Monthly Archives: January 2017

The (first) Sign

There are so many stories about how God might show up in ordinary – or extraordinary – life.  Ancient myths tell of half human superheros battling (usually battling!) great odds in deeds of bravery and endurance.  There is a strong echo in the superhero comics of western culture.  It gets a little fuzzier, and perhaps more emotionally based, in a tolerant and diverse mix of races and traditions.  Superwomen get fitted in, perhaps a little uncomfortably, as dependant as their male counterparts on their superpowers.

So will Jesus just join the supercult?  Perhaps not.  John wants to tell us in his gospel of the “signs” that marked Jesus out.  Yes, they are powerful, but the power is rather more thoughtful and significant than the “Blam” “Zap” action of the comic strip.  The first sign John records (John 2:1-11) is not one of earth-shaking power, not of terror-inspiring judgement.  The story starts as Jesus goes with disiples to a village wedding.  His mother is there – perhaps as a relative, for the servants take instructions from her.

The disaster is that the wine runs out.  We don’t know why.  (Did the disciples have too great a thirst?).  But this is terrible, no one will forget the wedding that ended in disaster and disgrace.  Jesus seems unready, but his mother shows confidence, and instructs the servants.  Then, there is wine again, and the MC is making comments about how odd it is to use the best wine after there has been a good deal of drinking already!

What would you have expected the first sign of Jesus ministry to be?  Something awe inspiring?  A dramatic warning – this is your LAST CHANCE!!! An intellectual breakthrough for the scholars?  It seems that God’s choice is a generous act of kindness, rescuing a young couple and their humble family, standing alongside ordinary people and using unimaginable power without belittling or embarrassing them.

John has additional things to say – about something more powerful that “Jewish rites of purification”, and about the time not having come for the great demonstration of God’s power (which will come, with awesome puzzlingness, at a hill called calvary).  But don’t miss the point.  The first sign of Jesus power points to things which will remain significant: involvement with ordinary people and real life, transformation, discovering God at work in all that. Hooray!

 

A dark time

It’s a dark time.  Clouds are gathering and optimism in short supply.  As Jesus goes to Galilee, (Matthew 4:12-23) John the Baptist has been silenced, thrown into prison.  But there is prophecy of hope from as far back as Isaiah, and Jesus’ proclamation seems to be announcing something good.

Meanwhile, he is not going to work on his own.  First he calls Simon and Andrew, and then quickly also James and John.  It is not immediately clear how well they know Jesus, nor what they are letting themselves in for.  It seems to be enough that for the moment they will leave normal routine to follow and learn, taking instruction.  There is no contract.  This “discipleship” will take time to work out, but it is worth starting.

We know a little more of how things developed.  These four, with others, stayed as Jesus taught and healed.  Perhaps at first they sat and listened, but no doubt they began to help.  Was it organising those who wanted a private word first? or the practicalities of shopping for food or finding a bed for the night?  How long before they started to re-tell some of the favourite stories, to help people understand what Jesus was talking about?

We know that later, they were sent out in pairs. (Matthew 10:1-15)  Told, not just to preach, but to heal and exorcise people as well!  However they felt at first, they came back celebrating – and went on to learn some more.  There were all sorts of disciples, not just 12 men.  Luke tells us of 72 (Luke 10:1-20), and also speaks of how the women contributed to Jesus ministry too (Luke 8:1-3).  After the resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles explains how it was disciples who spread the message of Jesus.

They didn’t always get it right.  The whole of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians show an enthusiastic, but sometimes mistaken, church.  Early on (todays reading is from 1 Corinthians 1:10-18) we hear of dangerous divisions into groups and cliques.  Paul is clear that unity is important, and that Jesus is the leader, his death on the cross the vital answer to the need of messed up humans.

Disciples don’t become perfect – at least, not until they get to heaven.  But they do understand their need to learn.  Following Jesus goes on.  We learn more than stories to tell.  We become who we are meant to be, and being together is part of the process.  Some things have to go – competition, useless argument.  Some things come to show their value – Jesus, his choice of dying to serve, a future which brings light in the gloom.  Discipleship is still something to value, and keep doing.

Spreading Light (Epiphany 2a)

It is a dark time of year, and I enjoy light – winter sun, illuminations, shop window displays. Little wonder that, from the time of candles and oil lamps, people have spoken of the darkness of evil, and the light of Jesus. In the second Sunday of Epiphany, we are continuing to look at the way the gospel spread, and continues to spread.  Early in his gospel John tells us about the spread of the light, as Jesus lights up people. Today’s gospel takes the process further (John 1:29-42). Its an interesting and important process, that we need to understand and repeat.

First, John the Baptist has recognised Jesus – he had known there would be someone, but didn’t know who until he saw the person on whom the Spirit came and stayed. He tells the people round him, and two (including Andrew) go and see.

The initial contact is tentative – Jesus speaks first. His question “what are you looking for?” is significant. Open ended, it offers conversation without buttonholing, but encourages them to think about what, in fact, they want.

Their answer is odd “Where do you live, Rabbi?” They are not yet ready to trust Jesus, though there is respect, but want a little time. If that is the right understanding, Jesus understands, and instead of saying “29 High Street” says, “Come and see”. Of course, as they go, they talk.  “ So they went with him and saw where he lived, and spent the rest of that day with him.” (v39)  Jesus is ready to engage, answer questions.

That time – time to see, ask questions, to check and see for yourself what others may have said – is important. But you can’t stay there for ever! Andrew has decided. It’s no longer what John or anyone else said, he now has his own position. Andrew “found his brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah.” (This word means “Christ.”)” Jesus has gained a disciple. First attracted by what other people said about Jesus, he has made contact, taken time, and made a decision. Now he is part of the next stage of the process – he is the one talking about Jesus and spreading the light. Simon, of course, is Peter, who will lead the apostles. Andrew will not be as famous, but will be a point of contact for others on their journey to faith (and so associated with Mission).

In just a few verses, John has taken us through the life cycle of the Church:

  • those who know encourage others to look
  • seekers make contact, and see for themselves what Jesus is and offers. It may not be their first desires, there is a need to allow time as they see what it really means for them, but many understand his importance and mission, and become disciples themselves.
  • They become, however imperfectly, those who know and, as they continue to grow, encourage others to look.

How does the light spread? By a process involving all who follow Jesus. We call it evangelism, which someone once defined as  “One beggar telling another beggar where to find food.”

Are you Religious? (Epiphany)

Are you “religious”? You may get asked if you go to Church. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of my work as a priest. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the OT. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify it:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored – but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?”  Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the Old Testament prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and other times!).

So, he acts: He tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not. The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”)

And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home  – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to 2. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .