St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 28 June 2013

Notes for Reflection 30 June 2013

June 30                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21;  Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Theme:  Fighting off a strong temptation to be flippant (and to reveal how ancient I am) I shall not even suggest "Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire", though now I come to think of it there's a theological content in that phrase that I had never noticed before.  Perhaps when I get to the gospel passage... But first to be serious and grown up for a moment, I'm going with "Freed for Freedom".  Galatians 5:1 is so important it deserves to be this week's headline act.

Introduction.  Only in the very broadest sense is there any obvious connection between these readings today, although Elisha's rather dramatic preparations for his farewell party may seem to tie in with the Jesus' uncompromising teaching in the second section of the gospel passage.  Perhaps they are all about starting afresh, going in new directions, leaving the past behind us, and so on.  But surely the same could be said of the Bible as a whole?  Elijah has had an exciting chapter 19 so far and it's not over for him yet.  Having run away in fear for his life from the vengeful Queen Jezebel, and famously heard God's whisper at the mouth of the cave on Mount Horeb, he is now ordered by God to anoint a new king to replace Jezebel's husband, Ahab, and a new prophet to succeed himself.  St Paul reminds the Galatians that they have been freed from the Law so that they may live a life of freedom in the Spirit; while Luke gives us two seemingly separate incidents, one showing how to respond to opposition and one showing how to recruit followers.  So there's a lot on our plate this week, and we will be well fed if we complete all three courses.

Background.  What an extraordinary week it has been, and I'm not even thinking about Wimbledon!  The world has been called to prayer for Nelson Mandela as his death draws ever nearer.  Julia Gillard has been caught knitting in a public place and ejected from office in favour of a man who promised, in a very public place, that he would not challenge her again; accountants, lawyers and others not normally known for being of any practical use have been shown struggling through metres of snow on high country farms to help rescue stock; and the Diocese of Wellington has chosen as the next Dean of their Cathedral a Baptist pastor from Palmerston North whose addiction to mountain bikes lead him into criminal offending to feed his habit.  (I swear I'm not making this last bit up!)  And the truly astonishing thing about all this is how all this drama is somehow recapitulated in this week's seemingly disparate readings!

Leave aside for a moment the whole fascinating subject of "snow-raking" (hands up who had heard of that before), and the whole issue of leadership comes sharply into focus with those other news items, beginning with one of the truly great leaders of modern history, Nelson Mandela.  What is left to say about this extraordinary man?  The victim of torture and imprisonment for 27 years (or whatever it was), he emerged as a man of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and so on.  In fact, what better description of him could we find but in Galatians 5:22-26?

Contrast that with the issues of leadership on the other side of the Tasman this week.  Even by political standards the efforts of the Australian Labour Party must have set a new low standard.  It may be going too far to suggest that Galatians 5:19-21 is exactly in point, but there was surely little evidence on display that Caucus members had pondered very deeply Paul's exhortation in Galatians 5:26.

And when we come to our gospel reading are we not led back again to Mandela's approach, which is entirely at odds with that fervently advocated by those great apostles, James and John?  Their approach is exactly what the white South Africans, and much of the world, feared  when majority rule came to South Africa – that the fire of hatred and revenge would quickly blaze across the land.  That is what many fear now as Mandela's life ebbs away.  Perhaps that is really what the world should be called to prayer about at this time.

And so to Wellington and that same issue of leadership.  Our Anglican Church has not generally been known for radical innovation; but that started to change 2 years ago in that diocese when they chose their present bishop, Justin Duckworth, better known for his dreadlocks and his inability to remember to put his shoes on, than for much else.  Why was he chosen?  For his proven gift to proclaim the gospel to the people of his time; and for his proven ability to share Christ's love with the so-called "marginalised" – middle-class speak for the sort of people we wouldn't want in our lounges (or our churches).  And now they have chosen a similar style of minister to be their Dean – in the capital city's cathedral!  What on earth is going on?

Well, I know I'm always banging on about this, but surely we must hear again ringing loudly in our ears the prophetic words of Isaiah:  Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  Look, I am doing a new thing; now it springs up.  Do you not perceive it?  What other explanation can there be?

Particularly if we wish to accept our first lesson at face value today.  What we have is not exactly a prime example of a seamless transition.  Ahab is neither dead nor contemplating abdication followed by a hurried rush to the transit lounge at Moscow airport; yet God tells Elijah that he must go and anoint a new king for Israel (and, for that matter, a new King for Syria).  But there is a second command attached: Elijah is told to anoint Elisha to succeed him in the office of prophet.  Think about that for a moment.  What great man of influence willingly hands over to a successor?  Yes, Mandela did – but who else?

