Tag Archives: freedom

What is Jesus all about?

The story of Jesus in his home synagogue (Luke 4:14-21) is an announcement of what Jesus is all about, and it demands attention. Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1,2, but he’s talking about the fulfillment of the greatest hopes of a people. I’m not sure if we have such clear and unified national hopes now – we don’t even talk easily about our personal hopes – but the Jewish people of the first century knew what they wanted. They wanted freedom, and the life that God had promised – a good life, a life of wholeness and plenty and right – right relations and right order – to happen in their time.

And Jesus comes to his home synagogue and says “Yes, its happening now.” And we blink, thinking, have I missed something, what happened next? Look back, and you will see that in Nazareth they took offence, and he narrowly escaped violence. Jesus had stopped quoting Is with “the time has come when the Lord will save his people” it continues “and defeat their enemies”. Perhaps Jesus didn’t need to speak of that, because it was shown to be happening.

So we are set up by Luke to ask if we recognise these things in the gospel story – both the story he tells, and the story our lives re-tell. Jesus as the bringer of good news: not always happiness, sometimes hard work (but never pointless). Good news which includes being set free – not free of all constraint, but free of evil, free to learn to live with other people as difficult as we are ourselves.

Then there’s recovery of sight. Jesus did heal some blind people, but more than that, he has made it possible for many of us to see –

  • to see something of God, his character, his activity, and purpose
  • to see in people not just what they are, but what they might be, and how God might view them.
  • to see the collection of Christians not as grumpy, quarrelsome bunch, but as the potential citizens of a new kingdom.

Some of the oppressed are free, and some of those who profited from their oppression are quite annoyed. We see a struggle developing, and already we are involved. Do you think Jesus should have known his place and kept quiet in his home town? Or are you hearing what he says and saying, even without quite getting all the significance, “Yes!”

Luke is only beginning. But he warns us that this is no story that we can read and analyse like an instruction book or technical specification. We are drawn in; right away we either rejoice that freedom is announced and healing practised, or we worry that we may lose out if things change too much.

God is in charge, the Holy Spirit is leading a new wave of history – and it continues for us. As we read on, where will your sympathies be, who will you support, what will you do?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on Jesus, because he has chosen him to bring good news to the poor. He has sent him to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people”

Yes?

Introduction – with vigour

Who do you think you are?

It was a question John the Baptist would have used. ~ Luke tells us that “he proclaimed the good news to the people” (last verse of the reading Luke 3:7-18), but he certainly didn’t mince his words. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John, in his uncompromising, vigorous style, was not out to make friends and influence people. This prophet, speaking for God, was direct.

His first function was to prepare the way by bringing people to repentance, reminding them of the holiness of God, and their compromised status. The process of baptism was an admission of the need to begin again with God, because of sin, failure. Preaching repentance remains an important, if undervalued, part of Christian ministry. Not for the outsider alone, but for all of us to realise that we are not ready for the coming of God, we need to repent, to root out the evil which so easily takes root in us, and to respond again to God’s goodness. John had some very practical advice about how that might work (verses 10-14).

John’s second function was to point to the Messiah. Verses 15-17 make clear that he is not the one, but is a forerunner to a greater figure yet to come. It’s not easy to point to someone else, but this was his role, and privilege. Like his morality, preaching the Messiah would have excited some, angered others. Messiahs came fairly often – in popular imagination – and dealing with them at that time was usually bloodthirsty. During John and Jesus childhood, the roads of Galilee had been lined with crucifixions after one such rebellion.

His third function (which we return to in January) was to start Jesus’ ministry by baptising him. In each case, John was taking risks, and dealing with dangerous topics – which is what they remain.

Morality, personal and business ethics, can be a sensitive issue. But as Christians we draw some very definite patterns from New Testament teaching. You are free – and your abuse of that freedom can lose you your status as a Christian. You are responsible, and the God who forgives failure still expects obedience.

Jesus as Messiah is also a sensitive issue. Can we not accept all religions, all leaders? No – we can respect them, but Christians follow Christ without compromise, even if that is politically incorrect, embarrassing, or commercially disadvantageous.

John the Baptist was a “blast from the past”, even in the first century; he remains someone who highlights critical issues for our faith and discipleship today. To be ready for the coming of Christ now, you must repent, respond to the Goodness of God in Christ, and follow the Messiah faithfully and without confusion.

For example – Peter

Peter’s great recognition of Jesus as the long-promised and expected King (Messiah) is a turning point in each of the first three gospels (Matthew 16:13-20).  It brings into the open – though only for the disciples at first – the most important truth.  For us, who sometimes think “Christ” is Jesus surname, we wonder at the significance.  (Christ is actually the Greek form of the Hebrew “Messiah”, literally anointed one, so King).

