1The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning‑hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
I don’t think it does justice to the text to limit the meaning of this passage to Judah and Jerusalem on the basis that they are mentioned, and nowhere else is, because scripture talks to us wherever we are, and in our own time. Isaiah was writing for people to whom, for many, Judah and Jerusalem meant the known world. As with much of the world in that era, the people were obsessed with hatred, fear, and the threat of wars. That should ring alarm bells for those of us in Australia, where violence and intolerance, based on religion and cultural differences, are well attested, and where the national government is determined to become a leading arms exporter. Recent censuses in Australia have shown a declining number of people who openly claim to be religious, so is there an underlying unwillingness to turn to God – by whatever name the deity is known – to find a resolution which is good for everyone? We have become a self-centred society in which God is often thought of as meaningless. If in doubt, just look at the number of pedestrians who can’t get their eyes off smart-phones connected to the internet, or look at those whose driving shows contempt for other road users. Thoughts and prayers for those whose lives have been thrown into turmoil because of early-season bush fires influenced by a drying and warming climate have been seen as tokenism when real action has been demanded. The problem with rich man stories in scripture isn’t the actual wealth but the focus on making money for self-interest. Those of us who long for a return to worshipping God can be encouraged by this word from Isaiah, suggesting that the house of the Lord will be established as the place to go, even if we feel it doesn’t stand a chance right now. Let us remember that ANYTHING is possible with God.
At some time in the (hopefully) not-too-distant-future people will begin to realise that what we have been fed for many years, and what we have been denied the chance to investigate, is what we really need to bring true peace to the world. If we sing “I was overjoyed, when they said ‘Come with us to the House of the Lord'” we need to be prepared to be challenged in the way we address people who are different from us in some way. One quote I often use is that if the governments of the world spent half of their defence budgets on cultural exchange programmes then there would be no more wars. The way to be a civilised society is not to engage in war, or provide others with the tools of war, but to work together, and to let God be the arbiter in any disputes. Our ‘tools of war’ need not be the usual weapons of guns and bombs, because our words are often ‘tools of war’. How often do we try to undermine someone else because “I’m right and you’re wrong”?
What does it mean, for us, if we are to let God teach us His ways, that we may walk in His paths, not ours? I have no doubt that we will all be faced with accepting that our behaviour in some circumstances is far from responsible, and that we have to look at issues as if through the eyes of someone with whom we vehemently disagree, but that it precisely what God wants us to do. When we accept the challenge we will walk in the light of the Lord.
We often think of the transfiguration as a one-off historical event, but by doing that do we exclude the chance that others have been transfigured as they follow in the footsteps of Christ?
2Jesus took Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. He was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4There appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, He ordered them to tell no-one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead, 10so they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
It doesn’t make sense for this story to be anywhere other than in the second half of Christ’s ministry on earth, and certainly not before the temptations, which marked the beginning of His ministry, and which were the subject of the gospel reading on the first Sunday in Lent. Jesus chose three of the disciples in whom He felt He could trust, so, given His humanity, it could not have been at the beginning of the ministry, and there were too many other things happening close to the end of His earthly life. Why did he choose three? Why these three?
Playing favourites is always likely to result in human dissatisfaction and ill-feeling, so I find it hard to accept that Christ would engage in such activity, but the way Peter is often portrayed in the gospels and Christ’s comment that he would be the rock on which the church would be built do suggest that He had big things in mind for Peter, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to be one of the chosen ones. In Mark’s gospel we aren’t told which James and which John were with Him on that mountain. Were these James and John sons of Zebedee, whose mother asked for them to be seated at Christ’s right and left? Matthew’s rendition of the story does say that they were brothers, but that could well have been a Matthean addition to the Marcan text he had available to him. Was John “the beloved disciple” who inspired the fourth gospel? Possibly. I don’t know the answer, and I haven’t come across any commentaries which have considered that part of the story effectively. With an event such as the transfiguration about to occur Jesus would have taken enough witnesses to make description of the hard-to-explain occurrence a little more believable. Normally two witnesses would be considered sufficient in the context, but this calls for more.
For those of us used to thinking of mountains and mountaineers, going up a high mountain would be like climbing Everest, or Mont Blanc, or Kosciuszko, but to those in biblical times climbing a high mountain represented getting closer to God, and the higher the mountain the closer you would be to God. Here we have Jesus and three disciples close to God in more ways than Peter, James and John imagined.
Matthew and Luke both describe the transfiguration as Christ’s face changing, in Matthew shining like the sun, and his clothes becoming a brilliant white. We would do well to see that transformation as an indication that Christ was doing God’s work, and we should try to emulate Jesus in that regard. Let’s not believe that such a transformation only occurred once, on that mountain: I have heard, from devout Christians in 20th and 21st century Australia, reports of similar experiences, and I’m sure they are not the only ones.
Peter, however, was blinded by the light of this vision, became fearful, and wanted to build tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah – representatives of the law and the prophets, rather than seeing the world around him lit up by the heavenly presence. If we were in Peter’s shoes and see someone transfigured, would we be scared and want to put away that experience rather than embracing it? In Anglican communion services in Australia the Two Great Commandments statement used to end with “on these two laws hang all the law and the prophets”, but it seems Moses and Elijah have lost their importance.
Jesus didn’t have to answer Peter’s request to build tents because the cloud of unknowing enveloped all of them, and God spoke the same words as were reported at His baptism – they are identical in the Greek, but translated differently – and adds that we should listen to Him. Elijah had already come and the people had rejected his message. Now it was time for the message to be heard, to be inwardly digested, and to become part of our lives. In the comfort of a relatively safe society, with freedom to practise whatever religion we desire, do we actually hear God’s word, or do we just listen to the sounds and not let them transform our comfort?
Having given these three disciples an experience of a life-time Jesus ordered them to keep quiet about what they saw and experienced until after His resurrection, though the disciples were yet to understand what that would be like. We have no such requirement. Indeed, we should be proclaiming the risen Christ as Lord for the benefit of all people. Of course, that’s not going to be easy in a community which is focussed so much on the mistreatment of young people by a very small minority of church leaders across the board. We have allowed the bad apples in the barrel to condemn all the good ones because we have failed to denounce the actions of those who undermine the Good News – some would call them false prophets – and to highlight the good work of the vast majority.
Let us all have an experience where we see the transfigured Lord, or someone in His stead, and may that drive us to spread the Good News and overcome the bad.
When we say “nothing can separate us from the love of God” are we prepared for the implications?
26The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not even know how we ought to pray, but through our inarticulate groans that very Spirit is pleading for us; 27and God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people according to His will.
28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29for those whom God knew before ever they were He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn within a large family; 30and those whom He predestined He also called; and those whom He called He also justified; and those whom He justified He also glorified.
31With all this in mind what are we to say? If God is on our side, who is against us? 32He did not withhold His own Son, but gave him up for all of us. How then can He fail to lavish every other gift on us? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? Not God, who acquits! 34Who is to condemn? Not Christ, who died and rose again; not Christ who is at God’s right hand and pleads our cause! 35Then what can separate us from the love of Christ? Can hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we have been treated like sheep to be slaughtered.’ 37Yet, through it all, overwhelming victory is ours through him who loved us. 38I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus answers a question I think we’ve all asked at some time: how do I pray? Hence we have The Lord’s Prayer [Matt 6:9-13]. I’ve been asked several times what prayer really is. To me, the answer is a conversation with God. If we’re having a conversation of any value, rather than a monologue, then it must be a two-way street: we need to ‘speak’ and we need to ‘listen.’ In this encouraging passage from Paul, writing to the Christian community in Rome, we are reminded that, when we are lost for words in our efforts to pray the Holy Spirit will do the praying for us. Our inarticulate groans are, in fact, the Spirit talking to God on our behalf. One pitfall which Jesus highlighted in the Sermon on the Mount was that we shouldn’t think the more we say in prayer the better. Indeed, when we talk we don’t listen anywhere near as effectively as when we are quiet. There is a saying that we were given one tongue and two ears in order that we might speak less and listen more. It is better to let the inarticulate groans of the Spirit speak on our behalf than for us to babble on meaninglessly, or with a focus anywhere other than on God’s work. What’s more, we might think we know what we want but we often do not know what we need. However, the Spirit, working in us, does know what we need and is prepared to ask on our behalf if we are willing to let it do so.
When we truly love someone we will do something for that person without being phased by any potential negative consequences for ourselves. If the object of our true and unconditional love is God then the good of all comes before our own benefit, but God does not leave us out of those benefits. Sometimes what is good for us in the long term is something we desire to avoid because we don’t see the good that might come. Being diagnosed as diabetic, and having to make lifestyle and food changes might be undesirable, but the benefit of being healthier, which comes later, can be very rewarding. In my social justice rôle there can be hours of hard slog trying to defend one person and no sign of progress, then a breakthrough which helps everyone.
Are those of us who constantly ask what Jesus would have done in the same situation as we find ourselves in showing signs of being “conformed to the image of His Son”? There are many who are called by God to be conformed in that way, and they are all “justified” – let’s say “brought closer to being at one with Christ” and will, in time, according to Paul, be glorified by God.
The saying “if you are not for me then you are against me” has often been used to rail against those who have a different opinion on how to tackle an issue and bully them into agreement. That isn’t what Paul is thinking here. When God is on our side He doesn’t dictate to us that we must like silverbeet or mushrooms, or peanuts; He doesn’t dictate that we should like a particular political party. No, when God is on our side we have encouragement, loving guidance – even if we don’t want to listen to it – and help to overcome our weaknesses and our mistakes. Anyone who is against us is trying to separate us from God. When our focus is on doing the work which God has set for us then anyone trying to undermine that effort will find an immoveable opposition there to acquit us of things we have been accused of doing wrongly. Christ also pleads for us in the heavenly court so that we might be free to continue our work. The love of God, as shown to us in the love of Christ, is totally unconditional – and a challenge for us to emulate, but that love will be there through thick and thin. Our problem is that we focus so much on the hardship, the distress, the persecution, the famine, the nakedness, the peril, and anything else that’s negative and comes our way, that we don’t see the love of Christ which is there and surrounding us. For our sake, the prophets of yesteryear and the prophets of this year are treated like lambs to be taken for slaughter because, as a community, we don’t stand up for the Christian faith. When we realise that we have let political correctness stop us from giving Christmas cards, or teaching non-Christian children the reasons for our religious holidays then we might need to call on the greatest legal mind available to us, God, to acquit us when we ignore the instruction to stop.
There is more to Paul’s summary statement than many people find comfortable. To Paul’s list of things which he doesn’t see as separating us from the love of Christ, we might specifically add colour, race, sexual orientation, choice of clothing, language, education, homelessness, criminal activity and drugs, to name a few. Nothing, not even those issues which might send shivers down our spines, can separate us from the love of Christ. Do we respond to that love in a positive or a negative way, or do we just ignore it and hope that it will go away because it calls on us to change our thinking or our actions.
