This fourth Sunday of the Epiphany raises the issues of knowing and community. Paul says that having knowledge is not about individual freedom and rights. A lived faith means not freedom from, but freedom for community where people love one another as Christ loves. Paul insists that what we do affects others. Our duty is not just to ourselves but to the Body of Christ. Knowledge alone risks pride, but knowledge combined with love builds the reign of God–a community of the weak and strong, in which all are equally important and known by God.
Mark also deals with knowledge that “puffs up.” The scribes were powerful because of their knowledge. But lacking love, their knowledge was wielded as a weapon of judgment rather than liberation; it was used to destroy rather than build. Jesus, however, with knowledge and love, takes on evil and demons that possess individuals and the community. In silencing and expelling the demons, Jesus frees the man and the entire community from forces that seek to limit God’s grace and mercy.
Having called his first disciples, Jesus begin teaching in a Capernaum synagogue. Confronted by evil Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man, and it obeys, though not without dramatic theatrics. The people there are understandably amazed. And, not surprisingly, the reputation of Jesus spread.
No sooner had the disciples been called by Jesus to be his followers than they witness the opposition Jesus faces. Later they will encounter similar opposition themselves. We too will encounter evil if we follow Jesus.
This story is set in a world where the common understanding was that world was under the power of Satan. The Jews looked to God to put an end to this world and bring in a new world under God’s authority. But before this new kingdom can come the evil powers must be overcome. After Jesus overcomes the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, he shows that Satan can be overcome by this event in the synagogue.
It may be hard to believe that Satan has been defeated in these times of terrorism and nuclear threat but the Christian faith proclaims that the gracious love of God is now present in this world; God’s kingdom is in progress. Mark’s Gospel will go on the speak of God’s reign in terms of small things like seeds and yeast saying that small things have life energy and can grow. Such small things may not make the news headlines and can be overlooked but this week look around you. Look for the seeds; look for signs of God present in your life.
Paul’s letter deals with a problem which may seem remote to us but was intensely real to the Christians in Corinth. Sacrifice to the gods was an integral part of life in the ancient world. In the Roman world there were also ceremonies honouring the emperor and for reconciling relationships in the hierarchical strata of patronage in imperial Roman society. Some people felt that the meat was contaminated by being offered to an idol. But it was almost impossible to buy meat which hadn’t been sacrificed to a god. Paul lays down a principle that however safe the strong and enlightened Christian may feel they must do nothing which will hurt or bewilder a fellow Christian.
Paul responded to a local controversy. Should Christians eat the perfectly good meat left over from sacrifices to pagan gods and idols? He sees no problem with eating the leftovers, because those gods are meaningless to Christians. However, because there are some over scrupulous Christians, and some new converts, who might not understand, Paul will not personally eat that meat. Paul writes that the more crucial dynamic is “anyone who loves God is known by God.” There is no gap or barrier to be overcome by sacrifices. A Christian should not seek to emphasize “knowledge”. Good Christians are humble, deeply moved and inclined to loving others, because they have discovered how much God loves them!
There may be more here too. This was not just about diet and Jewish, Greek and Roman customs. Jesus taught radical abandonment of self-interest in every circumstance of life, personal, social, familial and political. People failed to grasp that Jesus’ definition of the realm of God included fairness, justice and compassion with no retribution or payback or exchange of mutual favours to the detriment of others.
Christians must to let go of civilisation’s definitions of what is necessary for abundant life. The Christian vision may seem impossible, idiotic and absurd but neither Roman society nor our 21st century society truly embrace justice and fairness. To get ahead or even just stay safe in Roman society sacrifices had to be made to patrons and rulers and so on. To get ahead today people make sacrifices for the coveted job, house, gadgets, clothes and so on, not caring about the consequences… exploited workers, down trodden colleagues, plastics polluting planet…
Paul’s point to the Corinthians is that in Christian community there is no need to participate in ritual sacrifices to build relationships, with gods, emperors, the aristocracy or anyone else. Jesus eliminated the need for that. With God, in fellowship with Jesus, in the Body of Christ, that is the Christian community, there is no male or female, no slave or free, but all are one and share equally on a level playing field.
So Paul is telling them nothing ought to be judged solely from the point of knowledge; everything should be judged from the point of view of love. So if your friend insists on participating in the cultic sacrifices, Paul says, for the love of Jesus, don’t you go along with it. Perhaps your friend is wavering in commitment to the ways of the world or the ways of Jesus. Even if you know the ritual is ineffective, don’t go as it could be interpreted as support for the Roman society of inequality that perpetuates imperial theology and victory by force.
