Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Matthew 22.34-end (NRSV)

Matthew 22.34-end (NRSV)
The Greatest Commandment
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
The Question about David’s Son
41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 
44 “The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
   until I put your enemies under your feet’
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

The following are some thoughts on the Gospel for next week with the aid of Barclay, focusing on verses 34-40 to begin with.

Barclay suggests that in this passage, Jesus lays down the complete definition of religion:

Firstly, religion consists in loving God. Here Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6.5: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’.  This is part of the Jewish Shema, the basic and essential creed of Judaism. It is with this sentence that each Jewish act of worship begins with, and it is the first text that every Jewish child commits to memory. It means that we are to give God our total commitment to love, a love that dominates our emotions, directs our thoughts and is the dynamic of our actions. As Barclay explains: ‘All religion starts with the love which is total commitment of life to God.’

Secondly, Jesus refers to Leviticus 19.18 which reads: ‘you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.’ The only way a person can prove that they love God is by loving other people. The order is important: love God first and love others next. The reason for this is that other people only become loveable, when we love God. All people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26-27) and it because of this that they are loveable.

To be truly religious is to love God and to love people who are created in God’s image, not with a sentimental caricature of love; but with total commitment which ‘... issues forth in devotion to God and practical service of men.’

I now focus on the second part – verses 41-46:

Jesus asks the Pharisees a question about whose ‘son’ the Messiah is? Their reply is ‘The son of David.’ He challenges them because how can this be is David, in the Psalms, calls the Messiah ‘Lord’? No one could give Jesus a satisfactory answer.

Barclay suggests that this is both one of the most obscure yet also one of the most important of the utterances of Jesus and at first sight, one cannot fully grasp the meaning but, Barclay adds, ‘ ... we see the air of awe and astonishment and mystery which it has about it ...’

Jesus frequently refused to allow his disciples to proclaim him as the Messiah until they understood fully what this meant. Referring to the Messiah as the ‘Son of David’ meant that people saw the Messiah as a great earthly prince, one who would shatter Israel’s enemies and lead the people to conquest of all nations. He was to be a nationalistic, political and military ruler in terms of power and glory. Jesus responds by quoting from Psalm 110.1 which all, at the time, would have seen as being Messianic.

Jesus is here pointing out that it is not enough to think of the Messiah as David’s son because he is David’s Lord. The only true description is that he is the ‘Son of God’. This means that the Messiah is not to be thought of in terms of Davidic conquest; but rather in terms of ‘... divine sacrificial love ...’

It is here that Jesus makes his greatest claim: he had come to demonstrate the love of God, most supremely in the Cross. Barclay suggests that, at the time, few would have understood what Jesus meant but they would have ‘... felt the shiver in the presence of the eternal mystery ...’ and that they might have sensed that they had witnessed the ‘voice of God’ speaking, ‘... and for that moment, in this man Jesus, they glimpsed the very face of God ...’

John P Meier offers the following thoughts on the meaning of Jesus’ question:

Firstly, here Jesus shows the superiority of his teaching and his authority over the Jewish magisterium. They had posed him a number of questions and Jesus was able to provide excellent answers to all of them. Now he asks a question of them, and they are reduced to silence. They claim to be the only authentic interpreters of the Scriptures, especially the Messianic texts, but this is the key Messianic text and they cannot explain it. So, they cannot risk further verbal confrontation in public.

Secondly, throughout Matthew’s Gospel, his Christology has been that Jesus is the Son of David, but he is also more he is the Son of God (2.15) and even God is with us (1.23). This means that Jesus deserves to be called Lord, and this is what his disciples began to do. So Jesus is seen as the Son of God right from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Here Matthew is not suggesting that to call Jesus the ‘Son of David’ is wrong; Jesus fulfils this requirement while transcending it.

The problem the Pharisees have is that they are not open top re-thinking their ideas ‘... in the light of the messianic reality standing before them.

I am firmly convinced that the more we get to know, the more we need to be open to more. Our faith is a progressive e faith, the aniconic nature of God continues as the Spirit applies the truth into new generations and contexts. So what if something has never been done before; so what if there have never been women bishops before as an example? We always need to ask the question: ‘What is God saying to the Church now?’ If this were not true, we would still have slavery!

