The Gospel begins with Jesus sending the disciples off in their boat, while he sends the crowds home. Just before this passage, he had heard that his friend and cousin, John, had just been executed by the ruthless tyrant Herod. He wanted some time alone. He needed some time alone. So he went off in their boat to try and find some space to pray and think and grieve – just to sort himself out. Instead, when he arrived at what he thought was going to be a deserted place, it was full of people. I think I would have turned the boat around and found another place to go – but Jesus had compassion on the crowds, and teaches them, heals them and then as the final act, he feeds them too.
No wonder he still needs that time alone.
So he prays. And he prays. Not just for a few minutes, but for hours. From the afternoon, until the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, the disciples are in trouble, out in the middle of the lake. A strong wind has arisen and the waves were beginning to break over the little boat.
I love the next line: ‘about three o’clock in the morning, Jesus came toward them, walking on the water.’ And what did the disciples make of all this – rightly I think ‘they were terrified.’ It isn’t every dark night that you see someone – in the middle of massive storm-tossed waves – just casually strolling about on top of the water. And so they screamed out in terror. To which Jesus, as he so often does, calls them to “Don’t be afraid” – although I am not sure that would have really helped given how totally bizarre the whole situation is at this point.
And then Peter pipes up. We should be used to Peter saying something a little left of centre. He seems to have that special knack of saying – or doing – something that is kind of weird – yet still wonderful. But his question is right up there alongside his other one-liners. What was he thinking? “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.” To which Jesus naturally just says – sure, come! So, Peter just totally casually hops over the side of the boat – and joins Jesus – walking on the water. As you do.
Well at least for a while. The Gospel doesn’t tell us how far Peter got – but it seems to have been far enough that he was well away from the boat. But once he takes his eyes away from Jesus and begins to look at these massive waves that are blowing all around them – the natural consequence happens. He sinks and begins to drown under the waves and water, managing at least to cough out a “save me, Lord!” Which Jesus immediately does and takes Peter by the hand and helps him back into the boat, greeting him with the gentle rebuke – “why did you doubt me?”
We have so often focussed on the mistakes of Peter – but perhaps he is just meant to remind us of what we are all like. Perhaps the problem with Peter was that he needed to test Jesus by getting out of the boat and giving this whole walking on water gig a go. Perhaps he is gently rebuked because he was meant to just stay in the boat all along. Especially in this Gospel, the boat is a symbol of the church – the Christian community that struggles to make sense of everything that is happening around us. But even when we are being tossed around by the wind and the waves, perhaps the secret is just staying together in the community, trusting that even when Jesus feels like he’s absent, he will always be there when we need him. He will always stretch out his hand to save us, and he will always calm the waves and the wind and see us safely to shore.
+ Jesus, help us to keep our eyes on you despite the wind and the waves, and help us to be a community where we can stick together and grow in your love.
Sunday 19, Year A. Matthew 14:22-33
Have you ever had an experience that was so sublime, so magical, so amazing – that you struggled to share all its details even with a close friend? Maybe the event wasn’t even all that weird or far out – but all the elements came together in a way that you know that mere words or photos are just not going to come close to even beginning to share the full impact of what transpired in those incredible days or moments.
I suspect that the event that we listen to today from Matthew 17 is like this – only a thousand times more amazing. When the different gospel writers attempt to describe what happened – and even more so to share the emotional and spiritual impact of what happened that amazing day – they are struggling at the limits of human language.
We are told that Jesus is transfigured before them – literally, in the Greek language, he writes that Jesus is meta’morphosed (meta=change; morphe=form, so a change of form, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly). When the disciples look at Jesus, he glows with a transcendent glory that is reserved for the heavenly beings. Jesus is joined in this splendour with Moses and Elijah – not only to represent the “Law and the Prophets” – but because they were both prophets who were rejected by the people; advocated for God, the covenant and the Torah; worked miracles and ultimately were vindicated by God as representatives of the heavenly world.
