Lectionary Sermon (March 14 2021) Lent 4b on John 3: 14-21

WHERE ARE WE IN THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH?

The Greek word for truth (Aletheia) means “making obvious the unknown”. But there is something else which is often overlooked. Truth in practice is uncovered a little (often a very little) at a time.

This I believe is true in both science and religion. Think about it. In science the Greek philosopher Democritus postulated many years ago that matter might be cut into small discrete particles now called atoms. There has been a long and uncertain path of discovery ever since with many blind alleyways, twists, and turns before the scientists could actually photograph shadows of these atoms and gradually work out the complex ways in which they are assembled. And what wonders of energy and creation have been uncovered in the process. This included a whole sequence of ah-hah moments which was marked by famous experiments such as those of Lord Rutherford and still continues to the present with the Large Hadron Collider and a host of experimental breakthroughs.

Think what we may have missed if the scientists had said:
“ Democritus has told us all we need to know about atoms”.

In religion we can see a similar tortuous and gradual uncovering of truth…whether it be the truth about what we name God, or specifically to Christians: the truth about Jesus and the unfolding truth about what it means to believe and follow Jesus.

Think what we would have missed if we ever thought:
“I know some verses in the Bible that tell me all that I need to know about Jesus”.

The notion of God may have started in human understanding as a virtual tribal token, one of many Gods, and yet through the centuries our perception has gradually changed and grown from what was first thought to be a local, unpredictable and at times vindictive Spirit to the beginnings of understanding of something more mysterious with shadowy glimpses to what might seem to lie beyond, perhaps an awareness of  a vast creation. In the course of our quest for truth about such matters, we have also encountered a love principle which promises meaning to human existence.

This morning’s reading contains that wonderful poetic verse (John 3:16) that introduces us to one dimension of the Love principle which on traditional version renders as: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

This is of course a huge step forward from the Old Testament God glimpsed in places like Genesis and the Psalms – yet history teaches us that even this famous verse has not proved to be the final arrival point – and certainly not one which always enables us to live at peace with our neighbours and be at one with creation. In fact, let’s be frank, this particular verse, John 3: 16, taken in its most superficial meaning, may well have been more responsible as an excuse for violence and unkindness perpetrated in the name of Jesus than any other verse of the Bible.

“Whosoever believes in him shall not perish”. A casual encounter with this part of the verse becomes a small step to think….. Aha …..therefore anyone will perish if they don’t believe, therefore with that much at stake let us force them to believe…. and of course we mean our sort of belief!

History teaches for example that this verse has provided an excuse for saying since the Muslims and Jews won’t believe in Jesus and are dangerous to everyone’s salvation because they are not teaching the Christian truth – very well then, let us make life difficult for them until they are forced to believe. !? This provided support for the Crusades where the Muslim unbelievers were put to the sword by the thousand. Down through the centuries such verses have been enrolled as justification for pogroms against the Jews right through Europe – including massacres, house burnings, removing their legal rights … Indeed it is even claimed by some commentators that the lack of sympathy for the Jews was why it took so long to mobilize action against the Nazi concentration death camps.

A few years ago on a trip to Europe, Shirley and I visited one massacre site where, towards the end of the Second World War, several hundred from the local Jewish ghetto had been tied together in pairs and pushed into the river to drown. We were shown the spot on the bank of the Danube in the so called Christian city of Budapest, and the Jewish guide asked: “Where were all the good people?” Given the high attendance rate in the Churches in Budapest, it was a fair question.

Then there were those a few hundred years ago who said the Catholics won’t believe in Jesus the same way as we as Protestants do. Destroy their Churches as protestants did in England, murder the Catholics as was done by Huguenot soldiers in France until the Huguenots in their turn were massacred on the orders of the King of France in 1572 (with, I might add, the king leaning out the window of the Louvre and firing casual pot shots at any Huguenot in the streets below with his arquebus).

As we move closer to the present the pattern seems little different. Fight the Catholics on the streets – no but the Protestants did in Northern Ireland, chant rude songs about children who went to Catholic schools in Christchurch as I was taught to do as a child…

( although perhaps I might just confess as an aside we rather enjoyed the cone fight we had all those years ago in the pine forest when the Catholic Sunday school turned up to the same beach reserve as our Durham Street Methodist Sunday school for their annual picnic).

More seriously, this assumption that only verbal agreement with one’s own version of faith gives eternal life becomes a serious distortion in the hands of the missionaries who historically have often assumed that any culture, other than their own, needs to be destroyed as quickly as possible. Nor should we assume that such thinking is a thing of the past. In the last few years I have heard evangelical missionaries talk about the evil of Hinduism, and of Islam and even of Buddhism. I have also taught in New Britain where some of the missionaries insisted on introducing a Western culture as well as a Victorian religion.

I have also witnessed the callous indifference to the physical plight of people by some of these same missionaries who acted as if, since only eternal salvation matters for the heathen, we can therefore ignore less important things like hunger, disease and injustice.

Yet even although the verse says: whosoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life, it is only at the most superficial level that this belief could be thought of as a creedal statement. Announcing that one is saved is hardly the same as living as a believer. Jesus elsewhere makes it very clear what it means to believe in him. “ In so far as you do it to the least of your neighbours you do it unto me”. Surely this means that to believe in Jesus means adopting and following his ways.

Jesus was accused of eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. Very well then, presumably believing in him means caring about those in society who are different to us. Jesus also taught that those not recognized as having the right religious credentials can be the ones living in accordance with his teachings. If this can be applied to Samaritans – then surely it equally applies to Hindus or Muslims. This time of Lent, traditionally a time of self examination is a good time to ask ourselves honestly if we can see evidence that we are taking his words seriously by the way we are living.

A superficial reading of John 3: 16 also causes us to overlook how the verse starts. For God so loved the world – it doesn’t say, the Western protestant world – nor even only the human part of the world.

Believing in Jesus, who for us personifies this love for the world, may then mean we have to genuinely start caring about those of other races and other creeds. If the world is more than just the human race – then perhaps belief also means we should be insisting on caring about creation with its precarious ecosystems and millions of interacting life forms.

If we cannot get the basics of Jesus’ teaching, with his down to earth message about how we should be interacting with one another and further if we don’t have the vital experience of living this life in practice. Without the life witness there is little point to rushing to pretend esoteric intellectual certainties about theological implications of salvation. Berating unbelievers with dimly understood theological words instead of offering genuine friendship and compassion is hardly demonstrating belief in Jesus’ way.

Like Nicodemus we tend to come to Jesus message in the shadow of darkness, not all parts of our thinking and deeds are always brought into the light. Light is not always welcome, particularly in areas where the conscience is not entirely clear. Light can be disturbing and some only notice the shadows it brings. Perhaps this is why some good people seem to produce a reaction of anger in others as their light shows other people as they really are. We all have blind spots about ourselves and others which cause us to rush to premature judgment and miss the potential in ourselves and others.

William Barclay in his Daily Bible on today’s gospel, uses the story of a man visiting and art gallery to look at the Old Masters hanging there. After a guided tour with an attendant of some of these works of genius the man announced to his guide. “Well I don’t think much of your old paintings
The attendant’s quiet reply… “Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them are.”

Verses such as John 3:16 are indeed masterpieces – but our assessment of their meaning and potential may uncover new layers of truth if we will but look. AMEN

Posted in Perspectives of God, Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon Lent 3b March 7, 2021 John 2:13-22

A TEMPLE IN NEED OF CLEARING

Assuming we feel our faith should matter, perhaps we should admit the way some 21st  century people practice their faith is not necessarily tied to what Jesus talked about as being important.  There may even be a reason to step back to ask ourselves how much of what we do in the name of faith would pass the Jesus test?

We may take for granted what happens in worship yet according one famous philosopher A N Whitehead “Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, Bibles, codes of behavior, can all be used as the trappings of religion, in passing forms.”

I guess I would even like to add a few more. How about denominationalism, Church hierarchies, vestments, archaic superstitions, formalized ceremonies and heresy hunts?

I guess many of us would assume such trappings help us gain a degree of perspective and focus on our faith. But perhaps for Christians there is a problem when the trappings take over and we forget what the gospel is supposed to be about.

One of the key incidents in the Jesus story is surely his attack on one aspect of the trappings that affected his people of the time, and the result was the so-called clearing of the Temple.

Did you notice that John places the clearing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke see this as towards the end during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem.  Both versions have related intentions.

In John’s record of the significant events in Jesus’ ministry, by placing it at the start of his mission, it underlines Jesus’ uncompromising honesty and courage. It also sets the scene for his eventual collision course with the establishment. For Matthew Mark and Luke it is no less significant yet is presented as an important part of the climax of his ministry.   Wherever it was placed it certainly clarifies perfectly why the religious leadership of the day would have been unable to tolerate his challenge.

Perhaps the first question we need to ask is why Jesus might have come into conflict with the temple authorities in the first place. Let’s look again at the setting.

Remember the Temple was constructed to reflect the Jews’ cultural pecking order. In the centre was a small room – the Holy of Holies. God was in that space. Even the High Priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies only once a year.

Next came the courtyard of the priests.

Outside that was the courtyard for male adult Jews….
Next was the courtyard for Jewish women, then finally the courtyard for the gentiles. It was in this courtyard that the money changers and animal traders were to be found.

As with the way modern Muslims still require sheep to be killed, the custom of sacrifice had been laid down in the ancient scriptures and had gradually become formalized and ritualized until it was almost an obsession.

That there should be money changers in the Temple was hardly surprising. Because travellers and pilgrims would come from afar for the Passover festival, it would have been most impractical for all of them to carry their own animals for sacrifice. Accordingly the temple officials would supply a number of the animals for sacrifice. But there was a catch. Because the animals had been chosen for sacrifice, ordinary non Jewish money was considered too base for the purchase of the animals for religious purpose.

The pilgrims were required to exchange their non Jewish money for the required coins to pay for the sacrifice. If they were paying at the standard rate of half a shekel per person as laid down by the Talmud, this was expensive enough since half a shekel was the equivalent of two days’ wage.

Even exchanging shekels for half shekels would be a cost because the money changers were expected to take some profit. Even worse was when non-Jewish coins were brought to exchange for the Jewish shekels. The exorbitant exchange rate had grown over the years until it had become open profiteering.

The other way in which corruption had taken over was that only perfect animals could be sacrificed. For those choosing to bring their own animals for sacrifice, there were special inspectors called mumcheh, who for an appropriate amount would inspect your animal – but alas the custom had changed over the years so that virtually no animal from the outside would pass this inspection and the pilgrim would be required to buy a temple animal for sacrifice. Are you surprised this turned out to be expensive? A pair of doves sold at the Temple cost the equivalent of 24 days work.

That the Temple had become excessively wealthy through this sacrifice money and money exchange was not in dispute. Even some years previously when Crassus, a Roman, captured Jerusalem in 54 BC some contemporary historians said that he took the equivalent of something like 5 million dollars in today’s money from the Temple without anywhere near exhausting the wealth.

Exploiting the poor was of course an extreme and glaring injustice, particularly when done in the name of God.    Jesus then had cause to be upset.

Jesus probably shared the revulsion of a number of the prophets who had pointed out time after time that it wasn’t sacrifices but rather changed hearts which were required. So we recall Isaiah with his: To what purpose are your numerous sacrifices to me? Said the Lord …..bring no more your vain oblations. (Isaiah 1: 11-17) . Gentiles were allowed and even expected to get as close as possible to the Temple to offer their prayer – but it was in the gentiles’ courtyard that the worshipper would have to contend with  cacophony of sound, with the bleating of sheep – bellowing of frightened calves – the shouts of those bargaining. No doubt the raised voices of those disputing their treatment at the hands of the money lenders would all combine. This in effect made a mockery of any attempt of the gentiles to offer prayer. Given Jesus’ reported sympathies for gentiles, this may have given further reason for his indignation.

You have probably heard the old story about the man who died and went to the gates of heaven. There he met St Peter and asked to be shown around. St Peter showed him the many courtyards. “This one he said is for the good Buddhists, this one is for the Muslims, over there is the courtyard for the Hindus” – and so on.

“What about that very high walled courtyard over there where I can hear singing and organ music coming from?”, the man asked. “Well that’s where the Christians are,” said St Peter – “but I wonder if I might ask you to be very quiet outside their wall. You see they think they are the only ones here”.

To know with certainty about heaven is beyond my pay grade yet I suspect that story fairly describes many people’s attitude not only towards Christianity, but even towards their particular version of Christian faith. At one high school where I taught I once had some exclusive Brethren pupils whose parents would not allow them to eat lunch with the other children. My feelings of superiority towards them for their prejudice was somewhat lessened when I remembered from primary school days chanting a rhyme aimed at the Catholic children at their separate Catholic school.

Jesus driving out the money lenders only becomes awkward when we think of some of the modern trappings which always risk growing in significance until they make a mockery of our faith.

Take religious art. Placing the occasional icon – or even stained glass window in a place of worship as a focus for thoughtful religious response is another way of reminding ourselves that events remembered in the history of the faith matter significantly. To continue to collect such items until the place of worship is groaning with opulence is bordering on the obscene particularly when the Church sometimes acts as if it is blind to poverty in the community and in the world. I remember being shown a small section of the Vatican museum in Rome by a guide and being told that if a visitor was to spend ten seconds in front of each priceless work of art it would take something like ten years to see all the works of art owned by the Vatican.

Perhaps by some mental gymnastics this can be reconciled with Jesus injunction to take no thought for the morrow – or the bit about not storing up treasures on Earth … but we might ask ourselves if Jesus would really have been pleased at such a display of opulence.

Religious clothing for Church leaders is another area which might cause us to stumble. I certainly can follow that there is significance in the stole, a simple strip of material intended as the mark of ordination and intended as the symbolic version of the yoke of servanthood. Somehow however this has morphed through the centuries. The stole has become more elegantly embroidered and the simple gown into gowns of jewelled and brocaded splendour to the point where the notion of the humble servant somehow becomes lost in the visual trappings of power and significance.

If we can’t imagine Jesus arrayed like an archbishop in a Cathedral should we ask why?

Dare I suggest that even Church ceremonies like communion need a time of re-evaluation. This simple shared meal, by which Jesus disciples were ask to remember him, so often can become formalized so that the leaders become the star turn. For some churches only the initiated may partake and perhaps the simple act of remembrance evolves to a highly formalized and stylized marathon of liturgy where the notion of a shared meal is lost amid high sounding religious jargon. More to the point, if we think of communion as a stand-alone ceremony yet never get round to offering our own hospitality to strangers, have we even grasped what Jesus was on about? Remember that Jesus was often accused of eating with the undesirables. If we truly want to be reminded of what he stood for, can we act as if some are not worthy to share real meals?

We can probably get it that the Jews in their efforts to please God would have been unaware that their customs had gone too far. The Temple ceremonies became corrupt gradually over a period of some hundreds of years. In the same way, oh so gradually, an obsession with buildings and with the minutiae of Church administration can take over our meetings until the day perhaps we finally realize that mission and issues of justice and Christian responsibility have become tacked on the end of our agenda merely as a token.  If so perhaps there comes a need to clear our own temple.

Lent is the traditional time for self-examination. Today on this third Sunday of Lent we might do well to pause to wonder if we too are in danger of losing our sense of focus. Perhaps, even here, there is a need to check the practices of what for us passes as today’s Temple. AMEN

NB, I am always looking out for key ideas – and frequently learn from others’ insights and illustrations. Why not share some in the comments below?§Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own (not for profit) purposes.

Posted in Christianity, Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

LECTIONARY SERMON 28 February 2021 on Mark 8: 31-38

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me“. Mark 8:34

Say what?… Oh so familiar words.  But what do they mean for our generation and our current congregations.    Take up your cross and follow?

Crosses are not actually part of our thinking in the world we encounter today. For most of us I suspect, the only cross we ever consider is Jesus’ cross, certainly not ours.

Don’t forget for the first recipients of the gospel message, crucifixion was actually a barbarous punishment the Romans had designed for trouble makers. What we tend to overlook is Jesus’ death was only one of very many. In 4 B.C. for example, (around the suggested time for the birth of Christ), a good number of nationalistic Jews used the death of Herod the Great as an excuse to rise in revolt against the Romans with the idea of driving them out for once and for all. The Romans predictably struck back with venom. When the rebels fled into the country in their thousands, the Roman general Varus hunted them down. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells it this way:

Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand. (Antiquities 17.10.10)”

Two thousand of your fellow countrymen (and women?) crucified at one time! Now that would provide a vivid set of memories. Remember too that the Romans also used crucifixion as a means of quelling rebellion in advance making a great show of the public humiliation and pre-crucifixion torture. It is only in religious art that those on the Cross were allowed the dignity of clothing. The crosses of potential or actual rebels would be placed alongside public roads where the naked bodies would continue to hang for some time as a visual warning.

Sometimes the number crucified was considerably more. Remember Mark was writing shortly after the total disaster of another failed rebellion. Something like 70 years after the first post-Herod rebellion, in Jerusalem and nearby Judea, thousands upon thousands rose in revolt against the occupying Romans. Initially with numbers on their side it looked as if the rebels would prevail. Rome sent an army, beat them back and then besieged Jerusalem.  Those who attempted to escape were shown no mercy. The historian Josephus claimed that 500 a day were first whipped then tortured in the most public fashion and finally crucified outside the walls of the city. The Roman general Titus, perhaps sickened by the systematic cruelty continuing day after day, at least expressed pity, yet clearly believing that only an extreme example would totally extinguish the rebellion, he allowed it to continue to its inevitable conclusion. (Jewish War 5.11.1)

Not all of Christian life involves facing serious issues but perhaps we should note two things about Jesus’ challenge.    First that challenge was personal.   It is still us as individuals not as a group that we are called to respond.  

The catch with joining in with a congregation is that if their majority preference is to lead the untroubled life then the challenges for the whole group to care about our neighbors, to seek justice for others, to genuinely care about the lonely and the sick are unlikely to get group buy-in.  Perhaps this is why, in so many Churches,  the leaders’ decisions seem to include putting the tasks of the kingdom into the too-hard basket. 

Indeed at first glance it almost appears that the Church has watered down this part of the gospel to avoid credible challenges to issues of justice and morality and so downplayed the sacrificial attitude that what now passes for Sunday observance would scarcely raise an eyebrow from the authorities, still less trigger fully fledged persecution.

The second point is that, like those crosses in history, the real action is often in how we deal with real and sometimes uncomfortable issues away from the bubble of the Church family. 

Because the risk of suffering is not part of the easy deal most seek, we can almost expect today’s echoes of Peter’s response to Jesus in what we hear from many modern Churchgoers.  Don’t forget according to Mark, Jesus would not let Peter get away with the easy option.  Why do we assume if we are today’s followers of the same Jesus we can avoid his challenge?

I even wonder if many of us here are strongly tempted to shut our eyes to what a whole life response to Jesus might do to disturb a quiet life.

The whole point of Jesus’ question about who the disciples saw him to be was not so much he wanted them to see he was the Messiah – but rather to show that his role required him to face the real life danger of taking on the dangers ahead in Jerusalem. 

I wonder how many of us would have been tempted like Peter to try to talk him out of that bit. Even today asking those who support him to be prepared to pick up their cross is at variance with what is all too often offered in the name of the Church – namely the easy realization of the dream of a better life.

Indeed at first glance it almost appears that the Church has watered down this part of the gospel to avoid credible challenges on issues of justice and morality and so downplayed the sacrificial attitude that what now passes for Sunday observance would scarcely raise an eyebrow from the authorities, still less trigger fully fledged religious persecution.

Jesus insistence on taking up of the cross is probably the opposite of good marketing but it still represents a truth which has played out many times in the history of his followers.

What Jesus was calling for showed deep understanding of the human psyche. Surely what traditionally motivates all of us in a biological sense is that regardless of our public exterior, we imply our right is to maintain a faith which allows us a relatively trouble free life. Jesus was in effect by his example, insisting that to follow him meant widening this circle, putting those seen as traditional rivals and even enemies as legitimate priority for our concern. Think about it. No wonder so many get angry when someone tries to change what people believe to be their right.

We have the perfect example right now with our own part into the international response to the world’s problems. Yes of course most of us are uncomfortable as bystanders to the belligerence of resistance movements responding to persecution. But reacting by cheering the West for destroying the rebels with all those bombing raids (along with innocent bystanders) is not Christianity – particularly if we are not then prepared to go in and restore the towns whose bombing we supported. Is it surprising that few Churches are insisting we put ourselves out for the victims? I am guessing it would not be popular.

Following conscience issues which interfere with entrenched views is seen as undermining existing authority and status. As a nation we seem pre-programmed to hold on to our nation’s hard won riches and not share them with the needy… why else would our churches be muted in their protest when our government gives such a small percentage of GDP to International Aid programs, or when rich nations won’t share vaccines with  those with poor health systems.

One risk is the personal danger we anticipate in protesting too loudly. Should this surprise us? What would happen to a modern day Martin Luther saying the Church is no longer following Christ in its actions – or a Bible scholar showing why current theological teaching no longer reflects the essentials of Christ’s teaching. True these criticisms may no longer result in public torture and burning – but that only because there are now more civilized ways of gagging the cross carrier.

Think back to David Fredriech Strauss who in 1835 published a ground breaking book The Life of Jesus Critically Reviewed. His discoveries about the Bible would seem commonplace today but because in his day he threatened tradition, he was simply removed from his university position and blocked from ever teaching again. Closer to our time this was very similar to the fate that awaited the Bishop of Woolwich, John A T Robinson who explored some doubts in 1963 with a small book Honest to God. He clearly offended the established Church and was in effect publicly pilloried, blocked from promotion and given a very minor teaching post until his death in 1983 without even the status of University lecturer at his previous University of Cambridge.

Clearly there are few scholars whose work is significant enough to enrage the church but we all live in a world where privilege and discrimination are enshrined in policy – and where nations construct policy with personal advantage very much in mind. Speaking up or focusing on the needs of the disadvantaged is not a formula for personal advancement but it is hard to see how we can pretend that such a course of action has nothing to do with following Christ.

Traditionally we take what Bonheoffer used to call the cheap grace option where we leave it at a few token prayers for our enemies and the patronizing prayers for the less well off. At least that way we inflame no passions. Should we be insisting on genuine action – altering immigration policies to let more from other cultures and races in to share our advantages, raising overseas aid quotas to match UN recommendations, raising minimum wage packets, putting environmental concerns ahead of the wealth of multinational shareholders and then watch the anger levels rise. In the Church the cheap grace option is to put peace for our local congregation ahead of the need to get down and dirty where the real problems of the community confront our preferences.

Paul Tillich understood the heart of the problem when he said that when the Divine appears in its depth it cannot be endured…. It must be pushed away by the political powers, the religious authorities, and the bearers of cultural tradition. In the picture of the Crucified, perhaps we should also notice the rejection of the Divine by humanity.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonheoffer spelt out what he meant by cheap grace. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”(p 47)

And then real or costly grace

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field, for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”(P. 47)

The original meaning of the word Lent was that Northern hemisphere time between winter and spring when the thaw began. Its religious meaning gradually morphed into a time of self examination … the 40 days of wilderness reflection when we prepare ourselves for Easter.

It is true that we can avoid the pain of self examination, but to do so is evading Christ’s challenge to shoulder our cross. It may just be that the analogy of melting that which is frozen also has something to teach us for this time of Lent.

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for February 21 2021 on Mark 1: 9-15

Originally used as Lectionary Sermon for February 18 2018 on Mark 1: 9-15

Hard-wired for Temptation
The writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us that the same Jesus, who we now talk of as the Son of God, started out by spending more than a month in the wilderness struggling with his temptations. In the well ordered atmosphere of a Church service I wonder if we sometimes forget that Jesus must have had to deal with some real life problems in his own life – and for that matter, our attendance in worship wont count for much unless it too has something to do with the way we face up to our real life problems and opportunities.

The author of the Gospel of Mark has been sometimes criticized that, like some other authors of other parts of the Bible, he was inclined to provide an apparent observer’s detail for events where he could not conceivably have been present as a witness. Talking about Jesus facing the temptations of Satan is a case in point. Yet I would argue in Mark’s defence that, here and elsewhere, he draws attention to some absolutely critical ideas, without which our theology would be much the poorer. In passing we note that some of Mark’s account of Jesus needing to spend time overcoming his temptations fits rather nicely with what today’s scientists tell us about the nature of all humans including us..

The first is the left-field idea is that even someone as good as Jesus should face genuine temptation. This may not quite fit the way we often use high sounding religious expressions of praise in our worship but it fits very nicely the modern finding in psychology that all humans are “hard-wired” for “temptation”.

I want to step outside todays gospel reading and think for a moment about this so called hard wiring because it might remind us that it isn’t just about Jesus if we too have to face inevitable temptations. The hard wiring idea comes because the scientists tell us that at one stage the time the human population was small, scattered and faced with all sorts of dangers. Skills for survival in those days would be anything but gentle living.

