Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Advent 4

Luke 24:13-35 NRSV
The Walk to Emmaus
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

I begin this week’s reflection with the aid of William Barclay and then will move on to other commentators as the week progresses.

This passage tells of the ability of Jesus to make sense of things when hopes and dreams have been shattered. Cleopas and his companion (many think it was his wife) were deeply disappointed: they thought that Jesus was the Messiah and that he was going to rescue Israel. Jesus walked with them. “When we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word” as we sing in this lovely him, so too can he make sense of things in our lives.

While on the journey, Jesus expounded the Scriptures to them. This has been central to my calling as a preacher because I do believe that the truth is to be found in a careful, prayerful study of God’s revelation to the world in the Bible. But we need to be cautious; as too often people tend to treat it literally when that is clearly not what the original authors intended. Careful, prayerful, study – even struggle – reaps rich dividends as God speaks to us through His Word today.

Notice also the courtesy of our Lord. He never presumed anything and waited to be invited to stay with them. Barclay writes: “God gave to men the most perilous gift in the world, the gift of free will; we can use it to invite Christ to enter our lives or allow him to pass on.”

Jesus was made known also in the breaking of the bread. It is easy to think automatically that this is a reference to the Eucharist – and it probably is – but not only this special sacrament. The meal that Jesus was sharing with Cleopas and his wife was an ordinary meal in an ordinary home. Jesus is made known to us as we share ordinary fellowship as well as special occasions (sacraments) with others.

When they received the great joy, they were anxious to share it with others; they were eager to return the seven miles back to Jerusalem where they found others who had similar experiences. It is our joy that we share fellowship with others who have so much in common with us, we are always richly blessed. Barclay adds: “... true fellowship begins only when people share a common memory and can say to each other: ‘Do you remember?’”

Now I refer to the commentary by J C Ryle who points out the importance of spiritual conversation because it provides encouragement and that our Lord draws near to us in these times. Ryle writes: “Conference on spiritual matters is a most important means of Grace ... It brings special blessing on all who make practice of it.” When we do this our hearts, like those on the Road, will also be strangely warmed within us as we find encouragement.

It is also good to be reminded that Jesus never forces himself on anyone, but is always there when entreated. When they arrived at Emmaus, Jesus made as if he was going on. This is a special verse as it tells us so much about human free will. Scripture is full of references to this important feature in the human’s relationship with God: Jacob at Pniel, the Canaanite mother, the blind man at Jericho, the nobleman at Capernaum, the parable of the unjust judge and the friend at midnight – all these remind us of the need for persistence and to ask God for his blessing in our lives. Ryle comments: “All show that our Lord loves to be entreated and like importunity. When we pray ‘Let us ask much and ask often and lose nothing for want of asking.’”

How do we pray today? Do we miss out on God’s blessings because we never ask, or do we hold back when asking?

I am challenged by this thought ...

I now turn to the thoughts of G B Caird for inspiration ...

Jesus appeared to Cleopas and his partner ‘suddenly’. At the time they assumed that he was just another traveller. Later he disappeared – just as suddenly. This shows that Jesus was different – he was no longer bound by the rules of time and space. In retrospect Cleopas and his companion realised that they had been liberated when they came to understand the significance of the fact that Jesus has been resurrected. The dawning for them came in the experience of the breaking of bread – something so familiar – but now given special significance.

It took time. Like the modern day sceptic, they probably just thought that this sort of thing just never happened – could not happen. They were probably especially sceptical, because all their other dreams had also been shattered and – to begin with – Jesus had turned out to be a disappointment.

Jesus dealt with their disillusionment by expounding the Scriptures to them – not a selection of proof texts – but the essence of the message of all Scripture.

The joy of it all for me is this: that today we can (and do) have the same experience. As we spend time studying Scripture and as we break bread together, Jesus comes into our midst and is present with us.

I close this reflection with some thoughts from Tom Wright.

Jesus was not merely alive again – like Jairus’ daughter, the woman’s son at Nain or Lazarus – for they would still die again one day. Jesus had passed through death and had come out the other end a new, deathless creation ‘... still physical but somehow transformed ...’

When we realise that this same Jesus is with us in the Holy Spirit, and as he is present with us as we explore Scripture together with him, we too feel our hearts strangely warmed as we understand its truth. Study needs to bring together head and heart ‘... understanding and excited application.’
Jesus is the key to our understanding because Jesus is the focus of all Scripture.

