Thursday, July 28, 2022

Pray the Jesus Way

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Pray the Jesus Way'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity.

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Luke 11:1-13

In St Luke’s Gospel particularly, Jesus is regularly described as praying. In our reading, Jesus has been praying ‘in a certain place’; we are not told where. This prompts one of Jesus’ disciples, we are not told which one, to ask him to teach them to pray ‘as John taught his disciples. ‘John’ here is John the Baptist. Some of Jesus’ followers had previously been disciples of John the Baptist, so they would have known first-hand what John taught his disciples.

Prayer was an essential part of Jewish society. Jews prayed three times a day, and prayer was a central part of synagogue and Temple life. The disciples, then, would have been used to praying. The key part of this request to Jesus lies in the phrase ‘as John taught his disciples’. What Jesus’ disciples are asking is for Jesus to teach them what to pray for. They want to know what the subject or content of their prayer should be. In reply, Jesus gives them a prayer to say.

This prayer became known as the Lord’s Prayer, and it is one of the best-known of all prayers, although it is more accurately described as the Disciples’ Prayer. This is a prayer for those who have become followers of Jesus. The Lord’s Prayer exists in three versions. This version in St Luke’s Gospel is the shortest. The longer version in St Matthew’s Gospel is the version we are most familiar with. There also exists another version in a document called the Didache (Didache 8).

The Didache is most probably a late first century text. The full title of it is, ‘The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations’. The version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Didache is essentially the same as that in St Matthew’s Gospel. The Didache tells believers to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. The importance of the version in the Didache and the teaching that goes with it, however, is that it shows how quickly the Lord’s Prayer became an integral part of the prayer life of believers, both corporately and individually. Nowadays, the Lord’s Prayer is prayed everywhere, often by people who have little connection with the Church or the Christian faith.

When I was growing up in the UK, every child would learn to say the Lord’s Prayer by heart, and it was said together by the whole school at the school assembly every day. This is less common today, but the Lord’s Prayer is still taught in church schools, and many remain familiar with it more widely. Despite this familiarity, however, very few would be able to tell you what it means. Even amongst church-goers, many would struggle to explain what it is they think they are asking for when they pray the Lord’s Prayer. Its use is more symbolic. We pray it because it is the Lord’s Prayer. It’s what we should do. And so it is, for example, prayed in every church service, prayed, that is, but not understood.

This lack of understanding when praying the Lord’s Prayer is somewhat ironic, as in St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 6:5-15), Jesus, in his introduction to the prayer, tells his disciples not to heap up ‘empty phrases’ as the Gentiles do. Jesus warns against using ‘many words’. There is no need for them, Jesus explains, as the disciples’ Father knows what they need before they ask him for it. It is after saying this that Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, which is itself a short prayer. The version in our reading from St Luke’s Gospel is even shorter than the version we typically use.

All of this seems very straightforward, no matter how hard it might still be in practice. It is, however, not quite as straightforward as it may initially seem. Firstly, especially in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself is portrayed as a role model in prayer (Luke 5:16). Jesus prays regularly and often all night (Luke 6:12). It is seeing Jesus pray that leads the disciple in our reading to ask Jesus to teach the disciples to pray. So, what did Jesus himself pray, and how could it take all night?

Secondly, Jesus also teaches the importance of persistence in prayer. This is one of the points of the teaching that Jesus gives in our reading following Lord’s Prayer. The disciples are to ‘ask, seek, and knock’; they are not to give up. Then later, in chapter 18 of St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable of a widow who gets justice from a judge, not because the judge thinks her cause is just, but because she persists in asking him for it. The judge gives her justice just to get her to leave him alone!

So, Jesus gives a short prayer and warns against many words, but he then encourages his followers to be persistent in prayer and to keep praying. There is both a paradox and a challenge to us here when it comes to how we should pray.

In seeking to understand the Lord’s Prayer itself, we should note not only its brevity but that it is a prayer for those who are Jesus’ followers. In the past, the Lord’s Prayer has been taught to everyone routinely without also teaching people about the importance of having a relationship with God in Christ. The prayer begins, ‘Father’. It assumes that a relationship with God has already been established. Now some may ask whether God isn’t everyone’s father naturally, and the answer from a New Testament perspective is, no.

In chapter ten of St Luke’s Gospel, when the 70 (or 72) return from the work Jesus has given them to do and have reported their success, Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit and prays thanking God for revealing these things to them. Jesus continues to say:

‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ (Luke 10:22)

As his chosen people, the Jewish people did see God as their Father, but Jesus takes seeing God as our Father to a new level. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and the word he used in Aramaic for father is ‘abba’. St Mark records Jesus’ actual use of the word ‘abba’ in addressing God in Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is arrested (Mark 14:36). Jesus’ use of this word impressed itself on his disciples, and so special was it to them, that they continued to use it in Aramaic even in a Greek-speaking environment. St Paul uses it in his letters to both the Galatian and the Roman believers (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15).

It is sometimes said in sermons that ‘abba’ was the word used by very young children at the time of Jesus and was the equivalent of ‘daddy’ in English. This is not true. It is the word that was used by all family members whatever their age; what is true is that it is an intimate word speaking a close relationship between a son or daughter and their father. The Lord’s Prayer begins with and is rooted in our relationship with God as our Father.

Turning to the Lord’s Prayer itself, there are 5 petitions in the version in St Luke’s Gospel. Using traditional language, they are:

1. Hallowed be your name

2. Your Kingdom come

3. Give us each day our daily bread

4. And forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us

5. And lead us not into temptation.

Let us look briefly at each petition:

1. Hallowed be your name

Keeping the traditional language highlights at once a problem we have with the Lord’s Prayer. The very familiarity of the words obscures their meaning. Does anyone talk about hallowing things nowadays? To hallow is to treat something as holy, but that does not add much clarity. One translation has, ‘Honoured be your name’ (NET Bible), which is much better, but what does it mean to honour God’s name?

The thinking behind this is that the name represents the person. God’s name is about who he is. The Lord’s Prayer begins not with us and what we want of God but with God himself. The Hebrew prophets express the importance of God’s name being honoured. What is more, it is God himself who will cause his name to be honoured. For example, in an important passage in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, which is worth quoting in full, God says through the prophet:

‘So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood that they had shed upon the land, and for the idols with which they had defiled it. I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries; in accordance with their conduct and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that it was said of them, “These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.” But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came. 

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.’ (Ezekiel 36:19-23)

Likewise, Jesus wants his disciples to make God’s honour a priority. We begin the Lord’s Prayer by praying for God to be treated with the respect he deserves.

As a mark of respect, many Jews won’t use the name of God, not even when writing it. They will write G-d. You can see an example of a Jewish writer being careful in their use of God’s name in St Matthew’s Gospel where St Matthew changes references to the ‘Kingdom of God’ to ‘Kingdom of heaven’. We can learn from this. But there is more to honouring God’s name than not using it lightly or flippantly as a swear word, although that in itself would be a start. The popular exclamation, ‘O My God’, for example, is not one that we should be using as believers.

People are not honouring God’s name even more, however, when they deny or question his existence, for example. Or when we fail to take him seriously or accuse him of wrong-doing. Nor are we honouring God’s name when we see the worship of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as just one option among many. To honour God’s name is to exclude all other names.

This is a much-needed petition, as God is not treated with respect in our world, and the sad thing is that we as believers contribute to this lack of respect by our behaviour and failure to keep Jesus’ commands, not least his command to love one another. One day, God will cause his name to be honoured. Until then, we honour it by taking God seriously, worshipping him alone as those who belong to him.

2. Your Kingdom come

This petition would have had a great deal of meaning to the first disciples, but, again, to us, not so much. In the first place, Kings, seen as supreme rulers over a kingdom, are now largely a thing of the past. What is more, a longing for God’s Kingdom is not an intrinsic part of our life and the focus of our hope as believers in the way it was for those who had previously been disciples of John the Baptist and who had become disciples of Jesus because they thought he was the One John spoke of who would bring about God’s Kingdom on earth.

What the disciples were looking for was for God’s rule to come in this world and for everyone to be subject to it. For them, God’s rule wasn’t something that existed solely in a heavenly realm that would only be experienced after death. God’s rule was about God ruling on earth. God’s rule, they believed, would mean peace on earth and an end to sickness, suffering, and death. But it would also mean the defeat of Satan, the punishment of wrong-doers, and an end to sin and its effects.

