Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Give us this day...

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Week by week, around the world, congregations follow Jesus instruction to pray the Lord’s Prayer.  I believe that there are times that we say and do things in our faith and over the years of doing and saying them one of two things can happen.  Firstly, through repetition and deeper understanding the words become our own and so we as we say them they deepen our faith and commitment. Or, alternately, familiarity breeds contempt.  Repetition of the words creates an immunity or boredom sometimes exacerbated by ignorance and often resulting in rejection. 

In considering the words of the Lord’s Prayer which are not simply Jesus instruction but are also filled with rich meaning I want this morning to simply focus on one line of the prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread.
Give us this day our daily bread.

In reflecting on these words I want to bring three things to your attention. 

Firstly, the literal sense of the words as they have been translated into English. 

Secondly, a sense of meaning that is grounded in Jesus statements in John’s gospel “I am the bread of life” and “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

And thirdly, a context of meaning found in the Eucharistic practices of the church.

Give us this day our daily bread are words which when understood simply at face value appeal to God for the basis sustenance of life: food.  My earliest recollections of praying this line of the prayer are to do exactly with that.  I understood that we prayed to God to provide for us our basic human needs.

This in itself is an act of faith.  In praying give us this day our daily bread we look to God as the one who ultimately can provide and does provide all things.  This line of the prayer reminds us that all things come from God and regardless of our human efforts and systems of society not one thing exists or is available for us but by God’s will.  As words standing alone in their basic meaning they are words which should humble as we share in praying words that Jesus prayed and as we realise that the world and all that is in it belongs to God.  We look to God for what we need.

I have little doubt that this basic meaning is meant to be a part of our understanding of Jesus words but when we look deeper than the English translation and consider the wider context of not only the prayer but the whole of Jesus life there is more to be said.

When tempted by the devil to turn stones to bread Jesus declares “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4, see also Luke 4:4)  Jesus understanding was that whilst bread may be important for our physical sustenance we have greater need than this.

On this point it is interesting to note that in the Egyptian Coptic Church’s translation of this passage and of the Lord’s Prayer the phrase is translated something more like, “Give us this day the bread of eternal life.”

What might we think of as the bread of eternal life?  The answer is given to us by Jesus in John’s gospel, chapter 6.

“The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

And when asked, what is this bread?  Jesus answer is.

“I am the bread of life”

“I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

Combine these statements with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ might also be said ‘Give us this day, and every day Jesus’.  The statement in the prayer operates on more than one level.  In appealing for our daily bread we appeal to God to give us Jesus, every day. 

This raises the importance of saying these words immensely and as we say them week by week in church with this understanding they ground us in the reality of our faith.  Not simply that God provides for our physical need in bread but that God has given the bread of heaven Jesus Christ and this is what we need more than all else.  In the gathering of the worshipping community we receive this bread as we hear the good news of Jesus Christ proclaimed as we eat the bread together in communion.  We receive the bread in word and sacrament.

This leads me into my final point.  This prayer has Eucharistic significance.  The Lord’s Prayer is placed within the setting of the communion service I believe because it points us to God’s coming kingdom and also to the bread with which we are fed upon the way: Jesus Christ himself.

One of the great sadness that I have for the Protestant Church in general is the loss of understanding concerning Jesus presence feeding us in the celebration of the Eucharist.  We have been guilty of reducing our understanding of what we are doing as mere remembrance of what Jesus did and often this is further exacerbated by the individualism of our faith whereby we see taking the elements as something merely occurring between me and God.

Yet in celebrating together, being fed with the bread of eternity, we are not disparate people coming as lonely individuals before our God.  By no means!  We are made to be what we are companions in Christ.  The word companion comes from two words ‘with’ ‘bread’ and literally companions are those who break bread together.  As we are fed at this table we are bound not by respect or love of one another nor even are we stifled by our incapacity to respect and love one another.  At this table we feed on the bread of eternal life and in breaking this bread with us the Lord makes us one.  Companions in Christ!

As a final aside on this particular point the prayer is “Give us this day our daily bread.”  For me there is an argument here for more regular celebrations of the Eucharist.  The great reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin live in a time when the Lord’s Supper was celebrated 4 times per year with the laity. It was they who argued first for weekly communion for the people not just the priests.  A few hundred years later, John Wesley in his revival is said to have celebrated communion almost daily.  The appeal for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer I believe points us to celebrating the Lord’s Supper each time we worship together.  In the first version of the Leaders Book of Uniting in Worship the assumption was that communion is celebrated each week.  There is something for us to dwell on here.

Give us this day our daily bread. 

Provide our physical needs for us day by day.
Give us your Son day by day.
Feed us with the bread and wine offered at your table day by day.

As we think again on these words this day, as we feed on him by Word and sacrament, I pray that we all this day may come to a deeper understanding that we are truly companions in Christ and this will inform your congregation here in the days and the weeks and the years ahead until Christ comes again in all his glory.  Amen.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Jesus and the Lawyer. A new sermon on the Good Samaritan.

Luke 10

You know I don’t think the lawyer in this story from Luke chapter 10 is a bad bloke.  I don’t think he is very much different from any of us.  Most of us at some point have asked the question that the lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  We are all worried about what happens after we die and we all want a sense that we are in control of the outcome.

In this sense the lawyer is not a lot different to you or me. And the lawyer is not doing anything abnormal in entering into debate with Jesus.  Part of the ancient culture of the Jewish people was for teachers and religious people to test each other through debating their ideas.  We still this do this in academic circles today.  When the lawyer gets up to test Jesus the lawyer is behaving normally as a religious leader of his day.

The nuance for us to remember is that in the Old Testament the word for a legal adversary in a debate is the word Satan.  This means that when the lawyer, or for that matter you and I, enter into debate with Jesus we become the legal adversary, we become Satan.

This little matter aside, the lawyer’s question is about him being in control of the outcome “what must I do?”  Now Jesus answer to the lawyers question follows what is often referred to as the Socratic Method.  He answers a question by asking a question.   And the question he ask directs the lawyer to the Torah, the law.

The biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out the twofold subtlety of Jesus questions.  Firstly, Jesus does not simply ask the lawyer what is written in the Torah but how he reads it.  This implies that Jesus’ understands the lawyer will give preference to particular texts.  And secondly, and possibly more importantly, as Levine points out “the Torah is not much interested in eternal life or life after death.  It is much more interested in how to live in the present.”  Jesus shifts the conversation away from life after death to life now.

The lawyer’s choice of Deuteronomy 6:5, part of what is commonly known as the Shema Yisrael. This is placed alongside Leviticus 18:18.  These are possibly some of the best know Biblical passages and Jesus affirms his choice.  “You have given the right answers.”  The lawyer’s understanding of the belief system in which he is embedded appears to be without fault.

Yet the lawyer is not finished because having answered rightly we are told he wants to justify himself as he asks “Who is my neighbour?”  Levine points out this a more subtle way of asking, ‘Who is not my neighbour?’  The lawyer is interested in a question that most of us would want to ask who can I ignore, who can I not offer help to?

This is a difficult matter for all of us who recognise the limits of our personal resources and have probably unconsciously been seduced into the lifestyle of wealth and prosperity of the Western world.  Sometimes our acts of charity are dominated by similar questions: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ ‘Who is more deserving of my help?’ ‘How much can I spare to give?’

Jesus response is the well-known parable which is often read is isolation from debate between Jesus and lawyer.  When read in isolation it is often turned into a moral tale that suggests that we should be like the Samaritan – that we should help others in need regardless of their culture, race or religion.  And, in itself this is not a bad lesson and has spawned many Christian societies and groups who use the name as inspiration for their charitable activities.

However, there is more to the parable than this somewhat obvious and simplistic reading of Jesus’ story.  The parables always have an edge to them and this parable is told as a way of leading the lawyer and, no doubt, Jesus listeners into a new understanding of God, themselves and the world in which they live.

Now at the beginning of the sermon I suggest that the lawyer is in many ways just like any of us and as Jesus begins the parable he speaks of a person, in Greek anthropos, travelling down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  This person once again is a generic figure.  I appreciate Levine’s description of this person: “The person lacks identification; he could be rich or poor, free or slave, priest or lay, naughty or nice… The man is ‘some man’ or everyone.”  It could be anyone amongst Jesus listeners: his disciples; the lawyer; other religious leaders; the crowd gathered; and, it could be any of us.

The randomness of the attack the person is disturbing and we might pause to wonder at why this has occurred – it appears senseless and Jesus does not seek to explain the violent act.  He simply names that it occurs.

However, I would want to point out that such an act potentially robbed the person of far more than any money or goods that he was carrying.  So often when we encounter suffering, whether it is at the hands of violence, or through illness, we ask the question, “What have I done to deserve this?”  We make a correlation, and probably an unhelpful one, between the suffering we are encountering and our perceived goodness as a person.  We are robbed of our sense of being a person of worth and value, and we are also robbed of our sense of invulnerability, and safety in the world.  Our very identity and sense of worth and purpose is put into question.

The person is left helpless and vulnerable by the side of the road robbed of his goods, his dignity, his self-perception and even his hope.

Now I do not want to dwell too long on the Priest and Levite who pass by yet a couple of points need noting. 

