Reflections on the Gospel for Today – Mark 9:30-37
If anyone thinks that in-fighting and jostling for privilege and power is a recent thing, or something that only happens in Canberra, they’d be mistaken.
In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus’ disciples doing just that – arguing over which one of them was the greatest.
Like many of Jesus’ stories, this one contains good news, and bad news.
First the good news. Though the disciples were too embarrassed to admit to their behaviour, in the end they did. Jesus didn’t berate them. Instead he gathered them together and explained to them that true greatness isn’t measured by status or power, but by humble service to others.
Jesus wasn’t saying that aspiration to leadership is bad in and of itself, but he was distinguishing between ambition that is egotistical and self-aggrandising, and aspiration that is motivated by a desire to serve others.
The bad news is that we humans, throughout the ages, appear to have not heard what Jesus had to say, or have heard it but too often chosen to ignore it, preferring instead to indulge our “primal instincts” to seek power and status as if therein lies meaning and lasting satisfaction.
But listen to Jesus.
He calls a child, the archetype of powerlessness, vulnerability, trust and dependence.
He holds the child in His arms, and explains that when His followers put aside their quest for power and welcome the vulnerable and powerless in His Name, they will find they have welcomed God.
He’s saying that when we welcome the vulnerable and powerless in Jesus’ Name, we too encounter God.
Some people are natural leaders and others are quite good at following. Some who are good at following do so if what or who they follow doesn’t demand too much of them. As today’s reading from Mark’s gospel illustrates (Mark 8:27-38), following Jesus is more than simply stating that you are one of his disciples. Following Jesus is a demanding yet fulfilling journey that not everyone is willing to make.
Christian discipleship isn’t an easy journey and with many recent social changes overseas and within Australia it’s not getting easier.
Martin Luther wrote this in the early 16th century about being a disciple of Jesus: A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.
In the first half of the 20th century a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, authored a classic book entitled The Cost of Discipleship. Within it he wrote these words:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
The idea here is being “all in” for Jesus. It means that we don’t just make a one-time decision to say “yes” to him and then just move on. If we are “all-in” for Jesus, we will develop some practices in our life like prayer and meditation on the Scriptures that will enable us to grow in our relationship with Jesus – to know him better and therefore become able to walk with him in a consistent manner that reflects his lifestyle. And this has its cost.
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Mark 8:34b
Our cat is quirky. At night if it is outside it scratches to come in and then trots to the laundry where it expects you to shut it in for the rest of the night. It likes feeling safe from those other pesky animals and would never just go into the laundry of its own volition.
Humans like to feel safe. People like doors that lock and we like regular routines for our life. We feel safe when we put the toast in the toaster at 7.30am, and we like the same faces on our television news (will SBS be the same without Lee Lin Chin?). We like to know what we will be doing each day in the coming week.
Over the next few weeks we will be looking at the wildness of the gospel – it challenges our safety focussed lives. The wildness of the gospel was an issue in Jesus day. Jesus knew that it could/would explode in the Judaic community. In Marks gospel – and we see clear examples in this week’s gospel reading – he tries to order people into silence, but fails. The exciting change the gospel has brought into their lives just has to be shared. In John’s gospel there are similar issues, but there the better description is that the story goes wild. Think of the Blind Man or the woman at the well. Each of them is calling all to come see, to hear what has happened to them. The story has overtaken their reserve and they will not be silent.
In our lives it seldom feels there is a wild gospel seeking to force us out. Have we tamed the gospel, finding ways to “avoid extremes” or not go to the risky places where we feel ill-equipped. We have settled for a quiet Christian life. CS Lewis in the Narnia Chronicles insists over and again that the Lion (Aslan) is not tame and that being in his presence is dangerous.
I know that if we come close to God we will be called to risky faith, faith that challenges us and demands our all. I remember a delightful lady called Jess who at 76 set off to England to be a house mother for the children of missionaries. She was blessed enormously, but many did not understand her journey.
So let us go with the risky gospel, to be like the Pevensey children always looking for Aslan to appear in their story and transform the world around them; and transform them.