God’s rule, the Kingdom of God, was at the heart of Jesus’ preaching. Jesus in his ministry gives a preview of what this will look like. This is what Jesus’ miracles are all about. They are not just supernatural acts designed to impress, but signs of what God’s rule on earth will mean in practice. God’s rule will ultimately only come when Jesus comes again, when, as St Paul puts it, ‘at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).

In the meantime, by praying for God’s rule to come, believers also commit themselves to living under it now. This means obeying God and following Jesus as our ruler as we live our lives in a world that is not yet subject to God’s rule. Not only as individuals but also together as a Church, we are to embody God’s rule and demonstrate what it means in the practical day to day business of life. We hope that as we demonstrate what God’s rule looks like that some will be drawn to it, while realizing that, sadly, many will rebel against it.

3. Give us each day our daily bread

At first sight, this seems one request that is clear and which we can understand. We are asking our Father to provide us with the food we need to live. Later in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will teach his disciples not to be anxious about their life, what they will eat and what they will wear (Luke 12:22-34). Their Father, Jesus will tell them, knows they need food, drink, and clothing, and he can be trusted to provide it. God will, however, provide what we need, not what we want. As we will see next week, Jesus teaches people not to store up riches in this life (Luke 12:13-20) and warns of the dangers of doing so.

Our prayer as Jesus’ followers, then, is a simple one that God will provide us with what is essential for life, knowing that he has promised to do so. Given, however, that God has made such a promise, do we need to ask him for even the basics? Can’t we just take it as a given that he will do as he says? The answer is that by praying for our food, we are accepting that we don’t have a right to it, but that it is graciously and kindly provided for us by God.

But more than that, by asking God to provide for us, we are recognizing that we need God to give us our food. We are acknowledging that we are not self-sufficient in anything. Everything we have is given to us as a gift from God our Father. We do not even provide for our own most basic needs. St Paul writes to believers in the Church at Corinth:

‘What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7)

The petition in the Lord’s Prayer for bread is not just a request for food but is an open statement of our dependency on God as the One who gives us everything we have.

4. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us

Sadly, we don’t honour God’s name as we should; we don’t submit to his rule in our lives; and we don’t want to depend on him for everything, preferring instead to assert our self and our claim to independence and freedom. In other words, we sin. Sin, in the first place, is against God. The Psalmist writes:

‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight …’ (Psalm 51:4)

It is as we pray the first petitions of the Lord’s Prayer that we become aware of just how much we fail as followers of Jesus.

All sin is sin against God, but we don’t only sin against God, we sin against others as well, even hurting those we love the most, whether simply by an unkind word or by a more serious betrayal.

The good news of the Gospel is that forgiveness is not only at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, it is at the heart of what Jesus came to do and of what he now offers us. In Jesus’ ministry, we see him offering the forgiveness that will become the message the Church is entrusted to preach. Whether it is to the paralyzed man let down through the roof (Luke 5:17-26) or to the woman who washes his feet with her tears when he goes to dinner with a Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), Jesus offers forgiveness to all who need it. None are excluded. After Jesus’ resurrection, when he appears to the disciples, Jesus will tell them that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:47).

The forgiveness we see Jesus offering in the Gospels and which he makes possible by his death, we are now to offer people in his name.

We do this with no sense of moral superiority. We are all sinners who need forgiving. We fail, but we are not overcome by our failure, as we know that forgiveness is offered by God to all those who confess their sins. But not only are we to tell other people that Jesus offers forgiveness, we too are ourselves to forgive those who sin against us. We are to model forgiveness in our lives.

Let’s be honest, it can be difficult to forgive, especially when the sin against us has gone deep and caused real pain, but those who are aware of their own sins and the hurt they have caused, not only to others but more especially to God, cannot refuse to forgive. A failure to forgive others means we don’t really appreciate the reality of our own sin and how utterly unworthy we are to receive God’s forgiveness.

5. And lead us not into temptation

Which brings us to the final petition. It seems an obvious enough request, but this petition has proved to be one that many people have difficulty with, including Pope Francis no less. It is argued that for us to ask God not to lead us into temptation, we are suggesting that it is possible for God to lead us into sin, something that our Lord’s brother rejects out of hand. St James writes:

‘No one, when tempted, should say, 'I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.’ (James 1:13)

Concerns such as these have led people to try to interpret the phrase in a way which avoids any suggestion that God is responsible for us being tempted. Some have argued that a better translation is ‘time of trial’ and the request is to be spared the final trial that they believe will happen at the end of this age before Jesus returns. If that is what Jesus meant, it isn’t very clear from the text and context. Others argue that what Jesus has in mind is not temptation to sin but testing of our faith. Translating the Greek word ‘test’ rather than ‘temptation’ may appear to soften the request, but in the Old Testament not only does God test his people, he tests them by putting them in situations where they are able to sin. We should accept the translation ‘temptation’ and ask what it means, rather than trying to side-step the issue.

Firstly, we need be clear that however we understand this petition, Jesus does not tell us to ask God not to tempt us to sin. We are to ask God not to lead us into situations where we may be tempted to sin, which is very different. St Paul expresses well the nature of the temptations we face. St Paul writes:

‘No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’ (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Secondly, the Lord’s Prayer expresses negatively what is in fact a positive sentiment. It is because we are aware of our weakness having just asked God for forgiveness that we ask God to keep us from situations where we might be vulnerable to sin and find ourselves in spiritual danger.

In the same way that by praying for God to give us our daily bread, even though he has already promised to do just that, we are expressing our dependency on God, so too by praying for God not to lead us into temptation, we are acknowledging our weakness and dependence on him to keep us from falling. By asking God not to lead us into temptation, we are in reality asking him to lead us out of it!

The final petition in St Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is, then, a recognition of our weakness and an implicit prayer for protection.

The Lord’s Prayer is both a prayer for us to pray and a template for us to use for our prayers. This then is the answer to our original paradox. As a prayer to pray, the Lord’s Prayer is short and reminds us that prayer is not about how many words we use, but the God we address them to. As a template for our own prayers, the Lord’s Prayer gives us enough to keep us up all night!

In answer to the disciples’ request for Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus gives them words to use and guide them. Jesus immediately, though, goes on to talk about what their attitude should be when they pray. As he often does, Jesus first tells them a parable. Jesus invites them to imagine that one of them has a friend that they go to for help at midnight. Another friend has turned up unexpectedly, and they have no food to give them. In the cultural context of the time, this was a social disaster. Showing hospitality was taken very seriously. Jesus then asks them to imagine what will happen if the friend who has been turned to for help, at first refuses to help because it is so late, and the friend and his family are in bed. Jesus says that although the friend won’t help out of friendship, because of the sheer cheek of the one who asks for help, the friend will get up and help them. The one who asks for help is desperate, and they are not prepared to let even the late hour stop them seeking help.

So, Jesus tells the disciples, they are to ask, seek, and knock. Jesus is wanting to stress the seriousness and persistence with which they should pray. Such seriousness and persistence, Jesus tells them, will be answered: those who ask will receive; those who seek will find; and those who knock will have the door opened to them.

Jesus then says something that is at first sight somewhat puzzling. Jesus asks them which of them if their child asks for a fish will give a snake, or if their child asks for an egg will give a scorpion. If, Jesus continues, they who are evil know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more, Jesus asks, will the Heavenly Father give … give what? How would we expect that sentence to finish? Having observed that they who are evil know how to give good gifts to their children, the obvious way for it to finish would be: how much more will the heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him? Indeed, that is basically how a similar passage does finish in St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 7:11).

It is not how it finishes here, however. Jesus actually says: ‘how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’ There has so far been no mention in what Jesus has been saying about prayer of the Holy Spirit. Why does Jesus suddenly mention the Holy Spirit now?

This is perhaps the most exciting part of Jesus’ teaching about prayer. The answer to our question is provided by St Paul in his letter to the Roman believers. St Paul writes:

‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God …’ (Romans 8:14-16)

We are to approach God as our Father, but for us to approach him as our Father, he must first become our Father, and the way God becomes our Father is through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to begin our prayers by calling God our Father, both meaning it and knowing what it means. As we cry out to him as our Father - for having God as our Father is an emotional experience – the Holy Spirit assures us that this is exactly who he is; he is our Father revealed to us by the Son through the Holy Spirit.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus has told us that we are to pray that our Father’s name be honoured and for his rule to come; we are to trust him for our needs; ask for his forgiveness, while extending our forgiveness to others; and to seek his protection from spiritual danger. All of which is another reason we need the Holy Spirit. St Paul, again, explains why. St Paul writes:

‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought …’ (Romans 8:26)

To be able to pray the Lord’s Prayer as it should be prayed, we need the Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness. St Paul goes on to tell us that the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:27). We need to align our prayers with the Spirit’s prayers for us.