First, is that often the behaviour of these two men is explained by the need for ritual purity.  In her excellent reflection on this Amy-Jill Levine points out the imperative contained within the ancient Jewish tradition that would have required these men to act and absolved them from the ramifications.  Levine points out that after the 9/11 attack in New York Jewish people stood vigil until such a stage that all the dead and wounded had been removed such is their respect for those who are injured and have died. Levine goes on to described the sermon by Dr Martin Luther King who suggested that these two men passed by on the other side because they were afraid.  They possibly simply wondered would the same thing happen to them if they hung around.   

During the week after the  shootings that occurred in the US. I saw people interviewed who had been part of the rally at Dallas  where 5 police were shot.  One was asked what they did when they heard the shots fired.  His answer reflected his incredulity at the question “I ran”.  Not many of us will run towards a place where we think there is danger and it may simply be that these two mean were fearful.

The second point to make about these two passers-by is made in relation to the one who comes next. It is a point I have been making on this passage for about a dozen years now.  If Jesus was simply attacking the religious establishment the next person to turn up would have been another ‘regular’ Israelite.  But Jesus’ parable has a sharper edge than this for the lawyer because Jesus’ is trying to shift the lawyer’s perception of his own identity and worth.

The next person come down the hill from Jerusalem is a Samaritan.  Now the history of the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans was one littered with animosity and violence.  In the previous chapter of Luke Jesus and his disciples were not welcomed into a Samaritan village as the passed through a region.  James and John suggested that they could ask God to reign down fire on the village and consume it as punishment.  To coin Levine’s phrase Jesus response is that you do not respond with bombs to a refusal of hospitality.  There is no doubt though that this person would have been perceived by the lawyer and anyone listening that the broken and bleeding person and the Samaritan were enemies.

As we know the Samaritan sees the person, he comes near to the person, and does everything that he can to restore the person to life.  The Samaritan transcends fear with compassion.

If we skip to the end of the story Jesus’ question of the lawyer is “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the person who fell into the hands of robbers?”   This question is the great reversal for the lawyer because the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbour?”  is taken out of his hands.  The lawyers neighbour is not the one who he has the power to choose but the one who comes to his aid.  What Jesus effectively does is identify the lawyer with the person who had travelled down from Jerusalem.

Now one of the ancient readings of this parable which has survived the test of time is to say that if the lawyer is the person who has attacked then Jesus is the Good Samaritan’.  The lawyer cannot do anything to inherit eternal life because he is helpless and bleeding and it is Christ who comes alongside us and picks us up from our broken and bleeding state and does whatever it takes that we might be healed.  This is a lesson we can hold on to.

But, today, I want to highlight three important lessons Jesus is teaching the lawyer about his own identity if he is connected to the person who was attacked.  The first: the lawyer is like every other person.  The generic anthropos, the person who travelled down from Jerusalem, could be anyone and the lawyer is an ‘anyone’ as well.  So often, as people, we like to create systems of importance and self-importance.  Jesus is saying to the lawyer you are like everybody else.

Second: when the person is attacked Jesus is suggesting to the lawyer that he is not as in control as he might think.  The lawyer is in need of mercy and help.  The lawyer’s own sense of self-righteousness and identity is challenged as his mortality.  At the beginning of the encounter Jesus had shifted the conversation away from life after death and the threat to the person’s mortality in this parable reminds us that life is valuable gift worthy of salvaging from the brink and living.

Third: when the person is helped by a Samaritan there is an interruption to the cycle of violence and the succession of hate and hurt perpetrated between Jewish and Samaritans.  In the act of compassion that transcends the ancient prejudices the possibility of reconciliation and renewal appears on earth as it is in heaven.

These three lessons are lessons for all of us: all of us share in a common humanity; every one of us is need of mercy and help as we struggle to find identity in our lives; and, the age old hatreds and prejudices can be overcome when enemies are willing to transcend their fear and help each other and restore each other to life.

When Jesus says to the lawyer go and do likewise we might hear his injunction to go and act with a compassion and mercy similar to that of the Samaritan but we should also hear the challenge for the lawyer to be changed in his self-perception.  Eternal life is a gift not his to control. Jesus invitation is for the lawyer to see himself as part of the hoi polloi alongside others, to understand that the lawyer himself is in need of mercy, and that we cannot choose our neighbours but need to come to understand that even our enemies are neighbours.

The truth of Jesus parable especially in terms of our tendency to define who our neighbours are not has played out in the last few days and weeks in terrible and tragic ways. 

This last week has been NAIDOC week in Australia and touring the Northern Territory I was reminded again of the ancient aboriginal culture that was robbed of its identity and place when Europeans arrived.  We are still on a journey towards reconciliation and reparation with our aboriginal and islander brothers and sisters.   

