Category Archives: Sunday Readings comment

Comments on readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (Bible Readings used by many Churches worldwide), as used in the Church in Wales.

Wealth

“What must I do to receive eternal life?” It’s not a common question – I can’t remember being asked it. But that’s odd, for there is much interest in the spiritual, even in God. Obviously Christians are not expected to know the answers! You might want to think about whether that is good or bad.

Jesus is asked the question. (Mark 10:17-31). He refers to the ten commandments. (Exodus 20:1-17 though remember this is the Old Covenant). Commandments can be a problem for many now, who don’t want to be told, but to discover, who don’t want discipline and a consistent life. It is easier to collect religious objects (in your own time) or investigate the oddities of human behaviour (without relationship or commitment) than to live by a Covenant. But this young man at least has some understanding; he has done this, and wants more. Is there an advanced course, a way of proving himself?

Jesus sees the problem, and offers a solution. Sell everything and become a disciple! – but it is too much, and for 2 reasons.

  • The young man is rich; he can’t imagine life without his wealth, and the security, the comfort, the status it offers. Apparently even eternal life is not worth all that.
  • There’s more to it. He wanted to prove himself worthy – and that is not possible. Eternal life or salvation is God’s gift, not an earned reward. His wealth was a barrier getting in the way of his relationships.

When the young man has gone, Jesus warns his disciples about riches. He doesn’t say Christians must be poor, but he says that no-one who relies on wealth can receive salvation. For some of today’s “spiritual” people, that will be a barrier to following Jesus. Wanting their own way, a “designer spirituality”, they will not “follow”.

For some in today’s Churches, that will be a barrier to following Jesus. They want respectability, an endorsement of their social place and status. They would be offended to be told that Christians are sinners who recognise their need for help, and are united in failure, repentance, and salvation – which is a gift that cannot be earned.

Christianity is not flattering. It is not all about what a wonderful and unusually gifted person you are. It is about a God, who is truly awesome, who made us good and gifted – and will get us out of the mess we have made for ourselves.

Christianity is demanding. You can treat it like a hobby, and play with it when you have time or are in the mood. But that won’t do you much good. Christian faith is relationship based. It is not measured by emotion, but by committed action. You love God? Don’t tell me how much; let everybody see how you allow nothing to get in the way of that.

Nothing.

At all.

Divorce

Is divorce OK? It’s a question not often asked, especially when our society considers easing the law to allow “no blame” divorces. Yet there are few families not affected in one way or another by relationship failure. Interesting, then, that Jesus is asked the question in Mark 10:2-26.

Of course the question to Jesus is loaded, intending to lose him the sympathy of some of his audience.  He knows that the Old Testament Law (eg Deuteronomy 24) improved the position of a rejected wife by demanding that she be given written evidence of divorce.  He also knows that there were two views held among the scholars of his time.  One allowed divorce for serious matters (such as adultery), while the other allowed a man to divorce his wife for almost any excuse.

Jesus’ answer avoids the trick. He goes back to God’s intentions in Genesis, pointing out that the experience of divorce was not something intended for any couple (or their families and friends) (Genesis 2:24). The breakup of a man and woman bound by vows of lifelong faithfulness is serious.  Some will find that hard to hear, but we need to remember that faith is not improved by “leaving out” these, or any other words of scripture, which we find challenging or demanding.

That still leaves the question of what to do about divorce.  Christians may be concerned, but have no grounds for judgementalism or superiority.  Yes, we should give thanks for, and advertise the goodness of Christian marriage, even more than stable and loving partnerships.  It should be a blessing, not only to the couple, but to their children, their friends and wider society (and that includes single people, who matter and should not be forgotten). Christians also need to offer love and practical help for those whose family life has suffered, for whatever reason. Sometimes the protection of the law may safeguard those who need protection – just as the Old Testament required.

Christians fail, and their marriages are not excluded from failure.  Forgiveness is offered to all who repent. That is important, but does not cancel the seriousness of divorce, or neutralise the harm it can do.  If western society has many children brought up by single or step parents, do we not need to blame ourselves?

