Invited Reflection by Richard Small 15 March 2020 John 4 5-42

The following is offered in the context of the memorial to the Christchurch Shooting at the two Mosques.    Our gospel reading this week challenges us to move beyond our own understanding and comfort zones in our lent journey. The three streams in this reflection are:

* The symbolism of water.

*God who in Christ, who meets and accept us where we are.

*Living water only flows when it is shared.

A word about water:
Water is essential. Unlike first century Palestine, we are used to water being on tap whenever we need it. We have largely forgotten the 1994 drought in Auckland. We have the Waikato River plugged in. But that isn’t the case elsewhere and it may not be for us in future. In our Hebrew scripture this week, from Exodus 17, the people cry out to Moses and God in the desert of sin for water.

Water is also a powerful symbol of rebirth and renewal in John’s gospel. But the writer of John’s Gospel turns old familiar places and symbols into signs of the New Way announced by Jesus. The water of life is un-bottled: It won’t stay stagnant in old pools.

Water is a key symbol in our church life too. We enter God’s family through the waters of baptism. But are we open to being nurtured by God from unfamiliar wells? Will we even approach the spiritual wells, understandings, the places of worship of others? Or do we take the long road around them?

God in Christ meets us where we are:
In our gospel reading Jesus breaks through an even harder desert that of the desert of sin; a desert of prejudice and mistrust. The first surprise was that he was even in Samaria. Most self-respecting Jews avoided it altogether.

The Samaritan women seems more open to Christ than Nicodemus the learned teacher of Israel in last week’s gospel John often contrasts darkness and light. Nicodemus, the insider, sneaked around to see Jesus at night but missed the essence of his message.

This women, the outsider, avoided the gaze of judging villagers by going in the heat of the day. Yet she found the fullness of Christ.

Jacob’s well was located close to the ancient city of Shechem where God in Genesis 12 promised land to Abram and promised a messiah. The well was also close to Mt Gerizim and Mt Ebal. Joshua built an altar on Mt Ebal. This and not Jerusalem was where the Samaritan people waited for the Messiah.

Back then Samaritans used only the five books of the Tanakh , the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the “written Torah.” They were said to have intermarried with 5 other cultures – (remember the 5 husbands in the text?). They were seen as impure.

The Jewish high priest burned the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim. There were revenge attacks. This all sounds so sadly familiar.

A year ago a similar long history of fear and mistrust fueled the horror of the 15 March terror attack on Muslim communities in Christchurch. Unspeakable loss and pain was inflicted on so many families and their faith communities.

And yet there followed an outpouring of Aroha and mutual respect that shows a potential for great light to follow deep darkness:
• People chose connection.
• Leaders demonstrated inclusion.
• Survivors indicated forgiveness.

Still there were reservations from some conservative church leaders.
If we think we have divisions on these issues, liberal traditions within Islam also face challenges. I have been reading Ed Hussain’s Book “The House of Islam” where he challenges both the West’s oversimplification of Islam and the deathly grip of Salafi and Wahhabi fundamentalism.

Some centuries ago great Sufi teacher Dara Shikoh in India was put death for his inclusive beliefs. He was clear that he retained his Muslim identity but said:
My humanness is shared with any one and everyone. If we choose to love a special person does it mean they are the only person worthy to be loved? To you your faith and to me mine. There is no compulsion in religion.”

This sentiment was echoed in the gracious words of Farid Ahmed, a survivor of the Christchurch massacre who lost his wife Hushna, at the memorial service in March 2015:

“I have chosen peace, I have chosen love, and I have forgiven.”

I know that many of the bereaved families faced a battles getting here and being accepted as refugees. The hurt didn’t start for them on 15 March 2019. The work of reconciliation doesn’t and mustn’t finish at this first anniversary.

I like the example of Azam Ali and Shiraz Ali who lost friends & loved ones at the two mosques. They are starting an annual memorial football tournament to mark each anniversary of the shooting and to raise money for St Johns Ambulance who saved so many lives. 16 inter-faith teams will compete. This interfaith initiative is all the more interesting when we consider the crusader backdrop to the origins of the Order of St John.

Azam, said “The coming together of Muslims and non-Muslims that characterised the days and weeks after the shootings should not be forgotten, I think it’s slowly fading away. So I think it needs a bit of a jumpstart again.”

The comment about “fading away” seems very apt. Right now we are in middle of a
pandemic threat which pushes 15/3/19 off the front page. Understandably we’re not actually reaching out to anybody. At some point we will come out of crisis mode and we will still have long term relationships to address. I think this passage from John provide an inspiration to keep building bridges, not walls, and to stay open in gracious dialogue with our own whanau who feel torn between those two things.

We may say we are just too busy to risk yet another difficult relationship. First century Palestine faced occupation, famines and a bloody civil war by turns. Samaritans were “other.” A threat. Yet Jesus shared water, time and respect with them.

Living water only flows when it is shared.
In sharing water Jesus indeed broke the rules:
• Jews would not drink out of a Samaritan cup.
• It was improper for a man to talk to a woman in public.

Today we reflect on a woman who was a social nobody. Who are our nobodies; those we struggle to acknowledge in any real way?

Our “nobodies” are all “somebodies” to God. Are we being called to engage with them afresh? It’s often said that this was a “sinful” woman. Jesus comments on her past, but does call her a sinner. Was she widowed or abandoned five times, or was the reference to 5 husbands symbolic? We just don’t know.

She like many other women in the gospels is un-named. In the Eastern orthodox tradition she is given a name, Photini and she is venerated as a saint.

Jesus refused to be defined by the divisions of his day. Jesus , the “Logos ” the Word made flesh, according to the writer of John, first revealed himself as such in Samaria, not Jerusalem.

We are told that Jesus stays with this Samaritan community for two days. He
abides with them where they are at. For me that small reference further on in the text is as much of a statement as the revelation at the well. He stayed with and identified with that community. Put in very current terms, he had more than casual contact with the
“theologically infectious.”

No social distancing here.

What does an abiding relationship look like? How do turn one journey out of our comfort zone to lay flowers at a mosque into an ongoing mutual relationship? How do we make inclusion the default position? How do we also work together with differences within our own congregations?

As we journey together in lent are the new wells we can draw on together? Jesus
started at the end of the queue to the well.

I think there are still excluded people,
forced to wait at the end of the “queue to the well” and to be invisible, even in bright daylight, when they come to it:
That well could be a well of:
• Health.
• housing.
• employment.
• education.
• immigration, the dignity of being united with one’s family.

