Belonging and Believing

Simply put, being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about behaviour modification. Christianity is not a self-help program to happiness or perfection. If that were the case, we are going to be failures, because I don’t know anyone who is sinless. Yet often our church culture pushes behaviour modification as the primary goal of our faith. We expect people and our society to accept our values as norms when they are not.

Reading the gospels I am struck by how often Jesus invited people to belong to him first. He entered into relationships with others, regardless of where they were spiritually or morally. He did not discriminate against what part of society they belonged to. He ate with people who were the outsiders of their society and befriended tax collectors, prostitutes, the despised rich (like Zacchaeus), or foreigners like the woman from Syria. Once they felt a sense that they could “belong”, Jesus then invited them to follow him, to “believe”. After they chose to believe, he would ask them to “become transformed” by the values he taught and demonstrated. These values are ones like sacrifice, sharing, compassion for the outsider and foreigner; patience, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. (Gal 5:22). This behaviour is an expression of living out the reality of God’s kingdom in daily life. It is also an expression of the abundant and fruitful life from the Holy Spirit living out in us.

Today’s story of Jesus calling his first disciples in Luke 5:1-11, demonstrates this process to belong, believe and be transformed by Jesus.

History, not Myth

“. . . the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:2) Luke begins the story about the ministry of John the Baptist – and that of Jesus of Nazareth – by telling us that it is in the 15th year of a Roman Caesar, Tiberius, who is no doubt busy governing his expanding empire. Then Luke cites the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate as another person of note. Pilate is probably too busy trying to quell the frequent outbreaks of insurrection and riots of the unruly Jewish people he governed. Herod – the son of Herod the Great, along with his brother Philip, are then mentioned and finally the high priest Annas and his son in-law Caiphas in Jerusalem are also identified. These last two men are probably busy working out how to maximise their profits from the pilgrims who came each year to the temple in Jerusalem. Yet it was during this specific period of Roman and Jewish history that the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah. Luke shows us that both Roman and Jewish history are intertwined with God’s inbreaking revelation. John’s announcement that it was time to prepare for God’s new work of salvation has occurred in a real time and in a real place. Why is it important for Luke to locate the events he narrates in real history? Very simply, Christianity is unlike the Roman and Greek gods who have no historical basis; they are myths. Myths are very appealing, especially when they are sugar coated to make it easy for children to swallow. They sprout up in every generation as an easy solution to an inability to trust God’s truth. One modern myth often recycled around an election period, is that a strong economy will save us, or make us happy. It won’t. Only Christ provides the salvation we seek.

“Are You ‘A King’?”

Jesus does not look like a king to Pilate (John 18: 33-37). He lacks the customary signs of kingship: purple clothing, insignia; a ring, standard bearers and an army at his disposal. Pilate concludes that nothing Jesus has said warrants crucifixion. Instead, Pilate attempts to provide a way out for the Jewish leaders to reverse their decision so that they will not lose face. Pilate makes the offer to release one of his captives as was the custom preceding the Passover festival. The crowd however, demand the release of Barabbas, a terrorist. As a further concession to the Jews, and in a final attempt to prevent Jesus being crucified, Pilate has Jesus flogged and mocked as a pretend king (Jn 19:1-3). Following this punishment, Jesus is paraded before the crowd and Pilate declares that Jesus is innocent. But the crowd will not accept this. They demand his crucifixion on the basis that Jesus had claimed to the be the Son of God. This claim which Jesus did not deny (Lk 22:70), challenged Caesar’s counterclaim to be the son of God and therefore justified Jesus’ execution. So Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified.

The background for Jesus’ claim to be the king of God’s kingdom rests on two theological ‘traditions’ or teachings. The first is better known: Jesus is a descendent of king David and the fulfilment of the promises made to David that an heir of his would sit on his throne for ever. The second tradition is less known and less understood. Jesus is the heavenly being which Daniel saw in his vision-dream (Daniel 7:9-14). This person is given authority, power and receives the worship of the heavenly court and its people. This indicates this ‘being’ is divine and equal to God. Daniel notes also that this person looks like a ‘son of man’, a Hebrew expression which means he is like a man.

It is this expression ‘the son of Man’, that Jesus uses the most throughout the Gospels to indicate how he understood himself and his mission. He is not just any old king, but a king not of this world or realm. He is the creator King who rules over all people and the creation. And he will be born at Christmas, in obscurity, fully human and fully devine.

Signs of the Times

Periodically the Church gets caught up in a frenzy of excitement about the return of Christ. For example, wide-eyed friars of about 1000 AD spread the hysteria across Europe that the end of the world was near and God’s judgment was coming. The reason? Because many believed the ‘one thousand year reign of Christ’ mentioned in Rev 20:1-6 was ending.

Biblical passages like our reading this morning from Mark 13:1-11 can be turned into a chart marking successive stages of what is about to occur. Biblical imagery, especially the obscure or symbolic imagery of Revelation and Daniel is often linked to Mark 13, to demonstrate that current political and economic events are the fulfilment of these predictive elements of the Bible. The disciples were also curious about the future. Several times they asked Jesus when he would return (Matt 24:3; Mk 13:4; Acts 1:6). The early Christians also wondered (1 Thess 5:1; 2 Thess 2:1ff).