We also recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread. Cleopas and Mary (his wife and probably companion) had not been present at the Last Supper and so what he did with them at this last meal, he probably had done with them countless other times. This was soon to become a defining feature of the early Christians. We too meet Jesus in Word and Sacrament. Take the Sacrament away and it becomes ‘... an intellectual and emotional exercise, detached from real life.’

Jesus journeys with us – and faith is our journey. We can face and overcome the challenges of the journey, because we do not travel alone. As Wright concludes:

“Hearing Jesus’ voice in Scripture, knowing him in the breaking of bread, is the way. Welcome to God’s new world.”



Thursday, 11 December 2014

Epistle for Advent 3

1 Thessalonians 5.16-24 (NRSV)

16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.


I am indebted to the work of J M Reece for this short reflection.

Paul’s letters always end with ethical injunctions. As I used to be an ethics teacher, this therefore is a deep interest of mine.

Here Paul urges people to rejoice because joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and so it is refreshing to all concerned when people share their joy with each other. He also urges them to live lives that are in an attitude of prayer. Added to this is the need for thanksgiving: God is the source of all our blessings. In verse 18 he states that giving thanks is the will of God and brings it all together to include constant joy and prayer as being part of God’s will for us in Jesus.

When God reveals his will to us, he also provides us with the means to achieve what God wants for us.  As J M Reece suggests ‘... grace does not eliminate human efforts but empowers it.’

Paul goes on to deal with some problems that had arisen in the fellowship because of the charismatic element. Reece aptly comments that ‘... charisms ... often proved a two-edged sword in a church.’ Yes, they fortify converts, build them up and give them a tremendous sense of the presence of God within the midst of the Church. This enables converts to accept the high moral standards required of them and to resist temptation. But in Thessalonica, the ‘charismatics’ took over the fellowship and appeared to be forming factions. How some things never change. I am sure you can remember our charismatic experience in the 1970s. It would seem that it mirrored the Thessalonian experience, with those who spoke in tongues giving the impression that God had earmarked them especially for blessing, while protesting (at least in theory) that they were any better than anyone else.

The advice here is timeless – ‘... test everything.’ Discernment is one of the spiritual gifts, together with tongues and prophecy and all the rest, and a vital ingredient.

Having said all this, by moving away from the Charismatic Renewal of the 1970s I think today we have the opposite problem and the Church seems to have ‘... quenched the Spirit ...’ So much of worship falls into a dry formalism and even some beautiful services – like Evensong – can so often degenerate into a refined concert. I was interested to hear the prior at Mirfield challenge the Church to bring the Spirit back into the liturgy where he warned that much of Cathedral worship is in danger of becoming mere relics of a past way.

A little while back, when I was doing some preparatory reading for my weekly reflection, I was touched by a simple realisation and that is the word translated as ‘good’ in verse 21 is kalos and it is almost better translated as ‘beautiful’. The tradition that the Apostles handed down to future generations, and our duty to maintain and pass on is something that is ‘beautiful’. Reese puts it this way: ‘Apostolic preaching enables future believers to experience the beauty of the Holy Spirit.’

For some time now, I have been convinced that the best way to decide if something is good or not, is something is right or not, it to end with the question: “Is it beautiful?” This is not always easy to answer, because the role of beauty (in my mind at least) is transformative; to take the ugly and redeem it, to make it beautiful. This is demonstrated in an experiment in Malawi that is working well, where the latrines are made to produce methane which powers the cookers in the kitchens – taking excrement and making it enable something beautiful to happen.

Paul ends with ‘... the universal negative prohibition that grounds all moral activity, “abstain from every form of evil”.’ (Reese) Note the play on words – abstain here is linked to the hold fast in the previous verse.

Recall again the experience of the Charismatic Renewal of the 1970s; some of the radicals of this time behaved as if there were no restraints and celebrated the ‘freedom’ of the Spirit. But our freedom arises from constraint as Cicero explained: ‘We are slaves to law so that we might be free!” The Psalmist in all 176 verses explains the liberty that comes from following the Law of the Lord.

The work of the Spirit is there to sanctify us entirely – our focus ought not to be solely on having wonderful experiences, but the transformation of our entire lives, body, mind and spirit as verse 23 suggests so that we may be found blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not achieve this alone, but we need to surrender to the love of God, because the one who calls us is faithful and will do this.