We might see its importance for us by looking at Peter.  Peter was a tough fisherman, who took time to take Jesus seriously, and then personally. Luke tells us how (Luke 5:1-10), after Peter lent his boat for Jesus to preach from, a big catch of fish taken by following Jesus’ instructions led to Peter’s admission of sin and failure. Jesus doesn’t go away as Peter suggests, but commissions him as a fisher of men.  Freed from the guilt of his past failure, Peter is also freed from being “just a Galilean fisherman”. He becomes a leader of apostles.

Many Christians have found the freedom of faith liberated them. Some were aware that guilt crippled them, and forgiveness made new life possible. Others concentrated more on the acceptance and dignity that God gave to lives lived in difficult or demanding circumstances. No one else might know or care what happened to them, but if God did, they could walk on, and walk tall.

Peter’s trust in Jesus wasn’t just an escape from guilt and a limited life. It brought his a freedom to serve.  At Caesarea Philippi, he recognises Jesus as the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of what the OT looked forward to – and he has the courage to say it.  (Of course, he hasn’t become infallible – his next line will be mistakenly telling Jesus that he doesn’t need to suffer!).  This is the pivot of the gospel because it makes clear that Jesus is Lord.  Not just a teacher, explaining a theory, nor just a miracle worker.

Again, after Jesus Resurrection and Ascension, Peter has seen James arrested and executed.  But he is set free by an angel (Acts 12:1-12). He won’t escape execution for ever, but he has years of service to give first, travelling, teaching, telling the world about Jesus.

Perhaps the freedom to serve is something we are not so good at.  We want to be free from things that limit and diminish us, but are not so good at understanding what use to make of our freedom. Peter shows us how a life in Jesus’ service might indeed be the intended use of freedom.  If the picture we get from Peter is freedom from sin, guilt and the limitations of a small life, it is also of freedom to serve, grow, and for him to be a leader and pioneer.  Peter is a good example of Christian life!

Christ the King (Kingdom 4c)

This week we celebrate Christ the King.  Most of us have some idea what a King (a ruling King, rather than a constitutional monarch) might look like.  Words like power, glory, majesty, and rule come to mind.  Power and authority are hotly contested in our world.  We expect a strong man, with more than words behind him.  Glory is less obvious; I might think of magnificence, but I suspect the re-discovery of the word “awesome” may be closer the mark.  Majesty might imply the right person for the right job, someone with the necessary qualities, like wisdom, intelligence, experience, understanding . .  We have an idea what a King might look like – but is it the right idea?

The reading is Luke 23:33-43, the story of Jesus crucifixion.  It is no mistake.  This is the enthronement of Christ the King, but we may need to take time to come to terms with it.  Jesus as King has power.  Here, on the cross, he does what only he can do, and offers his own life as a sacrifice to win our freedom and to win the victory over evil.  While it may not be the sort of power demonstration we expect, this is the final showdown.  There is no greater power than this.

The glory of Jesus is the glory of service.  As king, he does not subjugate, but frees.  If he has coercive power (remember the cursing of the fig tree?) he much prefers to heal, reconcile and liberate.  This is real glory.  In the same sort of way, his majesty is not expensive clothing, a luxurious setting and careful stage management.  This scene is awe inspiring for what it is, not for how it is made to look.

This may be a surprise, or just a reminder that we all have to remind and re-educate ourselves, so different is the Christian understanding to what we are used to in our cultures.  Yet all scripture points this way:

  • the gospels all build up to a climax at the cross, recorded in detail.  There is no “alternative ending”
  • the gospels also record Jesus trying to warn the disciples, explaining what will – what must – happen, and his refusal to escape to personal safety.
  • the early Christians preach Jesus death and resurrection as central to their story and their hope
  • in that Christian story, the figure of the coming King (Messiah) is also the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah

And it is not only scripture (or my interpretation of scripture!).  Christians still, in different traditions, celebrate by remembering Jesus words of sacrifice at his last meal with the disciples – this is my body, given for you . . this is my blood of the new covenant.  They still hold to the creeds, with their recital of Jesus death and resurrection as of central importance.  Hymns and worship songs again and again return to the cross, Jesus death and sacrifice – for these are the source of Christian commitment and motivation.

Let’s celebrate Christ the King!

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.