It is all too easy to think that what we read applies to someone else. The more I spend time with the Gospels; the more I realise that the message is for me!

This passage issues a warning to every generation: “Do not be so sure of yourself about the things of God!” You might, you probably will be surprised.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were very sure of themselves; they had studied the Law and they were convinced that they knew what was right; and that was strict observance of the Law. Jesus makes the vital point that all this is meaningless unless you treat other people with dignity and respect – you love your neighbour as you love yourself.

The Church in their certainty has often got things wrong: slavery, the Crusades, ordination of women, human sexuality ... but I would ask us to think of this guideline: “Are we loving our neighbour as we love ourselves?” If I was a woman, how would I like to be treated? If I was a slave, how would I want to be treated? etc. etc.

We are also reminded that we are to love with all our hearts: do we? Or are we so reserved and rational that we no longer have deep, moving emotional experiences? We need to rediscover the joy of the Charismatic renewal of the 1970s. But this needs to be tempered with our minds, that rational part of our makeup that keeps things balanced and in check. And of course with our soul – that which is at the core of our being. In the quiet of beauty and joy the Ground of all Being meets us at the core of what we are.

And in this way we ought to love our neighbours – costly, intimately and with depth.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

1 Thessalonians 1.1-10 (NRSV)


1Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 

The Thessalonians’ Faith and Example
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

I have used the commentary by William Barclay in preparation for this sermon.

My text is written in 1 Thessalonians 1.2-3:

2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 

The Church in Thessalonica is described as being ‘... in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ ...’ The word translated here as ‘church’ is translated in the New English Bible as ‘congregation’ – ekklesia – which originally meant a properly summoned assembly of the citizens and was not originally used for a religious gathering. But it was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint – to denote a gathering of Israel as God’s people and because of this it was adopted by the early Christians as the term they used to describe their gathering together.

Coming together as the people of God is something special. When people are reminded that this is what happens when they come to Church – and when this is their actual experience – you cannot keep them away.

God was present in every part of this fellowship, just as the air is in us, and we are in the air, and we cannot live without the air, so the true Church of God is steeped in the presence of God who is also the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot begin to imagine what God is like, but we have a glimpse, because Jesus revealed the true nature of God when he walked this earth before us and as his presence fills us especially when we gather together as his people to worship.

Barclay suggests that in the beginning of this important letter we see Paul at his most winsome – most attractive and appealing. Soon he needs to turn to warning and even rebuke, but it was never his aim to discourage, always to uplift, and so he is careful with his choice of words.

In every person there is something fine and often the best way to get a person to get rid of the lower things is to praise the higher things; as Barclay suggests: ‘... the best way to eradicate faults is to praise virtues so that they will flower all the more, for every person reacts more to encouragement than they do to rebuke.’

From verse 3, Paul explains three ingredients of the Christian life:

Firstly, there is work that is inspired by faith. There is nothing that tells us more about a person than the way they work: some people work hard because they are afraid; others because they want to be recognised and want personal gain; some from a grim sense of duty. But there are those who are inspired by faith – they believe that the task that they have been given, have been given to them by God, so they are working not for others, but for God. Barclay writes: ‘Someone has said that the sign of true consecration is when a person finds glory in drudgery.’

Secondly, there is work that is inspired by love. When a person loves the person they are working for, or because they love what they are doing, they will go to great lengths to see that the work is done well.

I want to pause here, because this is so important. Have you noticed that it is very seldom that Paul ever speaks of our love for God; rather he focuses on God’s spirit who pours divine love into believing hearts – that is hearts filled with the faith that they too have received as a gift from God. Believers, when they gather together as the ekklesia – the Church or Congregation they share this with each other. As they go into their places of work – whatever that may be – in our homes or places of employment we work filled with love; not because we have to, but because love spurs us on.

Thirdly, there is work that is fuelled by hope. A person can endure just about anything so long as they have hope. And being a follower of Jesus is not always an easy thing. As a rule, the world has been and will be generally hostile to the Gospel. Just as Jesus caused offense in his day with his radical way of love, so when Christian live authentically, in radical discipleship, this will often bring hardship and even persecution, because the ways of God are not the ways of the world.

Verse 4 has an interesting phrase ‘... beloved by God ...’ In Jewish tradition, this phrase was only used to describe men who were extremely great, people like Abraham, Moses or Solomon.  Now the greatest privilege is given to God’s people and even in this case to the humblest of the Gentiles. I like the way the NRSV translates this as ‘... brothers and sisters ...’ because we know that this is the truth of the matter and for too long, women were treated – even in the Church – as second class citizens.

We have all received grace and the gift of faith, and even in this receiving, we have been helped by God and all this because we are beloved by God who wants us to live well. He wants our work – whatever we do – to be inspired by faith and love and to be fuelled by hope.

As verse 5 points out, it is useless to have what seems like profound wisdom, it needs to come with power and the evidence that it is from the Holy Spirit – ‘... with full conviction ...’ We know when all this is present when people practice what they preach. It is always most effective to see someone whose life is holy; it is this that attracts people to the message, it is this that makes them want to listen and learn and change. The people at Thessalonica began to imitate Paul and the other leaders just as these leaders had been imitating the example of Jesus. This is what makes the Gospel really effective and even in the midst of persecution people experience joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. In Thessalonica, as a result of the example of holiness set by these people, others were inspired by their example at the time. Even today, as we read these verses, their example rings for us like a trumpet or a roll of thunder.

Barclay comments:

‘There is something tremendous about the sheer defiance of early Christianity. When all prudence and all common-sense would have dictated a way of life that would have escaped notice, and so avoided danger and persecution, the Christian defied their dangers and blazoned forth their faith.’

And in the midst there is a sense of joy. I remember this well, when Christians faced persecution for the Gospel in South Africa. My earliest memory of the Christian faith was in a small Church on the border of a township where people of all races met. This was radical anywhere in the world in 1962; it was radical in Apartheid South Africa. This left an indelible impression on me. In the midst of all the persecution, there was a deep sense of love expressed in joy, something that always made the security police spies feel so uncomfortable that they could not stay. This defiance eventually won the day.

So let us be reminded of the fact that God is present with us as we gather as the ekklesia – not only when we worship together but as we share his love in our homes and our other activities. Let us share the radical love of Christ with others and so fill them with hope and joy as we live like those eagerly waiting for the return of our Lord. Barclay writes: ‘The Christian is called upon to serve the world and wait for glory. The loyal service, the patient waiting, the unconquerable expectation were the necessary preludes to the glory of heaven.’

The Apostle Paul reminds us of our focus in 1 Thessalonians 1.2-3:

2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Philippians 4.1-9

Philippians 4.1-9 (NRSV)

1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.


2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I refer to A M Hunter’s short commentary to begin our reflections on this lovely epistle.

My text is written in Philippians 4:7:

 the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

Paul exhorts us to stand firm, for the crown or garland of victory will someday be ours. At this point, Paul remembers something that had happened to specific people and where there had been disagreement – more than this we know nothing about them – other than that they had quarrelled. What a terrible thought, to be remembered for this alone! Paul encourages them to ‘agree in the Lord.’ When we realise our common bond in Christ, reconciliation will not be far away, but sometimes we need the intervention of a third party to help us along the way. Who this was remains an unsolved mystery. There is nothing sadder than when Christians fall out with each other; sadder still when people have died and there has not been peace with others.

From verse 4, Paul returns to one of his favourite themes: ‘Rejoice in the Lord ...’ He repeats himself in order to convince his readers, ‘... and again I say ...’ that joy can accompany afflictions. A M Hunter suggests that the Greek in verse 5 can be translated using Matthew Arnold’s famous ‘sweet reasonableness’ referring to what the Greeks saw as justice and something better – what the NRSV translates as gentleness. Hunter explains: ‘... It describes the person who knows when to relax justice and let mercy come breaking in ...’ and we do this because ‘... the Lord is near ...’ echoing the words of the Psalmist (145.18) ‘... the Lord is near to all who call upon him ...’