Shorter this week as I have needed to prepare carol services for over 1,500 students.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

SERMON FOR ADVENT 2

Mark 1.1-8 

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’


Samuel Massey writes:

The message of Christ has raised up nations and brought them low, launched and defeated armies, started large social movements and destroyed others. Think of all that has been done in the name of Jesus Christ and how inconspicuously the Gospel begins according to Mark. Here we find none of the thunderous poetry used by John to describe the pre-existent Christ. We dream no dreams and no angels visit with us. Caesar Augustus and Herod seem pretty far away. No excuse here for Christmas trees or mob-ridden malls or long hours putting together services of lessons and carols--thank God! All Mark offers to us is John the Baptist, many people’s worst nightmare, smelling like a camel and calling people to change their ways.

Most people agree that the beginning of the Good News or Gospel of Jesus Christ has the ministry of John the Baptist as the starting point. The author of this wonderful record goes back to the Old Testament to show how John was the fulfilment of prophecy and he is correct in stating in the first instance that the message originally came from the prophet Isaiah. But the reference to the messenger in verse 2 does not in fact come from Isaiah, but from Malachi 3.1. Professor Charlie Moule explains: ‘The fact that the two quotations are both ascribed to Isaiah may mean that they occurred side by side under a single heading in some collection of prophecies.’ For me, it matters little; what does matter is that Jesus is indeed the fulfilment of the prophetic hope for a saviour; a Messiah. In verses 2 and 3, therefore, we see how Mark reminds his readers that the true Messiah would have been announced by a forerunner, and that John the Baptist was the Elijah that the Jewish people would have been waiting for. He also stresses that the people heard the integrity of John’s announcement and his message that ‘... nothing less than a national repentance would constitute the expected Messianic preparation.’ (Nineham)

It is not impossible that John had been a member of the Dead Sea Scrolls community in Qumran; those dedicated people who spent time studying the scriptures and preparing themselves by austere and disciplined living. This community had used baptism as a rite of passage for those who wished to join the Jewish faith. Bathing or sprinkling with water was a widespread religious symbol for purification. Ezekiel had used sprinkling as a figurative expression for the moral cleaning of the nation by God.

John’s message included baptism. Mark also points out that when John explained his baptism he made it clear that it was a preparation, not to be compared with the action of the one who was coming – the ‘mightier one’. This was the one important thing that John did that was not part of Old Testament prophecy – he baptised – or so it would seem; but the way Mark presents this important historic episode, brings John’s baptism in line with the prophecies in the way he makes John baptising become part of his proclamation. The prophecies spoke of a messenger or ‘proclaimer’ – ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’.

John’s baptism was of significance and baptism with the Holy Spirit is of special significance. Moule explains that ‘... the Holy Spirit is God himself at work among his people, and it is possible for a person literally to have the Holy Spirit poured over him like water ... like a deluge, purifying, judging presence of God himself.’

In Acts 1.5 Jesus also refers to baptism with the Holy Spirit and in Romans 8.9 Paul claims that unless one has the Holy Spirit, they are not Christian. In Acts 2, the beginning of the Church is marked by the signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel 2.28 ff.

John was dramatically portraying the great significance of his call to repentance. Those who responded to his call to moral reform submitted themselves to being dipped in the river as a sign of their response and commitment. But John called for much more than mere moral reform; he was preparing for something much greater.

We see, therefore, that Mark starts the story of Jesus long before his birth; it did not even begin with the appearance of John the Baptist preparing the way for his ministry, ‘... it began with the dreams of the prophets long ago, that is to say it began long, long ago in the mind of God.’ (Barclay) But this does not mean that John’s message is not vitally important as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord into the world and at the heart of this is the need for repentance.

Advent is a time of preparation – of getting ready – a time to return to God. It is a time when we need to be honest with ourselves and open our eyes to see the truth about who we are and how we are living. We need to be willing to see what we do not want to see; we need to be willing to admit to the sin that we have become so comfortable with, that we no longer see it as a problem. This is the hardest part, because we do not like to think of ourselves as sinners and we like to think that we are always right.

We also need to make confession to those whom we have wronged. This too is hard, because it is so out of fashion and so many people are out of the habit of doing it. But there is absolutely no point in us apologising to God until we have first apologised to the people we have offended – as Barclay suggests: ‘The human barriers need to be removed before the divine barrier can be removed. When we have done what it is humanly possible to do; then we can make our confession to God. It is only when we confess that we have sinned that God can give us those lovely words: “You are forgiven!”’

But there is another side to this – and important side – and also very difficult. So often these days people feel offended and the person who causes the offence knows nothing about it, because they never intended to cause any hurt at all! People can be over sensitive sometimes and it is not impossible that they might also have no right to be offended. We must never forget that an integral part of Christian love is that we are not easily offended; we are not touchy, over-sensitive people. So, when we do feel offended we need to ask the first and most important question: “Am I justified in feeling offended or am I being touchy?” because if it is true that we ought not to be, then it is we that need to come before God and seek forgiveness; and it is best that the other person concerned knows nothing about it all.