Thank you (Pentecost 21c, Proper 23c)

Why does saying “thank you” matter?  Is it anything more than manners (of the sort children have to do, and adults think they have grown out of)?  Perhaps so.  The story of 10 healed lepers, of whom only one returns to Jesus to offer thanks, is interesting.  (Luke 17:11-19).

It seems all 10 are healed, and stay healed – we have to assume the cure was “certified” by the priest, allowing them to return from isolation to normal life.  Perhaps it was the urgency of getting that official all clear that led them to hurry off.  But the tenth stops to give thanks, and we see how thanksgiving recognises a gift.  Recognising a gift means also recognising the giver.  Knowing that the most important things we have (life, health, intelligence, opportunity . .) are a gift from God is an understanding that changes our view of the universe.

Of course thanksgiving is a large part of worship – and making that a public statement is important in our witness to what God has done for us, that is our faith.  We don’t do a lot of thanksgiving or praise in our western culture.  Politicians, celebrities and others known to many are more likely to be gossiped about or criticised, to the extent that public thanks or praise sound strange, if not strained.

So, what benefit does this leper get from his return to thank Jesus?  He is reminded of, and acknowledges, the gift of healing.  He opens a relationship with the one who gave him his cure.  More than this, Jesus says “your faith has made you well” – not fit, or un-leprous, but well.  Being well covers far more.  We might imagine that some of the 9 healed lepers remain angry at their treatment, fearful of further illness, keen to settle old scores . .  To be well is to be freed of so much more than physical illness.

 

Harvest (Harvest c)

Harvest Thanksgiving!?  Deuteronomy 26:1-11 might seem strange: the farmer is to take some of the first of his produce, and publicly acknowledge it as God’s gift. Then he is to celebrate, sharing with others, including resident aliens. You might find that interesting, even quaint, but a little remote. We don’t farm, and too often we don’t give thanks, or recognise the gifts and goodness of God either.

Giving thanks is important. You don’t give thanks for what is your due, your earnings – though you might say thank you to someone who makes the effort to calculate and hand over your wages. And too often we imagine that what we have is our due, earned by hard work. Think a little harder. Yes, you may well have worked and saved. Where did the energy come from, the intelligence that made it possible, the life without which nothing would have happened? Natural processes – yes, certainly they are the means, but unless you believe it all to be chance without reason or purpose, then God’s providence is responsible.

For Christians, life is a gift, as is health, energy, intelligence. Work, though it can be mindless and dehumanising, should not be so and is what we are meant for. So we recognise that God is the giver of so many good things, and we give thanks. Sometimes thanksgiving is reduced to good manners, something to teach children – and reject as adults. That’s a mistake. Giving thanks is a reminder of gift. It establishes a relationship.

Thank you God, for food and shelter, often taken for granted or forgotten. Thank you for the goodness and generosity with which you give – not confining us to grey barrack block housing and endless tasteless porridge to keep us alive. Now – what was it you intended me to do with the life, energy, and intelligence you gave? How can I react to the danger in which we have placed the very environment of the whole earth? We could talk about the ecological crisis, and how we respond. We could talk about vocation – the “calling” of each Christian to find how their gifts and personality are meant to be used with others for the good of all. . .

You might think that I am building too much on an Old Testament harvest liturgy, but I would point you to Jesus words (John 6:25-35) as he debates with those who came to the feeding of the 5,000, and want more free lunches. What do they have to do? To trust the one God sent – Jesus.  Not to keep rules, but to learn from the bread of life, and live in relationship to him and in the way he lives in relationship – to God, creation, and other people.
Thanksgiving for harvest is old, and still important. Giving thanks reminds us of gifts received, and opens a relationship. We have to resist delusions of self-sufficiency, and learn proper dependance on God. Oh yes, and we have to celebrate, sharing with all sorts of people!

Money (Pentecost 19c, Proper 21c)

What is money for?  It’s strange how, in a materialistic culture, we don’t ask the question.  An Economist would probably give an answer about the convenience of avoiding barter for all transactions – true, but not entirely helpful.

Looking at Luke 16:19-31, or indeed remembering Jesus’ disciple Matthew the Tax collector, we do at least see some ways of getting it wrong.  The rich man of the parable found that his wealth meant he didn’t have to think about other people, and got into the habit of seeing the poor as available to run errands for his convenience.  Matthew left a career in the financial sector (well, I suppose that is how we would describe it now -?) for the uncertainties of travelling with and learning from Jesus.

If we try to ask what Jesus taught about money, it is not quite straightforward.  While one rich young man was told to get rid of his wealth and follow (Mark 10:17-23), that was not true of all his followers.  Some came from the families of tradespeople (the fishermen, for example, left their father in the boat with the hired men – Mark 1:20), some like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the women who funded Jesus ministry, clearly had wealth.

