St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 30                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41*

[Alternatively, The Lectionary offers a choice of readings for Mothering Sunday, as if anyone would seriously chose something other than these wonderful readings set for the Day.  No disrespect to mothers, of course.]

Theme:  I’m tempted to go with “Seeing is Believing”: an oldie but still a goodie.  However, the grown-up inside me is pointing out that the whole thrust of these readings is that what we believe often prevents us from seeing clearly; so if you have a stroppy grown-up inside you it may be better to go with something a little more adult, like “Fifty Shades of Blindness”.  Bartimaeus, and the guy in this week’s gospel passage, would encourage us to keep it simple.  Something like from “Blindness to Sight” would fit the bill.  Whatever you choose the gradual hymn/song should be “Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus”.  (No. 532 in “Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New”, if that’s any help.)

Introduction.  We start with a biblical version of American Idol, with one very reluctant judge, as Jesse’s sons are paraded before Samuel who has the unenviable task of trying to discern which one God has already chosen as the winner.  The difficulty faced by Samuel is made all the greater because he has the very human habit of judging by appearances, whereas to be a real prophet he has to learn to look at the inner person.  St Paul uses the concepts of darkness and light (blindness and sight) to exhort the new believers in the church at Ephesus to continue to walk in the light of Christ.  Darkness, he says, is favoured by those who are intent on doing evil, but all will be exposed by the light of Christ.  We finish with another of those wonderful narratives that form the first half of St John’s gospel, featuring a dramatic dialogue between Jesus and those who just don’t “get” him.  This time (as in last week’s example) even his disciples struggle to get on his wavelength; but the real fun comes in the interchange between the man born blind but then healed and the Pharisees who were born sighted but just don’t want to see the obvious, giving rise to surely one of the great comedic gems in the Scriptures as the healed man becomes a clown of Shakespearean quality.

Background.  Here’s a profound thought that came to me as I mused on my reaction to the Russian moves in Crimea.  How I see the events that have enfolded there over the last few days, and how Vladimir Putin sees them, has nothing to do with my eyesight or his.  In each case the way each of us sees those events depends far more on our nationality than our eyesight.  Although I know that Argentina has a very strong claim to the Falklands/Malvinas, I supported the argument that the overwhelming wish of the residents of the islands to remain British should decide the matter.  The same argument looks right to me in respect of Gibraltar.  So if the large majority of the residents of Crimea wish to join leave the Ukraine and rejoin Russia...?  Why does that look so bad to me?  And then there’s the forthcoming referendum in Scotland.  Should I see that as a similar case to the Falklands and Gibraltar, or should I stick that in the same basket as Crimea?  (The expression “a point of view” is an interesting one in this sort of context, isn’t it?)

So one of the things that may affect our ability to see straight (there’s another interesting expression!) is our own cultural tradition and upbringing.  Or do I mean our own personal prejudices and presumptions?  Recently the ODT’s in-house cartoonist provoked a few letters to the editor by drawing two scruffy male youths covered in tattoos and body piercing, sharing their surprise that they never seem to have a successful outcome to a job interview.  Sure enough, the letter-writers slammed the stereotyping, and insisted that young people should not be judged on their appearance, etc.  But come on!  What then are we to make of a young man, interviewed recently about his tattoos, clothes, and hairstyle (all highly fashionable and rather “out there”) who said, “This is how I choose to express myself – this is saying to the world, this is who I am”?

Samuel made the opposite mistake, or, more probably, two mistakes.  First, his cultural expectation would be that the eldest son, the all-important first-born, would have seniority over his younger siblings – a sort of skewed version of primogeniture.  If the winner is to be crowned king it would have to be the oldest one – a king can’t have older brothers, can he?  Secondly, Samuel was confirmed in that instinctive choice by looking at the first-born, Eliab; he just looked the part!  He apparently had the strength and bearing of a king.  But the Lord told Samuel not to judge by appearances.  (We must not reject anyone for tattoos and body piercings, or appoint someone who looks just the sort of person we had in mind.)  And yet... when young David is brought in as a somewhat late entrant, what are we told about him?  “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes and was handsome”!  [An awkward moment for the biblical literalists, perhaps; but presumably we are to understand that David’s outward appearance ‘happened to be very beautiful’, but that had no bearing on his choice as king.]

So we can fail to see properly for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with physical blindness; and the gospel story this week should remind us as people of faith that one of the most dreadful forms of spiritual blindness occurs when we refuse to see something that conflicts with our present belief.  Think of St Peter and his vision of the ‘unclean creatures’ in Acts 10: his “biblical understanding of the will/Law of God made it very difficult to “see” what God was now showing him. In this week’s gospel passage we have two groups of people who fail to see what has clearly taken place before them, even though the principal eye-witness (sorry, but I didn’t even try to resist that one) kept insisting that he had had his sight restored.  I’ve commented before on the reaction of the crowds who witness the impossible tricks modern magicians like Dynamo perform in front of them.  In this passage the crowds react in a very similar way.  They try to find an “explanation”: it can’t be the same man, but one who looks like him.  And when the guy insists that he is the same man, they demand to know “how the trick was done”.