Generosity, groups and the Gospel

One of the things I value in Christianity, and in people, is generosity. Not so much a readiness to hand out money, as a kindness, a positive attitude – perhaps because I recognise an ungenerous streak in myself that I have to work on.  So it won’t be a great surprise that I enjoy Mark 9:38,39 at the start of this week’s selection (Mark 9:38-50). Unlike groups in his day, and ours too, Jesus refuses to allow a monopoly to “our group”. (It’s no use Joshua saying stop those 2 prophesying – Numbers 11:4-29).

Jesus explanation shows how it works – if they not only claim the name of Jesus, but are doing something good with his power, – then don’t stop them, they won’t be able to rubbish Jesus after that. There is nothing here about those who use other “powers”, some of which are forbidden to Christians. Remember that Jesus is the greatest spiritual power of all – a fact which is the basis of Christian healing, and indeed exorcism (when, uncommonly in British society, that is needed). Those who work as his disciples share in something great; those who will not (whatever they write on the T shirt or headed notepaper) are useless.

You might think the passage then moves away from generosity. There is a series of sayings about damaging faith – (the Greek is “causing to stumble”, a word that gives us English “scandal”). In fact, it illustrates “ungenerosity” to others, and to yourself!

So, to damage someone else’s faith is desperately serious
and to damage your own, no less so!

What could do that? Does for example you liking for sport limit the energy you put into living as a real Christian – then it’s time to give up sport! (A bit of exaggeration? Yes and no. Your ability to play sport will decline with age; even watching it will become harder. Your competence in Christian living should increase to meet the critical challenge of God’s judgement). You may be able to reduce your commitment to sport, but if not, abandon it in favour of living Christianity.

Maybe it’s not sport, but TV, or insistence on “time for yourself”, or laziness, or some sin like dishonesty, immorality, or pride . . Whatever gets in the way of living faith – give it up! It’s the seriousness of the issue we tend to avoid. It’s not about “our group” – church being nasty to sportsmen, or actors, or . . ; it’s about losing faith, and finding our chosen life in danger of destruction. (“Hell” here is the Jerusalem rubbish dump, where there were always fires smouldering to consume the waste). God’s generosity is real – he wants us to live well, and to avoid that with other priorities is not just foolish, but dangerous.

You don’t want to be counted (by the only one who matters) as “rubbish”, your chosen lifestyle down the chute? Then be serious about doing faith!

Faith is always about Jesus, not the claims of one group against another. But that is no excuse for laziness or inaction; this is more serious than your career, or your human relationships – it may direct and change both, so – get busy!

But first . .

Procrastination – displacement activity. It’s a wonderful way of avoiding doing what is necessary or important by – doing something else. I suspect most of us have done it, and know a good deal about how it feels. Mark (Mark 9:30-37) tells us that Jesus is trying to teach the disciples about (9.31) his betrayal, death and resurrection.  But it is not going in. Instead, they talk about who is most important. Actually, they argue. I suppose it did have some importance – in a difficult situation, who would be the leader? (But the answer is Jesus).

Instead, this is surely what James was talking about. (You may read James 3:13-4:8 as an additional reading.  This is 3.16: “Where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is also disorder and every kind of evil.” It is a case of fights and quarrels rather than good lives showing good deeds, humility and wisdom.

Jesus needs to make a point, and takes a child. Remember that in New Testament times children were not idolised, spoiled and pampered. They were unimportant. So Jesus teaches that the concern for status, rank and recognition has to go in those who would be his disciples. Their reaction is not recorded. Did they understand? Did they agree? It would be fascinating to know – and would distract us nicely from asking if we have understood, and agreed.

I wonder what you think is the greatest single problem faced by Christians today? Militant atheism, political marginalisation, too little money, too few clergy or too many buildings? I don’t think it is any of these things. I suggest that the greatest problem for Christians today is exactly what the disciples had difficulty with in that reading. Jesus was trying to teach them something important, but they couldn’t hear that, and found other things to argue about. We find it difficult to learn, we easily get distracted and make too much of personalities.

