‘A New Commandment’ (a sermon for Maundy Thursday on John 13:1-17, 34-35)

This day in the Christian year is called ‘Maundy Thursday’; the word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’. This day is called ‘Maundy Thursday’ because on it we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave us – the commandment to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ – and his dramatic demonstration of that commandment when he washed his disciples’ feet. Of course, we just heard that commandment in today’s gospel:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

We might be a little puzzled to hear Jesus referring to this as a ‘new’ commandment’. Surely the command to love is not new? After all, in the Old Testament the Israelites were commanded to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, and Jesus has already confirmed this as one of his two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. So how is this a ‘new’ commandment?

Two things are new here. The first is that this is not just a general commandment to disciples to love their neighbour; it’s a command about the love that is shared in the community of disciples. This is a commandment that the Christian community is to be characterized by love for one another, and this love should be obvious and visible to outsiders: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’. The second new thing is the example of Jesus; he doesn’t just tell us to love each other in any old way, but ‘just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another’. Let’s think about these two things for a minute.

First, then, Jesus tells us as Christians not just to love our neighbour as ourselves, but to ‘love one another as I have loved you’. This love for one another is meant to be the family characteristic of Christians. When people think of the Christian church, the first thing that comes to mind should be the visible love between members of the Christian community.

When I think of my family of origin, and I ask myself ‘what are our family characteristics?’, two things come to mind immediately. The first is that we seem to have rather large heads – I mean that in the physical, not the metaphorical sense! The second is that we share a love of a good argument. We can’t resist it, and once we’re in it, we can’t let it go. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed the second characteristic receding a little in me, but I’ve still got the big head!

I wonder what family characteristics come to mind when people outside of Christianity think about the Christian church? I would suspect that in many cases they are not good characteristics.

This week, as Holy Week was starting, I noticed on Facebook that some Christians couldn’t resist the temptation to start an argument about the meaning of the Cross. People who take one particular viewpoint accuse other Christians – their brothers and sisters in Christ – of believing in a God who ‘commits cosmic child abuse’. Those other Christians respond by accusing their brothers and sisters in Christ of being ‘revisionists’ and dismissing the clear teaching of scripture. Meanwhile, the world is watching. Facebook is a public forum. Is the world thinking ‘See how these Christians love one another’? I don’t think so. The world is thinking, ‘See how these Christians love to attack each other’s opinions’.

This is serious, because in our verse for tonight Jesus has given the world the right to judge whether or not we are his followers on this one point. The world, says Jesus, has the right to see visible love between members of the Christian community, and if it doesn’t see that love, it has the right to judge that the people in question are not disciples of Jesus. That judgement may be wrong, but according to Jesus, the world has a right to make that judgement.

We’re called to be a ‘city set on a hill’. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said:

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:14-16).

So this is the first distinctive: we are meant to be a community of love for one another, so that the world can see we are followers of Jesus. The second thing is that Jesus tells us ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’.

People today are often confused about what ‘love’ actually means. When we use the word ‘love’ we tend to be describing a feeling; “They’re so in love with each other”, we say, meaning, “the feeling of love they have for each other is overwhelming”. If we’re defining love in this way, we’ll find it very difficult to understand Jesus, because it’s very difficult for us to make ourselves feel something.

That’s why it’s important for us to remember that when the Bible talks about love it’s almost always talking about choices and actions, not feelings. To love someone, in the Bible, means to choose to be a blessing to them, to serve them in humility, with practical actions. This is made very clear by the example of Jesus. When we ask ourselves ‘How did Jesus love his disciples?’ two answers come to mind immediately: by dying for them on the cross, and by washing their feet.

Dying for them on the cross is perhaps the main thing that John has in mind in this passage; in verse 1 he says, ‘Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’. ‘Loving them to the end’, of course, meant loving them all the way to death, even death on a cross.

So one essential characteristic of Christian love is sacrifice. There were no limits to Jesus’ love for his disciples; he literally loved them more than he loved his own life.

The chances are that you and I will probably not be called to die for our fellow Christians, although we might do well to ask ourselves what it says about us that sometimes we can’t even make time to have coffee with one another and get to know each other a little better. But the second example cuts closer to the quick for us: the example of the footwashing. This was a thoroughly practical action: the roads of Judea were dusty and muddy, and people walked in open sandals, so their feet got filthy and smelly. At the door of the house was a container of water, and when a guest came into the house, the first thing that happened was that a servant would wash their feet. For some reason, on the night of the last supper this had not happened; perhaps there was no servant there that night. And the fact that it had not happened became painfully obvious to the disciples, because in those days people didn’t sit down to eat on chairs as we do; they reclined on couches around a low table, and their feet would literally have been in their neighbours’ faces!

By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus radically redefined the social structure of the Christian church. It wasn’t to be a church where some were lords and some were servants. ‘If I, your lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done for you’ (vv.14-15). No one is too important to do the servant jobs; everyone is called to acts of practical care and compassion for one another. This is what it means to love one another as Jesus has loved us.

We might ask ourselves today what practical acts might be the equivalent of footwashing. Tonight we will be washing feet as a symbol of practical love, but the fact is that, in our day and age, this is no longer a pressing need! It would be good for us to ask ourselves what essential and practical tasks we need to be ready and willing to do for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Back in the 1980s when I was living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, the local native people sometimes asked me if I would do their income tax returns for them. I always refused; I was too busy, I said, which was a lie. I wasn’t too busy; I just didn’t want to be bothered. But I knew how to do tax returns, while for many of them, tax returns were absolutely incomprehensible. One of my predecessors, Tom Osmond, had done dozens of them each year. He understood what the command to love one another was all about; it meant doing practical acts of love, even when you don’t feel like doing it. I was a long way behind him.

So to sum up: tonight we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave us, to love one another as he has loved us. He loved his disciples by washing their feet and by giving himself for them on the cross. He calls us to love each other sacrificially and practically, so that the world can see that we are a community marked by his special brand of love.

Tonight we symbolize our willingness to do this as we participate in the symbolic action of washing one another’s feet or hands. But it’s important not to stop with the symbol, but to go on to live it out in practical ways when we leave this place. So let’s remember what Jesus says in verse 17: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”.

‘Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’

Our gospel reading for tonight gives us the beginning of the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. In John’s Gospel it takes place after the footwashing, so we know for a fact that Judas was one of the ones whose feet Jesus washed. But John’s account of the Last Supper does not include the moment when Jesus took the bread and wine and gave them the new meaning as his Body and Blood, so it’s not clear from John whether or not Judas participated in the first Eucharist. Luke would seem to indicate that he did; in his gospel, after Jesus has shared the bread and wine with his disciples, he says “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:21-22). Mark, however, places the conversation we read in tonight’s gospel before the sharing of the bread and wine, seeming to suggest that Judas had already left when the first Eucharist was celebrated, and Matthew seems to agree with this timing. The best we can say is that it’s not clear exactly when Judas left the Upper Room, or whether or not he participated in the first Eucharist.

The truth is, there’s a lot in the story of Judas that’s not clear, and that comes as a surprise to some people. To them, the lines have been drawn. When Mark records Jesus calling his twelve apostles, the last one is named as ‘Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’, as if that false treachery was part of his character from the beginning. John tells us in his gospel that Judas was the treasurer of the apostolic band; he kept the money purse, ‘and used to steal what was put into it’ (John 12:6), and when Mary of Bethany poured the expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet to show her love for him, Judas was harshly critical of her. So it seems on the surface to be quite clear: Judas was a thoroughly bad man, and he had been from the beginning. A betrayal was necessary, Judas was foreordained to be the betrayer, and that was that.

The truth, however, might not be so clear cut. It’s important to remember that everyone who wrote about Judas in the New Testament had an excellent reason to hate his guts! No one reports the story from his point of view. Peter’s denial of Jesus is also a kind of treachery, and it’s clear that Peter was completely overcome by what he had done. But no one describes Peter in the lists of apostles as ‘Simon Peter, who denied him’. That’s because people knew and were sympathetic to Peter’s point of view; they understood his fear, and they also knew that he had repented and been forgiven by Jesus. But no one really had access to the inner workings of the mind of Judas, so no one could tell the story from his point of view.

In fact, many things about Judas are a mystery. He’s called ‘Judas Iscariot’, but we don’t really know what ‘Iscariot’ means. Some people think it means ‘from Kerioth’; there were at least two towns named Kerioth at the time, one of them in Moab, and the other not far from the Judean town of Hebron. If the second was Judas’ home town, then he would probably be the only member of the twelve who was not a Galilean. But some people say that the name is derived from the word ‘sikarios’, which means ‘dagger-user’ or ‘assassin’.

