Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Reflection for 3rd August - the one for 27th July is below

Matthew 14.13-21 (NRSV)
Feeding the Five Thousand
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Of all the miracles of Jesus, this is one of the few that is mentioned in all four of the gospels. Yet, many people find it difficult to accept and have tried to rationalise it. But, as Balmforth writes:
It is best on the whole to admit that no easy 'natural' explanation can be given, and to leave the door open for an acceptance of the story as it stands ... [There is] nothing irrational in the supposition that our Lord worked such a miracle.[1]
There were more than likely many more people there than five thousand. In chapter 9, verse 14 Luke states that there were 5 000 men. With their wives and children, there would have been a vast crowd of possibly 10 000 people or more.
Jesus started with what the people had - a few loaves and fishes, probably received from a small boy who was willing to share his meagre lunch.[2] Jesus got the people to sit in groups of 50, said a blessing and gave the food to the disciples to distribute to them. Verse 20 concludes: And all ate and were filled’. Note the last comment - What was left over filled twelve baskets. Everybody had enough and even the 12 disciples, after their work was completed had their needs supplied.[3]
In this miracle it is obvious that Jesus cared for people's legitimate physical as well as their spiritual needs. From this passage, the modern church learns its obligation to minister to those who are hungry and who have other physical needs as well. But more importantly, Luke (and the other evangelists) places this incident with the disciples' confession of Jesus' Messiahship - which will form the focus of the next study.[4]
Jews believed that the coming of the Messiah would be heralded by a large banquet - which was an image Jesus himself used in his teaching. Miller writes:
The feeding of the five thousand, then, is an enacted parable announc­ing the arrival of the Messianic Age.
The majority of people, however, were only concerned with their physical needs and did not see the greater significance of this wonderful event. And this remains true for many today.
The following day, in John's account of this miracle,[5] Jesus spoke about himself as 'the bread of life' and urged the people to receive him in the same way as they had received the bread and fish the previous day. Wiersbe comments:
But the people were more interested in their stomachs than their souls, and completely missed the spiritual impact of the miracle. Their desire was to make Jesus king so he could give them bread for the rest of their lives! (John 6:14-15)[6]
If I had to stand in church and promise people material prosperity, all the money and material goods one would ever need - and if I could deliver on these promises, we would never be able to build sufficient places to contain all the people that would flock to church. People are willing to risk everything placing a higher value on their bodies and material goods than on their souls, by emphasising their physical well-being at the expense of their spiritual well-being.
Humankind is powerless and spiritually starving. Jesus is ready, able and willing to provide for all people's needs. And the food Jesus offers is Himself - the bread of life and in large helpings as contained in His Word - the Scriptures. We are appointed to set before all people the provision that Jesus Christ has made for people's souls. The majority of people refuse to eat the bread at all - and so they die. Many others maintain starvation rations and so battle to survive.
We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. And this faith comes from hearing the message. Paul writes in Romans 10:17: ‘No one can have faith without hearing the message about Christ.’
Jesus explained in the parable of the sower, how important it is to hear the message with openness and receive it like a seed being sown in good soil. And this seed needs to be nurtured and cared for. Coming to Christ is described as being 'born again'. Unless the new born person is nurtured and cared for they too will die. Even adults, if they do not get enough food, will find themselves becoming increasingly physically compromised - able to do less and less. Spiritual adults also require a balanced diet of spiritual food.

How are we doing spiritually? Are you barely surviving by coming to hear the word of God on rare occasions? If so, it should not be surprising that you are battling to cope. You need more food. Even if you come to church every Sunday, don't expect to know the fullness of spiritual life, if that is all you do - because it is impossible to expect to grow on one meal a week. We need to dine daily in our personal study of Scripture and prayer. If we want to grow spiritually, we need to take every opportunity to feed on the Bread of Life. Bible study groups should be bulging at the seams; the prayer times in the church should be so crowded that people should be requesting more opportun­ities. Instead of having only a few faithful one's coming to the evening service, people should be requesting yet more services on Sundays, and even during the week.
There are opportunities to eat your fill. There is no need to starve or even go hungry. There is no need for desperation, there is no need for depression, there is no need for frustration, there is no need for guilt, there is no need for worry, there is no need for anger - in short, there is no need for any of the sin that causes us and others to suffer because Jesus defeated sin on the Cross, when he was raised from the dead. But coming to Christ is only the beginning. The faith that saves us needs to be nurtured and cared for. When Christians, start seeing sin manifest in their lives it is a sign that they need to have a spiritual meal. When this happens we need to draw aside and eat of the ‘Bread of Life’.

[1].              Balmforth, p. 186. Balmforth gives a brief overview of the different ways in which people have tried to rationalise this miracle on pp. 185-186.
[2].              John 6:8-9.
[3].              Wiersbe, p. 102.
[4].              Miller, p. 95.
[5].              John 6:22-59.
[6].              Wiersbe, p. 103.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 (NRSV)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

The Parable of the Yeast

33 He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Three Parables

44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Treasures New and Old

51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

This reflection is based on William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible.

