?  Do you need to forgive them for anything?  Do you need their forgiveness for anything?  [No, it is not too late, even if they have died.]

·        Do you truly experience God as your loving Father?  Do you honour him as your creator and redeemer?  Has he called you by name?  Has he been there for you through thick and thin?

Acts.  As stated above, this passage is an example of the confusion in the infant Church over what form baptism should take.  Another such passage is Acts 19:1-7.  A similar confusion may have be seen in the old idea that, at least in the case of infant baptism, "something more" was required to "complete" the baptism – that something more being "Confirmation" when the Bishop would lay hands on the candidate, thereby conferring the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Only then was the person able to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Happily all that has now gone, and baptism per se (including infant baptism) is recognised as complete in itself, the Holy Spirit being given in that sacramental act.  Confirmation is now seen as a commitment to live out the promises made at baptism to serve the Lord in our daily lives.

Taking It Personally.

·        If you have a baptism certificate, find it and see what it says.

·        Do you know who your godparents were?  How have they helped you to grow in the faith?  Give thanks for those who brought you to baptism.

·        Are you a godparent to any one?  How have you helped that person to grow in the faith?

·        In what way does the gift of the Holy Spirit manifest itself in your life?

·        Were you confirmed?  What do you remember of that occasion? 

Luke.  Apart from the comments already made above, there are two other points of interest here.  First, here is yet another illustration of the care that was obviously need in the infant Church to handle the "transition" from John to Jesus; hence the account of John pointing to his successor as one "more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie".  Secondly, Luke alone says the vision and audio occurred while Jesus was praying, an important emphasis for Luke throughout his gospel.  Whether this was before, during or after immersion in the water doesn't matter to Luke: the link with God is through prayer, whether in baptism or otherwise.

Taking It Personally.

·        A wonderful passage for praying with imagination.  Place yourself in the scene.  Notice the crowds of people being baptised at the same time.  What sets Jesus apart (if anything)?  Is it hot or cold, windy or still?  What does the water feel like?

·        Now place yourself in your baptism.  Look up and "see" heaven torn open.  Listen and hear the voice from heaven say to you, "You are my son/daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."  Stay with those words for as long as you can.

·        Pray for the grace to accept them at a deeper lever than ever.


Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Epiphany

January 6                                NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         The Epiphany

Texts:  Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Theme:  The obvious choice would be the official title of this celebration – The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ, but I have a semantic (pedantic) difficulty with that phrase.  It implies that Jesus (the infant Christ, to be more accurate) had the epiphany, which would be rather like saying the bath water rather than Archimedes had an epiphany, or the apple rather than Isaac Newton.  As this celebration is usually taken to mark the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles a theme such as "The Revelation to the Gentiles" would be better, and would accord well with the three readings.  But I'm tempted to go with something like "The Dawning Light".  Not only does that pick up the imagery in Isaiah's classic Epiphany text - it also accords with our modern expression "Ah, it's just dawned on me" meaning the same as "the penny's dropped", or more simply "Aha!"

Introduction.  The Epiphany completes the Christmas Season.  Just as we take 40 days to ponder Easter, so we take 12 to reflect on the meaning of Christmas.  At the heart of the mystery of Christmas is God's self-revelation and communication in a totally new way.  That was well picked up by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (see 1:1-4), and it is at the heart of St Paul's teaching in our epistle reading today.  So extraordinary to the Jews was the idea that salvation was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews that St Paul had to refer to it over and over again in his letters.  Today he calls it a great mystery, or a great secret which  God had kept to himself for centuries, until the time was right for it to be revealed in Jesus Christ.  St Matthew uses this story as part of his campaign to "situate" Jesus in the messianic prophetic tradition, of which today's passage from Isaiah is a classic statement.  In effect, St Matthew is "proving" that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah because in him all the messianic prophecies have been fulfilled, beginning in his infancy with this strange visit by the Magi bearing gifts, as Isaiah had foretold.