The Parable of the Sower, one of the best known of Jesus’ stories, uses the unpredictability and hardships of farming life to ask its hearers to reflect on life in general, but for Christians it reminds them of their mission to spread the Gospel through service and witness. The story seems to be dominated by the ways in which the spreading of the Word can be frustrated and it is easy to overlook the message of encouragement that ends the story. ….they bear fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold. Mark 4:20
In recent weeks it has been almost impossible to be unaware and unmoved by the plight of the many farmers across Australia suffering the effects of prolonged drought and others the results of hundreds of bush fires. It has been heartening to see and hear the massive response to their hardship. Frontier Services of the UCA is supporting outback communities and isolated families in good times as well as difficult ones. The Outback Padres mission is constant and in continuation of the long and honoured heritage of Rev John Flynn. They are respected and welcomed throughout the outback because they listen, care and understand. They endure the rocky patches, push through the weeds and scare away the predatory birds as they touch the lives of the lonely and isolated.
We can support this work in many ways. The article in the current edition of CHATS mentions the hosting of a fund-raising Outback BBQ and the support of the Red Dove Café at the Show. (Funds from the Café have helped re-establish a part time Padre based in Ceduna). Please keep Frontier Services, the padres and their families, and the other agencies working in the outback to support families who even in the good times do it tough.
As a minister for around 35 years I have had a rich and varied ministry. I have ministered in rural Port Lincoln) and remote (Kangaroo Island) settings; I have been involved in suburban ministry (Semaphore, Woodville, Seacombe); I have ministered in Urban fringe communities (Meadows and Mount Barker) and I have been involved in both workplace chaplaincy and school chaplaincy (PAC).
This has given me a rich and broad experience of ministry and has honed my skills. My areas of passion include working with people beyond the fringe of the church, particularly through chaplaincy, but I love the opportunity to speak of faith with those who either have no faith or are searching and exploring faith. I am also passionate about worship being “of the people”. We are all called to worship, not just watch it being done for us. This can include the arts, but also intensive prayer with those in need, and opportunities for individual response.
I also am passionate about small groups in the life of the church and will seek to encourage this area of ministry during my time at BCUC, particularly working alongside small group leaders to encourage them. I believe some programs are planned already so I look forward to supporting those.
One of my other passions is Disaster and Recovery Ministries. I have served in a variety of ways in this ministry, and in my last congregation we agreed that I would be released to be one of the early responders. I expect to continue this involvement in years to come.
I enjoy leading and participating in worship as it is a communal opportunity for us to hear and respond to the voice of God through Jesus and the Spirit, and I enjoy sharing about faith and helping people to deeply consider how they might grow in faith.
On a personal level – I am married (since Aug 1981 to Sue) have two grown daughters (Amy and Jessica) and two grandsons. I delight in Patrick (3 1?2) and Owen (12 months). I play golf (badly) and have kept Finches – although at the moment I am refurbishing my aviary so have none.
Of course, any bio sheet like this will barely tell any of the important “stuff” so please talk to me so we can discover each other.
Living Life to the Full
One of the major themes of John’s Gospel is life. John introduces this theme in the first few verses of his Gospel: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life.” And it comes near the end when John tells us why he wrote his Gospel: “…These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
All through the Gospel the theme of life emerges. Perhaps the best known reference is John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The word used there for abundant means, ‘over and above’… ‘more than necessary’ … ‘superadded’ … ‘supreme’.
Yet many people do not experience life in this way. Perhaps they experience life more like it seems Philip Adams does: “To me the universe is meaningless. There is no destiny, no author of creation. To me life is just a brief flash in infinite darkness.”
Perhaps part of the problem is with the word life itself. What is one word in English is at least three words in the Greek (the language of the New Testament). The first word is bios from which we derive our word biology. It is to do with the mechanics of life: eating, resting , reproducing. The second word is psyche from which we get psychology. It refers to the life of the mind and the emotions. Both of these are seen in the Christian tradition as good and necessary. But they are not enough for the fullness of life. So we have a third word zoe. It doesn’t translate into any common English word. But it is the word used when Jesus talks about life abundant or the fullness of life. It is a word which suggests the very life of God lived in and through us. To ignore this dimension is to live a diminished life.
We might call this deeper dimension of life the life of the soul or the spirit. So says John in his Gospel, open yourself to the deeper dimensions of life, allow the very life of God to come alive in you, for therein is the fullness of life. Or as the saint of old, Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself and our souls are restless until they rest in You.”
In Ephesians 5:15-20, St. Paul succinctly outlines behaviour for right living – Be wise, be sober, and be thankful. It’s a short list to help us transform our relationship with God, with positives for our relationships with our family, friends, those with whom we worship, and neighbours.
