Monday, 27 July 2015

John 6:24-35 (NRSV)

John 6:24-35 (NRSV)

24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ 28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which* comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ 35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

My text is written in John 6.34:

34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’

The reading from John’s Gospel is once again so rich in its deeper meanings. The crowds were fascinated by Jesus – but according to Jesus himself – for the wrong reasons, because they had seen (and others probably heard) of the feeding of the five thousand (and probably other miracles). The same would be true today I am sure. But this is to miss the point.

The people had experienced a miracle, but had failed to see the sign. This is another way of saying that they had focused on the literal and failed to move on to the allegorical and the spiritual. As Barclay writes, paraphrasing the sentiment of Jesus:

“Your thoughts ought to have been turned to God who did these things; but instead all that you are thinking about is bread … It is as if Jesus said ‘…You cannot think about your souls for thinking of your stomachs.’”

By focusing exclusively on the things of this life, we miss out on what it really means to live. I understand how difficult this is. The Scriptures seem quite clear that if I am doing things responsibly, God will provide. And we know the truth of this. If we are living in according to the ways of God, we can trust him to provide for everything else. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus exhorts us to “Seek first his kingdom and righteousness and then all things shall be added unto you.”

The recurring theme is that there is a deep spiritual hunger in every human being – it is part of that which separates us from other species – although animals have it to a very limited extent. Meeting our physical needs is just the beginning; we also need emotional hunger satisfied and so we need other people to love us (and this is where animals’ needs end). But even this is not all; we have a deep spiritual hunger that also needs to be met. Without it we flounder. People try to meet this deep inner hunger by doing many things, not least living lavish lifestyles. And this is nothing new. Roman society – after AD 60 – was one where luxurious living was unparalleled. They had feasts of peacock brains and nightingale tongues – costing the equivalent of thousands of pounds. They clothed themselves in garments costing the equivalent of over £400,000. Barclay suggests that …

“… the reason was a deep dissatisfaction with life, a hunger that nothing would satisfy. They would try anything for a new thrill, because they were both appallingly rich and appallingly hungry …”

Jesus exhorts us not to be interested only in physical satisfaction. The people had experienced an unexpected meal and they wanted more. There are other hungers that only God can satisfy – hunger for truth, hunger for life and hunger for love because it is only on Jesus that God has ‘… set his seal …’ (verse 27). In the days of the writing of John’s Gospel it was the seal more than the signature that was the guarantee. This is why only Jesus can satisfy the human hunger of the soul. He is sealed by God, he is God’s truth, God’s love and God’s life within each and every one of us and ‘… it is God alone who can truly satisfy the hunger of the soul which He created.’

28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’

What does it mean to believe? To ‘believe’ in Jesus’ day did not mean give intellectual assent to. This does not mean that the people committed intellectual suicide and just blindly accepted everything. Certainly not, once the Temple was destroyed, the focus of worship for the Jews was the synagogues, where they certainly wrestled with the Scriptures and sought meaning in them for their present time. They argued with each other and God, but found that in the process, they received a word for themselves as individuals and for the community as a whole. This ‘method’ was adopted by the early Church and they developed rituals and liturgies to aid the process. Karen Armstrong explains:

“The carefully devised rituals evoked an ‘ekstasis’ – a stepping out of their accustomed modes of thought. As Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia  (392-428) … explained to his catechumens:

… when you say I believe you say I engage myself before God, you show that you will remain steadfastly with him, that you will never separate yourself from him and that you will think it higher than anything else to be and to live with him and to conduct yourself in a way that is in harmony with his commandments. “

‘Belief’ in our modern sense, did not come into it. Even though Theodore saw the importance of a literal understanding, this was only a part of the process. Armstrong concludes that faith was a matter of commitment and practical living.’