What more can we do to see and to give and receive gifts with those at the end of the queue?

This passage shows that something a simple befriending and sharing water can be
life changing. Could it be that the way we receive living water is by giving it away? Water that we try to keep is no longer living water. It becomes like still and stale water in a cistern. Only water that is flowing out is “living water“. Do we trust God, the Source, to renew our supply?

In the words of Joy Cowley’s psalm “Drought” from Aotearoa Psalms

He came to me for water ; and my well was empty.
I said, “It’s not my fault.
It seems that everyone is thirsty, and I’m only me,
one small well.
When I’m down to the last drop, that’s it.
What do you expect? Miracles?
I’m sorry, but that’s your department
“Everything- is miracle,” he said.
The greatest miracle here is that you’re not only you.
One small well, yes, but connected to a great underground river
which will never run dry.
Know where the water comes from
and take time to fill.
It’s as simple as that.”

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Lectionary Sermon for Lent 5 A on John 11:1-45 March 29

If I had my time again as a teacher, I like to think I would encourage all serious science and history students to read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road not taken” That poem concerns a traveller walking through the wood, encountering a point at which the paths diverged. One path was well worn and the other scarcely trodden. Our traveller decides to take the less worn path. The poem finishes:

…..Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

The assumption that heading in the direction everyone else is going is the safest may well be partly true, if only in terms of public approval, but in terms of breaking new ground to see things in new ways, whether it be in science, religion – or even sorting out whatever really matters in our personal lives, sometimes we may have to risk making our journey along paths that others would spurn.

Certainly echoing what everyone else says is unlikely to bring about enlightenment. In fact I would go further and suggest a casual affirmation of whatever a large group of people are saying or doing can draw us into patterns of behaviour and belief that sometimes work against the very principles we say are important.

It is true that many followers of Christ have done much to help their communities. Unfortunately it is also true that history is full of examples of bad behaviour excused by public acceptance in the name of religion.

Just to take one brief instance. When King Richard the first was about to set out on the crusades in 1190, a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment swept through a number of cities in the North of England. In one case, the Jewish population of York, estimated at the time to be of the order of 150 men, women, and children, took refuge in the Keep at the royal castle. Terrified by sounds of the mob outside baying for blood, a good number of the Jews committed suicide. Those who didn’t were burnt to death.

With countless examples: of centuries of religious persecution, of slavery justified by Church leaders, of the selling of indulgences to frightened and illiterate peasants, of the storing of treasures on earth by a powerful Church, and the turning of a blind eye to serious injustices, sometimes even on a global scale, we might well wonder why more of those familiar with the obvious themes of the gospels were not brave enough to step back to cry “enough!” in the face of what the majority condoned.  And here is a thought.  If you thought some of the powerful Western nations are acting in a non Christian way would you – um – did we – speak up in protest?

We might pretend that such callous disregard for inhuman behaviour would not happen today. During the Second World War, the Jews, whose people suffered persecution while ordinary citizens in occupied countries looked the other way, might suggest otherwise. So too might those who continue to suffer because there are those who currently prefer turn a blind eye to today’s child poverty and for that matter, the present grossly unequal distribution of the world’s resources.

A superficial reading of today’s gospel story may let you conclude the raising of Lazarus offers nothing to such themes, or if it comes to that, seems almost irrelevant to any practical situation we are likely to encounter in the modern world. At the very least it would be unexpected in the extreme to encounter contemporary examples of people encouraged to rise from the dead and actually doing so.

Before considering the Lazarus story, pause for a moment on the following item that apparently made the US National News back in 1992.

A letter was quoted as reportedly sent to a deceased person by The Department of Social Services in Indiana. It read as follows:
“Your food stamps will be stopped, effective March 1992 because we received notice that you passed away.
May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a
change in your circumstances”.

But at least be honest. If you think that letter was silly, then perhaps you too think the bringing back to life of a person who has been dead for some time is very unlikely as an outcome.

Some less conservative Christians would argue that if the events surrounding the raising up of Lazarus are intended to be taken literally, if there was any truth in the account, perhaps he was not truly dead in the first place.

There’s an old tale that Pat fell from the scaffolding on a construction job and was knocked unconscious. Mike ran for the doctor. The doctor came. He took one look at Pat and said, “He’s dead.” Just then Pat came to and heard what the doctor was saying. Bleary-eyed and still groggy he said, “I ain’t dead.” “Lay down, Pat,” said Mike. “Lay down. The doctor knows best.”

In the case of Lazarus, since resuscitation of the dead is rare enough, especially for one apparently dead for four days, sceptics might even be inclined to the naturalistic explanation and say: in those days lots of mistakes would have been made. It is hard enough today without the best of medical equipment to be certain someone is dead – so presumably it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to have someone apparently resuscitated by calling their name.

Alternately those insisting on a literalistic faith might simply say: well in the case of Lazarus, Jesus was the Son of God and could therefore do such wonders anyway.
I have certainly heard both well travelled possibilities suggested. Well I don’t know about you, but there is a much less well travelled path that is there for those who choose to look.

Let’s look at some of the features of the story. Jesus called the man by name. The name happened to be Lazarus …and just from that particular name we might begin to guess the story is intended to teach at another level. Lazarus was a name used in other scriptures, but almost always the meaning of the name reminds us that there is a parable dimension intended.

We might for example remember that there was a parable about another Lazarus who dies and is saved by God…..(the poor man at the rich man’s gate). Lazarus is more or less the Greek form of the Hebrew word which is derived from the Hebrew אלעזר, Elʿāzār (Eleazar) meaning “God has helped“.[ I don’t know if the name was intended to be significant yet Matthew’s first hearers of his Gospel may well have thought so.

You see it was not just in the gospels. Some rabbinic tales feature El’ leazar (Greek Lazaros) walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s proscriptions regarding the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. A friend of mine calls this, “being the mystery shopper”!

I wonder what the mystery shopper would report about our society.
The next point we may have noted is that although John claims Jesus raised Lazarus, it most certainly was not in the sense of a resurrection to eternal life. True, John records Jesus as saying Jesus to Martha ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone believing in me, even if they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ (11:25-26).

However a closer reading of this miracle (or perhaps parable?) shows the eternal bit was not intended to apply to the revival of Lazarus in a literal sense. Lazarus may have come walking from the tomb, yet there is no suggestion that he was now eternal in that he was now going to live forever. As far as we know, even if apparently brought back to life, in due course he would once more be dead.