Those who read last week’s gospel, would have heard about wheat being sown in different soil conditions. This time Jesus looks at the seed, not the ground, and lays more challenges for us.
Matthew 13:24‑30, 36‑43
24Jesus put before the crowd another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26When the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well, 27so the slaves of the farmer came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29but he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
36Then He left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seeds are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evil-doers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
If you started reading this passage and thought it was the parable of the sower sowing seed in good soil, rocky soil, and elsewhere, then you would not be alone, but in this part of the parable Jesus looks not at the soil into which the seeds are planted, but at the very seeds themselves. I truly wonder, at times, whether any of His audience understood what He was saying.
Jesus had a bad habit of telling stories that revealed much for those with some inside knowledge, but even the disciples had to keep asking Him for explanations. Wearing my teaching hat I would say, based on stories like this one, that Jesus failed miserably to communicate with His students. However, He kept getting large crowds, and people coming to Him for healing, so He must have been better at getting across His message than seems from parables such as these.
The farmer has spent time and money getting his good seed into what he hopes is fertile ground so that he can get a decent crop, feed his family and slaves, and make a living out of the rest. Along comes the trouble maker and plants weeds in amongst the real crop to reduce the value of it. Something else which has the same effect is the absence of vital rain. I think of all those farmers in the Central West and Great Southern who took advantage of really good summer and early autumn rain this year to plant seed for what looked like it would be a bumper harvest, only for the normal winter rain to miss them completely.
This story, though, is not about a lack of rain, but the actions of someone with evil intent trying to contaminate the crop (the Good News) so that those supplied with the fruit of the crop (the readers and listeners) get an unpleasant taste (the wrong message). If we repeatedly get an unpleasant taste when eating something we will be turned off, and, in the case of the Good News, losing interest in even listening. That’s Bad News. Are those occasions when I have opted to worship in another church examples of me avoiding the unpleasant taste caused by someone contaminating the Word? Should I stick with the group I know, and let God do the sifting? What would Jesus do? He certainly didn’t back off when the temple authorities were contaminating the Word. All we need to do is remember the story of the money changers, or the widow who put her last coins into the treasury.
What we can do is be on guard in case the thief should come when we are least expecting it, or come bearing what look to be attractive gifts to entice us away from the real message. If we are alert then we will check to see if those unpleasant tastes are genuine, or the result of contamination, and we will avoid listening to those who persist in the contamination. The wheat can grow up next to the weed but we know that the farmer will have the weeds removed first when it comes time to gather the crops. If we have been listening to the Good News we will be part of the harvest, and we will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.
Have we listened, or have we just heard, the message from this parable? Are we like the wheat that has been sown, being abundant as fruit of the Good News, and therefore bringing others to God, or are we like the weeds, trying to distract people from listening to that message, and taking them away from God? I pray that the strength of the good seed will endure over the weakness of the weeds.
When I first read Psalm 126 in preparation for this reflection I was reminded of Brahms’ “Requiem” with a beautiful chorus picking up on this psalm.
Psalm 126 1When the Lord turned again the fortunes of Zion,
Then we were like those who restored to life. 2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with singing. 3Then said they among the heathen,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ 4Truly the Lord has done great things for us,
and therefore we rejoiced.
5Turn again our fortunes, O Lord,
as the streams return to the dry south. 6Those who sow in tears
shall reap with songs of joy. 7Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed,
shall come again in gladness,
bringing their sheaves with them.
There are fifteen “Psalms of Ascent”, of which this is one. The Jewish traditional interpretation is that they represent the fifteen steps on the way up to the temple entrance, but taken on their own they speak of other aspects of our religious upbringing.
At various times in their history the Hebrew/Jewish/Israelite people were forced into exile by some dominating power which overtook their land. Some would even say that the Palestinian occupation of “The Holy Land” and the forcing of Jews into many other countries around the world, was another example of being forced into exile, with the 1948 formation of Israel as an indication of the restoration of the Holy Land to the Jews. Whenever this religious population has been forced out of what the Hebrew Scriptures call the Promised Land there have been attempts to maintain the faith in the face of their exile, waiting for the tribes to be returned. In every case there have been groups of Jews who have settled in the new land and, for one reason or another, have not returned to the Middle East when the opportunity has arisen. Thus we have Jewish communities in most countries. Though these people might have some religious pull back to Israel, for the vast majority their real home is somewhere else.
For those who have formed the initial flow back to Israel after a period of exile there is a sense of homecoming. The call of the land is strong, just as it is for Australian aboriginal people, and when they can return there is an abundance of joy. When people are full of joy they will sing, and the greater the joy the more enthusiastic the singing. Sometimes, of course, the joy is artificial or created by imbibing in too much alcohol, but the music can be uplifting, as with the rousing chorus which ends the first part of Haydn’s “Creation” oratorio: “All Hail to the Wine!”
Psalm 126 tells us that when God determines that it’s time to restore His people to their homes there will be laughter and singing, and the people living in surrounding parts of the world will recognise that God has done something wonderful.
For those of us who like to look at events of the past as just history, this psalm shows us how grateful the people were for their restoration, but if we look at scripture as a spiritual journey, reflecting our own journey, then we might want to take note of verse 5 in the breakdown of the psalm as in APBA. With the decline in the number of people openly claiming some religious association, as shown in the latest Australian census, are we not suffering from an invasion of non-Judeao-Christian thinking? Census reports show strong evidence of other spiritual interests, so are we living in a form of exile where our sacred places are being made less attractive because of worship of other forms of god, such as sport and Sunday trading? “Turn again our fortunes, O Lord” is a rewording of the cry for greater participation in churches. We have long complained about the lack of new people in parishes, the ageing nature of our congregations, and the lack of interest in attending services as little as once a week. Our fortunes need to be turned around. Is God telling us that He wants them turned too, but we are getting in the way? Do we need help putting into practice what God has called us to do, on may occasions?
I thought it appropriate that the second half of verse 5 speaks of streams returning to “the deep south” given that rainfall in the south-west of Western Australia has declined markedly since the early 1970s and many of our streams and rivers struggle to flow at all in the heat of summer. Will we sing for joy if God helps us reignite our passion for the Good News, bringing people back to the fold – and will God then return the streams to the dry south?
Many of us, over many decades, have sown the seeds of our faith with tears because of the frustration we feel as churches lose their way, people turn away from organised religion, and our own faith is challenged in this exile in our own land. There are times when we feel like a gardener, having planted good seed (of faith), seeing the lack of water (flowing from teaching in the churches), having to do more to sustain that new life, and only being able to offer our tears. In God’s own time, however frustrating that is for us, there will be a restoration, and those who have sown the seeds of faith with tears will be able to reap the rewards, singing songs of joy, and bringing home the harvest.
I believe that if we want this exile to end soon, and we want to be singing songs of joy with enthusiasm, passion and vigour, then we must make a greater effort to listen to what scripture calls on us to do. Participants in Education for Ministry groups share personal spiritual journeys, and I’ve often described them as a parallel to the spiritual journey of the Hebrew people of the Old Testament and the Christian people of the New. When we look at our scriptures from that aspect we are called to live in the scriptures, not just read them as history books with no connection to our lives. Can we take on Psalm 126 and live the dream of restoration which God offers us? If we do, then what does our faith challenge us to do to achieve that restoration?
The dysfunctionality of the Abraham dynasty serves to show us that God can take something riddled with problems and produce something which is good. Abraham’s role as a forefather of the Jews and Christians comes from God’s grace, not his righteousness.
19These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan‑aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord, 23and the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’
24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterwards his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ 32Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ 33Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
At a time when real life expectancy would have been under 60 years, we’ve had Abraham and Sarah having a child in their extreme old age, and Isaac being married when he was 40, not long after his mother, who was in her 90s when she conceived him, had died. According to the stories, Abraham was still alive when Isaac married Rebekah. The line of descent was very important to the people, so the one chosen to be Isaac’s wife had to come from a particular group. Thus Abraham had prayed for God’s guidance for his servant who had been sent to find a suitable young woman.
Possibly in the belief that Isaac was the son promised to Abraham to be make him a father of many nations, based on the miracle of Sarah conceiving in her 90s, Isaac was the only son – he had Ishmael before Isaac and six more after Sarah’s death – whom Abraham did not send away and disinherit. So much for valuing family life!
If we look at verses 20 and 26 we notice that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah and 60 when she conceived. Were his prayers to God to open Rebekah’s womb entreaties over all of that 20 year period? We hear only that Isaac prayed, and that his prayer was answered, but how often did he pray and feel that he wasn’t getting the response he sought? Is that like us? Would we keep going with a prayer like that when we saw no change in circumstances?
However long Isaac had been praying for Rebekah’s barrenness to be overcome it finally was, and she conceived not a single child, but twins, who fought for much of the pregnancy, draining her to a point of despair. Even then God knew that the two children would fight each other, dividing the family, with the younger one ruling over the older one – a far cry from the standard of the oldest male child being in charge. The image of Jacob hanging onto a foot of Esau as they were born suggests that Jacob was trying to pull Esau back so that he could be born first. Names were always important in those days, and were chosen with much thought. “Esau” relates to both Edom, the land over which Esau had dominion, and “red”, which was his colour when he was born; “Jacob” relates to Israel, the land over which Jacob would have dominion, and the heel which he grasped as the boys were born. Whereas Abraham considered Isaac his favourite son, and left his whole estate to him, Isaac favoured Esau over Jacob, and Rebekah favoured Jacob over Esau. We hear nothing of their growing up in a family with divided favourites except that Esau became a skilled hunter-gatherer, and Jacob, the one chosen by God, became skilled in cooking. Though these are complementary roles, Jacob’s time in the kitchen and looking after the home would have been seen as crossing the unmarked divide between the separate roles of men and women.
Like all of the early parts of our scriptures, this story would have been told many times around camp-fires in communities which had grown from the Abraham/Isaac/Jacob dynasty so it’s hardly surprising to see disparaging comments such as Esau asking for “red stuff” instead of the stew that Jacob had made. Quite likely that would have brought a hearty laugh. If we were party to similar stories in camps descended from Esau we would probably find comments denouncing Jacob’s “sissy” status, and bringing further laughter. Is that what we do? When someone shows characteristics we don’t have do we mock them and try to bring them back into the fold? You bet we do! The reference to Edom looks to be associated with Esau being famished, but it really relates to the food with the Hebrew repeating “red” at the end of Esau’s request for some of the stew. Our English translations could easily portray that better.
