Archive for January, 2018

Itinerant Healer

Posted: January 31, 2018 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 5B 4.2.2018

Is 40: 21-31              Mk 1: 29-39

Itinerant Healer

We talked last week about the authority of Jesus and I proposed that one of the reasons Jesus enjoyed success in the establishment of the movement he did not intentionally seek was that a sort of societal collapse took place as the Roman Empire began to self-destruct. I also suggested that as part of this destruction Rome swallowed up Jesus the revolutionary and domesticated the movement to the point that we are this day on our third search for the historical Jesus.

Our Hebrew scripture reading for today takes us back and puts the Jesus time in the larger context when we recall that the region of Palestine gets its name from a group of people who migrated to the land from the Greek isles to the West at about the same time as the Israelites came into the land from the East. The Philistines quickly gave up their Indo-European language in favour of the Canaanite language spoken by the earlier inhabitants of the land. Over time, they also adopted Canaanite gods and worship practices. Here we have an example of evolution of culture and the collapse of societies, not in the sense of complete annihilation but close. After the Assyrians conquered their cities in the eighth century B.C.E., the Philistines eventually ceased to exist as a coherent, self-identified group of people. They had merged into the surrounding society, so that today no people anywhere identify themselves as descendants of the Philistines. The name of the territory lingers, but the people no longer exist. The same is true of the Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, and even, for the most part, Israelites from the Northern Kingdom. Only Judah emerged intact as a coherent people after years of occupation and exile. The question we asked last week of Jesus is now asked of the Judaeans. How did they manage to survive while their neighbours around them didn’t? A large part of the answer is reflected in today’s reading from Isaiah.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? . . . Lift up your eyes and see:

It was common in the ancient world to interpret the conquest of one nation by another as the victory of one god (or set of gods) over another. If one’s national gods were weak, people reasoned, perhaps it would be better to worship the gods of the conquerors. The Jews had a different idea. Although they had been defeated by the Babylonians, they interpreted their troubles not as an indication of God’s weakness but as an indication of their own sins. In contrast to the diminishing value many nations placed on their gods after they were conquered, the Jews’ estimation of God did nothing but grow during the exile. Of particular importance was their growing understanding of their God not as a national God alone but as God of the whole world, even its creator.

Accepting the idea, proclaimed by the exilic prophets, that their God was the creator of the world as well as their national deliverer allowed the Jews to flourish under difficult circumstances, endure the years of exile, and emerge as a stronger people. Over the centuries the Jews have faced many other threats to their existence–the war with Antiochus Epiphanes, the First and Second Jewish Wars with the Romans, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the Holocaust–but their faith in God as creator of the world, a God who also loves and sustains them and calls them to follow God’s will, has preserved them through the centuries.

Those who went on to call themselves Christians owe their very existence to the prophets of the exile who proclaimed a new vision of God and to the people who took that understanding of God to heart. The very fact that a new vision was possible enabled the freedom to be able to see an alternative. We today are recipients also of this freedom. It is our encouragement to proclaim the oneness of the divine and to see the divine as creativity that brings the past, present and future into an evolutionary mode. Aside from the bringing of science and faith together in our thinking this is of course the argument that there is such a thing as God regardless of what we might name it, force or energy, light or creativity or the purpose of the cosmos. If we lose this vision, of the value of religion for the human species and in our case of the Jesus Way, we will be in danger of succumbing to the fate of the Philistines and their neighbours whose gods were not able to provide them with a reason to exist.

Having argued I think for the existence of God and for a very secular yet divine role for Jesus we might now go to our Mark text to explore what everyday practice might look like. In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus comes to Peter’s house, heals his mother-in-law, then spends the rest of the night healing and casting out demons. We remember that last week we acknowledged that in Jesus time this would not have been unknown activity but it is not common today. What is interesting is that if he had wanted to, Jesus could have set up shop right there in Capernaum and made a reputation for himself as a healer, but that’s not what he does. Instead, early the next morning Jesus gets up and goes out into the wilderness to pray. When his disciples find him, they ask him to come back to the city to continue the healing ministry.