As I said in my podcast for Pentecost, our most urgent need is to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and then, having received the Holy Spirit, to allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit.
May our most earnest and serious prayer, therefore, be for the Holy Spirit, knowing, as Jesus says, that the Father wants to give him to us.
All we have to do is ask.


Friday, July 22, 2022

Distracted by Service

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Distracted by Service'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Reading: Luke 10:38-42

Our reading from St Luke’s Gospel this week follows on immediately from our reading for last week, which described how a lawyer asked Jesus two questions. To begin with, the lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer wasn’t asking this question of Jesus, however, because the lawyer didn’t know the answer but to test Jesus to see whether he did. Jesus answered the question by getting the lawyer to answer it for himself from God’s Law, of which the lawyer was an expert. As God’s Law says, if the lawyer loved God completely and his neighbour as himself, he would live.

The lawyer asked his second question in response to Jesus’ answer because he was embarrassed at having been shown up by Jesus. The lawyer asked Jesus who his neighbour was. In answering this question, Jesus told the story of a Samaritan who comes to the aid of a man beaten up by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus’ point in telling the story is that we are not to worry about who is or who is not our neighbour, but, instead, we are to become a neighbour to anyone in need.

In this week’s reading, St Luke writes that as Jesus and his disciples continue their journey, Jesus enters a ‘certain village’, where a woman named Martha welcomes him into her home. St Luke tells us that Martha has a sister called Mary.

‘Mary’ was the most popular female name at the time; ‘Martha’ was the fourth most popular. These are names that are familiar to us not just because they were very popular names, but because of the part the women play in the well-known story in St John’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. While he is not mentioned here in St Luke’s Gospel, Lazarus is Martha and Mary’s brother. Although he is the subject of one of Jesus’ most famous miracles, Lazarus never speaks in the Gospels, and the only time Mary speaks is to reproach Jesus for not being there when her brother died (John 11:32). It is only Martha who speaks words of faith in Jesus. This will be important to remember as we consider Martha’s words of complaint to Jesus in this passage.

St Luke refers to the village simply as a ‘certain village’, but St John tells us the village where the sisters and their brother live is Bethany on the Mount of Olives, just two miles from Jerusalem. St Luke may have known this and deliberately have decided not to reveal it to his readers, as it would mean that Jesus had already reached Jerusalem on the journey he began in chapter 9. There is still much that St Luke wants to tell us about before he brings the journey an end. As I said in the sermon last week for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, the journey to Jerusalem in St Luke’s Gospel is a real journey, but it is also a literary device that St Luke uses to structure this section of his Gospel. St Luke tells us that he set out to write an ‘orderly account’ (Luke 1:3), and this is one of the ways he orders it!

Bethany will be where Jesus stays in the days leading up to his crucifixion (Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:11), and it is from Bethany that St Luke tells us that Jesus ascended to heaven after the resurrection (Luke 24:50), although he doesn’t mention Martha and Mary again after our reading. St John describes Bethany as the village of Mary and her sister Martha (John 11:1). St John also tells us that the anonymous woman at Bethany that St Matthew and St Mark describe anointing Jesus in the week leading up to his crucifixion is Mary (John 11:2; Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). St Luke, however, makes no mention at all of this incident.

The incident itself, though, was clearly well-known in the early Church. Our Lord said that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the world, what she did would be told ‘in remembrance of her’ (Matthew 26:13; Mark 14:9). St John, when he comes to relate the raising of Lazarus from the dead, assumes that his readers will already know about Mary, even if they don’t know her name, and how she anointed our Lord and wiped his feet with her hair, even though he is yet to relate the event itself. Interestingly, when St John does relate it, he tells us that Martha served on this occasion too (John 12:2). Mary’s act of anointing Jesus and Jesus’ response to it will be what triggers Judas to betray Jesus to the Jerusalem authorities (John 12:4-5; Matthew 26:14; Mark 14:10).

Putting all this together, it is clear that this family is important to Jesus. Jesus is described as loving the three of them (John 11:5). This strongly suggests that there was lot more contact between them than what we have recorded in the Gospels. This is an important reminder to us of just how much we don’t know about our Lord’s earthly life. When did the four of them first meet, for example?

St Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit also confirms incidentally St John’s account of our Lord’s ministry in Jerusalem. The first three Gospels only describe Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem during the last week leading up to the crucifixion. But if Jesus knew a family well who lived just two miles outside of Jerusalem, it suggests Jesus had spent sufficient time in Jerusalem to make friends there and to get to know them before his final trip to Jerusalem.

What the Gospels tells us about Martha, Mary, and Lazarus also gives us another important insight into Jesus’ ministry. Jesus loved them, and they are obviously committed to him. There is, however, no suggestion that they followed Jesus in the way disciples such as Peter, James, and John followed him or that they journeyed with him, supporting him, in the way St Luke describes female patrons such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna supporting and journeying with him (Luke 8:1-3).

As we have seen, Jesus did call some people to leave all they had to follow him, even telling one man, whose father had died, to leave the dead to bury their dead and to follow him (Luke 9:57-62). Jesus did not, however, call everyone to follow him in this way. There is no suggestion that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are anything other than fully committed believers. They are not considered second class believers because they stay at home and provide hospitality for Jesus when he needs it. It is an important reminder to us that there are different ways of serving Jesus. Regardless of what service we are called to, however, there are priorities we need to observe in our service. It is this that our reading teaches us.

I should confess right away to having a great deal of sympathy for Martha. I think she has a somewhat hard time of it. Her brother, Lazarus, gets a starring role in one of Jesus’ greatest miracles. Her sister, Mary, is praised for listening to Jesus and receives a promise that she will be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached. Martha, however, is remembered for caring too much about housework! Mary is seen as an example for us to follow, while Martha is held up as a warning of a danger that Jesus’ followers need to be aware of and avoid. And yet when her brother dies, it is Martha who goes out to meet Jesus after he deliberately waits for Lazarus to die before responding to the sisters’ plea for help. Mary stays ‘seated’ in the house and only goes to Jesus when Jesus sends for her. Each sister says the same thing to Jesus:

‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (John 11:32)

But Martha adds:

‘But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (John 11:22)

It is Martha who, while talking with Jesus when he arrives, makes a confession of faith as profound as that of Peter when Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was (Luke 9:20). Even before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Martha says to Jesus:

‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 11:27)

My point is not to criticize Mary or Lazarus, but to observe that Martha is herself very much a person of faith. It is Martha who is described by St Luke in our reading as the one who welcomes Jesus.

So, what is the problem, for clearly there is one?

We need to be very clear that what Martha is doing is not wrong. Jesus cares for people’s physical needs. It was this that led him to feed the five thousand who had come to hear him (Luke 9:10-17). He tells the 70 (or 72), whom he sends out ahead of him, that they are to accept whatever hospitality is offered to them, eating and drinking whatever is set before them (Luke 10:7-8).

Hospitality offered in this way was to become important as the Church grew. St Luke will record in the book of Acts how, at Philippi, Lydia provides such hospitality for Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy (Acts 16:15). St Paul, in his letter to the Church at Rome, commends to the Roman believers a woman called Phoebe, who is a deacon in the Church at Cenchreae (Cenchreae was a port of Corinth). Phoebe, St Paul writes, has been a benefactor to many, himself included (Romans 16:2).

St Luke tells us that Jesus and his disciples depended for support on a group of women of means who travelled with them. This group, St Luke writes, included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and ‘many others’ (Luke 8:1-3). Women, it should be noted, played a key role in the Church from the very beginning.

Martha, a woman who also supported our Lord, was, St Luke writes, ‘distracted with much serving’. In criticizing Martha, our Lord is not criticizing the work she is doing. Looking forward to another Meal, the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples, when they argue over who among them is the greatest, that their leader must be one who ‘serves’. Jesus describes himself as being ‘the one who serves’ (Luke 22:26-27). (It is the same word group.) Martha is modelling the service that Jesus expects of his disciples.

This makes Jesus’ criticism of Martha all the more shocking. Martha is not distracted by things that are wrong in and of themselves or by things such as money and possessions that Jesus elsewhere warns against. Martha is distracted by her service of the Lord. This is an important warning to even the most devoted of Jesus’ followers.