Esau may have declared that he was dying, because he was famished, but I think that was more in line with our claims that we are starving when, in reality, we are just hungry – and we wouldn’t use the phrase if we had seen and worked with people who really are starving. If Esau had really been dying Jacob would have known that the birthright would have been his without asking, but Esau was speaking out of hunger and the appetising smell of good food. Thus Jacob sought to gain Esau’s inheritance rights – a double portion of the estate on Isaac’s death – in addition to his own, through refusing to feed him until he committed himself. It is astounding, though a welcome reflection of how God works with sinners, that Jacob should cheat his brother out of something for which Esau cared little at the time, and clearly didn’t think through the consequences of his acceptance. Let us beware of the times we quite happily give up things of value when we want something else. I can think of politicians buying votes at elections, banks removing security when offering us convenience, our desire to interact on social networks taking away our skills associated with looking around us and relating to those with whom we share space, and critical thinking being pushed from schools to make way for all the information we don’t really need but someone convinces us we do. Feel free to add as many more examples as you like.
This time Jacob cheated his brother; later he would cheat others, including his father, too. He was a serial offender of great magnitude, yet God took Jacob and made his descendants into a nation – not one big enough and dominant enough to rule the world, but one built on faith, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Scripture tells us how the people of the day explained why things were the way they were in theological terms – and it wasn’t always pretty. If we all got along perfectly well with each other, respected each other, celebrated our differences, and worked for a common good then life might be quite boring, but throw in some competitive aspect, some different thinking and some self-centredness, and we have an image which not only looks like the world around us today, but also like the world in which Jacob was living. If there’s so much of a parallel between now and then, what can we learn from the Jacob and Esau story? Maybe we could start with accepting that even dysfunctional families can be called by God to do great things. When we put our heads together and focus on our faith, rather than self-interest, we can do great things, with God’s help.
“Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest”
Matt 11:15‑30 (15-19 and 25-30)
15If you have ears, then listen!
16‘To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market‑places and calling to one another, 17“We played the pipes for you, and you did not dance;
we lamented, and you did not mourn.” 18John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He is possessed”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax‑collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
20Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his miracles had been done, because they did not repent. 21‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades, for if the miracles performed in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’
25At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learnèd, and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your will. 27Everything is entrusted to me by my Father; and no-one knows the Son except the Father, and no-one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him. 28‘Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
The Greek verb used in verse 15 literally means “to hear”, but the meaning is clearly far more than that, so I have translated it as “to listen”. We often hear without listening, but Jesus is telling us things to which we need to listen, and not just to hear the words. We sit in our churches and ask ourselves why people are not coming to church as they used to; we have talk-fest after talk-fest trying to fathom why our numbers are in decline, and people still don’t come. Are we listening, or just hearing?
John the Baptist came from the wilderness to preach repentance and to baptise people, and he was described by some as “possessed”, because he challenged the status quo, and he didn’t eat “normal” foods, or drink in “moderation”, whatever that might mean. The text doesn’t say ‘in moderation’ but, given that almost everyone drank wine, the context surely means that. Jesus came, eating and drinking – because He knew that the way to a man’s heart (and presumably to a woman’s also) was through the stomach, and was duly labelled a glutton and a drinker. If someone comes into our lives and challenges the status quo, or wants to fraternise, to get to know us through meeting over a meal (at which wine is also served, as per the custom of the day), how do we react to that person? Do we label them “possessed” and so unworthy of our attention, or do we listen, rather than just hear, take note, and contemplate our response to the challenges which each brings? Is the man or woman who ministers to murderers, thieves, or child molesters cast out for daring to follow in Christ’s footsteps because such action requires us to associate with sinners? All too often we support human “wisdom” instead of that of God, which we will ultimately acknowledge is far better than ours.
Skipping over verses 20-24, as listed in the Revised Common Lectionary, we find that Jesus thanks God for hiding the truth from those who are wise, and those who consider themselves to be learnèd. We could read into that those who have focussed so much on higher education degrees that they have lost contact with what their studies can do to benefit everyone. I used to provide recordings of conference talks, and at one session someone with a Ph.D. asked how to fill in the very simple order form, such was the focus on one area of learning. Surely, you would think, those who are wise and learnèd would be the best to understand what Jesus had been saying; but that’s not the case, because there are so many closed minds, so many blinkered views, and so little understanding of how others learn that these are often among the worst people to bring the Good News. God chose those who were not wise, not learnèd, and simple in approach, to spread the word; Jesus chose fishermen and a tax collector among His inner group, and He chose not to reveal the Father to the religious establishment. Let those who have ears, listen.
The last two verses of this passage will be familiar to anyone who has listened to, or performed Handel’s “Messiah”. We are encouraged to turn to Christ particularly when we have strayed from His presence and find ourselves tired and over-burdened. If we turn to the gentle and humble-hearted Christ then the stresses and concerns that we carry are made easy, and the burden of them is made light. That may have been written nearly 2000 years ago, and made famous in the 18th century, but it is as relevant today, and to us, as it was across the millennia. Isn’t it interesting that when we move our focus from God we get tired and over-burdened, but when we return to the fold our yoke is easy and our burden is light?
Yes, I did miss verses 20-24. As we read the passage in church we will see many good messages for us. When we miss parts of a passage I always ask if those verses have a message which some of us don’t want to hear. In this case I believe that is true.
Christ wasn’t complaining about the “wise and learnèd” people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, for not listening and acting on what they had learned, but the less educated people, who, having seen miracles performed, and listened to Christ’s teachings, still didn’t do anything to amend their ways. One way of looking at that is to say that if you do something wrong out of ignorance there is no sin, but if you do wrong knowing that it is wrong then there is sin, and sin requires confession and a commitment to avoid the sin in the future if at all possible – allowing for human weaknesses – for it to be forgiven. A contemporary scenario to fit that issue is the institutional response to child sexual abuse and the willingness to cover up misdemeanours when they have been exposed, rather than address the issue and repent, which, you may remember, involves a turning around. In our human weakness, and in the absence of God’s direction, we might be tempted to go overboard, and create more openings for sin by removing the opportunity for church leaders to relate to children at all. After all, there can’t be sexual abuse of children if there are no children present to sexually abuse. Naturally, that is only one form of abuse which occurs in organisations, so we need to be vigilant in other areas, to listen to those who feel they are abused, and to address those concerns without sweeping them under the carpet. These verses from Matthew’s gospel warn us to do what God wants, or we will be condemned to Hades even if we nominally declare our allegiance to Christ. No wonder they are excised from the reading in church. Can we learn from our mistakes? Of course we can, if we trust God, truly repent, and use our ears to listen.
“Doubting Thomas” tends to get a bad rap, but is that fair?
24Thomas (who was called The Twin), one of the twelve, was not with the others when Jesus came, 25so the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord,’ but he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26A week later His disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
On the day of His resurrection, Jesus came to visit the gathered disciples in a locked room in Jerusalem, but, for some reason, Thomas wasn’t with them. This one disciple had not returned to the room but might well have been planning for his return to his former life, now that his leader had been killed and buried, or been out getting some food for the gathered group. After all, a dead leader can’t lead, can he? Someone has to provide food and drink. When Thomas rejoined the group he was enthusiastically told that Jesus had been present in that room while he was absent. For Thomas, however, the reality was that Jesus had died on the Friday afternoon, and it was now Sunday evening.
Thomas’ absence was no accident. The lack of personal encounter with the risen Christ is something with which we are all too familiar. Like so many millions of people since, Thomas couldn’t come to grips with the idea that a man who had been killed on a Friday could walk into a room full of his followers on the following Sunday. He had one factor in his experience that we haven’t had: he had seen and heard the very human being who had been crucified, so to accept that his Lord and Master had appeared in real flesh and blood afterwards was something for which he needed more proof than the word of his friends.
Was there an expectation, among the disciples, that Jesus would make another appearance in that upper room the following Sunday, and so Thomas was determined not to miss out on meeting his Lord and Saviour if that were to happen? There is no parallel for this story, in the other gospels, so it is likely that John, writing more than a generation later, created this double encounter to help us with our belief struggles.
As soon as Jesus had greeted the other disciples once more He turned to Thomas, not in a highly critical way to chastise the errant one, but in love. “Come, Thomas, feel the wounds in my body; put your hand in my side, and believe.” Unlike when we encounter someone who will not believe what we have been saying, there is no judgement against Thomas. He needed a bit more help to come to a realisation that something which was hard to believe had happened had actually happened.
What this passage screams, for me at least, is Christ’s acceptance that some of us need to ask questions, and to get answers to those questions, in order that our experience of reality might be enhanced to include what happened at that time. If we have never seen someone who has risen from the dead, and our experience is that everyone dies, and that’s the end of that person’s life, how can we take on board not only that it is possible, but also that it happened to Jesus, whom we have never seen – or have we? I maintain that Christ couldn’t come, as He did 2000 years ago, in our time, because there would have been blanket media coverage and every word He said, and every deed He hid would have been recorded as set in concrete, giving us no space for our faith to grow, and the medical fraternity would have insisted on investigating how he managed to come back to life. Without questions our faith cannot grow, so it’s important that we ask questions and not just accept what has been offered by others. False prophets get into our minds by positing information which is wrong, but believable. Asking questions helps us separate the false from the true.
Faith isn’t about having evidence of something; it’s not even about believing in something; it’s about trusting and knowing that something exists or happened. We don’t learn to trust our senses without asking questions of them. In the same way, Jesus gave us permission to ask questions about Him and His earthly ministry in order that we might believe in Him, and spread the Good News. Thanks to the work of the disciples, who expressed their belief in the risen Lord, with whom they had walked and worked, the early church grew rapidly. Because of the belief of those close to Christ many who had not seen Him, or had a personal experience of His risen self, came to believe also. With attendances at churches in decline it’s worth asking ourselves if we have stopped believing as the original disciples believed, and thus our expressions of our faith are having less of an impact on the people around us? What can I do to help you believe as they did?
aAccoding to the lectionary published for Australian Anglicans the feast of Thomas can be celebrated on 4th July instead of 21st December. Some churches bring that forward to the Sunday in order to not miss the opportunity.
Would you take the life of your own child if you felt that God was calling you to do that? There’s far more to the story of Abraham and Isaac than that.
21:34Abraham lived as an alien in the country of the Philistines for many years, 1after which God tested him. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ and Abraham said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt‑offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt‑offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then he said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt‑offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ and he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt‑offering?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt‑offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
9When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son, 11but the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ and he replied, ‘Here I am.’ 12He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ 13Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. He went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt‑offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
Chapter 21 verse 34 has been included for context.