The Kingdom of Heaven begins with the smallest beginnings, but in the end it will be something great. Barclay suggests the following:

Firstly, an idea may well change civilization, but it often begins with one man. In the British Empire it was William Wilberforce who changed the world with the abolition of slavery and he was inspired by reading the book by Thomas Clarkson, who was a close friend of Pitt, who was the Prime Minister; but it took the action of one man – to make all the difference.

Secondly, a witness must begin with one person. In the Christianisation of Africa, the most effective way was not to begin by teaching people to read, giving them the Bible and then convincing them of the truth of the message. Rather, it worked when a Christian family went and lived among the people. It is the witness of one person who often makes all the difference.

Thirdly, reformations often have small beginnings – and someone has to start it all off. Luther began by nailing his 95 Theses on the Church door in Wittenburg – his local church – and the Church and the world was transformed.

The parable of the mustard seed must therefore have been of great encouragement to the disciples, as they must often have despaired. They must often have asked if they could really make any difference. (This makes me think of others like Abraham and Moses and Samuel ... Mary and Joseph). H G Wells commented: No historian can portray the progress of humanity honestly ‘... without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth.’

Jesus seems to be saying that none of us should be discouraged; we must serve and witness just where we are and that ‘... each one of us must be the small beginning from which the kingdom grows until the kingdoms of the earth finally become the Kingdom of God.’

Barclay helps with our understanding of the Parable of the Yeast ... verse 33:

The Kingdom of God is all about transformation and the following are characteristics of the transformation:

Firstly, our faith transforms individuals – from the most heinous sinners to gracious saints. It is the function and the power of Christ to make bad people good. Christianity begins with individual lives and through Christ, the victim of temptation can become the victor over temptation.

Secondly, Jesus transformed life for women specifically. In Greek culture of the time, women lived in seclusion, with nothing to do beyond the household tasks. Their lives were characterised by drudgery and hardship. In Christ all are one – as Paul explained in Galatians 3:28.

Thirdly, Christianity transformed the lives of the weak and the ill. In the ancient world, those who were weak and ill were seen by society as a nuisance. In Sparta, every newborn baby was closely examined and only the strongest were allowed to survive. Christians in the ancient world made places for the blind and infirm to be nurtured and cared for. ‘Christianity was the first faith to be interested in the broken things of life. ... There is nothing in history so unanswerably demonstrable as the transforming power of Christianity and of Christ on the individual life and on the life of society.’

Almost all scholars would agree that the parable of the yeast speaks of the transforming power of Christ and of his kingdom in both the life of the individual and the world, but there is difference of opinion as to how that transforming power works and operates.

Some suggest that the Kingdom of God works unseen – that we cannot see the leaven working in the dough any more than we can see a flower growing – and that the work of the yeast continues in this way. This is a message of encouragement, meaning that at all times we must take the long view of things. If we look down the centuries we will see the steady progress of the Kingdom. With Jesus Christ and the Gospel, a new force has been let loose on the world and silently, but also inevitably, that force is transforming the world and that God is working his purposes out.

Others, like C H Dodd, contend almost the opposite suggesting that the work of the kingdom can be plainly seen. When you put leaven in the dough, you can see it rise. In the same way, the work of the Kingdom is a disturbing force, plain for all to see. In Thessalonica, the Gospel turned their world upside down. ‘The action of Christianity is disruptive, disturbing, violent in its effect.’ People crucified Jesus because he disturbed all their orthodox habits and conventions. Persecution of Christians has happened in history because it desired to take both people and society and remake them! There is in fact, nothing more disturbing as Christianity – this is why so many people hate it and why they resent it and would wish to eliminate it.

It is not a matter of choosing between these two ways of seeing this parable, because they are both true: the power of the Kingdom of God is always working, even if we do not see or notice it; but there are times when its presence is plainly manifest. Barclay explains:

‘The Kingdom, the power of Christ, the purpose of God is like a great river, which for much of its course glides on beneath the ground unseen, but which ever and again comes to the surface in all its power and its greatness, plain for all to see in its action.’

A few final thoughts on the parable of the treasure hidden in the field ... with Barclay to guide our thoughts.

Barclay suggests that he man who found the treasure, did so, but not by chance. He seemed to stumble unexpectedly upon it when he was going about his daily toil. He would probably have been doing his job well and would have dug deep, and not merely scraping over the surface. Barclay suggests that God becomes special to us when we are about our work and especially when we are doing it to the best of our ability. He writes: ‘... the presence of Christ Himself are all to be found in the day’s work, when that day’s work is honestly and conscientiously done.’

This was the experience of Brother Lawrence while working in the monastery kitchen and he wrote: ‘I felt Jesus Christ as close to me in the kitchen as ever I did at the blessed sacrament.’

This parable also suggests that it is worth any sacrifice to enter the Kingdom of God. To enter the Kingdom we need to accept and do God’s will. This may mean giving up ideas and even visions that we might hold dear, to abandon certain habits and ways of life and accept discipline and self-denial that is never easy. In short, it requires us to take up our Cross and follow Jesus.

Encouraging and challenging thoughts.