The religious observers, on the other hand, started off by seeking to establish the facts: they made inquiries.  But when they couldn’t shake the testimony of the man, supported in part by his nervous parents, they used theology, wrapped in issues of credentials and pedigree, to blind themselves to reality.  God does not act through sinners; this man [Jesus] is a sinner, therefore, whatever has happened to you is not of God.  But the man is not going to be defeated by any such head stuff: he knows what has happened and that is all that matters to him.  St Paul had the opposite experience, of course, but it was just as convincing.   When you’ve been blind, whether from birth or temporarily, and had your sight restored you know what has happened, and no amount of scientific or theological argument is going to convince you that it is impossible.  As I said last week, experience trumps theology every time.

Samuel.  There is an obvious reason for the choice of this passage in relation to the gospel, and, I think, a less obvious one.  I have already touched on the obvious one.  But now let’s think about Samuel for a moment.  The Boy Wonder, Eli’s little helper, has grown up and become, what?  A great Elder, a Prophet, a devoted servant of the Lord High God who called to him all those years ago before he had learned to recognise God’s voice?  That is the Samuel of faith as presented to us in the Scriptures.  But there is, of course, another way of looking at what is going on here.  Again those familiar with Shakespeare might see in Samuel one of those Machiavellian characters skilled in the art of sniffing political winds and riding them to personal survival and advancement.  Saul is clearly losing it, has been for some time now, and a lame-duck king is a risky one to follow too loyally.  Thoughts turn to questions of succession.  Who is best able to succeed, in both senses of the word?  And whoever it is, wouldn’t he be most grateful to anyone who made it possible for him to ascend to the throne?  Was Samuel in practice a highly skilled king-maker with nerves of steel?  It all depends on our point of view, doesn’t it?

Taking It Personally.

  • Are you inclined to judge by appearances?  Can you recall an occasion when your first impression of someone proved subsequently to be wrong?  How do you feel about the ODT cartoon?  If you were interviewing a person for a position involving the giving advice on dietary matters, would you reject an applicant who was clearly obese?  Or too thin?
  • Focus on verses 2 and 3.  Notice how God suggests a ruse (a cover story) designed to keep Saul from learning what Samuel is really up to.  What do you think of that?  Is such deception consonant with your understanding of the absolute holiness of God?


Ephesians.  This is another reminder that the early Church had its struggles, even when the apostles were still on the job!  Conversion is not a one-off event, but an ongoing process, with progress interrupted from time to time by slip-ups.  St Paul constantly urges the new converts to stand firm and hold tight, all too aware of the ease with which they can slip back into old habits.  Egypt never looks so bad in retrospect as it did at the time: the appeal of new life shines brightest when it is still but a distant hope.  Reality can soon cause it to fade.  When we are in darkness we may yearn for the light, but sometimes the light can reveal something about us we would rather not show!  Darkness is the state preferred by evildoers, says St Paul; but in the light of Christ all stand fully revealed.


Taking It Personally.


·        Darkness can also be an apt way of describing tough times in our lives, when everything seems to have gone wrong.  Looking back, have you experienced a dark time of that kind?  Who or what brought light back to you?

·        Reflect on the need for light for virtually all forms of life; and yet life itself begins in darkness.  What do you make of that?  Life seems to be a journey from darkness to light in the physical world; is that how you have experienced it in your spiritual life?

·        What would you say to a friend who is in a “dark place” at this time?


John.  We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to skip through the early verses of this passage – or cut them out of the reading because it’s too long.  The teaching starts at the beginning at it says something about the disciples.  They see a blind man who does not excite their compassion, but arouses their curiosity.  For them he is not a person but a debating point.  Jesus’ answer does not seem to help matters.  But then Jesus attends to the man’s needs.  He does so in a somewhat elaborate and drawn out process.  I wonder if much of this is for the disciples’ sake rather than the man’s: after all he couldn’t see what Jesus was doing.  I’ve already commented on the reaction of the crowds, the nervousness of his parents, and the wonderful exchanges between the man and his “religious superiors”.  The man grows in confidence as the dialogue develops, but for me the classic moment comes with that simple, incontrovertible statement in verse 25b: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  The one who was physically blind becomes the one who tries to bring sight to those who are spiritually blind.  Verses 35-41 are a wonderful little addendum, a reminder that spiritual experience can lead to theological understanding.  From “I do not know whether he is a sinner” (verse 25a), he now comes into a full belief in who Jesus is (verse 38).  The miracle of physical sight has led to the even greater miracle of spiritual sight.


Taking It Personally.