The Church has plenty of people, leaders, money, resources – it is the problem of using them to meet the needs (as God sees them, now). You may find it easier to hear from James, whose first readers may have been tempted to revolution as a means of being most important. James is clear that conflict driven by jealousy or a desire for “position” is out; good deeds and humility are the wise – and Godly – way. Or look again at Jesus, becoming a rather lonely figure as the gospel moves on. He will not be distracted from the road to Jerusalem and the Cross. Of course there are thousands of other things he could do – sort out the discples for a start. But he is clear what is important, he has heard, and will go humbly to do what is needed.

I’d like to do the same, but first . .

Go on listening!

I like to be right, so I can Identify with Peter in Mark 8:27-38. And Peter is; Jesus is the Messiah, and it is a terrific discovery. A high mid-point of Mark’s gospel; you can feel the excitement. And in the middle of it, Peter stops listening. He doesn’t hear – doesn’t want to, can’t ? – Jesus talk about suffering. If he had gone on, what a disaster that would have been! But Jesus doesn’t let him.

It’s easy to stop listening. I might even have done it myself. But I notice other people doing it much more easily. Perhaps you have seen it too? Someone learns “God is love”. That’s great, true and important. But then they stop listening. If God is love (and it says so in 1John 4:8 (& 16)), then God must do whatever I think is loving? And they find out he doesn’t, and get hurt and confused, because they have stopped listening. God is love, but he defines what that means and how it works, and we need to go on listening and learning to find out.

Jesus is the Messiah – the great King long expected by Jews because of Old Testament prophecy. But if Peter thinks that means he will take over, throw out the Romans, and give him an honoured, easy and rewarding place in the new government – forget it! Peter will find it hard to learn that the Messiah is also the Servant Isaiah talked about – the Suffering Servant. I think I find that hard, too. I know what it means in theory, but theory isn’t enough.

It’s much easier to preach, or hear: “Jesus is King of the Universe; once you follow him as his disciple your life will sort out and work better”.  That’s true, and important too. But somehow it is easier to say and hear than the next bit:

“Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to serve; it is sometimes difficult, embarrassing, or even painful. You may not always understand what he is planning, or why you have to play a particular part.” That’s also true, and important – but it doesn’t have quite the Wow factor. It is still worthwhile, not only because it forwards God’s plan and the Kingdom on earth, but also because it helps you grow, develop in faith and love and holiness, and be what you are meant to be. It’s just not quite so – marketable.

So you might like to think about 2 things from this gospel:

  • Jesus is the Messiah –  the greatest King ever, Ruler of the Universe; but he sets about that in a new and strange way to serve us and free us.
  • Secondly, don’t stop listening to God. Especially when you think you know what’s coming next, or you make some new discovery. You know that Christians keep making mistakes? Remember that they get away with it by keeping listening and following instructions to put things right. It’s very simple.

Peter got it right. Jesus is the Messiah. But it wasn’t a theory test; he had to keep listening to work out properly what it meant. So do we.

Is Jesus doing it right?

It is always important to ask the right questions. But I might not ask the questions other people would. They might hear Mark 7:24-37 and ask, “Is Jesus doing it right?” – and think not. Jesus seems reluctant to help – well he has tried to get away for a break with the disciples (in this part of the gospel he is spending more time teaching and preparing them for the cross to come). The idea that he ought to be healing people because that is what he does fails to understand that Jesus is much more than a miracle worker.

What is going on with the Syro-Phoenician woman? The clue is in the name. She doesn’t have the Jewish background that would help her see Jesus’ actions as the fulfillment of God’s promises (like those we read about in Isaiah). How can she see healing as a sign of God’s Kingdom? The answer seems to be, by Faith. Her dialogue with Jesus, far from taking offence and going away, shows that she is not only willing to engage with him, but to trust him. He sees that she has that gift, and it opens the way for her daughter to be cured. (Faith of the sort James would approve – very practical, not just words).

As through the Old Testament and into Jesus ministry, God dealt with his chosen people, who were prepared and taught for his plans to be put into effect, so there were always exceptions of those willing to join that hope and movement. This nameless woman adds to the list.

The second part of the reading is another story, about a deaf man who also had difficulty speaking. Notice how Jesus takes him away from the crowd. It seems to be concern for his understanding of what is happening, and that he not be assaulted by the noise of the crowd. He is healed (Isaiah 35 fulfilled!) He orders people not to speak of it – but that fails, for there is talk, and celebration. Jesus might worry that people will think he is building a celebrity reputation to run for power; or simply that people will not understand his Ministry and purpose.