The alternative is that Jesus was referring to some lasting quality rather than quantity of life, a quality so important that it could be attributed the term eternal. If this were intended, we might guess Jesus was using “life” in a metaphorical sense to imply that those who adopted the way of life he was advocating would thereby open themselves to living in a totally new way…perhaps even one in which death was irrelevant.

To see the story as a case of a dead man literally brought back to life is to stay with the limited understanding of Mary and Martha. We ought to be able to do better than that, because with the extra detail supplied by John there is good reason to think Jesus was talking about life at a deeper level.

I implied earlier that there were aspects of the less travelled path that might make it less likely to be popular. In this case, the popular view seems to be that Jesus performed the miraculous result by himself. This is comforting because it then makes minimal demands on us.

Most sermons and commentaries I have encountered relating to this story focus on Jesus’ actions, so it is easy to overlook a tiny, yet I would suggest an important detail intended for John’s readers.

Remember when Lazarus emerges, festooned with the wrapping bandages and cloths intended for the wrapping of the dead body, Jesus asks those present to remove the bandages that Lazarus can be freed to move. If this too is part parable, perhaps he is saying that we shouldn’t look to Jesus to do it all for us. Just as Lazarus needed others help before he was free to display signs of life, the suggestion is that before what Jesus referred to can take effect others too have a part to play.

We are not all called to moments of high drama, but the notion of helping free those we encounter from the difficulties that stop them living life to the full is at the heart of practical Christianity.

Just as Christ met people as they were, blind, leprous, rejected or as in Lazarus’ case, dead to the possibilities of life, the call into fullness of life is also a call to interaction with those whose claim to full life is tested by encounter.

When that thoughtful and embarrassingly honest Anglican priest, Richard MacKenna, was trying to put his faith into words in his book God for Nothing, he wrote (P183)

Ask me why I am a Christian and I say, “I don’t know” What called me into the cloud of unknowing, the dark wood? Because I want to find out who I am? Because I want to know how to love? All I know is that the quest is risky and painful…and yet there is something there…light at the end of the wood.

In his book questioning standard Church thinking, I believe Richard MacKenna was walking the equivalent of Robert Frost’s road less travelled. I would like to think at the end, he too would be able to say “…that has made all the difference”.

As for me, my autobiography is yet to be written. And what will yours conclude?

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Lectionary Sermon, 22 March 2020 Lent 4, Year A, on John 9:1-41

A PARABLE FOR MODERNS?
Bishop Brian Tamaki, the founder of one of the local mega-churches in South Auckland, is quoted as saying that if his parishioners turn to God and pay their tithes, God will protect them from Coronavirus (N-COVID19).

To me, this represents a curious regression to a version of religion that comes from an age when miracle and magic ruled and primitive science struggled for acceptance. At first impression this morning’s gospel similarly takes us back to that same world, yet since my sister- in- law in Christchurch has just undergone a cataract operation to restore her sight, I have to ask the question if our modern world somehow calls for a rethink even on the gospel account of miracle.

Here in John’s gospel we have a miracle story which may well raise a question for many educated Church goers. And yes, they have reason for caution in that, at least as far as the modern mind is concerned, in the real world, nature is just not like that.

Blind people may be helped by corneal transplants, or replacing cataract damaged lenses with plastic, or using lasers to fuse detached retinas – but curing blind people with a word, or by what must seem to non Christians to be mumbo jumbo actions, is outside our normal experience. No doubt some will respond with “Of course it happened. It is in the Bible. The Bible is inspired. Therefore it must have happened as written”. Yet if you were put on the spot what would be your honest view? What do you believe happened?

I guess if we are just seeing it as a familiar Bible story we might even question if it should matter to us whether this should be questioned as literal miracle, or alternately for that matter, even whether any of the recorded Bible miracles actually happened in the physical sense.

For me, coming to the story from a science background, it is no longer reasonable to suggest faith should have nothing to do with what we know about our modern world. If it comes to that, if our Bible beliefs are to affect how we actually live, without an accompanying reference to what we now know from our world of science, how could pretending that Jesus was so very different help make his self-claimed followers better people?

Perhaps part of the answer is to look at the way the gospel for today hurries us past the miracle to what the lesson is really about.

The Pharisees got cross at Jesus for healing the blind man in a way that they did not understand. When he dismisses their assumptions, saying that those who now see will turn out to be blind, they finally lose patience with him. “Do you think we are blind?” they ask, no doubt expecting him to treat this as a rhetorical question. His reply paraphrased. “Your sin is there because you claim to see”. In other words they are in darkness because they think they are in light without having understood the Spirit of the law.

May I suggest we have to be rather careful with today’s Gospel passage. History tells us that on hearing that Jesus called the Pharisees blind, many self-claimed Christians in the next few hundred years used this as one of the scriptures that might be used to support persecution of the Jews. A more thoughtful reading suggests that there is a way that anyone (including us) can be blind not so much in a physical sense, but in the sense that they miss what John would have us know as the light of the world.

This should remind us that John’s focus in telling the story is not on Jesus as healer – but rather on Jesus as the dispeller of darkness in the wider sense – or – using the term that John repeats in a number of places – the light of the World.

As to our own ability to see, it then follows that what becomes most important to us in practice will reveal if we are in the metaphorical light or alternately to wonder if we are in the dark as a result of blinkered attitudes.

If we look beyond today’s gospel to other places where Jesus finds emphasis in his teaching, we may have noticed that the “Pharisees” Jesus takes issue with are really stereotypes which move far beyond the confines of the Jewish faith. The stereotypes work just as well for us today. Jesus’ teaching may have emerged from the law, yet his real focus was always on taking his listeners away from a focus on the rules and turning instead to a care for their fellow beings.

Time after time through history we see that wherever the insistence is on following rules blindly instead of responding to the people in their need, it is then we lose sight of what our faith is supposed to be. Belief without charity is a parody of faith.

Early Church history may seem a strange topic to read for recreation, but it just happens that recently I have been checking up on some of the key early Church leaders who shaped the Church beliefs.

Let me tell you about St Cyril. St Cyril was bright, he could sway a group of bishops to come to his way of thinking – and he just happened to be very nasty with it. He was very good at sorting out creeds, what people should say for example about the Virgin Mary, about how Jesus was the God bearer – in fact according to St Cyril, Jesus was God in human form – and so on and so forth. Some of his statements still influence the belief sets of some Christians today. The only trouble was anyone who disagreed was fired or worse. After seeing how many people were fingered as heretics by St Cyril of Alexandria, when St Cyril finally died in the year 444 AD, one of his fellow Bishops wrote feelingly: “At last the villain has gone. I hope his gravestone is very heavy, for I fear that Cyril will vex the dead so much that they will try to send him back to us.