We need to live in a way that realizes that what we experience physically in this world is not all that there is – in fact it is the least – that which we share with mere animals. It can be lovely and enjoyable, but it can also be a great challenge – as all of us who have experienced serious illness can testify. However, even in times of serious physical testing, we can know the depth of real existence – peace, and even joy when we know that our real hunger and thirst have been satisfied as we are united with God in Jesus Christ our Lord. As Tom Wright concludes. Verse 34 can be used to this day, as it stands, as the prayer that we will need to pray if our deepest needs are to be met:

‘Sir, give us this bread always.’


Thursday, 23 July 2015

John 6.1-21 (NRSV)

John 6.1-21
Feeding the Five Thousand
6After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Apologies for the relative lateness of this reflection: my saintly octogenarian mother-in-law has just been diagnosed with breast cancer which has already progressed into her bones – and we are temporality devastated by this news. She lives thousands of miles away in South Africa and this just makes us feel helpless and unsettled. She has some good people to look after her, but I am sure you will all understand that this is simply a difficult time for us.
But God is merciful and good and we await his guidance.

Aids to my reflection this week are: Filson, Wright, Suggit, Marsh, McPolin and Hunter. (As school holidays have finally arrived, I am able to enjoy the luxury of more detailed reading!)
Jesus was exhausted and needed time alone to recharge his batteries. As he often did, he retreated from the crowds. But the word had got around of all the wonderful things he had done, and so crowds gathered and followed him, probably happy to make a detour to see and hopefully witness a spectacle, as they journeyed to Jerusalem for the Passover.

There is a great deal of significance in this. As we know, nothing is ever simple in John’s Gospel, and he sought to tease out the meaning and significance of everything that Jesus said, did and is.

In writing the way he did, the author looked back to the significance of the people of Israel being fed with Manna as they journeyed from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. On this occasion, the people would experience a deeply significant spiritual meal, and in a year’s time, Jesus would become the Passover Lamb of God, dying and rising for us and giving us the wonderful spiritual meal of the Eucharist.

Peter tested Philip who responded as we often do: there is a problem and there is no human solution – Philip just noted what it would all cost to give each person even a small morsel. Andrew responded differently and saw what could be done and he saw what a little boy might be willing to offer.

There is also significance in the way Jesus gave specific instructions. It is important to remember that there is nothing included in John’s Gospel that is not of some deep significance.

Jesus told the people to sit on the spring grass – he took what was offered, even from a young boy – he gave thanks and using his disciples, he distributed to the people what they needed. And he did the same with the fish.

The author saw Jesus as the Bread of Life and expounds more on this theme later in the Gospel. He is also convinced that the miracle happened as recorded. He had little difficulty in accepting this because it is appropriate that the Messiah would be able to do things that us mere mortals cannot do. If the Incarnation is possible – that God could become man in Jesus – then something like this is understandable. To deny it, would need to be accompanied by a denial of the Incarnation as well. On this occasion, the author saw God at work in Jesus. Those who witnessed it all would also have been able to see in Jesus someone like the Prophet and leader like Moses and they wanted to make him king.
Let’s delve a little deeper.

This was the second time the author referred to the Passover. In this Gospel, the first time was when Jesus cleansed the Temple. Wright sees in this some significance as well – the notion of cleaning as well as feeding.

There is also the significance of bringing things to Jesus all those things about which we do not know what to do about (like my mother-in-law at this time). And it is our experience as well and that is that Jesus will do something we hadn’t thought of – something new and creative.

Suggit’s work is all about the Sacramental significance of the Fourth Gospel. He suggests that the author looks forward to Jesus giving his own body for the food of the world – the Bread of Life – and that Jesus is portrayed here as fulfilling the Old Testament as the Passion and Resurrection is the fulfilment of the Passover. The Eucharist is the supreme way that we experience God’s miraculous feeding and today, we are the disciples of Jesus who distribute the ‘food’ in the same way as the disciples did on this occasion. McPolin speaks of the way in which Jesus is the one who sustains us by his living word and uses the way in which the disciples collected the remains to emphasise the importance of treating the leftovers after the Eucharist with deep respect.