In the US the terrible shooting by police and of police highlight an ongoing cycle of violence that needs to be interrupted.  How can people cross the boundaries of race and culture to stand together to bind the wounds of that hurting nation?

In Baghdad, Iraq, 292 Muslims were killed in a suicide bombing.  This is on one level a confrontation between different strands of Islam. 

In our own election, and in the rhetoric around Brexit, as we see people struggle for identity the language of xenophobia and difference has emerge as a strong aspect of our discourse.  The fact that more than 1 in 10 Queenslanders voted for a party that has clearly racist policies is disappointing and reflects the confusion people have when we try to define who we are by saying who are our neighbours and who are not our neighbours.

These complex issues of humanity are contained within the lessons that Jesus is giving the lawyer and to understand the hope of this story means that we have to drive ourselves to read on in the gospel.  For it is only in reading on that come to see Jesus not only as the one who comes down to us, as Paul says in Philippians emptying himself to be one of us, but also as one who himself is lifted up on a cross broken and bleeding, fully identifying with the loss of identity and purpose in the helplessness of death.

If we are to be anything like the Samaritan, we must first understand that we are like the lawyer.  We learn that we are part of the common people, in need of mercy, and who must learn that even our enemy is our neighbour and as we do so we also learn the lesson from 1 John “We love because God first loved us.”

Yes, the lawyer, Jesus legal adversary, Satan, is not a bad bloke – he is just like you and I.  But in the story his enemy saves him and it is in this that we can find worth and identity and purpose and meaning – God’s message is a life-giving, life-restoring message as God offers to each one of us healing and hope.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Who is the Samaritan?

In today’s reading from the gospel of Luke we heard one of the best known stories of the Bible.  In fact the story is so well know that some countries actually refer to certain laws about helping others as ‘Good Samaritan’ laws. 

People who are not Christians understand what it means when you say to them that we should be like the Good Samaritan.  From our childhood days in Sunday School this story is used to indoctrinate us with the message about helping others and preacher after preacher will buy into the myth of the Good Samaritan.

All of this means that you and I have our work cut out for us this morning as we sit under God’s Word on this day and seek to listen to what this story is really about.  We have our work cut out for us because today we are going to unlearn the myth of altruism attached to the parable and listen for what the Bible and Jesus are actually saying.

The story from Luke does not begin with Jesus randomly telling a story to his disciples, rather we hear that a lawyer comes to test Jesus.  We are told this from the outset.  The motivation of the lawyer, most likely a Pharisee, is probably to bring Jesus down.  He asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Notice the question implies that he thinks that he has it within his power to inherit eternal life. 

This questioning of the lawyer sets up a legal debate.  The lawyer is Jesus’ adversary.  Those of you who know your Old Testament well may also know that the legal word in the Hebrew translated as ‘adversary’ is also the word from which we derive Satan.  This may or may not have been implied but it is certainly an interesting footnote. 

The other thing which might be making an avid New Testament reader squirm is that in the story of Jesus’ temptations found in Luke 3 Jesus’ declares, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’  If we as readers of the story understand that Jesus is truly God then the lawyer is indeed taking the place of God’s adversary.  He is putting God in Jesus to the test.  This simple story is looking as if there may be a lot more to it.

Jesus knows the lawyer’s game. He responds to the question with one of his own. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”  No problems here this is what the law teaches. Deuteronomy 6:5 says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Whilst Leviticus 19:18 gives the instruction, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

As an aside we as Christians also know that Jesus summarises the law with these two commandments in both Matthew and Mark.  This is a poignant moment for us as listeners and students of the Bible.  Just being able to parrot the passage does not mean that we have comprehension.  And, may I say like the lawyer we have a tendency to misinterpret the meaning to suit our own ends just as the lawyer does.

Jesus instructs him, “do this and you will live.”

The lawyer knows that he has not bested Jesus in the way he sought so he seeks to justify himself.  To be justified means to be made right in God’s eyes. Thus, the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

From his perspective the lawyer probably knew whom his neighbours were - Israelites.  In Leviticus 19:18 the term used for neighbour is a synonym for brother.  Who is my brother - none other than those who share my blood - other Jews! The development of the Jewish laws that arose from the Torah reflected this ideal.  The neighbour is my fellow Jew, and to some extent those others who live among us and with us.

This is the point at which Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  At the heart of the story lies the answer to the lawyer’s question about his neighbour.  This question ultimately has come from his question about being right with God.   

So Jesus tells this parable.

A man, undoubtedly a Jew, is travelling the road from Jericho to Jerusalem and is attacked.  He is left broken and bleeding beside the road.  Unless help arrives we can assume he will die.