This is difficult, a big challenge, but central to practical Christian living ...

This passage stands apart from the rest of the Gospel as a sort of curtain raiser in which the reader is introduced to the context, so that when the curtain goes up in verse 14, they will already know who the lead character is and can understand the significance of the message they are about to receive.

This makes clear that Mark wrote his Gospel from a particular standpoint, i.e. that he accepted the traditional Jewish position of a Messianic hope; so he wrote about Jesus not from biographical or psychological interest, because he believed rather, that in the life of Jesus, the Jewish hope had found fulfilment. He believed that, in Jesus, God had begun his ‘... final intervention in history, the first, but decisive stage in the overthrow of the powers of evil and the establishment of God’s Sovran rule.’ (Nineham)

And because of the fact that the central fact of this history of humankind was to be explained and it could transform people’s lives. The same is true for us this Advent and Christmas. The advent of Jesus means that there can always be more to our lives, more in our lives. There is yet another opportunity for the Holy Spirit to deal with the sin in our lives. But we need to admit that it is there, want to do something about it and then open our hearts to the transforming love of God in the Holy Spirit. John said to the people of his generation and I believe the message is as true today as it was then:

   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight”

Amen.


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Mark 13.24-end (NRSV) SERMON


Mark 13.24-end (NRSV) SERMON

The Coming of the Son of Man
24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

The Lesson of the Fig Tree
28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

The Necessity for Watchfulness
32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 


My text this morning is written in Mark 13:37:

Jesus said: ‘And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

This is the Gospel reading for Advent Sunday and is the climax of the whole apocalyptic drama Jesus had been explaining to his closest disciples. His teachings use language taken exclusively from the Old Testament and every illustration here can be traced, countless times to Old Testament and the Apocrypha’s apocalyptic imagery. Jesus did this, because he knew that his disciples would understand what he was trying to say to them. It is quite clear, therefore, that Jesus was here not foretelling specific events in the longer term; but foretelling the fact that he would come again as well as some events in the near future - the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

So it is clear that Jesus is not providing a timetable as to when his Second Coming would be because in verse 32 he makes this point clear: ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ There have been times when people have tried to work out specific dates and times of Jesus’ return but these are pure folly, because the impossibility of this is so clearly stated here. Barclay goes so far as to suggest that ‘... it is nothing less than blasphemy for us to enquire into that of which our Lord consented to be ignorant.’

It is a great privilege for us to be able to eavesdrop on this intimate gathering. Jesus was using the short time that he had before the frenzy of the Passion to prepare his disciples for the crosses they would have to bear in their lives.

We need to live like people who know their master is going to come, but who do not know when. This means being ready; our work completed. This gives our lives special meaning and purpose – making each day significant, because he could come today. And if he did, would we be prepared? There is a very real sense for me that this is real for us at the moment of our death, and we certainly cannot be sure when this is going to happen.

Like many of the prophets before him the prophetic role of Jesus was to forthtell as well as foretell. Forthtelling is applying the Scriptures into our present context. Jesus did the perfect job of forthtelling – explaining the meaning of Scripture to the people of his generation, and supplying us with the paradigm to do the same.

So while foretelling the future is a waste of tume what we can be sure of is that history is going somewhere. Professor Charlie Moule suggested that there is no other way of dealing with the events that Jesus is speaking about here other than in picture language because they are bigger than anything we can ever grasp with our rational minds – ‘... all that lies, as the believer in God knows, behind and above history as well as within it ...’

Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that they will be able to recognise important events in this unfolding of salvation as easily as they could all recognise the approach of spring; and something significant was going to take place in their generation. But as always, the precise moment is secret and only God knows, therefore instead of wasting time in speculation, that will never bring any further depth of understanding or insight; they must just make sure that they are ready.

This section in the teaching of Jesus sadly, also speaks of the suffering that is the lot of many; sometimes especially for Christians. My mind turns to the Coptic Christians who suffered a few years ago in Cairo, the persecution of some Christians in Pakistan and the many who have made a stand against injustice and have suffered as a result. But when Christians go through times of suffering, they must never give up hope, because there will always be ultimate triumph. As Minear explains: ‘... In a word, Jesus made despair impossible for his followers. Are they tempted to despair because summer is too far away? Yes, but if they believe in his glory and his power, they will see the fig leaves ...’ and we must remember that his promise is true for every generation. Donald English wrote:

We do well to remember that something of this account of Jesus has actually been happening to some Christian in every age. We do not await much of this.’