Science now tells us which parts of the brain fire electrically and chemically with such responses. We now know that much of this activity is deep down in the primitive parts of the brain (sometimes called colloquially the “lizard brain” because it is shared with more primitive creatures). Biologically then, for whatever complicated reason, the brain is effectively “hard-wired” for these activities. Without such wiring, humans would presumably have been history long ago.

Take the willingness to resort to action including violence when threats emerge. In those early days violence would have removed the competition. We don’t have to look far to notice that many of us still organise our lives to deal with competition.

Enemy recognition in a primitive setting included recognizing who looked and behaved differently, so that we know who is with us and who isn’t. As Auckland is starting to be organized in “ethno-burbs” where new immigrants cluster in their ethnic groups, are our Churches congregations really responding to make their lives easier? Isn’t it true that prejudice appears to be built into society with deep suspicions shown to neighbours who are different? Again a universal human temptation – and unfortunately one which has played out every time people we don’t like seem to be gaining power or status.

At present there are serious hotspots in the Yemen, in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq and many more besides. Now reflect on why some are driven to join ISIS, think the rejection of homosexuals, think prejudice against the Muslims and the Jews or think how many in the community are resistant to the thought of offering hospitality to refugees and new immigrants. Not everyone, even in a Methodist congregation, would offer hospitality to a stranger.

Remember there is a catch to hard wired responses. Genetics being what it is, the chemical and biological tendencies to switch into these forms of behaviour are not only ingrained, but are rarely helpful in a changed world. It may be biology, but when a local gang uses guns to settle differences with a new gang from Australia in a quiet suburban street you can see why it doesn’t always do to follow instinct.

Yet many do. At this time of the year next month we usually read about out of control drunken students behaving badly in our University cities. While we might take some comfort that COVID might reduce the damage in the weeks to come – the unfortunate truth is that the police relate COVID restrictions to an increase in domestic violence.

In New Zealand typically the police record more than 30,000 call outs to domestic violence incidents each year where children are present – and more worryingly they have calculated they are only called to about 18% of the offences. I also understand that in the USA social scientists have calculated on average somewhere in America there is an incident of domestic violence once every 9 seconds. Humans are a violent species. Church affiliation may reduce the violence but does not make for a noticeably more peaceful society.

Back in history for a small and genuinely threatened population, the aggressive responses may have a place – but as the population increases to the point where the only rational choice is to hope to coexist in national and even international communities, such responses are rightly seen as anti social and must be restrained. As investment into warfare has continued virtually unabated, the dangers in following one’s biological instincts become more and more marked. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is great for the survival of a tiny threatened sub-group (particularly where the weapons of choice were tooth and claw) but is distinctly inappropriate for a modern city – particularly one in which there are a variety of cultures and a real need to lessen the dangers which cannot be avoided because of the number of potential rivals in the same area.

Unfortunately some temptations we all face can’t be easily disregarded because of these inbuilt biological triggers. Because we all live different lives I cannot – and indeed I shouldn’t tell you what temptations impact on your lives. That’s the sort of thing we each have to work out for ourselves. I would simply suggest as a species many simply don’t bother to examine their own situation and as a consequence and at regular intervals people behave in shocking ways towards each other.

When it comes to naked violence, a good number of self-claimed inheritors of Christ’s tradition through history, including the crusaders and their modern equivalents, act as if they interpret their claim to follow the Christ as deliberately choosing to go with the very option rejected by Christ, and instead, acting as if their hard wiring of the brain leads them to embrace the very temptations offered by “Satan”.

When trying to convey the gospel as appropriate for life lived this sends a very mixed message. Attempting to beat and frighten terrorists into submission may be a natural biological reaction but as an effective method of conveying a message of peace and instilling love it is an absolute disaster from every angle. As D A Rosenberg pointed out in 1971, “levelling large cities has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants”.

Curiously, we are so horrified by the callous disregard for suffering inflicted by suicide bombers – and public beheaders, we call upon our side to respond to ensure that our enemies are punished with much worse. The innocent bystanders can be overlooked because what we support is government sanctioned violence…which is of course considered to be righteous!! Could you imagine a situation whereby a town is shelled and bombed to kill off a few terrorists – victory is declared and the families destroyed in the cross fire are denied help when they seek shelter in nearby countries.

How many here remember a move to compensate those amongst our troops exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam – while nothing was done about the innocent civilians who had been caught up in the war and whose suffering was infinitely worse.

Temptations are not really temptations unless they are genuinely likely to persuade, so it is as well to remind ourselves that displays of power of the sort we note in others have an insidious similarity to what we ourselves might excuse to be acceptable behaviour in ourselves. As a consequence we need to be ruthlessly objective with ourselves to be confident such actions and attitudes are not already part of our standard response pattern.

One very common temptation is of course to notice the faults of others with a steadfast deliberate blindness to one’s own faults and sins. One of the intriguing asides of Mark about Jesus time in the wilderness is that he was comforted by wild animals. We are left to speculate exactly which wild animals these might be – but one mentioned by the Bible elsewhere (and suggested by the poet and writer Robert Graves) is the scapegoat.

In the times of the temple we read of a ceremony which happened each year on the day of Atonement in which a goat was led into the Temple where the High Priest would read out the sins of the people over the last year, ceremonially load them onto to the goat – then drive the goat out into the desert taking the sins with him….the origin of our word scapegoat. There is something curiously appropriate about Robert Graves’ suggestion that a goat whose only crime was to be thought of as a scapegoat be among those keeping company with Jesus in the wilderness.

Perhaps our modern equivalent of the scapegoat would be the political leader who is caught falling for that “Oh so basic” hard-wired temptation of responding to sexual urges outside the formal limits of marriage. By way of example the current public disgust directed to the deputy Prime minister of Australia and his current fall from grace, suggests the scapegoat mentality is alive and well.

Scapegoats are also found in the ranks of the Church. Remember way back to the famous dynamic Televangelist duo, Jimmy Swaggart and Jimmy Bakker. Did you ever read the mischievous response in doggerel by the irrepressible Allen Johnson Jr? This is a lightly edited version. (You will find the author’s original version in his book, a Box of Trinkets published by Premium Press)

Two TV great preachers called Jim
Claimed special connection with Him
But when push came to shove
The light from above
Turned out to be frightfully dim

To return to the temptation of the biological need to display. This is of particular interest to those of us in the Church because its lure brings us in direct confrontation with some of the most basic teachings of Christ. To return for a moment, to the sometimes acerbic pen of Allen Johnson Jr…… He said and I quote:

There are some astounding contradictions between Christ’s teachings and Christian religious services. In Matthew 6:1-6, we are admonished not to give or pray publicly. If you consider the taking up the collection as public giving (which it surely is) and hymns as musical prayer (which most of them are), then – taking into account all the long-winded prayers from the pulpit – two thirds of your average church service is directly contrary to Christ’s admonitions

If we must use public prayer we must at the very least choose our words carefully.

There is also great irony that the one we follow had deliberately turned his back on the temptation to display to achieve recognition and in the process Jesus rejected the normal trappings of prestige with possessions and finery – and yet somehow we often behave as if he should best be honoured by ostentatious display. The peacock finery of many of those who lead worship, the magnificence of great Churches and cathedrals is indeed awe inspiring, but because Jesus has clearly shown that this is not in line with his message we may need to think again on how our obsession with such trappings impacts on the way we share his message with others.

This is not to imply we are going to find simple answers. We all have to work within the constraints of our own setting which includes the deeply embedded historical traditions over which we may well find we have little control. We also have to work with others who themselves are hardwired and have their own range of preferred responses to problems and situations as they arise. Knowing that others are similarly hardwired and that we all have very different imprinting should also make us less judgmental.

Maybe the real problem is that we are most comfortable with faith when we treat it as a spectator sport….and have someone do it for us on our behalf. We can look back and see how Jesus faced and overcame his personal temptations, and we can criticise our leaders when they fall short but that doesn’t mean we have faced our personal temptations. Nor is reading about the Bible times and places the same as assuming nothing has changed now we are in the twenty-first century particularly in a different cultural setting. If we were a little more keenly aware of the hard-wiring of temptation and what it means for the sort of world we currently face, perhaps following Jesus lead we might see a need to think how we too should best face our personal temptations – and then choose for ourselves a style of witness which reflects what we believe to be important.
AMEN

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for February 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday, Year B on Mark 9: 2-13-9

TRANSFIGURED FOR WHAT?

Some preachers tell me they avoid this story of the Transfiguration. In a scientific age, we find awkward visions of the old Testament figures of Moses (the archetypal law giver)  and Elijah (the Israelites’ main prophet) on a mountain top together with Jesus, who is now changed in appearance so that his cloak is shining with a dazzling white gleam. Then as if this were not enough, there came a voice speaking out of a cloud…. small wonder then that those who compile our lectionary give us an easier text for the day as an alternative for the faint-hearted.

In the days before film units and trained journalists with sound recorders and the means of mass production of books and newspapers, story-telling was often mixed with local myths to help shape popular stories to make them more comprehensible and repeatable. Religious truths were continually reshaped by religious and community leaders and key truths were embedded in oral history by telling the writers’ truth partly in parable or even as myth.   While we can’t be certain that today’s dramatic reading wasn’t at least partly fictional,  differences with the different gospel writers’ versions and the striking images evoking Old Testament characters is at least worth some passing thought. 

It may also help to understand that the detail reflects famous Old Testament events..  When he returned from his second ascent Moses’ face shone (Exodus 34). Moses coming again was predicted by Malachi who said Moses would return at the end of time. (Exodus 34)  According to Malachai, Elijah was supposed to come again at the climax of history (Malachai 4:5-6), and from Deuteronomy, in the last days a prophet like Moses would appear (Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 18).   We need a little caution here if only because we know with the wisdom of hindsight it wasn’t last days.

And yes there are all sorts of theological arguments about which mountain it happened on and what it all meant especially if it wasn’t all literally true.

Yet I would like to suggest a different approach.

In this day and age we are normally careful to distinguish objective reporting from story-telling, yet this is from a different era. At the time of Jesus, it was common practice to use mountain top encounters as a way of indicating experiences with the divine.

In Bible times, stories of Mt Olympus, and of the mysterious high hill setting of Delphi, would also have been familiar and not just to the Greeks. In the same way for the Jews they liked to refer to Mt Ararat, the Mount of Olives and so on. It was also common to slip mysterious touches or scriptural allusion into stories to draw attention to key teaching. Precision in reporting was secondary to the message, which is presumably why the gospel writers often blithely contradicted one another when they reported on the same events. Nor, perhaps I should add – is a myth the same as a lie.

So what was the transfiguration and its message?

In terms of Jesus’ journey, the transfiguration is presented as the point at which Jesus became convinced that he had divine confirmation that he was on the right track to go to Jerusalem and face his fate. The significance of the voice from the cloud may have been a reminder of the same way that Jewish tradition says Moses met God, and that it was in a cloud that God came to the Tabernacle. You may remember also a reference to the cloud that filled Solomon’s temple when the building was complete.  But the real test of the transfiguration was not so much the question of whether or not the transfigured appearance of Jesus was literal, it was more whether or not Jesus in particular was affected by the experience.

Putting it directly, whatever happened, from that point, Jesus now appeared clearer in his subsequent actions. The disciples were still only partly convinced that Jesus should go to Jerusalem. Peter, remember, is recorded as inappropriately treating the transfiguration as one that needs a religious response – wanting to put up symbolic tabernacles or tents opting for a kind of artificial piety… in the same way I guess, as many today treat the task of honouring Jesus and the saints as more to do with magnificent buildings and adulation for Jesus and the saints rather than with altered lives.

When I search for a more contemporary example of that mountain top experience I think of Edmund Hillary making it to the top of Mt Everest with the Sherpa Norgay Tenzing in 1953. Certainly it was a life changing experience for Sir Edmund, but for him his personal transformation was partly in the way the experience taught him to see the Sherpa people in a different way. From that point he became dedicated to building schools and hospitals in Nepal and ensuring the trust he set up made a difference for those mountain people. Just remember too that life changing experiences are only life changing if we allow them to be. Many others too have since climbed Mt Everest and no doubt saw the same awe inspiring magnificent view, but not all saw the same vision for the Sherpa people.

