John the Baptist – No Cheap Grace

Christianity does not begin with a book that became a best seller. It does not really even begin with Jesus, although obviously, it is dependent on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the religious movement which followed. Rather, it begins with a slightly eccentric figure: John the baptiser, who creates a storm of interest when he begins preaching in the wilderness. It was time, he announced to his countrymen, that they must repent of their sins, be baptised and get ready for the coming of the Messiah who will be far greater than John himself (Mk 1:7).

Mark, who wrote this gospel, notes that John’s role is like that of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3). His prophetic preaching is presented as the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 which warned that Elijah would come again just before God judged Israel. Even his eccentric appearance (a coat of camel’s hair and his eating locusts and honey), is a reference to how John is the fulfillment of that eerie figure Elijah. Mark’s point is simple: John, who baptizes, is the fulfillment of OT expectations and his arrival marks the commencement of the long waited age of the Messiah. Although John baptizes with water, this Messianic figure who comes after him will baptize them with the Holy Spirit, and this will mark the beginning of a new age: the age of the Messiah. But what does John demand of the crowd? Repentance: they need to confess their sins before they are baptized. John’s message, like Jesus (Mk 1: 14-15), makes demands before baptism is administered. Otherwise, it would be merely ‘cheap grace’ as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say later.

Not Just Waiting

Watching for the return of the master, Jesus, the Son of Man, is not the same as waiting. Wheat and barley farmers watch the weather and their crops with the eyes of an eagle. Are they doing nothing while they watch for the best time to harvest? Certainly not. A sense of expectancy builds in the farming community; plans are put on hold as the season moves forward to the anticipated harvest day, which remains undetermined and subject to the local conditions. Storms are eyed warily, prayers are offered, the machinery is readied and checked, the talk down the main street inevitably turns to the DAY and how this will work in with the so and so’s family wedding. Watching, whether for the farmer or the disciple of Jesus, is doing something; it’s anticipating and getting prepared. Watching (for the return of Jesus), shapes what we do from day to day.

Our attention at this time of year naturally shifts to one of anticipation: the Lord is coming again – and also to his first coming, the Incarnation, which has in these last days, become one overtaken with associations of commercialism and the necessity of spending big in order for it to be meaningful. Our readings for the next four Sundays of Advent will focus on his coming again (both first and second) and getting ready, a message which is quite out of step with our current culture.

The Sheep and the Goats

I grew up in country Victoria where sheep are obviously different from the goats. But in Palestine, the sheep are not white with ears that point out (like ours), but black faced with ears which hang down and look like goats until a closer examination shows the difference. Why the need by the shepherd to be separated? They are often grazed together and the sheep are prone to diseases which the goats are not; the sheep are shorn whereas the goats are milked.

At the end of time, Christ as King will come. He is called the ‘Son of Man’ – an image taken from Daniel 7:13-14 of a heavenly being who is given the authority from God’s throne. The text highlights that just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, he will separate people into two groups. The basis of the division is whether a person has cared for the poor and vulnerable person. The righteous are surprised when they are separated from the goats and called, ‘blessed by my Father’, inherit the kingdom’. (vs 34)

It is often assumed (in error), that this passage grounds our eternal salvation on our works of kindness to all in need; that is, to merely minister to anyone is ‘to do it to Jesus’. However, a careful reading of the text would suggest otherwise. The particular group which is ministered to is none other than the brothers and sisters of Christ – in other words, fellow disciples or Christians! We see this also in verse 40. In Matthew 10:40-42, Jesus highlights that offering even a cup of water in his name to one of his “little ones” who is a disciple will not lose their reward.

In the remainder of the NT, in Gal 6:10; 1 Jn 3:17; & Jas 2:14-17 it is the care of our fellow disciples of Christ who are emphasised – and this care demonstrates whether we belong to Christ’s flock or not. Once again, well intentioned religious practice must be informed by the biblical text. It does not mean we ignore the needs of people generally, but that caring for our brothers and sisters takes priority and will be the demonstration to Christ that we genuinely belong to him.