This has happened and is happening; the things Jesus is speaking about here are not things that have yet to happen. Any realistic account of what it means to be a Christian might include trouble and persecution and hardship. But there is good news even for those who are called to endure these things. English continues:

We are not part of the world of ‘quick spiritual fixes’ or ‘flashy impressive messiahs’. To be on guard and to last out are more impressive testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and more realistic too. There is no escapism here.

The secret to being able to deal with the realities of life – in fact possibly the secret of life itself - is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Be realistic and, with the grace of God, walk as Jesus walked.

Ordinary things as well as the extraordinary have eternal significance if only we look and try to see. English suggests that we are becoming what we eternally we shall be, ‘we are called to live now in the light of then.’

Minear explains: ‘... true ‘watching’ is accomplished when each servant performs their assigned work.’ So the question is: what has God called us to do? We know that at the heart of everything is that we love God and love our neighbours as we love ourselves; that we treat other people as we would like to be treated; that we never tire of forgiving others and ourselves, that we give rather than seek to receive, that we live ethically as Jesus taught, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

To watch is obedience to the master who has assigned the task. The crucified Lord comes suddenly to those whom he has hired. And when he comes, will they be alert and ready? Minear concludes: ‘This was the final command of Jesus to all disciples in every century, the warning of the fig tree: “What I say to you I say to all: Watch”’

Or as the NRSV puts it: ‘Jesus said: ‘And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Amen.



Monday, 17 November 2014

Ephesians 1.15-end


Ephesians 1.15-end SERMON
Paul’s Prayer
15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

I am indebted to the works of Barclay and Hunter for this reflection.

My text is written in Ephesians 1:15-16:

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.

In this passage we see the essence of the characteristic of the Church: loyalty to Christ and love to others. These two are inextricable linked together because true loyalty to Christ will always, if it is authentic, lead to love for others (verse 15).

There can be a loyalty to Christ that does not issue in love for others. Some monastic orders shut themselves off from the world, and I have to confess that this makes little sense to me. It strikes me almost as a form of selfishness because the individual concerned might feel closer to God and have a sense of peace and tranquillity, but this is of little worth unless it also leads to love for others. At the same time, I have enormous respect for those monks and nuns who live this way so that they might be of more use in caring for the needs of others. The Jesuits, Fransiscans and Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity are notable and wonderful examples as was the case of the Community of the Resurrection in South Africa with their school, colleges and hostels and a notable example being Trevor Huddlestone. This was true of early Methodism as well: when people came to Christ and became part of the Church, the society they lived in was transformed. Loyalty to Christ must issue in love for others or it is meaningless.

Indeed, whatever we do, unless it results in love for others, is worthless. The Spanish Inquisition and the Pharisees are examples of those who were guilty of trying to be so right that this led them to do the most hurtful things to others. I believe Paul here gives us a practical yardstick with which we can measure if something is truly right; anything that does not issue in greater love for our fellowmen should make us seriously question what we do, because it is only in our loving of others that we show our love for Christ.

I am glad to hear that in some cities there has been a revival in attendance at Cathedral worship. I love Cathedral worship with all its pomp and beauty; but there is a real danger that this can cover all sorts of dreadful things. We have all heard of times when Cathedrals have been in the press because of conflict, strife and general inappropriate behaviour. Sadly, I have also experienced this first hand, and in fact, it is a major reason why today I am ordained as a Methodist and not an Anglican! Gladly, most Cathedrals are beacons of love and hope in Christ in the heart of our cities. Beauty only really becomes beautiful when it is an ingredient in showing love for others.

This refers to some theological debates as well. The ‘truth’ will become evident when the theology issues in greater love for others. All too often, in debates and discussions, Barclay accurately states that ‘... we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.’

Paul then prays for a Church that he loves and that is doing well. He prays that they may have wisdom using the word Sophia (which refers to the deep things of God) and so asks that the Church might be taken deeper into the knowledge of the eternal truths. This reminds us of an important dimension of our life and ministry. It is necessary that we are a people of depth – that the Church be a thinking people. We must beware of dumbing things down; but rather, always strive ourselves to go deeper and deeper into the depths of truth which issues in love. At the same time, this is worthless unless we make it a personal discovery as well. Socrates said: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Barclay suggests that an unexamined religion is not worth having and adds: ‘It is an obligation for a thinking man to think his way to God.’ Lionel Swain adds that knowledge here also means something else; it is knowledge in the sense of ‘intimate experience’. Thompson adds that here, Paul is praying for ‘... a deeper understanding of the ...Gospel and its implications, so that one can move closer into line with God’s mind and attitude.’