The truth is that we just don’t know. We don’t know where he was from, and we don’t know how he became interested in Jesus or why Jesus chose him as one of the Twelve. But he’s in all the apostle lists. Mark’s is the earliest; he says that Jesus ‘went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons’ (Mark 3:13-15). He then lists the Twelve, ending with ‘and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’.

It’s inconceivable to me that Jesus’ call to Judas was insincere. Jesus may sometimes have been hard to understand but he was not deceitful; if Jesus called Judas to be his follower, his disciple, and his missionary, then I think we have to take it as given that Jesus saw the potential in Judas and hoped he would fulfil it. Certainly by the time of the Last Supper Jesus knew who would betray him, but I don’t think we have to assume that he knew that right from day one.

It’s very interesting to me how the arrangements for the Last Supper are described. William Barclay points out in his commentaries that in order to have the little conversation with John and Judas that tonight’s gospel describes, those two must have been reclining on either side of Jesus. Remember that in those days people didn’t sit on chairs at the table as we do today; the table would have been a lot lower, and the dinner guests would have been reclining on little couches, leaning up on one elbow and reaching for the food with the other. John would have been sitting a little in front of Jesus, so that he could lean back to speak to him. Judas would have been on the other side of Jesus.

What an extraordinary thing! The two seats closest to the host would have been the places of highest honour at the feast. We would expect those places to be given to two of the three leaders of the apostolic band: Peter, John and James. And John does seem to have been close, but the other place had been given to Judas. We know that Peter was not in that place, because we read that Peter ‘motioned to (John) to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking’ (John 13:24). Jesus then said – and I think we can assume that this was a whisper – ‘ “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish”. So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot’ (John 13:26). Note: it doesn’t say ‘He passed it to him’ but ‘he gave it to him’. So Judas must have been sitting next to Jesus.

Barclay understands this placement at the supper table as being Jesus’ last appeal to Judas. Jesus’ words recorded by Luke – “For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22) – are not words of judgement but of sorrow. Jesus loved Judas as much as he did the other apostles, and he knew how this betrayal would end up for him. He longed to spare Judas that sorrow, and so he honoured him at the Last Supper with a seat next to him. Even now, he hoped that he could dissuade him from doing what he did.

But it was not to be. Judas had made the arrangement with the authorities, money had changed hands, and the die had been cast. They wanted to arrest Jesus, but in a lonely place where there was no crowd around. To make that work, they needed someone on the inside who knew where Jesus would be, and could lead them to him. And that’s exactly what Judas did. He knew Jesus was in the habit of going to Gethsemane, so he left the Upper Room, went to fetch the authorities, and took them straight to the place. And in a world where not everyone would have seen the face of Jesus on an Instagram post or a TV screen, he pointed out the right person to the guards by greeting him with a kiss.

Afterwards, as we know, he regretted his action. Matthew tells us that Judas repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the authorities, but they dismissed him contemptuously. So he threw down the money in the Temple and went out and hanged himself. Then the priests, suddenly developing a conscience, decided that it would be wrong to use blood money for the Temple treasury, so they went out and bought a field with it, which soon got the name ‘Field of Blood’. Luke, however, tells the story quite differently in Acts; the way he recalls it, it was Judas who bought the field, and then went to inspect it, he had a disastrous fall there, and all his bowels gushed out – which was why the field was called ‘Field of Blood’.

In other words, like everything else about the story of Judas, his end is unclear to us! If Matthew’s version is truer to the facts, then it would seem to indicate that Judas hoped he could dissuade the chief priests from having Jesus crucified; when it became clear that he could not do this, he fell into despair and went out and committed suicide. In his mind, changed feelings would not have been enough; if he couldn’t save Jesus from death, then Jesus was lost and so was he.

But I want to end by raising the question: was Judas automatically a lost cause? If he had held on for a few hours, until after the resurrection, and seen that no, it was not the end for Jesus, would there have been hope for him as well?

I think we have to say ‘yes’. After all, that’s exactly what happened to Peter. Peter also was cut to the heart by what he had done when he betrayed Jesus. Matthew tells us that after the cock crew Peter ‘went out and wept bitterly’ (Matthew 26:75), and Luke’s wording is similar. Mark says ‘He broke down and wept’ (Mark 14:72). We can imagine that his sense of guilt over what he had done was just as strong as Judas’.

And yet, Peter was restored. No doubt the other apostles were struck by the irony of the fact that he had loudly proclaimed that even if everyone else fell away, he wouldn’t – and then he had fallen away. But Jesus made it clear by his actions after the resurrection that he had forgiven Peter, and Peter never forgot that.

The tragedy of Judas is that he refused to believe in that possibility. To him, it was all over; he had sinned in the worst imaginable way, and there was no possibility that God could forgive him. Judas was lost, not because he betrayed Jesus, but because he just could not believe in the possibility of grace.

Many people today have the same problem. They believe firmly in the principle of justice. Good deeds are rewarded, bad deeds are punished. They know that they have committed many bad deeds – maybe, in some cases, particularly heinous ones. If they are believers in God, they know that God is a righteous and holy God. And so they are afraid.

They have forgotten those famous words of John Newton:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound), that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see’.

Some people are offended by that word ‘wretch’. Their offence betrays the fact that they don’t understand the good news of Jesus. The good news tells us that Jesus died for sinners. We are all sinners, so we all qualify. Peter qualifies. I qualify, you qualify. And so does Judas.

Grace was reaching out to Judas. Sadly, Judas could not bring himself to believe it; he punished himself, rather than accepting God’s forgiveness. Tonight, let’s not make the same mistake. Whatever we’ve done, let’s not believe that it’s too awful for God to forgive. After we’re finished weeping bitterly, as Peter did, let’s come to Jesus, the friend of sinners, and receive the grace and forgiveness offered to us. And then let’s pass it on to those who sin against us as well.

‘Reading and Meditating on the Word of God’ (2016 Lent sermon series #6)

For the past five weeks we’ve been on a Lenten journey together. We’ve been thinking about how we can experience for ourselves what Jesus says in Revelation 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. As we think about how to open the door to Jesus, we’ve been guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.: ‘I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God’.

So we’ve been thinking about these six practices we can build into our lives as a way of deepening our relationship with Christ. This week, the last Sunday in Lent, we’re going to turn our attention to the sixth habit: ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’. So this is not going to be a traditional Palm Sunday sermon, thinking about the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. Instead we’re going to be thinking about the entry of the Word of God into our hearts and lives as we read and meditate on the Scriptures.

Let’s think for a minute about this phrase ‘the Word of God’. Nowadays when Christians use that phrase we tend to think immediately of the Bible. But I would argue that we need to be careful about making a hard and fast identification between the written words of the Bible and the living Word of God.

What do I mean by that? Am I meaning disrespect for the written Scriptures? Not at all; I love the Scriptures, I thank God for giving them to us, and I read them every day. But I also know that as Christians we don’t read them ‘flat’, giving every book the same authority. We don’t, for instance, refuse to profit from our pension plans because they are based on the lending of money at interest, even though this practice is forbidden in parts of the Old Testament. We don’t see it as a compulsory religious duty to circumcise our sons, and we don’t punish sons who curse their fathers by putting them to death. Neither do we believe that God calls people today to wipe out the entire populations of cities, including women, children, and helpless babies, as the people did in the Old Testament book of Joshua.

We also know that, in the Bible, the title ‘The Word of God’ is applied first and foremost to Jesus himself; as the B.A.S. says, “He is your living word, through whom you have created all things”. In the famous words of John’s Gospel:

‘And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

So as faithful followers of Jesus we pray for God’s help to read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We know that Jesus stood in continuity with the Old Testament, but at the same time he felt quite free to modify some of its ideas; in the Sermon on the Mount he says several times “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” This is particularly clear with the command to love our enemies; Old Testament people felt quite free to hate their enemies and even commit acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but Jesus does away with that for his followers:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).

So yes: as Christians, we read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We interpret everything else written in the scriptures according to his teaching and example. St. Paul certainly knew this. In 1 Corinthians chapter 7 he is giving some guidance to the Corinthian Christians about matters of marriage, divorce, celibacy and so on. Several times in the passage he clearly distinguishes between commands he is issuing on his own authority as an apostle, and commands he has received from Jesus in the tradition that was later written down in the gospels. He says things like ‘To the married I give this command – not I, but the Lord’ (meaning ‘the Lord Jesus’) (1 Corinthians 7:10), and ‘to the rest I say – I and not the Lord’ (7:12). He obviously feels he’s on much firmer ground when he has a recorded command of Jesus on which to base his teaching.

