Friday, 11 September 2015

Who do you say that I am?

James 3: 1-12, Mark 8: 27-38

I wonder if you ever find yourself reading a passage of scripture and think “I’ve never noticed that before?”.  It happens to me so often that I’m starting to think that while my back is turned someone keeps putting new bits in my Bible.

This week’s reading from Mark hit me that way this week. I know this story from Mark – it comes right in the middle of Mark’s gospel & is something of a staging post between the stuff Jesus has been doing up until then –healing, teaching & getting criticized and the second half of Mark’s gospel, where will see Jesus getting crucified, dying and rising again.

So here in Mark’s gospel is a change of direction in the story of Jesus – and Jesus asks the question of his disciples ‘who do you say that I am?’.
There follows the disciples’ discussion of who others say Jesus is – Jeremiah, Elijah or one of the prophets and then Peter states “you are the Messiah”.

But I realised reading this passage just last week that I had always thought that Jesus meant “who do you think that I am?”. I thought it was an invitation by Jesus to sort our ideas out – who do you think I am.
But that is not the question. The question is ‘who do you say that I am’.

It is what we proclaim about Jesus, not just what we think about Jesus, that makes all the difference.

And then Peter gets into trouble after Jesus talks about his suffering that is to come, by taking Jesus to one side and rebuking him. Peter is worried about what Jesus is saying about himself – he is teaching and declaring that the Messiah must suffer.
Peter’s aside to Jesus is something like ‘you must not say that’ – he rebukes Jesus.
But Jesus tells Peter in no uncertain terms what he, Peter, says is putting him in the wrong ‘Get behind me Satan - For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

What we say about Jesus needs to be inspired not by human things – whether we think we will be embarrassed, or challenged, or whether what we say is easy to understand. What we say about Jesus needs to be inspired by divine things – the truth we have seen in Jesus – that Jesus is the Messiah or the Son of God, and that he is the one who will not only teach & heal but who will defeat death through suffering.  The truth about Jesus needs to inspire what we say.

Jesus asks us “who do you say that I am?”.
So what do we say?

The letter of James tells us words are important… the writer uses all sorts of pictures to help his readers think about what they say. It could all leave you terrified to open your mouth at all, just opening and closing your mouth like a goldfish. My mum’s maxim as I grew up was “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” – and that too can leave you a bit speechless.

But I don’t think James is saying ‘don’t speak’ he’s asking us to realize how powerful your words can be. Of course that’s true of hurtful or misjudged words. But it is also true of what we say about Jesus. Even a simple, stumbling attempt to express what Jesus means to us can have a large effect on someone who needs to hear what we have to say.

What do we say about Jesus ? and when do we say it?

You might occasionally get someone ask you ‘who is Jesus, then?’,
but more often than not our conversations with other people are not them asking about Jesus, and yet we need to be aware of what we say about Jesus in all our conversations.
So what do we say about Jesus ?
When a  friend comes to us to confide that they are desperately sad or
When someone challenges us about our life and what we have achieved or
When the news is full of people in need

At all these time and in all these places Jesus asks us “who do you say that I am?”

To the person filled with sadness perhaps we want to say that Jesus is the one who hears and understands, who can heal and hold and guide.

If we are challenged to defend the lives we live and perhaps the relatively modest earthly success we have enjoyed, it could be that we point to Jesus as the one who says ‘take up your cross and follow me’. Our lives are not about fame or fortune, our lives about serving the suffering Messiah. We recognize that Jesus is the one who shapes our lives in his service.

As our TV screens and our hearts are filled with the desperate need of refugees, we might need to say that Jesus is the one who says ‘as you did it for the least of these little ones of mine, you did it for me’. We serve our God in the lowest and the least of our world. We need to do that and we need to say that.

And you should notice that in all of these examples you need to answer Jesus’ question ‘who do you say that I am?’ for yourself.
I gave some ideas of what you might say, but Jesus isn’t satisfied with other people’s answers, when the disciples try to give those, and I think the people we meet will spot it straight away if we give an answer that we know we should give, but we don’t quite believe. They will spot it and they might very well reject it.
Who do you say Jesus is? Who is Jesus to you? What difference does Jesus make in your life?

Those questions need thought – and then you need to put the answers into words, to share them with the world.