In the book of Acts, St Luke tells us that, as the Church grew, it sought to look after those who were widows and lacked any other source of material support (Acts 6:1). An argument broke out among the believers over the distribution of this aid. The apostles’ reaction is interesting. They say:

‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.’ (Acts 6:2)

The apostles are not saying that the distribution to the widows is wrong or that it should be stopped. The point they are making is that it is wrong for them to be responsible for it, as it distracts from what they should be doing. The distribution of aid to the widows is a good and important part of the Church’s work. The apostles make sure it can continue by appointing seven people to be responsible for it, while they devote themselves to ‘serving’ the Word. Again, it’s not that this work of distributing aid is unimportant; those who undertake it have themselves to be ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3). The appointment of the seven, however, not only enables the distribution of aid to be done properly and fairly, it also enables the apostles to continue their service of the word undistracted.

The words St Luke uses for ‘service’ and ‘serving’ are the same words that he uses to describe what Martha is ‘distracted by’ and that he records Jesus as using to describe himself at the Last Supper. It is from these words that we get the word ‘deacon’, that is, one who serves.

The seven chosen for this work, whom some churches refer to as deacons, go on to make an impact beyond supervising the distribution. For example, one of them, Stephen, becomes the first church martyr and is indirectly responsible for the conversion of St Paul.

The apostles, who would have been there with Jesus when Martha served, had to decide what serving the Lord meant and what it didn’t, and to be aware when some forms of service were becoming a distraction for them from the work that they should be doing. What Mary got right was that she prioritized listening to Jesus’ teaching. St Luke writes that Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. The apostles realized that if they neglected ‘serving the word’, even for legitimate activity such as the distribution of aid to those in need, people wouldn’t get to hear the teaching of Jesus.

Sitting at Jesus’ feet was the position of one who wanted to learn from a respected teacher. Whenever Mary of Bethany is mentioned in the Gospels, she is at Jesus’ feet. Here, she sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching; when her brother Lazarus dies, she kneels at Jesus’ feet (John 11:32); and then, in the week of Jesus’ crucifixion, she anoints and wipes his feet with her hair (John 12:3). Mary, at our Lord’s feet, is a role model for us of receptiveness, humility, submission, and devotion.

Not being distracted as a Church

In the book of Revelation, in the letters to the seven churches of Asia, St John writes:

‘Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’ (Revelation 2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22)

This command is repeated in each of the letters. The letters are from Jesus to the Churches. The way Jesus speaks to the churches is through the Spirit. In the letters, the Spirit prioritizes the need for sound teaching. Listening to Jesus as he speaks to us today through the Spirit and hearing his teaching should be an absolute priority for the Church.

Like Martha, we all too easily become distracted by our serving. The apostles and the distribution of aid to the widows is an example of how it is not necessarily that what we are doing is wrong in itself or that it is not needed, but that it can distract us from what we should be prioritizing in ministry. Again, as with the early church in Acts chapter 6, it is not that we should stop doing what we are doing, but that we should find a way to do it that doesn’t detract from listening to the teaching of Jesus.

The sad reality is that we do not prioritize listening to Jesus. All too often, it is not even that we are distracted by our serving but that we have abandoned bothering to listen. There are all sorts of reasons for this. We prefer activism, as it feels like we are doing something rather than sitting around doing nothing. We like the praise we get from others for being seen for our good works (see Matthew 6:1-4). We also know that the world will accept our charity in a way it won’t accept our Lord’s teaching, and we like the popularity and power that comes with such acceptance.

It is to the clergy and leaders of the Church that the responsibility for the teaching ministry of the Church is entrusted. Clergy, in particular, are all too easily distracted from ‘serving the word’. Clergy are under a great deal of pressure to do other things. It is not just that we are distracted, but that we are expected to take on so many other tasks. The problem, however, is not that the Church expects too much of its clergy, but that it doesn’t expect enough. Churches all too easily settle for sermons that are ill-prepared, devoid of content, and badly delivered. This is because the clergy are often distracted by other things that earn them more praise and recognition rather than taking time to study and prepare better sermons.

It is hard to put a precise number on it, but I would estimate that 90% of my time is spent on things that it doesn’t need for me to be ordained to do and which could be done by lay members of the Church, and often done better. Ironically, I am employed by the Church for what only I as a priest can do; once ordained, however, I am then expected or choose to spend most of my time not doing them.

Like Martha, clergy allow serving to get in the way of listening. Before any of us can serve, we must listen; and to listen, we must encourage and support those whom God has given to speak the word to us.

Not being distracted as individuals

This presents a challenge to us as individuals as well as to us as a Church. It is all too easy in our own relationship with the Lord to be distracted by legitimate activities. There are so many demands and pressures on us in our daily lives. It can be a real strain just to keep going. It is perhaps, then, no surprise that we too get distracted from listening to Jesus.

In all honesty, however, it has to be said that we too don’t just get distracted by things that need doing. We also get distracted by things that, yet again, are not necessarily wrong in themselves, but which don’t need doing. If we are to avoid being distracted by the things that we need to do, we may have to sacrifice some of the things we would like to do.

Do we really need, for example, to spend so much time on social media or following links online? Do we need to watch so much TV; go to clubs and restaurants; or engage in other social activities? There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing any of these things, if they don’t distract from listening to Jesus. There is everything wrong with them if they do. Like Mary, we need to choose ‘the better part’, which shall not be taken away from us. Mary challenges us to put listening to Jesus before all else. Martha shows us how easy it is not to.

Varieties of Service

Finally, Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. St Paul writes that there are ‘varieties of service’ (1 Corinthians 12:5). While all of us should always put listening to Jesus first, we need also to remember that we are not all called to serve in the same way. Some, such as the clergy, are called to help us to listen to Jesus, but even if this is not our calling, we still have work to do for Jesus, and this means not despising or devaluing anyone’s work.

For example, in the past Martha and Mary have been seen as representative of two types of service in the Church: the active and the contemplative. For much of church history, the church has valued the contemplative over the active. The contemplative, as seen in the monastic tradition, has been a highly regarded and important part of the Church’s life. Now, not so much!

Now, those who serve our Lord in the monastic tradition tend only to be valued if they also do something else we consider ‘useful’, such as teaching, nursing, or social work. Praying and worshipping God alone does not fall into the category of useful activities. If you think that I am being unfair in saying that, ask yourself how you would feel if your daughter said she was inspired by Mary’s example and wanted to become a nun. And then ask yourself how you would feel if she also said she wanted to join a silent order shut off from all contact with the world.

I personally thank God for those monks and nuns who devote their life to praying in a way that I don’t have time for. I respect and value them and hope in the future there will be more of them. Most of us aren’t called to be monks or nuns, but, thank God, some are.

In other words, we need varieties of service. We need Martha and Mary, but, in whatever service, we are engaged in, we all need just one thing. Mary shows us what that is.

May we be devoted to service like Martha while listening like Mary.

St Martha and St Mary, pray for us.


Thursday, July 14, 2022

Ecclesial Apostasy

This is soemthing I have written for July 14, the day in the Church's calendar when Anglicans remember John Keble (1792-1866).

Ecclesial Apostasy

The book of the prophet Isaiah is one of the more popular of the Old Testament books. In an age in which even church-goers don’t know Bible stories that every Sunday School child once knew, passages from Isaiah are still vaguely familiar to us. This is thanks to passages from Isaiah being read at Christmas and Easter especially. These are passages which contain verses such Isaiah chapter 7 verse 14 about the virgin conceiving and bearing a son (although many in the church don’t now think she was actually a virgin) and Isaiah chapter 53 which describes the suffering servant whose life was made an offering for sin (although many in the church now reject the idea of sacrifice as barbaric).

Isaiah is quoted frequently in the New Testament, and concepts from it were used by the early church to understand and explain the death of Christ. It is for this reason that early church fathers such as St Jerome and St Augustine regarded Isaiah as the ‘fifth Gospel’. It is a description that has stuck. Given this description, it is no wonder that Isaiah is seen as the ‘good news’ prophet. It is an impression that is reinforced by our selective use of some passages and verses, while quietly ignoring others.

