Tag Archives: Identity

Out of this world!

Where do you fit? Do you belong? It’s difficult if you feel you don’t. Yet Christians don’t entirely, and need to be at ease with that. Let me pick up some words from Jesus in today’s gospel (John 17:6-19)
John 17:6 “I have made you known to those you gave me out of the world”
and a few verses later
John 17:9 “I do not pray for the world ”
which is odd, not only because we do pray for the world and its needs, but that Jesus disciples were given out of the world.

Of course, we live in the world, have responsibilities in the world, encourage people to work for the good of their communities. But traditionally Christians have talked of not being “worldly” – not being formed by secular values, not being just followers of fashion, success, whatever everyone wants and is talking about. Jesus took his disciples, and taught them a way of life, a set of values – that would set them at odds with many in their communities. In John 17, as he prepares to leave them, he underlines that.

He says much the same a few verses later: John 17:15 “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but I do ask you to keep them safe from the Evil One.”
John 17:16 “Just as I do not belong to the world, they do not belong to the world.”

Not belonging to the world, being kept safe from evil – these are still important. Still things to pray, for ourselves and others. It might help to look at Acts 1 (Acts 1:15-17 and Acts 1:21-26 are the readings this Sunday as well) also. The context is that funny time between Jesus leaving the disciples as he ascended to heaven, and the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to the believers, and equipped them for mission. In Acts 1, we hear of Judas fate (though it is left out of the recommended reading – don’t we like the warning it contains?) and of the choice of a replacement. Why did they need a replacement for Judas? Because the number 12 was important – 12 apostles in parallel with 12 tribes of Israel, becoming the new people of God, (not by race, or by “observance”, but by faith). You remember how Jacob was given the new name Israel, and his sons (well, including Joseph’s two sons) gave their names to the 12 tribes, each associated with a part of the Promised land? Well, now Jesus is re-making the people of God, with a new Covenant. But they are down to 11, so . .

What qualifications were required of any new candidate? That they had been with Jesus, and could be witnesses to his life, death and resurrection. (and they would also talk about the Holy Spirit once he arrived!).

That fits well. We are not to “belong” to the world. The early Christians are “growing out of” just being in Jewish religion. A new identity forms, a new people, but not a nation. For us, we live in a nation, and play a positive part in the community, but importantly are formed by the teaching of Jesus, and powered by the Holy Spirit he sent, rather than just by our own abilities, greed, or ambition. Our direction – our ambition – will seem strange to outsiders, because it isn’t just what we choose for ourselves.

Our fellowship will sometimes arouse envy, but many will not understand that it is more than good manners or common background, and comes from sharing an obedience to one Lord, and discipline in his service.

“out of this world” ? – not quite, but not belonging to it, –

belonging instead to one Lord, and one another. We have his mission to prioritise.

What’s in a name? (Naming of Jesus)

(If you want to see how a dialogue sketch works on this theme and passage, go to Dialogue Sketch for the “Naming of Jesus” )

What’s in a name? Perhaps not a lot, in our Western society.  Names seem to be chosen much at random, from the celebrities of the day.  The meaning is something we have to look up – unless you have a “nickname”, which may be more descriptive.  On the other hand, people like me who find it difficult to remember many names quickly find how little people like their names being forgotten or confused.

In the ancient world, names were more important and powerful.  God reveals his name to Moses ( Exodus 3:11-15 ).  We find it hard to interpret “I am who I am”, but for Egyptian slaves, it was a free God, and to those who used magic and idols, perhaps a challenge from a God who created, and was not made by others.  Numbers 6:22-7 tells us to use the name of God in blessing – perhaps because we become like what we admire or worship, and to summarise our becoming more like God, and living in God’s power.

Then there is the name “Jesus”, given by the angel to Mary, and then given in obedience to Jesus at his circumcision ( Luke 1:28-38, Luke 2:21 ).  It means “saviour”, a reminder and summary of Jesus role, and is the same as “Joshua” (in both Hebrew and Greek).  As Jesus’ disciples, we also have a part to play in the saving of the world – a good thought to begin the New Year!

Not what I expected! (Advent 3a)

I find it easy to sympathise with John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).  Not only is he in prison, but the man he identified as the coming Messiah doesn’t seem to be baptising with fire as predicted.  Doubt sets in, probably made worse by John’s situation, and inability to go and ask questions himself.

Still, he does the next best thing – he sends someone else.  The question is direct, “Are you the one?”  Doubt and uncertainty are difficult to handle, but Christians are always allowed to ask questions – and it is better to do something to resolve doubt than let it fester.  (What is not allowed is encouraging the “you can’t be sure of anything” state of mind.)  So John sends to ask a question.

