August 31 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16: 21-28
Theme: It's hard to go past the gospel passage for a theme this week. Here we are, almost 5 months past Good Friday 2014 and 7 months away from Good Friday 2015, on the verge of spring and all that goes with that, and suddenly before us is The Cross! So perhaps something like "The Cross, Already". Or for those who remember the great songs of the past, what about "Lay Down Your Arms and Surrender to Mine"? No, perhaps not. "Standing at the Cross Roads" has some appeal to me; but my choice this week is "The Appeal of Jesus".
Introduction. We know the mood is darkening when Jeremiah replaces Isaiah at the top of the batting order. If we are not already depressed we soon will be as he shares his depression with us. Fortunately for him (and for us) the Divine Therapist has a plan for his recovery (and ours). And we need to be strong and healthy before we turn to St Paul's lesson this week. Rightly does the NSRV give it the heading "Marks of the True Christian": why did it immediately make me think of stigmata? Perhaps to prepare me for the gospel passage where we are jolted out of any idea that being a disciple of Jesus is a nice idea with no contra-indications. Even the shadow of the Cross, cast for the first time today in the gospel narrative, should be enough to remind us of that.
Background. The great thirteenth century Sufi mystic known in the West as Hafiz had a wonderful ability to say very simple things that slip easily into my mind and set up camp there. A recent example is this: to give thanks to God is basically saying "I'm glad things are no longer as they were." There is so much power in that statement, I think, because of what it leaves out. There is no theological correctness. There is no intellectual analysis. It is a simple statement about how we are feeling about something that is, in our eyes, better than it was. And that means we stop and give thanks.
I thought about that this week when, for a moment at least, things were better than they were in Gaza and in Eastern Ukraine. No sooner had a truce in Gaza been announced, and a meeting between the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine taken place, than the commentators and pundits started their analysis of the chances of anything good lasting in either of those places. Of course, they might well prove to be right; but right at that moment I experienced a sense of gladness that things were better than they were. A day without any casualties is always better than a day with one or more. It was good to be thankful for a moment. It was a welcome respite. In a world of darkness we look for glimpses of light, or we surrender to the darkness.
It's always a struggle. This morning (Thursday) came news from the USA that a nine-year-old girl had shot and killed her GUN INSTRUCTOR. Her parents had brought her along to learn how to fire a sub-machine gun; but the recoil was too strong for her, she lost control of it and a bullet struck the instructor in the head, killing him. What possible response can there be to that story but to cry out to the Lord, "Lord save us – we are sinking!"
Last Sunday I heard part of an interview on the radio with an Australian historian called Henry Reynolds (I think). He is the author of a book called The Forgotten War, which has made him very unpopular in some quarters of the Australian population. Coming in half-way through the interview I guessed that it was about the Boer War (do you remember New Zealand's commemorations of that war? Do you know when it started and when it finished? Do you know how many New Zealanders were killed or injured in that war? No, nor do I.) But as the interview went on I discovered that his book was about the war White Australian settlers (Dr Reynolds called them "invaders") had waged against the Aborigines. And while I was still digesting that, he moved on to the present commemorations, on both sides of the Tasman, of the First World War, and he asked an explosive question. Do we know how many Turkish youth were killed by the invading forces from Australia and New Zealand?
How do we feel about that question? How do we respond to it? Are we outraged? Then how do we respond to this week's readings – particularly to the second lesson and the gospel? Which is really to ask, how do we respond to the cross? Because on the cross violence and non-violence met, and non-violence was declared the winner by God.
As an antidote to the election campaign I have been wondering what Team Jesus' election manifesto might look like. It would probably have some good stuff in the area of social policy, but there would be some fairly large gaps compared to those of our present political parties. I'm not sure there would be an economic policy at all. Nothing about becoming more competitive, nothing about accumulating more wealth, nothing about building bigger barns, or "banks" as we call them today. Could "giving it all away" really be called an economic policy? How can an economic system based on scarcity possibly work if Jesus insists on multiplying food recklessly and feeding people for free because they are hungry? Then there is the difficulty of justice policy: would 77 strikes and you're still forgiven be a goer, do you think? Isn't forgiveness the death-knell of any good law-and-order policy? If they wrong us shall we not be avenged? [Shut up, St Paul!]
As for a defence policy, the central plank of which is to love our enemies...!! Who's going to vote for that?
And yet, and yet, polls come and go, and the appeal of Jesus remains, and has remained for 2,000 years. Daily we pray for his kingdom to come – for his manifesto to be adopted. And there's no point in doing that unless we agree with it, is there?