In his old age and while living in a foreign land, Abraham was visited by God, who told him that he would become the father of many nations [Gen 17:4] through his wife, Sarah, who was already well past child-bearing age. Now, though Abraham’s faith was strong and his trust in God was immeasurable, he was after all human, and his faith was tested because Sarah was not expected, at least in human terms, to be capable of having a son. We read, a couple of weeks ago, that Abraham had been visited by three messengers from God – perhaps God was one of them – bringing news that Sarah would have a son within a year of that encounter. Thus Isaac, a gift from God for both Abraham and Sarah, was born.
What do we do with a gift? Do we hang onto it, treasure its value to us, and not let other people enjoy the benefits of that gift, or do we relinquish control over the gift so that God can make something more spectacular with it and with us? This was a real challenge for Abraham. He was, by then, well over 100 years old – if he were alive today he’d be in the Guinness Book of Records for the oldest living person – he had just one son by his wife Sarah, and though God had promised to make him father of many nations He asked Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son.
Abraham must have been thinking all through the journey to where he had to make a sacrifice if he had heard God correctly. Why would God want Abraham to sacrifice the very son He had promised would be the source of a great many nations? There seems no point in such action, unless God were going to give Abraham another son in his ultra old age. No, this was a challenge to see if Abraham would hold on jealously to the gift (of Isaac), or would see it (him) as something for God. Thankfully, this is a theological story. Isaac was wise to the missing element of a sacrifice. His relationship with his father would have been sorely tested for a long time if he hadn’t considered what Abraham verbalised: God will provide for the sacrifice. Even so, when God practised His brinksmanship, and it appeared that He would not provide an offering, Abraham prepared to kill the very son on whom God’s promise depended. Only then did he notice the ram caught in a thicket.
What this extract excludes is that Abraham already had a son. Sarah, wanting to provide a son for Abraham, but not being able to do so, had offered her servant girl, Hagar, to be the fertile ground for Abraham’s seed. Human plans were invoked because it appeared that God was not going to provide the promised son. Where was Abraham’s faith then? After the birth of Isaac, Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast off from the Abraham dynasty. God saved them from starvation and thirst, and promised to make nations from Ishmael’s line as well. In the culture of the day Abraham was seen, after the expulsion, as having only one child, Isaac.
If we see, in this story, a man nearing 100, having a child with his wife (who was in her 90s at the time), taking the child away and being prepared to kill him because God had called him to do so, then we face problems of old bodies not being physically able to do the things which were reported, and a god who is prepared to risk the life of one whom He had sent to be leader of many nations. It is a story to confine to the annals of history, and to make us wonder why Isaac didn’t leave the father who was willing to bind and kill him. However, if we see, in this story, a theological explanation of God testing the faith of His servants, and asking them to make full use of the gifts He has bestowed on them, then we have a challenge for contemporary society. God gives us many gifts – Paul’s listings [Romans 12:4-8, 1 Cor 12:4-11] are just a start – and we have responsibility, in response to our faith, to use those gifts for the benefit of everyone. With God’s generous heart few people, if anyone, will be without a gift which can be used to help someone, and most of us will have multiple gifts which may be called on at different times. What are my gifts? What are yours? Sometimes our gifts are hidden because someone else doesn’t like us having them; sometimes they are hidden because we don’t want people to know about them. What will God think of us if we jealously guard the gifts He has given us, and don’t use them for the purpose for which they were given?
1Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we, who died to sin, go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? 4Therefore we have been buried with Him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5If we have been united with Him in a death like His, we will certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. 6We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin, 7for whoever has died is freed from sin; 8but if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life He lives, He lives to God;11so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Since we know that, whatever we do, the all-forgiving God will forgive us, should we be concerned about the sins we commit? It’s tempting to think that all we have to do after thinking something we shouldn’t think, or doing something we shouldn’t do, is to ask God for forgiveness and He will give it to us. Wrong!
The introduction to the confession in the Book of Common Prayer (1662/1928) says: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in His holy ways …” Saying “Sorry” just doesn’t cut it. Repentance involves turning our backs on the sins we have committed, with the intention of not doing the same again. If we say “Sorry” and ask God for forgiveness, but make no effort to lead a life closer to what God wants of us, then there is one person who will rub his hands in glee, because he has won another convert from worshipping God. So many pictures of Satan, over the centuries, have had him with horns, wearing red, and carrying a pitch-fork. I don’t know many people who would be attracted to someone like that. It’s far more likely that Satan will be in disguise as someone who might be thought of as being trustworthy: in no particular order and just as examples, a lawyer, a teacher, a priest, a bishop, a good politician, or a bank manager. The Hebrew Scriptures are littered with warnings to beware of false prophets, because the devil masquerades as someone who is giving good advice.
Paul is quite adamant that we cannot sin more just because grace will abound more. I love the Greek phrase he uses here: μη γεvετo (may guenneto – short ‘o’ at the end), which could easily be translated as “God forbid!” or several other expressions of similar ilk. If we are with Christ, and accept that He died to save us from our sins, then how can we deliberately sin again, and, more importantly, how can we respect that relationship we have with Christ and with God if we make no effort to amend our sinful ways? In Paul’s way of thinking, when we just carry on we crucify Christ all over again. When we have been baptised we are part of the life of Christ, and that includes His death and resurrection, so by putting aside our sins we can walk in newness of life.
Those words from the BCP are so close to this teaching of Paul as to be very useful and challenging. If we are “in Christ” then we will make every effort to turn away from sin, ignoring the calls from those who might be false prophets, we will have unconditional love for our neighbours – that doesn’t mean we have to agree with them or love their sins – and we will have an expressed desire to walk along paths prepared for us by God.
How true it is that when our mortal bodies no longer house our souls, in other words we depart from this mortal life, we are free from sin, but since Christ has already died for our sins we can enjoy a life free from sin while we are still here.
For me, understanding this passage is not difficult, but being sure to apply its teaching poses all sorts of questions relating to not being led astray by false prophets, and as I look around I find plenty of evidence of them having been at work. I don’t ask who I should be following; I just ask what Christ would do in the same situation as I find myself facing. In the words of the Anglican baptism services, “Do you turn to Christ?” I’m far from perfect, so I try to turn to Christ every time I find myself not facing Him. How about you?
A female patient in her 90s arrived at the doctor’s surgery with a bad dose of hiccoughs. Within seconds of seeing the doctor she rushed out laughing loudly and with no hiccoughs. A colleague asked how the doctor had cured the lady, and the reply was “I told her she was pregnant.” Poor Sarah got a similar message – only she didn’t laugh at a doctor, she laughed at what God had said.
1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre, as he was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. On seeing them, he ran from the tent door. Bowing low 3he said, ‘Sirs, if I have deserved your favour, do not go past your servant without a visit. 4Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet; and rest under this tree 5while I fetch a little food so that you may refresh yourselves. Afterwards you may continue the journey which has brought you my way.’ They said, ‘Very well, do as you say.’ 6So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quick, take three measures of flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ 7He then hastened to the herd, chose a fine, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who prepared it at once. 8He took curds and milk and the calf which was now ready, set it before them, and there, under the tree, waited on them himself while they ate.
9They asked him where Sarah, his wife, was, and he replied ‘She is in the tent.’ 10One of them said, ‘About this time next year I shall come back to you, and your wife Sarah will have a son.’ Now Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, close by him. 11Both Sarah and Abraham were very old, Sarah being well past the age of childbearing, 12so she laughed to herself and said, ‘At my time of life I am past bearing children, and my husband is old.’ 13The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Can I really bear a child now that I am so old?” 14Is anything impossible for the Lord? In due season, at this time next year, I shall come back to you, and Sarah will have a son.’ 15Because she was frightened Sarah lied and denied that she had laughed; but He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
Some English translations tell us that Abraham was near oak trees, others keep to the Hebrew terebinth, but if we tell this story in an Australian context we might say he was under the shade of a coolabah tree. Does it really matter which tree he was near? If we’re after the meaning of this passage of scripture we can do what the Israelites did, and tell the story in the context of the listeners. It’s a hot day, and three visitors arrive unannounced. What would we do? What would you do? In four weeks of walking around suburbs, handing out political material and talking to voters ahead of an election in March this year, in temperatures so high that I literally melted the soles of a good pair of shoes, I had three people, just three, offer me a drink. Abraham, on the other hand, welcomed the visitors, got Sarah to make some cakes – the NRSV suggests he went for bread but asked for cake – and even had a calf killed and prepared. One calf, for three people! I can’t eat more than 200 grams of beef in one meal; here we’re talking of more than 200 kilograms for just three people. Excuse the pun, but isn’t that a bit of overkill? When I prepare a simple roast it takes an hour per kilogram (or thereabouts) just to cook, and a whole calf would take many hours after being slaughtered and cut up, yet these travellers were fed and watered in the heat of one day, so the message obviously is not about over-eating, or supremely fast preparation of meat: it’s about hospitality for strangers. “Truly I tell you that anything you did for my brothers and sisters, you did for me” [Matt 25:40, REB]. Paul’s frequent message was that we establish a good relationship with God through faith, not works, but James points out that if we have faith then we will do the works which God calls us to do. In this case Abraham’s response to his faith is to provide food and water for the travellers, without asking questions. Is that what we do? If an old man turned up on the church steps ahead of a service, looking unkempt and having slept on the streets the night before, would we send him away while we have our prayer session, or share communion, or would we welcome him in because he just might be God coming to see what good works our faith will provide? Who would be more pleased, Satan, because he had succeeded in putting a wedge between us and anyone who was even slightly different in some way, or God, who could see us showing unconditional love?
Did the travellers name Sarah when asking where she was? If they did it would indicate some previous meeting and remembering of names, which, if course, is easy for God. With Abraham already well advanced in age it would be assumed that his wife was also well past child-bearing age, so is it really surprising that she laughed when one of the travellers said she would have a son within a year? “Laugh and the world laughs with you” (from ‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1850-1919), and remember that God is everywhere in the world, so when you laugh God laughs with you too – even if you are laughing at what He says.
There are times in our lives when we often think something is impossible, but impossible isn’t a word in God’s vocabulary. Everything is possible with God, even bearing children at a ripe old age. Does that mean that women who don’t have children after 40 don’t have faith enough to have more children? Of course not! God does, however, do what we think is impossible every day. People who have miraculous escapes, or who are restored to full functioning life after being under water for far longer than the four minutes it takes for the brain to die from lack of oxygen, are just two ways in which we see God’s hand at work. Have faith and God might surprise you, quite possibly more so if you laugh at the prospect. Even if she didn’t emit a single sound suggesting laughter God still knew she had laughed, and knew that her lie was because the thought of being pregnant at her age was incongruous. God knows everything about us, even our thoughts as they form, so there is no need to hide those thoughts from God, just to ask for His help to channel any bad thoughts to make good ones.
