Tag Archives: conflict

Rest?

This is the time in the year when we move from Sunday readings going through the great themes of Christian faith (Creation at Harvest, the preparation of Advent before the birth of Jesus at Christmas, then how he was made known through Epiphany, the cost in Lent, his death and resurrection, ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit, ending with a week to think about God – phew!) to spending time on the implications.  Today’s reading (Mark 2:23 – 3:6) tells us of two arguments about the Sabbath.

In twenty first century western culture, we have rather given up on a shared day of rest.  Not only do we need people to keep the hospitals open and the lights on, we assume we can go shopping, or for a meal.  The cost, often paid by the poor who have to take jobs which prevent them spending time with their families, is seldom considered.  But lack of rest affects many, who are constantly busy, often tired, and stressed.  Perhaps Christians need to reflect on the Sabbath principle.

The commandment to free the seventh day from work is found in the ten commandments.  Exodus 20 (verse 8ff) relates it to the creation – saying in effect that the need to stand back and rest is part of how we are made.  Deuteronomy 5 (verse 15), repeating the command, takes it to the release from slavery in Egypt.  Either way, the observance of a seventh day of rest became a distinctive characteristic of Jewish people.

Unfortunately, the principle was overlaid – perhaps even strangled! – with human traditions.  Jesus disciples are criticised, not for doing a day’s work, but for quenching their hunger with a handful of grain. (The “work” is rubbing the ears to release the grain).  Jesus kind healing is similarly seen as breaking the tradition.  It will become a key issue in the conflict which will see him killed.

That leaves us to try and understand how our lives should provide for rest, worship, and practicality – for ourselves and others.  The command to keep one day free at all costs in not repeated in the New Testament, though there are instructions not to neglect gathering for worship (which requires the congregation to share free time!). I hope there will be a doctor, policeman, or other emergency service available when needed – but should I be choosing to shop on a Sunday, travel on a Sunday, or make others work that day when it isn’t necessary?  Jesus was hard on unthinking tradition, but never complained about the principle of having – and allowing others – sabbath rest and worship.

Authority – and conflict

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do, and when Jesus goes to Capernaum synagogue, it causes quite a stir. (Mark 1:21-28)
First, there’s his style. He doesn’t talk like the rabbis of the time, quoting other scholars’ comments in a learned way, claiming the authority of their study and their official position. He talks about God as if he knows directly, and tells stories of ordinary life to explain God’s love – as a shepherd searching for lost sheep, or a father finding a lost son.

The official reaction might have been to dismiss an ignorant con-man, if it had not been for the second thing. Jesus demonstrates his authority, even over unclean spirits. You can’t ignore someone who successfully heals someone who was probably known in the community. You can see the beginnings of a conflict – Jesus threatens the status quo.

[Incidentally, we sometimes wonder about “evil spirits” and mental illness. The advance of psychiatry is a great blessing, and many of those obsessed with spirits and possession need a good doctor. There is a difference in this story, in that the spirit recognises Jesus, and has knowledge beyond that of the man possessed. Despite the “Hollywood effect”, (sensationalising and sometimes trivialising,) there is a difference, but spotting it needs care and experience, and discernment by someone who is not the patient.]

The healing of the possessed man also points to a more serious conflict – Jesus is taking on, not just the vested interests of the human religious establishment, but also the evil powers enslaving humanity.

Back to talking about God. Moses had spoken to the people about God (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), and they found him less frightening than the fire on the holy mountain. Deuteronomy speaks of another prophet, to speak for God. It is a dangerous position. The words of the prophet must be listened to; but to speak as if God had given the message when he had not is to be liable to death.
Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. !

But of course, there is a good deal about danger in these readings. As we come to the end of Epiphany season, we realise not only that Jesus was shown to the world, and became known, in a number of ways:

  • Baptism,
  • calling disciples,
  • miracles,
  • teaching,
  • authority . .

but also that these things brought him into conflict. Part of the conflict was with people who wanted things to stay as they were – because they did well out of the status quo, or were afraid of what might happen, or couldn’t be bothered. Another, and perhaps better way of understanding that conflict was to see Jesus challenging evil – the darkness of fallen minds and bad customs, the evil of oppressive relationships, cruel poverty – in short, challenging the devil for supremacy on earth.

The violent metaphors for Christian life – battle, struggle, temptation, victory or defeat – are not the most popular now. As we look forward to Lent, we will find that Christian life cannot do without them, though they are not the whole story.

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. Even apart from the need to get it right, it brings us into the most fundamental conflict of all!

In sight?

This week many British churches will be taken up with Mothering Sunday (and there is a Dialogue Sketch on that theme here), but the lectionary provides a reading from John 9:1-41 for others.

It is a story of a blind man coming to sight – and a great deal more than just physical sight (remarkable as that was, and is, in someone who have never been able to see).  It is made clear that the healing of his eyes is only a start.  He then has to struggle with some heavy questioning before he finds Jesus in a new way, and is able to “see” more profoundly.

Alongside this happy story is another, of increasing blindness.  By verse 41 Jesus has harsh words for those who say they are spiritually able to see, but cannot.  The division is there in v16, and has hardened by v24.

