Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Matthew 16.21-end: (NRSV)

Matthew 16.21-end: (NRSV)

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection:

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

The Cross and Self-Denial

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

A few thoughts on this passage as we prepare for next Sunday, beginning with some ideas from J C Fenton ...

In the earlier verses of this chapter, we have the record of the time when Jesus revealed his identity as God’s Messiah to the disciples. This next utterance would then have been difficult for them to grasp, because their understanding of the Messiah would not have included any form of suffering. If fact this would be true for all Jews at the time. The concept of a suffering Messiah only came much later when Christians came to understand the significance of the death and Resurrection of Jesus and came to see it all as being part of God’s plan of salvation.

This is the first explicit prediction of the Passion. It is believed that Matthew used Mark as his source and it would also appear that Mark had compiled his version from imprecise sayings, but even the most sceptical of scholars do not deny that this sort of prediction was part of Jesus’ message to his disciples.

Jesus used stark words of condemnation to Peter, using the title Satan, because Peter was opposing the will of God. The ignorance of Peter is not just of the future of the disciples but also the future of Jesus: Jesus makes it clear that there is cost involved in following him. Jesus therefore begins to teach his disciples (pupils) that if they wish to come after him, and enter the glory of the age to come, they must follow him by being obedient to the will of God and this will mean suffering. They must not try to follow the secure way in this world, because this would mean losing their lives in the age to come.

Even though it seemed as though the disciples had understood the fact that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, they still did not get what this meant: they were still thinking of a conqueror, a warrior king, who would deliver them from their political oppressors. If the disciples had gone out and preached these ideas to the people, the result would have been rebellion. Before they could preach that Jesus was the Messiah, they had to learn what the true message was.

Central to the message was going to be the Cross and would entail a great deal of suffering. This was anathema to Peter who had been raised with the idea of a conquering Messiah and the idea of suffering seemed incredible, so he said that this must never happen. This is followed by the great rebuke ‘Get behind me Satan!’

Barclay suggests that we need to understand the following if we hope to make sense of this passage:

Jesus reacted in the way he did, because he was probably reminded of his great temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry: he had been tempted to take the path of power, meeting material needs and compromise with the ways of the world. Peter was confronting him again with the same temptations. Again and again, throughout Jesus’ ministry he confronted these temptations: no one would want a cross, a degrading and painful death. Barclay writes: ‘The sharpness and poignancy of Jesus’ answer is due to the fact that Peter was urging upon him the very things which the tempter was always whispering to him, the very things against which he had to steel himself ...’ That is why Peter was Satan; that is why Peter’s ideas were man’s and not God’s. Satan is any influence which seeks to turn us away from the ways of God.

O that we might always be able to resist the ways of Satan ...

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Matthew 16.13-20 (NRSV): Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

Matthew 16.13-20 (NRSV): Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

William Barclay has been a source I have used in preparation for this homily.

My text this morning is written in Matthew 16.13:

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 

Today’s reading contains some of the most discussed verses in the New Testament, especially the words of Peter in verses 16-19; but it is important to place them into their context. It takes place in the district of Caesarea Philippi, about 20 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is and they reply, John, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks them who they themselves think he is and this is when Simon Peter replies: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds saying that it is God who has revealed this to Peter and that Peter is the rock on which the new Israel will be built and over which death will have no power. In addition, Peter will be given the power to admit people into the kingdom which is coming, because his teaching and disciplinary actions within the community will be endorsed by God. Then he tells them to tell no one that he is the Messiah.

Jesus and the disciples had once more withdrawn from the crowds. The end of his ministry was drawing near and Jesus needed more time to be with his disciples and prepare them for their future ministry. Where they were was outside the domain of Herod Antipas and the population was mainly non-Jewish and Jesus would therefore have peace to teach the twelve. Jesus needed to know if anyone really understood: was there anyone who, when he had left this fleshly life, would be able to carry on his work?

When we are faced with challenges, we need to withdraw, gather together with those close to us and discern a way forward. There is a very real sense that this happens each week when we gather together with the people of God, to receive teaching and nurture to discern God’s will for us.

