Tag Archives: power

Creation matters

You might wonder why Christians bother with thoughts of Creation. If so, it may help to think about alternatives to the story we have heard (in Genesis 2:4b-9 and 15-25):

  • many now seem to think the universe is an accident explained by science. It has no purpose, people have no significance, and there is no basis for love or justice unless we pretend to find one.
  • Others don’t care about causes. They just believe that “Might is Right”, and what matters is to be on top of the pile, not the bottom
  • and some think that if there is Fate or god, it is no friend, and may even be out to catch them our or get them!

So: part of the Good News we have to share is about God, who in love creates. Though we have done some damage, the universe was well and beautifully made. It shows God to be wise, powerful, and to understand and plan in ways quite beyond our little minds!

Of course, there is an element of threat in this. It means this is not my world – it does not revolve around me, my wants, my ambitions . . God the creator owns it all. Even “my” possessions. Even “my” life. That makes quite a difference to the way we see things. You may notice in John’s vision of heaven, Revelation 4, that it is not all about family reunions and eternal holiday – the throne of God is central, and worship is what is happening.

Similarly, the God who chooses to make man and woman in his own image dignifies every human – even the poor, disabled, refugee, handicapped, criminal . . It is not for us to change his priorities.

So I hope you are beginning to see that Creation – the Christian understanding of a God of power and love who chooses to make us and our surroundings – is important. We have to come to terms with not being in control, with not having owner’s rights. Yet, this is Good News, just as the disciples in the boat that stormy day (Luke 8:2-25) discovered it was wonderful to be with Jesus, who understood their panic, and was able to put things right. Just as Adam and Eve found out, when even after their rebellion (Genesis 3: “We don’t have to be told what to do by Him!”) God acts in love to provide first, clothing, and a future salvation.

Belief in a Creator God does not mean we don’t have to bother about the way we treat the Earth and leave it for future generations. The knowledge that we are managers, or stewards – of the universe, as well as our lives and possessions – puts us in a good place. We have a responsible job, and excellent support!

Stranger Danger?

Are you “religious”? Going to Church may make people ask. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of having been a Vicar. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the Old Testament. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, (Matthew 2:1-12) which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored. but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?” Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and others).

So he tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King ( – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not.) The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”) And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to two. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .

Worship: as the Wise Men recognised the child Jesus –

or as Herod intended to deal with a rival?

Look again!

It’s the story we have all known for years, the feeding of the five thousand!  But before you get bored, look again at John 6:1-21.  It is strange how Jesus, who often refused to perform public miracles, here feeds a very large number.  True, they need the food, but there is much more to it than that!

Jesus deliberately involves other people – the boy with loaves and fish, the disciples.  It is God’s power, but they are being taught to be participants.  Then John notes it was Passover time.  He’s not just giving a date – he is remembering the significance of the first Passover, as God’s people escaped cruel slavery, shared a meal, marked their homes with blood, and began to learn new ways.  There will be another Passover meal to be shared in Jerusalem before the betrayal and death.  The timing is significant.

Even the gathering of leftovers has a point.  God can, and did, provide – and generously!  But if God’s Kingdom meets needs, let us not get lazy.  Jesus will not be made King.  (How ironic for the Messiah, yet this is not the time, or the way). He will again show his power on the lake, and go on teaching about how he chooses to use it, and what sort of a King he will be.

We shall continue reading this chapter for a couple of weeks yet – it has much more to say.  But start by seeing how much more than a free picnic is remembered here.

Surfing for fun?

Matthew 14:22-33 might be a Victor Meldrew story – “I don’t believe it!”, if it wasn’t for the fact that some of those who were there and told it were experienced fishermen.  Jesus walking on the waters of Lake Galilee made a big impact on a group, some of whom had worked it for years.

In telling the story, Matthew is making clear the power Jesus has, even over “natural forces”.  It reinforces the same point from the Feeding of the 5,000 (last week’s reading, if we hadn’t replaced it with the Transfiguration for 6th August).  Both raise questions for the modern reader – but the ancient reader must also have wondered “How?”.  Not having a clear answer should not lead us to the mistake of saying, “That can’t happen!”.  I have the same response to some modern physics, which I also don’t understand clearly.

So we are invited to reflect, in a culture where Jesus is often seen as a “good man” or a “teacher of spirituality”, on Jesus in Charge, Jesus with the creator’s power over creation.  The power Jesus holds is difficult for us to get our heads round.  He refuses to coerce people, even to ensure his own comfort or survival, yet is able to do awesome things.