The ministry of the Church must be a teaching ministry. The exposition of scripture from the pulpit is a vital element, because we know that the scriptures are God’s primary way of communicating with his people of every age and generation. The paradigm was set on the road to Emmaus when Jesus expounded the Word to the disciples and they felt their hearts warmed within them – as was the case of John Wesley on that important evening in Aldersgate Street in 1738. As we listen to the scriptures read and the preacher’s exposition, we should not only be interested in what the preacher thinks but more importantly we should also asking: “What is God is saying to us as a Church; and what is God saying to me as an individual within the Church?” We come seeking knowledge that touches us and moves us, challenges us and blesses us – we come – as verse 18 explains: to have the eyes of our hearts enlightened.

We are therefore in this passage, challenged to get things into proportion. So much time is spent in the church discussing mundane matters and these often result in conflict. How much time do we, as a Church, spend discussing the ‘... eternal verities of God?’ How many hours do churches spend discussing ‘problems’ for every one that is spent discussing the depths of theology? Paul here is praying for the people to be led into a deeper wisdom of the eternal things of God and this prayer will never be answered unless we give up time to listen to what God is saying to us; time prayerfully discussing what this means and then acting on what we feel God is calling us to do.

Paul then prays for a greater realisation of Christian hope. We live in days of despair. The economy is terrible and the myth that money is the root of all happiness and security has been destroyed. But many in our society have nothing to replace it with. We need to offer the world an alternative – the alternative – the universal and eternal way. The insight we can offer the world is that even in the midst of suffering and uncertainty, there is always hope and this hope is sure. We know that God’s cause and ways will win the day eventually, for this has been the testimony of history – for even if we do not get to experience it in this life, there is nothing – not even death – that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (as Paul stresses in Romans 8).

Paul continues in his prayer for a new realisation of the power of God. For Paul, the proof of the power of God was in the Resurrection of Christ. Sin had done everything in its power to destroy Christ; people had done everything to get rid of Christ; but God raised him from the dead. The Resurrection proved that his power is greater than any human agency and that no human can thwart the power of God. Even though we can’t fully understand it all the time – God is ultimately in control. The last verses also make clear that all in the heavenly realm are also under God’s ultimate control. But even more importantly, this same power is available to us, to help, to strengthen and encourage those who are committed to being faithful to God’s call. Our assurance is not based on mere wishful thinking, but on a fact of history: God did raise Jesus from the dead. Think of Jesus and the disciples at the time of his death. Everything seemed hopeless, crushed, ended – but God raised Jesus and he appeared to his disciples and the ministry continued and still does. As we gather together as a community of faith, Jesus continues to meet with us, especially in the breaking of the bread, nourishes our relationship with him, and encourages us to go out into our world giving expression to his love for others. This is the focus of the Gospel reading appointed for today where Jesus tells the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

The last verse is of great significance for us – because it refers to the Church in every age as the body of Christ.

Despite reforms and improvements over the years, the 20th century was a human catastrophe and disunity still remains throughout the world between different races, languages and religions, sadly even within Protestantism. Jesus died to bring unity – but we still seem far from it. This ideal of unity is expressed in the next chapter where Paul speaks of Christ breaking down the wall that separates. As Barclay puts it: ‘Jesus Christ was above all things God’s instrument for reconciliation.’ He uses the analogy of a doctor finding a cure for a deadly disease: unless that cure is taken to the different parts of the world where the disease is prevalent, sufferers will not be cured! Doctors must get to know about it and must be trained as to how to use it.  The cure is there – but it needs a corps of people to take the message and the technique throughout the world. The same is true of the Gospel – it is there – but unless it is taken into the world, it remains ineffective. It is only in Christ that all can come together; it is only in Christ that there can be unity and peace and flourishing – and the Church is the agent that is given the task of taking this good news to all people. The church ought to be the corps of Christ but so often it has become a corpse!

Christ is the head – the Church is the body – and the wonders of salvation cannot become real in the world unless the Church takes it to the peoples of the world. Barclay explains: ‘... God’s plan for the world is in the hands of the Church ...’ It is God’s plan that the warring elements of the world be brought together in peace; and to make this possible he sent Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but this message and this power must be taken out to all people. The Church is the body, with Christ as the head, and so it is in the hands of the Church to bring all this to fulfilment.