Hunter addresses the issue that many modern people focus on and that is the question: “Did it really happen?” His immediate response too is: “If Jesus is God incarnate, then why not?” If Jesus is not, then we do need to rationalise what happened. Some have suggested that Jesus inspired people to share what they had with everyone. They would have been on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover and had made a detour to see Jesus, and so they would have been prepared with food for the road.

Some, like Barclay, adopt a middle path between these two positions. While accepting Jesus as God incarnate he still finds the need to provide a rational explanation. He questions the miracle because for it to have happened seems to suggest that Jesus was willing to do the very thing that he refused to do at his temptation – turn stones into bread. But he recognises the difference and the significance of what could have happened here and focuses rather on the way in which what happened nourished their souls more than their bodies.

We also know from our experience that Jesus needs what we bring to him – he needed what the boy had to bring with his loaves and fishes – and when we do it is transformed by his touch, blessing and thanksgiving. Barclay reminds us that the loaves the boy brought were made from barley wheat, and would have been the bread of the very poor and concludes: “Little is always much in the hands of Christ.”

Verses 16-21: Jesus Walks on the Water
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
Here, I am reminded why I had difficulty with Barclay when I was younger, because he seems to try to explain away some miracles. At the time he was writing (the 50s and 60s) it would have been vital that he come up with some empirically verifiable possibility, because people were increasingly seeking to dismiss the Gospels as mere fabrications, because they described things that simply either could never have happened or today can be explained in other ways e.g. what appeared to be demon possession can be explained as mental illness.

But today, people are rediscovering the miraculous, because, especially in medical science, there seem to be things that happen still today that still defy scientific explanation. Of course there are also those who would contend (like Marcus Borg) that the Gospels should all be read as allegories and if the events actually happened is of little – even no – consequence. I remain unconvinced!

What happened?

It was after the feeding of the 5000, it was ‘second evening’, the time between the twilight and darkness. Mark tells us that Jesus told the disciples to go on ahead of him. It was at the time of the Passover and therefore time of a full moon. Up on the hillside Jesus had spent time in prayer.

Verse 21 reads “…and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going …” Because of this, Barclay suggests that the disciples were almost at the end of their journey and because of the blustery winds, they just did not realize the fact. The total distance is only 4 miles and verse 19 suggests that they had already rowed that distance. Jesus was therefore walking along the sea shore and they saw him near them and it therefore only ‘appeared’ that he was walking on the water. My question is, how did Jesus get there so quickly (perhaps I am missing something)?

But pondering on this sort of thing misses the point (and here I am with Borg). For most of the time before the Enlightenment, authors and readers were not so transfixed with the literal meaning alone; this was just the first step in Biblical interpretation. They always went on to the next step – the allegorical – but where they differ from Borg is that they did not think that the literal meaning was of no consequence. They went on to the spiritual and anagogical which asks the question: “What is it saying to me?” The last is for me the most important – but I do not believe we can get here without looking at the other stages as well. Too often, people get preoccupied with the literal meaning alone!

By the Spirit, Jesus watches over us in a loving way, especially in the blustery moments of our lives. Jesus is alive and is with us by His Spirit – always. As Barclay puts it: ‘…When we are up against it, Jesus watches.’ Jesus also comes to us, in the depth of our being and gives us perspective and deep inner peace, so when our mere human strength seems to fail us, His Spirit nourishes us. Our faith is deeply practical as Jesus is Immanuel – our God with us.

Enjoy the presence of Christ.


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Ephesians 2:11-end (NRSV)

Ephesians 2:11-end (NRSV)

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth,* called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body* through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.* 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.* 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually* into a dwelling-place for God.

Barclay and Armstrong have guided me in this reflection.

This is a special passage of Scripture for me for a number of reasons: (i) It was my text on Christmas Day 1993, before the first democratic elections in South Africa – specifically verse 14:

“ … For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the diving wall, that is the hostility between us …”

(ii) It was also the text of the first Church of my recollection as a young child in East London, South Africa, where my family worshipped with the first non-racial Presbyterian Church in that country in the early 1960s – something that was radical anywhere in the world at the time, let alone South Africa. In fact a broken wall and this text was the emblem of the Church. Even though I was a very young child of about 4 or 5, it had an indelible impact on me.