The question “Was Jesus doing it right?” is not my question. I assume that the way Jesus chose was the one set by God. I suppose to begin with we have to be sure that Jesus is worth paying attention to – that he is doing things we think worthwhile. But after that, don’t we get to a point of wanting to learn how he does things – to imitate it? He’s not just about “doing good”, but very much “doing God” -as in bringing God’s Kingdom, fulfilling his promises. So, if in this or other passages, you find yourself asking Why? Or What’s going on? Please go on asking till you find answers. Jesus doesn’t always do things the way we would – but that may be because we need to learn His ways, as well as because we haven’t understood.

At the beginning of this reading, He was trying to get away and spend time with the disciples. Perhaps they learnt through these events. Perhaps we can too.

Tradition, and instructions.

You wouldn’t dream of making up instructions, and pretending they came from God? Of course you wouldn’t.  There are warnings in scripture about neither adding, or taking away, what is there as instruction (for example Deuteronomy 4:2, another of this Sunday’s readings).  But be careful!  Culture filters our hearing, and is easily confused with God’s teaching.  How good are we at separating our habits, and the generally accepted ideas among the people we know, from the actual instructions from God we find in the Bible?

That is a key question for Christian living, and the answer needs constant checking with scripture, and dialogue with Christians especially those from other cultures. That is really what comes up in the gospel reading, Mark 7:1-23 (or selected verses from that). Jesus, born a Jew, living under Jewish (Old Testament) Law, questions not the law but the tradition around it. The Pharisees had traditions about washing hands and utensils – but its “tradition”, not Law (that is, the instructions in the Old Testament about God’s way for his people), and Jesus won’t confuse them. Evan a good habit can be broken for reason. Criticised for that attitude, he notes how Tradition is used to break the Law as if it were more important than Law – (you may miss out the verses about “Corban”. which explain a “dodge” to avoid supporting a family member (as the Old Testament requires) by declaring the money dedicated to religious service – a “tradition”)  The detail may be a bit remote – but the principle is vital.

Tradition is never as important as God’s instructions. Sometimes the questions our lives, and the lives of our congregations, face do not have clear answers in scripture. (Should I retrain for a new career, marry a certain person, – you know the sort of thing). Tradition may suggest answers, but be clear that “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t enough for a final decision. What you have to do is to keep reading scripture and asking: What does this mean? What should we do? What needs to change, and how?

It won’t all come clear at once (you wouldn’t like it if it did!) but this is the way of Christian disciples – they follow Jesus, make mistakes and accept forgiveness, learn a bit and go on listening and trying. Tradition – yes, it can be a guide, but it needs to be questioned, and held against the standard regularly.

So now – Choose!

It’s the end of a long chapter – today we read John 6:59-69, completing several weeks working through John 6.  There have been arguments about what God wants, who Jesus is, and how to find life.  When it comes down to it, there is – what?

Some will leave to assess the campaign, polish their arguments, and work out the next step, sure they are right and must win.  Others will go back to the everyday, refusing to take any decision, or wanting to believe that it doesn’t really matter.  John wants us to understand that we make a choice.  Even deciding to think about it another time is a choice – to avoid the issue.

Jesus never hustled people.  He never used his position to threaten.  But he did make clear that the way to life was to follow him through life, questions, difficulties and everything.  Not “when I get around to it”, not “when I have sorted myself out”, but starting her and now.  The disciples understand.  They may not be having a good day, hearing the conflict, fearing the outcome, but Peter has the line, ” “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Surely John knew that it was not only on that occasion that people had argued and prevaricated.  His Christian community knew only too well those who were “interested, but . .”.  And, no matter how committed we like to think we are, we also know how easily we put off – well, what’s your current “when I get around to it”?

Being part of one another.

What does Jesus mean when he says, “ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever.” (the first verse of this week’s extract from John 6 – John 6:51-58).  It is obviously important (and, incidentally, one of the sayings that mean you can’t just take Jesus as a wise teacher. This is either a madman, or someone – really important!)