·        Read through this passage slowly, prayerfully, over and over again.  Let the story carry you along the same path the man travelled.

·        Give thanks for the gift of physical sight.  Pray for an ever greater gift of spiritual sight.

·        Imagine meeting this man.  What would you most like to ask him about the whole experience, and why?

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Third Sunday in Lent

March 23                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Exodus 17: 1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

Theme: There are some obvious front-runners this week: “The Water of Life”; “The Source of Life”; “Water and the Spirit”.  Take your pick.  Perhaps “The Well of Life” may capture it better.  To remind us that what Christianity is really about is encountering Christ – experiencing his presence – we might prefer something like “Encountering Christ”.  But this week I want to focus on that woman who had that experience; and for reasons that will become clearer later I’m going for “Becoming the Best We Can Be”.

Introduction.  Whatever else the Season of Lent is, it is a period of great readings, and this week exemplifies this.  We start with the drama of real basic human thirst, and the natural human reaction when faced with difficulty.  The people grumble, lose their confidence in their leaders and in God, and demand some accountability.  Moses passes on their complaints, if only to save his own skin.  His own faith is being tested.  St Paul takes the opposite approach: our relationship with God has been healed – we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.  But does that solve anything in the “real” world?  And we meet a woman whose mind is also on the basic need for water, yet is open to the possibility that there is more to life than can be hauled up in a bucket.

Background.  Is it just me, or has this been a particularly depressing week?  A large modern airliner disappears with nearly 300 people on board and no one has any idea where it is?  At least, no one who is prepared to say anything that might disclose their surveillance networks.  Russia takes possession of the Crimea and is criticised by countries like the USA and the United Kingdom, whose own recent past hardly gives them grazing rights on the moral high-ground.  Another child-porn ring is uncovered involving people from many countries including our own.  In London the phone-hacking scandal trundles on, revealing ever greater depths to which the greet Fleet Street media, apostles of the Fourth Estate, were prepared to sink in order to make ever greater profits for their shareholders; and from South Africa an even greater horror unfolds as a man tries to excuse the shooting of one person the ground that he thought he was shooting someone else.

For some reason, from all this two, perhaps, more trivial matters have particularly set me off this week.  The first was a radio interview with a spokeswoman for some dog-owners, who was asked about the difficulty in complying with recent legislation relating to the classification of certain breeds of dog as dangerous.  Apparently the owners of such dogs are lying on their application forms for the registration of their dogs, describing them as “Labrador-cross”, for example, rather than as “pit-bull”.  According to this woman the owners have no other choice; if they were honest about the breed, the dog would be recorded as dangerous, and would be subject to all sorts of restrictions.  In some cases the dog would have to be neutered.  So, the real culprits are the fools who passed the new laws, and or the local councils who do not check that the applicant is telling the truth.  The idea that the owner might tell the truth because it is the honest thing to do never seemed to cross this woman’s mind.  Who is going to tell the truth if, in doing so, it might cost them money?

And secondly, the ODT published an article by Sue Foley,a Westpac executive, commenting on the findings of a “Women of New Zealand Survey”.  Ms Foley did not, of course, want “to impose my own approach to life on anyone else”, and then proceeded to do just that.  Ms Foley’s main gripe seemed to be that only 12% of New Zealand women “aspire to being the CEO/boss”; and “only 33% viewed a career as a way to test themselves or be the best they can”.  It’s that expression “to be the best they can” that really pressed my button.  The assumption underlying Ms Foley’s entire article is that we can become the best we can only through climbing the career ladder (and certainly not stopping half-way up).  Ms Foley offered no comment on what to me was the most distressing finding in the survey: when asked “What aspect of New Zealand needs most improvement” only 25% opted for “more social equality and equal opportunity”.

All of which led me to pondering again this wonderful story of the woman at the well.  What were her aspirations for her life?  Did she dream of one day having power and prestige?  A chance to test herself and be the best she could be? Or was she destined to become one of those “women to cringe in later life at the thought of those two horrible words – if only?”  We know the answer, but it is one that would seem to make no sense to Ms Foley or those involved in the survey.  We know that the woman was simply doing her tiring chore, trudging to the well to get water for her household, before trudging all the way back now burdened with the weight of her pitcher.  It was noon, the hottest part of the day.

When she arrives at the well she notices a man resting there.  He was tired out by his journey.  There are all sorts of barriers between the two of them, barriers of gender, history, culture, and, above all, of understanding.  One by one Jesus breaks down these walls that divide.  And we watch as she becomes in his presence the best that she can become.  From silent water-gatherer, she blossoms into cautious but curious questioner, and then into dialogue-partner, and then into evangelist to her people.  She leaves her water-jar, symbol of her career, centre of her daily life, and calls the people of her city. “Come and see for yourselves; come and make up your own minds.”  And they heeded her call in large numbers, men as well as women.  Not everyone, of course; many stayed in their offices, factories and other work-places, testing themselves and striving to be the best they could be.  Some of them might even have become CEO/boss in years to come.