In Christ there is no difference at all, we are one, and race or class or anything becomes meaningless. How we need to remind the world of this so many years later. It is almost as if there are some things that are all too easily forgotten, even distorted and in need of constant refreshing.

The Jews are a special people; they had the Old Testament where it is crystal clear that God is the God of all and that it was their role to bring the love and mercy of God to all people. What a privilege. But some had got it all horribly wrong! By the time of Jesus, they considered themselves to be superior to all others; in fact Gentiles (everyone who was not a Jew) were despised. Some considered Gentiles to be mere fuel for the fires of hell; if a Jew married a Gentile, a funeral was held for the Jew; it was not lawful to help a Gentile woman in her hour of need for all that would do is to aid another Gentile coming into the world. The Jews of the time were considered to be the chosen people of God!

But we must also never forget that this was not true of all Jews, as there were many Godly Jews throughout these times, just an aberration by some powerful people, for this is not the essence of Judaism at all.

No wonder Jesus was in for a hard time: he overturned this with his radical message of God’s love and mercy for all. The Parable of the Good Samaritan must have been as radical as a Taliban person helping a British person today; his contact with a Samaritan woman would have caused absolute outrage.

Jesus came to break down the dividing walls – all diving walls – for whosoever would come. There is still the truth that walls will remain because people build them; but in Christ, we can all be one. But for this to happen, people need to come to Christ. This is why I am of the view that the world needs to Gospel of Jesus even more today than it has for some time. In a sense, Jesus is our only hope.

The ancient world was full of barriers. Some of the Greeks were as discriminatory as some of the Jews – dividing the world into two groups – Greeks and barbarians (everyone who was not a Greek!) Barbarians were also excluded from religion. Plato, brilliant though he was, got things seriously wrong when he claimed that non-Greeks were ‘… our enemies by nature.’ Barclay points out that this is a plague that is timeless, and he is right because it was this sort of attitude that was at the heart of Apartheid in South Africa and remains a scourge in many areas still today. The Dutch, at one time, had a proverb that states: “Unknown is unloved”. This hits the nail on the head: when people do not know others, they act out of fear instead of love. Barclay quotes Father Taylor of Boston who said: “There is just enough room in the world for all the people in it, but there is no room for the fences that separate them.”

Central to our faith is transforming the world into a family where everyone is respected and afforded dignity, and this becomes especially real when people find forgiveness and wholeness by being united with the risen Christ; for it is only when this union happens that we come to realize that everything else, without exception, takes second place to being part of the family of Christ. Paul makes the point that Jesus is our peace and peace does not come from any other source than love. Real peace is nothing something that can be legislated or enforced; if this is the paradigm; it will be fake and will not last. As Barclay comments: “It is in a common love of Him that people come to love each other … and only when they all love Christ will they love each other …”

Barclay includes a telling true story that makes this point so clearly.

British soldiers brought the body of one of their friends to a cemetery for burial. It was Roman Catholic. The priest told them gently, that he was sorry but this would not be possible. The British soldiers therefore buried their friend on the border of the cemetery. They returned the next day to see that all was still in order, and to their astonishment, they could not find the grave! They were approached by the Catholic priest. I will let Barclay complete the true story:

“ … The priest told them that his heart had been troubled because of his refusal to allow their dead comrade to be buried in the churchyard; so he told them that early in the morning he had risen from his bed, and with his own hands he had moved the fence to include the body of the soldier who had died for France. That is what love can do. The rules and regulations put up the fence; but love moved it. Jesus removed the fences between man and man. He abolished all religion that is founded on rules and regulations, and brought to men a religion whose foundation is love.”