But that isn’t the only significance of this story.  Peter goes for a walk.  Not for long – but long enough to discover that with Jesus’ permission he can walk on water, but that he frightens easily and needs help.  (He gets help, and everything is all right).

It is not just about Peter.  Discipleship is learning.  One part is to know something about how special and important Jesus is, because that is basic to our understanding, and also our motivation to live as Christians.  The other part is to learn how we are going to do what Jesus does. [compare Mark 16:17-18].  We may not be as good at it.  We need confidence, but confidence in Jesus and not in our own ability.  But as disciples we are learners, both of theory (about Jesus) and practice (“walking on water” – whatever form that may take for us).

With a story like that, why is it so easy to be sure there is nothing we need to do, or even nothing we can do?

 

[There is also a dialogue sketch on this passage – see http://www.andrewknight.org.uk/dialogue-sketches/index-of-dialogue-sketches/matthew-1422-33/ ]

The direction of Power

The story of Jesus visiting his friends and raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45) is a powerful introduction to the crucifixion and resurrection – though Lazarus is brought back to human life, and will die again, and Jesus is resurrected, to eternal life with no further death to face.  You can see why we read it on Passion Sunday, looking forward to the final events of Jesus’ earthly life. It stands with the raising of the widow’s son at Nain, and of Jairus’ daughter, as signs of Jesus power, even over death.

But it is not only Jesus Power, it is about his motivation. In fact there are at least 2 other things to see in this story.  Jesus cares about these people. They are friends. He knows how different the 2 sisters are – Martha will meet him with forthright words, Mary with emotion. Jesus accepts that. He sympathises, and is moved to tears himself. Yes, his power, and this action, is important – but he is no showman, manipulating his audience to do tricks. Lazarus restored life will be a witness, and a support to the family.

So we learn about Jesus power, but also about his sympathy and relationship with this family and its members.  Thirdly, again importantly, we see how his conversations deepen the faith of Martha, Mary, and the others there. Martha: “Yes, Lord, I Believe that you are the Messiah”. Mary just comes to Jesus and kneels at his feet. For the moment, they are entirely bound up in their bereavement (which would have had serious consequences for their lives). Yet it will not be long before the faith now dawning and strengthening will be essential to them as Jesus disciples are scattered after his execution.

Are we just onlookers? I hope not. We need to know each of those 3 things, and to know them not just intellectually, with book learning.

  • Jesus is powerful. Some idea of what he can do is vital for us to trust.
  • Jesus cares. Even minor characters – the ones we might call unimportant – get loving and sympathetic treatment.
  • Jesus wants to talk with us about faith, life, and where we are going. Only when that happens can we find our way – His way – forward.

I imagine Mary said many times, “Why did it have to be like this?” We could answer, we are so glad it was like that, and written down for us to benefit!

Target?

We begin Lent with the story of Jesus temptation.  He has just been baptised by John (Matthew 3:13-17), recognised not only by the Baptist, but by the heavenly voice affirming him as Son.  Then the Holy Spirit leads him away from the crowds to the wilderness, and we read Matthew 4:1-11.  It is as if the heavenly father adds, “But before anything else, there are a few things you need to sort out, Son.”  His forty days of fasting and struggle, the origin of our Lent, remind us both of the cost of Jesus’ ministry and also the strength he brought to this work.

Sometimes we focus on the three particular temptations – things which have so often made leaders corrupt and compromised:

  • there is the temptation to make life comfortable, a compensation for the stress of leadership.
  • there is the temptation to be a celebrity – to use power to make people take notice and obey.
  • there is the temptation to be the person who makes God do miracles.

Some of these affect us, too, and we can usefully be warned off.  But there is another thing here we can miss.  Jesus is struggling.  There is a real fight – but against who?  Many expected a Messiah to fight the Romans, but we don’t hear Jesus attacking Pilate, the Roman governor.  Herod was criticised by John the Baptist, but Jesus will not be his enemy.  He will warn people against the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, religious teachers, but they are not to be fought.  Even Judas receives kindness.

We have to understand that the fight against temptation is a fight against evil, but not a fight against other people.  (Paul says this in another way in Ephesians 6:12). No matter how stupid, how difficult to deal with patiently and in love, the enemy is not another human (for whom Jesus lived, died and rose again!), but the evil at loose in the world.  Evil will appear as pride, anger, self-pity, or in many other disguises eg as if concerned about the rights of others.  The grace is to recognise evil and temptation as cheats, with half truths and false promises.  Then with God’s help, we can go the way of real life, and freedom.