Moses, Moses, what on earth did you do? Moses had been up Mt Sinai allowing God to inscribe on two tablets of stone the words we have come to know as the Ten Commandments, but when he descended, and found that the Israelites had begun to worship other gods, he threw down the tablets and broke them. Maybe this was the first example of breaking the commandments of God. Now, God instructs Moses to make two more stone tablets for a second attempt at getting these commitments, which is a better translation of the Hebrew, to the people.
1The Lord said to Moses, ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. 2Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. 3No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.’ 4So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. 5The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord.’ 6The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation’; 8and Moses quickly bowed his head towards the earth, and worshipped. 9He said, “If now I have found favour in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”
As a professional analyst for most of my working life I cannot help but see some striking incongruities with the overall story of the giving of the commandments. The first is that Moses went up the mountain with Aaron and seventy-two others, but it was Aaron who was accused of leading the rest of the camp astray; the second is that Moses and troop went unprepared for a significant climb up Mt Sinai, and were on the mountain long enough for the people to start a revolt, to build a golden calf, and to establish a worship programme around it. There are problems when a theological text like this is taken literally, and then someone points out inconsistencies or impossibilities.
Moses is asked to make two new tablets of stone for God to write another copy of the commandments. That seems sensible enough, since Moses was the one who broke the first tablets in a fit of anger over what the rest of the congregation had done during his absence, but the instruction is to be ready for the morning and meet God at the top of the mountain. From what I’ve seen on Mt Sinai it would take some effort to climb it without carrying two stone slabs, and would probably take quite a number of hours too! The instruction that no flocks or herds should graze “in front of the mountain” is also somewhat of a problem as that would eliminate most of the region. Some commentators have claimed that differences in various renditions of what happened on the Exodus journey are the result of copies of stories being made, and errors being made in the process. My understanding is that these stories were told over many generations, the details being modified to fit circumstances leaving the message intact, and the differences, when a written form of scripture was created, come from the different versions which had developed over time.
The incongruities stop and the teaching starts, with verse 6. If we want to do what is pleasing to God then we should pay attention to how God deals with matters. The Lord is a God who is “merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” I can’t answer for anyone else, but maybe we should ask ourselves, more often, how merciful we are, how gracious, how quick to get angry, and if we abound in love and faithfulness which will last for an eternity? God keep to His faithful love for as many as a thousand generations. If we take a generation as 25 years, then that love will last for 25000 years, or more than four times how long a literal interpretation of the Bible will tell us the world has been around. God tells us that, for all that time, He will forgive our sins. Anyone who can achieve that must be more than a saint!
If God will forgive all our sins to the thousandth generation, does that abounding grace mean that we can sin a lot more, knowing that we will be forgive. Of course not – and this passage tells us that God’s forgiveness does not equate to being excused from punishment for those sins. God loves the sinner, not the sin, but the sinner must still wear the consequence of his or her own actions.
It might seem unfair on the children, the grand-children and beyond, for the iniquities of the parents to affect them, but if we consider the impact of someone in our own culture doing something seriously wrong, and being fined or gaoled then it will take time for the family to recover and to lose the stigma of a punishment. In some cases it could be some form of illness which can be passed on to subsequent generations. This is, after all, an expression of what was happening to the people at the time, and is their way of explaining something they did not understand in the same was as we do.
Moses bowed his head to pray. I ask the rhetorical question: do we bow our heads, or do we even need to bow our heads, to pray? It used to be common, just as kneeling to pray was common. Have we made prayer a comfortable experience, and forgotten that God wants to make us uncomfortable when we think of all we’ve done wrong because we haven’t thought of the consequences of our actions before engaging them?
God has been quite displeased with the Israelites, and Moses has pleaded on their behalf, and asks if the relationship has been restored enough for God to go with His people? I love the description of the Israelites as “stiff-necked” – they are stuck in their ways and will not, not can not, look at what’s going on around them, and change their ways accordingly. I’m sure we could all think of people and times when that description would be apt.
aAustralian Anglican congregations can expect to read this passage from Exodus, minus the last verse, on Trinity Sunday, rather than the Pentecost passage from Acts, as listed in the Revised Common Lectionary. Roman Catholic congregations will get an abbreviated version of this reading.
19When it was evening on the day of resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After He said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Right from its earliest days, the Christian community has amalgamated different renditions of the Pentecost story. The very name of Pentecost, a Greek word meaning “fiftieth day”, was used by the Jews for a celebration of the giving of the Ten Commandments. The counting depends on your culture. French people today talk of a week as “huit jours” – eight days, The Beatles sang a song entitled “Eight Days a Week”, and the Jews, just like the French, count the start and end days as part of the period. Thus Jesus rose from the dead on the third day not only because the Jews count a day from sunset, not from midnight, but also because the count was Friday, Saturday, Sunday to give three days. Luke’s use of the Hellenised Jewish term “Pentecost” in a Christian context, emphasising the link between the Jewish culture prior to Christ with the Christian culture in the new era, gave us fifty days from Easter to Pentecost, seven weeks, or 49 days on our counting system, later.
Ask most people who have been going to church for a few years and they will tell you that the story of Pentecost includes tongues of fire descending on the disciples in an upper room. That’s because we are so familiar with the version from Acts, courtesy of Luke, that we often forget there are other versions. If taken directly from the NRSV today’s gospel passage opens with “when it was evening on that day” which, of course, begs the question “which day?” so I have put this in context. According to John this is not fifty days after Easter but on the very day of the resurrection. Instead of Luke’s mighty wind and flames John tells us that the disciples were gathered in a locked room “for fear of the Jews.” John often used the term “the Jews” for those in positions of authority and who opposed the message of Christ, not for the vast majority of Jews, some of whom He had gathered together as close followers. Imagine, then, the thinking of those in that room when Jesus came and stood among them, clearly enough in the form of flesh and blood for the disciples to see Him and check His wounds. Given that the timing of this story is only hours after the incidents at the tomb, and some doubted the stories of the morning, word probably hadn’t spread among the remaining faithful, so this encounter may well have been the first experience many of the group would have had of the risen Christ. How many of them would have seen, on the following Sunday, someone who had died on the Friday? A big fat zero comes to mind. How would we react? It’s bad enough having a spiritual experience we can’t effectively share with others, but encountering the physical presence of someone we know had died would be even more challenging.
After His surprise arrival, Jesus passes on, not ‘the peace’ (as we claim to do in services as we share a sign of peace), but His peace, a peace which passes all human understanding. This isn’t “peace” as in an absence of war, but peace from heaven, brought by the man Himself and passed to the gathered disciples. Do we allow ourselves to experience that peace, or do we limit our understanding to human experiences. It’s like unconditional love. When we’ve experienced it, and acknowledge that we have, it transforms us, and changes our whole approach to life. If we read the six verses following these we hear about Thomas, the disciple who unfairly gets a bad wrap for asking questions, and who, according to John, missed the first Sunday evening prayer session with the risen Lord. Isn’t it fair to say that our reaction, if we had missed this important event, would be the same as that of Thomas? We grow in faith by asking questions, so there’s no reason to avoid Thomas’ response ourselves.
What an emotional roller-coaster these people must have been on. They’re hiding in a locked room for fear of the Jewish authorities, the leader whom they knew had died about 48 hours earlier turns up, without a key, to greet them, and then they start rejoicing. Love conquers everything! How do we respond to that revelation?
Having spent the best part of three years training up the merry band of disciples, with their wives and several other women, Jesus now gives them an important task. As God sent Jesus to bring the Good News to the Jewish people, so now Jesus sends the disciples on a mission which will extend well beyond their own shores; and to achieve that monumental task He provides them with the Holy Spirit. Here there is no talking in the languages of visitors to Jerusalem, as there is in Acts, just an instruction which carries with it huge implications, for if the disciples do not forgive someone’s sins those sins will forever remain with that person, unless, of course, God forgives them. Sometimes we are called on to forgive someone who has sinned against us so greatly that we find it difficult to forgive, because we are human. In that regard we can remember Christ’s own words on the cross: “forgive them, Father …” because the human Jesus found it too difficult to forgive. The first part of Christ’s instruction to the disciples is very important too: we can forgive people, and their sins are forgiven. That doesn’t exonerate them from any punishment resulting from the sin, but we don’t hold a grudge which will eat away at us. Life is too short to let those concerns get in the way of us having life to the full.
If there was no talking in tongues how then did the Holy Spirit empower those who were gathered in that upper room? Paul speaks of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the passage from Corinthians, which some churches will have read as the second lesson for Pentecost. Not only did Paul provide a non-exhaustive list of gifts but also an indication that those gifts can apply to anyone. Going back to the upper room, we know from Luke’s account [Luke 24:33] that there were others present who were not part of the remaining eleven, or twelve for Luke who, by this time had added Matthias. The Holy Spirit, then, was not restricted to the inner circle named in scripture, but was also given to those whose presence hadn’t counted through the years of Christ’s ministry, including those rejected by others as a source of teaching. I’m sure we’ve all encountered some of them, and probably learned from them too, if only we’d admit it. If we’ve all received the Holy Spirit, as we say we do in our baptismal services, what are we doing to spread the Good News? If we are able to talk to people in their own language are we sowing the seeds of faith and letting God tend to the new shoots?
To the leader. Of David. A Psalm. A Song. 1Let God rise up, let His enemies be scattered;
let those who hate Him flee before Him. 2As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
as wax melts before the fire,
let the wicked perish before God. 3But let the righteous be joyful;
let them exult before God;
let them be jubilant with joy. 4Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to Him who rides upon the clouds—
His name is the Lord—
be exultant before Him. 5Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in His holy habitation. 6God gives the desolate a home to live in;
He leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land. 7O God, when you went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness,
8the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
before God, the God of Sinai,
before God, the God of Israel. 9Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad;
you restored your heritage when it languished; 10your flock found a dwelling in it;
in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy. 32Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
sing praises to the Lord,
33O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
listen, He sends out His voice, His mighty voice. 34Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel;
and whose power is in the skies. 35Awesome is God in His sanctuary,
the God of Israel;
He gives power and strength to His people.
Several years ago I had the pleasure of recording a talk entitled “Utterly Avoided Psalms” and given by John Bell. We heard about psalms, or parts of psalms, which are never included in the liturgy you’ll attend on a Sunday morning, or Saturday evening, and why we try to avoid them. There are, of course, often good reasons for missing out some verses of scripture. For example, how would we, in a relatively civilised world, interpret “happy is he who seizes your babes and dashes them against a rock”? [Ps 137:9, REB]. Psalm 68 poses some other problems, and many scholars believe that it is the hardest of the psalms to understand. It’s no wonder, then, that we avoid parts of it, because if scholars cannot understand its meaning how are we unscholarly people going to understand it?
