Tag Archives: church

Messiah and Good Shepherd?

[There is a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday at “The Lord is – my tour guide?“, and there follows one for the gospel for Easter 4c]

The Festival of Dedication – Hanukkah, at Christmastime, remembered the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus after he threw the Greeks out of Jerusalem (John 10:22-30, especially verse 22). A time when thoughts of freedom, and God’s Messiah, came up. So – Was Jesus the Messiah – and why wouldn’t he say so?

I think you know. He was the Messiah, all that he had done pointed to it. But if he said so, it would just start an argument. People needed, not to argue, but to think for themselves – and follow up their conclusions by action.

That’s still true. Preachers tend not to shout at you much. Why? It doesn’t do anything useful. The stories are told, connections and suggestions offered. You have to take responsibility for weighing it up – and taking action. Is Jesus the Messiah, or something else? I think he’s the Messiah, and that’s the basis of my following Him. Make your own mind up – and act on the conclusion!

Then there is the difficult verse John 10:26 “but you will not believe, for you are not my sheep.”

Difficult because:

  • It divides the flock (who believe – with much more than a correct opinion) from those who do not; – a critical division. Seen clearly in the story of Jesus, we still fail to apply it in our own time. Are you part of the flock of God, or not? “Independent sheepishness” is not on offer.
  • It reminds us that faith is a gift. On the one hand, no one is prevented from following Jesus / joining the flock. On the other, faith is a gift. There is an undeniable truth in the doctrine of Predestination. There is a paradox, difficult to hold together logically. Faith is a gift, yet those who lack it are held responsible for the actions of their faithless life.

The benefits of being in the flock are real, but not always romantic. The sheep who know the shepherd are themselves known. Those who follow the shepherd are led to food, water, and safe rest. That does not mean a selfish life – everything you want and nothing else; nor does it avoid the robust realities of getting on with the other sheep. But the difference between that, and life outside, without guidance and protection, or even hope of forgiveness and escaping the consequences of failure, are breathtaking.

The image of the Good Shepherd may be romanticised by some, but not by Jesus. He understands the division between the flock and those not included as key to the future.

Be a blessing!

[many will be remembering Mary Magdalene, rather than using the Proper 11b readings this weekend, but for Mark 6:30ff . .]

Look at Mark telling us of Jesus popularity! (Mark 6:30-34 & 53-56). People wanted to see him and be with him; he was ready to teach them, and they to listen. There was healing, too. No doubt they talked most readily of losing illnesses and disabilities – but there must have been repaired relationships, and redirected lives, as well.

So why is it that Jesus later loses some of this, and today’s church is not hailed as a great place to enjoy, to learn, and to find wholeness?  The gospel will explain how opposition to Jesus developed into a plot to kill him, but I wonder if we fail to take seriously our call to be a blessing?  We are given so much, and – yes – chosen by God. What for? Because we are superior to others? Don’t fool yourself – there are many who work harder, deserve more, have greater potential.

We are given faith, to share and be a blessing. We are meant to be built into a living Church – always difficult because if involves personalities – a Church to set about God’s plans for our local community and its people. Welcome is not a Public Relations necessity for “successful” churches – it is part of faith!

When it works, it is lovely – the picture of people gladly welcoming Jesus, and enjoying the healing he brings, is not outdated. It remains difficult, because we so easily want to be “better”, because we find it so hard to be a blessing, and sometimes find it hard to see how to safeguard that from those who might spoil it.

The answer is not theoretical, but a commitment to follow Jesus. I don’t know fully what he wants me to do, but I’ll make a start on what I know. I don’t know how it will all work out, but I will trust that it does, and see hope and joy in that, better than any alternative.

 

Tolerance and Discrimination

Strange how public morality goes; you can apparently choose your faith, lifestyle and sexuality freely, but you must be tolerant.  In much the same way, you can belong to any group or subculture, but must not discriminate.  The rightness of tolerance and the wrongness of discrimination are seldom argued, just demanded.  At the same time, the popular press make the practical limits of toleration clear – rich fraudsters, terrorists and paedophiles are beyond the pale.  And we all know how to discriminate between a good workman and a “cowboy”, or a real friend and a gossip.

So, will you be shocked if you look in the Bible for these words?  Tolerance is not found in traditional translations (only, of God, in Romans 2:4 Good News Bible), discrimination not at all.  Why?  I suggest that, while there are some similar ideas, the concepts are not quite right for Christians.  Why not?  This weeks gospel parable (Matthew 13:24-43, leaving out vv31-35) may help.

The story of the wheat and weeds is about tolerance and discrimination – of a sort.  Wheat was, and is, an important food.  The weeds in this story are not a nuisance or something that spoils the picture, but darnel, a plant that looks very similar to wheat, but is host to a dangerous, poisonous fungus.  Jesus is suggesting that in human life, and that includes Church congregations, good and bad people are mixed.  We should not try to sort them out, because of damaging the wheat, because we can’t reliably tell the difference, (and because people, unlike plants, can repent.)  That’s not to say “anything goes”, in Church, or in society!  We need to help people sort themselves out – but we shall never gather a perfect group.  There will always be those in process – and those who resist God, but pretend.  There is a place, if not for tolerance, at least for patience and love, and for letting God do the final sorting out.  (We lack the qualification!).

At the same time, there is talk of a division at harvest time.  The harvesters will be under orders how to discriminate into just two categories.  No discrimination?  Well, you can’t tell wheat from darnel until the ear appears just before harvest (wheat turns golden brown and bends over, darnel seed darkens and stays upright), so no premature judgements.  But if “no discrimination” means “nobody can tell me I’m doing wrong” that doesn’t include God!

The idea of being tolerant and not discriminating is one of those half-Christian confusions which can obscure the faith of Jesus.  We don’t want to be intolerant and discriminatory – nothing Christian in that!  Letting him tell the story, and listening carefully, should save us getting it wrong.

 

Whose Shepherd?

There is a lot about the Good Shepherd in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, which provides the gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Easter (in all 3 years of the lectionary).  It also reflects Psalm 23, which worries me, because so many people happily quote, “The Lord is my Shepherd”.

Is he?  It is a factual question.  Reading John 10 will help to give a factual answer.  The chapter begins with reference to “thieves and bandits”, and a look back to chapter 9 makes clear that Jesus is labelling those who assumed a right to be leaders of religion – and to criticise him for a remarkable healing on the Sabbath day.  Clearly there is a choice of leaders to follow!

Then Jesus talks about the relationship between sheep and shepherd.  While flocks might be kept together overnight, the shepherd would be able to pick out his sheep, and they would know “their” shepherd from others.  The implication is that Christians relate to the Good Shepherd, distinguishing him from others and being known by him.  This is where “The Lord is my Shepherd” becomes a true or false statement.

Apparently this is not understood (verse 6).  We might take comfort that other people get things wrong and fail to understand!  (Preachers are relieved to know that even Jesus didn’t always get his point over first time).  Even better, he explains again.

The sheepfold is needed – at night it provides safety and rest.  We might see a comparison with the Church, or Christian fellowship.  Under Jesus’ direction, we need to go in to be protected from “thieves and bandits” – to be taught, and find rest and healing.  But the sheep cannot stay in the sheepfold.  By day they need to go out – with the Shepherd – to be taken to food and water.  Christians need to get into the world, to work, to serve the wider community, to “practise” their faith, and be a blessing to others.  There has to be movement in and out, with the Shepherd the key figure.

So I find challenge in these passages, and not just reassurance – let alone sentimentality.  How do you take it?  Can you be taken seriously saying, “The Lord IS my Shepherd”?

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.”