Paul says that although he agreed that the popular Greek and Roman gods did not exist, he felt certain that evil spirits and demons did exist and they could seduce people from relationship with the true God. Even if a thing is harmless for you, if it hurts someone else it must be given up. Christians must never do anything which causes someone else to stumble. Should I gamble, drink, break road rules…whatever?
In every family, every neighbourhood and every church there are inevitable power struggles. We hold our convictions dearly, and we want others to see things as we do and to honour our view. Also, people grow fearful that the views and needs and power of others may rob them of things they hold dear. Somehow we have come to believe that sharing power diminishes it, when, in fact, it does the opposite. Even in what some may call “spiritual warfare” – the “fight” against evil – they have framed the scene in terms of “power over” – Jesus proving stronger than demons. Yet, when we put Jesus’ teaching in the context of Jesus’ life, we discover that for Jesus, fighting evil required a cross, not a sword, and drove him to service and sacrifice, not violence or conquest.
What this means is that we are called, firstly, to embrace and experience Jesus’ liberation for ourselves – the release of those things that would bind us, which often stem from fear or self-interest – and then to engage with others as Christ did, sharing power, serving and freedom. Sharing power does not diminish power. Sharing love does not diminish love.
This may mean learning, as parents, to collaborate with children on their own values and ways of discipline. It may mean, as partners, learning the art of collaboration in everything from finances to sex. It may mean as leaders learning to free others to find their own leadership, and serving them in the process, without fearing the loss of our own power or prestige.
It may mean, as Paul teaches, releasing our own “rights” and “freedoms” in order to ensure that we do not cause others to stumble. It may mean working alongside those we disagree with if it will help to bring justice or grace to people in our community. If we long for God’s glory and authority to be seen in us, it certainly won’t happen if we constantly strive for things to be done “our” way or if we constantly fight for control. Rather, when we embody Christ’s liberating grace, then the glory and authority of Jesus is most clearly seen in us. Be compassionate as God is compassionate.
The Collect: God of compassion you have shown us in Christ that your love is never ending: enable us both to love you with all our heart and to love one another as Christ loved us … Amen.
Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
The Rev’d Robyn Fry
During Advent we don’t yet celebrate the birth of Jesus. We await the arrival of the Messiah. Capitalist culture isn’t very good at waiting. It wants us to buy stuff now and feel a hit of excitement when we make a purchase. Our culture of consumerism wants to extend Christmas for as long as possible starting as soon as possible. Buy more stuff and feel good about it so that you will buy even more stuff! That’s what the secular Christmas of consumerism is all about. It doesn’t have much of anything to do with Jesus. But let us not be seduced by consumerism or other secular Christmas expectations. Rather, let’s pay attention to Advent.
Part of Advent preparation is to understand why the world needed a saviour at all. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was needed because something was wrong with the world. Sometimes the world feels so dark and sometimes God just seems absent.
The prophet Isaiah and his people suffered from systemic political oppression and violence. Empire after empire conquered Israel. Isaiah waited for the day that God “would tear open the heavens and come down” to set things right. And sometimes people today feel like Isaiah, that God is somewhere out there, up in the sky, and so absent from here. Sometimes it feels so dark. [i]
“A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, to speak for the light.”
This Sunday again focuses on this person called John and a question continues – who are you? This is the question being asked in the early Christian communities. Who was John? What was he doing? How can we understand his mission and his connection to the mission of Jesus? The questioners put to him names of key Jewish figures who were expected to come in the final days before a longed for new age. “The Christ” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew title, “The Messiah”. They hoped for a descendant of King David who was expected by many to restore the physical kingdom or empire of David. Elijah was one of the great prophets who was said to have been taken to heaven in a fiery chariot and would return at the end time. “The Prophet” refers to a promise made to Moses that God would raise up in the future, a prophet like Moses to lead the people out of oppression to freedom in a promised land. Some thought John fitted one of these hoped for figures. But John turns down these roles.
John knows his place in the scheme of things. He humbly attests that there is another, even greater, who is coming. This is part of John’s greatness, to know and accept the particular role for him in the Realm of God. For some people this can take years of searching and pondering to find one’s role. As Christmas draws near, may it be a time of reflection for us on the particular gifts we have and what particular way we may extend God’s Realm.[ii]
The Fourth Gospel states clearly that John was not the light but was sent from God to testify to the light. His role was to cry out in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord.” When we read the Fourth Gospel on its own terms we see that John baptises with water then we might expect him to say “but one coming after me baptises with the Holy Spirit” as in the Synoptics. But instead, John says, “I baptise with water; but here is one among you whom you do not recognise.” In John we see Jesus who is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” [iii]
Let us not be demoralised by our small numbers or advancing age. Remember the people referred to in the reading from Isaiah. After decades of intimidation, war and the destruction of Jerusalem and then captivity by the Babylonians, every aspect of the personal and social life of the Israelites was in shambles. They were demoralized and resigned to their hopeless circumstances. But, the preacher feels called by the Lord God to make a startling promise: in short, God will reverse every hopeless aspect of their lives. The people of God will re-build their beloved City of Jerusalem out of the ruins in which they now live and many of the lesser cities, too. These people of despair will come to be known as “the planting of the Lord.” Why will God do these things? “For I the Lord love justice….” As reliably as a garden returning after a barren season, “the Lord will cause righteousness to spring up….”