And so we return to the miracle in today’s gospel, the healing of the blind man. Well as it happens that was only part of the story. In fact if you read the passage carefully you may have noticed that not only was the passage not simply about healing the blind man, the blind man was not entirely healed in that he could not see where Jesus was. In history we discover it is not only nasty people like St Cyril who were judgmental. In his day Jesus suggested that the “rules first” Pharisees who were being judgmental, were actually acting blind.

Way back in Jesus’ day they were also saying the sorts of things that we still occasionally hear today. When a friend’s daughter fell sick with the debilitating disease I was concerned to hear a conservative Christian acquaintance explaining this was no doubt a consequence of sin somewhere in the family.

Over recent times I have heard instances of Church folk claiming that children born with disability are only born that way because the parents or their wider family have displeased God. Similarly the Japan Earthquake was explained by saying that most Japanese were not Christian, and the Christchurch Earthquake was because of the immorality of the people of Christchurch. In that context it is helpful to hear Jesus insisting there is no causal link between disability and sin.

I have also encountered the obverse where people will tell you that those faithful to God will prosper in terms of health and good fortune, and just as the blessed are good, those who are visited by disease and misfortune are bad. What is more, believers in the prosperity Gospel can find Bible verses to back up what seems outrageous when case studies are investigated. If the truth be known, I need to confess a weakness. I take secret pleasure in hearing when someone who spreads such a claim, then encounters a  reversal in fortune.

It is a purely personal reaction, yet to me when I hear someone like Bishop Brian Tamaki claiming if people pray and give their tithe to his Church that God will protect them from Coronavirus, I don’t quite see that this is following Christ. Surely when we are confronted with what appears to be a global crisis the need is to stand and support those affected by the crisis. And there are many who need such help – those who have been laid off and are now facing personal ruin, those whose households are is sudden chaos, and those who are frightened and alone and that is just the start.

The other thing about Jesus’ act of bringing light to the blind man is that in the last analysis the basics are quite simple. For all their wisdom and complex questioning the Pharisees didn’t get it. The Pharisees today might represent unfeeling Church leaders who try to bully and manipulate themselves through to a position of control. On the other hand, for the once blind man, the bullying and complexity of the Pharisees’ questions were irrelevant. “I was blind and now I see”.

Someone had cared and helped. That was all that counted.

We too have to decide what sense we might make of this strange Jesus figure, the one who is portrayed doing strange acts and who asks disturbing questions. Yet John also reminds us that the way those Pharisees responded to Jesus carried with it its own judgment. Rules first, or people first? This is a dilemma which can’t be answered with reciting a creed, even one partly shaped by clever St Cyril. The key issue is not then about how to accept or explain away a miracle. Our choice is one of darkness or light. Which will others see in our lives?

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Lectionary Sermon for Lent 3 A : 15 March 2020 on John 4:5-42

A superficial glance at today’s lectionary gospel reading might leave us wondering why in our current circumstances – a world in the grip of a new set of financial, political and health crises today -we should be apparently wasting time examining a strange interaction between a woman from Samaria, a land of a now largely defunct religion and a Jesus who at the time was presumably representing his own 2000 year old set of now largely outdated customs? 

However if we were to step back and consider just how many of our present difficulties relate to failures in human communication between those from different backgrounds suddenly we find genuine relevance. The oil crisis is affected by negotiations between nations with vastly different attitudes and background. The financial crisis is going to depend on how nations treat one another despite very resources and different backgrounds, and even the spread and reaction to the Covid-19 virus is going to require new ways of interacting and cooperating with those who have little past reason to want to consider one another’s interests.
Cooperation is not our normal starting point. Even in our normally peaceful and relatively accepting New Zealand, society overt prejudice is always close to the surface. I suspect most communities have long been reluctant to totally accept those from different cultures or different religions. If for no other reason, this is a reminder that there is still reason to revisit the Gospel story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well at Sychar.

We may not have Samaritans in our immediate community but we certainly have the equivalent and among those with whom we trade (and sometimes fight). Even if we pretend to be comfortable with those gathering in one of our downtown ethnic restaurants this is not to say we would always be comfortable genuinely welcoming religious visitors from an unfamiliar religion.

Avoiding eye contact, hurrying past or simply seeming otherwise occupied are all familiar enough civilized ways of coping with difference. But to do as Jesus did and engage in serious conversation with such a person as the woman of Samaria is to take the meeting with those we find inconvenient to a new and unexpected level.
Such teaching represents an important part of Jesus’ message which is hard to escape. He has other such recorded interactions with Samaritans, and even on occasion uses them for his parables, to remind us they too warrant respect.

To the Jews of 2000 years ago, the Samaritans represented everything to suspect. They claimed different lines of descent. The Samaritans didn’t accept the Temple as being located at the correct place. They lived in different territory and self-respecting Jews would walk around this territory rather than to be among those they despised. There was also a convention, not unlike customs in places like Saudi Arabia today, where men simply avoided being seen in the company of women to whom they were not already related, let alone to be seen in the company of those considered heretics.

There was also at that time, a custom (which I understand still exists today for some of the more orthodox Jews) that if a son or daughter marries a Gentile –if for example if they married a Samaritan, the son or daughter has their funeral service carried out to convey they are now dead to their family.

Given that background, we can start to realize just how subversive Jesus’ actions and words might have seemed to some learning of his responses.

He was in the heart of Samaritan territory near a town recognized as a Samaritan town. As a Jew he had not done as custom expected by taking the long way round rather than mixing with those separated by the Jewish version of Apartheid. He broke custom by speaking in public to a woman of the despised group and invited her to draw water.

Later in the conversation it is revealed that he is aware that she herself would have been ostracized by her own community for living with a man who was not her husband. Some commentators suggest that the reason why she was at the well in the heat of the day, rather than being present at early morning, or in the evening, may have been because she felt she could not mix with the other women of the town. It was there beside the well Jesus engaged her in a conversation which went to the heart of belief, making the standard questions of the day, like which temple should be recognized, as seeming trivial in the extreme.

Perhaps we should pause on Jesus’ words about living water. He said, in effect, “if you had known who I was you would have asked for living water” – in other words, he is inviting her to realize that Jesus could offer far more than the essential of water. The term used in the Hebrew expression is mayim chayim, meaning fresh running water, water not left stale and brackish in grimy jars.

Later in Chapter 7 (7:37) John will remind us that when Jesus is talking of living water he is really referring to the Spirit.