Is this still true?  Yes.  There are those today who are finding “sight”.  There are also others, even within religion, who are not.  We say that we walk in the light.  What happens if that isn’t true?

  • the occasional failure can be repented of and forgiven
  • but when we fail to recognise God at work, and persist in that opinion -!

The challenge is to speak of what we know.  We are intended to know God.  If we fail to know, become complacent, or imagine that God must work according to our traditions, that is far worse even than physical blindness.

War and Disaster (Kingdom 3c)

The Christian gospel is good news – that is the literal translation of the word also translated “gospel”.  But sometimes you read a passage like Luke 21:5-19, and see reference to the destruction of fine buildings, war, disasters, persecution and betrayal, and think, “Good news”?

But the gospel is indeed good news, because these evils are recognised.  It is so easy to reduce Christian faith to a parody: “Be nice to people, enjoy the countryside, help those less fortunate.”  There is nothing wrong in any of those, of course – but without a strong reason to motivate a life of service and sacrifice, it is only platitude – so much hot air.

The reason comes as Jesus speaks of the sometimes painful reality of human life.  And it is the fact that he not only speaks of evil, but faces it himself, that gives weight to the way he leads.  Jesus faced a plot to kill him, was slandered and betrayed.  It is after he has been flogged and during his crucifixion that he forgives (as he had taught others).  By facing the evil of the real world, he overcomes it and offers us freedom.

The good news is about a kingdom where peace and justice rule, and healing and truth are found – a kingdom open to all who will admit their need of forgiveness and follow the one who leads the way through death to life.  Without the reference to the hard realities, it might seem just another bit of wishful thinking – a tale for children, to be left behind with childish things.  But a gospel which depends on one who lived this, went to his death by torture forgiving, and returned to encourage those who, despite their failures, wanted to be his followers; – that is a gospel for the real world, and for people who have grown to know some of how hard it can be.

Distraction – and focus on the important (Kingdom 2c)

Religious people have a sad reputation for arguing over trivialities.  I wish I could claim it was undeserved, but too often religion has been seen as trivialising, competitive, irrelevant – and the criticism has sometimes been just.

It’s a relief, then, that when Jesus is approached by a group of Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection or afterlife, with a trick question about relationships in heaven, he is not distracted.  Luke 20:27-38 has a basis in Deuteronomy 25:5-, regulations designed to safeguard families and their property.  The Sadducees had been foiled earlier in chapter 20.  Demanding to know about Jesus’ authority, they had been unable to answer his counter-question about the authority of John the Baptist.  Now, they want to make Jesus, with his belief in resurrection, look silly, or simply to distract him into a pointless speculation.

Jesus gives an answer which is straightforward and helpful.  Heaven will be different.  People raised to eternity will have different relationships, and surely a clearer focus on God and his plans.  He goes on to use the book of Exodus (part of the 1st 5 books of our Old Testament, which the Sadducees accepted as authoritative) to suggest afterlife.  If God can introduce himself to Moses at the Burning Bush as “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, then they must still be alive in some way.  He IS their God, not WAS.  It is not an argument we might have thought of, but very much in the logic of this group. (see Exodus 3)

So, can we avoid the trivial, time-wasting and meaningless?  Perhaps.  But will we be able to focus clearly and sympathetically on what is really relevant and important, in God’s terms?  That is the challenge of Christian life in any age.  Jesus is a strong example and motivation.  Not only will he not be distracted in this exchange, but he will shortly go to his death.  All the gospel writers make that the climax and focus of their story.  Whether it will also figure in our story and conversation is a matter of daily decision, and focus.

I am grateful for Paul’s words (2 Thess 2:16f): “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

Peace -? (Proper 15, Pentecost 13)

Peace seems a long way off. Terrorist violence, superpower shuffling, unstable governments. We want peace, but not at any price.

Then we read Luke 12:49-56 and wonder what hope there is.

Jesus has come to a crisis point in his ministry.  Jesus who never welcomed conflict, nor compromised with evil, is aware of growing conflict. He is the “Prince of Peace” of whom Isaiah spoke (9:6f), yet knows his ministry is causing division, and will cause violence – which he will take on himself, rather than inflict it on others. That certainly is peacemaking! But it is a long way from the “gung ho” ideas of popular Jewish Messianic expectation: a military hero, to throw out the Romans and bring an age of peace and plenty for all Jews.

So let’s ask: What peace can we expect now, and what not? We already have:

  • reconciliation – forgiveness, sorting out relationships
    with God, and with ourselves (if God can forgive, I must try also)
    and with other people (even if some will not accept it)
  • a sense of purpose, knowing our place as God’s children, with his service to keep us busy, and his people as family to whom we belong
  • an answer to war and violence in common service. We don’t seek the surrender of A to B, or B to A, nor the survival of strongest, but the need for all to submit and answer to God, and work as servants of one master.