God’s Purpose Will Prevail

The result of the plebiscite was not a surprise for me when 61.6% voted in favour and 38.4% against ‘same sex marriage’. All participants for and against did so for a variety of reasons which will be for them valid ones. For Christians however, the bigger issue (and long term one), will be to come grips with the reality that the opinion of Christians is no longer valued by the society we are part of and that it will not necessarily support our aspirations or values. We are often viewed in a negative light and find ourselves on the margins of society. We now live in what is termed ‘a post-Christendom era’ and have much in common with the Church of the first four centuries and in particular, the situation which the 1st letter by Peter addresses.
However, this week’s ‘Prayer of the Week’ follows and is quite apt given the result of the plebiscite. It reminds us that God’s sovereign purpose will ultimately prevail and this encourages us to shift our attention to the calling the church has been given to preach the gospel, make disciples, mentor and train leaders, and to teach and encourage congregations so they can intelligently engage with their neighbours and express in practical ways, the love of Christ so they are seen and heard as ‘good news’. The Prayer of the Week follows:
Almighty God, whose sovereign purpose none can make void: give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, knowing that your kingdom shall come and your will be done, to your eternal glory: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(A Prayer Book for Australia: Prayer of the Week, Sunday between 13-19 November, p. 603)

Genuine Hope, when Hope is in Short Supply

What happens to Christians when they die? This question disturbed the Christians at Thessalonica. It is possible they understood all believers would live to see the coming of Christ (the Parousia), before they died (Matt 16:26; Mk 9:1). So Paul writes to them out of pastoral concern, not theological one, although theology must undergird the pastoral counsel or it’s merely wishful thinking. His reply is very simple. He does not want his readers, the Thessalonians (or us for that matter), to grieve like the rest of humanity. The non-Christian may not have any hope, especially if they believed in the classical Greek and Roman gods – but the Christian does. The Christian’s hope rests on the death and resurrection of Christ (vs 14), which has the power to transform and raise believers from the dead. Yes, many people have a belief in the after-life but it is more like the Vikings – an image of banquets and celebration. So Paul writes: those who have died will be brought back with Jesus when he returns. Those alive at the time of his coming (vs 15), will not be resurrected first, but will wait until his resurrection and will go out to greet him by being swept up into the clouds. There is an order (vss 16-17). The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, a trumpet call of God. Much of this imagery is taken from the OT which is not surprising where in Exodus ch 19, Zeph1:14 and Is 27:13, these signs are associated with the End; and the cloud is the presence of God. Matt 24:31 and 1 Cor 15:52 also highlight these signs. Yes, Christians have a reason to be genuinely hopeful about their future in an age when hope is in short supply.

Leadership and Humility

You have to be at least mildly impressed by the appearance of the Pharisees and scribes. They were über (extremely) serious about their religion and showed this by their appearance. They made their phylacteries wide (the leather straps which held a portion of the Law in a box on their forehead or hand [see Deut 6:8; 11:18]), and made the tassels on their garments and prayer shawls long. Their clothes and religious symbols became their badges of pride. And they liked titles such as ‘rabbi’ which helped send the message they were better teachers than anyone else and deserved more respect.

Like many executives today, Jesus’ followers were affected by this projected leadership status and position of the Pharisees and scribes. In Matt 23:1-12, Jesus teaches his disciples not to get caught up in their image of spiritual superiority. They were hypocrites and laid legalistic burdens on people but did not give relief to the lawbreaker. They were all law and no grace. But Jesus offered an alternative. No-one in his new community (called the church), is to be called ‘rabbi’ (meaning ‘my great one’), because God will be their Teacher. They were now a community of brothers and sisters with an equality in status, and positions of superiority were gone. Neither were any to be called ‘father’, because this title would be reserved only for their heavenly Father. Nor are they to be called ‘instructors’, because they now have one called the Messiah (Matt 23:10). Leadership would be demonstrated in their humble service, not by flaunting their religious badges which projected their self-importance.

Luther

This Tuesday 31st October will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On that day Martin Luther issued 95 theological propositions (theses), which challenged the papacy’s power to issue indulgences which a person could purchase in advance, that would give them the forgiveness of sins before they had committed them. The legend is that Luther nailed the 95 theses on door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. What is more likely is that Luther wrote to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting at the sale of the indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. Although written in Latin, by January 1518 Luther’s friends had translated them into German – and then printed them on what was the new communication device of the age: the printing press. Within two weeks, all Germany had copies, within two months, all Europe. Luther advanced the view that a person is forgiven their sins and justified by God, on the merits of the death of Christ, and by faith in Christ, not in our religious works or religious sentiment or piety. The shift away from the authority of the Catholic church, its councils, and the received tradition, back onto the teaching of the Bible, broke its right to determine religious matters. Luther’s emphasis on ‘faith alone’, ‘Christ alone’, and the ‘Bible alone’ then fueled European nationalism and independence from Rome, the establishment of new denominations (including the Anglican church in England), and fed into the eventual flowering of democracy.