This selective approach is to be seen in today’s set reading. Isaiah chapter 26 celebrates Judah’s victory over her enemies. In selecting which verses we should read today, a deliberate decision has been made in the lectionary to leave out verses 10-15. Why would that be? Well of the verses we have read, verses 7-9 are about waiting on the Lord and verses 16-19 are about how the Lord hears and answers the prayer of those who do. This is what we can describe as ‘nice Isaiah’. But what about verses 10-15? What is it about these verses that meant they got left out of our reading today? Verses 10-15 are about God’s judgement on the wicked. This, perhaps, is ‘nasty Isaiah’. You won’t see these verses being quoted on social media or printed on posters.

This censorship of Isaiah could be forgiven if it were just a one-off to stress a positive message for today; it is, however, typical of a trend in the church. We are rather embarrassed by passages that talk of God destroying his enemies, punishing the wicked, and judging sinners. It is one reason why we don’t bother too much with the Old Testament. We believe the lie that the God of the Old Testament is hateful and judgemental whereas the God of the New Testament is loving and kind.

Of course, there is, then, the troubling matter that the New Testament also talks of God destroying his enemies, punishing the wicked, and judging sinners. The New Testament actually closes with a book that is full of descriptions of God doing just that. So, that book has to be heavily censored as well. But judgement and wrath are also there in St Paul, so it’s no surprise that we have problems with him too.

One Anglican priest told me that to get round the problem of how the Scriptures all seem to talk about the judgement of God, he only preached on the Gospels. But then, there’s all those times when Jesus talks about people being cast into outer darkness or being burnt in the fires of Gehenna, and when Jesus pronounces God’s judgement on all those cities that have not believed in him. Does this mean our Lord has to be censored too?

The truth is that once we do what we have done today and exclude those passages that talk about judgement, we have to cut out quite a lot. ‘This is not the word of the Lord’ - apparently.

Today in the Church of England lectionary, John Keble is remembered. John Keble was a priest, scholar, and poet. We still sing some of his hymns. Keble College in Oxford is named after him. Today, however, is neither the anniversary of his birth or of his death, so why then is he remembered on this day? It is because July 14 is the anniversary of a sermon Keble preached in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford on this day in 1833. St John Henry Newman saw it as the start of the Oxford movement in the Church of England. It was a movement that was to have a significant impact on the Church.

In the sermon, Keble denounced what he saw as a turning away from God in national life, something he described as ‘national apostasy’. Keble criticized those who, in the name of liberalism, turned from any suggestion that God was a God who could exclude people as well as include them.

If Keble were alive today, what would he say about how we in the name of a similar liberalism have turned away from the God described in those passages such as the one we have refused to read today. Would he describe it as ecclesial apostasy?

I think he might.

Monday, July 11, 2022

All You Need Is Love?

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'All You Need Is Love?'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

A major feature of St Luke’s Gospel that distinguishes it from St Matthew and St Mark’s Gospel, with which it otherwise has much in common, is the journey that Jesus begins in Luke chapter 9 verse 51. St Luke writes:

‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ (Luke 9:51)

Jesus in obedience to his Father undoubtedly did journey to Jerusalem, where he was to be handed over and crucified. St Luke, however, also uses the journey as a literary device to structure this section of the Gospel. Lasting until chapter 19, it is a section that contains a lot of material only found in St Luke’s Gospel, such as the parable we will be looking at later. As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, Jesus sends people ahead of him to prepare his way (Luke 9:52).

The journey begins on a negative note, with a Samaritan village refusing to welcome him (Luke 9:52-56). James and John are indignant, and they ask Jesus if he wants them to command fire to come down from heaven and consume the villagers. Jesus, however, rebukes James and John, and they go on to another village.

The reaction to Jesus is by no means all negative, and there are those who want to join Jesus. Jesus is not looking for popularity, however, and Jesus makes clear to potential followers that following him is demanding and involves serious sacrifice (Luke 9:57-62).

While some make excuses, there are those who are prepared to meet Jesus’ demands. In fact, there are so many that Jesus is able to send out 70 (or 72; the manuscript tradition disagrees on the precise number) in pairs to go ahead of him to every town and place he intends to visit (Luke 10:1-12). This may seem a large number, but Jesus himself describes the labourers as few and the harvest as plentiful (Luke 10:2). Jesus’ followers need to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out workers into his harvest. Those Jesus sends ahead of him are to cure the sick and tell people that the Kingdom of God has come near (Luke 10:9).

Jesus’ rebuke of James and John at the start of the journey to Jerusalem may give the impression that if people choose not to welcome Jesus that is their choice, without them having to worry about there being consequences if they do not welcome him. Jesus makes it clear that this is not the case (Luke 10:13-16). Jesus says that places such as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and even Capernaum, where Jesus has been based in Galilee, will suffer terribly for not having listened to Jesus and for not having repented. Jesus’ followers represent Jesus and how people react to them is as if they have reacted to Jesus himself.

When the 70 (or 72) return and report to Jesus how they have got on, they are ecstatic, even the demons are subject to them in Jesus’ name (Luke 10:17-20). Jesus tells them he has watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Jesus has given them authority over the enemy and protection from harm. They should rejoice, however, not at the power Jesus has given them, but that their names are written in heaven.

Nevertheless, Jesus is also pleased at how the mission of the 70 (or 72) has gone and rejoices in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21-24). Jesus praises the Father for hiding ‘these things’ from the ‘wise and intelligent’, while revealing them to ‘infants’. Jesus tells them that the Father has handed over all things to the Son. The Father and the Son alone know each other. Only those whom the Son wants to reveal the Father to can come to know the Father. Jesus then tells his disciples privately how privileged they are to see and hear things that prophets and kings had wanted to see and hear, but hadn’t.

This is the background and context to our Gospel reading, for it is immediately after Jesus says that the ‘Lord of heaven and earth’ has hidden things from the ‘wise and intelligent’ that one of the wise and intelligent stands up to test Jesus.

The ‘lawyer’, that is, an expert in God’s Law, asks Jesus what he must do to ‘inherit eternal life’. The person, then, to whom Jesus will tell the story we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t ask his question so much because he wants to know the answer, but to see if Jesus does. The lawyer is an authority on God’s Law, so Jesus asks him what the Law says. The lawyer knows the answer to this question perfectly: to love God completely and your neighbour as yourself. Exactly, replies Jesus, if the lawyer does this, he will live.

The lawyer now looks a bit foolish. He knew the answer all along, and his motive in asking the question has been exposed. So, to save face, he asks, ‘But who is my neighbour’? All Jews would understand the need to love God completely: ‘heart, soul, strength, and mind’. Every good Jew recited this command from God’s Law (Deuteronomy 6:5) twice every day as part of what is known as the Shema. Having asked a question, the lawyer already knows the answer to, in an attempt to catch Jesus out, the lawyer asks a follow-up question to justify having questioned Jesus. Who is his neighbour that he must love as himself?

The lawyer probably thought he knew the answer to this question as well. The command itself is also from God’s Law (Leviticus 19:18). His neighbour would be anyone who is a fellow member of Israel. The lawyer, however, is in for a shock. Sadly, we know the story that Jesus tells in answer to the lawyer’s question so well that we don’t share in the shock, and because we think we know the story, we are in danger of missing not only details in the story, but its message to us today.

Jesus says that a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This would have been a road that Jesus’ hearers knew well. It is one of my favourite roads today! But in Jesus’ day, it was a dangerous road where robbers would prey on travellers. The journey was about 18 miles, and it really did mean going down: from about 2,600 feet above sea level to about 825 feet below it.

We are not told the ethnicity of the man, but the assumption is that he is Jewish. The man falls into the hands of robbers who not only take all that he has but beat him up so severely that he is left dying on the roadside. First, a priest comes by. You would think this was good news. Surely a priest of all people would stop and help? But no, the priest passes by on the other side. We are not told what was going through the priest’s mind, as that is not a concern in the story. Secondly, a Levite also comes down the road. A Levite was one who worked in the Temple assisting the priests. He also passes by on the other side. Again, we are not told his thoughts in doing so. But then thirdly, a Samaritan who is travelling in the region comes to the place, and, when he sees the man, he is moved with pity. As is well-known, there was real animosity between Jews and Samaritans at this time. In St John’s Gospel, St John writes of an occasion in Samaria when the disciples had gone to buy food, leaving Jesus alone at a well. Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink. She is surprised at Jesus speaking to her, and she says to Jesus:

‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (John 4:9)

St John then adds, by way of explanation, that Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. Feelings ran deep!