But I suspect that Bishop Tom Wright is correct, when he invites us to meditate upon the transfiguration scene – by holding and contrasting in your mind the scene of Calvary and the crucifixion of Jesus. Here on a mountain-top in Galilee, Jesus is revealed in glory; there, on the hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus is revealed in shame. Here, his clothes are shining bright; there his clothing has been stripped by the soldiers. Here, he is flanked by Moses and Elijah as two of Israel’s greatest heroes; there, he is flanked by two brigands, as a sign of how far Israel had fallen as a result of its rebellion against God. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness falls upon the land. Here Peter cries out about how wonderful it all is; there, Peter hides in shame after denying the Lord. Here the voice of God booms from the cloud declaring that Jesus is my beloved son; there, it is left to a pagan Roman soldier to declare in surprise that this really was God’s son.
Perhaps this moment of glory can only be appreciated and understood when we can also see the glory of the cross. The three disciples who accompanied Jesus to that high place that day – Peter, James and John – were rightly surprised by the sublime power, love and beauty of God. But we also need to discover a way to recognise that same power, love and beauty in the voice of Jesus when he calls us each day to take up our cross and follow him as disciples.
This is the Journey Radio recording text. Available here.
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6 Aug – Feast of the Transfiguration (replaces Sunday 18A). Matthew 17:1-9
Today we conclude a three-week series of readings from the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. This chapter is jam-packed with parables and their explanations. The section today has three short parables drawn from ordinary life – a treasure that is hidden in a field; a fine and valuable pearl that is found by a merchant, and a dragnet that gathers fish of every kind. Jesus concludes the section by praising the steward who brings out of the storeroom both new things and old things.
The chapter lies at the very centre of this Gospel, and it seems that we are being invited to be the scribes who draw out of our storeroom things both new and old. The new things are this brand new and magnificent vision that the kingdom of heaven is bringing; the old things are the centuries-old wisdom of the ages and the witness of the people of Israel and her stories and hopes. The way of the Gospel is about planting the new deep down within the old and allowing the ancient wisdom to come to fresh and exciting expressions in the new.
The shape of Matthew’s gospel is meant to remind the careful reader of the first five books of the Bible – the Torah, or the Books of Moses. The content, however, that Matthew gives us in this gospel is new and explosive. There is a decision that must be made urgently. It was fashionable then, as it remains fashionable now, to imagine that there were many different pearls or many kinds of treasures that you could collect in the various religions that are on offer. But Jesus says no – there is only one pearl and one treasure, which is the Gospel of the kingdom of God which Jesus was declaring and living out.
Besides all this Jesus declares that the world is not just going around in circles – but it has a clear direction and is heading in a straight line towards its goal in the final judgement. It continues to move towards that glorious day when God will remake the whole world in truth and justice, and of course, in love.
These parables continue to challenge us to both understand them and to place them into action as the wise scribes that we are urged to be. We are called in our thinking, speaking and living to be firmly rooted in the wisdom of the ages and also to be the bearers of the fresh new work that God is doing. For God is always doing a new work – but this work is always an evolution from the continuing work of God across the centuries.
Today we are invited to carefully reflect upon our lives to make sure that the fruit of our lives is both old and new.
Sunday 17, Year A. (Description from the Journey Radio Program)
In chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, we are presented with a series of 7 parables (of the 40 or so that Jesus tells during his recorded ministry) – which provokes a first question – what is a parable? For most of Christian history, parables have been treated as allegories – with many different interpretations available. What later scholarship realised, is that parables are so much richer than this. There can be a single interpretation, but parables are more like pieces of art, music or poetry – so their precise interpretation will always allude us – yet they constantly point to the breaking in of the kingdom of God. They take ordinary images from rural society, but twist this with the radical nature of what the kingdom is always calling us into.
Today, each of the parables invites us deeper into the experience of patience. No one enjoys waiting. Yet the Lord tells us today that waiting is necessary. It takes time for a crop to grow to harvest; for a seed to grow into a tree; for yeast to do its work in the flour. We want things straight away – we want God to deal with sin and evil in the world and in our lives – but he says to wait. This is not a cop-out. God has dealt with sin once and for all through the death and resurrection of Jesus. So this is waiting for the dawn when the first light of day has already appeared on the eastern horizon. The new day will come. All we need to do is continue to wait in hope and expectant trust.