Truly, we live in two worlds; one in which the sovereign power of God is recognised and embraced – the world that lives by the Spirit in Paul's terms; and the other one where God's sovereignty (indeed, his very existence) is denied, which Paul calls the life of the flesh.  More familiar terms may be the kingdom of God, one the one hand, and the world on the other.  Whatever terms we use the choice is the same for all of us; which of those two ways shall we follow, pray for and work for?  And how wholehearted shall we be in the choice we make?

Kings.  Elijah knows what it's like to be unpopular: by his own count (mistaken, as it turned out) he would have been hard-pressed to find even one like-minded person.  Go back to verses 13 and 14 before starting on today's passage.  We often remember the bit about God not being in the earthquake, etc, and the bit about the still voice, the whisper, or (my favourite translation) "the sound of sheer silence"; but how often do we remember what Elijah actually heard God say to him?  It was in the form of a simple, but profoundly existential question: "What are you doing here, Elijah?"  At the very least that's a question that echoes the one God put to Adam in the Garden: "Where are you?"  Both questions could be replaced with another one: "Why are you hiding from me?"  Elijah's reply shows the depth of the self-pity he is wallowing in.  He gets no sympathy from God; instead he gets two new commissions, to replace the king from whom he is on the run, and to replace himself as chief prophet.  It is to the latter that he turns his attention first.  Elisha's response is not one hundred positive, at least to Elijah's ear.  But as we realise what he is doing, killing his livestock and destroying his farm equipment, we might pause to think about the extraordinary efforts to which some of our farmers are going (and went during the great drought) to get a real understanding of the enormity of Elisha' s actions.  There is no going back – he has forever lost access to his old way of life.

Taking It Personally.

  • Think of a time when you were at the end of your tether.  Did you ask yourself, "What am I doing here?"  Who or what brought you through that experience?
  • God's "remedy" seems to be to give Elijah a new task.  How helpful would that approach have been for you at the time?  Would you advise such an approach for somebody who has "had enough"?
  • How hard do you find it to let go, to stand aside, to accept that it is time to let someone else have a go?
  • Can you recall a time in your life when you "burnt your bridges" (or your "ploughshares") and took an irreversible step in a new direction.  How did you feel about that at the time?  How do you feel about it now?  Were you aware at the time of God's guidance in your action?  Looking back, can you see God's hand on you at that time?


Galatians.  Here is that wonderfully clear little sentence that comes close to summing up the whole of the gospel of Jesus Christ: "For freedom Christ has set us free."  (Let us fervently pray that the good people of South Africa take that very much to heart when their great leader dies.)  History is full of examples of brave people rising up against dictators, only to fall back into slavery when the leaders of their revolution become the dictators of the new regime.  And, of course, what is true for peoples and nations is also true of individuals, as any addicts and their families know only too well.  St Paul says that through the cross we have been set free from bondage AND FOR freedom.  Our addictions, our bad habits, no longer have to have power over us – we can be free from them if we want to be.  But we have to do more than want to be free – we have to choose to live in freedom each and every day, by choosing to live in the Spirit.  Day by day we need to build up new, healthy, spirit-enhancing habits in place of our old ones.  The person who diets to lose excess weight must continue to choose moderation ever after, and not revert to old eating habits: the couch potato who follows a fitness programme to get fit cannot maintain that fitness by returning to the couch.  Verse 15 seems another wonderfully apt comment on recent political events across the Tasman (and on the football field).


Taking It Personally.


·        A day for self-examination and reflection.  Concentrate, not so much on the list of sins given in this passage, but on the fruit of the Spirit.  Is that fruit becoming more evident in your life as the years go by?

·        Ponder verse 25.  Do you live by the Spirit?  Are you truly guided by the Spirit?  Do you regularly ask for the Spirit's guidance?


Luke.  Don't you just love the first part of this passage – verses 51 to 56!  Notice that this passage is set towards the end of Jesus' earthly ministry; he's now on the downward journey to Jerusalem.  So these guys have been with Jesus for quite a while.  They have heard his teaching – including the stuff about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek.  And now, in response to the failure of the Samaritan villages to offer Jesus and his party customary hospitality, John and James (the two who sought the highest places in the kingdom of God, let's remember!) offered to call in air support and have those places nuked off the face of the earth!  ("Sometimes you just have to destroy them to save!" turns out to be not as modern as we might have thought.)  The second part of the passage is not nearly so much fun – is it?


Taking It Personally.


·        How do you react to opposition and rejection?  Like Jesus, or like his apostles?

·        How total and unconditional is your commitment to the faith journey?  How inclined are you to "look back"?

