Who is this man?

WhoisJesusThe Gospel of Mark is both the shortest and earliest of the gospels written. It is also perhaps the most primal and simple of the gospels lacking some of the sophistication of the later offerings. But scholars have discovered a new appreciation for this gospel and its more raw and basic presentation of both Jesus and of his first followers. The disciples are regularly presented as a rather dense lot who ask the wrong kind of questions and keep getting things wrong. But I like it because the disciples are so often like I am!

We arrive today in the very centre of the Gospel – not just because we are in the middle of chapter 8 of this 16 chapter Gospel – but because there is a stark turning point. It is not as clear as the similar point in the Gospel of Luke (9:51) where Jesus “resolutely points his face towards Jerusalem” but true to Mark’s style it is clearly present. Until this point there have been miracles upon miracles as the mighty works of Jesus to heal the sick, cast out demons and bring order to the chaos of nature have helped to frame the question of “who is this man?” – now we are ready to begin to answer it. First the disciples will report what the crowds are saying, then Peter will have a go, then Jesus himself will explain what it means to follow him along the way that this journey will take as he begins to move from the very north of Israel down into the heartland of Judaism on the way to Jerusalem.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (13min)
Sunday 24, Year B. Mark 8:27-35

My child in whom I delight

baptism-jesusThe transition from the season of Christmas and the gathering around the manger scene to the arrival of the Magi to this feast of the Baptism of the Lord and the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus is a rapid one. We meet the adult Jesus who is presented as the answer to all the hopes and expectations of so many generations of faithful Jews – and yet he arrives innocuously and simply – walking into the waters of the muddy Jordan River. It is only when he emerges out of the waters of repentance and identification with the rest of sinful humanity that there is even a hint of signs and wonders. The thin curtain that separates the world where the glory of God dwells and the will of God is always done – heaven – from the mixed existence that is our ordinary experience – earth – is drawn back and the voice of the Father is heard declaring “my son”, “my beloved”, “my delight.” The gift of the Christian faith is that these declarations – while unique initially to Jesus – are no longer declared to him alone. Through the incredible gift of baptism, the Lord has shared these declarations with the whole believing church.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, Camden (8am: 7mins, 30secs)
Baptism of the Lord. Mark 1:7-11.

Beginning of good news in the desert

baptistAs we enter the second Sunday in the season of Advent, we come to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. The opening line of his Gospel is somewhat curious – it isn’t immediately obvious if it is meant to be a heading or simply the first line. It richly evokes a number of scripture passages – including the opening line of Genesis (also evoked more clearly in the prologue to the Gospel of John). It declares very strongly and clearly who Jesus is – using and adapting the common political language of the day. Jesus is the Messiah which is good news – he is bringing about a true victory for all who believe in him. Many manuscripts add the additional descriptor that he is the Son of God – although some believe that this is a later scribal addition.

Rather than telling us any of the details about the birth of Jesus, Mark launches straight into the public ministry of Jesus, taking us out into the wilderness (midvar in Hebrew) to be with John the Immerser or John the Baptiser. It is only here, away from the distractions of the big city, that the Word of God (davar in Hebrew) can truly be heard and encountered.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, Camden, 8am (10 min, 37 sec)

Second Sunday in Advent, Year B
Mark 1:1-8

The longing of Advent

SittingAs we begin this new liturgical year and return in Year B to the Gospel of Mark, it is a little odd that we don’t begin with the opening lines of the Gospel. Surely we should be reading from the Infancy Narratives in Mark. Oh wait – there aren’t any. Yes, that’s right, you can tell the Gospel story and not worry at all about the story of the birth of Jesus. In fact St Paul does a rather splendid job of telling us about the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the only detail that he tells us about the birth of Jesus is in Galatians 4:4 – For in the fullness of time, God sent his Son into the world, born of a woman, born the subject of the law.” Yep, the only thing that Paul tells us across his thirteen letters about the birth of Jesus is that he was – gasp! – born of a woman. Thanks Paul. That is very helpful. So we could tell the Gospel story about Jesus and celebrate Christmas with just four words and fewer distractions: Merry Christmas. Today we celebrate the fact that Jesus was born of a woman. Even the Gospels that do mention the birth of Jesus – Matthew and Luke – would function rather well without all those stories and beginning like John* and Mark do with the adult public ministry of Jesus.

So what about this new season of Advent? Can the meaning and significance of all this longing for a Saviour and Redeemer also be cut out from the bible and leave it pretty much intact? Not likely – given that this theme makes up at least half of the Hebrew Scriptures and a huge chunk of the Christian Scriptures as well.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm
Advent, Sunday 1, Year B.