The (first) Sign

There are so many stories about how God might show up in ordinary – or extraordinary – life.  Ancient myths tell of half human superheros battling (usually battling!) great odds in deeds of bravery and endurance.  There is a strong echo in the superhero comics of western culture.  It gets a little fuzzier, and perhaps more emotionally based, in a tolerant and diverse mix of races and traditions.  Superwomen get fitted in, perhaps a little uncomfortably, as dependant as their male counterparts on their superpowers.

So will Jesus just join the supercult?  Perhaps not.  John wants to tell us in his gospel of the “signs” that marked Jesus out.  Yes, they are powerful, but the power is rather more thoughtful and significant than the “Blam” “Zap” action of the comic strip.  The first sign John records (John 2:1-11) is not one of earth-shaking power, not of terror-inspiring judgement.  The story starts as Jesus goes with disiples to a village wedding.  His mother is there – perhaps as a relative, for the servants take instructions from her.

The disaster is that the wine runs out.  We don’t know why.  (Did the disciples have too great a thirst?).  But this is terrible, no one will forget the wedding that ended in disaster and disgrace.  Jesus seems unready, but his mother shows confidence, and instructs the servants.  Then, there is wine again, and the MC is making comments about how odd it is to use the best wine after there has been a good deal of drinking already!

What would you have expected the first sign of Jesus ministry to be?  Something awe inspiring?  A dramatic warning – this is your LAST CHANCE!!! An intellectual breakthrough for the scholars?  It seems that God’s choice is a generous act of kindness, rescuing a young couple and their humble family, standing alongside ordinary people and using unimaginable power without belittling or embarrassing them.

John has additional things to say – about something more powerful that “Jewish rites of purification”, and about the time not having come for the great demonstration of God’s power (which will come, with awesome puzzlingness, at a hill called calvary).  But don’t miss the point.  The first sign of Jesus power points to things which will remain significant: involvement with ordinary people and real life, transformation, discovering God at work in all that. Hooray!

 

Are you Religious? (Epiphany)

Are you “religious”? You may get asked if you go to Church. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of my work as a priest. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the OT. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify it:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored – but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?”  Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the Old Testament prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and other times!).

So, he acts: He tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not. The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”)

And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home  – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to 2. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .

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!

Go on, and on, and . . (Pentecost 22c, Proper 24c)

Sometimes you find something which is hard to make sense of.  Perhaps you think it is telling you what you don’t want to hear – or, even worse, what you think other people might want to throw at you.  Take Luke 18:1-8, one of Jesus’ stories about a widow and an unjust judge.  Is it a justification of nagging? a suggestion that God is reluctant to listen and has to be bullied?  I think not (but it may explain why the other gospel writers don’t include this story).

This is about persistence, but to understand its significance we need to look at the story.   Jesus makes the point that we should always pray, and not become discouraged or lose heart.   Why would that happen? Because things don’t seem to be going our way, aren’t working out the way we expected or hoped.

So the story is about a widow (no influence, money . .) and an unjust judge (not bothered about justice – but hoping for a bribe, except that in this case, not much chance of that). He can’t be bothered to give justice – until he reckons its worth it for a quiet life.  Is God like the judge? No, Jesus is saying EVEN if a judge like that (who doesn’t care for justice, people . .) can be persuaded, HOW MUCH MORE will God (who longs to give good things) answer our prayers.  He isn’t comparing God and the judge, but making the contrast.

So, why do we need to persist? All the parable tells us is that persistent prayer works. We aren’t told why – but we can have a guess.  Sometimes our prayers sound as if we are giving God good advice on how to run the world. We flit from subject to subject. But the things that we come back to are the things that matter most to us – and the things we are prepared to get involved with.  God is prepared to work with us.  He is even prepared to change the way he deals with things according to what we will take on. And – we might guess – persistence, coming back to one subject again and again, is an indication that we mean business, and he can work with us.

Let me give you an example. We might pray for our church. We often do. The success of that prayer is not about how good we sound when we pray, or how carefully the words are crafted or read, or how long we keep producing more words. But if people who really want a thriving Christian community (so turn up, work, put up with and solve problems), the more God effectively can use them in his plans, and the greater the blessing.  That is only a guess at how it might work. But it does take seriously this parable (that we need to persist in prayer and not be discouraged), as well as the reminder in Matthew 6:7,8a that heaping up empty phrases gets us nowhere.

Don’t lose the last words, “will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?” Its easy to run down, get tired, think other people ought to be doing things now. Christians need persistence.