·        Are you inclined to procrastinate in spiritual matters?  How might you fill in the blanks in this sentence: I will be more [blank] when I have [blank]?

Thursday, 20 June 2013


June 23                                   NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 65:1-9; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

Theme:  Another week when there are no obvious choices, a position somewhat aggravated by the difficulty in finding any clear links between the readings.  I rather did the Galatians thing 3 weeks ago on Te Pouhere Sunday.  I guess some sort of discipleship theme could be developed on the basis of Isaiah 65:8-9 and Luke 8:39 (God will always find some people to serve him even in the most unlikely of circumstances), but that's a bit of a stretch.  A better prospect may be to work with Isaiah 65 (1) and Luke 8:37 along the lines of wilful or actual spiritual blindness.  But the gospel passage is the standout reading today, so for reasons that may or may not become clear as I proceed I'm going for "The Fear of Jesus is the Beginning of What?"

Introduction.  For those who like a little hard-edged realism in the Scriptures Isaiah serves up a first course to please the palate.  The first 7 verses are as gritty as they come.  God seems a somewhat pitiful suitor, calling out to, but ignored by, his beloved.  His people have other, more attractive objects of desire, some gruesome hints of which we find in verse 4.  Even so, God will not entirely give up on his people.  If a lack of adherence to the Law is the fundamental problem in Isaiah's time, Paul addresses the opposite problem.  Now the Law is seen as an obstacle to faith for the people of Galatia – they have allowed themselves to be imprisoned by it, not realising that in Christ they have been set free.  The gospel passage shows (among many other things) that the idea of being setting free is not always as appealing as one might think.

Background.  Fear seems to dominate our lives these days; at least it does if our news media are to be believed.  This week one of the compelling images is surely that of the expression on the face of the usually coquettish goddess of the over-indulgent, Nigella Lawson, as her husband grabs her by the throat.  Of course, the amount of attention that one incident got – and the sympathy she got – is out of all proportion when placed alongside the suffering of (to take just one example) hundreds and thousands of women and children in Syria – or, for that matter, the hundreds and probably thousands of victims of domestic violence in this country.  But it haunts us because Nigella is not a statistic or a number – she is a real person and we feel for her for that reason.

We have been constantly reminded this week of the fear that is said to be gripping South Africa at what might happen when Nelson Mandela dies; while in Afghanistan people are said to be afraid of what will happen as the foreign troops leave.  Today as I write this (Thursday) comes news of the cost of surveillance of convicted paedophile Stuart Murray Wilson, made necessary by the fear of the Wanganui Community that he might break out of his "home detention" and offend again.  In Ireland crowds of demonstrators, fearful of what the G8 Leaders may be up to at their latest conference, surround the venue, while demonstrators in Brazil cause fear that the country's swanky new football stadia may not be ready in time for the World Cup finals.

I found a completely different, and at first sight trivial, example of fear when I was watching a magic show on TV on Tuesday evening.  Yes, I confess, I'm a complete sucker for magicians and illusionists, and I particularly enjoy the "up-close-and-personal" ones who seem to do an impossible trick right under the nose of some innocent bystander.  The guy featured on Tuesday is a superb example of this art – the series is called "Dynamo – Magician Impossible".  Often he stopped someone in the street and did some impossible trick with that person's credit card, money, or jewellery, so that both he and his "victim" were standing close together.  What fascinated me most – apart from the sheer skill of the magician – was how often, when the victim saw what happened, he or she instinctively pulled away, often taking a few steps before returning.  The unknown, the inexplicable, the unbelievable caused an immediate albeit only fleeting feeling of fear.  Hold onto that thought for a moment.

Everywhere we turn there is fear, fear of other people, fear of the future, fear of what might or might not happen.  Perhaps the best summary of this psychological state is to be found in Wisdom 17:8-15, but today's gospel passage is also a textbook case.  And as I pondered it, the thought came to my mind:  Fear of the Lord God may be the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10), but what are we to make of fear of Jesus of Nazareth?  Is that also the beginning of wisdom (of spiritual growth), or is it the beginning of something more like total defeat or despair?  We might call to mind Peter's famous response to the over-abundant haul of fish: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."  In that case, of course, his fear of Jesus was positive and healthy.  But there is no such happy response in Luke's masterful story of the healing of the demoniac.  Fear wins the day.

Notice first that this story follows immediately the story of Jesus calming the storm; and notice in particular the response of the disciples: They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, "Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?"  We might say they were saved by their curiosity – they stayed with Jesus because they wanted to know "how he did this impossible act", or, as they put it, "who is this guy who can do this impossible act?"