“Listen Jesus” they might have said. “You’re a hit!” “You’re popular you need to go to Jerusalem or all the big cities. This has the makings of a great ministry!” But. “No,” Jesus said, “let’s go to the neighbouring towns, because that’s what I came out to do.” Jesus seems to think that his ministry was bigger than a single town, even a single large city but it is person to person that is required. He needed to make contact beyond his immediate groups but he couldn’t let alone expect to visit every city in Israel, much less in the world, in his lifetime. He did however see value in an itinerant rather than a purely localized ministry. It is true that we don’t believe that everyone is called to travel the globe with the gospel message, but we can agree that we should think in global terms. We can’t do that, if the only perspective we have is our own city, or even our own neighbourhood and our own routines. Seeing other parts of the country, and especially other parts of the world, will remind us that our little community reflects neither the diversity nor the need of the world as a whole. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, nor can we preach God’s good news to everyone on the planet, and we’re not called to do that. In fact, I think that’s the wrong way to look at any mission engagement or opportunity. Yes, we have something to contribute, but we have just as much, and probably more, to learn from the people we visit in other places. We may take them hope, but they can show us faithfulness. We may take them material riches, but they can show us spiritual riches. We may take them a message, but they can show us humility. It’s not that the poor around the world are better than we are or closer to God. It’s that they have experienced life in ways that we never have, and they might just have more in common with the majority of the human race than we ever will. Our call to follow the example of Jesus is a call to an itinerant ministry in todays context. As we travel through life, we might be faithful in sharing the wisdom and the riches that we have, but we might also be willing to learn from those for whom we minister, they have just as much to offer us as we have to offer them.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  God is infinite, dynamic, and moving through all things. Divine energy flows through all creation, giving life and healing. All human lives are important, but at best temporary, dwarfed by the majestic infinity of the Cosmos.  In the grandeur of the universe, we appear not to matter. Leaders of nations might make major global decisions, but their influence is limited; their time, like ours, is short.  However a Cosmic divinity is everywhere, intimately participating in lives.  In the interplay of finitude and infinity, today’s scriptures join action and contemplation in the quest for a perspective on life that enables us to become divine companions in creative transformation.

Mark 1 describes a day in the life of Jesus.  The healer from Nazareth is certainly busy that day: he heals the sick, preaches, teaches, and casts out demons.  His calendar is full and yet he has time for encounters large and small.  But, he also has time for stillness, perhaps, to gain perspective. As embodiment of the all-present God, Jesus reveals God’s vision and power in every encounter.  The timeless call is to mount up with wings of eagles, to experience abundant life and share that life with others. To participate in the Cosmos. No healing is too small for Jesus.  No problem is too small for divine concern. We might think that the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is even too small to record in scripture. Still, we can all relate to her need for healing, despite its apparent unimportance in the overall scheme of things. It isn’t cancer, heart disease, or MS, but it matters.

We don’t know all the mechanics of Jesus’ healing, but we have the need for person to person engagement and we have the need for the engagement to be more akin to small groups rather than globalized gatherings. Quantum physics tells us that the universe is energetic and while there is no evidence that Jesus practiced a specific touch-based healing we can assume that the same energy of love found in healing touch also animated Jesus’ healing ministry.  In an interdependent world in which spirit is embodied and the body inspired, we can’t limit the power of healing to change our minds and bodies for the good.   Mind and body are connected and in fact can’t be separated, so that changes in our bodies bring about changes in our minds. Healing is at the heart of the Jesus’ ministry, and the healings described in Mark 1 can be embodied in today’s congregational ministries.

Mark’s description of a day in the life of Jesus ends with the Healer spending a time in prayer.  Action is balanced by contemplation.  Healing power and social activism burst forth from stillness.  Here is the call to spend time in silence to gain energy and direction in our lives. Paul speaks of finding his theological and missional flexibility through his sense of God’s providence in his life. Isaiah speaks of the grandeur of God in contrast to human finitude.  Ironically, we gain a sense of stature by our affirmation and embrace of the grandeur of the universe and its creativity.  We are infinitesimal and hardly noticeable in a universe of 125 billion galaxies, and yet our actions can radiate across the universe and our planet, becoming a tipping point from death to life, ugliness to beauty, and alienation to reconciliation.  The intimate and infinite are connected, giving us perspective and the inspiration to become divine companions in healing the Earth. Isaiah also notes that “God’s understanding is unsearchable.”  The apophatic, without images (negative theology) and the kataphatic, with images (incarnational theology), require one another.  The beauty and the wonder of the universe proclaim the divine. That’s why we need poets as well as scientists and theologians. Historically, the kataphatic has been identified with becoming and movement, while the apophatic has been described in terms of unchanging being; but perhaps what is incarnational is living, moving, and creating.  We need to get beyond the dualism of being and becoming and like the yin-yang symbol see both as necessitated in a divine, human life.  Amen.

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Epiphany 4B, 2018
Mark 1: 21-28

Authority and The Messiah Complex!

We have been exploring what the text talks about as the authority Jesus speaks with. We have asked what it is and how we might understand it across the time span between the tome of the text and now as well as the time the text is talking about. While we have little material upon which to base our argument because of the weight the tradition has given to this authority we do need to wrestle with an understanding. The dictionary says that authority means the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine. In his context then Jesus is given the authority to make decisions about what is important. We note that this may have had a sense of a legal authority as well because of the status he was given. We need to be careful here to note that this authority was not required for the banishing of demons because exorcisms would have been quite commonplace and conducted by many as well. What we can surmise however is that in his time, in the social, political and economic environment the granting of authority would have been significant. It is very likely that the authority given was an acknowledgement of significant leadership skills.