Jesus makes today a series of fairly bizarre declarations about himself and his position. He tells the disciples – who at the beginning of this chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel are commissioned and sent out to share in his mission – that anyone who prefers ‘father or mother’; ‘son or daughter’ to me is not worthy of me. This must be read in context – because other places in the New Testament tell us how to have proper relationship with our family members – new and old. This is not a recommendation to ignore our family. This is about something greater. Jesus is not telling us these thing as some ego-filled dictator – but he is telling us this to prompt us along the way of life in the kingdom, and so that we are able to share in the absolute joy that he offers to us. Although it is not explicitly stated, these statements are claims about the divinity of Jesus and his share of life with the Father – and he invites us to share in this life by our placing the worship of Jesus as the first priority of our life. In this we are able to share in true joy – joy that abides in us, and not just at passing moments. There is only one way to experience this joy – and it is through having Jesus as the first gift of our lives. By sharing in his life, and receiving his love, then we have something to share and give to others and ourselves. Many years ago, someone shared with me the secret of joy – which is spelled out by the letters of the word: Jesus; Others; You. By remembering to keep Jesus first in our lives, then we open the door to true joy.
Sunday 13, Year A. Matthew 10:37-41
The Gospel today invites us as a church to ‘declare ourselves before God’ as good stewards. God loves giving – he gave no lesser gift than the wonderful gift of Jesus to ensure that we are not alone in this life. We are also invited to not be afraid – the most common commandment that the Lord tells us. When we think about our response to the Lord in the areas of time, talents and treasures, all kind of misconceptions and myths can get in the way. We imagine that (1) we need to earn God’s love – when we can do nothing that will make God love us more. We believe that if we (2) obey God we will not enjoy life and miss out on so many things – yet Jesus tells us that he came that we may have life in abundance (John 10:10). Finally, we think that God is angry and needs to be appeased, so we think that (3) we need to buy God off and try to do this at the least possible price – surely those few coins that we toss into the collection will be just enough!
In fact, giving shapes our hearts and lives. Giving is so much more about our need to give than God’s need to receive. He doesn’t need anything from us – but we certainly never grow until we learn to freely give. There are many places in scripture that teach the principle of the first fruits – beginning in Genesis 4 with the offerings of Abel and Cain – then the offering of a tithe from Abraham to Melchizedek (Genesis 14) and the instruction that God gave Moses to offer the first-born children to be redeemed by the Lord. This continues in the Exodus tradition of offering sacrifice, and culminates in the offering of the first fruits of the land once they take possession of the Holy Land (Deut 26).
Everything belongs to God!
When we think about our giving, we are invited to think about a few issues. The first is “How do I give?” – do I give intentionally, or only accidentally? The second is “What do I give?” – do I give my very best (the first fruits), or do I only offer the leftovers to God and the church community?
When we want to grow in any area of our lives, it is important to remember that it takes time to learn something new, and to become skilled and gifted in an area. So the first of the baby steps that we need to take is (1) begin to give regularly by making giving a priority in our lives. When St Paul teaches on giving (over several of his letters) he tells us that our giving should be Proportional and Regular (eg 2 Cor 8:1-3 and 1 Cor 16:1-2). As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, do not be afraid of this. It takes practice to learn to do anything that is truly valuable.
If we have been giving for a while, then we may be ready to move onto baby step 2. Which takes the commitment to not just give something regularly, but to consider our finances and carefully determine how much we can afford to give – and then increase that amount by 1%. Remember, it is not the whole dollar amount that we give that matters – it is the proportion of our income. If we only give from our excess, then we have not even begun to really give. If it is too easy – perhaps we need to add another 1% to what we give – or maybe even 5%?
Finally, if you have been committed to giving sacrificially for sometime and you are willing to really trust in the Lord, then you can really level up with step 3 – which is committing to tithe on your gross income. There is a strange economics that comes into play once you commit to tithing. Even with a degree in Economics and Accounting, I am not sure why my finances have continued to do so well after I made this commitment many years ago to give what is already God’s back to God, his church and his people. But I know that this is something that we can always trust in – we can put God to the test in this area and he will be faithful. Guaranteed!