A man comes travelling past, he is a priest, and seeing this fellow Jew bludgeoned and bleeding on the ground he skirts by on the other side.  It is possible that this has to do with purification laws and the priest keeping himself clean according to the law.  But remember this man will probably die unless he gets help.  The behaviour of the priest is highly questionable. 

Likewise a Levite, also a holy man, travels by and when he came to the place the man was he passed by on the other side too.  The very laws that Jesus affirmed at the beginning may in fact also be the laws that are holding back these fellow Jews from helping the man.

The story could have got predictable then.  What the audience might have expected to come over the hill was an ordinary Jew.  This would have made Jesus’ story an attack on the religious leaders and the legalism that had developed within Judaism.  But here comes the surprise over the hill coming down the road is a Samaritan, technically a dire enemy to the Jewish people.

To give you some context of the feeling that was being evoked here, just pause for a moment and consider who you may have been taught to hate as a child.  Who were told not to hang around with?  Who generates the most fear for you?  Whoever you have a secret hatred or dislike for, your deepest fears and loathing’s about, that is who is coming over the hill – the enemy!

The Samaritan helped the man. He was moved with pity.  He bandaged the man.  He put oil on his wounds.  He placed him on his donkey.  He took him to an inn. He placed him there and paid for him. And not only that, he promised to pay whatever it cost so that the man would be fully healed. He promised to pay whatever it cost so that the man could be fully healed!

“Who is the neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks the lawyer.  The answer is obvious, the answer is the Samaritan. The one, who is the enemy, or adversary, is the neighbour to the one in need.  Remember the lawyer’s question was ‘who is my neighbour?’  Jesus is clearly identifying the lawyer with the man who was robbed.  Jesus associates the lawyer with the one who was helpless, the one who needed mercy and could not save himself. Jesus is subtly pointing out that the lawyer is not justified by his actions but is in need of mercy from the one that he is treating as his adversary.

Jesus is the Good Samaritan.  Jesus is the one who comes to bring help to this broken and battered and bruised man who cannot help himself.  The very language of the parable confirms this possibility.  The use of the Greek word which we have translated as ‘pity’ is elsewhere only used in the scriptures to described Jesus or God’s compassion.

What can the lawyer do to inherit eternal life?  Jesus’ parable reveals that the lawyer can do nothing to inherit eternal life; rather he must rely on God’s mercy. Jesus reveals that the lawyer, despite his knowledge of the law of loving God and loving the neighbour, still sees God as his adversary and stands in need of God’s mercy. This is the heart of the story, we cannot earn our way into eternal life it is a gift of God’s grace. As Christians the only person that we can fully identify with in the story is the lawyer, the one who sees Jesus as his adversary.

We behave like the lawyer. We ask the same questions for our own ends. How will I get into heaven?  Am I doing the right things?  Do I help the right people? Can I do it myself?  In these questions we seek to justify ourselves.  And, like the other men in the story, we walk past people in great need everyday. All of us do.  We participate in a culture that encourages us to see those in need as deserving their predicament.  As much as we think we are friends of Jesus’ and that we love God our love is marred by our sin and we cannot alter that situation through what we do, we are helpless. 

Like the lawyer most of us think that we are good people and that we do not need to be helped by the neighbour, Jesus.  In this we treat Jesus as our adversary.  The promise of God is that the Samaritan has come down to us and helped us.  Jesus gets down into the gutter of our existence for our sake.  He emptied himself taking the form of a slave to bring healing to our broken and bleeding lives.  He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Not only does Jesus come, like the Samaritan, as our helper he also experiences what it means to be the man in the ditch as he gives his life for our sake. 

This is God’s mercy and it is because of this mercy that we can come into God’s presence giving thanks and praise.  The story of the lawyer and his question shows to us that despite our perceived goodness we are in desperate need of God’s love and mercy.

Jesus’ final direction to the lawyer is somewhat ambiguous. He says go and do likewise.  Does he mean by this go loving your neighbour?  This would mean go loving Jesus rather than treating him as an adversary.  Does he mean, go showing mercy with a new understanding of who is neighbours are?  This would mean go realising your own need of mercy and use that as the yardstick for whom you recognise as your neighbour. Or does he mean, go with the understanding that there is nothing that he can do to inherit eternal life?  This would mean go trusting in God’s grace. There appears to be elements of all of these meanings in Jesus’ instruction.

Ultimately we cannot ‘do’ something to inherit eternal life, and most of us hate this lack of control, yet we have still been invited to enter into God’s eternity and live lives shaped by what has been done for us. Essentially the parable answers a question about righteousness with the promise of grace. 