And some of them noticed something that worried them a lot.  They noticed that those who had downed tools and followed that crazy woman out into the wilderness to listen to some ne’er-do-well from Nazareth seemed changed somehow.  They seemed happier, more contented with their lot, kinder, readier to help others, more confident and less liable to worry about the future; more committed to helping their neighbours instead of spying on them or gossiping about them; more committed to telling the truth even when it could cost them their lives.  And one or two or more of them, in older age, found themselves muttering to themselves those horrible words – if only – “if only I had followed them – if only I had listened to that crazy woman – if only I had met that man from Nazareth when I had the chance.”

Exodus.  I’ve always struggled with passages like this.  I hate being hot, tired and thirsty; and when I am I look for someone to blame for my predicament.  Whose idea was it that we should go for a walk?  So I’m instinctively with the grumblers in situations like this.  I forget all the times when things went wonderfully right; the beauty of the surroundings, the pleasure of the walk, the gentle, cooling breeze.  I don’t so much enjoy their presence as lament their absence.  The people turn on Moses, but, of course, they are really complaining about God.  Moses knows that, and refers their complaint on to God.  Not in so many words, of course: he wraps up his complaint to make it look like a plea for wisdom or guidance.    “What should I do?” really means, “You got us into this, now do something to get us out of it.”  God gives him what he wants – a plan of action.  It is a plan to journey on, to go forward, not to retreat.  God will be there to meet them and to meet their needs.  We notice that Moses does as he is commanded.  We are not told what God does: that goes without saying.  Notice, too, that the place is to be remembered, not as the place where God provided water to drink, but as the place where the people quarrelled and tested the Lord.

Taking It Personally.

·        In times of difficulty, the people lose faith.  Can you relate to that?  Or has it been your experience that times of difficulty strengthen your faith?

·        Are you inclined to blames others at such times?

·        Are you inclined to look back to the good old days?

·        Notice the question the Israelites ask at the end of this passage: “is the Lord with us or not?”  That’s the real issue, isn’t it?  Have you ever asked yourself that question?  How would you answer that question now?


Romans.  St Paul proclaims what for him is the one unassailable fact as he ponders the work of Jesus Christ: as a result of that work we are reconciled to God – our relationship with God has been healed.   In the light of that, even the terrible times we experience from time to time can be accepted (if not welcomed) as opportunities for new spiritual growth.  And all this is God’s gift to us, not because we have cleaned up our act and become worthy of God’s love, but precisely so that we might clean up our act and become worthy of the love we have already received.  “While we were yet sinners...” is not for St Paul an astute piece of theological exposition, or a nice piece of liturgy: it is breathtakingly wonderful good news!



Taking It Personally.


·        Notice how balanced the two halves of this passage are.  What saves the first half from becoming a sort of self-improvement guide?

·        Are verses 3-5 true to your own experience or not?

·        What does it mean for you that you are reconciled to God?  Do you feel at peace with God?


John.  Another of the wonderful dialogue narratives through which John teaches us the spiritual life within the context of the everyday world.  Today we have an unnamed woman – she stands for all of us (men as well as women) who have basic needs that have to be met if life is to continue.  Water, I guess, is second only to air in our list of the necessities of life.  And yet, in surely the most telling phrase in this whole wonderful story, in the wake of her encounter with Jesus “the woman left her water jar and went back to the city”.  She forgets even her need for water in her excitement.  Feminist theologians might want to make something of the fact that she does not have a name; but surely we cannot doubt that Jesus treats her as a person in her own right.  He is patient with her (more patient than he was with Nicodemus) leading her from one insight to the next, one step to the next on the spiritual journey.  More, he makes himself vulnerable in her presence.  He asks her for help, which she could have refused; he reveals his true identity to her, which she could have ridiculed.  And when it was over she thought only of her neighbours.  Had she taken back her pitcher of water she might have shared it with her own household: what she had received from Jesus was more than enough for everybody in the city to share if they wanted to.


Taking It Personally.


·        A wonderful passage for Ignatian prayer, using your imagination.  Place yourself at the well.  Watch and listen as the drama unfolds.  Notice how the woman gradually grows in confidence.  But notice, too, how Jesus becomes energised in this episode.  He starts “tired out by his journey”.  By the end he is ready for the curious crowds coming to him.  What do you make of that?

·        Jesus reveals to the woman that he knows her through and through.  What might Jesus know about you that you would rather he didn’t know?

·        Suppose your neighbour came to you to ask for some water – would you give him/her some?

·        Now suppose your neighbour comes to you for help to meet Jesus.  What would you say or do?