Jeremiah. The NSRV heading to this part of chapter 15 is "Jeremiah Complains Again and is Reassured". Don't you think that's a bit harsh? Okay, he wears his emotions on his sleeve a bit much for our taste, and he is inclined to wallow in self-pity, but he does have some legitimate grounds for complaint, doesn't he? Following God's commands has come to Jeremiah with a pretty hefty price tag, and with the best will in the world it can be hard to take sometimes. And in this psychologically astute passage we see his inner turmoil: he wants to serve God through his prophetic ministry – on good days he delights in it – but he is being worn down by the opposition he faces from those who don't want to hear what God wants him to say. And as is so often the case, such bitterness towards others has as a subtext an anger with God. In effect, Jeremiah feels that God is not doing his bit, not fulfilling "his side of the bargain". Jeremiah has withdrawn from the frivolity of others and kept himself apart for God, but the resulting suffering and insults he has borne show no signs of abating. He begs God to "bring down retribution for me on my persecutors", and then he lets slip what he really feels about God at this time: he feels God has deceived him: for him, God is "like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail". Wow! How's that for theological incorrectness! (Or should that be, honest prayerfulness?)
But God sees things differently. Jeremiah needs to "turn back", to repent. He needs to wash his mouth out, to use one of my Mother's favourite expressions: he needs to "utter what is precious, and not what is worthless". As St Paul put it in last week' reading, he should not think more highly of himself than he ought to think.
Taking It Personally.
- Do you feel sorry for Jeremiah, or does he irritate you?
- What sort of impression do you get of him from verse 17?
- What about verse 18? Have you ever felt wounded by God? Have you ever felt deceived or let down by God? Have you ever told God so honestly what you felt about God at that time?
- Imagine that Jeremiah has come to you for counselling and advice, and has outlined his "issues" along the lines of this passage. What would you say to him?
Romans. Last week St Paul wrote about the "New Life in Christ": this week he tells us what a truly Christian community of disciples would be like – not to look at but to participate in. Perhaps the first three verses aren't too bad because they are cast in more general terms. It's when he becomes more detailed that they begin to bite. Contributing to the needs of the saints, and giving hospitality to strangers, are a little more challenging, and it gets worse from then on. For some reason, St Paul is rarely dismissed as a hopeless idealist in the way that Jesus is; yet there is nothing in this passage that isn't entirely consistent with Jesus' own teaching. In fact, this passage could be seen as an explication of what Jesus means in this week's gospel passage when he calls upon his would-be followers to pick up their cross. That can only mean dying to self, and embracing a life that mirrors his, in a community of like-minded others. The sort of community of faith that St Paul is describing for us.
Taking It Personally.
- A good passage for a spiritual stock-take. Make a list of the "marks" identified by St Paul, then work slowly and prayerfully though the list. Which challenge you the most? Which challenge you the least?
- How well does your local community of faith show these "marks"?
- Spend some time with verse 13. Which of the two "commandments" challenges you the most? How much of its budget does your community of faith spend on the needs of the saints, and how much on its own needs? Does it welcome strangers?
- What do you really feel about the teaching in verses 14-21?
- Is there anything in this passage that is simply too high a price to pay for being a disciple of Christ?
Matthew. St Matthew clearly has in mind his account of the temptation of Jesus: Matthew 4:1-11. At the end of that account, "the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and waited on him." Notice that the angels were not there earlier when they might have offered resistance to the devil. Fast forward to Matthew 26:53 and we find the reason for that. And fast forward to the end of the age when "the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of the Father": then and only then will justice be done. Peter's behaviour this week is yet another example of the way in which evil attempts to pursue its ends by using good people to act for it unwittingly: good people who set their minds on human things instead of divine ones – good people who prefer to do whatever it takes to save their own lives rather than accept God's free gift of salvation.
Taking It Personally.
- Remind yourself what has preceded this new teaching. Think how excited the disciples must have been when Jesus confirmed that he was indeed the Messiah. With that in mind, enter into the shock of hearing Jesus' prediction of what is going to happen to him in Jerusalem.
- Listen as Peter protests at the very thought. What motivates him at that point? Love? Horror? Do you share it?
- Jesus says Peter is being used by the devil. How do you feel about that?
- If you have a cross or crucifix handy, pick it up, hold it, think about what it really symbolises. Take your time. What is Jesus asking you to do through this passage? How do you respond?
- At the end of your prayer time, are you aware of anything that is better than it was? Give thanks.