Background.  It is important to note that this is a Matthew exclusive.  It is most unlikely to have been part of the original Christian oral tradition; and there is certainly no indication that Mark, Luke or John was aware of the story, except in Matthew's text.  The story is a parallel with the succeeding story, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, which has a similar purpose.  We can almost see Matthew grappling with awkward "questions from the floor" as he sets out his argument in support of his belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Messiah of Jewish teaching and tradition.  In chapter 1 he gives us the genealogy of Jesus to establish that he was of the house of David, an essential if Jesus is to be accepted as the Messiah, and ends with a classic swerve in verse 16 to extricate himself from the problem that descent through Joseph was not much help if Joseph was not the father of Jesus.  The rest of that chapter is then given over to explaining how Joseph was persuaded to accept the situation no "normal" male fiancĂ© would have tolerated.

In chapter 2 Matthew simply asserts that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (leaving the explanation for that to Luke), but showing how that itself fits with the prophetic tradition, this time from Micah.  The whole story of the Magi is surely infused with the passage from Isaiah that we have as our first lesson this week.  Matthew then follows up with the story of the Holy Family seeking refuge in Egypt because he needs to show that Hosea's prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus ["out of Egypt I called my Son"].  He concludes his "early biographical details" about Jesus by reporting that the Holy Family, on their return from Egypt, went to live in Nazareth, thereby "explaining" how it could be that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth even though he was born in Bethlehem.

The other biblical context for this story is the Jewish belief relating to "End Times" or "End Things".  As the prophetic tradition developed, a sort of "derivative salvation" was thought to be possible for Gentiles.  At the end of the age God would come to the Holy Mountain, Zion, and, as it were, take up permanent residence there, either as God or in the being of the Messiah.  Israel would become an ideal state ruled with righteousness and justice.  Thus it would fulfil its destiny to be a light to the nations, and their people would flock to Jerusalem to worship God and learn to walk in his ways.  Thus there would be a great in-gathering of Gentiles into Israel.  Matthew perhaps presents this story of the Magi (who, of course, were Gentiles) as the first-fruits of this in-gathering.  A similar thought may underlie the story of the arrival of some Greeks seeking to meet Jesus in John 12:20-23.

So what are "epiphanies", and why do we persist in using a word that sounds as though it ought to be the Hebrew version of the noise we make when we sneeze?  Well, it happens that I have been reading a wonderful book by two American psychologists, William R Miller and Janet C'de Baca, Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives.  The sub-title gives a pretty accurate description of the contents of the book.  For years the authors, both of whom specialised in treating people with alcoholism and other forms of addiction, had tried to help their clients change their behaviour gradually.  But over the years they noticed that, while most of them achieved improvement (if at all) very gradually, some people seemed to have dramatic breakthroughs.  So they decided to study people who have had one or more profound experiences that transformed their lives suddenly and permanently.  It turned out that there were quite a few, with some very extraordinary tales to tell.  Much of this book consists of case studies in which the persons concerned tell their stories in their own words.

The authors suggest that these experiences can be broadly grouped in two main categories, which they call the insight type and the mystical type.  The insight type seems to happen inside us – a sudden solution to a problem that has baffled us for a long time, would be one example.  Although we might have a feeling of being given this brand new idea, the more likely explanation is that the mind/brain has been cogitating away and made a new "connection".  By contrast the mystical type seems to come to us from outside, and tends to have a more profound and lasting effect on us as people.

Brilliant insights like those of Archimedes and Newton might have made them feel better but probably did not transform them as people.  The sudden mystical experience that Saul of Tarsus had on the Road to Damascus undoubtedly did.

The authors suggest there are four basic qualities of such experiences.  First, they are vivid – the person who has the experience is in no doubt that something extraordinary has happened.  Secondly, they come out of the blue, as a complete surprise.  In no way can they be sought or induced.  Thirdly, almost invariably, they are experienced as benevolent, profoundly positive and helpful.  And fourthly, they effect permanent change in the person who has them.  Appropriately enough, given the time of the year, the example from literature given by the authors is Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol.