‘Peter’ means rock and here Jesus is once again using the powerful tool of metaphor to do some important teaching. An informed Jew at the time would have understood the image better than most of us today. The rabbis applied the image of a rock to Abraham as the founder of their faith, but never intended this to let people think that Abraham was more important to their core understanding that God is the rock (see Deuteronomy 32.4, 31, 1 Samuel 2.2, 2 Samuel 22.2 also Psalm 18.31). But it was permissible to call someone a rock and by doing so you would be paying them the greatest compliment, because it would turn one’s mind to God, who alone is the true rock.

In the light of this Old Testament teaching, St Augustine drew the conclusion that Jesus was referring to himself here as the rock, being the incarnation of God, and that he was paying Peter a wonderful compliment. Barclay paraphrases, Augustine suggesting that Jesus would have being saying something like: ‘...You are Peter; and on myself as rock I will found my Church; and the day will come when, as a reward for your faith, you will be great in the Church.’

It is important that we understand the way people wrote over 2000 years ago: how people wrote a hundred years ago is profoundly different to today and so going back that much further needs careful consideration. It is therefore a mistake to read important passages like this with uncritical modern western eyes.

There is also the dimension that this metaphor refers to the truth – the foundation of the Christian message – and this is the truth that Jesus is the Messiah; the Son of the living God. It was God himself who had opened Peter’s eyes to this truth. 17And Jesus answered Peter, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ We all know that reason, by itself can be dangerous for it leads to the horrors and evils of things like Nazism – and today people are realising that if one takes a fundamentalist approach to rationalism and science this too, is dangerous. This is why the Church requires us to find truth in the Bible, plus reason, plus the combined wisdom of the ages. Within the Methodist tradition, we are required to add experience, because all these together provide the checks and balances to ensure that we find what really is true.

Yet another dimension is that the rock is a reference to Peter’s faith – which is also central – because membership of the Church is by faith – and this gift from God is part of the foundation of what it means to be a Christian. For our very salvation is the free gift of God of faith that is offered to all, again within the Methodist tradition affirming that all NEED to be saved, all CAN be saved, and can KNOW that they are saved and all can be saved to the UTTERMOST. And all this is by faith alone.

But the more literal understanding also contains important truth – and this is that Peter himself is the rock, because he is the first initial foundation stone of the whole Church because he was the first to come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

Often the authors of the biblical books use images to make a particularly important point and, as Barclay points out, ‘... the details of the picture are not to be stressed; it is the point which is being made ...’ Here, the purpose of the metaphor is to show how Peter is the foundation in the sense that he is the one person on whom the whole church is built because he was the first to come to understand who Jesus really is. We know, from the rest of the New Testament, that Jesus did not mean us to understand that Peter, literally, was the foundation. In fact, others are also referred to as foundations: in Ephesians 2.10 the prophets and the apostles are said to be the foundation of the Church because it was upon their work, witness and faithfulness that the Church was founded. This is why their works are included in the Bible. Paul also refers to Jesus as the corner-stone, or cap-stone, because Jesus holds everything together, and without him everything would just fall apart. Peter, in his writings, speaks of Christians as living stones confirming that all those who believe are part of the building blocks of the church – part of its very fabric. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, refers to Jesus as the only foundation as we read: ‘For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.’ In our Gospel reading, Jesus was not saying to Peter that the Church depended on Peter; merely that the Church began with Peter.

Matthew’s reference to the Church is also not as many people would assume it is today – a denomination or a building, but the gathering of the people of God – so Jesus is here too saying to Peter (as Barclay paraphrases) ‘Peter, you are the beginning of the New Israel, the new people of the Lord, the new fellowship of those who believe in my name.’

Jesus then goes on using an image of a fortress – ‘... the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it ...’ On the top of the mountain overlooking Caesarea Philippi, there was a great castle. As Jesus was talking to his disciples, this could have caught his eye and so he expanded his metaphor to include what it offered. Within the fellowship of believers, we should feel safe and secure because Jesus is holding everything together and Jesus and his ways should be the norm.