Of course there are levels of understanding. Even if we take his initial words at face value, the fresh running water is infinitely preferable to the standing, polluted water facing so many in the developing world. Perhaps we who have the luxury of clean water on tap might remember the huge number of young children sick or dying because they lack even this level of public health. Jesus clearly meant more than this, but even at face value there is an implied reminder of our minimal responsibility to those whose very life depends on living water.

Remember too, that assuming we simply admire Jesus’ clever use of words in this reported dialogue, if that is all we do, we have not recognized what he has on offer. It is not a formula belief that Jesus presents. Part of what he taught was a radically different way of approaching others. It only becomes our life-giving living water if we incorporate this approach in our own dealings. When Jesus’ approach to the marginalized becomes our approach to the marginalized, we are living his message. The fair distribution of oil is far more than checking our price at the pump. It is also a genuine concern for those whose land is exploited on our behalf.

We should also take heart in the way Jesus spoke and acted. It is almost a characteristic of every age that there is double thinking about perfectionism. Common wisdom says a public figure who engages in “hanky panky” is to be shunned and vilified. The fact that hanky panky is probably present in some form in virtually every family does not stop us talking as if we are all angels demanding perfection in others.

Similarly when it comes to faith, we notice the few hundred radical Muslims who are suicide bombers and forget the almost one billion who are not. Conversely we expect Muslims to notice Christians as like the respectable charitable Sunday attendees at our Church on a Sunday morning and not remember the nominal Christians who dropped white phosphorus on civilians in Iran or who water-boarded and sleep deprived their prisoners. We notice the Russians taking strong action in Syria and forget our own recent history of interference with other nations. We laugh at the Mormons with their strange early history and conveniently forget the excesses of our own history.

Perhaps you have come across the T shirt with the ultimate slogan for one-eyed self-focus. “Jesus loves you – but I’m his favourite”.

In our more reflective moments we may go the other way and remember with deep shame, unworthy thoughts and dubious behaviour, even thinking that we are simply not worthy to be thought of as Christian. If so we might remember Jesus had time for one who in his time was to be kept in her place because she was a Samaritan heretic, a woman from Sychar and a sinner, perhaps we can see that we too are worthy of consideration.

But there is that one extra caution. If we can take that one further step and see that if we have a place in the kingdom despite our own weaknesses then we have no right to claim that others are shut out from the kingdom.

For some reason although we read and re-read this well known story, yet often its conclusion passes us by. What happened next? At one level, the woman at the well, like Nicodemus appears to leave the encounter with Jesus, still partly uncomprehending….almost unable to see what Jesus is getting at. Yet as with other teaching we ourselves receive, even if we don’t quite understand what the teacher is getting at, at the time, it can continue to shape our thinking.

In this instance, the woman at the well is so impressed by Jesus’ approach to her – and so impressed by his wisdom, she shares the experience with the town folk. They too are staggered by what has happened and invite Jesus to stay on with them for a few days. Perhaps even more surprisingly, he accepts their offer.

It is always easy – in fact almost standard expected behavior – to allow convention to separate ourselves from those who don’t share our background and beliefs. For some of us the taboos may include things like sexuality and while homosexuality may not marginalize to the extent it once did, with so many debating gay marriage, we can hardly pretend there is no prejudice today.

Similarly the degree to which many these days make sweeping condemnation of Muslims and Hindus, speaking from my own experience, I would have to say that even for Church people, it is relatively rare to find much mixing between those with markedly different faiths or those who have very different customs and social standing. Even at multicultural festivals, those of particular cultures and beliefs tend to congregate together.

Yet if Jesus’ teaching is supposed to make a difference to our interacting it is fair to ask if we can relate to, or even better adopt, his attitudes. Do the equivalents of the Samaritans in our lives currently respond to such warm acceptance offered on our part, that they in turn invite us into their homes?

The competing Temples of Israel and Samaria are now part of the dust of history. I have heard that the Well of Jacob is still there at the fork of the road just outside where Sychar stood. Jesus may have asked for water, but the true living water that he offers in return reminds us that baptism is not the only sacrament that should take our attention.

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Lectionary Sermon for, 8 March 2020, Lent 2, on John 3:1-17

I guess I am not the only one present who, a few days ago, watched those worrying pictures out of India, where furious Hindus were setting fire to Muslim owned homes, shops and mosques and trying to beat up fleeing Muslims as they fled. Our natural reaction to such scenes might even be to wonder if that is what some Indian religions represent.

What is rather less clear to us is that some people who have a non Christian background have a similar unfavorable reaction to Christians particularly when the bombs that fall on their neighborhoods come from self claimed Christian nations – and some non Christians note that despite those nations’ Christian identity, those same nations do not welcome the strangers in distress and shut the borders when the bombed civilians flee the combat areas.

A few weeks ago we saw a president of the US, famously proud of his status as a Christian leader, giving the green light to the Turkish President to attack Syrian troops in Idlib and at the same time making it clear that the US would not accept civilian refugees fleeing the conflict. Are we really surprised if the victims then judge Christians badly?

This is not a new phenomenon. A recent BBC documentary told of the very small number of people of faith in Germany during the second World War who put themselves in danger by trying to help Jews trying to escape Nazi atrocities.  That should remind us that not all claimed followers of Christ would stand up for their faith in dangerous circumstances.

Which brings us to today’s question. If we had a suspicion that aspects of our religion which we had followed for years were not quite right and further, that someone else outside the mainstream might have the answer, I wonder what we would actually do…truthfully?…

So today’s gospel story? What did we think when we read about this timid fellow Nicodemus sneaking around at night to meet Jesus? Was he a coward trying to avoid public attention? Was he really a Wus? And did he deserve the criticism directed his way by countless preachers down through the centuries.

Certainly John implies a furtive visit which is presumably why Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, so it is reasonable to assume Nicodemus did not want anyone seeing his visit. Furthermore, despite Jesus telling Nicodemus the essential nature of rebirth, there is no immediate evidence of him accepting this as a personal challenge and joining Jesus’ band of disciples. Nevertheless I think it would be a mistake to write Nicodemus off as a timid coward.

We should remember he was a Pharisee and according to John, recognized as a leader of the Jews. According to some commentators I have read, this probably indicated he was a member of the Sanhedrin. This was a seventy-one member supreme council that met in Jerusalem throughout the post-exile period. The Sanhedrin had legislative power over the Jewish community, as well as some judicial authority at a time when Jews living in Judea were dominated by various foreign powers. In Jesus’ time, this Sanhedrin would have had some authority over the community, remembering ultimately Rome held all the power. If Nicodemus was in fact a member of the Sanhedrin, he was about as powerful and influential as a Jew could be under the Romans. John did not explicitly identify Nicodemus as a member of the Sanhedrin, but by calling him “a leader of the Jews” this is likely what he meant.