It would also argue for the concept of Messiah to be considered strongly. Here we have someone who seems to show significant knowledge of how things work on the big scale, a relationship with a world beyond Roman dictatorship, a world beyond a passive complacent acquiescence in the face of oppression, a world beyond political and social patronage and class systems, a world beyond what is obvious.

It could be argued that we today live in a similar environment where leadership with an authority like that conferred on Jesus is needed. I want to show you a video now that raises questions about this big picture that we could see as our environment and if the video and Jared Diamond are correct the situation our leadership are faced with and also the authority that leadership might need to help us address our future. Diamond asks the question Why do societies fail? And with lessons from the Norse of Iron Age Greenland, deforested Easter Island and present-day Montana, he talks about the signs that call us to critique that environment to see if we can build an alternative, not unlike the call Jesus must have felt when he did what he did and said what he said. Small bickies perhaps in terms of the level of complexity but none the less a very similar scenario in terms of the changes the systems faced.

Video             Collapse of Societies https://www.ted.com/

We can look back and label the agrarian, industrial and information ages and we can look back and label the premodern, modern and postmodern ages as indications of change the human species has made as evolution takes its path. Each one a crisis that things must change or die and in fact end up changing so that what was dies. But what does this have to say about the authority of Jesus? Well I wonder, and I am open to be challenged on this. I wonder if the leadership Jesus gave was akin the leadership that brought about a societal change and thus a leadership that is required today.

When you think about it many of those changes Diamond spoke of are similar to our own experiences, as if these changes are going on all the time, but the ones we notice are the ones that come clear after they have eventuated, and history says that in times of rapid social change people look for a ‘messiah’! We have been asking questions about the effect Jesus had on the world by way of his personal being. What was it about him that was different? What was it that he brought to the world that created a movement. Recent tradition says that it was his God status, his supernatural being, but we have asked questions about that and there was something else.

According to this morning’s gospel anecdote, which we believe was created by
the storyteller Mark to express his notion of the mission of Jesus,
when Jesus spoke people found something powerful happening to their psyches. ‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, Jesus taught them with authority…The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant.  Here is a teaching that is new’. We note that the authority is linked to something new, a new understanding, a new world view, and alternative they had not thought of. We note also that the people are astonished not that Jesus taught, but at the authority by which he taught. The information he gave them seemed to fit with their understanding but the way he put it seemed to be radically new and challenging and encouraging. A re-imagining of what this was is offered by John Dominic Crossan: He says; ‘He was an illiterate peasant, but with an oral brilliance that few of those trained in literate and scribal disciplines can ever attain.’ At best, we can guess a credible Jesus taught about the kingdom or realm or domain of God, which was everywhere present but not yet demonstrated by society.

The way Jesus presented this alternative was to focus on some central themes like celebration, compassion, and inclusiveness, and by illustrating the realm and activity of God “by focusing his hearers’ attention on the observable behaviour of phenomena in the physical world around them rather than by reporting his own personal mystical visions…” (Smith 2008:79). He drew on common life experiences, trading in the trivial, the ordinary, rather than interpreting scripture. He was it seems, a secular sage! Who left the interpretation of scripture and the interpretation of his authority to the society that followed. This personal style would have had the effect of shifting the power base of knowledge from the experts (in scripture, scribes) to the common people. It was a very different way of doing theology. And it was fresh and news!

One might also suggest that our traditional classical theology and traditional ecclesiastical authority do not sit comfortably with this view even today and our good times as a Christian Society could not allow this kind of a position. The conservative church today wants a return to the ‘good old days’… Good old days of a powerful church, a clear influence on society with capital and corporeal punishment, Christian instruction in schools, (Note I said instruction and not education) fixed laws on moral conduct, longer Jail sentences, and direct lines of external authority: parent, teacher, boss, bishop, pope, prime minister. All models that Rome and Israel had adopted as the society of the day. And then along comes Jesus ‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, Jesus taught them with authority….

Our question is do we, living in the early part of the 21st century, have a chance as never before, to facilitate a new ‘religious’ authority? For 2000 years, Jesus of Nazareth has been represented to the world “in terms of later inferences drawn from his sayings and deeds, rather than in terms of what he himself did and said”. What is truly incredible is that “The only other time in history that this was possible was in the first century”. When one thinks about this the decline of the church has to be considered as an outcome of holding on to a tradition that no longer makes sense as literal history. Throughout the last 500 year or so history of the church, people have wrestled with the clash between the Bible and modern science. And many have coped by a ‘suspension of disbelief’ for an hour or two each week. But what happens when those same people decide they can no longer live with the inconsistencies of tired metaphors and a belief known “to be patently false”?

The urgent question for the church right now, in the 21st century is: How long can it – you and me – count on suspended disbelief to shore up its outworn myths?  I would also like to suggest that this is the kind of argument Jesus had with the authorities of his day. That is why imagining another possible way of being in the world, another completely re-imagined society was, and can be, fresh news. Amen.