The Church – we – are called to be a living organism with the ascended Christ as the head, called to do his work in the world ‘... as once his own body and flesh and blood had done it.’ This is the essential nature of the Church, as A M Hunter explains: the Church is‘... an organism truly responsive to the impulses of the mind and heart of Christ, an organ sacrificially expendable in the carrying out of his great and gracious purposes ...’

I know that this circuit is committed to being faithful to this calling and so, as Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus:

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.


Amen.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A revised version as I have finalised my homily today ...

Matthew 25.14-30 (NRSV)

The Parable of the Talents

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.”23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

My text this morning is written in Matthew 25 and verse , which reads:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

When I preached on this text for the first time in 1992, as a Probationer Minister in my first appointment in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, I entered the pulpit from the vestry door to find a church packed – way over 300 people in attendance. It had been announced that I was preaching on this passage and members of the congregation had spread the word, and many visitors, together with my members were asking: “How is he going to explain that verse.”

A wealthy man goes away on business and leaves the remainder of his wealth to his workers – each according to their ability. The wealth is expressed in ‘talents’ which was the largest unit of currency at the time. In NT Greek ‘talent’ only referred to money, in modern times it now refers to ‘gifts’ largely as a result of this parable because of the phrase ‘... according to his ability.’

The words ‘After a long time ...’ (Verse 19) is of significance because of the delay of the parousia, the master does return and demands a reckoning – which is a reference to the final judgement. The first two servants are praised for both their industry and courage in doubling their amounts of money – and for their faithfulness – a vital component because faithfulness in small things means that one can be trusted with larger things – larger responsibilities – and intimate friendship with the master. The fact that both servants receive the same reward shows how it is not one’s accomplishments that matter, but rather one’s faithfulness.

The last servant is condemned because of his inactivity. His defence lacks pure logic putting forward that it was because of the demanding nature of the master that he did nothing. Out of fear of failure; he did nothing and so lost all that he had! This has everything to do with God’s free gift and our human response. A disciple who gives of himself to the gift that God has given him will receive greater grace still; the one who does nothing will lose it.

Meier explains that the spiritual life is like our physical limbs and intellectual talents – exercise brings greater strength; neglect brings atrophy. The atrophied disciple is the useless Christian and God will punish them in the same way has he punishes those who are dissolute and thoughtless. ‘... For the supposed Christian, laziness comes at a high price ...’

We must always remember that this is a parable and so we need to remember that we are dealing here with something that ought not to be taken literally. It is a story to explain a complex lesson of some considerable depth so that ordinary language simply would not do. It deals with a scenario that would have been commonplace in the society of the time.

A master was going away so he entrusted his property to his slaves. Those who had proven themselves often held managerial positions. He apportioned property according to the ability of each. He was not asking anything unreasonable: five to one, two to another and one to the last. The one with five made another five, the one with two another two, but the one with only one, buried it in the ground to keep it safe – again a common practice of the day. After a long time, the master returned and praised and rewarded those who had doubled what they had been given but condemned the one who had done nothing and gave what he had to the one who had made the most.

So, what does it all mean?

There is an element of the Parousia – the Second Coming of Jesus - in this passage. We now know that the Gospel narratives were finally written because the long awaited return of Jesus in the Second Coming had not yet happened. But they did not doubt that Jesus would return as a judge and that people would need to give account of how they had lived their lives. At this level, all Christians have been given gifts and we will all be judged on how effectively we have used them. So, the master’s journey would have been a reference to the Ascension, the slaves are the Christians and the property refers to the gifts of the Holy Spirit that all Christians have been given. The long delay refers to the delay in the return of Christ, and the settling of the accounts refers to the Last Judgement or the Day of Reckoning. The horrible reference to Hell in verse 30 in some translations is a wrong, because literally, the Greek should be translated as 'outer darkness' (as in the NRSV). The weeping and gnashing of teeth is most commonly agreed by scholars like Fenton, as something added by a later editor and reveals more about the views of the editor, putting his particular spin on the story, rather than what Jesus either said at the time. But they would be correctly reflecting the seriousness of Jesus' warning that not using one's talent would have serious consequences and so is still well stated in this classic ancient hyperbole.