As far as Nicodemus was concerned, coming to Jesus, a known critic of conventional practice, would have been dangerous because at least according to John’s version of events, Jesus had already confronted the Temple authorities when he cleared the Temple. This visit was tantamount to showing Jesus was challenging the community whose religious hierarchy would normally have offered Nicodemus support. Visiting Jesus would, at the very least, risk losing for Nicodemus his status as a leader and endangering the current level of goodwill and respect for him within his home community.

To think ourselves into his position, perhaps we should imagine a modern day equivalent whereby one of our senior Church leaders went to a rival denomination – or worse a rival religion – to investigate the possibility of joining up. I also wonder if we ourselves would be prepared to take such a step.

I guess most of us would have points of difference with beliefs and customs of whatever Church with which we associate ourselves. Dare I suggest that for some of us at least we may prefer to say Amen to prayers or sing songs with dubious words, simply as a way of relating to our fellow worshippers.

One set of changes which has affected many communities is the way in which the population mix has changed in radical ways. For my personal setting of being brought up with a majority mono-cultural declared Christian community in post second World War in Christchurch to my present setting of a multicultural and multi-faith setting of South Auckland – why not ask whether my traditional faith still gives the most appropriate set of beliefs and behaviours. When I add in the new understanding from science and the ready accessibility of new historical insights I should at least ask the question if the teachings I have accepted in the past and now pass on to others are still relevant.

To give one specific example…
The scientists who study brain function as it relates to behaviour have discovered some biochemical relationships between some brain damage and socially undesirable behaviour. This raises the question about whether some acts previous thought to be sin are really committed by free choice.

We may accept as an article of faith that deciding to be called Christian and following the directives of accepted Christian leadership is sufficient, but history should cause us to question that assumption. When in November 1095 Pope Urban II directed the first Crusaders to take their swords, wear the white cross on their right shoulders and cry out altogether “God wills it!” they set out to the Holy land certain that by doing so they were guaranteed a place in heaven. When they unleashed slaughter on the inhabitants of Jerusalem (including the Christians who came out to welcome them) to the point where they were ankle deep in blood they may well have thought they were fulfilling Biblical prophecy from the book of Revelation – yet surely this is not what Jesus had in mind when he said be born again in the Spirit.

So Nicodemus came to Jesus, by night.  Perhaps John who so much liked to overlay his gospel with theology visualized the darkness as being the spiritual darkness faced by more than just Nicodemus.

Now Nicodemus tells Jesus why he has come. He acknowledges Jesus as a teacher and says he is impressed by the signs Jesus has been demonstrating as a part of his mission. “No man can do the signs you have done.” Clearly we cannot be certain which signs Nicodemus is referring to. We can only guess that he is talking of Jesus reputation as a miracle worker and a healer.

Perhaps Nicodemus even wants to discover Jesus’ secrets so that he too might be a miracle worker and demonstrator of great signs. If this is his focus, Jesus is not interested. He seems more concerned about Nicodemus sorting out his own attitude and approach to faith. Listen to his reply. There are also the little bits we miss without the Greek in front of us.

Very truly, I tell you“, said Jesus. But that is just the translation. The word Jesus used for “You” happens to be you in the plural. I guess that means, at least as far as John was concerned, he was addressing his words, not just to Nicodemus but to the Jewish people. The advice was not exclusively aimed at Nicodemus.

And what was that advice? It was a metaphor that is perhaps stranger to us than it was to John’s readers. You must be born again from above.

Did you notice Nicodemus says he doesn’t understand. The puzzle here is that the being born again before making a new start was standard Jewish teaching. Ezekiel had talked of the need for a new heart and a new Spirit (Ez 18:31). New converts to the Jewish faith were expected to be baptized and instructed that in the baptism they were being born again.

We can only suspect Nicodemus was choosing not to understand, for to admit understanding would be the equivalent of admitting his faith needed putting back on a new track. After Jesus answers in the standard Jewish form, Nicodemus is driven back to another defence. “How can these things be?” And again Jesus uses standard Jewish teaching.

John uses the Greek translation of what Jesus said with the Greek “Pneuma” which has the dual meaning of spirit and wind. We presume that he was translating the Hebrew word Ruach which also has the dual meaning of wind and spirit. Wind and Spirit, mysterious, able to be sensed, yet unseen.

Even if we think Nicodemus was being deliberately obtuse we can see that his discomfit was understandable. Jesus was offering a way to be changed and recreated, and Nicodemus was balking at it.

It was not that he didn’t understand. Perhaps the problem was that he wasn’t sure that he wanted the change. Being born again was a leap into the unknown. It is not simply the start of a clearly charted journey. Rather it was a declaration that the old comfortable norms could be set aside and each new situation from that point on to be confronted with the new set of values. This is why following Christ would have been seen as subversive. This is why it may still be subversive today, because accepting Jesus notion of being born again means in effect we cannot continue to have others do our thinking for us.

So was the meeting wasted? Nicodemus leaves John’s gospel at this point, but John hasn’t quite finished with him. Nicodemus returns to the story after Jesus is crucified. This time, he is in the company of another who similarly preferred to be a secret follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, and together they remove Jesus’ body from the cross and place it in a tomb, with the spices decreed by Jewish custom.

John’s story of what happened later to Nicodemus is not our story, yet there is certainly one respect where we might all learn from Nicodemus. In his time he was prepared to reexamine his faith – then no matter how limited his initial response– he was prepared to reset his life and eventually to stand up for what mattered.

We may well be tempted to dismiss Nicodemus as a timid soul who could only approach Jesus in the shadows. More to the point – it is not so much the questions he asked of Jesus – it is what he then eventually did with the answers – just as it will be what we do with our  answers.

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Lectionary sermon for 1 March 2020 on Matthew 4: 1-11 (Lent 1 A)

MAD MIKE – OR MATTHEW WITH A MESSAGE?

There was a rather strange BBC news item a few days ago concerning a dare-devil adventurer who was killed when his steam powered rocket crashed. The weird part for I guess most modern thinkers, that this man (known to his supporters and detractors alike as “Mad Mike”) was reportedly doing his flight as part of a bigger programme to prove once and for all that the Earth was NOT essentially round, but rather was like an upturned saucer (or as Mad Mike insisted on describing it – like a Frisbee!!). The reason why most of us might roll our eyes at Mad Mike’s mission is because most of us assume such claims are doomed. These day many of us have encountered what seems to us as overwhelming evidence that the Earth is approximately round.