I pray we will all meet Jesus here today, and meeting and knowing him, may he inspire us to speak to others of what we know, that the whole earth may share the love of God we know in Jesus, and praise the name of Jesus our Lord,

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Good News for whom? (15th after Pentecost)

Isaiah 35: 4-7a. Mark 7: 24-37

Here is a sentence you will not often hear me utter.
I feel sorry for David Cameron.
Back in the middle of August he made an unguarded comment about the ‘swarm’ of migrants waiting to cross the English Channel. He was immediately accused of dehumanizing desperate people who often risk their lives to get to a country where they believe their lives will be safer.

In just the last two weeks the word ‘swarm’ has come back to haunt David Cameron, as we have all been shocked by the stories of people dying in lorries in Austria, crowds desperate to board trains in Hungary and of course this week’s terrible image of 2 year old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who died in the sea off Turkey together with his mother and brother.
Suddenly we are waking up to the idea that these are people who need to be helped, not a sub-human ‘swarm’, a pest and a problem.

I feel sorry for David Cameron because I doubt that he meant his words to be dismissive or hurtful, he was perhaps just echoing the sentiments so often used in some of our newspapers, until this week.

I hope that perhaps if he heard today’s Gospel reading David Cameron might take comfort in the fact that even Jesus gets it wrong.

The Syrophoenican woman – someone today we might call a Syrian – is a Gentile, a non-Jew. It was common practice in Jesus’ time for Gentiles to be referred to by Jews as ‘dogs’. The first shock to our modern ears comes when Jesus does that, too. The Syrian woman wants help for her little daughter and kneels at Jesus feet to beg for help.
Jesus says ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs’.
There really is no way of dressing this up – Jesus calls her a dog.

We might expect her to either slink away, rebuked for bothering the Jewish healer, or even to react in anger – having come for help, not abuse. But the woman’s reply is courteous and quick ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.’
Jesus replies ‘For saying that, you may go- the demon has left your daughter.’

However shocked we may be that Jesus calls her a dog in the first place, Jesus’ disciples must have been really shocked first by her reply and then by Jesus’ response in healing the girl. The rabbi has made it clear he is here for the children (of Israel) not the foreigners they call ‘dogs’ – but Jesus changes his mind and heals the Syrian girl.
Jesus changes his mind? Can we believe that Jesus can change his mind? And what does it mean for the gospel if he does?

Mark pairs this story with the story of the deaf man, in the region of the Decapolis – the ten towns. This is an area where the Gentiles would have been in the majority, in other words Jesus returns to Galilee via even more foreigners, proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing those who come to him.
It seems that Jesus has seen, through the encounter with the Syrian woman, that the gospel of God’s love is not just for the Jewish people, but for everyone.

And what does Jesus do for the deaf man who can hardly speak? He heals him of course, but he uses this colourful word ‘Ephphatha – be opened’.

When this reading was last set in the lectionary – three years ago – the then Pope, Benedict, said that this word described Jesus’ mission in one word ‘Ephphatha’. What does it mean for the gospel to be summed up in the command ‘Be opened’?

If Jesus himself has just had his vision of the Gospel expanded & his mind change by what happen in Tyre, perhaps ‘be opened’ refers to our minds.
Perhaps we need to accept that we see Jesus doing what Isaiah promises when he says “here is your God…he will come to save you.. the ears of the deaf will be unstopped”. But Jesus does not come for the children of Israel but for the ones whom they thought of as dogs – the foreign ‘swarm’.

Perhaps, like the deaf man, ‘ephphatha’ refers to our ears – let your ears be opened & listen to what God is saying around you. What is our proper response to people fleeing violence and poverty and fear?

Perhaps it refers to our churches – be opened – recognise that this gospel is for everyone, not just for the few who are like you. Let you doors be opened to the misfits and the unwanted and the desperate.

Perhaps David Cameron needs to think about what it means for our borders and our hearts to be opened and to be ready to respond to the needy with love, not scorn.

As we gather at the communion table we need to open our hands and our mouths to receive what Jesus gives us.

I pray we will also open our hearts and minds – to receive all that the gospel has to give – a message of grace and love and acceptance – for you for me for everyone.
Be opened. Receive.  Amen.