St Paul told the Christians in Thessalonica to rejoice, pray, give thanks. Do not restrict the Spirit of God when God does the unexpected. Let the Spirit of God flow where it will. Although we never know exactly when or where or how God’s justice will re-assert itself, (just as we never know precisely when it will rain), we announce and work for God’s justice, taking for granted that the parched river bed will once again babble and gush with water. Be alert for “messianic time.” Live by “messianic time.” “The Messiah is already among you.”
Here in this Gospel John has dared to announce: “The Messiah is already among you.” The announcement sets the time of justice in motion. Isaiah declares that at precisely the time when God’s people have become resigned to the impossibility of justice, the preacher must announce/ remind/ initiate/ allow/ permit /incite a new era, God’s time of justice. Why? Because the Lord “loves justice.”[iv]
Restoration is a huge concern in our world right now. There is the restoration of nations where dictators have been overthrown and rebuilding must happen. There is the restoration of economic systems that have still not recovered from the global financial crisis. There is the need for the restoration of our damaged planet and its creatures. On other levels there are issues around the restoration of families, communities, and, particularly, the Church and Christian faith.
We cannot hope to address the great challenges of our time without a deep, revolutionary change of our hearts, minds and attitudes. But, equally, we cannot hope to find answers if we keep the same systems and structures and actions that have created our crises in the first place. As followers of Christ we are called to deal with both realities – the internal and the external. As John challenged people to live differently, to change not just themselves but their world, so too did he invite people to recognise Jesus as Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. And so as we Christians, the Church, the Body of Christ, work for peace and justice, may we embrace the call to work for love, compassion and connectedness with God for those with whom we work. And may we continue to pray that God will continue to come to us and bring God’s reign into visible action among us and through us.
It is a shame that the Church is sometimes seen to be concerned only with the hearts and minds of people. We have created a split between the spiritual and the physical which is neither helpful nor biblical.
In every church and every neighbourhood and every city there are people who need both a change of heart and a change of circumstance. There are those who need to encounter Christ both in an experience of God’s Spirit, God’s healing and God’s forgiveness, and in an experience of God’s comfort, provision, protection and care through the physical hands and voices of people. Therefore, we proclaim Christ’s coming not just through our preaching and singing, but also through our feeding of the poor and visiting of prisoners and shut-ins. We demonstrate God’s Reign not just through calling people to repentance and change, but also through living as citizens of God’s Realm by our acts of care, advocacy and service.
And our message is proclaimed and heard most effectively in those places where God’s presence is most hidden, where it is darkest. When we enable people to recognise God’s coming to them, even when they don’t expect it or don’t feel they deserve it, we have revealed God’s Reign. When we have touched people with God’s love and grace through our actions and words, we have made straight paths for God’s coming, and have prepared the way for people to open themselves to God’s transforming presence. Like John our task is both internal and external, and it enables both people and the communities they live in, slowly but surely, to become more just and peaceful and compassionate.[v]
[ii] Mary Coloe, Sundays Under the Southern Cross 2005
[iii] Schmisek, Macalintal and Cormier, Living Liturgy Year b 2018
Jesus’ Final Week: LENTEN BIBLE STUDY
These Bible studies encourage you to look closely at the amazing events of Jesus’ final week on earth–Palm
Sunday, the Last Supper, the trial, Jesus’ death and his resurrection.
WHERE: St. Peter’s Hall Swansea
STARTS: Feb 1, 2018
TIME: Thursdays, 10 —11.30 am
COST: $10.00/book (also available on Amazon kindle)
CONTACT: Trevor Smith 49715919
*No prior bible knowledge required*
There is a chance that some church going people get grumpy around Christmas. Some are irritated because the songs in the shops seem disconnected from the biblical stories and they all seem to be sung too soon. I try to avoid this grumpiness!
Traditionally, Christmas festivities began on the eve of 24th December or on 25th December rather than culminating on that day. The twelve days of Christmas followed from there. Our experience is more often that Christmas Day is the ending of a long festival of lights, tinsel, gifts, and meals.