At the same time, there is no encouragement to see wealth linked to status.  There are warnings in this story against letting wealth get in the way of relationships (compare James 2:1-10).  I think it would be fair to say that having money – even at the average of British life – gives added responsibility (in using it as God’s managers), and added temptations (to misuse it).  Given that we in the west are wealthy, why is it that we so seldom ask what money is for, and how we might judge our use of it, and what are the good and bad models?

Costs (Pentecost 16, Proper 18)

We sometimes say that we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Some people can tell you the exact price of a car, a dress, a watch. Odd then that we don’t count the cost of discipleship, when Jesus talks clearly about it (Luke 14:25-33). True, discipleship is a gift. Our faith is something given us by God’s grace, – but the running costs are high! In fact v33 is a problem. What does it mean? “none of you can be my disciple unless you give up everything you have.”
Some have accepted a vocation to life as monk, nun or friar. By giving up personal property, they find a certain freedom – although the community has to have ownership of some things to enable their life, and it is of course a community without children. That’s the point of v 26 – if family loyalties count for more than loyalty to Jesus and faith in him, faith isn’t possible.

I think that is also what the little parables about building a tower, or making war, are about. In both cases, there’s no point unless you can see the project through and finish it successfully. So in Christian life, don’t start unless you’re serious! Get half way and try to pull out, and you’re in a mess – half a tower is useless, half a war if much more dangerous than none. Half a faith – a faith that is only serious in some ways – is the same. It doesn’t work, it causes trouble.

So what are we supposed to do? What did Jesus mean:
“none of you can be my disciple unless you give up everything you have.”
It is not that everything is bad – we know Jesus enjoyed parties, & people. We also know that he owned nothing that would get in the way of his mission.  What he is saying to us is that Christian discipleship must be the most important thing, or nothing. If we don’t want to live out our faith more than we want other things, it won’t work, and is in danger of being a waste of time.

Does anyone do that? Well, I think it is something that we grow into. You get into a situation, and have to decide – it may be whether to put yourself out, to make an effort you would rather not. And so you grow, and next time, that answer is a little easier.Of course, you can also fail – no, I’ll try that another time, I really can’t be expected to do this. And nobody can know – you can’t do everything! But you will get to know whether you keep saying No to God, or whether you say Yes often enough to be stretched and grow.

We are not called to be wandering beggars; but we are called to be ready to use whatever we have in God’s service. No, it’s not mine, its on the list of things available for use as God directs. If you haven’t got much, the list isn’t very long. But if you have, the temptation to hold back is greater. Jesus wasn’t against the rich, he just knew that when it came to counting the cost of discipleship, they would find it more difficult to pay.

Win – Lose? (Proper 16, Pentecost 14)

Who would complain at someone doing right? Those threatened by it.

Jesus heals a woman bent for 18 years (Luke 13:10-17).  Wonderful, everybody is pleased – aren’t they?  Well, no.  The synagogue official complains that it isn’t right, the Sabbath law is being broken.

Jesus response is first to say that if Sabbath law allows an animal to be freed to be taken to water, it certainly allows a woman to be freed from a worse constraint.  His second point is more severe.  This healing is not “work” so much as setting free from the power of evil.  No one argues with him, at least not immediately, but opposition is growing and this is the last time Luke tells us of Jesus in a synagogue.

So, given this was so long ago, does it matter?  We might look at Christian attitudes to rest, and think how the Devil would bend them:

  • one way to avoid a useful time of refreshment, worship and gaining perspective would be to over-emphasise the rule.  Let it be absolute, but also purposeless, negative, empty, hollow.  That should keep people away from God, and God’s intention in a day of rest.
  • another (more common in my experience) would be to rubbish Sunday observance.  They could tell stories of not being allowed to play on Sundays as children, and forget how others needed rest.  Let people do as they want,  Let people overwork, make sure families have no time together, and make the Church family unable to meet all together at one time.  Make it hardest for the poor, who will not be able to refuse unsocial work hours.

Jesus will do neither.  His first concern is for God, his second for people.  He keeps the Law, but not always as others have been in the habit of doing.  We could learn from that.  Living by rules is never enough (it is what can give religion a bad name!), but refusing all discipline is no answer either. We have to learn Jesus priorities: love and serve God, love and serve other people, don’t reject rules, but never let them be an excuse for avoiding the first two priorities.

” And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” ” (Luke 13:16)  Certainly, yes, she should be released, and we should be finding our own freedom and bringing release to others by the power and grace of God.