Isaiah 63:16b–17, 19b, 64:2–7; Psalm 80:2–3, 15–16, 18–19; 1 Corinthians 1:3–9; Mark 13:33–37

* Okay, yes, of course John has his Prologue that talks about the incarnation of Jesus – being born in the flesh – but you could also argue that John 1:14 doesn’t add much more detail than Gal 4:4 already gives us: “And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, LEB)

Stumbling discipleship

rock-texturesYou have seduced me O Lord, and I have allowed myself to be seduced. Perhaps Simon, the hero of the Gospel last Sunday, took these words of Jeremiah to heart when after one of his rare triumphs, he so quickly falls from grace. It must have really been something – after being praised so highly and then renamed and commissioned to be the rock upon which this new community of God’s people would find their identity – and then to be told to get back into your place behind Jesus, because the suggestions that you thought were so good and logical and sensible are apparently enough to be rebuked as ‘satan’! After all, since Simon loves the Lord so much, it is only natural that the Messiah should now make his way down through the region of Galilee where Jesus has done so much good – teaching, healing, feeding thousands of people – people who would readily support Jesus as the true Messiah and rightful king. They could easily have organised a sizeable force which could easily have overthrown the small Roman garrison in Jerusalem and established Jesus there. Instead, when Jesus declares that the only way forward for him was the way of suffering, defeat and death – it must have seemed madness.

Yet what Jesus was so very clear about – was what the will of the Father was for him. His prayer was never attempting to cajole the Father into letting Jesus have his own way – and the way of discipleship that Jesus is giving to his followers then and now is the same. The way of the kingdom of God can never begin with my plans and my desires. As the old joke goes – how do we make God laugh? Answer: tell him your plans. Or in Simon’s case: how do you provoke a rebuke from God? Tell him that the true way of life does not involve denial, suffering, death and the cross.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (6’59”)
Sunday 22, Year A.
Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Rocky Simon’s declaration of faith

caesareaphilippiThe Gospel today has Jesus taking the disciples on a very unusual road trip. They walk to the very north of Israel, on the border of Lebanon and Syria to the foothills of Mount Hermon. There in the region of Caesarea Philippi – a town that was being built by King Herod to honour a pagan ruler who was oppressing his people and who identified himself as the ‘son of God’ they came to the source of the river Jordan – the springs of Banias (Panias). The name of the springs point to the reason that the area was famous – it was the site of the Temple of Pan, who in Greek mythology was the son of the god Zeus. Near the temple was the entrance to a cave that was thought to be one of the entrances into Hades (or in Hebrew understanding Sheol) and the place of the dead. Above the temple is a massive rock wall which leads up to the mountain proper.

Understanding this background and geography is very helpful to understanding more clearly what happens when Jesus asks the disciples these two questions: “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?” The gospel of Matthew is clear that the disciples offer many opinions that were commonly understood by the people, but when Simon steps forward to speak on behalf of all the disciples, he doesn’t only say that you are the Messiah (as in Luke and Mark), but Simon goes on to declare that Jesus was the “Son of the Living God.” Given that this took place in the surrounds of the temples to the Greek god Pan (which was a fertility cult which would have featured ritual prostitution and various expressions of cultic sexuality) and the Emperor Philip, the declaration of Simon that Jesus was not just another son of God, but the true Son of the Living God.

It is then that Jesus provides rare praise for Simon, declaring that it is not flesh and blood that has revealed this to him, but ‘my Father in heaven’ and then he goes on to give to Simon a new name (perhaps referring to the large rock wall behind them as he does): “You are Rock and on this rock I will build by ekklesia.” Even though they are near a famous temple, and the temple in Jerusalem was understood as the meeting place of heaven and earth Jesus chooses to use a new word to describe this new reality that would be built upon the person and faith of Rocky – ekklesia. He could have said this is where I will build by new synagogue or my new temple, but instead he tells the disciples that this was the initiative of his Father in heaven to call a people out from the world and to call them into the new life of the kingdom. This world ekklesia – although accurately translated as ‘church’ is a radically dynamic reality capturing a people that are invited to be the very sign of the presence of God among his good created world.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm Mass (12min)
Sunday 21, Year A.