The Samaritan in Jesus’ story, however, doesn’t just feel sorry for the man, he pours oil and wine on the man’s wounds to clean and soothe them, before bandaging them up. The Samaritan then takes the man to an inn where he nurses him. The following day, the Samaritan gives the inn-keeper money to take care of the man telling the inn-keeper that when he comes back, he will pay the inn-keeper whatever extra it has cost. This is quite clever, as it provides an incentive to the inn-keeper to look after the man, knowing that there will be money in it for him if he does.

Having told the story, Jesus asks the lawyer a question. Remember what the original question was that led to Jesus telling the story in the first place. The lawyer asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus now asks the lawyer:

‘Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ (Luke 10:36)

The lawyer’s framing of the question implied that there were people who were not his neighbour. The lawyer’s focus was on deciding who the neighbour was that he should love. Jesus’ question is who became a neighbour to the man in need. The lawyer answers:

‘The one who showed him mercy.’ (Luke 10:37)

Jesus tells him to go and do likewise.

All you need is love?

Jesus tells the lawyer that if he keeps the two commandments, to love God completely and his neighbour as himself, he will inherit eternal life. So, with these two commandments is Jesus in effect saying that ‘all we need is love’?

Here in St Luke’s Gospel, it is a lawyer who identifies the two commandments with Jesus agreeing with him. In St Matthew and St Mark’s Gospel, it is Jesus himself who identifies them. In each case, Jesus approves these two commandments as a summary of God’s Law, describing them in St Matthew’s Gospel as the two great commandments. We read these two commandments at every Eucharist at Christ Church. Although we are happy with them as a summary of the Law, when it comes to the detailed commandments of the Law that they summarize, there are many commandments we think we no longer have to keep.

We don’t worry, for example, about wearing a garment of two types of material, even though God’s Law commands us not to (Leviticus 19:19), and many of us like to eat prawns and similar types of seafood, even though God’s Law forbids us to do so, describing such food as detestable (Leviticus 11:9-12). These are strong words, but we are happy to ignore them. We don’t insist on men being circumcised if they want to join the Church, even though God’s Law says that no male can be part of God’s people unless they are (Genesis 17:9-14), and we don’t stone people caught in adultery, even though God’s Law commands us to do so (Leviticus 20:10). We have, in other words, basically abandoned most of God’s Law, even though we are reluctant to admit it.

So, does abandoning the Law mean that anything goes? It seems that St Paul was accused of teaching a version of this (Romans 3:8). If we don’t keep God’s Law, how is human behaviour to be regulated? It used to be said that Christians are not under an obligation any more to keep the civil and ceremonial parts of the Law, but that we still have to keep the moral law, basically the Ten Commandments, or more accurately the nine commandments, as very few think it is morally wrong to work on a Saturday

In the past, it was the Ten Commandments and not our Lord’s summary of the Law that were read at the Eucharist. Our liturgy still makes provision for us to read the Ten Commandments if we want to. While Christians may have drastically reduced the number of commandments from the Law that they believed they had to keep, it was still felt that there were specific commandments that should be kept, even if it wasn’t totally clear why.

A major change in churches in recent years has been that the Ten Commandments are no longer read in our services, and the Summary of the Law is read instead. The timing of this change was, I think, significant. It was a change that occurred less for religious and theological reasons and far more for social and cultural ones. As people in the West in the last century abandoned traditional religion and the morality that went with it, the mantra in the Church, as well as outside it, became ‘all you need is love’; not rules and regulations, just love. Our Lord’s words about loving God and loving your neighbour came to be seen not so much as a summary of the Law, but as a replacement of it. Out with rules and in with love!

What is disturbing is that having convinced people in the Church that God wants us to serve him by living according to love and not by obeying commands, we now neither serve him by loving nor obeying. Love itself is interpreted as doing what you think best in any given situation, and best is normally interpreted in terms of what is best for me.

The command to love your neighbour as yourself is even interpreted as a command to love ourself, as, it is argued, you can’t love your neighbour as yourself unless you first love yourself. I totally understand that there are people who don’t love themselves in the sense of having a totally negative, even destructive, self-image. This, however, is not the case for the most of us. The problem for most of us is not that we don’t love ourself, but that we do love ourself, first and foremost. The message to those who hate themselves is not to tell them to love themselves, but to help them to see themselves as loved by God. The result of our present preoccupation with ourself is that we are so busy loving ourself that we forget all about God and our neighbour.

To focus on loving ourself misses the point that Jesus is making. We generally don’t need any encouragement to love ourself; it is something that just happens naturally. The whole point of the commandment to love our neighbour is that it is based on the assumption that we do love ourself, in the sense of caring for ourself and our needs. Given that we do, Jesus is saying that we should care for our neighbour in the same way we care for ourself. Jesus is not concerned here with the image we have, either of ourselves or of others, but with our actions.

Love, St Paul writes, is the fulfilling of the Law (Galatians 5:14; Romans 13:8-10; see also, James 2:8), not its abandonment. What the Law with its various commandments was seeking to achieve is fulfilled when we love God completely – heart, soul, strength, and mind - and when we love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

God’s Law expressed God’s guidance for every aspect of a person’s life: what they wore, ate, said, and did as well as who they could and could not have sex with. No area of life was excluded from God’s Law because God was not to be excluded from any area of life. The Law wasn’t given to be onerous or burdensome; it wasn’t given to limit life or to prevent people from enjoying themselves or to stop them from living a full life, it was rather an expression of God’s love for his people.

We often see ‘love’ as the alternative to Law. The Law, however, was itself all about love. God’s people were to love God by keeping his Law because God’s Law was an expression of his love and care for them. They loved because he first loved them by giving them his Law. The Law showed them how to love.

Now Christ has come, we are still to love God completely and to love our neighbour as ourself, but the way we do it is different. We don’t look now to God’s Law to guide us, but to God’s Spirit, who is given to all those who have faith in Christ. St Paul writes that in serving God those in Christ are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (Romans 7:6).

Fulfilling the Law doesn’t mean being set free from serving God in all we do, it means instead a renewed commitment to do just that. St Paul again writes:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12:1-2)

The two commands to love God completely and our neighbour as ourself together sum up what God’s Law was all about. Under the Old Covenant, a person loved God completely and loved their neighbour as themselves by obeying the commands of God’s Law. This was how they were to know what the will of God was. Now, under the New Covenant, we love God completely and love our neighbour as ourself by being led and guided by the Spirit as our minds are renewed and we present our bodies in worship.

This doesn’t mean that the way the Spirit leads us is unpredictable and that the Spirit’s leading always varies from one situation to the next. There are some things that are always incompatible with the Holy Spirit’s leading. St Paul describes these as ‘the works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19-20). Equally, there are some things that are evidence of the Holy Spirit’s leading and, again as St Paul puts it, ‘against which there is no law’ (Galatians 5:22-24).

The problem is that for many people, being free from God’s Law and the command to love mean freedom to do as we want, as long as we do it ‘out of love’. I am now of the opinion that the word ‘love’ has become so sexualized and self-centred that, as a word to describe what God wants of us, its use is highly problematic. The trouble is that it is hard to find another word to use instead, especially given how established the word love is. So, while we have to go on using it, we need to remember that the command to love is not a licence to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Sin is real and some things will always be sinful. No longer being ‘under Law’ does not change that. St Paul asks:

‘What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?’ (Romans 6:15)

He answers emphatically, ‘By no means!

Sin remains objectively definable and real; there are some things that are always wrong.

Just Do It

When the lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, the lawyer was testing Jesus to see how Jesus would answer. Jesus, as we have seen, turns the tables on him by asking the lawyer what God’s Law says. The lawyer becomes the one being tested, and he gives the right answer: love God completely and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus tells him, ‘Do this, and you will live.’

Then, after the lawyer has correctly identified the one who became a neighbour to the man who was robbed, Jesus says to him, ‘Go and do the same.’

The lawyer knows what he should do, now he has got to do it. The problem is, of course, that left to ourselves, we can’t do it. We are given the Holy Spirit to enable us to do it. But even then, it isn’t just going to happen. Having been given life in the Spirit, we need to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). St Paul writes to the believers in the Church at Philippi:

‘… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Philippians 2:12-13)

‘Walking in the Spirit’ is the way to fulfilling the Law. What the Law pointed to, we now do - or at least we should. What the Law was saying to God’s people was that love of God and love of our neighbour should characterize everything we do. The way we do this now is not by following rules and regulations (the old way), but by following the leading of the Holy Spirit (the new way), but we still need to do it. We still need to love God completely – heart, soul, mind, and strength – and our neighbour as ourself.

