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 ...’


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Matthew 25.1-13 (NRSV)


Matthew 25.1-13 (NRSV)

 

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

 

1‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

 

 

This is the Gospel reading for the third Sunday before Advent, and begins one of the central themes – eschatology – the last days, including Christ’s return in judgement. As always, the depth and beauty of the parable is to be found in its rich symbolism: the figure of the bridegroom being Jesus himself and the expectation that he would return and when this happens, it will be unexpected and emphasises the need for readiness.

 

It is interesting to note how the wise bridesmaids could not help the foolish ones, for if they did, everything would fall down. De Dietrich suggests that ‘... in the hour of judgement each one can respond only for themselves ...’ The oil symbolises faithfulness (and loyalty) as well as perseverance. To be wise is to put one’s faith in God, the ‘fool’ is the one who does not – or who lives as though they do not believe. Paul writing to the Ephesians in 5.14-16 explains: ‘14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ 15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,16making the most of the time, because the days are evil.’

 

It is only since the Enlightenment that people have associated ‘belief’ with giving intellectual assent to a body of doctrine. When one reads Scripture, this is not what is expected; what it is all about is the way one is faithful in the way in which we live our lives, revealing the truth of the love of God for ourselves and others.

 

Each day, we need to be ready; we need to be prepared, to take every opportunity to show God’s love to others.

 

The division of the bridesmaids into two classes – the one destined for the blessing of the heavenly kingdom and the other for the loss of blessing, matches the divisions found i9n other parables that are peculiar to Matthew. This sort of division also seems to have been present in the teaching of John the Baptist e.g. the wheat and the chaff. This is typical of ancient hyperbole where – in order to make a point known – it is exaggerated.

 

The bride (who is nowhere mentioned in the parable) waits for the coming of her bridegroom from her own home. The bridesmaids are her friends. Their job is to meet the bridegroom when he comes with his friends who will all then go to the bridegroom’s house where the wedding feast will take place. We have already discovered that the image of the bride represents the Church, but Argyle here suggests that it is the ten women who represent the Church as a mixed community containing both the righteous and the unrighteous.

 

All the women have lamps; and all the lamps have oil; but the wise ones also have extra oil. Argyle suggests that the moral of this parable is the need to persevere in the faith and if we do this; we too will have reserves of spiritual resources.

 

The groom is delayed ... is this Matthew’s way of suggesting that the parousia of Christ is also delayed ... possibly ... but like the wise; we must always be ready.

 

The prudent – a lovely word meaning practical wisdom – one of Aristotle’s hinge or cardinal virtues – have no oil to spare and so the unwise miss out on all the joy of the celebration.

 

This event was not untypical in any Palestinian village at the time of Jesus. Weddings were great occasions; the whole village turned out to accompany the couple to their new home and the travelled by the longest possible route so that the couple could receive the best wishes from as many people as possible. Even the Pharisees declared that it was permissible to cease studying the Law in order to share in the celebration of a wedding feast.

 

Couples did not go away for a honeymoon; they stayed at home and for a week they kept open house. They were treated like royalty and for many it was the happiest week of their lives. To the special festivities of the week only the special friends and relations were admitted – so the foolish bridesmaids missed out on a great deal.

 

Like so many of the parables of Jesus, there is an immediate and local meaning as well as a wider and universal meaning.

 

Barclay points out that parables often have more than one meaning. In this case there is an immediate meaning that was directed at Jesus’ original audience. Many Jews saw themselves as being God’s chosen people. Their entire history ought to have been, therefore, a preparation for the coming of the Messiah and so when the Son of God came, they should have been the first to recognise him. Instead, they were quite unprepared and so, like the foolish bridesmaids, they were shut out of the celebrations and all the joy that they could have experienced.

 

But there is another level as well, that of universal warnings. Barclay explains:

 

  1. There are some things that cannot be left for the last minute: There are some obvious examples: a student cannot enter an exam not having properly prepared for it. It is too late for a person to acquire a skill or to have character when they confront a situation that demands it. This of course begs the question: Are we ready to meet God? We know that God is full of love and grace and so few will not be blessed; but imagine the embarrassment when people realise so clearly that they do not deserve what they are given. Those who have striven to be faithful will be relieved; those who have  done little, if anything will probably be ashamed.
  2. There are certain things that cannot be borrowed: The foolish virgins found it impossible to borrow oil. People cannot borrow a relationship with God, this must be possessed. A person cannot borrow character, they need to have acquired it.