The psalms formed the hymn book of the day, so it’s not surprising that there is a note at the head of this one, indicating that the version we are about to read was written for the leader – effectively the conductor of a choir – and will give indications about how to sing this song. Our styles of music have changed significantly across the intervening centuries and across cultures, so Western ears may not feel that this is a song they would like to hear, but that’s what it is. Oh, to hear this sung properly to Anglican chants!
If we read through much of the psalm, and even restricting ourselves to the portion set for the Sunday after Ascension, we can quickly pick up on the military thinking. In the context of a dangerous and violent world order, and well before Christ taught us a better way to deal with those with whom we disagree, the hope was that God would make the enemies scatter and flee in the face of the Jewish army. Such was the faith of these people that they would willingly attribute to God responsibility for victory over an enemy, especially where the opposing forces would flee or give up any challenge. Unlike in today’s world, where there is international agreement that prisoners of war are supposed to be treated humanely and not tortured or killed for the sake of reducing their number, or scaring the remaining forces, it was common for those who had been beaten in a battle to be killed anyway. Thus the wicked – read ‘them’ – ‘perish before God,’ while the righteous – read ‘we’ – are joyful.
Translating the theme into our world today, and taking away the military implications, we might think of those who oppose the Christian message as being ‘them’ and those who try to promote it as ‘us’. That then raises the question of who is better, or more in tune with God’s word, so it’s important that we ask ourselves if we are claiming the high moral ground when we should be conceding that it doesn’t belong to us. When we try to overcome ‘evil’ forces on our own – and that’s oh so easy – we are denying God the opportunity to act according to His will, and we may be getting in the way of that will. Gamaliel’s address to the Sanhedrin [Acts 5:36-39] echoes this thought. Do we want to fight with God, or against Him? The psalmist, of course, is encouraging the people to trust God, and give credence where it is due. If they win, God has won the battle for them; if they lose, then they weren’t fighting for God anyway.
When you have that sort of conviction in your faith you will always sing praises to God, you will give thanks that He is father to the fatherless and mother to the motherless, a provider of needs for the needy. I’ve been through times when I haven’t known where the money is coming from to pay that week’s bills, but God has always provided – though I wish the mighty creator wouldn’t be master of brinksmanship! Do we tend to hand a problem over to God for a solution and then try to solve it ourselves? If anyone dare say “No” I suggest that confession should be the next step.
Verses 7 and 8 together have one thought, but there is an interruption with “Selah”, a word which defies translation and which is frequently printed in italics because it has a habit of stopping the flow. One theory I heard of a number of years ago was that it is equivalent to saying “Amen”, but unless it comes as an interjection from the congregation, when a cantor is singing the psalm, it could hardly be that when it happens mid-thought, as here. Another theory, mentioned in The Jewish Encyclopedia and supported by the comment at the head of the psalm, is that it is akin to musical notation suggesting a change in the arrangement, such as the introduction of a new instrument, or an instrumental interlude – as often happens in songs even today. If that’s the case, then reading “Selah” would be like saying “the introduce trumpets apples are good” instead of saying “the apples are good” while trumpets are introduced to the accompanying music. With that thought, it’s probably best not to verbalise the word. For these verses, ignoring the “Selah” also allows us to read the complete sentence and make sense of it.
God provides where there is need – but not necessarily on our time scale. Where the Hebrew people were, on their journey to the Promised Land, they had rain in abundance, and thus food; and they had shelter. The world was restored to what God had intended, but only because the people stopped trying to solve the problem themselves and called on God to help. Many parts of the world are now getting much less rain than before, resulting in crop failure, famine, and more. Are we listening to what God is saying to us to solve that problem, or are we continuing to rape the earth in the belief that we can solve it ourselves?
The first of the verses which have been omitted from this selection is interesting, but I will just leave the thought of the Lord speaking, and the women with the Good News being the mighty host. Let your feedback flow.
So we come to the last of the verses in this reading, and a clear emphasis on praising God and attributing to God all the power and strength that befits the Mighty Creator. This is where, if we were singing the psalm to an Anglican chant, we would change the chant from one with military overtones to one of out-and-out praise. Here the ‘selah’ might be an Amen thrown in by members of the congregation, in similar fashion to some of us clapping a rhythm in some modern liturgical songs. Having shown what God can do for us we turn to the praise, and lay it on thickly – I wish! There was a saying attributed to St Augustine, but more recently challenged as being by Pope Gregory, who gave us the Gregorian Chant, that goes “the one who sings prays twice.” The motto of the Royal School of Church Music is “psallam spiritu et mente”, which translates as “sing with spirit and understanding.” If we read the words of a psalm with no consideration for sentence structure then we mouth empty words; if we say the psalm with meaning we pray once; but when we sing it we pray twice. I know which I’d prefer.
8All of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil, or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called — that you might inherit a blessing. 10For
‘Those who desire life
and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
and their lips from speaking deceit; 11 let them turn away from evil and do good;
let them seek peace and pursue it, 12for the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and His ears are open to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’
13Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14Even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; 16but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame, 17for it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order to bring us to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also He went and made a proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. 21Baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to Him.
As with many other passages on which I have reflected, here we have evidence of how the members of the fledgling Christian community to which the author of this letter writes have been behaving in ways which suggest a lack of commitment to their faith. Though the heading says ‘1 Peter’, and the book opens with a Pauline style greeting, there is no certainty that Peter was the author. It could have been written as much as seventy years after the first Easter, with Christians doubting their faith more and more, and struggling to keep the vital link in the face of what they thought was a lack of evidence in support. The people to whom this was directed were clearly struggling with a lack of unity in their approach to God, a concern for their own well-being, and a willingness to claim that they were better than some of their fellow Christians. When I look around at groups which profess the Christian faith today what do I see but a lack of unity, concern for selves, and an “I’m better than you” attitude.
Because the timing of the passage is not clear it is also not clear whether the people originally targeted by the author were being ridiculed by unbelievers or were suffering greater persecution at the hands of the authorities who deemed that this Christian movement should be shut down as quickly as possible. Either way, those amongst whom these people were living were hostile to the message being portrayed. We think that, in an Australian society which is still predominantly Christian, we do not face the same problems, but we are ridiculed on a regular basis, and many of the laws which have kept our society civilised are challenged by those who do not understand the message. Is that because we show the world a divided and argumentative face, and display the same behavioural patterns as those outside the church? “They will know we are Christians by our love” – or will they? If we Christians are not persecuted in our own way in the 21st century then why are we so reluctant to stand up for our faith and proclaim the Good News? Jesus said “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say ‘love your enemy’. We are called to repay evil with good – and I know that’s difficult in many circumstances – but if we desire life and good days then we must steer away from evil, injustice, and unkind words. God sees our every action and hears all our thoughts, but He doesn’t use a big stick to punish us when we stray. That’s a human way, and it deals evil for evil. Mahatma Ghandi once said that if we apply the biblical rule of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ literally then we will quickly descend into a blind and toothless society.
By way of contrast, this reading is about hope: hope for a future in the presence of God without the persecutions of the day. We know that there are people around us who are opposed to our message, some of them by turning their backs on it, others, like Saul before his conversion and the so-called Islamic State today, engaging in violence to intimidate us into submission. In between are those who do all they can to tear down our thinking by the use of words, deliberately scheduling sport at the same time as church services, or demanding that shops are open all day every day. Whatever the approach of those who would have us silenced we mustn’t return the ill-will, and, and here’s the biggest challenge, we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and profess our faith. Leaving to God any future treatment of those who oppose us isn’t always easy, but we can be strengthened by Christ’s own words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When we look to the future, what happens to those who stood in our way in the past will pale into insignificance.
If Christ suffered, even though He did no evil and said nothing other than to start the movement which spread the Good News, then we should not be surprised to suffer at the hands of those around us. When we connect with the Easter messages of hope and the help of the Holy Spirit, rather than consider what happened 2000 years ago as historical events, then we can be empowered to spread the News with confidence and effectiveness. After just one sermon from Peter, 3000 were added to the Christian community in a society which was more hostile to the Christian message than ours is today. How we respond to suffering among good people might not benefit us in the immediate future, or even in our current life, but if it benefits the Christian message then we should celebrate.
As children of God we can expect to move from our earthly existence to a spiritual one, along with Christ, but who are the ‘imprisoned’ spirits mentioned in this letter? It’s an unusual description, an intriguing one, and one for which scholars have yet to find a single possible explanation. Since Christ has dominion over the dead, as well as those who live, was He freeing the spirits of those who had died before Him so they, too, could be resurrected? Were those spirits among the angels who fell short of the glory of God and were banished from heaven, along with Satan? Were they the resistence movement of the time of Noah, since he was mentioned by the author? Does that also mean that those who die today without any knowledge or experience of Christ in their lives are saved by Christ’s action in ministering to the dead? Paul told us not to take advantage of God’s grace when we sin and ask for forgiveness but to do the right thing to start, so are we going to show them that we are Christians by our love?
55Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57but they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
For someone named after the first Christian martyr this passage has a personal significance, but it is far deeper than just the familiarity with the name. Stephen had welcomed the gift of the Holy Spirit, embracing it to the extent that he was “filled” by that Spirit, and so could see and do things which we humans cannot do without God’s help. The description is of Stephen being able to see into heaven. We are necessarily left with no explanation of how this occurred, or what else he was able to see, because how each individual responds to the presence of the Holy Spirit, and what we can “see” will depend on our personal relationship with God. It’s not like being able to see the contents of a box. This is the spiritual world which too few of us ever experience until our deaths, and which some of us even deny exists. What was described here as “the glory of God” is something which is beyond words. It is a mystery, and we should resist the temptation to try to explain it, or describe it in words which will only limit its meaning. In keeping with Christ’s own teaching, Stephen “sees” Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Some commentators over the years have distinguished a Jesus sitting at the right hand of God in judgement, from a Jesus standing at the right hand of God as advocate, just as a judge sits during a court case but the legal teams stand when declaring their cases.
Stephen, so empowered by the Holy Spirit, is willing to stand before a crowd of Jews, whom he has cajoled for their lack of adherence to the message from God, and declare that he can see into heaven and see “the Son of Man” standing with God. If someone were to proclaim that on a street corner in our local area, or in a major city of a principally Christian country, there would be cries of being delusional. Worse, for Stephen, was the fact that his claims were interpreted as blasphemous, because they were aimed squarely at the religious establishment and its failure to honour God’s word, and deserving of being stoned to death. In some parts of the world today that gruesome and inhumane treatment is still used. Even over the last few years there have been many reports of beheadings by religious zealots trying to impose an Islamic state using fear to achieve their aims. How did we ever allow ourselves to descend to such depths in treating our fellow humans? Satan rubs his hands with glee when he sees such appalling behaviour.