Notes:
Hedrick, C. W. “The ‘good news’ about the historical Jesus” in A. Dewey. (ed) The Historical Jesus Goes To Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.
Smith, M. H. “Ears to Hear. Learning to Listen to Jesus” in C. W. Hedrick. When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journey. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2008.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

Epiphany 3B
Mark 1:14-20

Beyond the Heresy Called Complacency

The title today suggest that complacency is a heresy and that it is possible to see through it and find something that is beyond it. In short, the implication is that it is possible to see beyond a theory or a doctrine that is supported and confirmed by established beliefs, and customs. It also suggests that complacency as a point of self-satisfaction or a smugness about the present situation needs to be challenged so as to ensure there is an awareness of any potential danger lurking ahead. Last week we spoke of discipleship as being akin to physical engagement and a shared journey of discovery centered on the character and teachings of the wandering sage we call Jesus of Nazareth.

In the traditional teachings of the church, there is little doubt that following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has become an important theme in church life. In a world where membership and attendance of traditional forms of church are in decline, evangelism and encouraging others to join is a major question being faced. At face value today’s story by the storyteller we call Mark, is one such story. The calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John. And by implication, the commencement of a movement which centered on the character and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

What we do believe is that Jesus had followers, and last week we argued that conversation, engagement and shared development of thought and understanding played a significant part on the growth of the movement. We also believe that this engagement, conversation and shared journey included both men and women, despite patriarchal assumptions both outside and within the movement. We argued last week that the person to person contact was one of the most common ways in which teaching and learning took place in the time. And while we can learn something of the roles men took in this process, from the various stories in our biblical tradition, the role women took goes almost unnoticed until we read the Gospel of Mary – which didn’t make it into the biblical collection.

It is worth noting here that when we talk about a Jesus movement we believe that it was not ever an intention of Jesus to take any initiative in carrying out a recruitment drive. We do not believe he had any intention of organizing a movement. As we said last week the issue was always a person to person engagement without a party manifesto or a strategic organizational plan. It can be said that this personalization has worked against the movement in modern and postmodern times, because it accommodates diverse thinking and this works against a unified mass evangelism, not unlike our political experiences today we all need to be heard, to have our say, to be understood and this means we have to deal with differing views on almost everything. If we look at recent church history we see attempts to move beyond the personal and we find personality cults and short-lived personality driven programs. One might say that Constantine set us on a wrong path when he made Christianity a state religion because it gave us both a false sense of hope in a unified movement and established a model of institution that was doomed to failure because it was dependent upon sameness and a common understanding. The global ecumenical movement and the Church union events all show the difficulty of transitioning from personal to collective faith. Because I tend to agree with those who claim Jesus was a wandering or itinerant sage without organisational intentions, and a person who never intended to found a movement much less a church, I wonder why and how the movement developed, other than as a response to social, cultural, economic and political events of the time. For the movement to have as much popularity in the early centuries the sense of freedom from institutionalization must have played a significant part in its growth as a movement.

This I think leaves us with a Jesus who was thoroughly consumed in the religious/political concerns of his own time and place, and a Jesus whose focus was not on some mystified realm beyond time, or on some present world which we simply appreciate or accept. His focus had to be on a new realm of God here and now, and ready to emerge. This means that what we have in this particular story this morning, is more in the hands of the storyteller Mark or more focused on a particular community, he thinks he knows and a community he thinks he knows the needs of. What we have then is less likely to be a record of one of the actual deeds of Jesus.

So, with this limited information, we find a storyteller who seems to have a collection
of stories and sayings and theological reflections, some probably written fragments, but most retold and remembered from oral telling, and the storyteller is adapting and weaving them together with a particular purpose in mind. From what we can discern the reason for the storyteller’s writing is, so that a small community can honour Jesus in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, hear a link between “Jesus’ ministry and John’s preceding one” (Cairns 2004:16) and, hear and understand, remember and be empowered as people of the Way. The authority of Jesus in a mass setting without him is of concern to the writer. How does one walk the Jesus Way today is the question being asked even then?

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has also been associated with the evangelical missionary endeavour of ‘saving souls’. This today is suspect because it implies that something needs saving without saying from what or for what. It also struggles because of thinking around what a soul is. Do we have one? What is it in relation to scientific thinking? What does neurology say about the existence of a soul?

Today’s text gives us a metaphor that is at similar risk. Certainly, our text in its metaphorical form is how many preachers have treated it. They have concluded that it was spoken exclusively to Simon and Andrew: ‘make you fishers of men’ or the more inclusive, ‘…people’, fishers of people. But this metaphor is not only very tired and outdated, it is also, some of us would say, a misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and teachings.

Why do we say this? Well because the evidence of his intention to build a movement is a major question. Why the need for an evangelical approach if one if not building a movement. So, we need to consider some other options. Scholar Ched Myers, in his comments on this story, offers an important and different interpretation, which suggests that phrases like ‘fishers of men’ and ‘hooking of fish’ are actually euphemisms for judgement upon the rich given by ancient Hebrew Prophets. They are more about what this new kingdom will remove than about bringing more people to follow the Jesus Way.