Through centuries this understanding of the parable that we have heard today has been lost and superseded.  As one commentator suggests, “Better to champion the Samaritan as our ethical exemplar than to admit our vulnerability and need of grace to restore our capacity to continue a long and treacherous journey.”  This story isn’t about making you feel guilty about who you help and who you don’t.  This story is about God’s love for even those who would test God and be God’s adversaries, lawyers, listeners, everyday people, you and I, Satan.  If it changes the way we live knowing of God’s love and mercy for us then this is to the glory of the one who saves us from our self-righteous imprisonment.  Take a few moments to contemplate God’s word to you this day.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

A Centurion and Slave: Unpredictably Saved!

I think it is far easier for most of us to think that we are in control, that we have things in hand, that things are predictable.  But all of us know that when it comes down to it there are limits to what we can control and there is an unpredictability to life.

Today we heard a story from the gospel of Luke which reminds us that there is an unpredictability to being saved.  This notion of unpredictable salvation might be disconcerting yet I believe on deeper reflection the idea of being unpredictably saved could be a source of great hope for us all.

To understand the hope contained within this story of Jesus’ healing of the Centurion’s slave we need to dig a little deeper into the characters and the implications of Jesus’ actions.

Picture by Tomas Fano Creative Commons
So let us first contemplate the Centurion.

According to the commentaries I read on this passage it is unlikely this man was a Roman.  As the
Roman Empire expanded it drew soldiers into its army from the lands it conquered. 

Yet, whether or not a Roman it appears that he was not a Jew but was sympathetic to the Jewish community in which he lived.  We are told that he was a good man and had built a synagogue for the people and that he loved them.  Although not a Jew he may have even engaged in some form of belief and practice.

Despite this, as a Centurion with authority over a cohort of 100 soldiers, this man was still to be considered a part of the occupying enemy force.

He also had some understanding of Jewish practices as he did not approach Jesus directly but rather sent Jewish leaders from within his community to make contact.

It is unclear what this man knew about Jesus but this event appears to be relatively early in Jesus ministry.  So when it comes to consideration of the centurion’s faith it would be naïve of us to read too much into this.  He has faith in Jesus ability to heal the slave, even from afar, but we should not think of it as faith in Jesus in the way we might express faith in Jesus as the Messiah or the Son of God or as our Saviour.  Even his use of the title ‘Lord’ for Jesus should not be overplayed in a way that suggests he had an insight into Jesus identity that even Jesus followers did not.

Throughout the interaction between Jesus and the Centurion, which all occurs through messengers, the focus of the conversation is on the worthiness of the Centurion for the miracle not on the worthiness of the slave.

The sum result of the interaction is that without Jesus even arriving to see the slave or ever meeting the Centurion the slave is healed. 

The inference of the passage is that without the healing the slave will die yet even from afar Jesus can do the miracle - healing occurs. 

For those embedded in the story, living in the moment, there is an unpredictable edge about the way the healing occurs and even Jesus’ response to this outsider – Jesus is impressed or amazed at the faith of the Centurion!

If were to travel back into Jesus’ time the notion of salvation did not revolve around dying and going to heaven.  To be saved was a ‘this life’ experience.  I can’t but help think of a story we find later in Luke’s gospel, the story of Zacchaeus in which Jesus’ declares, “today salvation has come to your household.”

In the act of healing the slave no less should we think of the Centurion: “today salvation has been visited on your household!”  He has encountered salvation in the healing of his slave.

Could anyone predict that Jesus would reach out and help this foreign soldier, this centurion?

Could anyone predict that Jesus would hold up to his disciples and followers the faith of this gentile?

Could anyone predict that Jesus did not even have to visit the slave for the healing to occur?

But more than that could the slave himself predict or understand his fate?

Think about this slave for a moment.  Once again probably not a Jew and maybe someone bought in marketplace and brought to this foreign land.  A man viewed as a commodity but clearly more than that for the Centurion – he valued the slave more than the cost of simply replacing him.

The slave does not ask for healing.

It is possible that the slave knew nothing of Jesus.

It is possible that the slave was disconnected from his homeland and family.

It is possible that the slave did not feel that same connection with the Centurion as the Centurion felt to the slave.

This anonymous character is left mysteriously ambiguous and a step away from this miracle.  Yet the truth of the situation is that the salvation visited on the home of the Centurion is visited on him personally.

The slave is found to be in good health.

He is saved by Jesus.  He is just as much the recipient of grace.

So often, my experience of the Christian story is a domestication of salvation to those who confess Jesus as Lord and believe in Jesus in a particular way.  More than that so often being saved is only associated with what happens when die.

Yet this story has an unpredictable edge that shatters the domestication of what it means to be saved and reminds us that when Jesus healed and gave hope to people salvation visited in this life – the coming kingdom of God is glimpsed in these moments and maybe it is when people encounter salvation in this life, a miracle, that it is on earth as it is in heaven.