A fixation on certain events which suggest the immediacy of Christ’s return can lead to the promotion that ‘The End’ is now near. It can also promote negative opinions about those whose fate is unclear. Easy dichotomies are built: insiders/outsiders, True/False, God/Satan.

As our faith recognises the signs as they occur (and they will), we are again and again reminded of why the disciples and early church were given this teaching. It was (i) to warn that false teachers will try to deceive them (13:5-6); (ii) to expect opposition, persecution and hate (13:9, 13). (iii) to assure them they will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to testify for their faith (13:11); (iv) to remember their commission: the gospel was to be preached to all the nations (Mk 13:10; Acts 1:7-8); (v) that only those who endure to the end are saved (13:13). In short, it is a teaching for today.

Seeing Things from God’s Perspective

An unnamed widow shuffles along, pushed along by the crowd behind her, swarming into the temple of Jerusalem.  Crouched on the sidelines is Jesus, watching silently as the people mill around, throwing in their offering into the temple treasury.   His disciples stand around, disinterested, bored and ready to find a tavern to eat and drink in. The woman, back bent with age, stoops and places two little copper coins in the timber opening of the large boxes. She slinks away, inconspicuously. Almost immediately following her, a well-dressed man comes. He is one of many that Jesus has noticed every few minutes who come along. The well-dressed man slows his walk in order to slow the pace of the crowd down. He flamboyantly spreads his arms out to gain their attention and slows the line of people behind him further. Then he dramatically undoes the cord of his purse and pulls out his coins. Using his left hand, he pulls back the right sleeve of his cloak and throws the money in while looking around for the crowd’s recognition.   Jesus feels sick in his stomach.

Jesus stands, briskly looks about, catches the eye of his disciples and summons them. They haven’t seen that look in his eyes for several days now – in fact, not since they came to Jerusalem when Jesus cleaned out the temple with a whip. And he’s got it now (Mk 11:15). They quickly assemble around him – something might happen. He might explode like he had done earlier.

“Did you see that widow just now?” he asks. Some of his disciples look perplexed, others are hollow eyed; some look even bored. He continues: “She has put into the treasury all the money she had. But see these rich people,” indicating with his hand, “they give out of the abundance of their wealth. It cost them nothing to do this.” With that, the sermon had ended. Their hearts had been lacerated; their world expanded to see things from God’s perspective.

It is the inconspicuous, small amount of money given in the economy of God, which makes the most sense (cents?).  It is the sacrificial and inconspicuous act of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfume, that makes sense (Mk 14:1-11).  It is the inconspicuous act of care and hospitality by a Samaritan that makes sense (Mk 10:25-37).

Halloween 1517

It seems Halloween has become a new ‘festival’ of ‘innocent’ fun. Halloween is loosely based on the Medieval Christian festival of ‘All Hallows Eve’ which falls on 31st October. The festival itself is an adaption of the pagan Celtic belief that on one night of the year, the dead came out of the ground to dance with the living. However, in most Protestant churches, October 31st, is remembered as the day when in 1517 Martin Luther nailed a document attacking the Catholic Church’s corrupt practice of selling “indulgences” to absolve sin. Known as his “95 Theses” (which means propositions), Luther proposed two central beliefs—that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may receive salvation as a gift of God, only by their faith in God’s work, and not by their own deeds.

Luther’s views sparked a series of ‘reformations’ in the European Church which led to the formation of Protestant denominations and also the reform of the Roman Catholic Church. Although these ideas had been advanced before, particularly by John Wycliffe (English), and Jan Hus (Czech). Luther’s writings changed the course of religious and cultural history in the West. He had said what everyone else was thinking but dared not say.

Key among Luther’s views is an individual can experience God’s grace freely, through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. Salvation did not rest on what we did for God or our ability to keep the Law of God, but on what Christ had done for us by his own death. It was Christ’s righteousness, not ours, that is credited to us and it is this that we put our faith in and sets us free from the guilt of our sin.

The Reformations were not the result of political issues, or even Henry VIII’s need of a divorce, although they play their part in the background. The issue was then and remains still, a spiritual crisis: how can we find God’s forgiveness and experience his love unconditionally? The answer is in the cross of Christ. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) When we trust in what God did in Christ, we are justified, saved and regenerated by his Spirit a ‘new creation’.

Blind Bartimaeus sees what others do not

The Gospel reading of Mark 10:46-52 is the story of a blind man called Bartimaeus. Jesus meets him as he leaves Jericho on his way to Jerusalem.

Bartimaeus’ full-time occupation is begging, which, given that he is blind, is quite understandable. On hearing the noise of the crowd swelling as Jesus approached, he asks what’s going on. He is told that Jesus of Nazareth is approaching. But in spite of being blind, Bartimaeus ‘sees’ what the crowd do not. For Bartimaeus it is an opportunity not to be missed out on; he could get healed. He must have heard about Jesus and his miracles judging by his response. He begins to call out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd tell him to be silent. But he sees something the crowd have missed. Jesus is more than what they expect. He is the ‘Son of David’, the messiah/king. He will not be silenced by the crowd when he calls out. He calls, then he shouts out in desperation. Finally he gets the attention of Jesus and Jesus stops and calls to him.