Myers says initially: “Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege”. He later goes on to say that: “…following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. We know this idea has merit because we know the Christianity is always an ‘in the world’ religion as opposed to an ‘out of the world’ one. Culture, is the operating ground for human endeavour. It is the connection with sociology, politics and psychology. Jesus is advocating that the first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple… To transform it and this is not a call to reach an ‘out’ of the world existence, but rather a call ‘into an alternative social practice.’ (Myers 2008: 132-133)

Those words by Ched Myers resonate with me. because they suggest to me that being a disciple in the 21st century requires us to engage in both social analysis as well as theological reflection. To be political, not in a partisan way or a mass control or manipulation sense but in the recognition that the person is not alone, the person is the person because of the person to person relationships one has. Individuals count because they are in relationship. The cultural, sociological concern is an engagement of the person in the science or art of government, be it family, clan, tribe, village, city, nation, world. This suggests that we need to remind ourselves when we read the biblical test and the extra-biblical stories and study and speculate about them, they are less about earthly stories with heavenly meanings, and more earthy stories with heavy meanings! So, returning to our title for today; the question is what does this doctrinally induced, industrialization created complacency look like?

Rex Hunt wrote on his website some time back about the American celebration called Martin Luther King Day, ‘which by the way’, was last Monday the 15th January. It is a celebration more at home in America than anywhere else, but the reason for it is common to all of us. Hunt recalls that a journalist named James Carroll, wrote an article called ‘The Dream and its Enemies’. In it he suggested that while the outright racism of white supremacists was one of King’s enemies, “almost equally infuriating to King was the complacency of the vast majority of Americans that allowed inequality to thrive.” (Carroll. ‘Globe’, a New York Times Co. 2008)

Carroll went on: “This nation honours Martin Luther King Jr because of what he forced on it.  Recognitions that followed his challenge have taken on the character of rock-solid truth.  Segregation by race is deeply wrong, and the institutions of government that supported it were indefensible.  What happened was that King’s work freed whites as well as blacks from the prison of an inhuman perception, but, in fact, few white people ever came to see things as he did.” (Carroll) One has to ask; was it treated like a call out of this world rather than a call into an alternative social practice… One can also ask similar questions of all our political parties, all of our concerns for justice. Are they calls out of this world, calls susceptible to an unworkable complacency or are they calls into an alternative social practice?

Discipling, as the storyteller we call Mark suggests is about accepting the urgent invitation to ‘break with business as usual’. To re-imagine the world, both personal and communal. It has to start with the person because that is the foundation of being in this world and of it at the same time. It’s also the way we keep the heresy of complacency at bay. One can’t re-imagine and be trapped in the same old, same old at the same time. Amen.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. New Zealand: Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Coverston, H. S. “Ears to Hear? Who is my Neighbour? Preaching with Integrity and Moral Reasoning”. Seminar Papers, Westar Institute, Fall. Santa Rosa, 2005.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.

 

“Come and see for yourself”

Posted: January 8, 2018 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 2B

14.01.2018

John 1:43-51

 “Come and see for yourself”

Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

The text appears to tell us how it works: Jesus found Phillip and said to him ‘Follow me”. The Christian faith is passed from person to person. It is a meeting of people. That’s how it started with Jesus, and that’s how it’s been for 2,000-plus years. But what was it about Jesus that caused people to believe in him and follow him with no evidence? This is an important issue for us some thousands of years after his death. How can we replicate this sort of meeting today? We need to know what it was about Jesus that made people follow him. Well of course we don’t know. Had Philip and Nathanael known him before? Had Philip heard about him from Andrew and Peter, since they lived in the same town? The text doesn’t say. It only says that Philip followed Jesus straightaway, then told Nathanael that “we” had found the one promised in the Old Testament. Was the “we” Philip spoke of actually, other people who were following Jesus? We don’t know that either.

When Nathanael expressed skepticism about anything good coming out of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, Philip simply says, “Come and see for yourself.” When Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him already Nathanael is so impressed that he impetuously calls him the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel.” What was there about Jesus to have this kind of effect on people? The New Testament gives us a slight hint. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew concludes with the observation, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes,” a phrase repeated in the other gospels (Matthew 7:29, also Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32,36, John 5:27 and others). What was this authority? What was it that made it different from the scribes?