Historically many of us have our own equivalent of mountain top experiences – those life changing events – both good and disturbing, that have the potential to alter our view and transform our lives. Soldiers have gone to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, missionaries have gone out to live with head-hunters, tourists have visited the slums of Calcutta and stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes too the experience is mysterious, even troubling and almost impossible to put into words. Yet having the potential life changing experience is not enough by itself. Jesus came down from the mountain and set out for Jerusalem. Peter came down from that same mountain then denied his lord three times. Some tourists return from their trip to exotic places and sign up for child sponsorship programmes. Others see it merely as a chance to put five hundred photos together for a relentless data-show. Some soldiers return from their adventures enthused to join international relief organizations and service clubs – others to take to the bottle or drugs – or at worst even commit suicide

But surreal or not, there is no indication that Mark would have us stay with the mysterious, on the mountain top where the experience and the view was different..

Perhaps Mark is reminding us that the memory of the mountain-top experience may encourage us to see things differently but according to Mark’s account, Jesus led them from the place of high mystery to return to the bottom in the valley where they were straight away back with reality. There they would meet the epileptic child who (according to Luke’s account) his epilepsy was sufficient to have him burn himself in the fire, and then Jesus went on to face the upcoming confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees. In short this is underlining for us that despite the high place events there can be turmoil and real life challenge in the world that is at ground level, rather than the world as it might be above the clouds.

We may well derive our inspiration from those special experiences, but ultimately no matter how much we might like to keep the realities of the world at bay ultimately we have to decide when it is time to translate our times of total inspiration into the real challenges of our everyday lives..

In a world where there are haves and have-nots putting the main effort into building tabernacles to honour Jesus and the saints won’t quite do it.  If it comes to that a world where obscene amounts are spent on arms, praying for peace while buying shares in the armament factories is not taking Jesus’ teaching seriously. Praising God for creation on Sundays is commendable but turning a blind eye to the multinationals as they lay waste to tropical forests for the rest of the week in order to reap the rewards from vast plantings of palm oil is a curious way of showing responsibility for the natural world.

In a world where the survival and well-being of the poor and elderly is dependent on health assistance, for the wealthy to be arguing for tax reduction may well be meeting the needs of self interest but it is hardly consistent with the injunction to love our neighbour, especially in a nation that prides itself on its wealth and prestige.

The mountain top is a wonderful place to gain a sense of perspective but it is rather inappropriate as a place to live. Certainly Jesus appeared to need periods of meditation and even the mountain-top experience, but we should be under no illusion that his life was all about these mystical experiences because he showed his work was where the people who needed him could be found. We should perhaps also acknowledge that prior to the mountain top encounter Jesus was recorded as being busy with the realities of life beneath the mountain. To be a voice for the voiceless, a soother and healer of the hurting, a challenge to the hypocrites, those who put prestige first in the name of their religion – these must surely be the tasks of the valley. They were certainly the tasks to which he returned.

It is of course tempting, to try repeatedly for the mountain top experiences and forget how they are related to relationships and living. Mountain climbing, balloon flying, even high church worship can all be immensely satisfying as a means to enhance a sense of wonder. Yet the high purpose of Church cannot be used as an excuse to keep ourselves above the world of the valley and the plain. Nor does an incident of transfiguration witnessed mean that we no longer have a personal need to be transformed. That, even those close to Jesus might have simply got it wrong and misinterpreted what they were experiencing when they at least were supposed to be present should be a salutary lesson to us. We were not present and as a consequence may need to pause in thought before rushing to announce what it all means.

As a postscript it just so happens that this Sunday also happens to coincide with that special day St Valentines Day – and since weddings are intended to be real highlight days can I leave you with a thought?    I once attended a wedding where the celebrant suddenly announced to the couple  “marriage is not for you”   There was a collective sigh of relief when he added: “marriage is not for you – it is for your husband – for your wife”.

Come to think of it that isn’t a bad summary of what Christianity turns out to be –first inspired by Jesus… then to live for others.    Just a thought.

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon (“Progressive”) 7 February 2021 on Mark 1: 29 – 39

Some thoughts on Demons and Faith Healing

Today I want to ask a rather naïve question which might sound a bit strange at first hearing.  The question: should discovering that Jesus was once into healing and casting out demons in Palestine actually be good news not just for Mark but for you….and me?

At the end of this service we will all presumably leave this place and return to our families and our community.   So is there then anything about what will we be thinking…and doing… that is different now we have heard Mark’s story?

I am not questioning that Jesus casting out demons in large numbers should not indeed seem an impressive piece of healing – but I do wonder that, if it happened today as described, if the modern 21st Century citizen would find it just as totally convincing.   After all, these days many of the conditions which used to be called demon possession, are now understood to require standard medical treatment.  We also need to remember that much of the available treatment in Jesus’ day was indeed faith healing because that was all that was available.

To watch some of his modern day self-declared imitators, we might assume that Jesus was into grand occasions and liked performing for the crowd with dramatic action? Not here in the first part of today’s gospel – or indeed for almost all of his reported encounters with people. Here he is just as prepared to help those in a small house – without even room for a big audience. And what is more, his help seems rather low key.

In Jesus’ day the obsession with exorcists was so great that there were elaborate ceremonies laid down. For example for a woman with a burning fever, the procedure should have been the complicated ritual laid down in Exodus Ch 3 verses 2 – 5 in which a iron knife is tied by a braid of hair to a thorn bush, to be repeated three times over the next three days – and then followed by a magic incantation – which would presumably be thought to produce the desired cure.

A modern cynical scientist might observe that since the release of pyrogens into the blood to raise the temperature to kill the bugs is the body’s natural way of dealing with pathogens, three days fever would usually abate by itself with or without an iron knife or incantation. Yet for whatever reason Jesus simply ignores the detailed “cure” laid down by the law and takes a much simpler and less dramatic path.

So Jesus solves everyone’s problem? Well sorry – not according to the record.

Did you spot the oversight in the healing? True the story has Jesus ministering to an unnamed woman with a fever. Her temperature may have come down – but did you notice as far as Mark is concerned, she is still not worth naming after the event and no doubt, to the horror of feminists today, she has been apparently healed so that she can resume her tasks of serving the men.

Jesus may have helped initiate a system that helped contribute to the eventual freedom of women (cf Mary, Martha and the Samaritan woman) but he appears in his day almost as much constrained by the traditional rules of his society and culture as we are by ours today. (Reflect for a moment how long it has taken women to win significant leadership in most branches of the Christian Church).In this respect, perhaps I should add, Paul appears to suffer the same constraints when he asks not for the freedom of slaves, but rather their humane treatment, and in another place also insists that women should keep silence in Church.

OK then why should we think we can learn from Jesus as a healer?   Well in the first place – to state the obvious –we are not called simply to read and admire Jesus’ exploits. Nor for that matter are we called upon to emulate the exact deeds of Jesus.

Bible reading must always be related to context – and this includes an acknowledgement that since the days of the Bible record our context has changed. If a few more took the first step and actually read it – including the fine print – they might notice that many of the common misconceptions about Jesus in his world, are simply not supported by the record.

To watch some of his modern day self-declared imitators, we might assume that Jesus was into grand occasions and liked performing for the crowd with dramatic action? Not here into today’s gospel – or indeed for almost all of his reported encounters with people. Here he is just as prepared to help those in a small house – without even room for a big audience. And what is more, his help seems rather low key.

So Jesus solves everyone’s problem? Well sorry – not according to the record.

Jesus heals everybody? Well, no actually. Mark in today’s reading, records him ministering to many who came that day, but presumably only ministering to those who happened by good fortune to live close enough to turn up. Those in the next village might just as well been living at the other side of the world for all the good Jesus was able to do for them.

What about the assumption that Jesus had God-like strengths and gifts? Note the record in this instance implies he seems worn out by the end of the day which might help explain his sneaking off early the next morning for some meditation. Jesus at least according to the record showed many of the standard human weaknesses and limitations. He reportedly could preach a great sermon, but not all who heard him were affected to the extent their lives were changed. Certainly he was a great debater, but his replies enraged some as well as convinced others.

We already know that different versions of the same event in the gospels can and do differ in some details so we know that there is unreliability in the record. If we remove all stories where a degree of exaggeration might have crept into the retelling, there may be few, if any, stories that show Jesus was operating outside the standard constraints of nature. Clearly miracles were part of the thinking in those days when demons and strange happenings were rationalized with a different mind-set to what we might consider today. Perhaps we can only appreciate what is written if we try to see it with the ancient mind rather than with a modern analysis.

Well no doubt this may irritate extreme conservatives, but as far as I am concerned, to find that Jesus was not some all powerful magician who could click his fingers and heal with a touch would not cause me to abandon my faith. If Jesus were indeed superhuman and could deal to every situation, this is so far from the realities I face and the weaknesses I experience, I would be forever leaving it to others to attempt the actual Christian walk.

There is for example a caricature of Christian witness you too may have encountered, that has large groups of people gathering in worship to chant repetitious flattering phrases pointing out to God or alternately to Jesus how great he is – and enjoining him to fix all the current problems. There is probably no harm in this  always provided that those present are actually doing their best in becoming involved in dealing with day to day problems for which they are praying. There are always situations of injustice, the need for visiting the sick and the prisoners, feeding the poor, making peace, righting injustice or perhaps ministering to the deranged.

If we use our prayer to focus on such situations as a prerequisite for involvement, this can only be positive. There is no shame in genuinely praying for the strength to do that which is beyond us and using the prayer to sort out our thinking. But prayer removed from a willingness to do any more than offer support in the prayer chorus line approaches hypocrisy. Using prayer as a substitute for action, and insisting we trust a possibly suspect memory of how Jesus actually went about his tasks seems a parody of what Jesus showed mission to be. I suspect that there may even be a degree of escapism in worship that extols Jesus and presents great lists of problems to lay at his feet in prayer rather than following his lead so that we too might be found struggling with actual problems within the constraints of reality.

My reading of this particular subsection in the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus had to cope with some very realistic problems and that even he did not bring all the answers by way of complete solutions. If we are indeed signing up to follow in his footsteps – and what is more following into a world which has probably changed almost beyond recognition, there is every probability that the problems have become even more complex and intractable. In this case, the “I am a Christian” box does not mean that our tick will mean everything is done and dusted.

So what if Jesus was subject to the limitations of his world and recognized reality in that he helped where he could help? That is a positive message for us today, for although our context is different, at least Jesus’ way does not make other worldly demands. To follow in his way, we too must help where we can. We should not be surprised that we cannot walk on water, or summon a blessing to banish every incurable cancer. What we are called to do is to offer support and friendship to the afflicted – and like Jesus, be prepared to grasp the near edge of the problems that come our way.

And yes, we are called to faith.  Our faith is not measured by what sort of Church we want to be seen coming out of each Sunday.   Rather our faith is reflected on what we are genuinely prepared to trust and risk in dealing with our part of the real world.  Will we be prepared to go from this place determined to do whatever we can to make a difference?  Watch this space….

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for 31 January 2021, Year B, Epiphany 4 based on Mark 1: 21 – 28

(note today’s sermon is largely borrowed from one of my past sermons ….. ie I have had a busy week!!!)

 Was Mark’s story a miracle?   A while back, one of the well-known identities around my town who has some very noticeable mental issues had been doing his usual rant on the side of the road.    He had been shouting at the passing cars, swearing, babbling incoherently, and shaking his fist.   Then he walked into the ASB still muttering and cursing.  I was two behind him in the queue and wondered what was going to happened when he reached the teller.   He was still cross about something – but the teller calmed him right down.    “Just give me your notebook”, she smiled.   He obediently took it out of his pocket and handed it over, and the teller obviously well used to him, checked off the amount of money which was his weekly allocation and handed the money over with a smile and a friendly word.   He calmed right down and – the miracle – he walked out quite peaceably.

I guess one of the unexpected side effects of recent research into a whole variety of medical conditions is that the collective wisdom in Bible times about disease and spiritual cures for disease now seems out of touch with the modern world. Epilepsy – thought in Jesus’ day to be a form of demon possession, turns out to have a clear relationship with brain chemistry.  For example it turns out that more than one child having fallen on their head as a child has scar tissue in the brain – which is one of the measurable causes of at least one form of Epilepsy. We are now no longer petrified when we see someone having an epileptic fit because in most cases it simply subsides of its own accord. And let’s be honest …we no longer need to imprison or shackle someone who exhibits such symptoms – nor necessarily ascribe a miracle to the sympathetic passer-by whoever tends to the sufferer and happens to be present when they are seen to recover.