I say this because having decided we want to live by love not by Law, we have come to see ourselves as free from having to worry about what we do. Instead of our commitment to ‘love’ resulting in a greater devotion to God and our neighbour, it has resulted in a greater focus on ourself. Freedom from the Law does not mean freedom from serving God. [As I sought to explain in the podcast, ‘Freedom in Christ’, for the Second Sunday after Trinity.]

If we walk in the Spirit, we will seek to love God completely and love as our neighbour as ourself. I think, like the lawyer, many of us know this in theory. Doing it, however, is something else. It is tough and demanding, not helped by the way we regularly compartmentalize our lives.

What I mean by this is that we understand ‘loving God’ to refer to those things that are religious in nature. So, we equate loving God with attending church services, reading our Bible, praying, and church activities in general. Loving our neighbour, we see as being about such things as giving to charity or helping someone who is in obvious need, perhaps someone we know who is in hospital, for example. This then leaves time for us to love ourself by doing what we want to do for ourself. Now, if we divided our time in this way, it would at least be a step in the right direction. Most of the time, however, we don’t even manage this three-fold split. Even so, it is not what Jesus has in mind.

Jesus told the story of the Samaritan because the lawyer had a question about who his neighbour was. Jesus didn’t have to explain what loving God was all about; all good Jews knew that. Loving God was not confined to activities that were religious in nature, such as praying and going to the synagogue, but involved every aspect of a person’s life: what they ate, what they wore, how they raised their children, harvested their crops, organized their communities - nothing was excluded. God was to be a part of everything they did. That is still what it means to love God; the way we do it now may be different, but we still need to do it. St Paul writes that we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices which is our spiritual worship. He is telling us we should present everything we are and all that we have and do to God as a continual act of worship. St Paul writes to the Church at Corinth:

‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.’ (1 Corinthians 10:31)

It is not that some things are God’s, some things our neighbour’s, and some things ours: everything is God’s. This means that loving our neighbour is also part of our love of God. St Catherine said that as we cannot see God to love, we love him by loving our neighbour. We love God and our neighbour, not separately, but concurrently.

The way we are to love our neighbour is by becoming a neighbour and to become a neighbour is to show mercy. There is a problem for us in understanding the story Jesus told the lawyer. The reason that Jesus told a story about a Samaritan showing mercy is that the lawyer wanted to limit whom he showed love to. Jesus challenged his prejudices about people and the restrictions he placed on who he reached out to.

We know the story and, in theory at least, would not limit who we think we should help. Instead, we place limits in other ways. We limit when we help. The story Jesus told the lawyer had to be a dramatic example of someone becoming a neighbour to make the point to him, but, as a result, we now think of being a neighbour in terms of helping people in dire need of help like the man beaten and left for dead by robbers.

Jesus’ message, however, is that we should love our neighbour by becoming a neighbour and showing mercy to whoever needs mercy, whenever they need it. By becoming a neighbour to someone in need, we make that person our neighbour. It could be someone lying on the road after a heart-attack and in need of emergency first-aid. It could just be someone at work who is feeling sad and lonely. We should not limit who we are merciful to, the situations where we show mercy, or the times when we are merciful.

What Jesus teaches in today’s reading, then, can be summed up in two common sayings: ‘all you need is love’ and ‘just do it’. But what Jesus means is very different to what is commonly meant. All you need is indeed love, but that means that we need to give ourselves completely to God and to others, and just doing it means relying on God for us to do it, not just occasionally but continually, every moment of every day.

‘Do this’, says Jesus, ‘and you will live.’ And so, he tells us, ‘Go, and do likewise.’


Monday, July 04, 2022

Freedom in Christ

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Freedom in Christ'. It is based on the second reading for the Second Sunday after Trinity.

Freedom in Christ

Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

St Paul writes in our reading this week:

‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5:1)

I have recently finished teaching a course on ‘Paul and his Letters’. There are 13 letters in the New Testament attributed to St Paul. The longest is Romans and the shortest is Philemon. As letters at the time go, however, they are all long. We easily forget that writing letters in the first century was a laborious and costly business.

Philemon is a letter that has not received a lot of attention in the past. Nowadays, it is receiving more attention both because of the window it gives us into the social circumstances of the early church and, not least, because it is about slavery.

Philemon himself, we learn from the letter, was a wealthy co-worker of St Paul’s (Philemon 1). We know Philemon was wealthy because he had a house large enough for the church to meet in (Philemon 2) with a guest room that St Paul hoped to stay in (Philemon 22). Like all wealthy people in the first century, Philemon had slaves. One of these slaves, Onesimus, had met St Paul, who was in prison, and Onesimus had become a believer as a result of the meeting (Philemon 10). We don’t know exactly where St Paul was in prison, but Rome or Ephesus are the two most likely locations, with most scholars favouring Rome, although I personally favour Ephesus.

It is often said in commentaries and sermons that Onesimus was a runaway slave, who had met St Paul accidentally. I am not quite sure how this is supposed to have happened given that St Paul is a prisoner and Onesimus isn’t. Why would a runaway slave visit a jail, and what are the chances it would have a friend of the master he had run away from in it?

What does seem clear is that there had been some trouble or tension between Philemon and Onesimus. It is possible that Onesimus, knowing that St Paul was someone his master respected, had turned to St Paul for help in the hope that St Paul would act as a mediator between them. It is also possible that Onesimus had been sent to see St Paul by Philemon and had taken the opportunity to tell St Paul of his problems, whatever his motive may have been for doing so.

In any case, St Paul would have liked Onesimus to stay with him and help him in his work as an apostle (Philemon 13). That, however, would have been against Roman law and would got them both into trouble, apart from what it would have done to St Paul’s and Philemon’s friendship. St Paul, then, instead sent Onesimus back with a letter telling Philemon how wonderful it was Onesimus had become a believer and urging Philemon to be nice to Onesimus, who was now a brother as well as a slave (Philemon 16). What St Paul didn’t do was to ask or tell Philemon to free Onesimus. This causes all sorts of problems for many people today and illustrates the extent to which we simply don’t understand either the New Testament or its world.

Firstly, slavery in the first century was not the same as slavery during the time of the slave trade. While slaves had no rights, some, nevertheless, had quite a lot of influence and responsibility. They served, for example, as managers, accountants, and tutors. Some slaves had slaves. Slaves came from conquered regions of the Empire, and were not limited to one ethnicity.

Secondly, not all slaves wanted their freedom even when they were offered it. Why would they? Managing a rich man’s household gave a better quality of life and more freedom than living on your own in poverty would give. Some slaves, having been given their freedom, chose to give it up and remain slaves.

Thirdly, however, slaves did belong to their owners, and some had terrible lives and were treated harshly by their masters. So, the question that often gets asked now is why St Paul and the Church in general didn’t do something about it? Why, for example, didn’t St Paul speak up more for Onesimus?

Well, firstly, the Church at this stage was still a very small and relatively insignificant movement. It wasn’t in a position to make much of a difference and had to guard against being seen as socially subversive, which would have led to it being even more persecuted than it was. But secondly, hard though it is for us to understand, it simply wasn’t that important an issue. The Church felt that were more important things for it to be doing and concerned about than changing pagan social structures.

This doesn’t mean the Church thought the way slaves were treated didn’t matter or that masters who belonged to the Church had no responsibilities to their slaves. St Paul writes that masters did have obligations to their slaves, as did a slave to their master (Colossians 3:22-4:1; Ephesians 6:5-9). The Church was also concerned about freedom, just not the sort we focus on today. Jesus said to the Jews in Jerusalem that if the Son set them free, they would be free indeed (John 8:36), and, as we have read, St Paul tells the Galatian believers that Christ has set them free and warns them to hold on to their freedom.

But here’s the thing: in all likelihood the Galatian churches that St Paul wrote these words to would have contained slaves. St Paul is telling slaves that Christ has set them free, even though they are still slaves and are likely to stay that way. Neither Jesus or St Paul are talking about social and political freedom, so what are they talking about? St Paul, in our reading, makes it very clear what he means.

St Paul writes that before the Galatians came to know God in Christ, they were imprisoned under the power of sin (Galatians 3:22). They were slaves (Galatians 4:1), enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods (Galatians 4:8). It is not just the pagans that this applies to, but to those under the Law and part of the people of God, that is, the Jews (Galatians 4:25). Incredibly, St Paul tells them that it was God’s Law that kept them imprisoned and enslaved (Galatians 3:23).