About now it’s probably important to remember that we are reading from John’s Gospel and not one of the synoptic gospels. John is considered the foundational gospel for Christian dogma. It is the foundation of the lectionary in that there is no year of John in the three-year cycle because it undergirds the lectionary and fills the gaps in every year. It is also the gospel where the questions of the historical Jesus are not addressed. The Jesus of John is already the Christ, the Messiah in new form. The consistencies are that the world view is still pre-scientific. The earth is flat with a three-tier universe and earth is the sole recipient of God’s attention. As in the synoptic gospels John’s God is inclined to intervene in earthly affairs but goes one step further when it comes to God. For John God embeds Godself in the body of his Son whom John identifies as a Jewish man from the Galilee region of Palestine. John’s gospel gives a huge amount of stimulus to the development of the ‘Christ’ of the fourth century doctrine. We see here perhaps the question of authority being raised alongside this gift of empathetic engagement Jesus has. The answer to the mystery of why Jesus has such effect on people is of course because he is God.

Without doubt there was something about Jesus that drew people to him but was it limited to the mystery that is God? When British biblical scholar J.B. Phillips translated the Gospels, he was struck by the personality of Jesus and how he drew others to himself. He concluded that there must have been something extraordinary about his person that affected those with whom he came into contact. He described his own reaction in his 1967 book Ring of Truth, that there must have been something magnetic about Jesus’ personality to have such an immediate effect on people.

We can read the Gospels and note the profound effect Jesus has when he meets people: the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26), the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10), the woman at the Pharisee’s home (Luke 7:36-50), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the woman at the well (John 4), the sick man at the Bethesda pool (John 5:1-9), the thief crucified next to Jesus (Luke 23:40-43), and the centurion at the foot of the cross (Mark 15:39, Luke 23:47) — to name only a few.

People meet Jesus, and they are changed. Whatever their deepest need was, Jesus meets it. Then they tell others what happened.

And that’s how it has worked ever since. One person says to another, “I follow Jesus and invite you to do so too.” Later on, as the church grows, parents bring their infant children to Jesus in baptism and then bring them up to follow him.

It’s always person-to-person and this makes the question more important for us in our age of social media, of electronic communication that enables us to met so to speak across thousands of miles and in an instant across time spans. How do we meet Jesus today might be our question?

When we follow the story throughout the New Testament we find an Ethiopian eunuch is puzzled by a passage in the Old Testament, and Philip “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Peter went to the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius and told them about Jesus, and “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (Acts 19:44). Here we seem to have the breakthrough of the Christian faith to the Gentile world. The spread of the Christian church across the world is the person-to-person story of the thousands of people who fanned out across the globe to tell the story about Jesus and what Jesus had done for them. What was it about Jesus that this happened?

It seems that people became Christians because they saw what the Christian faith had done for those whom they knew. The saying passed down from the early years of the church still seemed to ring true: “See those Christians, how they love one another.” We have also the story of one person who came to faith by reading about a Christian, in this case C.S. Lewis’ account of his own conversion, Surprised by Joy. But it could be said that, that too was person-to-person, merely through the medium of the printed page.

We could also say that the Old Testament lesson carries the same message — but with a twist. The boy Samuel was “ministering to the Lord” under the priest Eli, probably the equivalent of our youth training to be leaders. God called him, “Samuel, Samuel,” and the boy naturally assumed it was Eli. When it happened again, Eli realized it was God calling and instructed the boy to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” When Samuel heard God’s call the third time he responded as Eli had instructed, and God told him what message to deliver to Eli. The pattern in the story is still person-to-person, this time God to Samuel, with Eli as the middleman so to speak, with Samuel then delivering God’s message back to Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20).

One of the learnings in all this is that our task as followers of Jesus is not to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, although many scholars have written persuasively of the truth of Christianity and we have lived through a time influenced by the idea that reason is truth. Our task is not even to persuade others to think like we do. Our task is to say, “Come and see.” Come and join the journey of discovery. Come and walk the Way and see what happens. Philip could have given Nathanael some of his own opinions. He could have said, “This Jesus knows a lot about the Bible.” Or he might have said, “There is something about this man Jesus that draws me to him.” Even when Nathanael expressed skepticism about “anything good coming out of Nazareth,” Philip might have listed some successful people from Nazareth.

But no: Philip simply said, “Come and see,” as if to say, “You don’t need me to advertise for Jesus; come and see for yourself.” Nathaniel came and saw for himself. That now becomes our task, to suggest that people, “Come and see.” Come and see what Jesus is doing for you!

What we have here our text for the day is the unmistakable invitation to participate, not as a blind follower but as a discerning student of the signs of Jesus authority. Our text is the first of seven signs identified by scholars and the first of ten that Lorraine Parkinson argues for in her book “Made of Earth.” The first is that Jesus knows Nathanael, the second Jesus turning water into wine, the third the cleansing of the temple. The fourth is Jesus knowing about the woman at the well. The fifth; Jesus curing the dying boy. Sixth: the healing of the sick man, seventh; the feeding of the five thousand, eighth; Jesus walking on the sea, ninth; Jesus giving sight to the blind man, and tenth; the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We note here that the tenth is not in the other Gospels and it is John’s ultimate indication of Jesus’ divine credentials. For John, Lazarus might represent Jews who did not believe in Jesus as Messiah and as a result have been destroyed in the Jewish War. Thus, the sign is speaking to Jews who have not yet believed that Jesus is the Messiah let alone the Son of God.