So you see the reference to Dynamo, the Magician Impossible was not entire irrelevant.  If we had been "in the audience" when Jesus encountered the demoniac what might we have seen and heard?  Perhaps we would have seen first a very disturbed man and, at some distance, a placid herd of pigs enjoying snuffling through the grass and soil on the hillside.  Then, perhaps, we might have heard a few words from Jesus the Miracle-Worker Impossible, perhaps saw some movement of his hands, and then, incredibly, right before our eyes, we saw the previously very disturbed man become quiet and still and the previously placid pigs become extremely disturbed to the point that they stampeded into the lake and drowned.

And if we had been in the audience at that time, how would we have reacted?  With a cry of "Alleluia!  Praise the Lord!"?  Would we have immediately dropped everything to follow him?  Would that have been sufficient to convince us that Jesus is for real, he really is the Son of God – God come among us as one of us?  Or would we have reacted in the same way as the crowd that assembled from all around?  Luke writes: Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them for they were seized with great fear.

Sad, eh?  Their fear left no room for curiosity, which might have saved them.  They were so fearful of Jesus they wanted him gone from their presence.  Another, darker piece of magic has taken place.  They have transferred the fear they had of the demoniac to the man who healed the demoniac.  The latter returns home: Jesus is "deported".

Isaiah.   It is difficult to think of another passage that haunts us in quite the same way as this one, particularly in the opening two verses.  What an image of God it gives us!  Anyone who has felt the pangs of being unloved, rejected, belittled and ignored can surely relate to this description of God's pain.  His chosen people, his beloved have abandoned him to return to pagan worship.  Instead of turning to him, the source of all life, they "sit inside tombs", places of death.  They eat vile food, what we might call a representative charge for their many acts of disobedience of the Law.  Above all they have become abominably proud and arrogant, saying (presumably, to God himself?), "Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you."  So they stand under divine judgment, for God's justice requires nothing less.  Yet God believes that they are not completely a lost cause.  There is hope for some of them.

Taking It Personally.

  • Ponder verses 1 and 2a.  What image of God comes to your mind?  What words might you choose to describe their tone?  Can you identify with God's feelings as described here?
  • Could it be that these words are addressed to you?  Has God been calling out to you, holding his hands out to you, wanting you to respond to him?
  • A day for self-examination and confession, perhaps.  And a day for thanking God for his patience, and responding afresh to his calling.


Galatians.  Paul has a "successive stages" view of our faith history.  The Law was given as a "holding measure", pending the advent of Christ.  The central purpose of the Law was to keep us from doing evil, to restrain us from our natural propensity to turn away from God and do whatever we felt like.  But now Christ has come, and all is different.  Through baptism we have a new guide who empowers us to do what is right and pleasing in the eyes of God.  And, more than that, our relationship with God has changed.  We are no longer his people and under his orders: we are now his children embraced by his love.


Taking It Personally.


  • Reflect on the difference in your relationship between yourself and your parents when you were a young child, and that relationship in your adult years.  Was there not a time when your parents made all the decisions for you and told you what to do and what not to do?  And (hopefully) did not that change as you grew to adulthood and you assumed more and more responsibility for your own decisions?  Is that a helpful analogy with the point Paul is trying to make here?
  • Put on a coat or jacket, and as you do so repeat the words "Through my baptism I have been clothed with Christ".  What is the point Paul is trying to make here, do you think?  If someone looks at you today could they see that you are "clothed with Christ"?


Luke.  As you read through this story notice how often the narrative is concerned with fear.    It is set in Gentile country "opposite Galilee", to Jews a place where they do not belong.  Immediately a very frightening looking man approaches.  Luke paints a very graphic picture of him, emphasising in verse 29 the man's extraordinary brutal strength.  He is the archetypal outsider, confined to life in the tombs.  The demons within the man recognise Jesus and call out in fear to him, recognising that he has the power to send them back to the abyss from which they have come and of which they are scared.  Now watch the crowd arrive.  Luke's mastery of detail is as delightful as ever.  What do they see first?  The "patient" now "clothed and in his right mind".  And what is their response to this amazing healing?  "And they were afraid."  And when their "reinforcements" arrived, they were afraid, too.  So Jesus leaves them to it, but notice the last little exchange between him and the now healed man.  He wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus declines his request.  He tells him to go back home and tell the locals "how much God has done for you"; and, says Luke, the man went on his way "proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him".  There's the last bit of magic – the healed mind understands that "God" and "Jesus" are interchangeable.


Taking It Personally.


  • A wonderful passage for praying with the imagination.  Watch out, in particular, for your response to Jesus' "impossible magic".
  • Now ask yourself this question: am I frightened of Jesus?  Am I frightened of letting him get too close to me, of being too real?
  • Now turn to verse 39 and hear Jesus saying those words to you.  What has God done for you – and who have you told about it?