Life as Bartimaeus has known it, is about to change completely, for ever. But what is his response when he is given his sight back? He follows Jesus along the road (10:52). He becomes a disciple, following Jesus to Jerusalem. What do we see when we look at Jesus? What is our expectation about him? Desperation and an ability to see the opportunity Jesus offered led Bartimaeus to seek Jesus wholeheartedly for healing. What is preventing you to respond like Bartimaeus ‘. . . to call upon the Lord while he is near’?

Jesus Redefines Ambition

Human ambition is one of those things which is given a mixed response in the New Testament. From reading today’s story in Mark 10:17-31, you may get the impression Jesus was against any ambition. What happens is that two of his disciples, the brothers James and John, make a pitch to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory might confirm this view. They are diplomatically told by Jesus that they won’t be sitting in the best seats because it has already been decided and he is not the one who makes the decision. The other ten disciples are not impressed with the naked ambition of James and John when they hear about their plans. If the two brothers had been granted their request, they would have missed out on the opportunity too.

When we think of someone having ambition, it is often associated with an ability to dominate others to achieve their goals or to control certain outcomes that suit them. Consequently, it with some justification that the word ‘ambition’ is often associated with a person acting out of self-interest.

Jesus however, redefines what ambition looks like and its place in our lives. First he asks whether they are prepared to suffer for him (‘drink the cup’ and ‘be baptised as I am baptised’). They say they are, so Jesus then highlights that his style of leadership will be different from the Gentiles who think of ambition and leadership in terms of domination and control (Mk 10:42). Instead, he reverses the order – and shocks everyone’s expectations. The greatest in the kingdom will be the one who serves; their ambition is that others will succeed. This requires humility (‘a servant of all’). He concludes by pointing to his own behaviour – and its purpose: that “. . . he came to give his life as a ransom for all.” (10:45).  Our ambition is to please God and not ourselves.

Time for a “Heart Check”

Today we remember St Edward the Confessor King after whom this church is named. He was a confessor of the faith rather than a martyr for his faith. He is perhaps best well known for building the original Westminster Abbey (later demolished and rebuilt by Henry III). He is buried in the Abbey and miracles of healing are said to have occurred near his shrine, a bit like those in the early church.

Our readings today challenge us also to be confessors: to be those whose lives are committed to living joyously in response to the mercy which God had shown us, especially in Christ. We can live confidently and boldly because we have a great High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses and knows what it is like to be tempted. We can live knowing that we are forgiven by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit and indwelt by God Himself!

That gives us the motivation and desire to live our lives totally committed to God, knowing that all we are and all we have belongs to God and is to be used for His purposes. This is unlike the rich young ruler in the gospel reading, who thought that he could have a foot in two camps – to be a slave to mammon and also a follower of God. He thought that by focussing on the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and being unconcerned about his heart, the part of him that God was most interested in, he would be saved. But he questioned this and asked Jesus. He went away sad because he realised that the cost of following Christ was too high. Christ had asked that his first allegiance was to be to God and he had to be prepared to give away everything he had. Jesus knew where his heart really lay and that was the problem.

Let’s do a heart check on ourselves today. May God be honoured in our response to Him today and every day.

God’s Intention for Marriage

Divorce is a deeply painful experience for all concerned and has been the experience of God’s people in both the Old and New Testament periods. When one turns to the Bible, a number of different, but related responses to divorce are made. As a consequence, Christians have formed different opinions on the matter. Some have taken a ‘narrow’ reading of the texts: no divorce is acceptable, unless the other person has committed immorality of some kind or adultery (Matt 19:9). Others have taken a wider and more permissive position, highlighting marriage is an ideal, but people fail to fulfil the ideal, so it must be permitted.

Jesus clarifies his position on the matter of divorce when the Pharisees come to him to trap him with the question: is it permissible for a husband to divorce his wife? (Mark 10:2- 12) Jesus would be aware of the two schools of Jewish rabbinical thought on the matter. If he argued for a narrow view, that it was not permissible, despite the permission given in the Law of Moses in Deut 24:1, he ran the risk of offending Herod Antipas. Herod had had John the Baptist beheaded because John had kept condemning him for his marriage to his brother’s divorced wife Herodias (Mark 6:17-20). But if Jesus was too liberal, he could offend other laws concerning adultery and not be considered ‘strict’ in his position. Instead, Jesus refers back to Gen 1:27 and 2:24, which by passes the law and gets to the intention God had for marriage. He restates the view that man and woman become one flesh, therefore divorce should never occur. The gift by God to humanity of marriage is upheld. Divorce he notes, was a concession due to the hardness of people’s hearts (Mark 10:5), but falls short of the ideal. Practically, this will mean grace must then be offered to those who divorce as it is not the unforgivable sin.