The slaves were probably a reference to the Scribes and the Pharisees and their use – or rather misuse – of the Law of God – the truth of God as revealed in the Scriptures. They wanted to keep things exactly as they were, changing nothing at all – like the man who buried his talent. This is why they are condemned. William Barclay comments:

In this parable Jesus tells us that there can be no religion without adventure and that God can find no use for the shut mind.[2]

Jesus is alive and present in the Church as we meet. He still speaks to us through the Scriptures when we open our minds to receive what He has to say to us. This is why being part of a preached message is a sacred thing, and for me one of the greatest privileges possible. Jesus speaks, not only through the mouth of the preacher but also in the discussions and gatherings of the people of God. This is why meetings of fellowship, discussions, Synods and Conferences are so vital. This is why people will be called to give account, if they persist in burying the truth that is being revealed rather than setting it and people free to discern the mind of God. Jesus challenges us by asking: Are we open-minded? Are we adventurous? Is our faith alive and vibrant? or is it buried and dead in the ground?

Firstly, each and every one of us has been given gifts from God and they are immeasurably valuable because they come to us from God – according to our ability. We are never asked to do anything that God does not also equip us to do. It is not the talent or gift we have that matters, but what we do with it. What is your gift? Are you using it? When last did you ask: What can I do to enrich the fellowship of the people at Christ Church and the people of Shepshed? Could it be that I am asked to pray regularly? Could it be that I am called to send messages of encouragement? Could it be that I am asked to greet people and welcome them? When you ask, you will find that the opportunities are countless and wonderful.

Secondly, the reward we can look forward to when we faithfully use of talents is more work. The ones who doubled their talents were given more, so greater tasks and greater responsibilities. This is also a great joy. When we are faithful, God blesses us with more and more opportunities and our lives become more and more meaningful and useful, and we have a real sense of purpose.

Thirdly, the punishment was not the loosing of the one talent, because he just did nothing with it, he never really had it. Using one’s talents implies risk – living radically for Christ. But not to use it will mean that we lose it.

As soon as we become active by using the talents we have been given,  Jesus comes into our lives and blesses us and others through us, which compounds our blessings over and over and over and over. Or as Jesus put it to his listeners:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

Amen





[1] The above section is taken from Fenton’s commentary on this passage.
[2] Barcaly, W, Daily Study Bible

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Matthew 24.14-30

Matthew 25.14-30 (NRSV)

The Parable of the Talents

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.”23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”



Argyle reminds us that this is an eschatological parable of judgement. Even though the parousia is delayed, it will still come and those who want to share the blessings , must use the time wisely in their service of God: gifts unused are lost, but the reward for service is further service – ‘... the worst punishment for failure is to be deprived for the opportunity to serve ...’

A talent = 6000 denarii (in Luke’s account 19.11-27 each servant is given a mina  == one pound) – the value is not of the greatest importance – rather the sums allotted represent privileges and opportunities for service – ‘... these vary in extent with different individuals by divine ordinance ...’


Matthew explains what it means to be watchful (previous parable) while waiting for the parousia: being awake means being faithful to God’s instructions and acting upon them ‘... with all the energy we can muster ...’ and with all the abilities God has given us – with meaningful deeds of love (as become clear from verse 31 ff).

A wealthy man goes away on business and leaves the remainder of his wealth to his workers – each according to their ability. The wealth is expressed in ‘talents’ which was the largest unit of currency at the time. In NT Greek ‘talent’ only referred to money, in modern times it now refers to ‘gifts’ largely as a result of this parable because of the phrase ‘... according to his ability.’

‘After a long time ...’ (Verse 19) is of significance because of the delay of the parousia, the master does return and demands a reckoning – which is a reference to the final judgement. The first two servants are praised for both their industry and courage in doubling their amounts of money – and for their faithfulness – a vital component because faithfulness in small things means that one can be trusted with larger things – larger responsibilities – and intimate friendship with the master. The fact that both servants receive the same reward shows how it is not one’s accomplishments that matter, but rather one’s faithfulness.

The last servant is condemned because of his inactivity. His defence lacks pure logic putting forward that it was because of the demanding nature of the master that he did nothing. Out of fear of failure; he did nothing.

In the parable, the observation of the lazy servant, that the master can be harsh, is not contradicted. As Meier explains, ‘... the stringency of judgement replaces the imminence of judgement as the main motive in Mt’s moral exhortation.’ One can be unfaithful to these stringent demands by either doing evil things (24.49) or by lack of foresight (25.3) or by sheer inactivity – as is the case here. The lazy servant lost all that he had! This has everything to do with God’s free gift and our human response. A disciple who gives of himself to the gift that God has given him will receive greater grace still; the one who does nothing will lose it.

Meier’s explanation continues ...

The spiritual life is like the physical limbs and intellectual talents – exercise brings greater strength; neglect brings atrophy. The atrophied disciple is the useless Christian and God will punish them in the same way has he punishes those who are dissolute and thoughtless. Meier comments: ‘... For the supposed Christian, laziness comes at a high price ...’