Candles in the Darkness

Christians have always held out the candle of hope in the darkest places. Prisons are no exception. They have campaigned for prison reform, like the Quaker Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), who pioneered the campaign for better conditions in prisons during the Victorian Period in Britain.

Christians today, through the ministry of Prison Fellowship, provide inmates with training and transitional support as they move from custody back into the community. Their volunteers regularly spend time in each of Victoria’s prisons, listening to inmates, building relationships and responding to needs as appropriate. This is a pastoral care style ministry where volunteers are able to spend time with those whom our society often forgets.

Prison Fellowship also offers ‘SLAM’ (Sport Lights A Message), where sport is used to build relationships with those in prison and to share the hope presented in the message of Jesus Christ. Volunteers also write to inmates, supplying a vital life-line to men and women who may otherwise have little or no contact with people ‘on the outside’. Prison Fellowship also has a ministry to families and young people who have a loved one in prison. They provide camps, school holiday programs and Christmas & birthday presents to families free of charge. They also run a mentoring program and post release mentoring and community support.

In Victoria there were 6,522 prisoners on 30th June , 2016, which represents 138.1 per 100,000 of adult population. This was less than the Australian average of 208 prisoners per 100,000 of the population.

In recent years, the prison population has grown by as much as 8% per annum. At St Edward’s, we have annually participated in the Christmas ‘Angel Tree’ which is run by Prison Fellowship.

Faith in Challenging Times

We live in anxious times: the possibility of war to the north, a fragile economy and
the worry of rising interest rates; the breakdown of moral values, rising numbers
of refugees in need of a home, family disintegration and domestic violence and an
epidemic of hard drug use. And the church in Australia, like most Western countries, is in
decline. There is one certainty in life: we always live in uncertain and challenging
times.
In this, we differ little from the period when St Edward the Confessor King ruled
from 1042 to 1066 during what would be the last days of the Anglo-Saxon world. (Harold
Godwinson succeeded him and was briefly the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, being
defeated at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by the Norman, William 1).  St Edward is
remembered for his piety and his re-endowmentof the Benedictine monastery
and building their first abbey church on the banks of the Thames River, Westminster,
London. It was rebuilt in its current Gothic style by King Henry III and reconsecrated
1269.
For Paul who wrote the letter to the Philippians, it was an even more uncertain
period politically and socially, under house arrest, awaiting trial in Rome. The Philippian
church he writes to faces its own issues of Jewish Christians flaunting their superiority
and questioning the validity of the Greco-Roman Christians’ experience (3:1-11). A
horrible division had occurred in the church due to two of the leading women falling out
over some issue (4:2-3). And many were swollen with pride, grumbling about the
rosters or some such issue in the fellowship (ch 2).
Paul’s response to his situation is not to lose his head. Rather, it is to stand firm in the Lord (4:1); to rejoice in the Lord always (4:4). Don’t be anxious about anything (4:6). Pray. Present your requests to God (6:6). Paul is not ‘dreaming’, but a realist. He knows the dark side of human nature (2:15; 3:19). But he knows the Lord even better. The Lord is near, bringing peace (4:9), and sustaining him during this difficult period.

Status Anxiety

Each time I see the peacock proudly displaying his tail to attract the attention of a peahen, I smile in recognition how we humans are often little better. The queue of young men and women standing outside a night club, the train of punters going to the Flemington racetrack for the Spring Racing Carnival or the person with the flash sports car driving down Lygon St, Carlton, are the expression by some to project their status in order to feel important (and probably noticed). Unsurprisingly, it occurs in all social gatherings, including the church. Jesus touched on this issue when he warned his disciples not to be overawed by the Pharisees and teachers of the law who projected their status to impress others and claimed the best seats in the synagogues (Mk 12:38-40; Lk 11:43). James bluntly warns his readers not to get sucked in by the crowd in fine clothes as it leads to discrimination (Jas 2:1-7). Some have expressed their status in the church by claiming to have a superior heritage, especially a religious one. Their superiority is supposed to give them more authority over everyone else. This occurred in the Philippian church where Jewish believers flaunted their status (Phil 3:1-14). What’s worse, they insisted that Greek Christians had to be circumcised to be a ‘true Christian’. Paul calls them ‘dogs and mutilators of the flesh’ (3:2). Paul responds to their claims by recounting his status, Jewish heritage and superior training – and declares them all ‘garbage’ (3:8). The loss of these as a believer in Christ – is now his gain. Knowing Christ, and the righteousness of Christ by faith, has given him a true status and riches which his Jewish heritage never gave him.