I often experience what it is like to be excluded. I believe our Lord led me into the ministry in the Methodist Church and because of this many in the Church of England in the UK (and the Church of Scotland) have not even considered me to be a minister of the Gospel; Roman Catholics have refused even to offer me the sacrament of Holy Communion. I am grateful to some prominent Roman Catholic brothers who were also law breakers and because of their love for me, invited me to share in the Mass with them. (Because two of them are now in very senior positions, they will sadly need to remain nameless.)

We need to maintain standards, but not at the expense of love. I remain committed to breaking down walls that separate.

I now focus on the gifts we receive in Christ.

(i) We are made new: Barclay reminds us that there are two words in Greek for new – ‘neos’ which refers to a new point in time – and ‘kainos’ which refers to a new point in quality. A pencil that has been produced in a factory this week will be ‘neos’ but there already exists millions of pencils like it. For something to be ‘kainos’ means that it brings to the world something new, something that has never existed before. Paul is suggesting that Jesus brings together Jew and Gentile and from them produces a new kind of person. This does not mean that Jesus makes Jews into Gentiles and Gentiles into Jews – he produces something completely ‘kainos’. Chrysostom states that it is as if there is a statue of silver and another of lead and both are melted down and the result is something of gold. Barclay comments:

“The unity which Jesus achieves is not achieved by blotting out all the racial and national characteristics; it is achieved by making all men of all nations into Christians.”

This is important. In the past missionaries often made the mistake of converting people both to the Christian faith and to a western lifestyle. This is not what our Lord wants – he wants us to be something completely ‘kainos’.

(ii) We are reconciled to God: The word Paul uses is one for the bringing together friends who have been estranged. Jesus shows that God is the friend of all and because God is our ‘friend’ we ought to befriend all others.

(iii) We have access to God: Paul uses the word ‘prosagogeus’ – in fact there was person of this title in the Persian royal court and whose function it was to introduce people who desired an audience with the king. Because of what Jesus has done we have access to the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe – ‘… that, than which, nothing greater can be conceived …’ My mind always boggles at this: that God is interested in, knows and cares for David Owen.

Barclay concludes:

“The unity in Christ produces Christians whose Christianity transcends all their local and racial difference; it produces men who are friends with each other because they are friends with God; it produces people who are one, because they meet in the presence of God to whom they have access.”

Karen Armstrong points out that much of problem that we face today comes from the way in which we have been conditioned by the thought of the Enlightenment and the emphasis on ‘reason’ as the only worthwhile way of knowing. Yet, if we reflect on this, it becomes apparent that ‘reason’ has led us in many wrong directions and false notions e.g. that the world is flat, slavery was justifiable and even desirable, and other such heresies. Reason is an important way of knowing but not the only way, because it does not even ask some of the most important questions, viz. how we can make sense of life in this world, which has as a vital part, difficulty, suffering and injustice? Reason can help us to understand ‘how’, but can never address ‘why’. The theory of Evolution makes perfect sense as to how the world and life forms evolved, but taken to its logical conclusion can, in its social dimension, rationally, justify Apartheid and Nazism, because if life is a mere matter of survival of the fittest, these things can be seen as perfectly rational. And we know, intuitively, that this is simply nonsense. Life is about ‘being’ and being human means that we have choices and freedom, and history shows that those who are most human are those whose lives are filled with compassion and love and care for the weaker – which contradicts both evolutionary theory and reason.

Being human means that we are people not merely of biological existence, we are those with ‘inner being’ (verse 16) and this needs to be strengthened if we are going to be fully human. The Scriptures were, when they were written, never meant to be mere historical antiquarian records of precisely what happened, they were meant to take the reader into the presence of the ‘Ground of All Being’ and to encounter and experience transcendence. This happens by ‘faith’ and it is only since Descartes that this has meant signing up to a set of doctrines /beliefs. The faith of the Apostles and St Paul referred rather to ‘trust’ and ‘commitment’ and ‘engagement’. St Paul speaks of it taking place in one’s heart (not the brain), what modern philosophers would refer to as ‘mind’.