My life experience enables me to relax and enjoy the Australian approach to Christmas. In December 1979 I was recovering from major spine surgery in a hospital a long way from home. I was 16 years old and, apart from an occasional visit to church and school scripture lessons, I had nothing to do with Christianity. Unable to sit up and move from my bed I experienced generous care from staff and the families of others in the hospital. One evening, I imagine it was the Sunday night, I was watching the Christmas Carol spectacular on the television. Tears welled up in my eyes and I was quite overcome with the singing of Silent Night. In the darkness of the hospital ward, recovering, receiving special care – the words of the carol and the meaning of Christmas broke through. The ordinary experience of Australians getting into the spirit of Christmas engaged this hardened teenager! Some two years later I embraced the way of faith fully. The events of Christmas were one among a number of turning points.
With years of reflecting on these events, I recognise that those days in hospital were what is often described as a liminal or threshold moment. It was a moment or perhaps moments of personal, social and spiritual change amidst profound challenge. I didn’t have the language to express that at the time and I suspect when we are right in the middle of things most of us don’t step back and analyse it anyway!
One of the gifts of the rich theological and spiritual traditions associated with Christmas is the gift of language to express awe and wonder in the face of surprise as well as language to express gratitude and joy. The Christmas traditions invite us to find hope in the midst of adversity and to celebrate love as the enduring force at the heart of the universe. Much of the Christmas tradition invites a personal response. We are asked to ponder how might I be and act differently in response to God and God’s actions.
The personal response is captured in the Christmas Song The Little Drummer Boy. I think we can say with some certainty that there was no one playing a drum as Joseph and Mary were housed with the animals on the lower floor of an overcrowded house in Bethlehem. With a sentimentality familiar to many Christmas songs we hear the Christmas proclamation and a personal response. “Come they told me, a new born king to see.” “Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the king.” “I played my drum for him. I played my best for him.” The song captures the idea that in response to God’s great love in Jesus we give our best in his service.
May we rejoice in the spirit of Christmas wherever it breaks out! May our hearts be stirred by songs and carols that draw us closer to the meaning of Christmas! May our souls be ready to respond to all that God has done for all creation in his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord!
Bishop Peter Stuart?
“… in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht… all is calm, all is bright
Adeste fideles, laeti triumpantes… Noel, noel, noel
O come let us adore him… born is the king of Israel
Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, French, German, English …
A cave in Bethlehem echoes with multilingual songs of pilgrims… sleep in peace… Christ the saviour is born…. God is here… We sing the familiar songs and our hearts swell as in the days in Bethlehem with Mary and Joseph, shepherds and angels, wise magi from the east… God is here! The good news bursts from the scriptures as men and women discovered in the life and death of Jesus, “God is here’.
The lives of Mary and Joseph were filled with extraordinary experiences. It’s not always easy to handles surprises. Mary treasured and reflected on events. The shepherds glorified God. Others who heard the story were astonished. When we accept that God acts in our lives, we must respond, respond with trust and love, as we are loved by God.
The birth of Jesus is a preview of the Kingdom of God Jesus would proclaim. The foundation of the Kingdom of God is justice for the poor and vulnerable among us. The Gospel defines an understanding of peace that is not just the absence of discord but the reality of justice, mercy and reconciliation. The kingdom of Christ is the antithesis of the Caesars of the world.
Throughout history, we have always wanted peace. There have essentially been two methods to achieving peace. For example, the “Pax Romana,” or Roman Peace, was spread through violent conquest. The Pax Romana believed that the way to peace was through defeating your enemies. It never brought about true peace, as violence can never be contained and you constantly live in fear that someone will stab you in the back!
That way to peace is contrasted by the Way of Christ, who gave peace, but not as the world gives peace. The Roman Empire gave “peace” as the world gives peace. But, for Jesus, the way to peace isn’t through defeating our enemies, but through loving them.[i]
Two thousand years on the Bethlehem story is layered with tinselled memories from childhood, and Calvary’s horror pales beside the atrocities of our time. Can the Gospel really speak to our experience now and still proclaim a saviour is born?
In any birthday celebration, we pause to celebrate the life of the person so far. It is not so the baby we remember, but the person now, in whatever stage of life they are and the memories of all the richness of their life – both its joys and sorrows. So it is today. We celebrate a birth, but more importantly we celebrate a life given for us. We celebrate that God has joined our human story in the person of Jesus and lives with us in the Holy Spirit.
Silent night, holy night… sleep in heavenly peace…
The song continues in the hearts of Christians, for the manger in Bethlehem we now carry within. The holy place of Israel has become the holy place in our own lives, in our hearts and souls. When we enter this sacred place with the longings and hopes of pilgrims we too can find the Christ of God born ever anew. In the silence and stillness of our own Bethlehem, our voices can sing with the voices of pilgrims through the ages: God is here, god is truly here.[ii]
Reading: Luke 2:1-7, 8-12, 15-20
[ii] Mary Coloe