The word St Paul uses to describe this state is ‘flesh’. Being ‘in the flesh’ is to be a slave. The word ‘flesh’ that is used to translate into English the word St Paul uses in Greek is one that can mislead. To us, ‘flesh’ is the physical stuff of our bodies and the word St Paul uses can mean that, but it is used more broadly to refer to us as human beings. It is our ‘self’ as we are, with all our limitations and weaknesses. Except, of course, we don’t think of our ‘self’ as limited and weak, and that itself is part of the problem.

St Paul gives a detailed, but not exhaustive, list of the ‘works of the flesh’. It includes sexual immorality and idolatry, but also anger, jealousy, and envy. Those who do such things, St Paul writes, will not inherit the Kingdom of God. It is, then, essential that we don’t do them. Left to ourselves, however, we can’t help but do them. That is what it means to be slaves, imprisoned under the power of sin. There is, however, hope. St Paul writes:

‘But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.’ (Galatians 5:17)

Our hope lies in the Spirit, who is given to those who have faith in Christ. It is the Spirit, who can enable us to overcome the desires of the flesh and produce instead the ‘fruit of the Spirit’: love, joy, peace and all those things against which there is no law. Those who belong to Christ, St Paul writes, have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. St Paul urges those to whom he writes to live in the Spirit. He tells the Galatians that not only should they live in the Spirit, but that they should be led and guided by the Spirit. If they are led by the Spirit, they are no longer under the Law, which keeps people imprisoned as slaves to sin and self.

We think political and social freedom is the real freedom. It really isn’t. People campaign for the sort of society which they think will give them the freedom to be them self. But left to our self, we are helpless and powerless to escape from the powers that enslave and control us. This is not to say that what we call ‘political freedom’ isn’t important, but to someone addicted to drugs or alcohol, who is suicidal or who self-harms, it may not be their most pressing concern.

We may reply that we personally are none of those things. Maybe not. But let me ask you: are you happy with the life that you have? Recently (June 17, 2022), Jon Clifton, the head of Gallup, wrote a guest article for the Economist. The headline to the article was: ‘Unhappiness around the world is soaring’. Now we may at first assume that this is because of the pandemic, but Jon points out that while undoubtedly the pandemic hasn’t helped, it is not the cause of rising rates of unhappiness. Gallup has been tracking ‘unhappiness’ since 2006, he writes, and unhappiness has been increasing for the past decade across the world.

Gallup, Jon tells us, interviews 150,00 people in 140 countries each year about how they feel. Unhappiness, Jon observes, can be caused by different things: poverty and hunger, for example, but the crisis that Jon singles out for causing unhappiness is loneliness. One fifth of adults, he reports, do not have anyone they can count on for help. Loneliness is no joke. It can increase our blood pressure and decrease our life expectancy. It can, Jon writes, take a toll equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

We put a big emphasis on being in work and earning a regular income, but again Jon reports, 19% of workers are completely miserable in their job. Stress and worry amongst workers have risen consistently since 2009. As Jon points out, our emotions, that is, how we feel, influences our decisions, actions, and even cognition.

Now the irony is that unhappiness has increased, even though materially we are better off than we ever have been. I would suggest that our unhappiness is not despite us being better off materially, but because of it. This is what happens when you focus on physical things and rely on yourself for happiness.

You are probably expecting me at this point to say that if we believed in God and took going to church more seriously, we would be happier. And you are right: that is exactly what I am going to say. But not just me. I want to draw your attention to another article, this time in Scientific American. It is a year old (June 15, 2021) and is entitled, ‘’Psychiatry Needs to Get Right with God’. It is written by David H. Rosmarin, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

David begins his article by citing a study that showed that Google searches for prayer across 95 countries hit an all-time high in March 2020 at the time when covid was hitting a peak in many places. At the same time, according to other research, 55% of Americans prayed for an end to the spread of covid. One quarter reported that their faith had increased in the month following, despite limited access to places of worship.

This trend, David writes, is not just socially significant, but is also clinically significant. In the preceding year, American mental health was at its lowest in history, and mental disorders increased 50% from before the pandemic. Young adults were more than twice as likely to consider suicide. The only group to see improvements in their mental health were those who attended weekly religious services virtually or in-person.

[BTW: The services at Christ Church that we posted on YouTube during the suspension of services because of the pandemic are still available for those who would like to watch them!]

60% of psychiatric patients, according to David, want to discuss spirituality. The problem is that since Sigmund Freud described religion as a ‘mass-delusion’, mental health professionals have avoided the ‘spiritual realm’. (David also notes in the article that psychiatrists are the least likely of all physicians to be religious, which underlines the extent of the problem.) The result, he writes, is that ‘we ignore potential spiritual solutions to our mental health crisis, even when our well-being is worse than ever before’.

David reports that belief in God is associated with significant better treatment outcomes, even for acute psychiatric patients. His own research team found that when belief in God and spirituality were included in the treatment process, more than 90% of patients reported benefit, regardless of religious affiliation.

David Rosmarin concludes his article:

‘It remains to be seen whether God can solve our mental health crisis. But the potential clinical benefits of spirituality, and patients’ desire for spiritual treatments, provide a reason to believe.’

Last week, in our Gospel reading, we read of the demon possessed man whose name was ‘Legion’ because of the number of demons who had entered him. Today, of course, he would be diagnosed as having a psychiatric condition. The description of him in the Gospels shows how disturbed he was. For a long time, he wore no clothes, he did not live in a house but in the tombs. He was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles, but he would break them and be driven into the wilds. After he had been healed by Jesus, however, St Luke describes him as ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’ (Luke 8:35).

For years, we have been fed the lie that it is only the weak-minded, irrational, or superstitious who believe in God. It’s time for those of us who believe in God to tell people that you can’t be in your right mind unless you believe. This is not to suggest that believing in God cures all mental illnesses, but not believing in God makes them worse whereas believing in God can help make them better. As the Psalmist says, it is the fool who has said in their heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1). Society, having largely rejected belief in God in any meaningful sense, is now paying the price for its foolishness in increased unhappiness and mental disorder.

The Word on Fire Show did a programme based on David Rosmarin’s article in the Scientific American. In the comments section, someone called BeckyC posted this comment:

‘I wasn’t Christian during the 2020 lockdown in Melbourne. I was alone without seeing anyone I knew for 6 weeks (aside through a screen), it was very hard.

In 2021, I had an experience of God and came to Christ.

This year’s lockdown was a cakewalk this time round, and I feel like I’ve blossomed if anything. I prayed a lot, read the Word and attended online services.

I have previously had a BPD
[Borderline Personality Disorder] diagnosis in my younger years, in hindsight I was having a crisis of meaning in my life. I was suicidal and tried many times, I was addicted to pornography, alcohol, sex and self-mutilation. It has been through finding God that has brought me the most healing and those temptations have been reduced to nothing when I walk with Christ.’

Becky’s experience is similar to that of ‘Legion’. We may not all have a past like Becky’s, but we are all prone to destructive forces. These can be internal and come for within us or they can be external and assault us from outside, but whether internal or external, they can lead to both unhappiness and mental disorder. St Paul tells us in our reading that it is from these destructive forces that Christ sets us free and offers the possibility of a life of freedom.

We are constantly told that happiness is to be found through self-realisation and self-fulfilment. St Paul tells us that it is the self that is the problem. Those who belong to Christ Jesus, writes St Paul, have crucified the flesh, that is, the self, with its passions and desires.

Jesus, however, doesn’t leave those who belong to him to get on with it by themself. There is well-known saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ The self-help movement is a popular one and very much a part of our culture. Being a follower of Jesus is the exact opposite of self-help. Those who follow Jesus know that God helps those who know they can’t help themselves, who know they have no power of themselves to help themselves and rely instead on his Spirit to help them.

At Pentecost, we thought of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to us. This is not some theoretical idea or doctrine, but, as people like Becky can testify, it is a real, life-changing experience. It is not just an experience for the few, but for all those who place their trust in Jesus. It is by the Holy Spirit given to us that we are set free from those things that threaten to destroy us, and it is through the Holy Spirit that we experience love, joy, peace and all those things that increase our happiness and promote our mental health. These are not our work, but the fruit of his presence in us.

I believe the good news of Jesus because it is true, but not only is it true, the good news is that is also good for you.

May you personally find the freedom that Christ offers you to set you free to enjoy the life of the Spirit.