Jesus doesn’t give a simple answer.  Instead of “yes” or “no” he tells the messengers to report what they heard and saw.  Jesus is not making claims for himself, but pointing to the fulfillment of prophecy – something John would understand.  Jesus may not have fitted John’s expectations – or ours – but he fits into the prophecies and predictions of the Old Testament, making us think again about the things we might not have expected, and might not like.

Jesus then talks about John as a prophet – and the one Malachi had foretold.  He is honoured, but we are left with the amazing thought that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.  Why?  Perhaps because John still has to wait for a saviour, while those of us who follow Jesus as our Lord are already included in the kingdom.  We are honoured by the comparison, but also challenged.

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.

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.

Mothering Sunday – a Christian festival?

I have a mixed relationship with “Mothering Sunday”. Yes, celebrating mothering, or perhaps positive parenting and families, is good; the encouragement to affirm and say thank you is helpful. So what’s wrong? The danger of ignoring those for whom families have not worked, and indeed caused pain or damage: the broken and divided families, memories of control, abuse, violence, argument; those who longed to be parents, but could not, or whose experience of parenthood was hard.

So let’s have some reality. Yes, for most of us families have been good, not always giving us what we thought we wanted, but often providing what we needed. I think Jesus would recognise that. He had two good parents in Mary and Joseph, and we read (Mark 6:3) of four brothers and more than one sister. As the eldest (Mary’s “firstborn” Luke 2:7) we guess that he stayed at home long enough to leave Mary with his brothers running the business to support them all (Joseph does not appear again after the incidents of Luke 2:42-52 when Jesus was about 12). But during his ministry, Jesus breaks free from family control (Mark 3:32-34, as Lk 8:20ff and Mt 12:46ff) – and there are words which must have been hard for Mary! Later she is cared for at the cross (John 19:26-7), and becomes part of the early Christian community (Acts 1:14).
There is a choice of gospel readings today. We can take Jesus’ words from the cross, instructing John to care for Mary (John 19:26-7), or Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph when they brought the baby Jesus to the Temple – words that amazed them, and left Mary with much to think about (Luke 2:33-35).

Perhaps my favourite, though, would be the parable of the Prodigal Son – or should we call it the Loving Father (Luke 15:11-32). It is a story in three acts. First the younger son takes his money (no doubt causing much pain) and goes. Not a great deal is made of his route to the decision to return – no doubt there are many factors – but he makes the decision and the journey we might call repentance.

The second act belongs to the Father. Love is on the lookout, and offers not only a warm welcome, but also a shield through the village from hostile comment and action. As a picture of a generous God, it can be a little difficult to hold in focus. (Can God really be like that? Even if Jesus says so?)

The third act is more familiar. The resentment and self-righteousness of the elder brother sounds familiar. He is ready to think the worst, and offers no forgiveness – a challenge, not only to the proud of Jesus’ day, but to all of us. If we have avoided scandalous wrongdoing, and offered a measure of service, isn’t there strong temptation to want to claim our reward, and to denounce the cheats who enjoy the Father’s love? The question we don’t want asked is, “Who is cheating the gospel?”

Lent (Lent 1c)

I enjoyed last night’s study group. We were looking at Luke 4:1-13 – Jesus’ temptation.

There is so much in that passage:

Jesus was sent into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, received at his baptism (no, hard times are not always a mistake), and is tempted (it is not the being tempted that is wrong . .).

Each of the temptations offers a diversion from the ministry that Jesus will have: turning stones to bread is about making comfort a primary requirement for our lives; the power of ruling the world is the temptation to have and use power over other people; jumping from the Temple suggests both forcing belief by using miracles to amaze, and misusing scripture to try and force God’s action.

What I realised more as our discussion went on was centred on two things. First, the Devil constantly tries to manipulate and force Jesus to comply, while Jesus chooses the actions which will preserve the freedom of choice for those he will meet and minister to. Jesus will not make disciples by offering comfort, power, or cheap thrills. While he acts in compassion and with clear purpose, he always leaves people free to follow or not, to believe or forget, or ask more questions.

The second thing that struck me was how Jesus struggles – and the Devil’s temptations – were linked to the question of identity. Twice comes “IF you are God’s son . .” All through is, “What sort of ministry? What sort of Minister?”

I wonder if the traditions associated with “Lent”, or other times and traditions of penitence and fasting, are so carefully linked to our identity as God’s people, responding to his love and invitation to serve? And do our traditions set out to prepare us for service, service in ways which bring life and blessing, but without trying to coerce, manipulate, or make people do what we want them to?