 

Barclay concludes with telling words: “There is no knell so laden with the tears of regret as the sound of the words too late!”

 

Thank God that he grabbed both of us by the scruff of the neck when we were still young. Those that believe the opposite – that they want to live their lives first, because they think that being a disciple of Jesus will spoil their fun – make a huge mistake. They might find that they have left it too late, or they will be highly disappointed because they have missed out on so much for so long. Jesus came so that we might have life; and that in all its fullness.

 

 

 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

1 Thessalonians 2.9-13 (NRSV)

1 Thessalonians 2.9-13 (NRSV)

9 You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Most religious experiences often takes place in the ordinary and is in fact when we are involved in living ethical lives; what Paul is writing to the Thessalonians as lives that are pure, upright and blameless in conduct. Even the great mystics through the ages have downplayed the ‘special’ experiences that have been privileged to have, suggesting that the only experience that matters is that which makes one love one’s neighbour better. This is what the religious life is all about – lives that are worthy of God (verse 12).

But the difference between the lives we have been called to live and those who are committed to ethical living in a secular way is that our lives are inspired by the Word of God – as expressed and demonstrated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth in history – who is the living Word. More than this, we do not live in this way because we have to – in order to earn God’s favour or to achieve some or other end or consequence. We live this way because we are inspired by love – we live ethically because we want to live this way as a loving child would want to please a loving parent – never out of fear.

And what is more, it is the Word that is at work in our lives (verse 13 b) enabling and equipping and making possible that which we desire, but cannot achieve in our own strength.

And so we do this in the midst of our daily toil, working night and day so as to be a burden to no one. That lovely hymn of George Herbert springs to mind:

Teach me my God and king, in all things Thee to see; and what I do in everything, to do it as for Thee. ...  A servant with this clause, makes drudgery divine, who sweeps a room as for Thy laws, makes that and the action fine ...

May we all experience the love and empowering of our Lord as we go about the ordinary things of life.

Paul is trying to encourage his readers, preparing them for the demands that their Christian vocation is going to make of them. He addresses them as brothers (and the NRSV rightly adds ‘sisters’) because in Christ, there is no distinction – all are one in Jesus Christ by faith.

Paul encourages them to remember how, when they were missionaries, they had worked hard so that they would not be any extra burden to anyone else; supporting themselves, in contrast to other roaming philosophers who were always wanting some sort of financial gain.

Just as God’s grace had transformed the lives of Paul and the other preachers, the Thessalonians must also expect their lives to be transformed by the Word of God.

After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Jewish faith became a faith of the Book. When they read scripture, they came to it with a sense of expecting the shekhinah of God to be present with them; touching them and transforming their lives. When they read of Moses receiving the Law at Mt Sinai, they came with the same sense of expectation – as if they too were present on the mountain, wanting God to reveal Himself to them. The first Christians were Jews and they read scripture in the same way, but expecting the Holy Spirit to make Jesus as a living presence among them. They could not wait; the expectation was ever present; and they were blessed.

We need to recapture this sense of expectation – coming with a deep sense of eagerness – with the question: “What has Jesus got to say to me today?”

John Stott suggests that instead of being a burden to the Thessalonians, Paul had been like a father to them, by both his teaching and the example he set for them to follow. While setting children an example to follow, fathers ought also to encourage, comfort and exhort them – urging them to live worthily of God and even insisting on it. There is good purpose and wisdom in this: to live ‘good’ lives is not so much because there will be a reward later; it gives a person a sense of dignity and worth now.

And the good news will always be that we are not left alone to struggle to do this and fail all the time because it is beyond our ability. God’s word can work in us to enable us to live lives worthy of God and it is this way of living that gives us the greatest sense of self-worth, because it is fulfilling the purpose for which we are in the world.

Is what we teach our students and our own children this Word of God? Is our message authenticated by the way it changes lives? Are those in our charge living lives of dignity and worth, because they are living as God intended?

Difficult questions for us to answer, because of the places where we work and the nature of our society today. We also know that being too specific in our message more than often turns people off, rather than encourage them to holy living. Once more, I believe our first and foremost duty is to earn the right to say something specific because the lives we live are like living letters to be read of all (2 Corinthians). It is our conduct that sets the scene – and this is the greatest of all challenges. It is easy to ‘talk the talk’ and too many evangelists fall into this trap thinking that they have  to say something; but the Gospel message only comes with power and people will only be willing to receive it when we ‘walk the talk’ – and this needs all the grace we can get!



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.