Video Reflection: We Give (Dan Stevers)
Song Reflection: Open Up Our Eyes (Acapella by Bammel Church)
This Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ does not only draw to a conclusion this extended season of Easter Feasts – it also draws together the whole of the mystery and wonder that we have been celebrating since the beginning of Lent. The twin feasts of Trinity and Corpus Christi hang uneasily at the conclusion of the Season of Easter. We have already returned into the Season of Growth and Discipleship with the return of the green vestments as a sign of the new life of discipleship. But these two feasts, although described as feasts of the Lord in Ordinary Time, are really best understood as extensions of Easter, from which they derive their context.
What we discover is that these days are all about lessons in love.
Beginning with Holy Thursday, the Lord strips himself of his garments to be a slave washing the dirty feet of the disciples as an example. Then he continues to offer this example and choice on Good Friday when love refuses to say no, and the Lamb of God is sacrificed for us and for our salvation. The day of Resurrection joy is the day when love has the final say and sin and death do not. The whole of the season of Easter provides a continuing reflection for us as disciples to continue to grow and learn in the school of love. As Easter draws to a conclusion, we move into this series of four feastdays that together celebrate this particular gift of love.
The Ascension opens us to the reality of love as gift and return. Pentecost draws us deeper into love that is as close as our breath. The Trinity reminds us of the dynamic union of love that exists in the very heart of God – a circle-dance union that we are invited to join. But all of these beautiful and powerful feasts can remain too abstract and distant from our ordinary lives and experiences. Which is where the gift of such ordinary elements – bread and wine – which are transformed and changed to become for us these beautiful and precious gifts. If we should ever doubt that God is close to us, the gift of food that we can eat and drink should be enough to tell us that our God is never distant, never alien. God becomes this ordinary bread so that we can hold him, and take him in our hands and place him on our tongues, that he might become one with us at even a molecular level. We could not even imagine something so intimate?!
For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…
The famous and beautiful Gospel today (from John 3 verses 16-18) is the last part of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a man who is called a leading Pharisee and leader of the Jews. Even though he is a teacher of the law, it is clear that old Nic does not get some of the subtle distinctions that Jesus makes between earthly and heavenly realities and the clear gift that God wants everyone to have – the life of the age to come.
The whole approach of God to the world is rescuing it from its bondage to sin and death so that all human beings will be drawn into the communion of life and love that we can only find in God. Jesus tells us that this is the work of the Son.
Remember that in the Gospel of John, sin is not about morality – it is all about belief. So, judgement is not about some future reality or event, but about what happens in the here and now. Jesus brings it ‘down to earth’ and makes it present in himself.
Each person determines for herself or himself what their judgement will be. The only question that determines this is precisely the question of whether they decide or not to accept the revelation of God as a God of love, that comes to us through Jesus.
What we are seeing is exactly what God’s own love looks like. When Jesus died on the cross this was the complete and dramatic display of God’s own love. The cross was not a muddled accident. The cross was not God letting the worst happen to someone else. The cross is at the centre of this amazing new image of who God is.
He is now to be known as the God who is both father and son, and the son is revealed, ‘lifted up’, when he dies under the weight of the world’s evil. Evil which was and is in the world, indeed, which is deep-rooted within us all, was somehow allowed to take out its full force on Jesus.
When we look at Jesus lifted high on the cross, what we are looking at is the result of the evil in which we are all stuck. And we are seeing what God has done about it. In this amazing way, we are seeing what God’s own love looks like. We are seeing the gift of the Trinity of love – this community of love and life that we are invited to be part of.
Because evil lurks deep within each of us, for healing to take place we must each be deeply involved in the process. This doesn’t mean that we just have to try that much harder to be good. All we can do, just as it was all the Israelites could do, is to look and trust: to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love, and to trust in him.
This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should have the life of the age to come.