Thursday, 13 March 2014

Second Sunday in Lent

March 16                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Second Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Theme:  As we walk to the Cross it becomes ever more urgent to reflect on the fundamental question, why are we going this way?  Surely there’s got to be a better way than this?  That’s at the heart of the struggle Jesus faced in the wilderness last week.  So something in the nature of a question might be a suitable theme for this week.  Perhaps “Are We Sure this is the Right Way?”  Or something equally all-embracing like “Three Good Questions”, based on the recent series by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (and who isn’t a fan of his?), but more importantly recognising that each of our readings this week has a question at the heart of it.

Introduction.  We start with the call of Abram this week.  In this passage the question is shouted from off-stage, “Are you out of your mind?”  [Come on!  The guy is 75; and suddenly he has decided to up sticks and everything else he owned and head off to start a new life in a land somewhere – but he has no idea where!  You don’t think Sarai was likely to respond, “Are you out of your mind?”]  In the gospel passage Nicodemus, earnest, well-meaning, and essentially a good man of faith, has an equally sincere question to ask: a rough translation might be, “What on earth are you talking about?”  Both of those questions are good questions and the Season of Lent is a good time for us to reflect on them again.  But for me, this week’s prize for the best question goes to St Paul, as he reflects on Abram’s big move.

Background.  St Paul’s question in a nutshell is this.  What did Abram get out of it?  What did he gain from it?  So often, particularly perhaps in the Season of Lent, we place the emphasis on cost; what do we have to give up to be a disciple?  There’s nothing wrong with that question in prospect; Jesus urges would-be followers to think very carefully before committing themselves to him: Luke 14:25-33.  But somehow the question never arises that way in retrospect.  With the benefit of hindsight we see the blessings, and forget the anxieties that plagued us before we set out.

A few years ago I was having a bit of a chat show with a large crowd of people who attended our carol singing before our Christmas Eve Eucharist service: we tend to have a burst of 3 or 4 carols, and then a breather, and during the breather I talk with the people, greeting visitors, asking about their year, and so on.  On this particular occasion I asked an immigrant from the United Kingdom what he missed most from the old country to which he replied with considerable fervour, “Absolutely nothing!”  I must confess I was taken aback, and suspected that he was being more tactful than truthful.  But when I thought about it, and about my own feelings as an immigrant, I realised what he meant.  Of course, we could isolate some things to grumble about – the standard of the New Zealand press, the difficulty in finding really good sausages, or whatever.  But overall, life for us here is so much better n so many ways – and let’s use the religious word “blessed” to make this point – that to think of what we have lost just doesn’t seem to make sense.

I feel just the same about my other great “act of migration” from a well-paid career in law to the somewhat more financially challenging world of semi-stipended ministry.  What have I lost – what did I give up – just doesn’t make sense in retrospect, however troubling such questions might have been for me when I was struggling with the issue of my call.  Of course not every single day since has been an unmitigated joy – some of them have involved vestry meetings and sittings of Synod; there have been days when the darker side of human nature (including my own) has been all-too evident.  And yet, and yet... “Blessing” is the only word that comes close to describing the years that followed my decision to leave my profession and follow those simple words “Come, follow me” that I somehow heard deep within me.

Of course, such calls are individual cases, and for most followers of Christ there is no such dramatic break of domicile or occupation involved.  But this week at St Barnabas we have started a series on “Spirituality & Liturgy”, designed to help us reflect more intentionally on our worship and its role in our spiritual growth.  My basic thesis is that the process of worship is a “recapitulation” of the spiritual journey, and so we began this week thinking about the intention we form each Sunday (or whenever) to “go to church”.  (Note: I want that phrase banned for the whole of Lent (and for ever afterwards): instead, of asking ourselves “do I want to go to church today?” I should ask “do I want to worship God today?”]  That process is a microcosm of the decision to start on a spiritual journey.  In the words of our economists it has a “lost opportunity cost”: if I attend a service in my local church during a certain period of time I lose the opportunity to use that period of time to do anything else – not, of course, something wicked or sinful, but something good in itself – gardening, cooking, taking the dog for a walk, visiting family or friends, or whatever.

So it is with our commitment to the spiritual journey.  It involves a “lost opportunity cost”.  It is not something that we can tack on to everything else we are already doing in our busy lives.  It takes time and patience and commitment.  Like the athlete who must train even when she doesn’t feel like getting out of bed, or the musician who must practise even when he would rather be listening to someone else playing, we must pray even when we don’t feel like it and worship even when it’s raining, if we are to grow spiritually.

And as St Paul’s great question reminds us this week, the question “how much is this going to cost?”, is soon replaced by a joyous exclamation: “look how much I’ve gained!”  [Those who remember Helen Reddy’s great feminist anthem may recall a couplet that goes something like, “Yes, I’ve paid the price, but look how much I’ve gained.”  Sorry, that just popped into my mind for some reason.]  Why in this Season of Lent are we walking the path that leads to the Cross?  Ask me that question on Easter Day and I’ll sing you the answer: “Christ has risen!  Look how much we’ve all gained!” So it doesn’t scan – but it’s still great news, isn’t it?