For the early Christian community that Jesus was writing for the story might have opened up the possibility of gentile converts being valued by the community of faith – maybe, like the Centurion, their faith could be an example to the followers of Jesus that were of Jewish background.  Remember, when Luke was writing his gospel that majority of followers were meeting still as part of the Jewish community.  Maybe the story addressed the unpredictable number of gentile converts after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.

Yet as we listen to this story of the unpredictable nature of salvation in that ancient community and reconsider what it means for us I think there are words of hope grounded in the unpredictability of being saved.

When I think about the Centurion I think about all those people who are sympathetic to the church in our era, maybe they even work for the church.  People who seek out the help of Jesus, or maybe simply they co-operate with Jesus followers, to bring aid to others.

At Synod we heard about the work of UnitingCare and Wesley Mission Brisbane and the Schools commission and the Residential Colleges.  Whilst many of the people who work in the church may not yet have committed their life to Jesus in the way we have I wonder if their faith is a bit like the Centurion so long ago.  Like the Centurion they build synagogues of hope and they risk making contact with Jesus and his followers.  Trusting in Jesus mission, and trusting his followers to bring a better life to others now – a little bit of heaven on earth. 

When I think about the slave that was healed I consider all of the people that the church reaches out to in need.  People who are sick and dying, people who are frail and aged, people who call lifeline for a listening ear, people in remote locations and in the inner city.  Unpredictably saved, helped out, given hope by people in Jesus’ name – even though they may not realise it or have even sought it they receive from the wellsprings of the grace of God.

What this means in terms of their relationship with God beyond this life remains obscured from our view but the story indicates Jesus’ willingness to save a person in the midst of his life even without knowing that someone else had interceded.

As followers of Jesus, I would say that you and I are unpredictably saved – we have encountered the mystery of God which is beyond our domestication and comprehension yet closer to us than breathing.

As part of the crowd that follow we can only look upon the unpredictable nature of how God saves people and celebrate it and share it.  And maybe we too can become like the Jewish leaders and the friends of the centurion in the story, emissaries and messengers between people and their needs and Jesus, who we believe can bring healing and hope to any situation.

We become the storytellers of God’s grace: we latch our lives on to the hope that people we know and love will be saved in this life and the next; we also consider the possibilities of God’s love for our enemies; we gather together to listen to the stories, to be astounded as we celebrate the surprisingly unpredictable salvation of our God.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Pentecost: In the last days

The end is nigh!

Is the end nigh?

Luke writes down the following ominous words declared by Peter as he describes the events of the first Pentecost:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh!’

In the last days, in the end times! This is what could be described as apocalyptic language coming to us from 2000 years ago at Pentecost!?

What Luke’s audience understood these words to mean is difficult for us to comprehend: did they think the end was associated with the end of the Roman occupation? Was the end associated with the return of Christ? Was the end an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the world?

As modern Christians we should understand that when the day of Pentecost was unfolding there had been no long and detailed reflection about Jesus identity and his mission.  There was no scriptures other than the Torah – the books we call the Old Testament.  What there had was the experience of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection!  They had witnessed his presence in the world and they were still trying to make sense of.

It is in this context that Peter boldly quotes the prophet Joel as if the end times were upon them: “In the last days”.  Whatever the people who heard these words thought the idea that the end times were close is undoubtable.

The sense of the proximity of the last days that the first followers of Jesus had is reflected in the fact that it took almost a generation before Jesus stories were to be written down. And, might I say, far longer than before the Bible, as we know it, emerged as the recognised authoritative witness to Jesus’ life and its meaning.

I wonder if there was a sense of irony as Luke wrote the story down around 30 years later. As he penned those words ‘the last days.’  Did he still wonder whether they were in fact in the last days given the number of years that had passed?

And here we are almost 2000 years on from that point grappling with that same question.  Were Peter’s words correct are we still living in the last days – has every generation since been living in the last days and what might this mean.

Peter indicates that there will be signs in the last days, portents, to help us become aware that we are indeed coming close to the end of all things, signs which include the pouring out of the Spirit of God on all things.

Yet, whilst this might be seen as a positive sign I have lived through an era in my life time when the signs of the time, the warnings seems to surround us.

I was born in 1968 under the sign of the Vietnam War and grew with the shadow of the cold war looming over me.  By the time I was old enough to be aware of the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust I was also aware enough to believe I would live past my teenage years.  The pall and threat of war was great.