Hades was never, in Jewish tradition, a place of punishment, just the place where the dead went, and so the essence of what Jesus is saying here, is that his death and Resurrection would mean the defeat of the power of Hades and death. This is the wonderful good news that death is only tragic for those people left behind; because of our sadness and the fact that we miss the person who has died; but for them, they do not go to the place of death, but to the presence of our Lord, Jesus, the Messiah – which (as Paul put it) is better by far!

We have the keys of the kingdom, because we have been entrusted with the message of the Good News that death is a lie, death is not the end, death has been defeated, because there was a man in history, Jesus, from a town in Galilee, called Nazareth – and he revealed God to the world and overcame death for us. When we make the same discovery, together with Peter, we have the same privileges and responsibilities to fulfil.

Today all people are confronted with the same question: ‘Who is Jesus’? John Robinson’s writes:

Who this man was, was a man ... who yet stood in a unique relationship to God, speaking and acting for him. He was ‘the man who lived God’, his representative, his plenipotentiary to whom ‘everything was entrusted and yet who was and could do nothing ‘in himself’’.

This mystery makes perfect sense when we answer the question with Peter: Jesus is ‘... the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 

Who do you say the Son of Man is?  Amen.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Matthew 15.21-28 (NRSV)
The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

I am indebted to Fenton again for the inspiration for the first part of this reflection.

In the earlier verses of chapter 15, the question arose: ‘What is it that defiles?’ Here Jesus is dealing with the issue of Jews and Gentiles.  J C Fenton suggests that the two issues are connected, because the Jews at the time believed that in order not to be defiled, they needed to keep themselves separate from the Gentiles. Eventually the Church came to understand that in Jesus, the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles had been broken down – a reference to Ephesians 2.11-22.

The Ephesians passage has particular significance for me. It became the motto of our little multi-racial Presbyterian Church in South Africa, where my father was the session clerk and which I attended from its inception in 1962 – the first of its kind in South Africa. The logo was a broken wall with the text underneath and it appeared on our first hymn book which included hymns and songs in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, published using a spirit printer and an old Olivetti typewriter, with translations happening on the hoof! (My 84 year old mother in Cheshire still has one on her bookshelf). My parents used to break curfew and have black, coloured and Asian friends over for meals and Bible studies. We were a small fellowship, and we were often infiltrated by the Special Branch (they were so obvious) but the witness of being part of this fellowship until I was 12 years old (1969) has been long-lasting.

The Ephesians passage is also special to me because I did an exposition on this passage on Christmas Day 1993 to over 700 people (two sittings), at the Jeffreys Bay Methodist Church – before the first democratic elections the following April.

The Gospel passage looks forward to the time when this will happen – and it was with great expectation that the South African Christians at the time were hoping that this would materialise. Being British, and there being a shortage of appointments so many Ministers were ‘at the foot of stations’, I was encouraged to go ‘home’ even though I had never lived in the UK before, having only visited to be with family.

This story was probably used by the early Church when there were discussions as to whom should be allowed to become members of the Church and so Paul wrote to the Ephesians and also to the Galatians (3.28). The message is also implied in 2 Corinthians 5.17 – all key texts as we challenged the Apartheid South Africa.

The disciples tried to send the Canaanite woman away – just as later Jewish Christians would oppose preaching to the Gentiles and in fact to have any contact with them (Acts 11.1ff). Jesus admitted that he had not gone beyond Israel in his own ministry – I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – but it is clear from passages like this that the Gospel is – as we Methodist stress – for all.

John Meier has some interesting thoughts on this reading ...

Jesus has just torn down the wall of laws about clean and unclean which kept Jews and Gentiles apart, now he acts out his teaching in one of the few contacts with a Gentile. This occasion is similar to the one with the Centurion (8.5-13). But note how the Gentile here addresses Jesus as Lord. Jesus responds to this faith as well as her humility. This is an important reminder for me. It is all too easy to become complacent, even presumptuous about our contact with God.

Mark refers to a Syrophoenician woman; Matthew changes this to ‘Canaanite’ –which conjures up the Old Testament image of the early enemies of the Jews. But her use of the titles Lord and Son of David shows that she believes that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has been rejected by his own people. Jesus remains silent at first; the annoyed disciples want to get rid of her and Jesus breaks the silence to say that his mission was limited to Israel which needed to be saved because they were like lost sheep. The woman persists.