As so often, C.S. Lewis has wise things to say on this subject. In a letter written to one of his many correspondents in 1952, he says, ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him’. And Martin Luther, in a beautiful image, says, “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies. As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus. Don’t let us inspect the cradle and forget to worship the baby.”

To sum up then, for us followers of Jesus ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’ means reading and meditating on the Scriptures in the light of the things that Jesus said and did. If we read the Scriptures in this way, we will not be so easily led astray.

Now, how can we do this? Let me offer you some suggestions.

First, let’s always remember that the book we call ‘the Bible’ is not actually one book; it’s a library of books, written over a period of at least thirteen hundred years, in languages that no one speaks any more. If you went down to your local library and borrowed some books from the shelves, you’d pay careful attention to the genre of those books. Let’s suppose you borrowed a copy of Dante’s Inferno (which was first written in Italian in the 14th century), a novel, a biography, a book of letters by a famous person, a history of the first settlers to come to Canada, a copy of the criminal code, a book of poetry written by Wordsworth in the 19th century, and a book by Stephen Hawking about the origins of the universe.

Would you read all those books in exactly the same way? Of course not! Many things in the Criminal Code would not be relevant to you. The novel might well contain truth, but it would be a different kind of truth than the history book, and different again from the poetry. Dante’s poetry from the 14th century would be very different from Wordsworth’s from the 19th. In other words, you would pay careful attention to the genre of the books, and adjust your reading expectations accordingly.

The Bible is like that. It begins with what looks very much like a poem or hymn about the creation of the universe, written in seven verses with a common refrain at the end of each verse. There are stories about famous heroes from Israel’s past, sermons from great Old Testament preachers who we call ‘the prophets’, usually collected without giving us much background information about the original occasions when they were preached. There’s a hymn book – the Book of Psalms – collected and used by the Jewish people before the time of Jesus. There are four biographies of Jesus, each written from a different point of view, and there are letters written by early Christian leaders to guide churches they had started. These are just a few examples of the kind of thing we’ll find in the library we call ‘the Holy Scriptures’.

The library has two floors. There’s a ground floor, that most Christians call ‘the Old Testament’; it was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and it collects together books written about God’s dealings with the people of Israel from ancient times up to a couple of hundred years before the coming of Jesus. Then there’s an upstairs floor, the New Testament, written in Greek, that tells the story of Jesus and of the early Christians who followed him and spread his message around the Mediterranean world after his resurrection and ascension into heaven. Some Bibles also contain a sort of stairwell between the two floors, a collection of books called ‘the Apocrypha’, written between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New; not all Christians are agreed about the authority of those books – but that’s a subject for another day!

So how shall we explore this library? How shall we ‘read and meditate on the Word of God’ that comes to us through these books? Let me give three suggestions, based around the three words ‘read’, ‘study’, and ‘meditate’.

First, read. I think this is the most pressing need among Anglican Christians today when it comes to Bible knowledge: familiarity with the big picture. If I were to ask you how many of you have read the Bible all the way through, from start to finish, I suspect that only a very small minority would be able to say that you had.

When I was the rector of St. Anne’s Church in Valleyview, I mentioned this in a sermon one day, and one of the people present took me up on it. He wasn’t an especially scholarly guy, but he decided he would read the Bible through from start to finish. He had a Good News Bible, which is a fairly easy translation to read, and he decided to start at the beginning and read every night for fifteen or twenty minutes until he was done. His Bible included the Apocrypha so it was a bit longer than some, and it took him eight months to get through it.

I was actually a little surprised that he stuck with it; a lot of people start out and then give up in Leviticus or Numbers, which are pretty heavy going. But my friend kept on going. I remember that when he was about half way through, he and I went out for coffee, and he confessed to me that he was a little disappointed in the Bible. “I thought it was going to be full of inspiring and uplifting stories”, he said, “but it’s full of awful people who do awful things to each other, and thousands and thousands of animals getting slaughtered in sacrifices. And all those wars!”

Yes, I replied – the books of the Bible are about sinners just like us! Sinners are the only people God’s got to work with! The people in the Bible were tempted like we are, they gave in to temptation like we do, they misunderstood God and got things wrong just like we do. The big picture of the story of the Bible is the story of a God who doesn’t give up on us when we go wrong: he keeps trying to guide and teach his people, and eventually he comes among us as one of us to live and die and rise again for our salvation.

We need to know this big picture a lot better than we do. I think many Anglicans know a few passages of the Bible quite well; we’ve heard them read in church as isolated passages, but we don’t have much idea about where they come from, what comes before and after them, and how they fit into the big picture of the story of the Bible. No wonder we feel so nervous about guiding our kids in their Christian education! No wonder we feel so badly equipped to share our faith with others!

So I would encourage all of you, if you haven’t done so already, just to read the Bible through. Make no mistake – if you do, you’ll hit some passages that are hard to understand, and some passages that annoy you intensely. Don’t worry about that. Just keep on reading. Fifteen minutes a day will take you through the whole Bible in six to eight months, depending on how fast a reader you are. If you come across passages you want to find answers about, or verses you want to meditate on at your leisure, just mark them so you know where to find them. And then carry on reading.

So that’s the first word – read. The second word is study. Studying is our attempt to come to a better understanding of what an individual passage means. In fact, you could say that in these three words – read, study, and meditate – we’re asking three questions: ‘What does it say?’ ‘What does it mean?’ and ‘What does it mean to me?’

In the modern English-speaking world, there are some incredibly helpful resources to help us understand what the Bible means. The most important one, I suggest, is a good study Bible. Study Bibles are simply editions of the Bible with supplementary notes prepared by good Bible scholars. There will be introductions to the books, to tell you when the individual books were written, what we think the historical context was, who the author was (if we know), what we know about him – or them – and what we know about the process by which the book was written. Then at the bottom of each page there will be notes explaining difficult passages, or pointing out allusions to other places in the Bible, and stuff like that. Talk to me afterwards if you want some recommendations for good study Bibles; I’ve got a few!

There are also big fat Bible commentaries, or smaller commentaries on individual books of the Bible. But in my opinion, the best way to start studying is just to get a really good study Bible and become familiar with it.

Also – don’t forget the benefit of studying with others. Some of us in this church belong to Bible study groups. Years ago, a lot more Christians were part of groups like that. Not many years ago, actually; my last church, St. Anne’s Valleyview, had an average Sunday attendance of less than thirty, and it wasn’t unusual for us to get ten or twelve people out to a midweek Bible study group – some of them parents with school age children. Nowadays people seem to have lots of other things to do, and of course our life is busy and stressful. But I think we miss out on something good if we don’t take advantage of opportunities to come together with other Christians to study the Bible.

So we read, we study, and then the last word is ‘meditate’. This is when we ask ‘What does this passage mean to me?’ In other words, how is my life going to be changed by reading it? Personally, I find it helpful to do meditation with a pen in my hand, so that I can write down my thoughts. I’m not good at thinking inside my head; I find it a lot easier to think with my pen.

Here are some helpful questions we can ask the passage we’re reading. What’s the main theme of this passage? Have I learned anything new about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about the world, about myself? What surprised me? What shocked me? What annoyed me? Was there a command for me to put into practice, and if so, what would it look like if I tried to live by it today? Was there a good example for me to follow, or a bad example for me to avoid? Was there someone in the story I identified with? If so, why? Was there something that puzzled me, that I’d like to ask someone about?

These are just a few questions that can help us apply a passage of the Bible to our own lives. As we meditate on it, we receive the Word of God into our hearts and we begin to live it out in our daily lives. And that will bring transformation.

Let me close with a word of personal testimony. I’ve been reading the Bible daily since I was about thirteen. A lot of people assume that the reason ministers know so much about the Bible is because they’ve been to seminary to study it. Well, I can’t speak for my clergy colleagues, but I’d have to say that for me, it wasn’t like that. The most important factor in my own Bible knowledge wasn’t studying it in college; it happened long before that. It was when my parents bought me a copy of The Living Bible, one of the early paraphrases, or easy to understand versions of the Bible. I don’t remember exactly when that happened but I’m guessing I would have been about fourteen.

Nowadays I don’t really recommend The Living Bible, because it’s not too accurate, although there is a modern version of it, The New Living Translation, that’s a lot better. But what The Living Bible did for me was to encourage me to read it through, just like a book. I’m sure I read it all the way through two or three times before I was out of my teens. And that’s what laid the foundation for all my Bible study since then.

So – let’s read it, let’s study it, let’s meditate on it and put it into practice in our lives. If we do that, the living word of God will transform us, and that will make all the difference.