All of which raises an interesting question.  What became of the Magi after their experience of meeting the Christ child?  What became of the shepherds after their extraordinary experiences?  What became of the servants at the wedding at Cana who knew what had happened to the water?   Perhaps epiphanies only true "take" in people who are open to them and accept that life can never be the same.  Perhaps many of us fail to see, or refuse to accept that we have seen anything at all?  The Epiphany is an opportunity to celebrate all those who suddenly broke through and "saw" God in Jesus of Nazareth, in infancy or in adulthood, and had their lives transformed for ever.

Isaiah.  A wonderfully rich passage, drawing on traditional teaching and applying it to a vision of the future.  Verses 1 and 2 probably owe much to the idea of God leading his people through the wilderness, in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  The reference to "darkness" may simply be a symbol of gloom, oppression and sin among the people; but I sense a reference back to Genesis 1:2, in which case the idea of a new creation may be part of the message here.  The idea of nations coming to Israel for anything other than battle and pillage is a complete reversal of the past: history will be turned on its head.  In this future time they will come to Israel to pay homage to the God of Israel.  The contrast between the past and the future is emphasised by the reference to the camels of Midian in verse 6: it was on camels that the Midian armies once devastated Israel.  Sheba (modern-day Yemen) is best known for its queen who famously visited King Solomon, bringing him gifts of gold and spices.  It was also known for its incense.

Taking It Personally.

·        Can you recall a break-through experience when you suddenly "saw" something you had never seen before?  Did it seem to come from within or from outside?  What effect did it have on you, either briefly or permanently?

·        Traditionally this is the day on which we take down our Christmas decorations and throw out the tree.  From our faith perspective, what might that symbolise? 

·        Isaiah was a master at drawing on the experience of the past to create a vision of the future.  Drawing on your past experience of God what are you looking forward to in faith and hope for this year and beyond?

Ephesians.  My New Year Resolution is to finally bow out of the academic argument over the authorship of this wonderful epistle, made all the more wonderful by the fact that it was written in prison.  To me it is Pauline in spirit, vision and theology, and that should be all that matters to people of faith.  The heart of this passage (and the heart of Paul's teaching) is found in verse 6.  In God's great wisdom the universal scope of salvation was kept secret (apart from a few prophetic leaks over the centuries!) until the time was right, when it was revealed in and through Jesus Christ.  Hence it's suitability for this celebration as we remember the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Taking It Personally.

·        As Gentiles this is our time to ponder this great mystery and be thankful!

·        When was this great secret first revealed to you, and by whom?  Give thanks again.

·        Commit verse 6 to memory, and recite it every day this month –giving thanks daily.

·        Focus on verse 10.  Is your local church succeeding in making this great mystery known to others?  Are you?

·        Now turn to verse 12.  Do you approach God with freedom and confidence?

Matthew.  In some ways this is a very provocative story that Matthew has constructed here.  The first people to realise who Jesus was were Gentiles?  Think what trouble Jesus got into when he reminded the congregation in Nazareth of God's favour to the widow in Zarephath and to Naaman, the Syrian army commander: Luke 4:24-30.  Notice that there were three gifts, but no mention of how many Magi were in the party.  Theology has attached particular significance to each of those gifts, but whether Matthew had those symbolic meanings in mind is a moot point.  The role of the star is fascinating.  It may even link back to the pillar of fire leading the people in the wilderness.  More likely it subordinates the wisdom of astrology to the purposes of God, and the worship of heavenly bodies to the worship of the God who made them and commands them to do his bidding.

Taking It Personally

·        What symbols have been important to you on your faith journey?

·        What gifts do you bring to Christ in worship?

·        Can you recall being guided to do something or refrain from doing it through a dream?  Did you follow that guidance or dismiss it as "just a dream"?