In Jesus’ time, we need to remind ourselves that demons were greatly feared and used to explain many medical and psychological conditions. Without modern pharmaceutical drugs as a means of moderating behaviour there would also have been rather more variety of serious conditions on show to blame on the demons. A number of ancient civilizations were so convinced that a variety of conditions – including severe headaches, and what we would now call schizophrenia, epilepsy and strokes were due to such malign spirits, to the extent that they sometimes resorted to punching a hole in the skull usually with a chisel to release the demons. That some skulls have been found with straight sharp edges to the hole in the skull, and other skulls with partial bone growth surrounding the hole, shows that such an extreme operation called trepanning was occasionally survivable. Presumably according to the ancient wisdom of the day, when the patient died, the demon was reluctant to come out!

Although I am sure we would now use different medical or psychological terms to describe someone of the sort described by Mark as being demon possessed, for anyone who has encountered a variety of forms of human behaviour, there is a genuine authentic flavour to this story.

We have probably all witnessed instances of bizarre and even psychotic behaviour where a person exhibits symptoms of strange and anti social behaviour.  Although these days where such conditions are rather better understood, describing such people as possessed still conveys a form of truth we observe. A clinical psychologist or psychiatrist may have rather better understanding of what causes the apparent possession, whether it be a drug or alcohol induced state, a chemical imbalance in the brain, a birth defect or even simply specific environmental factors like scarring of brain tissue after a fall that trigger such events.

Nevertheless because such a person is described in terms that leaves no doubt that something has caused them to react as if being possessed by forces outside their immediate control is still fair enough, and I for one still find the term “demon possessed” helpful as a descriptive term for what we see. In fact we can go further. Those who teach behavioural psychology are fond of reminding their students that all we really have to go on is exhibited behaviour. Even now we don’t yet know enough to understand exactly what goes on in the brain or in what is popularly called “mind”.

In Mark’s story he talks of the man who appeared to see something threatening in Jesus and suddenly starts to rant about the threat to his demons. Jesus takes control of the situation and apparently finds an appropriate way to calm the man down with his authority. While it is traditional to ascribe this to a miracle I wonder if we rush too quickly to such judgment. Much of the talk about Jesus as a miracle worker is by way of editorial comment, much of it written long after the event. The catch is of course, that the more we emphasize the superhuman or God-like characteristics of Jesus, the less he has to do with us and our realities. Nevertheless, what is true for this particular reported incident, is that Jesus behaving with authority in the face of the man’s outburst is certainly not typical of what we might expect even from those facing such a situation today.

But what will we do when we encounter today’s possessed?  If we insist on shifting our total attention to Jesus’ unique and now well and truly past history as a miracle worker we can hardly use this as a way of avoiding using our own resources to deal with today’s  troubled souls.  

But don’t for one moment thing that when trouble strikes the Christians will step forward.   I know from past experience from being at the scene at a number of accidents, that by far the most common attitude is where in the face of an emergency most people appear to be able to do nothing more than gawp. What is encouraging is that from time to time, there are a small number of clear and logical thinkers who can, using little more than common sense and a positive attitude, take control of such accident scenes in a calming and rational manner. If there is a common factor for most of these, it is that they are quite simply willing to become involved.

When we read for example of incidents where an armed person is either threatening to harm others – or in a worst case scenario attacking others (as for example in an armed hold-up or mass shooting) while many might panic or flee, there are sometimes those prepared to help calm the situation and even risk their own safety in order to help others survive. I have both seen, and in other instances read of people exhibiting dangerous and even psychotic behaviour being counselled to a more peaceful way of acting.  I don’t believe miracle must always be invoked in such instances.

While the attention is usually given to Jesus as the miracle worker – I wonder if rather more attention should be given to the miracle of his willingness to get involved. Time after time, we read of situations where he appeared to be thinking more of others than himself.  In those days for example, diseases like leprosy were much less understood than they are today and the lepers were genuinely feared.

That Jesus was not a passive spectator in such cases and was prepared to meet and touch such people, tells us far more about Jesus’ character than for example it tells us about the ultimate long term health outcome for the lepers he had met and which, in the absence of recorded detail, we can never know.

That he was prepared to get involved with the demon possessed, the blind beggars, those who might be seen as dangerous enemies, prostitutes, tax collectors, and those having socially unacceptable beliefs can almost be summed up not so much as some form of ethereal magic – but more as one whose authority was the confidence to put his own welfare and safety to one side – and to become totally involved.

I must say that for me, demon possession can be trivialized by focusing on the form of getting rid of the demons with ceremony or ritual. Becoming deeply involved with someone possessed by agents outside their control is costly rather than trivial. Those for example who have struggled with someone in the grip of drug addiction or alcoholism will know that such demons are rarely exorcised with a few words of religious mumbo-jumbo or a quick passing prayer.

While I confess to a healthy skepticism for what goes on at mass faith healing services and even feel unease that one now retired Papal exorcist in Rome once publically estimated that he had performed some 50,000 exorcisms in his career, it seems to me that the question is not about how others treat the afflicted, because that has nothing to do with my individual walk of faith. The question I must face is: whether or not I personally can bring myself to follow Jesus’ lead in directly dealing with those I meet in the course of my path through life?

In an age where mega-churches are all the rage and where Tele-evangelists can sometimes reach untold thousands with their message, there must seem something of a conundrum in Jesus ordering the man freed from his demons to be silent. Why not tell it from the roof tops? Surely if this sorry derelict in Capernaum has acknowledged Jesus as Lord, he is doing nothing more than making an historic proclamation. After all doesn’t James put it as: “even the devils believe and tremble” (James 2:19)

Yet Jesus insists “Be silent” which John Pridmore wryly points out is not exactly the favourite text in typical Church mission plans. In some ways this particular “be silent!”saying deserves more attention than it gets in practice. Those front door religious visitors who switch on a practised torrent of artificial religious spiel to go with their simplistic tracts often seem unaware that true religion is lived not professed. Somehow a wodge of words, no matter how accurately quoted seems curiously unattractive if the messenger does not even take the trouble to first get to know the recipient – and even less show any genuine concern for the realities of their life.

As those attempting to follow Christianity, we are unlikely to ever achieve universal agreement as to whether the unfortunate man in Mark’s story was indeed demon possessed or whether his condition was rather more mundane and explicable in modern terms. Yet whether or not he was possessed, or merely behaved as if he was is hardly the point. A rather more important focus of the story was that Jesus was reported as being prepared to address the one afflicted, rather than being a passive spectator and in so doing restored the unfortunate man’s human potential. Jesus’ injunction to keep silent afterwards is a timely reminder that some events don’t need a facile and shallow acknowledgement.

In this case it may be that we too need to keep silence as we contemplate the mystery of what is reported here and instead look for creative and positive ways of making room for similar actions in our tentative steps in faith.

Miracle Needed – Our Turn !
(note today’s sermon is largely borrowed from one of my past sermons ….. ie I have had a busy week!!!)

Was Mark’s story a miracle? A while back, one of the well-known identities around town who has some very visible mental issues had been doing his usual rant on the side of the road. He had been shouting at the passing cars, swearing, babbling incoherently, and shaking his fist. Then he walked into the ASB still muttering and cursing. I was two behind him in the queue and wondered what was going to happened when he reached the teller. He was still cross about something – but the teller calmed him right down. “Just give me your notebook”, she said. He obediently took it out of his pocket and handed it over, and the teller obviously well used to him, checked off the amount of money which was his weekly allocation and handed the money over with a smile and a friendly word. He calmed right down and – the miracle – he walked out quite peaceably.

I guess one of the unexpected side effects of recent research into a whole variety of medical conditions is that the collective wisdom in Bible times about disease and spiritual cures for disease now seems out of touch with the modern world. Epilepsy – thought in Jesus’ day to be a form of demon possession, turns out to have a clear relationship with brain chemistry. For example it turns out that more than one child having fallen on their head as a child has scar tissue in the brain – which is one of the measurable causes of at least one form of Epilepsy. We are now no longer petrified when we see someone having an epileptic fit because in most cases it simply subsides of its own accord. And let’s be honest …we no longer need to imprison or shackle someone who exhibits such symptoms – nor necessarily ascribe a miracle to the sympathetic passer-by whoever tends to the sufferer and happens to be present when they are seen to recover.

In Jesus’ time, we need to remind ourselves that demons were greatly feared and used to explain many medical and psychological conditions. Without modern pharmaceutical drugs as a means of moderating behaviour there would also have been rather more variety of serious conditions on show to blame on the demons. A number of ancient civilizations were so convinced that a variety of conditions – including severe headaches, and what we would now call schizophrenia, epilepsy and strokes were due to such malign spirits, to the extent that they sometimes resorted to punching a hole in the skull usually with a chisel to release the demons. That some skulls have been found with straight sharp edges to the hole in the skull, and other skulls with partial bone growth surrounding the hole, shows that such an extreme operation called trepanning was occasionally survivable. Presumably according to the ancient wisdom of the day, when the patient died, the demon was reluctant to come out!

Although I am sure we would now use different medical or psychological terms to describe someone of the sort described by Mark as being demon possessed, for anyone who has encountered a variety of forms of human behaviour, there is a genuine authentic flavour to this story.

We have probably all witnessed instances of bizarre and even psychotic behaviour where a person exhibits symptoms of strange and anti social behaviour. Although these days where such conditions are rather better understood, describing such people as possessed still conveys a form of truth we observe. A clinical psychologist or psychiatrist may have rather better understanding of what causes the apparent possession, whether it be a drug or alcohol induced state, a chemical imbalance in the brain, a birth defect or even simply specific environmental factors like scarring of brain tissue after a fall that trigger such events.

Nevertheless because such a person is described in terms that leaves no doubt that something has caused them to react as if being possessed by forces outside their immediate control is still fair enough, and I for one still find the term “demon possessed” helpful as a descriptive term for what we see. In fact we can go further. Those who teach behavioural psychology are fond of reminding their students that all we really have to go on is exhibited behaviour. Even now we don’t yet know enough to understand exactly what goes on in the brain or in what is popularly called “mind”.

In Mark’s story he talks of the man who appeared to see something threatening in Jesus and suddenly starts to rant about the threat to his demons. Jesus takes control of the situation and apparently finds an appropriate way to calm the man down with his authority. While it is traditional to ascribe this to a miracle I wonder if we rush too quickly to such judgment. Much of the talk about Jesus as a miracle worker is by way of editorial comment, much of it written long after the event. The catch is of course, that the more we emphasize the superhuman or God-like characteristics of Jesus, the less he has to do with us and our realities.
Nevertheless, what is true for this particular reported incident, is that Jesus behaving with authority in the face of the man’s outburst is certainly not typical of what we might expect even from those facing such a situation today.
But what will we do when we encounter today’s possessed? If we insist on shifting our total attention to Jesus’ unique and now well and truly past history as a miracle worker we can hardly use this as a way of avoiding using our own resources to deal with today’s troubled souls.

But don’t for one moment thing that when trouble strikes the Christians will step forward. I know from past experience from being at the scene at a number of accidents, that by far the most common attitude is where in the face of an emergency most people appear to be able to do nothing more than gawp. What is encouraging is that from time to time, there are a small number of clear and logical thinkers who can, using little more than common sense and a positive attitude, take control of such accident scenes in a calming and rational manner. If there is a common factor for most of these, it is that they are quite simply willing to become involved.

When we read for example of incidents where an armed person is either threatening to harm others – or in a worst case scenario attacking others (as for example in an armed hold-up or mass shooting) while many might panic or flee, there are sometimes those prepared to help calm the situation and even risk their own safety in order to help others survive. I have both seen, and in other instances read of people exhibiting dangerous and even psychotic behaviour being counselled to a more peaceful way of acting. I don’t believe miracle must always be invoked in such instances.

While the attention is usually given to Jesus as the miracle worker – I wonder if rather more attention should be given to the miracle of his willingness to get involved. Time after time, we read of situations where he appeared to be thinking more of others than himself. In those days for example, diseases like leprosy were much less understood than they are today and the lepers were genuinely feared.
That Jesus was not a passive spectator in such cases and was prepared to meet and touch such people, tells us far more about Jesus’ character than for example it tells us about the ultimate long term health outcome for the lepers he had met and which, in the absence of recorded detail, we can never know.

That he was prepared to get involved with the demon possessed, the blind beggars, those who might be seen as dangerous enemies, prostitutes, tax collectors, and those having socially unacceptable beliefs can almost be summed up not so much as some form of ethereal magic – but more as one whose authority was the confidence to put his own welfare and safety to one side – and to become totally involved.

I must say that for me, demon possession can be trivialized by focusing on the form of getting rid of the demons with ceremony or ritual. Becoming deeply involved with someone possessed by agents outside their control is costly rather than trivial. Those for example who have struggled with someone in the grip of drug addiction or alcoholism will know that such demons are rarely exorcised with a few words of religious mumbo-jumbo or a quick passing prayer.