Almsgiving (2016 Lent sermon series #5)

As I begin this sermon today I feel a bit like St. Paul when he was writing one of his first letters, the one we now call First Thessalonians. In chapter four he says, ‘Finally, dear brothers and sisters, we urge you in the name of the Lord Jesus to live in a way that pleases God, as we have taught you. You live this way already, and we encourage you to do so even more’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1 NLT). In other words, Paul is saying, “I don’t really have to say much to you about this – you’re already doing a wonderful job of living to please the Lord – but I just want to encourage you to keep on doing what you’re doing, and to go even further with it!”.

Well, that’s how I feel today as I talk to you about the discipline and habit of ‘almsgiving’. ‘Giving alms’ is an old English expression for ‘giving to help the poor and needy’, and I certainly don’t need to remind members of St. Margaret’s to do that. Over the years you’ve given hundreds of thousands of dollars – I’m not exaggerating, I’ve got the records – for things like water wells in Africa, rehabilitating child prostitutes in Asia, sponsoring children, mobile medical clinics, mosquito nets, small business micro-loans, and good old goats and ducks! You’ve given clothing to Hope Mission and the Bissell Centre, you’ve filled a treasure chest for kids at the Stollery and bought colourful band aids and Lego kits for them, you’ve filled cosmetic bags for the homeless and brought recycled bottles in to support the work of Winn House. You’ve given to Habitat for Humanity and cooked meals for the volunteers on their building sites, and you’ve served meals for the Inner City Pastoral Ministry. And these are just a few of the things that you do through our parish; I know many of you have projects you support privately as well. We have three World Vision sponsor children through the parish, but at the last count there were more than twenty others being supported by members of this faith community!

So, when it comes to almsgiving, I’m saying with St. Paul, “I know you’re already doing a wonderful job of it, but I just want to encourage you to keep on doing what you’re doing, and to go even further with it as you have the opportunity!”

Let’s remind ourselves of where we’re going with this and why we’re talking about it today. This Lent we’re thinking about how we can open ourselves up to the presence of the Lord in a new and fresh way – how we can return to our first love for him, or perhaps take a step forward into a deeper love than we’ve ever known before. Our theme verse is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”.

In thinking about how we might go about opening the door to Jesus, we’re being guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here are six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, we’ve come to almsgiving.

Most of you will be familiar with the famous parable of the Sheep and the Goats that Jesus tells in Matthew 25:31-46. He says that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will gather the nations before him and separate them into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats, the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then he’ll turn to the sheep and say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”. Then the righteous will reply, “Lord, we don’t remember that! When was it that we saw you in trouble like this and helped you?” And he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me”.

But then, of course, he turns to the goats and says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and thirsty and a stranger and naked and sick and in prison and you did nothing to help me”. They reply, “We don’t remember that, Lord! When did we see you in trouble and refuse to help you?” And he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it for the least of these, you did not do it for me”. Jesus concludes by saying, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”.

Now it’s important to remember that in one sense, Jesus was not saying anything new. You’ll remember another story he told, of the rich man who refused to help the beggar Lazarus. After he dies, he is sent to Hades for being so devoid of compassion. He is in torment in the fire, and he says to Abraham, “Please let me go to my father’s house, where I have seven brothers; I want to warn them, so that they don’t come to this dreadful place too”. But Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (Luke 16:29). In other words, anyone who reads the Old Testament with half a brain already knows that people who want to follow God are morally obligated to help the poor and needy whenever and wherever they have opportunity to do so.

In his teaching in the Old Testament, Moses sets up structures that ensure that there won’t be a huge gap between rich and poor in ancient Israel. The land belongs to God, not to land owners; everyone is assigned enough land to support their families, but in case some people get into difficulty and have to sell their land to make ends meet, every fifty years all land is to revert to the families it was originally given to, so that equality can be preserved. At the same time, all debts are to be forgiven and all slaves set free. It’s called the year of Jubilee, and it’s right there in the Law of Moses, in Leviticus chapter 25.

But of course Moses knew that human beings will be disobedient, and in fact there’s no historical evidence that Israel ever obeyed his instructions about the year of Jubilee – big surprise, eh? And so Moses set in place other legislation to make sure that the poor and needy were cared for. If a man needed a loan to make ends meet and he had to give you his cloak for collateral, you were legally required to give it back to him every evening – otherwise he wouldn’t have a blanket to wrap himself in to keep warm at night, and he might die of exposure. In a culture where most loans were like modern pay day loans – in other words, they weren’t venture capital, they were subsistence loans so that people could avoid starvation – Israelites were absolutely forbidden from charging interest; that was seen as fleecing the poor and an abomination to God. And when you were harvesting the grain in your field, you were commanded not to be too efficient about it; you were to make sure to leave some standing on the edges of the field, so that the poor and needy would be able to come and glean some grain to eat.

That’s just a few examples of the way the Law of Moses commands people to act compassionately toward the poor and needy. The prophets reinforce this message. In a blistering passage in Isaiah 58, the prophet condemns those who observe religious fasts at the same time as they oppress the poor. What sort of fast does God really want to see, the prophet asks? And he replies in God’s name:

‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?…If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall arise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’ (Isaiah 58:6-7, 10).

When we turn to the New Testament, of course the message is just as strong. We saw last week that Jesus assumed his disciples would practice the three basic disciplines of all godly Jews – prayer, fasting and giving to the poor. He didn’t say “If you give alms”, as if it was an option his disciples could set aside if they wanted to. He said, “So whenever you give alms…”, and then proceeded to give them instructions about how to do it sincerely, without making it into a photo opportunity for yourself. And in parable after parable, and saying after saying, he warns his followers about greed and covetousness; he tells them to sell their possessions and give to the poor instead. When you read what Jesus has to say about money, it sounds a bit like he’s talking about radioactive material: yes, it can do a lot of good, but you have to handle it very carefully or it’ll poison you! And the best way to do that, in his view, is to live a life of constant generosity to the poor.

Paul also saw this as a priority. In his letter to the Galatians he talks about a meeting he had with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, in which they discussed unity between the Jewish and Gentile churches. He says, ‘They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do’ (Galatians 2:9). And in Ephesians he talks about the transformative effect the gospel has in these terms: ‘Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their hands, so as to have something to share with the needy’ (Ephesians 4:28).

Paul actually spent a lot of time and energy organizing a relief fund so that his Gentile churches could help the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who were going through a time of severe hardship and famine. To him, this wasn’t peripheral, it was central to his understanding of what being a Christian meant. Listen to what he says to the Corinthians (I’m reading from the New Living Translation):

Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. As the Scriptures say, “Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough”. (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

You could call this Paul’s kingdom principle: in the kingdom of God, everyone will have enough but no one will have too much. Sounds very much like the Law of Moses, doesn’t it?

So we’ve seen that almsgiving is a central and integral part of the Christian life; from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between, the duty to help the poor and needy is underlined over and over again. So how ought we to apply this teaching to our daily lives?

I would argue first of all that if we want to follow Jesus, we Christians will cultivate an attitude of compassion, rather than an attitude of suspicion. You know what I mean by an attitude of suspicion, don’t you? That’s the attitude that says, “The poor are poor because they choose to be poor”. “If I give to them they’ll just spend it on drink”. “Those aid organizations are fleecing their donors and paying their employees fat salaries”. “Those refugees are just ISIS agents”. And of course, I could go on; we’ve heard the arguments many times.

The interesting thing about the teaching of Jesus is that he never capitulates to this attitude of suspicion. Please understand that this is not just my opinion! Go read the gospels for yourself, and read the things that Jesus says about giving to the poor. He never blames the poor for being poor. He never says, “Give to everyone who asks you, unless you can smell alcohol on their breath”. And Paul never says, “We’ve got enough poor people in the Greek churches; we should help them first before we give to the poor in Jerusalem”. To him, God recognizes no national boundaries: people are people are people, whether they’re Canadian or Syrian or Ethiopian or Thai or anything else. I see a Syrian or an Iraqi: God sees a beloved child, someone for whom Christ died.

Please understand that I’m not saying we don’t have to think hard about the best way to give aid to the poor and needy. I’m talking about our attitude, and I fear that for many of us, the attitude is that the poor and needy are a nuisance. Here I am, walking along the street, minding my own business, and suddenly there’s a homeless person in my face, asking me for help. How dare they interrupt my enjoyable afternoon! Or, I’m just quietly checking my email, and look – here’s another message from World Vision, or Oxfam, asking me for help for starving people living in refugee camps. Why don’t they leave me alone? They’re such a nuisance!