It is all too easy to get hung up on “Did Jesus really do this or say that?”; what really matters is that the Scriptures transport us to a deeper sense of reality by giving us an encounter with Jesus in the here and now. The compilers of the Old and New Testaments, and the early Church Fathers constantly re-interpreted the Scriptures to speak directly and intimately into their present contexts, and so exposition is vital. The Scriptures were never seen in a literal way until the modern period and so to insist on the Genesis account of Creation as literal truth is profoundly unbiblical.

The Scriptures are read with the distinctly human sense of ‘faith’ - commitment, encounter and engagement - and the commentary is as important as the text (although the commentary is not possible without the text.)

As Paul puts it in verse 18, it is more than a rational exercise, it is a prayerful exercise and if we think we understand – we are mistaken and must try again - because as Paul continues in verse 19 explains that it ‘surpasses knowledge.’ We cannot know the fullness of God, we can only experience it. This is far more than we can ever ask or imagine. Or as the writer of the Hindu Scriptures (Upanishads) puts it: God is like the ocean and our minds are like a spoon: you cannot measure the ocean with a spoon – but you can throw the spoon into the ocean …

It is wonderful to be reminded of all this again … Tell me the old, old story and tell me often, for I forget so soon … All too often I lapse into modern rationalism and deny myself of so much blessing.

I all too easily read past the idea of God as Father (verse 18), because it is an image that I am so familiar with. Barclay reminds us that ‘father’ can refer to paternity: the biological fact that someone has ‘fathered’ a child. This implies nothing more than the biological fact. Some fathers do not even know that they have children! But we have experienced more – not mere paternity – also fatherhood, the latter implying an intimate relationship of love and fellowship and care. God is responsible (ultimately) for our paternity, but in Jesus also welcomes us into the fellowship of his fatherhood. At the centre of the Christian understanding of God is that He is like Jesus – kind, loving, merciful.

This was a revolutionary notion at the time, for according to the Old Testament, access to God was denied. The people believed that if they ever saw God, they would die (Judges 13:22) The Temple was believed to be the dwelling place of God but it was only the High Priest who was allowed access to the Holy of holies on one day in the year on the Day of Atonement. When Jesus was crucified the curtain in front of the Holy of holies was rent asunder symbolizing that access was now possible to the presence of God.

But there is a danger that people might become overly familiar and forget that God is the God of glory. God is holy and if we seek to come into his presence we too must be holy, as Barclay comments: “… our right of access to God does not give us the right to be and to do what we like. It lays upon us the obligation of seeking to be worthy of such a privilege …”

God is also the Father of ‘all’; if we forget this, we make the same mistake as some of the Jews of Jesus’ day. There is no person, no church, no nation who has exclusive possession of God. This means that all human contempt, pride, religious exclusiveness are all ‘… necessarily wrong …’ Barclay adds: “… The very fact of the Fatherhood of God means that we must love and respect one another …”

Both of us have been blessed by having wonderful earthly fathers, but we are even more blessed by having God as our Father, as revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

But there is another thought as well. We are also blessed to be fathers ourselves. In reflecting on this I am reminded of the awesome responsibility we have of being good fathers to our children.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Ephesians 1:3-14 (NRSV)

Ephesians 1:3-14 (NRSV)

Spiritual Blessings in Christ

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ* before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,* having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this* is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I am indebted to William Barclay for this reflection.

Barclay points out that the whole of this reading (verses 3-14) – in the original – is one single long sentence. It is not so much reasoned statement but ‘… a lyrical song of praise …’ He is not thinking in logical stages, but ‘… because gift after gift and wonder after wonder from God pass before his eyes and enter into his mind …’

We make sense of it by breaking it up into manageable pieces:

(i) At the core of the Christian life is God’s choice: Paul did not choose God – God chose him! Jesus made this point strongly as recorded in John 15:16. To Paul, everything was of God and this caused him to give thanks. It would not be that great if man chose God, it is wonderful that God chose man.