It doesn’t help that Christian tradition has divided into 2 very different ways. Some take this, admitting it has something to do with the eucharist / communion, as little more than a visual aid. Jesus tells us we ought to eat together, and this is a picture of fellowship and a reminder of the story of the Last Supper, which leads on to his sacrificial death.

On the other hand, others will give almost magical significance to the bread of communion, seeing it as the guarantee of Jesus’ presence in power, and the celebration of the eucharist as the answer to all problems, and the only real way to worship. And rather than just scratch our heads, we ought to go back to the text and see what Jesus is saying and John recording for us:

6:49 “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died.
6:50 But the bread that comes down from heaven is of such a kind that whoever eats it will not die.”

On the way out of Egypt, the Israelites learnt to rely on God, who gave them manna to eat. The crowd who enjoyed the feeding of the 5,000 know that story, but Jesus wants them to look beyond a free lunch. What else is available? Life – real, lasting, quality life. But how is it to be had? (Their big question, and ours!). The answer is not complicated, though some will not see it.

It is neither just a question of how you think and form your opinions. Nor is it a matter of doing the right rituals. It is – Jesus. He will be / has been the sacrifice. We will live if we feed on him. But how? Some of the crowd seem to suspect cannibalism, or at least a very un-Jewish drinking of blood. It is symbolism – but more, sacrament (“the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”).

We feed on Jesus as we hear, understand, and put into practice his teaching. We feed on Jesus as we come, perhaps tired, or preoccupied, or doubtful, and make ourselves a part of his people, his body. We feed on Jesus when we do what we think he wants, or directs us to.  It means we recognise our need of him, and asking for his help, become committed to learning and following.

We feed together in the service we call “eucharist” (thanksgiving), (or “Holy Communion”, “Lord’s Supper”, “Mass”, “Liturgy”, “Breaking of Bread”). Publicly gathering and admitting our need to be fed, strengthened, livened up. Tiny quantities of bread and wine; eaten, absorbed, becoming part of us. We are no longer independent, our own masters. It is not the physical act of eating that is vital – we remind those “nil by mouth”, the coeliacs and the alcoholics of this. Yet it helps to go and take, with empty hands, in company of others who need Jesus too.

This text is simple, and yet difficult. It makes clear that it is never enough to be impressed and influenced by Jesus. We must make a closer identification, so that he and I are linked, even mixed. On the other hand, the dependence is on God / on Jesus (yes, the two are very close here) – and not on having a priest available, or getting yourself ordained.

It is easy to see how tradition has sometimes distorted the meaning, because the challenge of letting Jesus in so that he becomes part of us, and we of his body, is always great.

EAT me?

As we continue to read John 6 (this week, John 6:35 and 6:41-51), we see the crowd arguing.  First comes the old complaint: He can’t be special, he comes from our neighbourhood, and we know him.  Some people still take offence at the idea, not just that Jesus is special, but that he is much more than “one of us”, and one who must be followed and obeyed.

Verses 44 and 45 gives us two sides of a puzzle.  God must draw people to Christ and belief, yet any who want to find truth can be sure of help.  Each side is helpful – we need to understand that some people will not hear, but also that none who want to learn are refused.

The “bread of life” is one of the important “I am” sayings.  It would be dangerous and wrong to make it a magical understanding of receiving Holy Communion, and equally wrong to ignore the connection to the service in which we give thanks (“eucharist”) above all for the sacrifice of Jesus death and the triumph of his resurrection – the central points of faith.  We do that with more than words, with action, and by eating.

Is it just eating? No. To gobble stolen consecrated bread would be of no advantage.  It is about feeding on Jesus – through his teaching, his life, understood, obeyed, absorbed by the power of the Holy Spirit into our life, transforming from within the person.  What is eaten becomes part of me, provides energy, rebuilds my body, alters my mood.  Eating together with other believers brings us together, as sharing a meal always does.  With them we worship, becoming more like what we hold worth praising, and give thanks (remembering how much there is to be thankful for), and by our prayers try to work with God and with one another.

Jesus gives everything for us.  We are invited to receive what he gives, to let it become part of us, to change us, to energise and direct us.  Never a mere ritual, an act of personal worship may assist and advance the process.