The nature of this authority that Jesus has or in our words the connection he makes is the intention of these signs. It is always person to person that his authority, his ability to influence, his transforming presence takes place. Sort of rings true does it not when as we get older we realize more and more that what really matters is the relationships we have and maintain. And being the age that we are the challenge is how to understand the authority and the nature of a relationship one has in the age of social media. What con it deliver? What do we need to be aware of in its nature in order to give it the person to person value it needs to be authentic, honest and an invitation to walk together the Way of Jesus? How do we ‘Come and see for ourselves’? “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” Amen.

‘Powerful Love’

Posted: January 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 1. 7.1.2018

Genesis 1:1-5            Mark 1:4-11;
‘Powerful Love’

Mark the writer of the first Gospel looks back from his time which is after the Jewish War in 70 CE to the time of Jesus in search of an understanding of a Messiah amidst the destruction of the Temple priestly system and the redundancies of religious and scriptural ideas that supported it. Judaism was in a period of transition from a Temple based understanding of a God to whom one made sacrifices to a Torah based religion based in synagogue communities inside and outside of Judea. One can imagine that for Mark the type of Messiah, the character of the Messiah and the place of the Messiah in society was crucial. Superheroes are fun but they need to have deep roots in society and they need to have longevity if they are remain important.

I don’t know about you but we played superheroes often when I was young. I think the choice of superhero was based on which was the latest comic to be on the shelves. Superman and Batman were the key superheroes that I remember. We hadn’t heard of Spiderman and some of the others back then, let alone wonder-woman but we would make up stories of daring rescues and fighting bad guys. I can remember sometimes making other superheroes. One of my favourites was Rob Roy McGregor, mainly because my mother was a scot and wearing my mother’s old tartan skirt as a kilt was a bit of a novelty. I am sure others were also enlisted as superheroes on occasion but at times we confused things a bit. On our slide there were people who technically were not superheroes. Hercules is there and he is one of the Greek gods and not a superhero in its purest sense. It seems that many of us played Hercules, too, and just like superheroes.

Here’s the thing that I want to wonder about that. Do we think about gods like superheroes? Hercules for the Greeks of Jesus’ time, believed in Hercules like a superhero. He would make daring rescues of people in trouble. He would fight the bad guys and win. I sometimes think we think about our God that way, too.

But in Jesus we see someone different. We have in recent times developed a belief system that makes Jesus an untouchable God, a superhero that always wins, but we have also dramatized and sanctified what is the most important thing he did, which was to die on the cross. We have made the suffering of execution a commendable sacrifice, a gift rather than a horrific suffering and death. Deprived, alienated and ridiculed he died a human death. He suffered like us. He was not a superhero who always wins. The stories about Jesus are very different than the ones about Hercules or Superman or any of the superheroes. We need to keep that in mind, because it’s possible that Jesus reveals a different kind of God than we tend to think about, a God who rescues us in different ways than the superheroes and one of those ways is the topic for today. That of healing. What is this healing that is different?

Healing has always been bound up with religion. Even with modern medicine, which is largely a secular affair, I suspect many alternative health theories are attempts to find a more wholistic understanding and often people of faith will make prayer a part of their efforts to receive healing. But I’d like to keep in mind our beginning this morning: when we pray for healing is it for a superhero sort of rescue from our sickness? Or do we in Jesus see a different sort of God and a different sort of path to healing.

Just as Mark uses scripture to shape up his messiah so we use our resources to paint the workable picture beyond superhero and Geek God. The myth of Jesus and the cross and resurrection shows us a God who is fundamentally different from the superhero versions of gods. Superheroes always win the day. They always save us from our situations of suffering. And they especially never ask for help. It’s pretty hard to think of a time when Superman needed the help of the person he or she was saving? They wouldn’t be super if they needed the help of the rescued. With the God of Jesus Christ, that isn’t quite the case. Yes, he was an amazing healer. Some of his healing miracles are so startling that we may be tempted to think of him in terms of a superhero. But in Mark’s story of Jesus, after a fantastic start as a healer, Jesus starts talking a lot about healing. And the disciples he has called seem to want to see him as a superhero. So, when in the middle of Mark’s story, Jesus speaks numerous times about the Son of Man undergoing suffering and death, and then in three days rise from the dead, they simply couldn’t hear him. They couldn’t imagine that sort of fate for their superhero or they felt the resistance to see Jesus as superhero.

And what’s even more challenging is that Jesus started talking about his followers picking up their crosses and suffering, too. Jesus wasn’t coming to rescue them from all suffering after all. In fact, in some respects, he was coming to lead them into more suffering. What was this all about? Well, we aren’t going to be able to answer all our questions here and now, or solve all the mysteries about the healing we receive from the God of Jesus. But we can take a few moments to introduce some themes about healing that we see in the sacrament of baptism, both through John’s baptism of Jesus that we remember today, but also in our subsequent practice of it that we share each time we participate in a baptism. Paul J. Nuechterlein has three points as a reflection on healing that we might find helpful.