(ii) Paul thinks of the bounty of God’s choice: God chose us to bless us with those things that are only available from heaven. There are many things that we can achieve for ourselves: skills, position, material goods; but what we can never achieve for ourselves is ‘goodness’ or ‘peace of mind’. Barclay comments: “God chose us to give us those things which he alone can give.”

A moment’s reflection takes this further. There remains today the important question of what is meant by ‘good’. Many say that it is that which provides happiness for the majority; but what about sizable minorities? Are they to be utterly miserable because only the majority count? Society has unquestioningly accepted this as just the way it is in a democracy, i.e. that misery is the lot of all too many. Because 51 % are happy it is just illogical that the wishes of 49% should not be considered!

Others suggest that ‘goodness’ like ‘yellow’ cannot be defined at all – you know it when you experience it intuitively. But people’s intuition does not always agree (even though on the basics they have a point). But this is not the place for a detailed philosophical discussion of ‘goodness’, what matters here is that it is not something earned or deserved – like faith – it is a gift from God and is linked with Barclay’s last point and that is that we are chosen for a purpose.

(iii) We are chosen to be holy and blameless. The Greek word for ‘holy’ is ‘hagios’ which means difference and separation. A church is holy because its purpose is different; ministers’ are holy because they are meant to be different to others; God is supremely holy because God is so completely different.

In the early Church (and it is my experience in Britain today) being Christian, and this means being different, means that the people of the world sometimes even hate you because they cannot understand why you are so different. Barclay suggests that the Church has got things wrong in the sense that some have tried to erase this difference between being a Christian and being worldly; some are reluctant to make a stand, reluctant to challenge sin, reluctant to impose standards, because they want to attract people and become popular. Barclay concludes: “In point of fact a Christian should be identifiable in the world … Our being different ought not to take us out of the world; it should make us different within the world.”

It should be easy to identify the Christian within the school, the shop, the factory, the office, the hospital ward, the law court – anywhere. And this is the difference: we ought not merely to behave as human law requires but rather within the laws of Christ. This meant us needing to disobey the apartheid laws, when we lived in South Africa, because they contravened the laws of Christ!

Sadly, the world we inhabit is so conditioned to its own ways, that, being a Christian can mean getting into trouble, as was the case with the nurse who offered to pray for a patient; people being expelled from their union. But, if enough Christians became ‘hagios’ – holy – answerable to Christ, they would revolutionize society – for the good! And in the midst of our present circumstances, don’t we need a revolution in our way of thinking, because our economy, education, morals are rightly being questioned?

But we are not only expected to be holy we are also meant to be blameless – ‘amomos’ – we need to offer ourselves as a sacrifice, giving every part of our lives to God. Barclay explains: “… it is to challenge man to make his whole life so perfect that it is a fit offering to God …”

We Christians ought to be different – good people – because we have been made good – sanctified - by the grace of God. This should be obvious to all and be as transparent as the goodness of Mother Teresa, St Francis and all the great saints. Impossible! No because it is not our doing it is what God does in us – the reason why he has chosen us. When we are good and holy and blameless we do not become arrogant or proud because we know this is God’s doing for with us because such virtues are impossible for us to achieve. Barclay concludes:

“… the Christian sets no value on the judgements of human standards, but thinks only of how to satisfy the scrutiny of Christ …’

Ephesians 1:5-6:
5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

These verses include the lovely image of adoption and it is worth a brief re-visit.

It gives God pleasure to adopt us into his family. This is a lovely thought and is increasingly so for me as I have now spent so many years contemplating the greatness of God with my philosophy students. To think of St Anslem’s profound definition of God as “… that, than which, nothing greater can be conceived …” This creator of everything that exists – universe after universe – and that which is beyond human understanding – so great – yet cares for Mark Andrew Smith and David Rhys Owen enough as to adopt us into his family – is a wonderful thought.