I don’t think a follower of Jesus can ever say that. If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to read the gospels again and look for any possible hint that Jesus saw it as legitimate for me to see the poor and needy as a nuisance. Yes, of course we have to think carefully about the best and wisest way to help them, and maybe in some circumstances that way won’t be a handout. But the motivation for our decisions must always be love, not a desire to get these people out of our hair.

As always, C.S. Lewis has some good advice on this subject: hard to hear, but full of truth and holiness. I can’t remember where I found these two quotes, but I do remember that they made an impression on me when I first read them.

The first is where he talks about giving some money to help a street person one day. Someone said to him, “Why did you do that? He’ll just spend it on drink!” To which Lewis replied, “Perhaps, but if I’d kept the money, I would just have spent it on drink!” A good point! I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of money on luxuries, including expensive musical instruments and cups of coffee that cost as much as desserts used to cost – and more, even – all the while reserving the right to still insist that “I’m not really rich, you know – Bill Gates is way better off than I am!” So maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to point the finger!

The other quote is where Lewis was asked how much a Christian should give? His reply was something like this: “I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we think we can afford. In other words, there should be some things that we’d like to do that we can’t afford to do, because of our giving to the poor”. I think that’s absolutely true. That’s part of what it means to “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

Finally, let’s remind ourselves what Jesus says about our attitude. We all know that politicians love photo ops. No politician ever gives to support a program secretly; they always call a press conference, and make sure everyone knows that this grant toward such and such a program is coming to you, courtesy of this political party and this member of parliament, so you’d better vote for them next time around!

Politicians aren’t the only ones, though. When I went to the symphony last week, the program notes I was handed at the beginning included the names of all the major donors who’ve supported the symphony for many years. I’m assuming those folks were given the option of staying anonymous, but none of them did! It’s the same when I go to the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. And many churches have plaques saying “Such and such a thing was given by the generosity of so-and-so”.

Jesus has a different approach. Don’t blow a trumpet to announce your giving, he says. “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4). So – give to the poor and needy generously, extravagantly, compassionately, and sacrificially – and don’t get found out! That’s the way of life Jesus is teaching us! And as he said on another occasion, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”! (John 13:17).

Fasting (Lent 2016 sermon series #4)

Last week I gave you a personal testimony about prayer; my sermon was made up mainly of stories about my own personal experiences of the different kinds of prayer. I felt confident in doing that, because I’ve been praying regularly for a long time, and I’ve tried lots of different things.

But this week, the situation is entirely different. Our subject this week is one that I have very little personal experience of, and I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of spiritual benefit because of it. Recently, however, I’ve started to work my way back into it, and I’m already seeing some fruit from it. Our subject for this week is fasting.

Let’s back up a bit. This Lent we’re thinking about how we can open ourselves up to the presence of the Lord in a new and fresh way – how we can return to our first love for him, or perhaps take a step forward into a deeper love than we’ve ever known before. Our theme verse is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”.

In thinking about how we might go about opening the door to Jesus, we’re being guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here are six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, we’re going to look at fasting.

Fasting is a spiritual discipline known in almost all of the great religious traditions of the world. For the vast majority of human history, for the vast majority of the human race, it has just been assumed that if you want to find a spiritual path in life, fasting is a useful tool to use. And yet nowadays in mainstream western society fasting is hardly ever practiced – or if it is, it’s just about dieting, not about spiritual growth and seeking God.

I suspect one reason for this is our notion that we just should never say ‘no’ to ourselves. If you want something, why shouldn’t you have it? Food, drink, possessions, luxuries, sex – why would you ever want to deny yourself these things? And yet as Christians we know that the language of self-denial is an integral part of our response to the Gospel. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus took it for granted that it’s not good for us to have everything we want, and that regularly saying ‘no’ to ourselves can help us grow stronger in body, mind, and spirit. Fasting is an important part of that.

The list of people in the pages of scripture who practiced fasting is a long one; let me remind you of a few of them. In the Old Testament, Moses went through a forty-day fast when he received the Law from God. King David fasted and prayed when his baby son fell sick. Elijah the prophet fasted when he went to the Sinai desert to seek a fresh touch of God’s power in his life. Esther the Queen fasted and prayed for God’s help before taking a potentially life-threatening risk. Daniel the prophet fasted and prayed as a regular part of his spiritual discipline.

In the New Testament we read about an old woman called Anna who ‘never left the temple but worshipped there with prayer and fasting night and day’ (Luke 2:37). Jesus of course went on a forty day fast in the wilderness when he was tempted by the devil; we’re told that it was the Holy Spirit who led him to do this. In the time of Jesus all devout Jews fasted once a year on the Day of Atonement, and many fasted regularly on a weekly basis too. St. Paul fasted for three days after he had his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. The Christians in Antioch ‘were worshipping the Lord and fasting’ when the Holy Spirit guided them to send Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. And so the list goes on.

Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast. In Matthew 6 he describes the spiritual disciplines practiced by all devout Jews in his day: giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. He assumes his disciples will practice all three, and he gives them instructions about how to do so in the right spirit. He doesn’t say “If you give alms…pray…fast”. He says, “Whenever you give alms…” (6:2), “And whenever you pray…” (6:5), “And whenever you fast…” (6:16). To him, these are just the ordinary practices of a healthy spiritual life.

So what do we mean by fasting? Nowadays we need to ask this question, because all sorts of practices have come under this heading. Some Christian traditions abstain from meat on Fridays but eat everything else, and call it ‘fasting’. In many eastern Orthodox churches meatless Lents are still the rule, as they used to be in the western church too. And many people practice forms of self-denial and call it ‘fasting’.

These are all excellent practices, and we might use them as a way of learning to fast, or as a substitute if our health does not allow us to practice the full biblical fast. But a true fast, in the Bible, involves giving up all food, but not usually water, in order to devote yourself more fully to prayer and seeking the Lord. In the forty day fast of Jesus, for instance, we’re told that ‘he ate nothing at all’ and that at the end ‘he was famished’ and Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread. There’s no mention of thirst, so we can assume that he drank water during that time.

What’s the purpose of fasting?

Sometimes, in the Bible, it’s a sign of repentance and mourning for one’s sins. Perhaps people have been coasting along in their lives, but then somehow they’ve heard the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to them, challenging them about the direction they’re taking, and they’ve realized that they’ve been going the wrong way. They’re cut to the heart, and they’re so upset by the realization of their sins that they even neglect their eating so that they can spend more time in prayer, seeking the Lord, asking his forgiveness and his help to turn things around.

Sometimes it’s not so much about our sins as it is about our deep hunger and thirst for God. Psalm 42 says,

‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul longs for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ (Psalm 42:1-3).

We human beings have a deep inner hunger to know God, to feel a sense of connection to the one who made us. Sometimes we don’t even know what that hunger is for. Sometimes we mistake it for a desire for possessions, or food and drink, or sex, or the approval of others. Sometimes we know it for what it is, but when we try to turn to God, we don’t get any immediate results, so we give up and try to fill the empty space with something else.

Fasting is a way of refusing to fill that empty space with something else. It’s as if we’re asking our body to join in the prayer of our heart. “God, I’m hungry for you, and I’m not going to accept any substitute. If you won’t fill that empty space, O God, I’m just going to leave it empty. I’m going to cultivate my sense of longing to you, and refuse to be satisfied with second best”. Fasting is way of acting out this prayer, so that we truly feel it, not just in our souls, but in our bodies, too.

In a sense, we could say that fasting is part of the removal of distraction in our spiritual life. In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about the things that can choke out the word of God in our lives:

“Other (seeds) are sown among the thorns; these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Mark 4:18-19).

These things are not necessarily sinful, you see, but if we seek them and make them the centre of our lives, they prevent us from “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, as Jesus said. So when we fast, we set the distractions aside for a while, and focus our attention wholly on God and God’s word to us.

Fasting is also good spiritual exercise in self-control. We’re told in the Bible that ‘self-control’ is part of the fruit of the Spirit, one of the virtues that the Holy Spirit wants to grow in our lives. But of course, one of the ways the Holy Spirit grows the fruit is through practice! We are never going to grow as Christians if we can’t say ‘no’ to our own desires and turn instead to what God wants us to do. Fasting is good practice in helping us do that. Our body cries out like a spoilt child: “I’m starving! Feed me! Feed me now!” Gradually, as we practice fasting, we learn to reply, “Don’t be ridiculous! It takes more than forty days to starve! Grow up, body, and learn to put up with a little discomfort!”

So here are four good reasons for practicing the discipline of fasting: as a sign of repentance and mourning for our sins, as a sign of our deep hunger and thirst for God, as a way of removing distractions from our spiritual lives, and as a good spiritual exercise in self-control.