One, is his bottom line: It is that God’s Spirit of love in Jesus Christ is a different power than the one we humans usually look for in our gods or superheroes. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” says God’s voice to Jesus. It is the same powerful spirit of love that we are all baptized with., We know about this love, as something that nurtures the best in us. The struggle we have is that for us it gets mixed in with the power that tries to force things. In following Jesus, we see and know this Spirit of love as a power that never uses force and always makes room for freedom. Here we have an important clue to explaining the mystery of suffering, not all of it but because this kind of love allows the freedom to use the power of force instead of the power of love. It thrives on the ambiguity established by its acceptance of force and it is clarified by that action as well. No force, no suffering it seems. We rely so much on the power of force that we hardly recognize love as a more important power. the truest power if you like. Even John begins his Gospel by restating the first several verses of Genesis, so that the reader will know that this power we see and experience in Jesus, the word made flesh, is the power behind life itself.

To number two now: in baptism we see not just a cleansing, a washing, but also drowning, a dying and rising, a suffering of a loss that leads to gain. Nuechterlein sees this as the death we always need to undergo to see our reliance on the power of the superheroes, a superior firepower that’s stronger than the other guy’s power of force. He suggests that faith or reliance on the power of force is so ingrained in us that we need to suffer it as loss. And Jesus teaches his followers that we will always find his powerful Spirit of love residing with those who lose out to the powers of force. When human beings rely on a politics of the powers of force, there are always losers. And Jesus himself took his place with those losers on the cross, in order that we might see the true power of love behind life itself. So, our standing with those who suffer, those who are losers to this world’s kind of power, brings a dying and rising to new life, a participating in the real power of God’s love.

No to point number three: Baptism, the promise of God’s powerful love for our lives, doesn’t create or rely on superheroes in any usual sense. Jesus himself submits to the baptism of John along with others; he doesn’t exceptionalize himself. In fact, as we just said, Jesus took and takes his place with the losers to this world’s power. You and I, as followers of Jesus, appear more as anti-superheroes, the opposite of superheroes. It is normal, everyday people of faith that Jesus needs to help bring healing to this the world he cherishes.

Brian McLaren, in a recent essay, tells this story about his home congregation, a church not unlike, St David’s. He writes: Under the guise of “ministry as usual,” positive things are afoot. I feel it. I believe it. I felt it a few weeks ago in my home church on a typical Sunday. The music was good, as usual, and the sermon was thought-provoking and inspiring, as usual. The prayers were solid and meaningful, as usual, and the people were warm and welcoming, as usual. What stood out for me was the family seated next to me, a dad, a mom, a daughter, and a son whom I didn’t recognize. Based on the boy’s movements and the attentions given him by his mother and sister, the son seemed to have some form of autism, maybe Asperger’s syndrome.

His foot and leg were bouncing almost constantly, calming only momentarily when his mother gently touched his knee, which she did every five or ten minutes. Before and after communion, he crossed himself repeatedly. He sang with more enthusiasm than musical ability, but if one must choose, enthusiasm’s the one to have

The moment that really touched me says McLaren, came at the offering. He didn’t have money, but when I handed him the basket, he bowed toward it. At first, I thought he was reverencing the basket as if it were an icon or some other holy thing. But then he leaned forward even more, placing the basket on his knees and nearly touching his forehead into the checks, bills, and envelopes inside. His family didn’t intervene, as if this were his normal routine. Then he sat up again and handed the basket to his mother.

Suddenly, it dawned upon me: he was putting himself in the offering basket, diving in head-first, if you will. And this must be what he does every week, his own self-made ritual. And at that moment, I was awash in a baptism of grace. Yes, there are many things in our churches that are easy targets for criticism. Yes, some of our churches and some of our Christianities are part of the problem. But be careful, as the old parable says (Matthew 13:24-30): if you try to pull up all the weeds, you’ll dislodge some of the wheat too . . . the tender shoots of faith and devotion growing up in truly important people like that special boy.

McLaren, who speaks to Christians all around the world concludes: “I feel it week after week, speaking in congregations across the country that include people so sincere and bright and ready to go that you can’t care how many or few they are, how rich or poor, how old or young, or how influential or marginal. You just know that people like this have what our world needs, that they’re part of the solution. You know that their spark is going to catch fire and spread, and that what is in them — faith, hope, love, wisdom, humility — can heal what ails us, and will heal it, as long as they don’t lose heart.”

So, people of St David’s, let us not lose heart, let us rather, leave here with the healing that this hurting world needs. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein Sermon Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, January 8, 20121. Brian McLaren, “The Church and the Solution,” an essay at www.patheos.com

Lorraine Parkinson, “Made on Earth’ How gospel writers created the Christ Spectrum Publications 2015