A reminder of the process of adoption …

In the Roman Law that was operational at the time of St Paul, family law was based on the principle of ‘patria potestas’ – the father’s power – which was absolute: a father could sell a child into slavery and even kill his own child! A child could not possess anything even inheritances or gifts unless the father allowed it and he could take these things back if he so willed. So it was a serious step to move from one ‘patria potestas’ to another.

It was carried out in the form of a symbolic sale in which copper and scales were used. Twice the real father sold the child and twice he bought the child back, but on the third occasion the sale went through. After this the adopting father went to the principal Roman Magistrate – the Praetor – and pleaded the case for the adoption. Once this was completed the adopted child had all the rights of a legitimate child in the new family and lost all the rights to the old family.

Barclay applies all this to the experience of the Christian. We were members of the family of the world and absolutely in the power of sin. God, through Jesus, has taken us out of that power into His power. Our adoption into God’s family ‘… cancels and wipes out the past and we are made new. We have passed from the family of the world and of evil into the family of God …’

Ephesians 1:7-8:

7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight …

In this section we encounter three of the great ideas of the Christian faith: (i) redemption, (ii) forgiveness and (iii) wisdom and insight:

(i) Redemption: Here the word used is ‘apolutrosis’ which literally means ‘to ransom’. It was commonly used to refer to ransoming a prisoner of war or a slave or freeing a person from the death penalty for a crime. It was used for God’s ransoming of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Barclay comments:

“In every case the conception is the delivering or the setting free of a person from a situation from which they themselves were powerless to liberate themselves, or from the penalty which they themselves could never have paid.”

This is precisely what Jesus does for us, in that we are powerless without God’s grace, and fall under the domination of sin. We know the wrongness of things in our lives, but we are powerless to do anything about it.

(ii) Forgiveness: The ancient world was haunted by the sense of sin. This was the theme of the whole of the Old Testament. Barclay comments:

“It might well be said that the whole of the Old Testament is an expansion of the saying, ‘The soul that sins, it shall die.’ (Ezekiel 18:4)”

Deep down, all people are conscious of their guilt and stand in terror at the thought of God. Barclay illustrates this by suggesting that all the plays of Aeschylus can be seen to be founded on but one text: “The doer shall suffer.” He adds:

“Once a man had done an evil thing Nemesis was on his heels; soon or late Nemesis would catch up on him; and punishment followed sin as certainly as night followed day.”

Jesus changed all this because he opened the way to God; he teaches us not of God’s anger, but of his love and forgiveness.

(iii) Wisdom and insight: The two words used in Greek are ‘sophia’ and ‘phronesis’ and the Greeks believed that if a person possessed these things, they had everything they needed for life.

Once more Barclay comes into his own by explaining the cultural context. He explains that Aristotle defined ‘sophia’ as the thing of the searching intellect and the questioning mind and it is ‘sophia’ that is the answer to the eternal problems of life and death, God and humankind and time and eternity.

‘Phronesis’ (in English – prudence) is the knowledge of human affairs where planning is necessary, or as Plutarch explained – the practical knowledge of the things which concern us. Cicero was of the view that ‘phronesis’ was the knowledge of the things which are to be sought and which are to be avoided; Plato spoke of the disposition of the mind which enables us to judge what things are to be done and which things are not to be done. Barclay concludes:

“In other words, ‘phronesis’ is the most practical thing in the world. It is the sound sense which enables men to meet and to solve the practical problems of everyday life and living.”

Here, St Paul is saying that what Jesus brings is ‘sophia’ – the knowledge of eternal things, the intellectual knowledge that satisfies the mind; and ‘phronesis’ – the practical knowledge - which equips us for everyday living.

What a lovely balance. With Jesus – and his living presence within our lives today and every day – we are given the tools to deal with the problems of both eternity and time – or as Barclay concludes:

“Christ gives to us the ability to see the great ultimate truths of eternity and to solve the problems of each moment of time.”

Redemption, forgiveness, wisdom and insight – what lovely gifts – all free and unconditional to those who would receive them.