While I confess to a healthy skepticism for what goes on at mass faith healing services and even feel unease that one now retired Papal exorcist in Rome once publically estimated that he had performed some 50,000 exorcisms in his career, it seems to me that the question is not about how others treat the afflicted, because that has nothing to do with my individual walk of faith. The question I must face is: whether or not I personally can bring myself to follow Jesus’ lead in directly dealing with those I meet in the course of my path through life?

In an age where mega-churches are all the rage and where Tele-evangelists can sometimes reach untold thousands with their message, there must seem something of a conundrum in Jesus ordering the man freed from his demons to be silent. Why not tell it from the roof tops? Surely if this sorry derelict in Capernaum has acknowledged Jesus as Lord, he is doing nothing more than making an historic proclamation. After all doesn’t James put it as: “even the devils believe and tremble” (James 2:19)

Yet Jesus insists “Be silent” which John Pridmore wryly points out is not exactly the favourite text in typical Church mission plans. In some ways this particular “be silent!”saying deserves more attention than it gets in practice. Those front door religious visitors who switch on a practised torrent of artificial religious spiel to go with their simplistic tracts often seem unaware that true religion is lived not professed. Somehow a wodge of words, no matter how accurately quoted seems curiously unattractive if the messenger does not even take the trouble to first get to know the recipient – and even less show any genuine concern for the realities of their life.

As those attempting to follow Christianity, we are unlikely to ever achieve universal agreement as to whether the unfortunate man in Mark’s story was indeed demon possessed or whether his condition was rather more mundane and explicable in modern terms. Yet whether or not he was possessed, or merely behaved as if he was is hardly the point. A rather more important focus of the story was that Jesus was reported as being prepared to address the one afflicted, rather than being a passive spectator and in so doing restored the unfortunate man’s human potential. Jesus’ injunction to keep silent afterwards is a timely reminder that some events don’t need a facile and shallow acknowledgement.

In this case it may be that we too need to keep silence as we contemplate the mystery of what is reported here and instead look for creative and positive ways of making room for similar actions in our tentative steps in faith.

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon (Progressive) for Epiphany 3 (11B) January 24 2021 on Mark 1:14-20

ADDRESS: As a “once in a blue moon” fisherman with a very dubious record for success – I was initially impressed by that wonderful TV ad of a fellow turning up on the beach with an expensive battery powered float that towed a fishing line with multiple hooks out beyond the breakers and then returned with a full catch of regulation sized snapper. A friend of mine, similarly impressed, bought the device – and for several weeks tried his luck. He did land some that were not big enough to keep and on one memorable occasion. the fail safe navigation system let him down and he had to borrow a boat to rescue it from a rock. Unfortunately he did not strike the promised jackpot. Perhaps it doesn’t do to assume fishing is a no-brainer?

For those who stress how dependent Christians should be on the teachings of Jesus, it may be timely to remind ourselves that Jesus is not recorded as being a one man band. As Mark recorded it, Jesus never set out to be the sole act. He certainly presented gospel as good news – but the good news had an essential place for partners in the enterprise and it was not confined by the Temple walls. It was good news, not because Jesus could say some clever words, but rather because something was set in place whereby individuals and even the community might start to be transformed and their values encouraged to grow.

Gospel has no value left just as past history. Although it may be hard to admit, it is also worth reminding ourselves our gospel only performs in each generation about as well as the current batch of disciples allow it to perform.

If many in our community find what we offer is largely irrelevant to their daily life, perhaps we, as the modern day interpreters of Gospel might look to our current witness before looking elsewhere for someone to blame.

Unfortunately, or perhaps precisely because it is such a striking simile, this morning’s gospel call of the disciples to become fishers of men is possibly both the most famous – as well as the most misunderstood call to mission in the history of the Christian Church.

At its most simplistic it sounds a bit like a mission to build numbers. Don’t catch fish – treat people like fish – hook them, net them, catch them with baited words – fill the pews and when the pews are full, build another bigger church and fill that too. I am sure that is what the unfortunately misunderstood word “evangelism” has come to mean for whole branches of the Church. And yet if you listen carefully, that is not what Jesus said – and nor does it correspond with what actually happened with the disciples. That is simply not what Jesus taught them to do.

And did they need teaching? To a non fisherman, being offered fishing lessons probably seems completely superfluous. Throw a net into the water you catch fish. Bait a hook and throw it into the water, you catch a fish.

What is there to learn?
As any real fisherman will tell you, even when fishing only for fish, there is a great deal to learn. The seine fishermen in Jesus time had to learn to fish at night when the nets would be harder for the fish to see – and when the fish might be attracted to a light in the boat. Certain types of fish only feed at certain times and are attracted to very specific bait. Some types of fish are found at specific depths and even at specific temperatures and at specific times of the year. These days it is even more of a science. For example the modern Tuna fishermen now use sea surface temperature maps generated from satellites to identify the warm patches where the tuna congregate. And that is only one of a host of things a fisherman needs to know.

It may well have a lot more meaning then for a fisherman to be asked to learn a new way of fishing.

“Come with me and I will show you how to be fishers of men (sic)”. In Mark’s probably reconstructed memory, that was what Jesus was saying. But that doesn’t mean simply preach at those we might invite. We have to be concerned for them as individuals, and these days we would mean men and women and note they are individuals facing unique situations, rather than as scalps or trophies.

For Jesus it was never going to be easy to use these fishermen for the tasks of the kingdom.

We read in the gospels that these disciples were wilful, they were slow to understand and at times they were not in tune with what Jesus was trying to accomplish. Remind you of any congregation you know? On the other hand as they lived and worked with Jesus, they seemed gradually to wake up to what it was that Jesus was asking them to do. Of course they had doubts, and you might wonder why this did not cause Jesus to give up on them. But here is a thought. Perhaps it was in fact that these doubts justified their selection because doubts are essential to honest thinking. As Tennyson wrote in his poem dedicated to his late friend, Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam A. H. H.:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

When I hear people try to turn Jesus’ teaching into simple formula recitations leaving no room for thought or doubt, I worry that they may overlook the way Jesus himself approached others.

Jesus showed by his actions he was not interested in reacting to labels. He showed by illustration and actions that the so called heretics of his day, the Samaritans, should be treated as individuals and that if for example the despised Samaritans showed compassion, this was to be genuinely valued. His disciples are called to share these same attitudes in living out their mission. Today the fact that some modern-day, self-claimed disciples, appear to be judging and even rejecting others in terms of labels like “Muslims” or “homosexuals” suggests that they may not be exactly on message.

Jesus showed by his actions he was more interested in the spirit of the law than the detail.

Presumably his followers also have to see that a concern for justice is part of what we now call the Christian message. We can for instance see that since Jesus showed a real focus on concern for the poor, that we who claim to follow Jesus, but who just who happen by accident of birth and opportunity to be living in the rich West, we also need to learn to be awake to the injustices visited on the poor.
Those called to follow Jesus in his day found themselves with unexpected responsibilities, constantly encountering what we would now call situational ethics. What for example should one do when the institutional church puts its own wealth ahead of its duty to the people? Jesus reportedly cleared the temple.

What should one do when ostentatious display of religious status gets emphasized ahead of service? Jesus risks his own safety and calls it like it is.
What should one do when religious custom identifies the untouchable leper? Jesus reaches out and touches with the healing hand.

Each of these actions tell others about the way he is inviting others to follow.
Yet the thing about situational ethics is that situations change. It is now not so much the Pharisees as those Church leaders with titles like Reverend or pastor or parish steward or Tele-evangelist or even member of the leaders meeting that should now be our focus. With lepers now far less common, today’s untouchables may well be those with COVID. Our modern-day Samaritans may just as easily be those we now call extremist Muslims, or atheists more commonly spitting out what may appear to us to be words of vitriol.

One of the sad things about traditional Christianity is that it is slow to react to change and is often left behind when trade policies or environmental issues are being debated. To win hearts and minds, at a minimum, religion must be seen as relevant to current issues. This is why a strong presence of the church need to be involved in debates like genetic engineering, like climate change, like food production, like the arms race and sustainable energy policies. One current injustice is that many poor nations are being denied access to the new vaccines for COVID. If we care, what are we saying or doing?

Conversely when the Christian World service is among the first to set up aid in a disaster area, or when the current church leader offers Jesus way to the current problems, the Christian message wins the right to be heard. But surely it is not just the Church leaders. What for example are we saying about accepting those displaced by the weapons produced by the wealthy arms dealers from our part of the world. Do we now say we don’t want to offer shelter to the refugees our side have displaced? Do we, as part of our witness for Jesus, support US leadership when they reduce UN aid or withdraw support to the WHO . I suppose we could always pretend not to notice that less aid leaves refugees in desperate conditions. Remember some politicians, who are merely reflecting what the people want, are those who change the policy.

Sometimes the rule book is not the issue, and those who are called to discipleship have to learn that they too have to take a message of responsible action as well as words if their evangelism is to have any integrity. When we hear of someone in the Church helping deal with disasters in the Pacific or helping refugees settle in New Zealand this should remind us that fishing for people is not just preaching at them.
In his day Jesus called a cross-section of men and women to mission. Today the need is probably as strong as ever, since the need for compassion, for justice, for those concerned for their fellows and even a concern for the planet itself is as urgent as ever. The call for those prepared to share the tasks for the kingdom, may have changed in form – and the specific tasks and challenges change year by year and even day by day.

We do well to remember the gospel only has our present generation to depend on – and as for all the generations in the past, the success of this gospel depends on…..well… people like us.

CHANGING THE CATCH PROSPECT: As a “once in a blue moon” fisherman with a very dubious record for success – I was initially impressed by that wonderful TVNZ ad of a fellow turning up on the beach with an expensive battery powered float that towed a fishing line with multiple hooks out beyond the breakers and then returned with a full catch of regulation-sized snapper.   A friend of mine, similarly impressed,  bought the device – and for several weeks tried his luck.   He did land some that were not big enough to keep and on one memorable occasion. the fail safe navigation system let him down and he had to borrow a boat to rescue it from a rock. Unfortunately he did not strike the dreamed jackpot.  Perhaps it doesn’t do to assume fishing is a no-brainer?

For those who stress how dependent Christians should be on the teachings of Jesus, it may be timely to remind ourselves that Jesus is not recorded as being a one man band. As Mark recorded it, Jesus never set out to be the sole act. He certainly presented gospel as good news – but the good news had an essential place for partners in the enterprise and it was not confined by the Temple walls. It was good news, not because Jesus could say some clever words, but rather because something was set in place whereby individuals and even the community might start to be transformed and their values encouraged to grow.

Gospel has no value if it is just past history. Although it may be hard to admit, it is also worth reminding ourselves our gospel only performs in each generation about as well as the current batch of disciples allow it to perform.

If many in our community find what we offer is largely irrelevant to their daily life, perhaps we, as the modern day interpreters of Gospel might look to our current witness before looking elsewhere for someone to blame.

Unfortunately, or perhaps precisely because it is such a striking simile, this morning’s gospel call of the disciples to become fishers of men is possibly both the most famous – as well as the most misunderstood call to mission in the history of the Christian Church.

At its most simplistic it sounds a bit like a mission to build numbers. Don’t catch fish – treat people like fish – hook them, net them, catch them with baited words – fill the pews and when the pews are full, build another bigger church and fill that too. I am sure that is what the unfortunately misunderstood word “evangelism” has come to mean for whole branches of the Church. And yet if you listen carefully, that is not what Jesus said – and nor does it correspond with what actually happened with the disciples. That is simply not what Jesus taught them to do.

And did they need teaching? To a non fisherman, being offered fishing lessons probably seems completely superfluous. Throw a net into the water you catch fish. Bait a hook and throw it into the water, you catch a fish.
What is there to learn?

Well, as any real fisherman will tell you, even when fishing only for fish, there is a great deal to learn. The seine fishermen in Jesus time had to learn to fish at night when the nets would be harder for the fish to see – and when the fish might be attracted to a light in the boat. Certain types of fish only feed at certain times and are attracted to very specific bait. Some types of fish are found at specific depths and even at specific temperatures and at specific times of the year. These days it is even more of a science. For example the modern Tuna fishermen now use sea surface temperature maps generated from satellites to identify the warm patches where the tuna congregate. And that is only one of a host of things a fisherman needs to know

It may well have a lot more meaning then for a fisherman to be asked to learn a new way of fishing.

Come with me and I will show you how to be fishers of men (sic)”. In Mark’s probably reconstructed memory, that was what Jesus was saying. But that doesn’t mean simply preach at those we might invite. We have to be concerned for them as individuals, and these days we would mean men and women and note they are individuals facing unique situations, rather than as scalps or trophies.