Yet it isn’t just Mad Mike. Matthew in today’s Gospel about the temptations has the Devil taking Jesus to a place high on a mountain to see all the kingdoms of the world stretched beneath.  But surely for a world that is more or less round, there is certainly no mountain from whence every kingdom could be seen, particularly when we remember that the cities of China and South America would be well over the horizon.

Assuming the standard current scientific understanding is correct, either Matthew is wrong in his account – or is it perhaps the story is best not understood as a realistic description – but rather as a parable-like presentation of what the temptations of Jesus represent. (cf John Dominic Crossan’s book: the Power of Parable) For those anxious to hold to a literal reporting, just remember that Matthew, writing many years after Jesus’ mission, was not an eye witness for this encounter between Jesus and the Devil, and his account is not a good match with the much briefer earlier version given by Mark.

At the very least today’s gospel reading has some really strange features and unexpected challenges. The first point is that although it is clearly a significant story it is one with clear puzzles. Jesus alone in the wilderness is tempted by the devil, seeing strange sights and facing dramatic choices. So did it really happen just like that? Or is it that there is the more subtle question. If we see ourselves as Jesus representatives, are Jesus’ temptations somehow connected with our temptations?

Regardless of how factual –or alternately how symbolic the story seems, it is a spell-binding set of images. That Matthew has Jesus going aside for a spell of living off the land much as John the Baptist had done before him underlines an important teaching of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus in effect claims that chasing the extras in life should take second place to finding sufficiency in nature.

Consider the lilies of the field and birds of the air….. Perhaps Matthew and Luke record this setting of the temptations as a way of highlighting the subversive difference between the alternative lifestyle and setting of Jesus and the lifestyle of other Church leaders of that day (and perhaps ours!)

Certainly there are also exact parallels between this from Matthew and the version in Luke whose account lists the exact same temptations (in different order) even if the writers give the account a different theological slant. Since Jesus himself along with the Devil are the only two recorded as present for the sequence of events, it is fair to assume that at best, Jesus may have recounted the story later to his disciples, but even there we find internal clues to suggest a non-literal intention.

Assuming it is Jesus who was the original source of the story, perhaps the impossibility of the sufficiently high place observation point should be enough to convince us that the story is one of metaphor rather than literal description. I admit not everyone here would necessarily agree with my view that this allows us to go on to question whether Satan is similarly a metaphorical symbol.

As to the themes within the story, there is certainly enough to discover close parallels between Jesus’ reported answers to the Devil, and the form of ministry Jesus consequently chose.

Jesus rejects the choice of turning stones into bread, in other words he is rejecting the possibility of trying to exploit his powers to win support even if he is capable of having supernatural powers for such an act. When Jesus dismisses this as an option by replying, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’“, perhaps the intended allusion is to Moses leading his people through the desert.

We should note in passing that this statement most certainly is not intended to show Jesus has no concern for discomfort or hunger. After all, the recorded event (or is this perhaps another parable?) of the feeding of the five thousand was presumably intended to illustrate this concern. However the point of that particular apparent miracle is best coupled with the knowledge that Jesus made no attempt to exploit it for political gain.

Next the Devil has Jesus taken to a high pinnacle, not in this case a natural pinnacle of the sort that might occur naturally in the desert where there would be no one to see Jesus act in the solitude, but a pinnacle as part of the Temple where a crowd might witness Jesus’ what Jesus was being asked to do. The Devil’s test in this case was that Jesus should throw himself off and have the angels of the Lord rescue him and thereby convince the crowd of his supernatural powers. In this part of the story both Matthew and Luke claim the Devil quotes the scriptures – in this case Psalm 91:11-12 to show that God had promised this assistance. The astute Bible scholar may note that Psalm only promises that God would deliver those who trust and abide in Him.

For those of us who think it is sufficient to quote scriptures to justify a position, it may be worth reminding ourselves, that, just as Matthew has the Devil quoting scriptures in an attempt to mislead Jesus, the scriptures should not be automatically be seen as a Talisman without considerable thought.

Finally the Devil offers Jesus possession of the Kingdoms of the world on condition that Jesus bows down to acknowledge the authority of the Devil. I guess because most of us are familiar with hearing and rehearing the story we are unsurprised to find Jesus responds by saying: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Parable or objective reporting, the Temptations story is a useful reminder that Jesus in his responses was in effect defining the sort of Messiah he was intending to be. Yet if we are to allow the story to speak to our situation we may need reminding that in order for Jesus to be that sort of Messiah to those who encounter his message, in other words one who sets aside the temptations of splendour, or power and the chance to impress so that he can live his message of servant-hood, we have to be careful that, assuming we wish to be his followers, we remain true to his chosen way of presenting his message.

In the history of the Church we cannot help but notice some Church leaders have been only too willing to assume the very power that Jesus turned aside. We can read in the history books of militant Popes assuming Emperor-type positions and Bishops who have led their troops into battle swinging swords. We have witnessed hierarchies of Church leadership where dress, authority and pay all reflect control rather than servant-hood.

There may even be an implied question in the case of some Churches and cathedrals where the very architecture is designed to encourage wonder and we should acknowledge that in the not too distant past some denominations have even redesigned church buildings where the poor were consigned to watch the worship of the wealthy from the back of Churches through screens. It is also a fair question to ask if some of the modern day church leaders who have specialized in ostentatious acts of public healing may have opted to go with the temptation to impress the crowds.

But rather than divert attention to Church leaders perhaps we are better to start with ourselves. If as the New Testament teaches, we need in part to become the embodiment of the Christ we follow, then surely we need to find our own answers to the temptations we have to subvert his gospel. In essence we may even be talking of the same temptations. We too may be tempted to be seeking power by impressing those who see our actions.

Selling ourselves to the Devil is a very colourful way of expressing the temptation for everyone who wants control over others. Since putting ourselves first is the opposite of what Jesus stood for, is this not close to selling one’s soul?

Above all we need to be careful of the temptation to ascribe to Jesus the otherworldly and supernatural dimension that makes him all powerful and leaves us as unthinking puppets. We also need to be honest with ourselves in what the story tells us about the human nature of Jesus. Even in the days when the New Testament books were being assembled Jesus’ humanity was noted. For example Hebrews 4:15 claims Jesus is one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are.