The point of the whole story is that you don’t have to be condemned. God’s act in the death of Jesus has lodged a sign in the centre of history. And the sign simply says: believe, and live.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Trinity Sunday, Year A. John 3:16-18
The Gospel today (from John 20 verses 19-23) takes place on the evening of Easter Sunday. Mary Magdalene, who is the first apostle to see the Lord tells them about her encounter with Jesus. Now these disciples also see him.
By saying it happens on “that day” perhaps the author also wants us to remember the understanding that the Hebrew scriptures had of ‘the day of the Lord’ – for example, Isaiah 52 verse 6 that says, “My people shall know my name; on that day they shall know it is I who speak.”
John tells us that it is the disciples who are gathered – not just the Eleven – or the 12 apostles minus Judas. Jesus then greets this larger group of disciples who have gathered with what had become the standard greeting within rabbinic Hebrew – shalom alekem – “Peace be to you.” Here, the words of Jesus are not just a wish – but a statement of fact.
Jesus then shows the disciples his hands and side and it is at this moment that they can begin to move from disbelief to belief and they are ‘overjoyed’ at seeing the master. Showing his body to them connects his earthly body to the risen Jesus and fulfils the promise that Jesus had made during the last Supper that their pain and sorrow will turn to joy (see John 16, verses 20 to 22).
After their recognition of him not simply as the risen Jesus, but also as their Lord, Jesus can now greet them again with shalom alekem – “Peace be with you.” Only now can they actually receive his gift of peace. And only now, after receiving that gift of peace, can they hear and receive the commission of the Lord: ‘As the father has sent me, so I’m sending you.’
All of these disciples, through their faith in the risen Lord, and with the gift of his peace, are now able to be sent, that is to become apostles of the risen Lord, just as Jesus had been sent by the father.
How on earth are the disciples to do such an extraordinary thing? Only with this precious gift from heaven – the gift that comes through the breath of Jesus – the gift of the holy Spirit. The Spirit is precisely that which empowers this fragile community to continue the work of Jesus. This is the only time that this word ‘to breathe’ is used in the New Testament, and it clearly evokes God breathing the breath of life into the first human in Genesis 2.
The Spirit-empowered mission of these disciples is to forgive sin – which in the Gospel of John is all about belief, not morality. To sin is to be blind to the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. So the commission that the disciples and the church receives in this Pentecost moment is to continue to make the love of God in Jesus known in the world. By doing this we are true to what Jesus said about the action of the Paraclete back in John 16 – “to prove the world wrong about sin – because they do not believe in me.”
The gift of the Spirit comes so that we can continue what God sent Jesus to do.
The first question that emerges on this feast of the Ascension is why sometimes it is better for a person to leave. For parents, that day when a child leaves home to go to university or on their first big European back-packing working-holiday, the absence can be heart-wrenching. Yet we all know that there is a need to let a young person find themselves and their own identity.
In the case of Jesus, his departure is very different. He needs to be physically absent so that he can be present in even more wonderful ways – present not only in the word of God and in the sacramental life of the church, but also in the call to friendship and discipleship. The conclusion to Matthew’s gospel is fantastic. He carefully places the action back in Galilee, where it all began, and high on the side of a mountain (of course). The eleven disciples (with the absence of Judas) make their way and when they see Jesus, some fall down in worship – although some hesitated (distazo in the Greek, which could also mean ‘doubted’). Even though some hesitate – perhaps because as good Jewish lads they are still not entirely sure that worship of anyone other then the one and only true God, the LORD, is appropriate. But it is clear from Matthew, that he invites his readers to join those who worshipped. Even so, Jesus draws near to all of them – even those who distazo’d.
It is then that Jesus offers to them his final commission, reminding them that “all authority on heaven and earth belongs to Jesus” so “Therefore, Go!” Go into all the world, not only to baptise (initiate into the sacramental life of the church) and teach (which the church has also very faithfully fulfilled) but primarily to “make disciples.” This call, which the church has sometimes resisted and often fails to fulfil today remains the heart of the great commission. But we are not alone in this. Jesus promises, as Emmanuel, God-with-us to be with us always, and that we will also have the gift of the Holy Spirit to provide all that we need.
View other resources: http://www.frrick.com/messages/eaa-28-may-2017/