Of course, fasting by itself is not enough; it’s usually coupled in the Bible with prayer. So those who fast will often take the time they would have spent at meals and spend it in extra prayer and meditation on the Word of God instead. Of course, some of us have family responsibilities that make it hard for us to do that, but still, while we’re preparing meals and feeding others, we can be turning to the Lord in our hearts. Personally, I find this to be one of the most beneficial aspects of fasting. My days are busy like everyone else’s, but missing a couple of meals frees up some extra time, and I can use it for prayer, reading scripture, and listening for God’s guidance and direction in my life.

Let me say a word of caution: there are some people who cannot fast, for good medical reasons. There are a number of medical conditions, such as diabetes, that would be negatively impacted by fasting. Pregnant women and nursing mothers probably should not fast as well. Also, some medications need to be taken with food, and obviously you can’t skip them. So we need to be sensible about this. If in doubt, it’s wise to ask a doctor.

So – you’ve been listening to the sermon so far, and you’re thinking, “That’s intriguing. I’ve never really thought about fasting as a part of my Christian life, but maybe I should try it. How should I go about starting?”

My response would be, “Start small!” As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, I’m just getting back into the practice of fasting after years away from it. The way I’m doing it right now is what I call the ‘twenty-three and a half-hour fast’! In other words, I skip breakfast and lunch, and because I don’t eat between meals, that means I’m fasting from just after supper the first night until just before supper the second night. I’m also not yet at the stage of fully abstaining from any liquids other than water; I still drink some coffee and tea and juice during that time, although I try to cut down a bit on caffeine.

I also found that spending a few weeks learning not to eat between meals was good preparation for this fasting discipline. When I was in the habit of eating between meals regularly, I had lost the ability to say ‘no’ to my appetite. But practicing this for a few weeks first made it much easier for me to get back into fasting.

As I mentioned before, it’s important to fill the empty space; fasting and prayer always go together in the Bible. I’m finding right now on my weekly fast that missing breakfast gives me some extra time in the morning, so I don’t need to be in such a rush about my morning time of prayer and Bible reading. Missing lunch leaves another space for me; sometimes I spend it in self-examination, sometimes in reading a spiritual book and reflecting on how I might learn from what it says and put it into practice in my life.

I should say that there is some very sensible practical information out there about how to eat before and after a fast. It’s not usually a good idea, for instance, to eat a huge meal before you fast; it’s better to cut down a little and ease into it. Coming out, the same rule applies: your stomach will have shrunk a bit, so it’s wise not to stuff yourself. But do a google search on the subject, and you’ll find lots of information about good foods to eat before and after a fast.

Let’s close by reminding ourselves what this is all about. It’s possible to fast for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong spirit. In the Old Testament Book of Zechariah the prophet speaks to the people on the name of the Lord: “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?” (Zechariah 7:5). The King James Version says, “did ye at all fast unto me, even unto me?” And in Matthew 6 Jesus talks about those who fast to show off, as a way of impressing other people with how spiritual they are: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16). He counsels us to fast and not let anyone know we’re doing it, so we can be sure we’re doing it for God, not to impress others.

And there’s the rub, of course. That’s why we fast, as Christians: because this is one of the ways we can seek the face of God. The motivation for fasting is to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. We fast out of the deep longing the psalmist expressed in the words I quoted earlier:

‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ (Psalm 42:1-2).

In other words, we’re back where we started from. Once again, Jesus is knocking at our door, asking us to let him in so that we can grow a deeper relationship with him. The universal testimony of our Jewish and Christian ancestors through the centuries is that fasting can help us do that. Maybe, today, God is speaking to us through their voices. Maybe God is whispering in our hearts again, reminding us of those gentle words of Jesus, “And when you fast…” Maybe the Spirit is calling us, just as he called Jesus to go out into the desert and fast, so that he could hear the voice of God more clearly.

Might he be inviting us to do something similar?

My Kingdom is not from This World (a sermon on John 18:36)

Today in the church year is the festival of the reign of Christ – the Sunday on which we reflect on the biblical teaching that God has made Jesus Christ the Lord of all, and one day his reign will be acknowledged by every living creature on earth.

But today’s gospel reading could hardly present a stronger contrast to this idea. It comes from the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and in this reading Jesus doesn’t look very king-like at all. He stands before the representative of the Roman emperor, accused of being a criminal, a rebel against the Roman state. And yet, right in the middle of this passage, there’s a strange discussion about the nature of Jesus’ kingship. In John 18:36 Jesus says to Pontus Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’.

Some older translations of the Bible phrased this verse slightly differently: they translated it as ‘my kingdom is not of this world’. It was a fairly small step from there to the understanding that what Jesus actually meant was ‘my kingdom is not in this world’. This misunderstanding has had a very bad influence on our beliefs about how we Christians should live our lives in this world.

Let me explain. Should our Christian belief only be about our own private conduct, or should it lead us to try to influence society as well? Does it only have to do with us avoiding bad habits, or does it also have to do with how we vote, and the sorts of political causes we get involved in? Is being a Christian only about having a good marriage and a strong family life, or is it also about trying to make a difference in the lives of the poor and needy, both close at hand and far away? Should Christians restrict themselves to the alleviation of human suffering, or should we also be working to change political and economic structures that cause human suffering?

Or, to put the question another way, is the Christian movement meant to be in any way a danger to the way of life of society around it? After all, Jesus was obviously perceived to be a danger to the society of his day; the Jewish authorities were so disturbed about him that they wanted to get rid of him by execution, and they didn’t normally get that disturbed about travelling preachers who roamed the countryside telling people to be nice to each other! So if Jesus’ message was only to do with us becoming better people individually – if ‘love your neighbour’ only applied to our private relationships, and not to our public and political and economic life as well – why was Jesus seen to be such a threat by the authorities of his day? And why is it that totalitarian governments throughout history have almost always tried to either get rid of religion altogether, or to turn it into a state church under the strict control of the governing authorities?

You see, people who think Jesus meant that his kingdom is not in this world at all will then often go on to say that his kingship is not here and now, but in some other place, or some other time. And this means that right here, in this world we live in right now, we don’t actually have to take much notice of what he says as our king. This world is the kingdom of darkness and evil, and we have to play by the rules of darkness and evil in order to survive here. But one day we’ll die and go to heaven, and that’s when we’ll live in Jesus’ kingdom, where his rules operate. Or, perhaps, one day Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will then be in force and will last forever. But it’s not here yet; we still wait for it and are looking forward to it, but we can’t have it right now, and we can’t live right now as if it had already arrived.

This has had a drastic effect on the way people understand what we’re supposed to do with the commands of Jesus. We all know that Jesus gives us some pretty demanding instructions. He tells us that not only are we not to murder people, but we aren’t even to hate them or get angry with them. Not only are we not to commit adultery, we’re not even to lust after someone else. We’re to be absolutely truthful at all times, to love not just our friends and neighbours but even our enemies, to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate when we’re attacked, and to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. He told his disciples not to accumulate large bank accounts but to give their possessions to the poor and needy. He said that if we have two of something and we see that our brother or sister has none, we’re to take our extra and give to the one who needs it.

That’s demanding enough, but there’s more. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel Jesus gives us a kingdom manifesto. He stands up in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth and reads these words from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 61, which was commonly understood in his day to be an allusion to the Old Testament law of Jubilee. This law stated that every fifty years all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves were to be set free, and all property was to revert to its original owners so that no one would accumulate vast amounts of wealth at the expense of others. Human nature being what it is, there is no evidence that the people of Israel ever actually obeyed this commandment; it was too much of a threat to the power of those who profited from keeping people in debt, or in slavery, or in poverty. But after Jesus read those words from Isaiah, Luke tells us that he said to the people in the synagogue, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v.21). In other words, ‘Now is the time to put the year of Jubilee into practice. Now is the time to set the captives free, to forgive debts, to live in equality and justice as God commanded us in the Law of Moses’.

So it seems pretty clear to me that Jesus could not possibly have been saying, “My kingdom is not in this world”. What he said was ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, or, as our NRSV has it, ‘My kingdom is not from this world’. And he goes on to explain what he means: ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews’. In other words, Jesus’ kingdom comes from another place and it has a different character than the kingdoms we know in this world. In the kingdoms of the world, citizens of one country fight to protect their king, but Jesus’ followers were forbidden from fighting to protect him, because violence is a characteristic of earthly kingdoms and not of Jesus’ kingdom.

So we might ask ourselves, how is Jesus’ kingdom different from the kingdoms of this world? And fortunately for us, there is plenty of New Testament teaching to help us answer that question.