St. Paul ends this section of his letter by writing
Give thanks to God the Father at all times and for
everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Some of us find this really hard to do – giving thanks to God at all times. Things like affluence, pride, circumstances and habits get in the way of acknowledging the source of the many blessings we receive daily from God. It’s also hard to rejoice and be thankful when life has the better of you. It’s hard to be thankful when your doctor tells you ‘it’s serious’. Or when a family member calls and says “I’m in real trouble. I’m with the police.” It’s hard to be grateful when the bills are mounting up and the boss is considering layoffs. Often the culprit behind our inability to give thanks to God is harsh circumstances. Our thankfulness for the good things we have received from God is often soured by the sins and violence and horrors of our day to day existence.
Gratitude to God entails that we live not by evading the real nature of our existence, not by denying its character and history, but by facing the realities in our life with God’s help as the Holy Spirit strengthens us for daily living.
Dealing with Anger — All of us from time to time will feel angry and we certainly see signs of anger around us in such things as road rage. But of all the human emotions anger is perhaps one of the most difficult to deal with. Responses to anger range from trying to bury it within ourselves to free venting of our anger in a rage. There is an opinion in some church circles that it is wrong to be angry and texts like Colossians 3:8are brought out to support that point of view: “But now you must get rid of all such things…” and the first thing mentioned is anger.
But when we read the Gospels we find that Jesus was on occasion angry. I think, for example, of when he turfed the money changers out of the Temple. Or in Marks Gospel (3;5) when he responded to the way people were using a man with a withered hand for their own ends. And Ephesians tells us (4:26): “Be angry but do not sin.”
How can we be angry without sinning?
Well, it’s not by trying to repress our anger, that is, try and bury it within ourselves and hope it won’t escape. It isn’t by releasing it, giving free expression to the anger within us. There is another way, and this is to redeem it. That is, turn the energy of our anger into a good purpose. People like Wilberforce were angry at the slave trade and they allowed the energy of that anger to overturn the trafficking of human beings. An early desert monk by the name of Evagrius said we should not waste a good anger on being angry with a person. Rather, he said, we should be angry at a wrong and allow that to motivate you to right the wrong.
Often when we feel angry it is a knee jerk reaction to something that we perceive to have threatened us in some way. Something happens and we react. Action leads to reaction. To redeem our anger we need to place a step in between the action and reaction and that step is to question. Something happens and we feel angry. We then ask, Why am I feeling like this and what can I do about it?
That is, I think, how we can be angry and not sin.
There are a number of ‘Specified Ministries’ within the Uniting Church including the ministry of Lay Preacher. Today across the Synod we celebrate and give thanks to God for those who have been called by God to exercise this ministry. Without their commitment to proclaim the Word of God, it has been estimated that half the services of worship conducted in Uniting Church congregations each Sunday in SA would have no preacher!
We are blessed at BCUC with 7 accredited Lay Preachers, 5 retired accredited Lay Preachers and 7 more people not accredited but who preach within our congregation from time to time. Thank you for the faithful exercise of your ministry among us.
Those who have been gifted by God to preach are examples of those who the Spirit is using to equip us as a congregation for Christian living. The purpose of such gifting is that we may be unified in faith and grow to maturity in Christ. Ephesians chapter 4 on which my sermon for today is based, indicates clearly that the ascended Christ gave various gifts to the infant Church for its growth in faith, service and unity. Using the ‘body’ analogy, Christ is the Church’s head, and as each one of us joined together in him plays our part, the body grows and builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:16).
Thank you to all who preach in our various services of worship. Your faithfulness and commitment to proclaim the Word of God inspires us for our daily living and brings us fresh insight from God for our personal lives and our life together as a congregation.
Being the Beloved
Holy Communion is one of the central moments of a church’s worshipping life. Participating in Holy Communion is, according to the National Church Life Survey, one of the most significant elements in a person’s spiritual life.
Why so? I guess there are many reasons, but one, I think, would be that Communion is a microcosm of what the Christian life is about. It reminds us of who we follow and how he lived, and then calls us to the same. It’s about our identity; it’s about our reason for being.
In the Gospels we read the words with which we are no doubt aware: “Taking the five loaves (he) blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people…” (Mark 6:41) If those words sound familiar, it is because they are the same words used at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22) and also when the resurrected shared a meal the two travellers on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:30).
Taken, blessed, broken and given. Why the repetition? Henri Nouwen suggests it is because these words summarise Jesus’ life and the life to which we are called.
Our lives are taken, that is we are chosen by God. We are blessed; to be blessed is to have good things said about you. We know that in life we experience brokenness; but through that brokenness we are enabled to nourish others. And our lives are to be given to and for others; we are a unique and valuable gift to this world.
We truly are the beloved children of God.