There is a saying that “there are none so blind as those who will not see.” In Australia in the 21st century we are unlikely to be killed for making public proclamations such as this one by Stephen. We are far more likely to be ignored, so such actions would be ineffective in getting the message to the people. In 1st century Palestine, however, religious fervour was common, and providing you didn’t leave yourself open to charges of blasphemy you could express yourself. You might still be considered a bit of a nut-case, but unless you worked up the crowds to challenge the authorities of the day, religious or political, you were pretty safe. Here, though, Stephen overstepped the mark, according to those around him. Judgement was made without reference to any checking, and punishment followed immediately. There was no chance of asking for a new hearing or getting supporting character witnesses, and no chance of organising legal aid.
If you were not aware of other things happening in scripture you could easily dismiss the next sentence as just a passing comment about the name of the person who looked after the coats of those doing the stoning, but this is no casual person. Saul was the name used by the apostle Paul before his conversion on the road to Damascus. This is Saul at his worst, persecuting Christians and ensuring that they met an untimely and unpleasant death. I wonder what Paul would have thought about his involvement in the death of Stephen after his own encounter with Christ.
On the cross at Calvary Jesus had cried out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Here Stephen cries “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” As if to prove his embodiment with Christ, Stephen hands his spirit to his leader, his saviour, and the one whom he had seen standing at the right hand of God, but he wasn’t finished. Before Jesus died He had said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Stephen mirrors that with “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In both cases responsibility for forgiveness is handed to a higher authority, and there is no call for retribution. Is the responsibility handed over because the humanity of the victim, in each case, prevents them from forgiving, even though they know that has to be done?
What does this martyrdom of Stephen challenge us to do? Are we willing to stand up for what we believe, and to declare what we can “see” in the spiritual world around us? Would we be willing to put our lives on the line for the sake of our faith? Faced with imminent death at the hands of others would we be willing to ask that they be forgiven, or would we be more likely to ask that they rot in hell? Paul was there, and was complicit in the murder of Stephen, yet turned into one of the major Christian evangelists of all time. What do we do to help those who have done wrong to mend their ways and turn to Christ? I ask myself all these questions, and sometimes the answers aren’t the most endearing.
As a former member of Rostrum I took a vow that I would never remain silent when the situation called for me to speak up. Living up to my namesake can be a challenge, and there have been times when I have suffered for speaking up against ill-treatment, but if we don’t do that then we slide further back towards the inhumane treatment of the past, instead of dealing with the presence of evil in our world today.
1Rid yourselves of all malice, all guile, all insincerity, all envy, and all slander. 2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4Come to Him, a living stone, rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ; 6for it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame.’ 7To you who believe, He is precious; but for those who do not believe,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner’, 8and
‘A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.’
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do, 9but you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
10Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
Ouch! There are two significant differences between the Revised Common Lectionary, used on an international stage, and the lectionary set out for use in those Anglican Churches in Australia which use A Prayer Book for Australia with respect to this passage. The first is that other churches use verses 2-10 of this passage at Easter 5 (14th May this year); the second is that the first verse is usually omitted. I celebrate the inclusion of verse 1.
As with all the letters in the New Testament, when the writer mentions something to avoid it is already known to be happening in the community to which the epistle is directed. In this case the letter is directed to Christians in a number of provinces in Asia Minor, though the actual author is not known. At the time it was a common approach for a disciple of a well-respected teacher to attribute authorship to that teacher, rather than claim it himself – and it was very likely to be himself, not herself.
That first verse is painful. The Revised English Bible opens with “Away with all wickedness and deceit, hypocrisy and jealousy, and malicious talk of any kind”, which, I believe, is easier to grasp than the rendition in the New Revised Standard Version. We can let our minds run wild with ways in which the audience may have been acting wickedly, deceitfully, with hypocrisy or jealousy, or engaging in defamatory talk. Feel free to take a piece of paper, or a memo pad page on your favourite computer, and jot down everything you think might be covered by verse 1. The real message for us, today, is to look at that extensive list and see if we are engaging in any of those issues. The injunction from the author isn’t limited to open situations that should be avoided, which means it can also relate to small talk, discussions about someone when that person isn’t present, or when we’re looking at potential leadership issues in the confines of our various groups – and “malicious talk of any kind” can even extend to what we imply, but don’t say. This passage opens a mine field when we start to look at the implications in our own lives, which is why I began with “Ouch!”
If we find ourselves engaging in activities which the author suggests we should avoid then it is imperative that we return to the vital source of our nourishment as if newly born into the Christian community. Most newborns will devour the milk given in the early weeks of life before moving onto more substantial foods. In the same way this passage suggests that by drinking spiritual milk we will move towards salvation, if we have seen that the Lord is good, which we should if what we have been fed is as close as possible to the real supplier. Bring it on!
The next eight verses are a combination of allusions to and quotations from scripture familiar to Jews and Christians in the first century. If the idea of ‘tasting that the Lord is good’ has rings of familiarity perhaps that’s because it’s a direct reference to Psalm 34:8 – ‘O Taste and See’. For five of the following verses we get a repeated emphasis on the living cornerstone which is rejected by the people, yet precious in God’s sight. This is a stumbling block when people reject the message. How can we experience the strength of a building if the vital cornerstones are missing? We are invited to be part of the spiritual house of God in which all believers will be appreciated; but it is the builders, the ones who should know the right piece to put in the right place, who reject the message. How many of our churches struggle because they were founded on second rate stone, leaving an enormous, and almost impossible, task for those who follow? Would these churches be better starting again from scratch? I am, of course, not referring to the physical buildings in which we gather – though some of them might gain from being rebuilt – but those gatherings based on watered-down messages as if they were from God, or distortions based on taking passages out of context and trying to apply them to all times. Who are the builders responsible for your parish? We can restart without having to totally dismantle a parish, of course, by changing approaches and inviting new people into our newly energised community. Will they know we are Christians by our love, or will they feel excluded and never return? If we believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then we are part of the chosen royal priesthood, and we have been “called out of darkness into His marvellous light” – which those familiar with the current Anglican baptism services will recognise. Will that light be a beacon drawing others to our community, or a lighthouse warning of dangers?
The passage ends with an allusion to Hosea. Names, to the Hebrew people, were very important, and had a significant meaning – that’s why many of the highly considered women in the Bible are called Mary. In the time of Hosea God was so unhappy with the people that He got the prophet to marry a prostitute and call one of the children “not my people”, another “not loved”. When Israel and Judah were restored to their former glory God changed the names of the children to “you are my people” and “you are loved”. Here, our writer applies the same image to the Christians of Asia Minor, telling them that once they were not a people, but now they are, and in becoming God’s people they have received mercy. Are we living up to the concept of being God’s people? Are we imposing limitations on those who come to join us in following Christ, or demanding that things have to be done “our way” before they can be accepted? Do we expect people to become Christians before they can belong to our community – remember verse 1 – or can they join first and later declare their allegiance to Christ? How many of those whom we encounter in our daily lives can walk away feeling that mercy has been shown to them?
13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
When I am training people to read the scriptures in church services I like to use this passage as an example of where we must put in the context, because we need to read several verses leading up to this part to understand what is happening. I ask those whom I am training to listen to the story as someone who has never heard it before, while I read it with just one minor adjustment: replacing “Jesus himself” with “He”, and I ask them to put up a hand when they can identify the individuals. No-one has raised a hand yet, despite years of trainings. The problem, which is amplified if we read directly from a Bible, is that we have phrases like “the same day” – which begs the question “the same day as what?” – and “two of them” – whoever “them” is. Quite often, the compilers of a “Book of the Gospels” will adjust the text to include the continuity so that people new to the church will at least be able to understand the message, but we have no equivalent if we are reading from anything else in the Bible.
The story opens with two followers of Jesus – if we stick to the concept that ‘disciples’ and ‘apostles’ were almost interchangeable, then verse 33 tells us that these two were not in the group normally called ‘disciples’ – walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a couple of hours’ walk away, in the afternoon of the day of resurrection. In my reflection on the scene at the empty tomb, which you will find under “16th April 2017 – Easter Day”, I mentioned reasons why Mary, in that case, and subsequently the remaining eleven, might not have recognised Jesus when she met him in the garden. Having watched Jesus die on the Friday afternoon and be buried before sunset that day, could anyone expect to see Him in the flesh on Sunday morning? We might walk along the road with Jesus and think “Gee, he looks like Jesus, he walks like Jesus, he even sounds like Jesus, but he can’t be Jesus because Jesus died about 48 hours ago.”
These followers of Christ certainly knew what had happened, including the underhand way in which the religious leaders of the day had secured the execution and the vast array of good things which Jesus had been able to achieve in His ministry, but they hadn’t got the message about the death and resurrection. Again, I think we might be a bit unfair on these men because their own experiences of death would have been accompanied by a total absence of physical presence on the deceased person after that point, and the classical teaching of the day was that we would all be resurrected “on the last day”. This “first day of the week” didn’t seem any different from any other except that two women had told a group of followers what was considered an idle tale about the events at the tomb [Luke 24:11]. That, of course, contradicts what we read in John’s gospel, but here Luke is holding the Jewish line that a woman’s testimony is not worth anything, and when the men who went to check didn’t see Jesus the story was considered a fabrication or hallucination.
Our learned followers proved to be not as learned as they might have thought. Repeated reference to scripture to highlight where it referred to what Christ had to go through for the sake of the Good News might have opened their eyes to what had happened, and why it was important, but the penny finally dropped with breaking of bread. They had almost forced Jesus to stay with them as it was nearly evening, but once their eyes had been opened they travelled all the way back to Jerusalem, in double-quick time, to meet with “the eleven” and tell them what had happened that afternoon. Their expectations of Christ freeing the Jews from their bondage on the third day had not materialised because they had not seen Him personally, until that encounter at the table. How often do we look for signs of Christ’s presence only to miss them because we’re looking for the wrong thing?
When we are walking, or driving, or flying, and encounter someone who has a deep relationship with God, do we ignore the message which God is giving us through that person? Do we require the person to actually give thanks and break bread in front of us before we recognise that God is talking to us through that person? Malcolm Muggeridge, an English author and part-time theologian last century was once asked if he believed that Christ rose from the dead. He paused, said “No”, paused again, then added “I KNOW he rose from the dead.” We have the advantage of knowing, like Muggeridge, that Jesus rose from the dead; we have the advantage of knowing some of what He achieved in His lifetime; and we have the advantage of knowing that He calls on us today, even if we are not prepared to listen and act.
What isn’t included at the end of this passage is what happened in that upper room immediately after these two returned to “the eleven” and told their story. If you can’t remember, or just don’t know, then I suggest you read Luke 24:35-48.
14Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the gathered Jews, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 22You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through Him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law, 24but God raised him up, having freed Him from death, because it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. 25David says concerning Him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for He is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope, 27for you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that He would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh experience corruption.’ 32God raised up this Jesus, and of that all of us are witnesses.
This is a famous, but dangerous passage; famous because many of us are familiar with it from the story of Pentecost, and dangerous because it has been used over the centuries since then to support violence against Jews, and accuse them of being deliberate Jesus killers.
The lead up to this passage, which would set the context for us, tells us that it is Pentecost and the disciples are speaking in languages other than their own, being understood by foreigners staying in Jerusalem, and with general behaviour which makes some people think they are drunk. No, the second Sunday of Easter is not Pentecost, but it is only Luke’s gospel which suggests that there was a delay between the resurrection and Jesus baptising the disciples with the Holy Spirit, so in our parishes this Sunday becomes known for witnesses to the resurrection and the full story of Pentecost waits, as per Luke’s rendition, for a few more weeks.
Peter, on behalf of the others, has dispelled the concerns about the disciples being drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning, and is addressing the gathering of Jews who have witnessed this group of mainly uneducated men, under the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, speaking in the languages of visitors, even though they haven’t studied any of those languages.
Some people insist that if we don’t interpret the stories of the resurrection in a literal way we are rejecting those stories outright and denying one of the most essential aspects of the Christian faith. To me, the men and women who were present at the time experienced an event which was impossible to describe adequately because all languages are limiting: in reality they were trying to describe the indescribable. Just as Mary Magdalene was transformed by her encounter with the risen Christ in the garden, so the men and women who had been His staunchest followers were transformed, on the spot, once empowered by the Holy Spirit. Does it really matter if we can’t explain what happened with the same confirmed detail we would expect from a sporting event last week? Can we not live with the mystery? Unfortunately, we human beings tend to be “meaning making machines” and can’t resist the urge to pick the eyes out of the witness stories given by those for whom the experience was a real-life dramatic change, just as much as with Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. If we were in their shoes I don’t think we’d do any better because we just don’t have the words to describe what happened.
The start of Peter’s address to the gathered people is innocuous enough: he reminds them of what Jesus had done, and that He could only have done those things with the power of God, but I suspect that if Peter had known how the following words would be interpreted he would have expressed himself differently. That is, of course, if this speech of Peter’s was a real event and not a construction by Luke to serve the purpose. Should we read references to a definite plan and God’s foreknowledge as referring to the events of the crucifixion and resurrection, specifically? I think not. It is generally accepted that it was God’s plan to send Jesus to be among the people of the faith, and God would have known everything that was about to happen during His life here. Since we have freedom of choice the possibility was always there for the message to be readily accepted, with the people renewing their relationship with God. Even though He would have known the eventual outcome of the terrible treatment Jesus had to endure at the end of His earthly ministry I find it hard to believe that such events were predestined. That would require the God of Love to deliberately put His own son through pain and suffering which could have been avoided. I’m sure that God would have wanted a different ending, but, having given us that freedom to be violent, transformed a horrible event into one of great celebration and opportunity to spread the Good News.
In John’s gospel “the Jews”, when used in a derogatory way, always refers to the Jewish religious leaders who were opposed to any effort to allow Jesus to point out the errors of their ways because their very way of life would be threatened, and they would lose their artificial status. Here, Peter is telling an assembly of Jews, many of them having nothing to do with the religious hierarchy, that they were the ones who killed Jesus by crucifixion – or was he? There can be no doubt, from this passage, that the intent was to point a finger of blame at those Jews who had been in Jerusalem and had been complicit in the authorities’ push to have Jesus executed by the Romans, who had a reputation for being violent. It would be more than stretching a point to imply that Peter was referring to all Jews, and we should refrain from abusing those Jews who did not want the events leading up to Easter. Neither should we read Peter’s reference to “those outside the law” as being about people who deliberately disobey existing laws. “The Law”, here, refers to Jewish laws, which only applied to Jews, so any Roman soldier or non-Jew in Jerusalem would have been included in the group of “those outside the law.” Again, it would not be acceptable to take that as meaning all non-Jews, but only those directly involved in the action.
I love the next bit, because it begs the question “was Jesus raised from the dead or did Jesus rise from the dead?” In other words, did God raise Jesus or did Jesus raise Himself? I don’t think it’s important, but interesting. That question reminds me of part of the crucifixion scene, where Jesus says “Father, forgive them …” In Jesus’ humanity did He feel unable to forgive those responsible for His death, and had to refer that directly to God? Being God in human form, Jesus was subject to a human death, but that was no barrier to His continued existence in divine form.
Jesus often said that He had come to fulfil the law and the prophets, so it’s not surprising that Peter refers to the psalms and finds a reference which can be used as a foretelling of the experience of Christ. For Peter, everything points to Jesus being the Holy One for whom the Jews waited, and they didn’t recognise Him. Is there a lesson in that for us? You might have picked up on a thread through many of my reflections along the lines of “would we recognise Christ if He visited our parish for a celebration of the eucharist?” Would we “crucify” Him again, and again, because He comes to disturb our way of thinking? According to Peter, the one to whom the psalmist referred is the one whom God would put on the throne of David, and who would not suffer in hell (‘Hades’ in the Greek) or be corrupted in any way. There is no doubt, then, that Peter was convinced by what had happened on the day of resurrection, that Jesus is Lord and that He had risen from the dead. In Jewish culture of the day the witness statements of two men (and only men) were sufficient to prove something was true. In this case there were far more than two who had direct experience of the risen Lord, and many more who had seen the transformation of those disciples. However we want to describe what happened, and whether or not we insist on a literal interpretation, there can be no doubt that an event which cannot be described had happened and the result was empowerment of people to live a Christian life. If we consider the resurrection as part of our lives in the world today, just as the Jews consider the exodus from Egypt to be part of their life experiences each year, then we must surely be powered to show Christ to others just by our presence.
1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb, 2so she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Over the years there has been debate about whether Jesus was married or not. Some argue that there is no mention in the Bible about Jesus having a wife, while others say that the only disciple whose marital status was mentioned was Peter, whose mother-in-law was healed by Jesus, and if, at 30, He didn’t have a wife it would have been so unusual that it would have been mentioned. I wasn’t there either, so I don’t have any better insights than the scholars who have looked carefully at contemporary literature and the various fragments of scripture we now have, but we have some tantalising snippets.
Luke’s gospel is the only one not to specifically name Mary Magdalene as one of the women at the foot of the cross, but does include her in the list of women who went with the body of Jesus to the tomb, and who returned on the Sunday morning with the intention of embalming His body. In all cases Mary Magdalene is mentioned first, even before Christ’s own mother. It was the responsibility of the next of kin to attend to the burial needs of a deceased person. Contrary to Roman Catholic teaching there is no evidence in scripture, or contemporary literature, to suggest that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, and Jesus did frequently, indeed almost constantly, associate with sinners, forgiving them their sins and challenging them to lead a better life, so was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene, and, if so, why has the Church spent hundreds of years trying to defame her? Many of the images I considered to go with this page had Mary in “prostitute” red, or Jesus attired in such a way that she wouldn’t have mistaken Him for the gardener.
To the Jews the Sabbath began at sunset on our Friday and extended to sunset on our Saturday. The first day of the week was equivalent to our Sunday. The Sabbath was a time when the people were not supposed to work, including treating a dead person, so embalming a body had to wait until after the Sabbath had ended. Hence our gospel story begins with something which many calendar makers these days like to ignore: Sunday is the first day of the week, not the last, though if we start a week on Monday the Seventh Day Adventists would be celebrating on Sunday with us. Who should arrive to treat Christ’s body but Mary Magdalene, according to other gospel writers along with other women bringing spices for the process. Seeing that the stone, which had been set to keep the tomb shut, had been removed Mary ran to Peter and “the beloved disciple”, whom most scholars believe was John, to tell them that the body had been taken away. It was still dark, so who even had the authority to move the body? In biblical times a woman’s testimony meant nothing – only a man’s testimony could be taken as evidence, so this hysterical woman tells two of the men, and they actually listened to her evidence and so ran to the tomb. Once they had seen the bandages wrapped up in the tomb, and remembered what Jesus had said about His rising from the dead, they went home, leaving Mary weeping outside the tomb. A bit of pastoral care might have been useful! Why didn’t they go and tell any of the other disciples?
Mary’s first encounter after Peter and John have left is with two “angels”. No, angels do not have to be dressed in dazzling white and with wings: an angel is someone who turns up unexpectedly, but at the very moment you need help, and disappears without trace once that need has been met ‑ and its highly likely that you have encoutered at least one in your life without realising it. With the knowledge of what has happened to Jesus, these two angels ask the grieving Mary why she is weeping. Shrouded in tears, and deeply mourning the loss of someone dear to her, whether or not the suggestion of marriage was true, Mary cannot, at first, recognise Jesus, but assumes, from his presence in the garden at this time of the day, that he is the gardener. It’s not the only time that followers of Jesus did not recognise Him immediately when encountering Him. The road to Emmaus was another example, but we shouldn’t be harsh on these people. If we had seen a dear friend or member of our family die would we believe that the person we met some days later was, in fact, the very person whose death we had witnessed? Of course we wouldn’t. Mary, traumatised by what she had seen on Friday afternoon would have had great difficulty seeing the man in front of her as the same one who had died less than 48 hours before. It was not His appearance but a single word He said, which changed her experience. How did He say “Mary”? What emotion was included? What chemistry was sparked by the word? However we answer those questions, Mary was transformed on the spot.
Again, as a woman, her evidence would not normally be acceptable to the men in the community, but Jesus tells her to go “to my brothers” and tell them that He is ascending to His Father and ours. To Jesus, His brothers were not just his siblings but all those who had been followers through the period of ministry. This Mary, who earlier had been weeping her heart out because of the death of Jesus and the disappearance of His body, now goes to the disciples and blurts forth that she has seen the Lord after his resurrection. Did they believe her? Did they pick up on the transformation which had affected Mary then, in advance of their own transformations, which were to happen on what we celebrate as Pentecost?
Many people have had “near death” experiences; some have been declared, by medical staff, to be dead, only to start breathing again, sit up and talk to people as if they had only been asleep. A recent news item reported that a jockey had returned to winning rides after reading his own obituary. How do we relate to those experiences? Would we believe the witness of one or two who had been present? With this Easter season, are we transformed, as Mary was, by our own experiences of the risen Christ. I have a strong affinity with the centurion who commented, on Christ’s death, “truly this was the Son of God”, and so the resurrection is a personal experience for me each year. If we live as if these stories are our own, and in our own time, not relegating them to history, then we, too, can experience the transformation, and be ready to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the Good News.