Genesis.  Here’s a trivial pursuit question to begin with, one that quite a few people who ought to know better get wrong.  From whence was Abram called?  If you think the answer is from Ur of the Chaldees, think again.  His father brought the family out of that great city heading for Canaan, but got as far as Haran and decided that would do.  Abram is called from Haran.  The simplicity of this short passage is the key to its strength.  God calls, Abram, promising him great blessings.  Abram obeys.  That’s it: no request for I.D. (how do I know you’re God – you could be a scammer.) No asking for more time to consider and to consult the other stake-holders.  No requests for insurance or guarantees.  Not even the obvious question, “Go where?”  Sometimes people ask me how they can know God’s will for them.  I always answer that that’s God’s problem, not theirs.  If God has not chosen to make his will clear to us we’re free to choose for ourselves.  The Bible shows that that is rarely the problem: it is when we know what God’s will is and we don’t want to do it that things become more difficult.  Ask Moses.

Taking It Personally.

  • Put yourself in Abram’s shoes.  He has heard God calling him to journey off into the unknown.  How will he convince Sarai?  What will the neighbours think?  Does he attempt to construct a logical explanation for what he is about to do; or does he simply state that it is God’s will and therefore is not open to discussion?  Is he excited at the prospect, or dismayed, or indifferent?
  • Can you recall an occasion when your faith led you to make a decision that your nearest and dearest found inexplicable?
  • Now put yourself in Sarai’s shoes.  How would she respond to Abram’s news?
  • Can you recall an occasion when one of your nearest and dearest planned a course of action based on faith that you thought imprudent? How did you react?


Romans.  St Paul’s great question offers him another opportunity to develop his favourite theme of God’s grace.  Whatever Abram received, and Paul will come to that shortly, it wasn’t by way of reward for past good works.  Abram had not earned God’s favour.  In fact we know very little of Abram’s character, except for one extraordinary characteristic.  He was open to God – in other words, he was a great mystic.  He heard God speak to him on a number of occasions and his response was always the same: obedience.  Not obedience in the sense of grudging compliance with come provision of law backed by threat of penalty.   (Nor simply a “doormat” response, as the powerful narrative of the near-sacrifice of Isaac brings home to us.) As Paul makes clear, Abram’s calling preceded the coming of the law; so this has nothing to do with good and evil, it is not a matter of ethics.  What this story is about is spiritual formation writ large; a recognition of God, a willing surrender to God, resulting in spiritual growth and much blessing.





Taking It Personally.


  • What have you gained from your faith in God?  Take some time to ponder that question.  Make a list.  How many items are on your list after 15 minutes?  Give it another 5 minutes.  Now how many items are on your list?  Give thanks for each one of them
  • Keep your list with you all week.  Add to it as other items come to mind.  Give thanks for each new addition.
  • Take your list with you to the service on Easter Day.  Do the same on Pentecost.  Reflect on the difference a practice such as this can make in your awareness of God’s goodness and grace.


John.  In this great narrative we see the two worlds in which we live with extraordinary clarity.  Again we notice that Nicodemus is not one of those tiresome know-alls who were for ever trying to entrap Jesus or trip him up.  This man is a genuine seeker after truth, but he has made the mistake that so many intelligent, well-educated people make.  He believes he can think his way to the spiritual truth.  Jesus teaches him differently.  We have two natures, born in two different ways.  We have our human nature acquired in the usual way from our human parents.  But we also have a spiritual nature, which can only be born in and through the Spirit.  The passage ends with two verses that have had very different “careers”.  Verse 16 has achieved superstar status, perhaps the most memorised verse in the whole of Scripture.  Verse 17 is widely ignored, particularly by the evangelical wing of the Church.  Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it.  And on a related theme, verse 16 says the alternative to eternal life is not eternal punishment but extinction.  If we do not accept the gift of life we perish (cease to exist), we don’t fry for ever and a day.


Taking It Personally.


  • Read slowly through this passage, preferably aloud.  This is a passage to be listened to.  Try with Nicodemus to grasp what Jesus is saying to you.
  • Focus on verse 8, phrase by phrase.  Follow the analogy with the wind.  We feel it, we know its reality, even if we have no idea what has caused it to suddenly “get up”.  So it is with the Spirit, says Jesus.  What do you make of that?
  • How might we apply this teaching to Abram’s experience as recorded in our first lesson?
  • Now focus on verses 16 and 17.  Notice that they are a couplet, not two separate ideas.  How would you summarise Jesus’ teaching in these verses?
  • What insights have you drawn from this passage to help you towards spiritual growth?