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Notes for Reflection

June 16                                   NOTES FOR REFLECTION            

Texts:  2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Theme:  Plenty of choices this week.  For those of a distinctly Lutheran bent, we could go for "Saved by Faith", for instance, or if we are inclined to a more catholic theology, perhaps something like "The Power of Confession [and/or Forgiveness]".  On balance I'm going for "What Happens Next", without a question mark.  It seems to that the real point of confession- forgiveness is not so much a focus on the past as on the future: it frees us up to start again, not where we left off, as it were, but in a new place.  It's not so much a case of "life must go on", but that a new life must begin.

Introduction .  Once again we have the delight of two great dramatic stories to ponder this week, with another interlude of St Paul's penetrating theology to drive home the point of the stories.  We begin with a classic example of the extraordinary honesty of the Hebrew portrayal of their heroes.  David, the greatest of all their kings, is shown to be just as human as the rest of us.  Power doesn't just corrupt today's political leaders – it always has, and David is not immune to it.  As Nathan fearlessly makes clear to him, he has been given so much by God, but his lustful eye has shown him something else he wants, and he stops at nothing – murder included – to get it.  [And notice the word "it":  Bathsheba is not a person – a she or her – to a man like David, but a mere object to be possessed.]  In our gospel reading we are in for another shock – at least if we are prepared to open ourselves to the full impact of the story.  We are used to Jesus being the actor - the one who does something for someone else: but here he is the recipient of another's ministry to him.  And she is not the sort of woman we would expect a holy man to have anything to do with.  She is a "sinner" – which could be code for a prostitute, or, at the very least, a woman living with a man to whom she is not married.  But she has the one thing necessary: she has faith (or is it love?), and so she is forgiven.  St Paul then draws our attention to the very important question: what happens next?  Does David accept his forgiveness, and then go in pursuit of the next pretty woman to attract his attention?  Does the woman leave Jesus' presence and resume her sinful ways?  Or do they accept that the call to them now is to go forward into a new life?

Introduction.  I have been pondering many things this week, including the extraordinary and enduring pulling-power of the Dalai Lama.  Over 2,000 people attended a public meeting here in Dunedin this week to see and hear this elderly Tibetan Buddhist holy man with the boyish grin and chuckle, an extraordinary "birth story" that makes the immaculate conception of Jesus seem like a straightforward obstetrical event, and a message that seems to be no more profound than "be nice to people".  So what is his appeal to so many people, including many Christians?  My wife, Trish, has drawn my attention to a passage in Richard Rohr's book, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, which may provide a clue.  After talking about our sense of fear, our vulnerability, and our feelings of personal inadequacy, he writes this (at pages 145-6):

We are afraid ourselves so we frighten others.  But can we live in such a way that people do not need to be afraid of us?  I wish we could do that.  I wish we caused no fear in others.  I wish others could feel the receiving spirit, the universal forgiving in us....We all want to be with people around whom we feel safe and forgiven just by being next to them.  You know you can show your darkest part to these people, and they'll still receive you.  Some people have the gift in their very person to tell you, "It's okay."  If they have outer authority besides, everybody wants to be around them, because their strength is encouraging.

Whether or not that helps to explain at least some of the attraction of the Dalai Lama, it does seem to me to provide a helpful insight to today's gospel story.  Looked at purely as a narrative it is not one of Luke's best.  Some of the detail is a little muddled.  If the woman's expression of love for Jesus is because she already knows that she is forgiven, how does she know that, and why does Jesus have to tell her at the end of the story that her sins have been forgiven?  Commentators often try to fill in the gap for us: they suggest that this woman must have already had an encounter with Jesus in which he had assured her of the forgiveness of her sins, or at least had heard him teach on this subject.  But perhaps we don't need such creative contributions from the commentators if Richard Rohr is on the right track.  When I asked a good (Anglican) friend of mine why she had gone to the Dalai Lama's meeting, and what she got out of the experience, she said, "The man has an aura about him."

There is something about the man; he radiates a sense of goodness, a presence that makes us feel healed and forgiven, or at least uplifted.  I think that's something near to what my friend meant by her comment.  We can all think of people whose presence we find energising – after we have spent time with them we feel more alive.  (And, of course, there are people who have the opposite effect on us.)  We might say of the positive people "he/she lifts my spirits somehow".  Perhaps this is a smalr example of someone like the Dalai Lama – and someone like Jesus of Nazareth.  Perhaps the woman sensed in Jesus "an aura" or (to use Rohr's words) "the receiving spirit, the universal forgiving", and she responded to that.