Whenever I read the parable that follows, on my liberal western ears it sounds harsh and uncharacteristic of our Lord; it comes across to my modern ears as rude and almost racist. True, Jews did treat Gentiles with disrespect and sometimes referred to them as dogs; but I find it difficult coming from the mouth of our Lord. But Meier offers some interesting observations as he paraphrases the woman’s response where she agrees with the parable, but turns it to her advantage:

‘Yes Lord, your statement of priorities is correct, and as a Gentile I acknowledge the rights and privileges of Israel; indeed the Jews are admitted to be the “masters” of the pagans. Yet, precisely on the terms of your parable I have hope; sooner or later some crumbs will inadvertently fall from the table to the floor, to be snapped up by the dogs.’

Jesus cannot be convinced by any claims or even merit, ‘... but he is overcome by the prayer of faith, expressed with humility and humour.’

It was faith that gave the first Gentiles access to our Lord – both to healing and salvation – and so the woman’s daughter was healed.

Once more I am caused to pause and think about my presumption and sadly even arrogance and am touched by this tender encounter.

Late today, because Gareth and I have been working on our family history. It would seem that non-conformity is in my genes: on my maternal line, we have been able to trace things back to the original Naude who was forced to flee France in 1685 after the Edict of Nante providing religious toleration, was revoked. He had been a professor of theology and mathematics and took up a position at the French College in Berlin, Germany, to begin with. The Naude family eventually travelled to the Cape with the major Huguenot party in 1688 – as is common knowledge. The family had varying experiences, political, economic and as victims of climate (drought and disease) until my grandfather was reduced to being a train conductor on the South African Railways. But he was a man of great pride and I can always remember him immaculately turned out for work as if he was a major general. He never allowed family members to travel without paying the full price for their tickets and always insisted on the highest standards. Having left Afrikanerdom and having sided with the British in the Boer War, they were faithful Presbyterians

My paternal line has run out of steam rather early, with my great-grandfather, from Llangoedmor near Cardigan being as far as we have been able to go. John Owen, was a school janitor and a member of the local Congregational Chapel. On my grandmother’s side, I have a relative who was part of Marconi’s team in preparing for the first radio broadcast.

But to get back to the Gospel ...

Barclay suggests that there are a number of things worth noting about the Canaanite woman. (i) She was filled with love, having made the misery of her child her own. Our love for our children is always a reflection of God’s love for us, His children. We will do anything for our children, and it was her love that, realising that she would probably be shunned, or even treated harshly and unfairly, that spurred her on. It was probably also love that enabled her to see our Lord’s compassion beneath his strange initial response to her request. Barclay adds: ‘... there is nothing stronger and nothing nearer God than love ...’

(ii) This woman also had faith: Her faith grew when she made contact with Jesus. She began by calling him Son of David – which was a popular, political title and the way of seeing Jesus as a great and powerful wonder-worker – but it was a title which looked on Jesus in terms of earthly power and glory. Initially she came for help to a powerful man. But she ends by calling him Lord. It was as though Jesus forced her to look more closely and to see more, the divine. Jesus wanted her to ‘... see that a request to a great man must be turned into a prayer to the living God ...’ and her faith grew in her confrontation and drew her to worship – she begins with a request and ends with a prayer.

The woman also had indomitable persistence – and could not be discouraged. It is suggested that some people pray, not really expecting anything to happen. But the woman knew that Jesus was her only hope and so was in deadly earnest. Her prayer was a passionate outpouring of her soul – she had no choice.

This reminds me of that tender moment in Shadowlands the story of the relationship between C S Lewis and Joy Davidson. On her death, Lewis was grief-stricken and also said that he prayed because he had no choice, it was just something that flowed through and from him.

The woman also had the gift of cheerfulness: she was in the middle of trouble, but still kept her sense of humour. Jesus loved this light of hope. She brought with it all great love and together with her faith, found an answer to her prayers.