For Jesus it was never going to be easy to use these fishermen for the tasks of the kingdom.

We read in the gospels that these disciples were wilful, they were slow to understand and at times they were not in tune with what Jesus was trying to accomplish. Remind you of any congregation you know?   On the other hand as they lived and worked with Jesus, they seemed gradually to wake up to what it was that Jesus was asking them to do. Of course they had doubts, and you might wonder why this did not cause Jesus to give up on them. But here is a thought. Perhaps it was in fact that these doubts justified their selection because doubts are essential to honest thinking. As Tennyson wrote in his poem dedicated to his late friend, Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam A. H. H.:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

When I hear people try to turn Jesus’ teaching into simple formula recitations leaving no room for thought or doubt, I worry that they may overlook the way Jesus himself approached others.

Jesus showed by his actions he was not interested in reacting to labels. He showed by illustration and actions that the so called heretics of his day, the Samaritans, should be treated as individuals and that if for example the despised Samaritans showed compassion, this was to be genuinely valued. His disciples are called to share these same attitudes in living out their mission. Today the fact that some modern-day, self-claimed disciples, appear to be judging and even rejecting others in terms of labels like “Muslims” or “homosexuals” suggests that they may not be exactly on message.

Jesus showed by his actions he was more interested in the spirit of the law than the detail.

Presumably his followers also have to see that a concern for justice is part of what we now call the Christian message. We can for instance see that since Jesus showed a real focus on concern for the poor, that we who claim to follow Jesus, but who just who happen by accident of birth and opportunity to be living in the rich West, we also need to learn to be awake to the injustices visited on the poor. Those called to follow Jesus in his day found themselves with unexpected responsibilities, constantly encountering what we would now call situational ethics. What for example should one do when the institutional church puts its own wealth ahead of its duty to the people? Jesus reportedly cleared the temple.

What should one do when ostentatious display of religious status gets emphasized ahead of service? Jesus risks his own safety and calls it like it is.

What should one do when religious custom identifies the untouchable leper? Jesus reaches out and touches with the healing hand.

Each of these actions tell others about the way he is inviting others to follow.

Yet the thing about situational ethics is that situations change. It is now not so much the Pharisees as those Church leaders with titles like Reverend or pastor or parish steward or Tele-evangelist or even member of the leaders meeting that should now be our focus. With lepers now far less common, today’s untouchables may well be those with COVID. Our modern-day Samaritans may just as easily be from the ranks of those we now call extremist Muslims, or even atheists more commonly spitting out what may appear to us to be words of vitriol.

One of the sad things about traditional Christianity is that it is slow to react to change and is often left behind when trade policies or environmental issues are being debated. To win hearts and minds, at a minimum, religion must be seen as relevant to current issues. This is why a strong presence of the church need to be involved in debates like genetic engineering, like climate change, like food production, like the arms race and sustainable energy policies.  One current injustice is that many poor nations are being denied access to the new vaccines for COVID.  If we care, what are we saying or doing?

Conversely when the Christian World service is among the first to set up aid in a disaster area, or when the current church leader offers Jesus way to the current problems, the Christian message wins the right to be heard. But surely it is not just the Church leaders. What for example are we saying about accepting those displaced by the weapons produced by the wealthy arms dealers from our part of the world. Do we now say we don’t want to offer shelter to the refugees our side have displaced? Do we, as part of our witness for Jesus, support US leadership when they reduce UN aid or withdraw support to the WHO . I suppose we could always pretend not to notice that less aid leaves refugees in desperate conditions. Remember some politicians, who are merely reflecting what the people want, are those who change the policy.

Sometimes the rule book is not the issue, and those who are called to discipleship have to learn that they too have to take a message of responsible action as well as words if their evangelism is to have any integrity. When we hear of someone in the Church helping deal with disasters in the Pacific or helping refugees settle in New Zealand this should remind us that fishing for people is not just preaching at them.

In his day Jesus called a cross-section of men and women to mission. Today the need is probably as strong as ever, since the need for compassion, for justice, for those concerned for their fellows and even a concern for the planet itself is as urgent as ever. The call for those prepared to share the tasks for the kingdom, may have changed in form – and the specific tasks and challenges change year by year and even day by day.

We do well to remember the gospel only has our present generation to depend on – and as for all the generations in the past, the success of this gospel depends on…..well… people like us.

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for 17 January 2021 on John 1:43-51

Can Any Good Come From Our Home Town?

Because we usually only hear from one gospel each Sunday it is easy to gloss over the fact that the stories told are written from rather different viewpoints.   Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.

For example I sometimes share some memories with some friends who live in Auckland but like me went to the same schools – a primary school in Christchurch (Fendalton) and my secondary school (Christchurch Boys’ High School)    But here is the odd bit.   I suppose we witnessed many of the same events but what I remember doesn’t always coincide with the same as my friends remember.     Because we are different people, what is important to me is not always given the same slant by my friends.

Should we be surprised then that John who wrote some years after Mark, Matthew and Luke seems to want us to know different things about Jesus and his mission than the others recorded.    John leaves out things which which are mentioned by some or all of the other writers like the birth of Jesus, his baptism, temptations, the last supper, Gethsemane and the ascension. John alone talks of the wedding at Cana. He changes the order in which things happen and by mentioning three different Passovers, John appears to describe a three year ministry mainly based in Jerusalem and Judea as opposed to the one year ministry based mainly in Galilee which fitted the other gospels. Yet for all that, in my view at least, from detail John supplies – and the apparent accuracy with which he describes places, together with his thoughtful theology, he is well worth the read.

Well that could explain why John’s choices of material was different to the others…but here is a question for you.    Which are the things we read from John that are noteworthy.    Well here is one possibility.    While the dramatic stuff is interesting John seems to be more impressed by the way Jesus treated those he met for the first time.

For John the remarkable thing about Jesus wasn’t that he could do seriously clever tricks – or even that he died for our sins.     John seemed to give more emphasis on showing that his followers latched on to his openness to strangers, his ability to trust others with his message (regardless of their background) and even more strange – he was teaching a message that had a life of its own when he was no longer on the scene.

When Jesus met newcomers we read (particularly in John) he often demonstrated three characteristics that set Jesus apart from many others. It was almost as if he was determined to meet those he encountered at as deep a level as possible, and more than this, to leave them changed and thinking for themselves.

In John’s eyes, Jesus’ first characteristic was to notice what people were like. This sounds easy yet it is surprisingly rare. Think for a moment of your last walk through a city street. How many of those you encountered did you notice something that helped you make genuine contact with these  passing strangers. Did you for example have any inkling where they came from – or even better, did you read their body language? I guess most of us are concerned primarily about ourselves and simply don’t have the time for such attention. There is a New Year challenge in this for all of us.

Perhaps as those who claim to follow Jesus, we too might start giving our encounters this same intense attention and start really noticing those we meet.

Another of Jesus’  characteristic was to move the conversation past the conventional simple shallow statements to deeper issues….issues that required serious thought. The rich young man, the tax collector up a tree, the Samaritan woman at the well, the mere fishermen who Jesus thought to be potential disciples … for each the conversation often went far beyond the shallow pleasantries to a memorable challenge.

His third technique was to leave those he met with something imaginative – perhaps an unexpected act or even something he said that might have appeared miraculous or even mysterious. Think for example of the apt stories he would use from well known scripture or traditional folklore – or if none such came to mind, a simile that would take a hold of the imagination…..maybe to stay for many years.

Jesus would leave plenty to make people think.   Watch now as Jesus uses each of these techniques with Nathanael.

Nathanael is an unlikely potential disciple. When Philip goes to fetch him to meet Jesus, on hearing where Jesus is from, Nathanael immediately shows prejudice. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. This may even have been a fair question considering the size of Nazareth – (which I understand was in those days thought to have of the order of 200 villagers – and up until that time, none as far as we know of any significance).

The lazy view – and we would have to say, by far the most common attitude to strangers from a known area, is to lump them together as a class and treat them as a group – often with casual prejudice. For example here in Auckland you often hear disparaging comments about South Aucklanders or Westies. Even amongst the Polynesians those born in New Zealand there are those can make disparaging comments about the new arrivals. How could they be any good if they were a “fob” (fresh off the boat).

Phillip sets aside Nathaniel’s prejudice – can any good come out of Nazareth? is not arguing it is wrong  – but he takes the pragmatic view. Come and see for yourself.

As Nathanael arrives, Jesus immediately puzzles him by knowing his name and identifying him, not only as an Israelite – but even one without guile. To me there is no need to invent magic where none is needed. Phillip may well have told Jesus who he was going to fetch, which might explain knowing his name, while recognizing him as an Israelite might have been no more that noting how he dressed and cut his hair… but to see what sort of person Nathanael was and describe him as without guile goes much further and suggests that Jesus was reading his body language. When challenged by Nathanael to know how he knew these things, Jesus says that he had noticed him earlier under a fig tree.


Nathanael sees this as so extraordinary that he thinks he has witnessed supernatural powers. His response – that Jesus is the Messiah, the king of Israel, may be prescient but notice carefully Jesus will have none of it. As far as Jesus is concerned Nathanael’s view, is entirely premature and not based on sufficient evidence.


In effect Jesus asks Nathanael to join him – and work out what Jesus’ status is by what he might then witness. Jesus is asking Nathanael to suspend judgment until he has seen proper evidence. “Greater things than this you will see”.


Perhaps we should remember that when Peter later makes the same connection between Jesus and the Messiah or Son of God, far from rejecting Peter’s assessment, Jesus praises him for it – and yet there is a significant difference with Nathanael. Peter has been part of Jesus mission for maybe three years before he comes to his conclusion. He has done what Phillip has asked of Nathanael – he has come to see for himself.

Perhaps more striking, Jesus gives Nathanael an enigmatic reference to something really strange, which seems to be an oblique reference to Jacob’s ladder… a ladder connecting earth to heaven…and more mysteriously, one on which angels might come down and go up.

This is one of these seriously strange comments. And no doubt one which would be remembered in years to come. In terms of a prediction there is certainly no indication that Nathaniel ever witnessed such an actual ladder or saw angels physically ascending and descending, but I guess if you think of Jesus himself playing the part of that ladder there was a sense in which he set up a connection between humans and what we might call for the want of a better word, the “divine”. It is as if those who assumed the role of disciples would in time come to realize that what they were witnessing.

I said earlier Nathanael was an unlikely disciple. I know a number of Bible literalists act as if they would like him to go away. John’s account of the first disciples certainly doesn’t match those in the other gospels. The other gospels do not mention him in their lists of disciples and for this reason some literalists try to reconcile the lists by saying he is probably the same as Matthew or Bartholomew. Maybe Nathanael did go away at least for a while.

Yet perhaps there was something in that first meeting that kept him from forgetting Jesus. Towards the end of John’s gospel, if John has it right, Nathanael is certainly one of the disciples mentioned that Jesus appeared to on the lakeshore.

But Nathanael’s status is not the most important issue for us. There is a more important unspoken question which remains for us to answer. As distant observers of this first cameo exchange between Nathanael and Jesus – is it just history or there now a walk on part for us?

It is certainly true that we cannot simply do as Phillip did and invite others like Nathanael to come to meet Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is now no longer around – and to hear some talk, it is as if with other great figures of history, he is now safely removed. In reality without Jesus being physically present we may not feel we have the right attitudes and abilities to be the go between, the ladder.   But for better or worse it won’t be Jesus making suggestions on this day of 17 January 2021.  But surely people from here are not likely to accept the challenge?   With Nathanael we could imagine someone asking about us the equivalent of can any good come out of Nazareth?  But if it is not to be Jesus? And who will we suggest newcomers to our faith meet for themselves in our hometown? Surely all we can now do is invite them to come and meet those who appear to have been changed by Jesus’ teaching.


To bring it right home, if we honestly believe in the meaning of our church membership we are representing Jesus, it is our lives we should have available for that embarrassing scrutiny. .

Remember for Jesus it was not enough to settle for a casual meeting. In His view, this was no way for Nathanael to form a view. Even knowing a person’s reputation or title is not enough for a sensible judgment to be made. “Come and see” Phillip might say, meaning a first meeting – but Jesus asks for more. “Come and see” is a good place to start, but it only makes a difference if we invite others to look for long enough to form a reasonable view – and even then it will only help them if what they then see attracts them sufficiently to make it part of their way of thinking and acting. If not why would we expect others to join us in what we call Church?