Do not worry about anything. Wow, if only I could learn this lesson for it has consumed so much of my life! Jesus made the same exhortation (Matthew 6.25; Luke 12.22). Paul continues to explain suggesting that true prayer and anxiety cannot (or should not) coexist ‘... the way to be anxious about nothing is to pray about everything ...’(Hunter) The word ‘supplication’ refers to the cry of personal need. When we pray and make our requests known to God we should always add thanksgiving. If we do this, Paul promises us in verse 7 that we will know God’s true and rich peace.

Paul promises the ‘peace of God’ which passes all understanding’ – something that is beyond human comprehension will keep, literally garrison their hearts and their minds. Hunter explains: ‘The paragraph began with joy; it ends with peace. Is Paul saying that if we have not God’s peace in our hearts we cannot have his song on our lips?’

Verses 8-9 are apparently unique to Paul because they contain words that are not found anywhere else in his letters – or even anywhere else in the New Testament – but also because they commend virtues that are more akin to those found in Greek philosophy, especially the stress on ‘truth’, ‘justice’, ‘excellence’ and what is ‘worthy of praise’. Why did Paul emphasise and want his readers to reflect on these ethical virtues?

It is not impossible that the church in Philippi were not willing to acknowledge anything good in the values of those outside the church, so what Paul is commending here is that we should acknowledge and even commend all those things that are ‘good’ no matter where we might find them and to ‘take them into account’ when deciding what to do.

Paul then ends with a return to what he had taught them as well ‘...learned and received and heard and seen in me ...’ i.e. what he had taught and what he had revealed to them by his personal example. Hunter concludes: ‘If the Philippians do this, “the God of peace”, the God who is the Author and Source of peace ... will be with them ...’

I echo these thoughts in my own experience. For nearly 20 years I have been teaching in the United Kingdom, many things including history and the philosophy of history, Renaissance and Reformation Theology, New Testament, Philosophy of Mind, Religion and most recently Ethics and now religious authority: in the process I have needed to explore things both inside and outside the Christian faith. Until recently I have also been teaching Buddhism as well. All these things have enriched me and I am grateful for the privilege of sharing these things with pre University young people who have kept me on my toes. While I always return to the fundamentals of the faith in Scripture, I know that I need to take all these things ‘... into account ...’ and am blessed with peace in the process; if for no other reason that the glimpses of truth that these other ways have always seem to me to refresh my understanding in the ultimate and compete truth that is only available in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

A few thoughts from J H Holden’s commentary on the Prison Letters.

This passage of Paul’s writing is a detailed commendation of virtue as a Greek would have seen it. Holden suggests that Paul, ‘... unselfconsciously acts upon that positive evaluation of pagan ethics which he gives in Romans 2.14: ‘When Gentiles, who do not possess the Law, do instinctively what the Law requires, these, though not having the Law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness ...’

The non-believer is perfectly capable of knowing the main ethical principles by which humans are meant to live, and when people behave in this way, they enter the presence of God as Paul explains in verse 9.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.’

St Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said: “Preach the Gospel everywhere and only when necessary, use words.”

Nothing can be more attractive than a holy and pure life, not a ‘holier than thou life’. We have all met judgemental people who think they have all the answers and who are always critical of others. Nothing can be more off-putting. But we have also all had the privilege of meeting people whose lives are filled with the joy of the Lord, those who rejoice. What is a characteristic of the life of love is gentleness, prayerful living and peace, even in the midst of terrible things. Paul exhorts us today to live in this way and then we will know God’s peace and fulfilment and we will attract others to become disciples of Jesus. And he also gives us a very practical way of doing this, and that is to prayerfully fill our minds with whatever is:

·         True
·         Honourable
·         Just
·         Pure
·         Pleasing
·         Commendable
·         Excellence
·         Worthy of praise

Is this characteristic of what we watch on television, film, what we look at on the internet, the books we read, the music we listen to, and what we study?

If we seek to live in this way and with God’s grace and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, for none of this can we ever achieve in our own strength, we all can know what Paul speaks of in verse 7 in our own lives:

 the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.