In Mark chapter 10 we read that two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, came with a request for him; they said, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’ (Mark 10:37). In other words, they thought Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be crowned as an earthly ruler and they wanted him to give them the top jobs in his cabinet! But Jesus rebuked them for their misunderstanding: he wasn’t about to be seated on a throne but nailed to a cross, and the ones who would be on his right and his left weren’t his cabinet ministers, but the two thieves who were crucified with him. And then Jesus called all the disciples together and said this to them:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Earthly kingdoms are based on hierarchy and power structures; it’s the same whether we’re talking about monarchies and tyrannies or democratically elected governments. The higher your position of authority, the more power you have and the more people are working for you and serving you. But this is not the way Jesus worked when he came as our king. He was the servant of all, healing the sick and caring for the needy, washing the feet of his disciples and willingly giving his life to save us. And this is what his kingdom is like: it’s been called an ‘upside down kingdom’, in which there are no distinctions based on race or gender or power or wealth, but all freely serve one another in love. And as followers of Jesus whose kingdom is not from this world, you and I are called to live on this basis now, even though the world around us does not.

That’s the first thing: Jesus’ kingdom is not based on hierarchy and power structures, but on love and service to others. Secondly, we go to the words of Jesus in our gospel for today, where he explains the difference between his kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. He says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36). Worldly kingdoms are protected by military power, and their soldiers fight and give their lives to protect their monarchs. We know that, in fact, one of Jesus’ followers did attempt to do this; in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, Peter drew a sword and slashed at one of the high priest’s servants, cutting off his ear. But Jesus rebuked him: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). The early Church Father Tertullian, writing in about 200 A.D., commented on this story and said, ‘The Lord, in disarming Peter, also disarmed every soldier’.

So earthly kingdoms are kept in place by power and violence, but Jesus’ kingdom is not; it’s not based on the love of power but on the power of love. His followers are not called to fight their enemies but to love them, to do good to them and to bless them, just as God pours out his love and blessings on good and bad alike.

So Jesus’ kingdom is not based on hierarchy and power structures, but on love and service to others. Secondly, it doesn’t advance by violence and power, but by reaching out even to enemies and caring for them.

Thirdly, we think of one of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here he tells us that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will gather the nations before him and separate them into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He’ll turn to the one group, the sheep, and say to them, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”. Then the righteous will ask him, “Lord, we don’t remember that! When did we do all these things for you?” And the King will reply, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me” (see Matthew 25:31-46).

When the Olympic Games came to Atlanta, Georgia in 1996, the homeless were forcibly removed from the city before the games began. This tells you how the poor and needy are so often seen in the world today: they are an embarrassment, or a nuisance. But in the Kingdom of Jesus, the poor and needy are not an embarrassment but an opportunity to serve the king. When you care for someone who is in need, you are really caring for the King himself. When you clothe a needy person you are putting royal robes on the King; when you feed a hungry person you are contributing to the King’s banquet. You don’t serve this King by lavishing wealth and pageantry on him; you serve him by loving the people he loves.

My brothers and sisters, today we proclaim our faith that Jesus is Lord – that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed King, and one day his Kingdom will be acknowledged by every living creature. But we don’t have to wait until that day to live as his subjects, because he came into Galilee at the beginning of his ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). To ‘repent’ means to turn away from our sins and from our previous allegiances and to give ourselves in joyful obedience to God’s anointed king. It means that instead of living according to the pattern we’ve received from earthly kingdoms in the past, we look forward to the future when God’s Kingdom will be seen in all its fullness, and we live like that now, as a sign to the people around us of the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus’ Kingdom is not from this world, but it is definitely in this world, right now, today. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). So let us live as faithful followers of Jesus our King, by putting his teaching into practice and working for the spread of his Kingdom in the midst of the world he came to save. Amen.

Preliminary sermon thoughts on Mark 9.2-9

This is not a sermon; this is simply my study notes as I have been engaging with the Biblical text today. Hopefully they might be useful to other preachers as we meditate on scripture in preparation for next Sunday.

Text (NRSV)

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Thoughts
Mark begins with a time reference: ‘six days later’. This is six days after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, after Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering and death, and after his call to his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.

Is there more to it than that? The last thing Jesus says in the previous section is “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1). Is Mark’s ‘six days later’ meant to connect this promise with the Transfiguration – that the ‘some standing here’ are Peter, James, and John, and this moment of Transfiguration was the time when they saw the Kingdom of God come with power? Some interpreters think so, but I’m not so sure. Verse 1 should not be read in isolation from what comes immediately before it: “Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels”. Whatever ‘coming in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’ means (and I don’t think that’s at all cut and dried; because in the light of Daniel 7:13-14 it could just as easily refer to the Ascension as to the ‘Second Coming’), I think it’s the most likely referral for the Kingdom of God coming with power.

Pheme Perkins points out the links between this passage and the previous one:

The Christological emphases of the previous episode are repeated in the transfiguration story. Jesus’ status as Messiah is confirmed by the divine testimony that he is God’s beloved Son (8:29, 9:7, 14:61); the predicted glory of the coming Son of Man (8:38) is anticipated by the shining white garments of Jesus (9:3). Finally, the disciples were instructed to tell no one that Jesus was the Messiah (8:30), and now those who witness the transfiguration are to tell no one until the Son of Man has risen (9:9).

No doubt the entire conversation with Jesus in 8:31 – 9:1 is still uppermost in the minds of the disciples, like a dark truth on the edge of their consciousness that they are trying to ignore but that just won’t go away. Peter has already tried to talk Jesus out of it once, and has gotten himself royally chewed up as a result (‘Get behind me, Satan!’). Perhaps he and the other disciples are thinking, “Why does he believe he has to do ‘undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed’? The mission is going well; crowds are growing, and before long we’ll be in a good position to claim the throne”. But of course this is all speculation; we can’t really know exactly what was on their minds, beyond what the text actually says.

The Old Testament overtones are clear here. Going up a high mountain is a very Old Testament way of meeting God. Moses met God on Mount Sinai and received the Law there; Elijah also made the desert journey to Mount Sinai to meet God. Now Jesus takes three disciples up a high mountain, and there Moses and Elijah appear to them. Moses is the great lawgiver of Israel, and Elijah is the first and greatest of the prophets; it is as if Jesus is meeting, not only with two of the greatest heroes of his people, but also with the embodiment of ‘the Law and the Prophets’, the phrase used so often to describe the Scriptures. ‘The presence of Moses and Elijah reminds us that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the goal of the story of God’s salvation in the Law and the Prophets’ (Pheme Perkins).

Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white just as Moses’ face was transformed when he met the Lord on Mount Sinai. ‘The dazzling white clothing signals heavenly rather than earthly beings (Daniel 7:9, 12:3)’ (Pheme Perkins). A cloud comes down on the mountain, just as it did when Yahweh descended to Mount Sinai to give the Law, and when Solomon dedicated the Temple; the cloud is one of the symbols of the presence of Yahweh.

Peter, James and John often appear as a kind of inner circle of Jesus: they witnessed the healing of Jairus’ daughter (5:37), and they will also witness the agony in Gethsemane (14:33). However, they aren’t exactly shining examples of insight or faithfulness.

Peter has already been castigated for rejecting the necessity of suffering (8:33). James and John will soon show themselves as preoccupied with greatness rather than service (10:35-37). All three will fail to watch with Jesus during the agony in the garden (14:33-41). These failures become all the more striking because the divine voices has instructed them to listen to the Son (9:7), an allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15 (‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him’). Jesus is the promised Mosaic prophet. (Pheme Perkins)

Mark gives us no details of when this event took place, although it has traditionally been assumed that it was at night. Were Peter and James and John woken from their sleep by the dazzling light of the Transfiguration and by the appearance of Moses and Elijah? I note that the text says nothing about Moses and Elijah being similarly ‘transfigured’. At any rate, Peter just says the first thing that comes into his head: ‘Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here! Let’s make three tents – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Mark explains that Peter didn’t know what to say, because they were all terrified – which we can well understand, as these two revered figures from the past stand with Jesus in the dazzling light.

Tom Wright comments:

It’s easy enough (and they themselves must have known this) to dismiss such an experience as a hallucination, albeit a very odd one. Jewish scriptures and traditions tell of various events like this, when the veil of ordinariness that normally prevents us from seeing the ‘inside’ of a situation is drawn back, and a fuller reality is disclosed. Most of us don’t have experiences like this (nor did most early Christians, as far as we can tell); but unless we allow sceptics to bully us we should be free to affirm that this sort of thing has indeed happened to some people (usually completely unexpectedly), and that such people usually regard it as hugely important and life-changing.