Compare her encounter with Jesus with Bathsheba's experience of David.  What sort of "aura" would she have sensed in him?  Surely not one of love, forgiveness, acceptance, respect, or dignity.  Take a moment to choose your own adjectives!  But David had one saving grace that is usually absent from the make-up of autocratic kings and emperors.  When confronted by the prophet Nathan he folded.  He could have ordered Nathan's immediate execution for speaking to him like that.  Or he could have taken the modern "O come on – we're all men of the world, Nate – lighten up!" approach.  Or the even more modern line, "I cannot offer any rational explanation for the things that have happened".  But he didn't: his response was simple, straightforward, and entirely appropriate: "I have sinned against the Lord."

And immediately the prophet Nathan pronounced the absolution: "Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die."  Is that too easy?  After the enormity of the sins that David had committed, that's all there is to it?  That may well be our reaction in this instance; but it wasn't mine in the gospel story.  Why not?  After all, Jesus himself refers to her sins "which were many" – that's the whole point of his teaching, after all.  Perhaps both of them (David and this woman) have been let off too easily – that's the problem with mercy, forgiveness and grace – it's all so unmerited. 

But that why Paul's teaching is so important today – and that's why my preferred theme for today is "What Happens Next".  The key verse in the Galatians reading is v.18: But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.  Jesus could have said to this woman what he said to the one caught in adultery, "Go, and sin no more."  That would not change the fact that she had been forgiven, but it would make clear that the purpose of forgiveness is to allow for new life – as Paul goes on to make clear in this reading.

And that's what I think is missing from the Dalai Lama's approach.  To be forgiven is one thing: to repent – to change mind, heart, lifestyle and outlook – is quite another.  That's very challenging, very disturbing – and most unlikely to draw large crowds.  It got Jesus killed – despite his aura.

Samuel.  It's always interesting when the Lectionary tells us to omit certain verses.  Today we are "spared" verses 11 and 12, but not verse 14, which tells us something.  Apparently we can cope with the idea of God punishing an infant for the manifolds sins of his father, but not with the idea of God indulging in the trafficking of wives to provide for the public humiliation of David in the future.  Of course, all that says much more about the culture of the time than it does about the character of God.  The passage also reminds us of the power of story (parable) as a vehicle of truth: David is pierced before he sees the point of Nathan's story aiming his way. 

Taking It Personally.

  • A day for self-examination and confession.  Pay attention to anything that is particularly troubling your conscious.  Take a leaf from David's book and keep your confession short, simple and clear.
  • Then remind yourself that you are forgiven and can now live – free of that particular matter, habit or temptation.
  • If there is something that you are having trouble completely letting go off, fast- forward to verses 20-23.  The "child" is dead – now it is time to move on.  Does that help?


Galatians.  In a sense this whole letter is about "moving on" in a new way: have a quick look at 1:6.  Here the problem is letting go of the tried and trusted: putting their faith in words and ritual, rather than in the Risen Christ.  Again, notice the order: there is no chuckling assurance that we're okay.  Paul leaves us in no doubt that we "have been found to be sinners".  Nor is Christ a sort of magic duster – one flick and our slate is wiped clean so we can do it all again.  The cure for sin is much more profound and radical than that.  We have been taken by Christ onto the cross with him and crucified there with him – we have died to sin with him.  For that reason, it is now possible for us to live holy lives – or, more profound still, to let Christ live his life in us.  Our separate, individual ego, alienated from God has been put to death, thereby "making room" for Christ to take its place in us.  To believe that is to have the faith that saves: otherwise, says St Paul, Christ died for nothing.


Taking It Personally.


  • Which part of this don't you believe?  Pray that wonderful little prayer, "Lord, help my unbelief".
  • Have some mirror time: tell yourself "it's no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me."  If you know the catchy little chorus based on this verse, sing it a few times.  Repeat several times daily until you begin to grasp the enormity of the truth Paul is revealing to us here.
  • Be particularly vigilant that you have not fallen into the belief that your "good works" are stacking up "Brownie points" for you.  God does not love you because you go to church – you go to church to praise and thank him for his love.  Don't you?  So the next time you find yourself tossing up whether or not to go to church, rephrase the issue: do I have any reason to praise and thank God this morning?


Luke.  Don't be in too much of a hurry with this text.  Notice where it is set: Jesus has accepted an invitation from a Pharisee.  This story is not about accepting "sinful" people and rejecting "good" people, but accepting all people.  BUT – this story is not about smiling benignly on all people, regardless of their behaviour.  Where correction is necessary, Jesus gives it – not to punish or humiliate but to offer them the same chance of new life that he gave to the woman.  Notice, too, that our reading doesn't stop at the end of this story: it continues with a brief record of a number of other women who have been healed and forgiven by Jesus and have responded by loving ministry to him


Taking It Personally.