We do already have a great deal of peace to be thankful for. BUT this isn’t heaven, and we have not yet “arrived”. There are some aspects of peace for which we are still waiting:

  • an end to temptation. (If temptation doesn’t disturb your peace, check to make sure you haven’t given in totally!) There is a fight on here, with no thought of a truce!
  • we know that Jesus has won the victory, but we await the disarming of those who will not choose to serve him. Our peace will be disturbed by those who are deliberately evil, and those who are careless and unaware of their need to repent and serve the King

For the moment, we have reason to look forward to a time when justice happens for everybody, when there is love – and peace. We have a good deal already, and there is some “not yet” to wait and pray for.

Tough Jesus? (Pentecost 6c)

This week takes us to Luke 9:51-62, which is interesting for what it tells us about Jesus.  It starts with his determination to go to Jerusalem – he “sets his face” (or, in The Message, “steeled himself”).  This is the tough Jesus, disciplined to the point of being hard on himself, we sometimes forget.

It contrasts with his reaction to an inhospitable Samaritan village.  (They, as Samaritans, would not assist those going to Jerusalem because of the dispute over God’s chosen location for worship).  James and John, nicknamed “Sons of Thunder”, want to incinerate them, probably drawing on the example of Elijah – 2 Kings 1.  Elijah may have been demonstrating the power of God against bullying force, but Jesus shows the power of God in merciful restraint – and the group walks further for supper.

With the three would-be disciples, the tough side seems to return:

  • does the first candidate want to join in with Jesus success? or is he perhaps poor and wanting an easy life?  We don’t know, but are reminded that discipleship guarantees neither success nor freedom from care and trouble.  Jesus’ followers may share some of Jesus’ harder experiences!
  • Jesus wants the second to follow, perhaps seeing the good in him.  But is it that the good impulses lack focus, prioritisation and urgency?  How many people now avoid doing what God would call them to (and thus their real fulfillment) by rather aimlessly “doing good”?
  • the third is a volunteer, but looking the wrong way.  Christians have to accept forgiveness, leave behind the past, including bitterness and retribution, and move on.

Perhaps Jesus was aware that he dare not wait to collect these three because of the urgency of his journey to Jerusalem.  But we also have an urgency in faith.  The window of opportunity – to share faith, to be the Church God intended and needs for his plans for our world, is limited.  Things are changing – rather faster after the Referendum result this week – and more than ever we, like Jesus, need focus, prioritisation, and urgency of action.

Waiting (Easter 7c)

I wonder if it was uncomfortable being with the disciples for the ten days between Jesus’ Ascension and the Day of Pentecost?  Waiting is not my favourite activity, and I imagine other people also find it difficult.

Of course, when the waiting is over, it doesn’t always make everything easy.  Luke tells us of the need to wait by showing the power of the Holy Spirit in the adventures of the early Christians in the book of Acts.  They needed the help.  Clearly, this is not their own planning or ability displayed, but something more.

Acts 16:16-34, read this Sunday, tells of Paul’s ability to deal with spirit possession.  (This is not a denial of psychiatry – most “possession” in the western world is psychiatric illness, but evil spiritual power is also real, and telling the difference needs some care and training).  He gets no thanks, but the girl is freed – and so is a jailer and his family!  Remarkable events, catalysed by the different lives of the Christians, and their readiness to take the opportunities that occur.

Perhaps this is more relevant to today’s Church than we might like to think.  What are we waiting for?  Perhaps again the coming of the Holy Spirit to transform lives – quietly or dramatically, but in a real way.  That will help us understand how we are meant to serve our communities, be a blessing to individuals, and provoke questions from those who want to share the benefit.

I find it reassuring that Paul, like the other early Christians, is not pictured as an ideal or perfect person, simply as one through whom the Holy Spirit was able to do great things.  The challenge is that there is no reason why that shouldn’t happen to me – or to you.

Who is threatened? (Lent 2c)

Lent 2c gospel – Luke 13:31-35

We had a good look at this in Bible Study, and found plenty to think about.

Is the warning friendly, or a veiled threat? It is not clear, but Jesus’ in response suggests he is confronting evil constantly, and will not be put off that. (In the parallel passage in Matthew, 23:29ff, there is open criticism of the Pharisees, and a fuller explanation of the fate of prophets).

At the same time, Jesus’ ministry is not standing still, but moving on to a climax, and a climax in Jerusalem!

What is his concern for “Jerusalem”? I think it unlikely he is sentimental about the place. He speaks of concern for the people, and I wonder if he also laments the culture dominant in both the religious and political life of the city. If only they would hear, and take the way of peace! This is very much a Lenten concern. If only we would hear!

But hearing has to lead to more, to practical application over time and where possible in wider society. Jesus looks forward to Palm Sunday, the (“Benedictus”) shouts of the crowd as he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (quotes from Ps 118: v26, v25 is Hosanna, while v22 will become important to Christians and quoted several times in the New Testament). That enthusiasm will be short lived, and not avoid his betrayal and death. Can we do better, without acting like Peter? (Luke 22:31-34 and parallels).

Is this passage tragedy playing out to it ending? Or does it speak of the need for reality – and if so, did Jesus have it? Certainly there is much here about human frailty and the ugly side of power struggles.