The three watchers and others were of course terrified. Peter…blurts out the first thing that comes into his head, trying vaguely not only to prolong the moment but to hook it into one of the Jewish festivals. That wasn’t the point, but the sheer oddity of his bumbling suggestion is itself strong evidence of the story’s basic truth. Nobody inventing a tale like this would make up such a comic moment, lowering the tone of the occasion in such a fashion.

What went through the minds of the apostles? Up until now, what have they been assuming about their Master? That he is a prophet? That he is a wise spiritual teacher? Perhaps this is where they started. But Peter’s understanding of him has developed further, to the point that he has now confessed his faith that his Master is the Messiah, the king who is going to set Israel free.

But the Messiah, in Israelite belief at the time, was not a divine figure – he was a human king, a descendant of David. And I doubt if people conceived that the Messiah would be greater than his ancestor David (like many traditional societies, people in those days seemed to have the idea that the figures from the past were always greater!).

But now, as the cloud descended, the three disciples heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him’ – a clear allusion to the voice at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11) and also, as Pheme Perkins points out, to the command to ‘listen’ the the prophet like Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. If this command to ‘listen’ to God’s beloved Son is in response to Peter’s proposal to build three tents – in other words, to treat Jesus and Moses and Elijah as three equals – then it is a firm rejection of it. Moses and Elijah are honoured and revered figures from Israel’s history, but God never said of either of them, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’. Jesus is unique, and the disciples must not succumb to the temptation of seeing him as just another religious figure, on the same level as all the others.

‘Listen to him’. Listen to him in general, or listen to something specific he has said? Possibly the latter – the prediction of his suffering and death that he has made six days before. Don’t listen to your rational arguments about why this is not a good idea, Peter – listen to what my Son has to say, because he’s speaking the truth. It is necessary for him to suffer and die. He knows what he’s talking about.

But also, listen to him as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is the point in the story that they’ve been leading to. He fulfils the prophecies and interprets the Law as God’s anointed Son. He is greater than the ones who came before him – listen to him.

The final verse just gives us a fragment of the next paragraph, the discussion about Elijah and whether he should come first. Here in verse 9 I note that the disciples would have been very confused about Jesus’ reference to the resurrection because their Jewish belief saw the resurrection as something that would happen at the end of time to all the righteous, not in the middle of time to one young Jew. If they had to hold their tongues until the end, that would be a long wait! But no doubt they understood ‘after the fact’, which is why the story made it into the gospels at all!

‘As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead’. Lamar Williamson comments on the command to silence:

The command to silence (v.9) is the last and climactic case in which a Christological confession, whether by demons (3:11), by Peter (8:29), or by God himself (9:7) is to be kept secret. Only here is a time limit set: “Until the Son of Man (shall) have risen from the dead”. This detail offers a fundamental clue for understanding the entire series of commands to silence, or the so-called ‘Messianic secret’ theme. There is no way to rightly understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die, and rise again (emphasis mine).

Reflecting on the significance of this passage, Pheme Perkins has a telling comment:

Christians frequently think of the divinity of Jesus in terms of heavenly glory or the triumph of the Parousia without recognising the real presence of God on the cross. We tend to think that Jesus is most clearly Son of God in glory, not in suffering. This passage challenges us to revise our understanding of how God’s presence comes to the world.

In this way we are like the disciples who assumed that a true Messiah would give evidence of his identity by military victory over the enemies of Israel, and who struggled with Jesus’ sense of call to sacrifice on the cross (‘And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him’ – 8:32). Apparently we are often still tempted to forget the centrality of the cross in Jesus’ mission – probably because we would prefer to avoid its centrality in the call of disciples too – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34) – remembering that the call of the cross is not about suffering in general, but rather relates specifically to the call to follow Jesus faithfully and being willing to pay the price of suffering for that faithfulness.

Lamar Williamson sets the text in context of the other ‘Son of God’ confessions in Mark:

The first is the voice of God to Jesus himself at the baptism (1:9-11), in which Jesus’ identity as Son of God is established. In the second, the transfiguration, that identity is confirmed to an inner circle of three disciples, offering a parallel to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ, a counterpoint to the first passion prediction, and a foretaste of the Parousia announced in the verses immediately preceding. The last in the series is the crucifixion, a sort of reverse transfiguration, in which the sight of Jesus dying in utter abandonment to the will of God wrings from the lips of a Roman army officer the confession, “Truly this man was the Son of God”.

The first of these is full of radiant promise, the last a witness to steadfastness in despair, and the middle one – the present text – combined glory (vv.2-8) and suffering (vv.9-13, especially verse 12) to present the paradox of divine power and weakness, lowliness and majesty, in the person of Jesus Christ. Israel’s Messiah and Son of God is the suffering and dying Son of man. For those who have eyes to see, his very suffering in steadfast obedience to the will of God is a mark of God’s own glory; but that glory can only be understood by resurrection faith, and it will become evident to all only at the Parousia of the Son of man. In the transfiguration, then, Jesus is revealed as Son of God, the one in whom is manifested simultaneously the splendour and lowliness of God.

Tom Wright adds:

It isn’t a revelation of Jesus’ divinity; if it were, that would make Moses and Elijah divine too, which Mark certainly doesn’t want us to think… Rather, as the similar experiences of mystics in various cultures and ages would suggest, this is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, bathed in, the love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light, in the way that music transforms words that are sung. This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It’s the sign that he is indeed the true prophet, the true Messiah.

That, too, is what the heavenly voice is saying. Jesus is God’s special, beloved son. Elijah and Moses were vital in preparing the way; Jesus is finishing the job. Mark is happy for later Christian readers to hear, in the phrase ‘son of God’, fuller meanings than the disciples would have heard. For them, the primary meaning, as with the voice at the baptism, is that Jesus is Messiah. That’s enough to be going on with.

Resources:

Pheme Perkins: ‘Mark’ in ‘The New Interpreter’s Bible’ (1995).

Lamar Williamson: ‘Mark’ in the ‘Interpretation’ commentary series (1983)

Tom Wright: ‘Mark for Everyone’ (2001)

Nuggets from Phillips Brooks

brooksPhillips Brooks, who died on this day in 1893, was a great American clergyman; he was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1859 and served as a parish priest until two years before his death, when he was elected as Bishop of Massachusetts. He is perhaps best known today as the author of the Christmas carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’.

I have on my book shelf a long out-of-print book called ‘Lectures on Preaching‘, which were delivered by Brooks at Yale Divinity School in 1877. I consider it to be one of the best books on preaching I have ever read (the only book I would put higher than it is Donald Coggan’s Stewards of Grace [1958], also long out of print!). Here, in no particular order, are a few nuggets from the book; if you can get your hands on a second-hand copy, it is well worth reading for a preacher. (Note that when Brooks wrote this book, no one was thinking about the ordination of women, hence his exclusive use of male terms for preachers).

Whatever else you may count yourself in the ministry, never lose this fundamental idea of yourself as a messenger.  As to the way in which one shall best keep the idea, it would not be hard to state; but it would involve the whole story of the Christian life. Here is the primary necessity that the Christian preacher should be a Christian first, that he should be deeply cognizant of God’s authority, and of the absoluteness of Christ’s truth…

Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ…

I must not dwell upon the first of all the necessary qualities, and yet there is not a moment’s doubt that it does stand first of all. It is personal piety, and deep possession in one’s own soul of the faith and hope and resolution which he is to offer to his fellow-men for their new life. Nothing but fire kindles fire. To know in one’s whole nature what it is to live by Christ; to be His, not our own; to be so occupied with gratitude for what He did for us and for what He continually is to us that His will and His glory shall be the sole desires of our life…

I think that there does rise up before a clear picture of the man who ought to be a preacher. Full of the love of Christ, taking all truth and blessing as a trust, in the best sense didactic, hopeful, healthy, and counting health, as far as it is in his power, a part of his self-consecration; wiling not simply as so many men are, to bear sickness for God’s work, but willing to preserve health for God’s work; and going to his preaching with the enthusiasm that shows it is what God made him for. The nearer you can come to him, my friends, the better preachers you will be, the surer you will be that you have a right to be preachers at all…

These are only from the first two chapters, which are more general in nature; there are some excellent specific suggestions about preaching as well.

O everlasting God, who didst call thy servant Phillips Brooks to the ministry of preaching, and didst give him wisdom, charity, and eloquence that he might speak the truth with grace and power: Grant, we pray, that all whom thou dost call to preach the Gospel may steep themselves in thy word, and conform their lives to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.