  • Another great story for praying with the imagination.  Are you an invited guest or an outsider looking in?  Content to remain a spectator or anxious to be involved?
  • Are you as willing to be ministered to, as to minister to, others?  Or do you need to be the strong one, the one who doesn't need help from others?

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Notes for reflection

June 9                                     NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

Theme:   No obvious choices this week.  Something about life and death, restoration, healing, etc.  I'm going with "The Power of God" for reasons I'll explain as I go along.

Introduction.  Two great stories, interspersed with a passage of biography today.  St Luke himself provides the link between the two stories.  He records (in 4:16-30) Jesus' less than triumphant return to Nazareth, where he so upset the local congregation that they tried to throw him over the cliff.  Part of his offence was to refer to this old story about Elijah's ministry to the widow at Zarephath; and it is quite clear that Luke has shaped his story of Jesus and the widow at Nain with that earlier story very much in mind.  St Paul gives us one key to the interpretation of these stories: they are not intelligible without understanding that they are about the power of God who is revealed in these stories.

Background.  Earlier this week I was trawling through the collects in our Prayer Book looking for something on the theme of the creative power of God, and I discovered a wonderful sentence in a collect for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (page 613, collect 3): Yours is the vigour in creation, yours is the impulse in our new discoveries.  Particularly that first phrase "yours is the vigour in creation" made a strong and instant impact on my mind, and I wondered why.  Today I know: it exactly represents what is going on in our two stories.  Back to that thought soon.

This Sunday we begin in earnest the principal task of the second half of our liturgical year – to face up to the great "so-what" question.  Given all that we have heard again of the life-cycle of Christ, what has all that got to do with us?  That's a simpler way of saying the same response given by the crowds to Peter on the Day of Pentecost: Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?"  In other words, we are now embarking on a course in living out the truth of Easter, of learning what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Today we have lesson 1, and it's a stunning challenge.  We are faced with two stories that defy belief when looked at purely in human terms.  We might start our response, then, by asking ourselves how we REALLY feel about these stories.  How comfortable would we feel defending their authenticity, not in a classroom of fellow trainee-disciples, but out there in the world where people feel that science holds the monopoly on truth, at least in areas such as illness, death, and revival.

The first story seems to leave some wriggle room.  For some reason the author does not come straight out and tell us that the little boy died.  He tells us that the boy became ill, and that "his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him".  Does that mean he was dead, or, perhaps, in a deep comatose state, when his breathing became imperceptible?  Then we have a strange description of what Elijah did (besides praying, of course).  He appears to act more like a paramedic treating an advanced case of hypothermia than a prophet asking for divine intervention.  Even the NIV Study Bible, not usually known for any liberal tendencies, is moved to comment on verse 21:  "The apparent intent of this physical contact was to transfer the bodily warmth and stimulation of the prophet to the child.  Elijah's prayer, however, makes it clear that he expected the life of the child to return as an answer to prayer, not as a result of bodily contact."  How's that for a classic example of wriggling?  Also worth noting, perhaps, is the "private circumstances" in which the boy's revival took place: there were no witnesses.

Contrast all this with the story from St Luke of Jesus' ministry in the township of Nain.  The contrasts are stark: the story is set in Galilee, not in Gentile territory.  The encounter happens in broad daylight, outside in the busy street, the entrance to the town.  Both Jesus and the grieving widow are accompanied by large crowds – there are witnesses a-plenty.  Whatever motivated Elijah (he might have felt he – or perhaps even God – "owed" her something because of her extraordinary generosity in the time of life-threatening famine), St Luke makes it clear that Jesus is moved by compassion. So far as we know, she is a stranger to him. Whereas in the first story the widow's son was a young boy, the deceased in this case is a young man.  And, of course, there is no doubt here that he is deceased.  Jesus does very little, merely touching the casket, causing the pallbearers to stop.  He does not pray: he merely speaks a few words to the deceased; but the outcome is the same.  Life is restored to the son who is returned to his widowed mother.

In short, this time there is no wriggle room: St Luke has closed all avenues of escape.  What are we, as trainee disciples, to make of this story, not as an episode in history, but as a module of instruction on how to live a life of faith in this country in this century among our compatriots, mostly unbelievers?

It's time to bring St Paul onto the stage.  While there is, inevitably, scholarly debate over the dating of this letter, there are good reasons for believing that it is one of his earliest, if not the earliest.  He is still trying to establish his credentials, who he is and what is the source of his authority.  The original apostles had no such difficulty: they were known to have been "with Jesus from the beginning".  Paul had no such advantage, to put it mildly.  Well, then, if he wasn't an apostle himself, was he acting under delegated authority from them?  That seems to be at least one of the ideas that Paul was trying to quash in this letter.  Before looking at today's passage, glance back to the very beginning of the letter, and you will find this: "Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead."