The author of the book of Hebrews clearly suggests Jesus was tempted in the same way as other humans (which presumably means without recourse to supernatural powers). If today’s scriptural passage is to have any validity, it only makes sense as a list of genuine temptations because Jesus was required to pass these tests without relying on powers that other men and women do not have.

Ultimately we have to turn our attention to the same problem that faced Jesus. This Lenten season, we should ask how we do what is right in accordance with what we understand God to mean, yet at the same time turn our back on alternative options focused on self interest?( or should that mean turning our back on other Gods?) We cannot pretend the world is other than the one we find ourselves in. If there are right options among the myriad of options they are not always easy to discern. With multiple religions and many different options even within Christianity it is no easy task to discover good options let alone the best options. Yet for each one of us life itself holds tremendous potential. Maybe for this reason alone it is worth choosing our direction with care.

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Lectionary Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, 23 February 2020 on Matthew 17:1-9

Transfigured? – so what changes?
One of the puzzles for those of us used to watching news documentaries and reading intended non-fiction as history is the question of why in much of the Bible there seem abrupt moves to convey truth by slipping into fantasy or even parable.

Perhaps I need to lay my cards on the table and admit I prefer to follow the group of scholars who assume that such assumptions of symbolism were common to story-telling of the time and for example this might then explain why in effect the gospel writers teach that Jesus shows us that through his witness that Heaven and Earth can be seen as intersecting. Some here will no doubt remember that in the accounts of the Baptism of Jesus a very similar symbolism is invoked. There too, God and Humanity are presented as coming together.

For those to whom the gospels were originally addressed, the early readers of the Gospel of Matthew would have been seeing things that we are less able to notice. The prophets for example had predicted that at the climax of history Moses and Elijah would have been expected to be reappearing. What better way to preempt the Easter story that having such figures appear on the mountainside. A form of transfiguration is also stressed in Paul’s writings when he predicts that we shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye at the sound of the last trump. (1 Corinthians 15)

Today’s gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is doubly curious in that although there are strong similarities with the same dramatic story in the gospel of Mark – yet sufficient differences remain for us to question even if the same event is being described. Perhaps you have already noted that in both stories, despite some features being the same, in neither story does the eye witness type record from Matthew and Mark include among the characters either of the writers as being present.

If either account did happen to be intended to come across as eye-witness reporting, the best we might suppose is that it was a second-hand version of what had actually happened.

We should acknowledge that the setting of this particular event on Mount Tabor would give the mountain as overlooking the plain of Megiddo. Those who prefer to assume the last book of the Bible important as a literal prediction of “the last Battle” assume that this will be the actual setting for the final confrontation between the armies of Good and Evil.

A literalist might possibly be confused as to why the differences in Mark and Matthew exist. Those anxious to see Jesus as a man of God-like wonder might be equally puzzled when despite the heights of miracle and transfiguration being achieved, just how quickly grim reality and unhappiness return to the story.

At the same time this roller coaster story of Jesus and those with him on the mountain top is very true to the nature of human experience. For those of us who are prepared to seek the heights there are indeed experiences of wonder and joy to be had, yet in the real world it is just as true that there would be few for whom their mountain top experiences have led to subsequent lives of joy and tranquil existence. In most people’s real world, unwelcome and even frightening expected plunges in to the depths are part of the human experience.

In effect, if we follow the story, hanging on to the past experiences and refusing to move on, may well be what Peter was trying to do when he is reported as wanting to provide a more permanent shelter for the leaders of his faith on the mountain top.. Although in this Matthew is kinder than Mark in the reported response to Peter (perhaps because at the time of writing Matthew’s gospel Peter has been given a clear leadership role in the developing Church) the fact is that we all need to see that we need to live in the present and not try too strongly to live in the past.

If we stay with the Bible account, then look past today’s reading, we would read on to find that Jesus and his close disciple friends who had been with him (recorded in this gospel version as Peter James and John) having to descend in a cloud. As if the cloud wasn’t enough, Jesus then encounters the father of the Epileptic boy. It may only be symbolic yet we should relate to Jesus’ frustration when he learns that the rest of the disciples have unable to help. “How much longer must I put up with you?” we read in one translation.

When we look at typical church settings today where the simple philosophy of helping one’s neighbor is often almost lost in the trivia of day to day Church activity, perhaps the gospel writer understands that Jesus’ reaction may need to be heard for future generations…even our own?

I have no wish to enrage the readers who prefer to insist that all the stories about Jesus are expected to be assumed to be accurately reported, but in this instance I wonder if we can learn more if we assume this story to have elements of symbolism.

If we can bring ourselves to admit writers like Matthew are best interpreted as being happy to use symbolism to make his point, yet far from seeing this as a fault I wonder if that also makes him more credible. He certainly appears to enjoy making his stories live with more than a little melodrama and I confess to enjoying his story telling gift. For example later, after the events of Easter, when Matthew talks of the resurrection he has the graves opening! For those of you who want to check that out for yourselves, in Matthew Ch 27 verses 52 and 53 Matthew talks of the saintly dead in Jerusalem alive and well and wandering the streets on Easter day. The fact that no one else at the time noticed (or at least recorded) this remarkable phenomenon I leave for your own reflection, but for me it makes perfect sense that Matthew was using poetic licence, anxious that everyone noted that Jesus was not done away with by the act of crucifixion.

Again we might remind ourselves Matthew might well have been alone in his version of the transfiguration but he adds a very important psychological point. The words of Jesus to his terrified disciples, prostate on the ground, are his words of challenge to anyone who would accept the challenge to be his disciples today. “Get up and do not be afraid.” This is another way I guess of saying by implication to his followers, “there is work to be done”. Notice Jesus did not say what still remains to do …but there is certainly a strong implication that we too as followers should face what is to come as bearers and as (hopefully) living examples of his message in a now fast changing world.

The transfiguration story places the emphasis on Jesus himself, and this is expected. But in terms of his followers there is also some subsequent  change. We may not be free from some gritty and at times unpleasant experiences back down from the mountain top, but if we choose to take this story seriously it gives us at least a partially transfigured starting-point. And why not be truthful. If some of the original disciples found it difficult to follow through later when times got hard we are not necessarily going to do better with our own realities.

I guess then the real question is not so much how accurately the gospels report Jesus’ transfiguration, nor simply in reading on to see how this transfiguration fitted in to the story of the development of those who started as pretty ordinary disciples. Rather the real question for us is whether or not – and to what extent – we are changed by what we learn?

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