Thursday, 6 March 2014

First Sunday in Lent

March 9                      NOTES FOR REFLECTION             First Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Theme:  Probably best to play it straight this week.  I would avoid “The Temptation of Christ”, not because of its movie connotations, but to avoid any suggestion that temptation is something that happened to him back there then – whereas the emphasis must be on what happens to all of us each day.  I think we can capture both ideas by pinching a phrase from Hebrews, “Tempted in Every Way”, so that’s my pick for the week.

Introduction.  We enter the Lenten period with two great stories and one turgid theological tract.  It’s fashionable to scoff at the whole Adam and Eve thing, but for me this is one of the greatest stories ever told, and I never tire of coming back to it and pondering it all over again.  It so perfectly describes the human dilemma arising from our dual nature of thinking creature endowed with free will.  And it reminds us that our whole forensic concept of sin, as an instance of a breach of a particular provision of some detailed heavenly code of conduct for which a penalty will be imposed from on high, is wrong.  “Sin” is an attitude, a fundamental choice we make to lead our life our way instead of God’s way.  We see that perfectly illustrated today in Matthew’s account of the temptation of Christ is the desert.  In between St Paul spells out in laborious detail his answer to a very important question.  How can one man’s death have such universal implications as we claim for it?

Background.  As a recovering lawyer I still enjoy reading the court reports in the ODT from time to time, not for the lurid details of the offences reported, but for the ingenious defences that are sometimes raised.  Just lately I’ve spotted a bit of a trend.  In three cases reported in the same week defence counsel assured the judge the offences were “opportunistic”.  Presumably this is to show that there was no pre-planning, which always sounds so much worse somehow, except, perhaps to the victim.  If someone hits you over the head with a heavy object the amount of pre-planning is unlikely to have any immediate effect on the level of pain you experience.  But it occurred to me that, if I were appointed Eve’s defence counsel I might be tempted(!) to trot out this idea of “opportunism”. 

But I’m not sure.  The risk is that it might appear to be an attempt to shift the blame to the one who gave her the opportunity to offend in the first place.  Shopkeepers should not complain if children nick things from lower shelves – they should have ensured that such goodies were out of the reach of young arms.  And so the point for Eve might be:  well, what was the point of putting this particular fruit-producing tree in the very centre of the garden if you didn’t want her to eat that fruit?  With the benefit of hindsight do you not now accept that you were very unwise to put such temptation in her way – to give her the opportunity to help herself with such a tempting morsel?

A second “line of defence”, heard less frequently these days, although given an unsuccessful go this week by the non-recovering lawyer convicted of smuggling contraband goods into prison) is the one about the “victimless” offence.  (A topical example might be incest between consenting adults.)  Could I argue on behalf of Eve that she had caused no harm to anyone else and so she should be “acquitted of all charges”?  You see, that’s where the “forensic” approach to sin leads us.

A better insight into the biblical approach to sin might be drawn from parenting.  As a child few things irritated me more than my mother closing down my very well-reasoned and persistent questioning of some directive or other with the phrase “Because I say so!”  Many a time I swore to myself that if I ever became a parent I would never ever use that phrase with my child.  I would always take the time to reason with the child so that the child could understand that I was right, and was telling him or her what was best for him or her.  Of course, that policy was abandoned when my first child learnt the word “why”.  I soon latched on to a new phrase, “One of us has to be the adult here”, and vis-a-vis a two year-old I felt more qualified for that role than her.

Isn’t that the real issue for Eve?  Who is the “adult” here – the one who truly knows best – God or Eve?  Isn’t that always the issue for us when tempted to do something which we know is contrary to God’s will?  Who is the parent here – who is the God here?  And the parenting example may be helpful in reminding us that our relationship with God is not static – it involves spiritual growth.  Perhaps the reason why Adam and Eve are prohibited from eating the fruit of the tree is that they are not yet mature enough to handle the knowledge it will give them.  They must grow up first.  There may come a time when they are ready for that fruit, but that time is not yet.  Isn’t that what St Paul found with the new Christians at Corinth?  They were not mature enough to handle the spiritual gifts they developed – they wanted to run before they could walk, they wanted meat instead of milk before their spiritual” digestive system could handle the heavier diet.

It is interesting that at the heart of this story is a foodstuff.  Today we are constantly warned that we are heading for a “diabetes tsunami” – we are eating too much and we are eating the wrong types of food.  If we continue down this path more and more of us will surely die prematurely – not by way of divine punishment, of course, but simply as a natural consequence of exceeding the limits built into our bodies by our wise and loving Creator.  What does this story have to say about that?  Isn’t our over-eating a prime example of opportunism?  We wouldn’t over-eat if we didn’t have access to an excessive amount of food, would we?   So aren’t the real culprits here the food producers, or perhaps the Government for not implementing a “fat tax”?  On the other hand, who are the adults here? Perhaps it is time for the people of faith to recognise that over-eating is a spiritual issue – and when better to start reflecting on that than this period of Lent?