If the sign of impending war was not enough in the same year I was born Paul Ehrlich published his seminal work “The Population Bomb”.  Whilst it has been criticised as being too alarmist and some of his predictions have been off target Ehrlich continues to stand by his basic premise that the population of the planet will outgrow the capacity of the planet to support humanity.  According to thesis the consequence of the overpopulation will include famine and starvation, mass movements of people, political instability.  Consequences potentially exacerbated by a Western culture obsessed with the notions of growth and consumption.  Concerns echoes in the writings of people like Clive Hamilton, Zygmaunt Bauman, Paul Gilding and the list goes on.

Signs of the times, war and conflict, overpopulation, uneven distribution of wealth and a changing political landscape.

Despite the end of the Cold War and Francis Fukuyama’s somewhat hopeful if yet ambiguous assessment of liberal democracy as “The End of History and of the Last Man” the turmoil of the last two and a half decades have seen the rise and rise of the conservative state and the continuation of political instability for humanity.

With all of the signs around us environmental crisis has come upon us in succession as more species die out, as pollution destroys the beauty of so much God’s good earth and then to top it all off climate change.  As if the other signs of the time were not enough, this week on the internet I picked up this graph tracing the increase in average global temperatures since 1850.

This week I read an article about the rising of the oceans in the Pacific and how a number of reef Islands have already disappeared and that in some low lying communities people are already being forced to move.  I met a pastor from Kiribati around 6 years ago who was wondering whether the Australian government will be prepared to accept the population of just over 100 000 people when the Island becomes uninhabitable.

The signs of the time are with us and I can’t but help think of these stories and problems we face as humanity when I read these words.  It is not be surprising to see people living with a pathological lack of hope in the face of the issues that have weighed us down just during my lifetime.  Or, maybe to see another approach, typified by hedonism, ignorance, and the seeking after the good life with disregard to the common good and the problems of the world.  It’s easy to just not contemplate all of these depressing things.

But Peter’s quote from Joel is not just about a meaningless end of the world, his words contain hope for us and for all that God has made.  They contain an invitation to look beyond the signs of the times, of the last days, and to God. 

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh!’

Jesus himself warned against watching for the signs of times and about predicting when things were going to come to a head – only God knows, and even when the end comes, even the end of life, our faith revolves around a hope that defeats death. The Christian notion that the last days are not an end but a new beginning.

Peter describes to the witnesses what is occurring on the day of Pentecost declaring God’s promise that those who call on Jesus name will be saved and that the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh.
This idea that the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh needs to be emphasised – though only the believers received the outward signs, tongues of fire and rushing wind, the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh.

The Spirit of God which Jesus had describe as a helper is being poured out, it is with them and those who receive the outward signs of the Spirit gives us a glimpse of something special.

In the miracle on the day people were speaking different languages but were understanding one another, people from different lands could hear what was being spoken in their own languages.  In this manifestation of the gift of speaking in tongues what occurs is more like a gift of hearing.

The promise of God’s Spirit is a vision in which one of key barriers to human reconciliation and unity is transcended.  God enables people to understand each other without losing their distinct identity represented in their language.

Paul will later speak of Christ’s presence in the world being about the reconciliation of all things in Christ.  If anything the last days are not the last days of the creation.  The Bible’s vision of the end times is a new beginning in which we as human being transcend our differences.

It is important to contemplate too that in the scene whilst not everyone appears to receive the gift of tongues they become witnesses to it.  In some more obscure way they are being drawn into God’s future.

The last days have come and the church is being born as a place in which human beings will grow in their ability to understand one another.

The great theologian Karl Barth described the church with two words that I think relate well to this particular moment.  The church is anticipatory and provisional.

Let me briefly explore each of these words.

The church is anticipatory because in the church we encounter the vision of the last days, the time of reconciliation and understanding established through the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.  A new creation is unfolding.  Of course I am not naïve and I am aware that as a sign of the promised future the church has often failed in its task because of our divisions and our sins.  Nonetheless, our life anticipates what is to come and enfolds itself in a transcendent hope which sits in contrast to the hopelessness of the signs of the times.

The church is provisional because we are a sign which anticipates the consequences of what it means that the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh.  There is a future in which the church will no longer need to anticipate the coming future because the future will have arrived.  Like children in a car as long as we sing out from within these walls, or within the community of the church, “are we there yet?” – The answer is “no!”

But, in the midst of this provisional and anticipatory life we also take confidence that the Spirit is upon us, the when 2 or 3 gather in Jesus name he is present, and that our task in not for our own benefit and edification but in order that the world might see the promise of God’s last days, the end times which is the new beginning.  When we live anticipating those last days times, when we live as if the kingdom has already come, when we know that power of the Holy Spirit is on us we can say with confidence in the face of the signs around us the end is nigh, God is with us, our hope is bigger than this life and this world.  Our hope is in God.

The end is nigh!

Is the end nigh?

If it is so then bring it on for in those last days the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh and those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.