Bruised but not broken

reeds_161373

The baptism that St John was offering in the Jordan River was a great challenge to the Jerusalem Temple. The main practical function of the temple was to provide a place on earth where worshippers could go and be cleansed by ritual baths and offering sacrifices. John was indicating that he did not accept the efficacy of the whole system of worship that his own father had been a priest for. Instead he offered a different way to be cleansed of your sin and to start in a fresh and new way, by being immersed in the waters of the Jordan River as a sign that you were turning away from a life of sin and choosing to follow in the ways of the Lord. So when Jesus presented himself for baptism in all his perfection and you-know – all that godliness stuff – it would have been a great shock to his cousin John. He knew that Jesus was different from everyone else in Galilee. He knew that his heart had never turned away from the ways of the Lord. He did not have anything to repent from. But Jesus will not listen to his objections and he wades down into the water and stands there in the middle of all the other sinners.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm (8’05”)
Baptism of the Lord, Year A. Isaiah 42″1-7; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17

Image: © Plsa | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The Choice to Rejoice

column-fire

Pillar of Fire by night, by James Murnane (which I purchased last week)

If you took a poll among first century Jews about their expectations of what the Messiah would be like, and what he (a female Messiah would not feature) would do – there would be many and varied replies. Many would look at the many and varied prophecies that are contained within the Hebrew scriptures and somehow attempt to form a job description. The great variety in that description would be revealed by the poll. Some would point to the great 9th century BCE prophetic figure of Elijah, who helped to cleanse Israel during a period of great moral decay. Others would go with the perennially popular 10th century BCE figure of shepherd King David. Most would say that the messiah would bring judgement to the nation of Israel, before raising an army to overthrow the oppressive overlords of the Roman occupiers, and taking his place as the new rightful king.

So it is little wonder that John the Baptist – languishing in a gaol after denouncing King Herod – wants to know what kind of messiah Jesus is going to be. As the weeks turn into months and years after his baptism in the Jordan, it is becoming clearer that Jesus is not acting as a Zealot (contra Reza Aslan*), but instead fulfilling a very different messianic ideal. It has only been in more recent years that texts found in Qumran – the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls – notably the Messianic Apocalpyse found in 4Q521 have brought to life the popularity of a very different hope. This hope is captured powerfully in the first reading today – from Isaiah 35.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (9’27”)
Advent, Sunday 3, Year A.
The readings for the Third Sunday of Advent are: Isaiah 35.1-6a, 10; Psalm 146; James 5.7-10; and Matthew 11.2-11

* I read the book by Aslan, Zealot, this week. As Fr Robert Barron comments on the book, Aslan misses the full reality of the historical Jesus by adopting the strange debunking and demythologising methodology. There are so many factual errors in the poorly argued book, and Aslan gets himself into weird academic knots by trying to argue his position – accepting some texts and rejecting others with no stated basis for either position.

An Apocalyptic Age

curtain-openingOne of the styles of biblical literature that causes great misunderstanding is apocalyptic. This is not helped by the many, perhaps more fundamentalist interpreters who attempt to find literal meaning in the events of the present world, when the only direct literal meaning concerns events at the time the texts were written. In this case, the Gospel of Luke concerns the events leading up to the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem in the year 70AD. Nevertheless, the apocalyptic genre of writing offers great hope for the Christian church across the centuries as we do all that we need to do to allow the breaking in of this new messianic age which first happened with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (6’57”)
Sunday 33, Year C. Luke 21:5-19

Resurrected temple

JerusalemSiegeThe long journey that we have been on with Jesus which began in chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke – the journey from Galilee in the north down to Jerusalem has finished and Jesus has made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem – which the church celebrates each year on Palm Sunday. So all the gospel passages over the next few weeks take place during Holy Week – those final days leading up to the events of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Tensions, therefore, begin to rise!

The Gospel today is from Luke chapter 20. This is the only time that we meet this strange group called the Sadducees in this Gospel. The Sadducees were the conservatives and the aristocratic group of the day who scorned the more progressive views of the more popular Pharisees. The Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Torah.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, in chapter 25, we find the law of levirate marriage, whereby a brother was supposed to raise up an heir for his childless dead brother. This was meant to protect the property rights of a family. 

Here, the Sadducees pose a case of a succession of seven heirless brothers that they think will force Jesus to renounce the resurrection by showing the absurdity of it. Instead, Jesus replies that the succession of husbands is a problem for the Sadducees, only because they have not thoroughly comprehended the meaning of the resurrection.

Resurrection life will not be exactly the same as the present one. Death will have been abolished, and so sexual relations, and especially the need to continue a particular family line, will be irrelevant. Those whom God counts worthy of ‘the age to come’, as opposed to ‘the present age’, will have bodies appropriate for the new world in which death will be no more.

And this continues to be good news for all who work for justice in this present world.

Play MP3

Recorded at St Paul’s (8am & 5.30pm; 8’47”)
Sunday 32, Year C. Luke 20:27-38.