Now – where’s my comfort food?

Genesis.  First, hats off to the compilers of The Lectionary this week!  By isolating verses 15-17 and following them with the passage from chapter 3 we can focus on the heart of this wonderful story.  We begin in gift: God has created a garden and now puts the man to whom he has given life in the garden.  Up until that point Adam has done nothing; now he is given a role in the creative process; his role is to “till and keep” the garden.  Today we say “to be steward of creation”.  It is a role that carries great perks: Adam can help himself to the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, with one exception.  He must not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – to do so would result in his death.  Fast forward a while, until we find Eve confronted by a serpent, the embodiment of temptation.  The serpent opens by asking Eve what God really said.  Eve, of course, wasn’t there at the time, so she is relying on what Adam had told her.  Her response is fascinating.  She opens with a piece of pedantry: God and the serpent speak of eating “of the tree”: Eve is more precise, speaking of eating “of the fruit of the tree”.  But then she seems to widen the original ban: not only must they not eat of that fruit, they must not even touch it.  The serpent does not enter into the word-game: he shoes straight on the attack, and the target he chooses is interesting.  He denies any hurtful outcome that might arise from eating the fruit.  Far from doing you any harm, he says, it will be good for you.  So Eve is able to see the fruit in a new way: instead of something threatening her very life, she now sees it as nourishing, beautiful, and even as a source of new wisdom.  She shares her new understanding with Adam and together they share in their new discovery.  The outcome is immediate and profound.  In an extraordinary way, it fulfils the predictions of God and of the serpent.  Their eyes are opened and they see things differently and wrongly: in their immaturity they are thrown into confusion and attempt to hide from one another.  The fashion industry is born!

Taking It Personally.

·        A time for quiet reflection if ever there was one.  What does the term “sin” mean for you?  What most annoys you about the views expressed above?

·        Do you agree that eating unhealthy foods or unhealthy amounts can be considered a “spiritual issue”?  Does God know best what is good for us, or, by granting us the gift of free will, has he left it up to us to decide for ourselves?  Or both?

·        Do we have any responsibility for the health of others?  Where does feasting fit into all this?  Is an obese child an abused child?

·        Notice that there is no suggestion that the forbidden fruit is bad in itself.  What does that tell you about the nature of temptation?

·        What does the nature of the “ban” tell you about the nature of God?

·        What about giving up excessive eating for Lent, rather than some specific item(s)?  Would that be a helpful spiritual exercise for you?


Romans.  Not one of St Paul’s easier passages to grasp, but it’s worth a bit of effort.  He is addressing a very important question, one that I have been asked occasionally over the years.  It goes like this: even if everything you claim about Jesus is true, how can it be that his death, alone of all the billions of human deaths throughout history, can have any relevance to my own life today?  Isn’t that just too much of a stretch?  Well, says St Paul, we can understand it by looking at the converse situation.  We believe that one act of disobedience by one person has infected all human nature, so why should it not be the case that one perfectly healthy human being can heal all human nature?  This is one of the theological strands that had such an important place in the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin.  There is, he says, only one human being which is manifested in billions of individual ways, just as one body comprises billions of individual cells.  What is true of one cell is true of the whole body.  What is true of one human person is true of the whole body of humanity.  God, by entering into the body of humanity brings healing and wholeness to the entire body.  The difficulty lies not just in understanding this, but in believing it.


Taking It Personally.


·        I’m not sure how you can take this passage personally, but perhaps the first step might be to start with the liturgy.  What do you mean when you join with others and say, “We who are many are one Body for we all share the one bread”?


Matthew.  Again there is so much in this very familiar passage.  First, we should not overlook the fact that this passage does not purport to be an eye-witness account.  The only source can be Jesus himself.  Secondly, the event follows immediately after his baptism, and therein lies its psychological truth.  After the great spiritual high, comes the great spiritual reaction.  Isn’t that our experience?  Perhaps on a retreat we feel that we have had some great breakthrough or new insight: for a time everything now seems clearer, more certain: but some days later the doubt sets in.  Did something really happen, or was it all imagination?  Why aren’t I still experiencing this supposed new state of awareness?  In the desert Jesus wrestles with this sort of question: if I am the Son of God, how can I prove that to others and to myself?  By using my new powers to turn stones into bread?  By a death-defying leap off the top of the temple?  By assuming political power?  Or simply by placing myself completely at God’s disposal and trusting in him?


Taking It Personally.


·        Evelyn Underhill often railed against “the religion of magic”, by which she meant demanding of God that he perform a miracle of our choice.  Where do you draw the line between intercessory prayer and seeking a magical outcome?

·        What might the Church learn from Jesus’ clear rejection of attention-grabbing stunts?

·        The three temptations may represent our desire for personal well-being, a desire for admiration and affirmation, and a desire for power.  Which might you find the hardest to resist?