And he drives this point home in today's passage.  The gospel he preaches "is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ".  As for any delegated authority from the "real apostles" St Paul is equally adamant: "I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me..." and later, when he did go up to Jerusalem to visit Peter he "did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother."  So important is all this to Paul that he insists, "In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!"

So here is our first challenge as we learn the life of discipleship: are today's stories fiction, made up by man and passed on for educational purposes – like parables?  Or are they records of specific epiphanies, revelations of the power of God acting through a prophet and his anointed Christ?  The "power of God" is not a theme that I can recall hearing very much in our Church, yet it is central to our lives of faith, surely.  God's creative power made all things, visible and invisible, on earth and in the heavens.  Do we believe that?  God's power raised the crucified Jesus to life three days after his death.  Do we believe that?  Jesus acted in many ways displaying the power of God, as did God's prophets before him.  Do we believe that?  And through the gift of the Holy Spirit first given at Pentecost and received by each of us through Pentecost, the same power of God is working in us.  Do we believe that?

"Yours is the vigour in creation."  Less poetically, we might say, "the power in creation".  And that power has in the past been concentrated to a greater degree in the prophets than in others.  In men like Elijah, who, perhaps, lay his body (and not just his hands) on the sick boy to pass on that power to him and raise him back to life.  That power was uniquely concentrated in Jesus of Nazareth, enabling him to command the stormy waters, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to feed the multitudes – the power that he felt being drawn from him when a sick woman touched the hem of his robe.  That power came upon the apostles at Pentecost, with many amazing manifestations recorded in the Book of Acts.

What has happened to that power today?  Lesson 1 of our course on discipleship calls us to address that question.  And that's only the beginning.

Kings.  One of the many reasons for loving this story is the authenticity of the characters.  They don't hesitate to express their mistrust of God: why has he turned on this poor widow, after all she's done for God's own prophet?  It is the cry of Job, the common cry of the psalmist, baffled by God's apparent indifference, if not actual hostility.  She fears Elijah's proximity has shown up her sinfulness – (recall Peter's cry of "Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man") – and perhaps even that he has knowingly endangered her in this way.  Elijah feels God is letting the side down – his side!  Verses 19 and 23 are interesting – far more detailed than the storyline would seem to warrant.  Something about raising and lowering – heaven and earth – life and death – even Jacob's ladder?

Taking It Personally.

  • Another great passage for praying with the imagination.  Put yourself in the house, follow Elijah upstairs, watch the action unfold.  Keep in touch with your feelings as they change throughout the story.
  • Focus on verse 20.  Listen to the tone of Elijah's voice.  How is he feeling?  Bewildered, angry, or something else?  Can you recall an occasion when you have prayed with this amount of raw honesty?
  • Is there any part of your life into which you would like life to return?  Make that the focus of your prayer this week.


Galatians.  There is a whiny tone to some of St Paul's writing, particularly when a critic has raised the issue of his credentials as an apostle.  For me that simply makes him more human and therefore easier to relate to.  But his message is still the same: it has come to him, a human being, from a non-human source.  It has come to him by divine revelation, and nothing anyone can say will shake that belief.  For him there is only one true gospel, and it is the one he has been preaching and always will preach.


Taking It Personally.


  • From whom did you receive the gospel?   By whose power are you passing it on?
  • Are you aware of God's power at work within and through you?  Can you think of a specific instance of God working through you during the past week?
  • How would you respond if someone asked you what evidence you have that God is at work in the world today – or in your life today?
  • Do you want God to work more powerfully in and through you now?  Pray accordingly.  [Always be aware that if your honest answer to a question of this sort is no, that discovery in itself can be an important point of growth if you will let it.]


Luke.  Another great example of the story-teller's art.  You can just see and feel the tension in the air.  Someone has interrupted a funeral cortege.  Even today, that would be an outrage.  And Jesus has touched the casket, thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean.  Who is he?  What on earth does he think he's doing?  Isn't the widow upset enough without this grossly insensitive intrusion?  We can imagine her supporters getting ready to deal with him – and then he speaks those extraordinary words.  And the life of all those involved will never be the same.  Perhaps we don't take enough notice of "the crowds" in the gospel scenes.  They are real people, who witness an extraordinary manifestation of God's power working through one man.  How can they not be changed for ever?


Taking It Personally.


·        Like the crowds, you too have witnessed it.  Do you believe what you have seen and heard?  What change is the power of God effecting in you?