Church membership or confessions of faith won’t do it alone.   Those who check us are unlikely to be satisfied what we say about our faith.  Those who now act on Jesus behalf will only be seen by others to do so if they can be seen living the faith in practice. Others will have to see for themselves that our words and actions match our claims.

 “Come and see” long term is the ultimate test for anyone considering the worth of a new faith. The real question is what others will see when they watch over time to learn how our faith has affected us.

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for January 10, 2021 Epiphany 1 (09B) Mark 1:4-11 Acts 19:1-7

Today I have a question for everyone….  Did your Baptism work for you?

Perhaps I should start with the thought that baptism only makes sense if we (and our supporters) emerge from the baptism to be committed and be open to a new and different way of life. With infant baptism the commitment is presumably one on behalf of the child which means of course that in the first instance the difference will need to be found in the acts of the supporters. Unless the baptism signals some sort of genuine change why else would we want the ceremony in the first place?

I think that for me looking back I can say one unexpected benefit of entering into the contract of baptism is that through the new adopted way of life I eventually get glimpses of wonder in the new possibilities it captures.

At its best, baptism can only signal the start of a journey with uncertain and unpredictable way points – yet a journey associated with a clear impression of destiny no matter how elusive the destination might appear to be. In my own case, honesty also reminds me that it is a journey to which I haven’t always been true.  But if Jesus himself didn’t have it easy after a Baptism of the sort that was so intense that Luke described the Holy Spirit as a mysterious disembodied voice recognizing Jesus as the Son of God – please not this same Holy Spirit promptly sends Jesus into the wilderness for more than a month of reflection and tough living.    Certainly some seem to prefer the prospect of a nice meal share Church hall as a postscript to baptism but from what I have observed of the Christian journeys of others (and to a much lesser extent from my own journey), what I interpret as following the Spirit often leads into challenging and uncharted waters.

John the Baptist was doing something more radical.   Here he was, uneducated, scruffy, dressed in animal skins and fresh from the desert where he had been eating honey and locusts.  Unlike the Pharisees he would not have been recognized as being entitled to call himself a teacher and he wouldn’t have being thought of as having the right to Baptize anyone. 

There is something about the symbolism and actions of Baptism that can be so striking that most watching the ceremony realize that something important was intended to have just happened.   Yet if you stopped to check it out, you may start to think that all is not as it might be.

In the first place even way back in the days of John the Baptist, dunking someone in rivers like the waters of the Jordan was not always a Christian ceremony.   Before John the Baptist, baptism by immersion was used by the priests of Judaism – but for those priests, baptism wasn’t  for those who had been born into the Jewish faith – but as part of the initiation ceremony for those who were seeking to become Jews.

I know Mark in this morning’s gospel reading did write that everyone came out to be baptized by John the Baptist but it is hard to imagine this would include the mainstream supporters of the Temple.  Please notice John was in effect saying the people have got so far from their true faith they need to see themselves as no longer God’s people. John was in effect saying “You have got so far from your faith, you need to be baptized before you are ready for the Messiah”.

I know it is sometimes a bit hard to concentrate on details in our Bible readings but did you note in the other reading reading from the Book of Acts, Paul was talking about Baptism some disciples had received from John the Baptist —and according to that reading those people hadn’t quite understood what Baptism was all about – and so Paul in effect baptized them a second time – this time into the Spirit that Jesus was teaching.

If you want an analogy this is very similar to what many of we Methodists do (at least theoretically) in that we have Infant Baptism which is a way of welcoming children into the family of God – but then we have confirmation for those who later want to join the Church as members when they are old enough to understand what they are doing.

A good proportion of Churches in the world happens to insist for example that Jesus will protect you from that point of Baptism onwards?

Just for the record, as to the protection I am not sure that I would entirely agree with that.  In my files on the topic of Baptism I have the news account from some years back where an African man was Baptized by immersion in a river somewhere in Africa.  From what I remember of the news item just as the man emerged from being dunked – a passing crocodile grabbed him pulled him under …and devoured him! He wasn’t protected… anymore than we would accept baptism works like a vaccine for COVID-19.

Other churches teach that once you are baptized you are then not allowed to do some things from that point.   I don’t know if there are still some who still believe that particular teaching  but there was certainly a period of several hundred years in history where the Greek Orthodox Church had a rule that once a man was baptized he was no longer allowed to be a soldier and kill anyone. (For some reason that escapes me certainly for some centuries they evidently had no problem with non-baptized Greeks serving in their army).

In a way I suggest, regardless of our attitudes to pacifism, that our beliefs including the belief in the importance of baptism should make a genuine difference to the way we live our lives.   I have a friend who is a Christadelphian and he has assured me that Christadelphians  too insist their beliefs should be reflected in their actions.…. But because they take their beliefs seriously and they have a literal acceptance of the laws in the Bible they are strong believers in not killing and therefore their members will not serve as fighting soldiers.  Well that’s what the Christadelphians think – what about us?

At the very least, if we shift attention away from the detail of how baptism should be performed and instead looked at the presumed difference in the life of the baptized person, then a few things should cause us to look inwards.

At its best, baptism can only signal the start of a journey with uncertain and unpredictable way points – yet a journey associated with a clear impression of destiny no matter how elusive the destination might appear to be. In my own case, honesty also reminds me that it is a journey which still needs self examination.

I finish with a very contemporary issue….   Earlier this week the current President of the United States appears to have chosen to incite a march on Washington to protest the election results and in effect interfere with the final step of certifying the final result.    Now I have no wish to replay what then happened…you almost certainly know about that already, but did you also note that President Trump has made an earlier claim that actually goes beyond baptism to announce he is a born-again Christian.  

Well it is not up to us as distant spectators to ask if that means Donald Trump is actually a Christian…but more to the point, would someone watching us over this last week see something there that made them think we were trying to follow the way of Jesus.   In short we need to reflect on whether or not our own decisions and actions send the best message about what our faith means.

I guess we all know those whose questionable behaviour after baptism would be hard to distinguish from that which might have occurred without baptism.   I leave it up to each one of us to examine our own conscience to ask how we would come out on the same question.

Today I have a question for everyone…. Did Your Baptism Work for you?

There is something about the symbolism and actions of Baptism that can be so striking that most watching the ceremony realize that something important was intended to have just happened. Yet if you stopped to check it out, you may start to think that all is not as it might be.

In the first place even way back in the days of John the Baptist, dunking someone in rivers like the waters of the Jordan was not always a Christian ceremony. Before John the Baptist, baptism by immersion was used by the priests of Judaism – but for those priests, baptism wasn’t for those who had been born into the Jewish faith – but as part of the initiation ceremony for those who were seeking to become Jews.

John the Baptist was doing something more radical. Here he was, uneducated, scruffy, dressed in animal skins and fresh from the desert where he had been eating honey and locusts. Unlike the Pharisees he would not have been recognized as being entitled to call himself a teacher and he wouldn’t have being thought of as having the right to Baptize anyone.

I know Mark in this morning’s gospel reading did write that everyone came out to be baptized by John the Baptist but it is hard to imagine this would include the mainstream supporters of the Temple. Please notice John was in effect saying the people have got so far from their true faith they need to see themselves as no longer God’s people. John was in effect saying “You have got so far from your faith, you need to be baptized before you are ready for the Messiah”.

I know it is sometimes a bit hard to concentrate on details in our Bible readings but did you note in the other reading reading from the Book of Acts, Paul was talking about Baptism some disciples had received from John the Baptist —and according to that reading those people hadn’t quite understood what Baptism was all about – and so Paul in effect baptized them a second time – this time into the Spirit that Jesus was teaching.

If you want an analogy this is very similar to what many of we Methodists do in that we have Infant Baptism which is a way of welcoming children into the family of God – but then we have confirmation for those who later want to join the Church as members when they are old enough to understand what they are doing.

Well I guess most of the people here this morning have been baptized as children – and I have to break it to those people that just like those who had been Baptized by Jesus then again by Paul not everyone in the real world knows what they should believe about what Baptism was supposed to mean. For example virtually every child baptized in this Church has had the congregation promise that they will ensure the child is brought up in the Church. Well adults here? How did you get on with all those promises? Do the best carefully chosen words of promise really matter if they weren’t acted on?

A good proportion of Churches in the world insists for example that Jesus will protect you from that point of Baptism onwards?

Just for the record, as to the protection I am not sure that I would entirely agree with that. In my files on the topic of Baptism I have the news account from some years back where an African man was Baptized by immersion in a river somewhere in Africa. From what I remember of the news item just as the man emerged from being dunked – a passing crocodile grabbed him pulled him under …and devoured him! He wasn’t protected… anymore than we would accept baptism works like a vaccine for COVID-19.

Other churches teach that once you are baptized you are then not allowed to do some things from that point. I don’t know if there are still some who still believe that particular teaching but there was certainly several hundred years in history where the Greek Orthodox Church had a rule that once a man was baptized he was no longer allowed to be a soldier and kill anyone. (For some curious reason certainly for some centuries they evidently had no problem with non-baptized Greeks serving in their army).

In a way I think, regardless of our attitudes to pacifism, that our beliefs including the belief in the importance of baptism should make a genuine difference to the way we live our lives. I have a friend who is a Christadelphian and he has assured me that Christadelphians too insist their beliefs should be reflected in their actions.…. But because they take their beliefs seriously and they have a literal acceptance of the laws in the Bible they are strong believers in not killing and therefore their members will not serve as fighting soldiers. Well that’s what the Christadelphians think – what about us?

At the very least if we shift attention away from the detail of how Baptism should be performed and instead looked at the presumed difference in the life of the Baptized person then a few things should cause us to look inwards.

Certainly in the case of reporting Jesus’ baptism there was great drama with Luke describing the Holy Spirit as a mysterious disembodied voice recognizing Jesus as the Son of God – yet this same Holy Spirit promptly sends Jesus into the wilderness for more than a month of reflection and tough living. For me if I had the choice I confess I prefer the catered banquet in the Church hall as a postscript to baptism but from what I have observed of the Christian journeys of others (and to a much lesser extent from my own journey), what I interpret as following the Spirit often leads into challenging and uncharted waters.

But let’s face the issue squarely, baptism only makes sense if we and our supporters emerge from the baptism to be committed and be open to a new and different way of life. With infant baptism the commitment is one on behalf of the child which means of course that in the first instance the difference will need to be found in the acts of the supporters. Again let’s face it squarely. Unless the baptism signals some sort of genuine change why else would we want the ceremony in the first place?

I think that for me looking back I can say one unexpected benefit of entering into the contract of baptism is that through the new adopted way of life I get glimpses of wonder in the new possibilities it captures.

At its best, baptism can only signal the start of a journey with uncertain and unpredictable way points – yet a journey associated with a clear impression of destiny no matter how elusive the destination might appear to be. In my own case, honesty also reminds me that it is a journey to which I haven’t always been true.

But if Jesus himself didn’t have it easy after a Baptism of the sort that was so intense that Luke described the Holy Spirit as a mysterious disembodied voice recognizing Jesus as the Son of God – but this same Holy Spirit promptly sends Jesus into the wilderness for more than a month of reflection and tough living. Certainly some seem to prefer the prospect of a nice meal share Church hall as a postscript to baptism but from what I have observed of the Christian journeys of others (and to a much lesser extent from my own journey), what I interpret as following the Spirit often leads into challenging and uncharted waters.

But let’s face the issue squarely, baptism only makes sense if we and our supporters emerge from the baptism to be committed and be open to a new and different way of life. With infant baptism the commitment is one on behalf of the child which means of course that in the first instance the difference will need to be found in the acts of the supporters. Again let’s face it squarely. Unless the baptism signals some sort of genuine change why else would we want the ceremony in the first place?

At its best, baptism can only signal the start of a journey with uncertain and unpredictable way points – yet a journey associated with a clear impression of destiny no matter how elusive the destination might appear to be. In my own case, honesty also reminds me that it is a journey which still needs self examination.

To take a very contemporary issue…. Earlier this week the current President of the United States appears to have chosen to incite a march on Washington to protest the election results and in effect interfere with the final step of certifying election results. Now I have no wish to replay what then happened…you almost certainly know about that already. But have you remembered that President Trump has made a claim that actually goes beyond Baptism to announce he is a born-again Christian.

Well it is not up to us as distant spectators to ask if that means Donald Trump is actually a Christian…but more to the point would someone watching us over this last week see something there that made them think we were trying to follow the way of Jesus. In short we need to reflect on whether or not our own decisions and actions send the best message about what our faith means.

I guess we all know those whose questionable behaviour after baptism would be hard to distinguish from that which might have occurred without baptism. I leave it up to each one of us to examine our own conscience to ask how we would come out on the same question.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment