New Anglicanism

"Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" - Jesus (Gospel of Matthew 13:52)

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The God who Gathers: Gospel & Community in the Gospel of Matthew Study 5

LENTEN STUDY 5

Community, kingdom and the cup of Christ

A printable version is available here.

Matthew 20:17-34

Preliminary discussion

Have you ever found yourself in the position of being part of an inner-circle of a highly sought after group, or given VIP status at an event? Be honest about how you found the experience?

Consider designations of high status in various contexts (for example, frequent flyer tiers and VIP privileges; or senior management access). Do we have any equivalent practices within the church?

Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

 (New Revised Standard Version)

Initial impressions

Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?

What questions does it raise in your mind?

Are there any characters you find it hard to relate to or understand where they are coming from? (If you were asked to act out their role, what would you need to think through or explore to ‘get inside their skin’?)

Some background

In the last study we noted the profound differences in the leadership style and modus of Jesus. His is a leadership that puts the wellbeing of others before his own, and in ways that go much deeper than we can truly comprehend. The compassion, grace and salvation from his hands come at a personal cost that leads to the cross.

The ‘cup’ of the Lord

This passage starts with another word of warning to the disciples about what lies ahead (the third prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection), following 16:21 and 17:22-23). All of Jesus’ teaching at this point needs to be viewed through the lens of the cross and resurrection. This is the ‘cup’ that he must now accept (20:22-23), and the sobering prospect of this adds a further dimension to the credibility of his teaching. Just as Jesus had spoken of loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, he is now to embody the reality of his own words. While many aspects of Jesus’ death are unique to him, the ‘cup’ here is also extended as a symbol for martyrdom.

These are salutary reminders as we enter this stage of our Lenten observances, following in the spiritual footsteps of our Lord as he takes up his cross, and in that ‘cup’ Christ is doing something life-changing on our behalf: giving his life as a ransom for many (20:28). The imagery and the scenario it evokes is a powerful window into the work of the cross. A ransom is a price paid to effect an act of redemption. A life is given and paid, that others might receive life.

All is not right with the world. That much most would agree with. God grieves over the wickedness within the world, and few (none!) of us can distance our own track record into a righteous ‘us’ and wicked ‘them’. We can experience horror and outrage at wrongdoing elsewhere, but we are blind to our own failings.

Much of the teaching of Jesus has affirmed God’s unshakable commitment to uncompromised expectations of righteousness (5:20), and the victory of justice over evil and everything that is contrary to all that is good and right (12:18-21). That comes as a given in God’s ‘job description’. Alongside this we see key attributes in God’s character: a depth and richness of love that extends even to enemies and those who have wronged us, a God of mercy and compassion (e.g. 20:30 & 34). This is not so much God’s ‘job description’, but the type of God revealed in Christ.

How are these two held together (upholding justice while showing mercy)? We cannot ever plumb the depths of such matters, but we are given a picture that tells us where to look is provided here. The ‘cup’ is a symbol of God’s righteous wrath, the type of wrath we hear in the indignation of all who have been wronged and cry out for justice (see Ps. 11:6; Is. 51:17; Jer. 25:15-17; 51:7; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2). An appeal for justice insists that such wrongdoing not be ignored or swept under the carpet—it demands an accounting. And in hearing such cries, God has given an assurance that righteousness shall prevail and all wrongdoing be held accountable.

While our hopes hold firmly to the hope in the victory of justice, our hearts are burdened by the knowledge that we can only appeal to the mercy of God. Upon the cross, the cup of God’s wrath is borne by Jesus and the ransom owing to us is dealt with (and much more beside). For sure, this is not the only window into understanding the work of the cross, but it is a profound one.

Status and service within the community of the kingdom

Set alongside the sobering words of Jesus as to the work necessary to establish the kingdom-reign of God, the pettiness of the request from James and John stands in complete contrast. This presumptuous favour is asked by their mother (most likely at their request – older women were afforded some standing to make such a request in Jewish society), but they are the focus of the response delivered by Jesus.

The teaching is directed to all the twelve, and is cast clearly in terms of contrast with the leadership modes of those in power and authority outside the kingdom. In naming rulers who ‘lord it over people’ and act as ‘tyrants’, the disciples would know all too well what such leadership looked like.

Social order in the ancient world is sometimes depicted as a triangle, with the bottom portion (something like 40%) being slaves of some description. They were the property of their owner, and were under their complete authority. Some fared reasonably well, while others had hideous lives and treatment. The words of Jesus in stating that the mode of leadership within the kingdom is to be that of a slave would have been outrageous and shocking. In effect, he turned the whole social triangle upside down.

In identifying a ‘servant heart’ as an admirable quality of leadership we have become overly familiar with the teaching of Jesus at this point, and have softened the radical nature of counter-cultural leadership. Yet this is exactly what Jesus was about to model as he accepted execution in a form reserved for slaves and the lowest of society.

The short cameo story that rounds out this section is located where it is for a purpose. It is shaped around a contrast: the crowd pressing in on Jesus, and speaking sternly to the two blind men whom they think should be seen (perhaps) but not heard. In contrast, the two blind men see something in Jesus others were blind to: as one sent by God and about the work of God (the ‘Son of David’, and ‘lord’), Jesus is someone who can act upon the mercy of God and bring healing. The God revealed in Jesus is identified by Matthew as a God of compassion, while the persistence of the blind men in petitioning Jesus until they received sight stands as an example of discipleship.

Yet the question is posed to those like us watching on: are we blind to our own blindness? Can we learn from the example of the blind men in approaching God in terms of ‘Son of David, have mercy on us?’ When asked by Jesus “What do you want me to do for you?” they did not answer as most would have expected (‘give us some money’), but dared to ask for something much more life-changing: to be healed. These are profound Lenten questions…

Discussion points

In what ways might the style and modus of leadership within God’s people (including Christian leaders in secular workplaces) stand out as counter-cultural approaches to leadership?

In naming slaves as the template for Christian leadership, Jesus used a shocking category: what might some modern equivalents be?

Tom Wright (Matthew for Everyone, 2:61) summarises the lure of ‘power, position and prestige’: we know the church is not immune from such desires. How might we inoculate ourselves from such temptations?

We all know about power games in various sectors of society: in politics; in business or workplace hierarchies; in the provision of funding allocations (whether local or overseas) – how might Christian approaches to leadership function within the pragmatics of contemporary power and authority?

Why was it necessary for Jesus to go to the cross? Discuss making some sense of the crucifixion within the purposes of God. What questions does it raise, and how does a passage such as this help us understand something of the ‘cup’ Jesus accepted.

Jesus again refers to the cup as part of the Last Supper (26:27-29). Does this provide any further to our understanding of his death as ‘the blood of the covenant’?

Other resources

Consider the ‘politics of tables’: who gets to sit where, the difference table shapes make (round verses rectangular or square) etc. Consider how we might reflect the gospel in how we gather at tables—or are there alternatives?

There are many fables of people seeking fame and fortune, who lose something of themselves as a result – can you think of any recent examples?

Action points

Rather than following our usual practice of suggesting some possible action points, in this study we will pose a more person question: how has God spoken and challenged you in this passage (as a group as well as personally)? How might you respond to such a challenge in whatever context you find yourselves?

Going deeper

Some excellent material is available on this theme provided by Dr John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity. You can explore this further through his book Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (which you can preview here - http://www.amazon.com/Humilitas-Lost-Life-Love-Leadership/dp/0310328624 )

You can also view John speaking on ‘Humility and Leadership’ via a Vimeo link: http://vimeo.com/22452650 and ‘What is humility?’ http://vimeo.com/22452940

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The God who Gathers: Gospel & Community in the Gospel of Matthew Study 4

LENTEN STUDY 4

A community leader unlike any other

A printable version is available here          

Matthew 11:25 - 12:21

Preliminary discussion

The past half-century has seen many rebellions against those in authority (socially, philosophically, politically, culturally). It is simply not possible to generalise about the validity and value of such rebellions – they are too many and varied. However, history does highlight that the overthrow of one regime, leader and authority figure will invariably be replaced by another. The question becomes not ‘will we have leadership and authority?’, but ‘what sort of leadership and exercise of authority do we desire to see?’

Either write up a list of qualities you look for in a good leader, or explore such lists in books or the internet with regard to leadership qualities.

Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

12 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

9 He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

15 When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, 16 and he ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

    18      “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,

    my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.

    I will put my Spirit upon him,

    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

    19      He will not wrangle or cry aloud,

    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.

    20      He will not break a bruised reed

    or quench a smoldering wick

    until he brings justice to victory.

    21      And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

 (New Revised Standard Version)

Initial impressions

Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?

What questions does it raise in your mind?

Can you imagine the reactions of the differing sections of people listening to this? Which sections would have caused shock, while others would hear words of comfort? (If you were asked to act out the role of one of these groups, what would you need to think through or explore to ‘get inside their skin’?)

Some background

If we adopt a mining analogy, this passage is like discovering an incredibly rich location in which a whole variety of invaluable mineral seams all converge and run off in every direction. Drilling deeper at any point will prove abundantly fruitful. There are many theological gems to be discovered here. Our approach, however, will be to survey the wider landscape, and note the connections between the various seams.

This is a biggish unit to explore, and you will invariably need to be selective: you will not come close to exhausting the riches to be explored here! If a central theme is to be located, it is the way qualities of authority and leadership shape the community being gathered by God. Jesus is a leader unlike any other, and as a result his community is unlike any other.

God unveiled, and truth to live by

We live in a world in which knowledge is power, and those with an expertise in a given area can use such expertise either to the benefit of others, or to bolster their own standing and dynamics of control. This is constantly reflected in the life of the church as much as anywhere else in society. In one sense this is good, in that the purposes and knowledge of God are bigger than any individual. They have been entrusted to the one, holy, catholic church of God throughout the ages, and we are called to honour that. Yet it also means that the church as an institution needs to be particularly careful in how ‘knowledge as power’ is balanced by a ‘democratisation of the Spirit’.

This forms the background to the words of Jesus here. He is engaging with religious authorities and experts, well aware of their debates and leadership roles. He is about to cut through their traditions of interpretation of God’s laws, but in Matthew’s account Jesus points to a greater knowledge of God revealed to ‘little children’ in a way that those who are ‘wise and learned’ do not see (11:25). The ‘little children’ here also has a metaphorical sense for those little regarded by society when measured by formal qualifications, yet whose attitudinal qualities of openness to God enable them to see truths. This is an appeal to wisdom traditions, shaped by a respect and awe of God over against human claims of discovering God.

The authority and wisdom of Jesus

Yet here it is more than those who explore wisdom traditions. Jesus is presented as the ultimate embodiment of ‘Wisdom’ in his own being – Wisdom ‘personified’. Jesus as God’s Son has an intimate knowledge of his Father, reveals God’s character and purposes, and has had ‘all things’ committed to him by the Father (11:27).

Jesus has been entrusted with power and authority unlike anyone else, and will exercise it unlike anyone else. The familiar phrases in 11:28-30 refer primarily to the nature of Jesus’ kingship. Some background can be found in 1 Samuel 8, and the request by Israel for a king ‘like all the nations’. In reply through Samuel, God warns that such a king will come at a cost: he will ‘take… take… take… take… take… take… ’ (see 1 Sam. 8:11-16). Kings ‘like other nations’ burden the people with taxation, conscription and quotas – something just as true of life at the time of Jesus.

By contrast, the kingdom-reign of God through Jesus is characterised by a king who carries the load himself, and through whom true rest may be found. The yoke of discipleship, as instructed and guided by Jesus, is not burdensome like the traditions of application in the form of multitudinous legal definitions, but life-giving and restorative (as reflected in the passage that follows).

Re-discovering a disappearing word

Recent translations of 11:29 let us down a bit by following the trend in avoiding a key term: ‘meek’ (praus), and substituting ‘gentle’ and making it an equivalent to ‘humble’. This quality is actually very distinctive, and most often used of someone in a position of power and authority (also used of well-disciplined stallions). When used of kings, it stands as the opposite of playing the tyrant. In contrast to being vindictive or self-serving, the quality of ‘praus’ is to be generous and to consider the fortunes of others.

For Jesus to be a ‘meek’ king, far from an attribute of weakness or passivity, this points to a mode of kingship that is reasonable, characterised by grace and which brings comfort to others.

Deeper than law: mercy, doing good and healing

The Pharisees were obsessed by law-observance—and for good reason. The key explanation provided by the prophets as to why the horrors of the exile in the history of Israel had occurred was summed up by the indictment: the failure to keep the laws of Moses. Great efforts were made to educate and provide guidance in the observance of the law. Much more than an individual failure, whole communities were judged by their toleration of law-breaking, so the need for faithfulness to the torah was an all-of-society concern.

Such issues were well illustrated by the command not to do work on the Sabbath. But what constituted ‘work’? This was much debated amongst the Pharisees, and a ‘boundary’ of definitions was used to give assurance to people that they fell within the observance of the command.

Note carefully: Jesus does not set aside the importance of God’s law (compare 5:17-20), but he cuts right through the notion that the intent of the law can be reduced to a checklist of compliance definitions. There are greater purposes of God running at a deeper level, and they are revealed through using a ‘how much more…’ type of argument.  If an exception can be allowed in various instances, how much more will that which will allow for mercy, doing good or healing be acceptable before God?

In short, the law is not to be our master (as in the Sabbath laws), but provided by God to guide and instruct us. Should we observe one day of rest as a Sabbath day? This passage does not say otherwise, but it does free up the application to address a range of circumstances more flexibly: “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (12:12).

God’s chosen Servant and the mission of God

Just as this section commences with a reference to the authority of Jesus as given by the Father (11:25), so too it concludes with a picture of the mission God had entrusted to him (12:15-21). With reference to a well-known ‘Servant’ passage in the prophet Isaiah, Jesus highlights both the nature and modus of his mission.

In a world of power and military force, Jesus would not resort to retaliation, demagoguery or the sweeping aside of the weak or vulnerable. The imagery is especially evocative: ‘He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick’ (12:20). The quality of ‘meekness’ is given poignant expression.

One final theme is to be noted: God’s purposes in gathering a people is extended to the gentiles (12:18, 21), while the hope associated with his name will be in and through the proclamation and victory of justice over against all other displays of power and authority – something that will take dramatic and dark form as Jesus moves towards the showdown in Jerusalem and the shadow of the cross.

Discussion points

A number of ‘self-empowerment’ gurus speak of our making choices to cast off people around us who hinder or burden us. What do you make of this in light of 11:25-26? What does it say about the values and goals of our western society if such messages are well-received?

What value system do we live by with regard to those who are less able, slower than others, or less educated? How might we distinguish ‘wisdom’ from ‘intelligence’?

In a number of ways it is often true that we get the leaders we ask for. Our expectations for results and success puts leaders under enormous stress, and the pressure to live up to perceived leadership profiles can say as much about the community as the leader. What capacities do leaders have to shape the character and social or spiritual environment of a community, and how might communities encourage the best of qualities to emerge in leaders? Discuss this with reference to your own immediate social contexts as much as the community at large.

In our historic Anglican prayer book (BCP), the sentence ‘Come unto me all who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you…’ features as one of the ‘comfortable words’ that accompany the invitation to the Lord’s Table. How is the gospel truth of this passage enacted in the sacrament of Holy Communion?

Other resources

Consider many stories and films (real life and fictional) that illustrate how difficult it is to reign in temptations that come with being in positions of power and control – eg. ‘Lord of the Rings’, through to more down to earth examples.

Action points

How might we give greater space and voice to the ‘little ones’ in our midst, so that we hear and learn from their insights and qualities?

Consider our support for those in authority (within the church, and beyond), and ways in which the best qualities of leadership might be encouraged.

Going deeper

Interestingly, the next passage (Matthew 12: 22-37) touches on the accusation that Jesus is an agent of Beelzebub (12:24), otherwise known as ‘lord of the flies’. Consider how William Golding’s novel by the same name illustrates dynamics of power, control and abuse (also profoundly reflected in the dynamics and experience of the movie).

The Pharisees did not have one unified code of interpretations regarding the Torah, but several ‘schools’ of approach and application. Craig Keener’s IVP commentary provides a helpful summary.

Tom Wright’s ‘Matthew for Everyone’ (1: 142-143) has a poignant ‘Bishop’s story’ illustrating how this passage speaks into the day to day realities that mark our own experiences, and highlights hope in the midst of very real challenges and trials.

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The God who Gathers: Gospel & Community in the Gospel of Matthew Study 3

LENTEN STUDY 3

Another way: Christian counter-culture

 A printable version is available here.

Matthew 5:43 – 6:15

Preliminary discussion

Have you ever observed the behavior of toddlers in a playground? What mix of human character traits can be noted, both positively and negatively? What changes as we mature?

Consider today’s news – what range of experiences is reflected? What underlying causes or influences might we detect – again, both positively and negatively? Are these also reflected in our own neighbourhoods and lives, in their own way?

When books, movies and TV explore the realities of life, conflict, tension and polarisation often feature as the craft of shaping drama (whether personal, communal, social, political or global – even sci-fi). Within such works, a desire for finding ‘another way’ of responding often emerges – can you think of any examples?

Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

6 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

10         Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

11         Give us this day our daily bread.

12         And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13         And do not bring us to the time of trial,

but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

(New Revised Standard Version)

Initial impressions

Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?

What questions does it raise in your mind?

As you hear this passage, which parts have an ‘of course!’ reaction, and which parts leave you wondering ‘is this realistic?’

Some background

A profound worldview is implied here by reference to the phrase ‘your Father in heaven’ (note e.g. 5:43). Make a note of the number of times the designation ‘your Father’ occurs. This is the reference point throughout: we are to approach life at every point as the ultimate ‘Father’ expects and models.

An important clarification is needed at this point. Not everyone’s experience of an earthly father is a positive one, and this can cause difficulty in engaging in passages such as this one. It is important to hear such concerns, and we cannot offer easy consolation about such experiences. However, passages such as this are not saying God is to be understood just like earthly experiences of fatherhood. It works the other way around: there is an ideal of how fatherhood should be expressed, and the ultimate reality of this is reflected in the character, faithfulness and profound love as revealed in the heavenly Father.

Another way to consider this is to reflect on our deep desire for the ‘ideal father’. What would be the characteristics and qualities of our ‘perfect father’? This gets us closer to how these references to ‘your Father’ feature here.

We may also clarify that God is beyond gender, neither male nor female (while both male and female reflect the image of God). Female imagery for God also features elsewhere in Scripture. Without stripping away all such references to relational qualities of God expressed through such designations, a richer approach is to gather and hold all such references alongside one another. Approaching God through the Aramaic ‘Abba, Father’ is one of the early traditions readily adopted into other languages and cultures as a recognition of rich theological and relational associations of the term – with a familiarity akin to an (adult) reference to ‘Daddy’. The opening address in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Our Father in heaven’ is a profound gospel treasure in its own right. – You may care to discuss this further…

The unit known to us as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is probably one the most familiar parts of this passage, and would otherwise merit extended exploration. For the purposes of our study, however, we will limit ourselves to just a few observations. This prayer is not intended as a rote expression of words and phrases, but taken together is a profound summary statement of the ultimate Christian worldview. This is how we relate the ‘big picture’ of delighting in God being God, and of being committed to ‘God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven’, to the most down to earth realities of seeking our daily bread and dealing with wrongdoing in life (both our own, and also being done to us). Where do we look when life gets tough and we experience all too real trials and temptations?

Praying the Lord’s Prayer should evoke a ready ‘yes!’ (‘amen’) from us. The challenge is to translate such desires and petitions into our day-to-day realities of life. What would this look like?

The rest of the passage (and surrounding paragraphs) spell this out in stark, and often dramatic, terms. Early audiences would relate to the scenarios identified very readily.

We noted in study 2 that this section of Matthew (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’) sees the gathering by God of a new people of God in, through and around the person of Jesus. The invitation into the Kingdom of God that constituted the essential message of Jesus means that the very moment we say ‘our Father’, we automatically have sisters and brothers, we have family—a profound family that extends across the ages and around the globe. We are drawn into the ultimate community, the community of the Kingdom.

One thing is clear, however. This community is not to just live to ourselves, but we are to enter (in God’s grace) into the work and ways of the kingdom—and this is very likely to put us at odds with the ‘ways of the world’.

An enigma emerges at this point. We are called to engage with the world outside the church, and to enter into all manner of cultures and societies. Wherever possible, we are to adopt and adapt our cultures as much as possible, for the sake of the gospel and without compromising our core Christian values (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23).

However, we are also called to be counter-cultural. While accommodating many cultural modes, we are also to be culturally distinctive, and not just go with the flow. In some cases this may involve clear rejection of some of the values, lifestyles and thinking identified with our wider community. In others, it may be redeemed or transformed expressions of a particular culture., to the extent that a gospel influence may bring changes for the better within a culture.

Discussion points

As noted above, early audiences would have related to the scenarios identified very readily – can you suggest some contemporary equivalents in our own contexts?

Are the ‘third way’ alternatives realistic? Aren’t they at risk of turning people into passive ‘door mats’ to be abused by those in positions of power? How might non-retaliatory responses still be ‘strong-in-weakness’? e.g to name wrongdoing and be a means to challenge and potentially transform injustice and abuse?

Where does a ‘community response’ to injustice and wrongdoing fit into such considerations? What is the role of impartial observers, or those who do not have a direct interest?

Other resources

View the following clip regarding the Mennonites, taking note of cultural ‘normality’ as well as distinctive beliefs and practices:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1nU8Fi6ILI

Action points

Consider ways in which you (personally, and as a church) might explain why we may do some things differently from others (perhaps the majority) of our community.

Think through ways in which our distinctiveness as Christians may stand against ‘going with the flow’, and similarly consider areas in which we need to get much better at entering into other people’s social and cultural worlds. Discuss how you might act on these discussions.

*Consider a relationship or person who has wronged you—what gesture, action or response can you act on to address this situation?

Going deeper

Consider as a case study the Amish people. What qualities might our post-modern western culture learn from, and what are the vulnerabilities associated with Amish communities?

Research the theology and practice of restorative justice – how does this give expression to the teaching of Jesus as reflected in our passage above?

See for an introduction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrEApuJ-DTE

Nelson Mandela has left many legacies through his life, but perhaps few any more powerful than his striking stories of forgiveness. For a brief account, read

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/nelson-mandela-forgiveness-south-africa-apartheid-528153

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The God who Gathers: Gospel & Community in the Gospel of Matthew Study 2

Light within darkness

A printable version is available here

Lenten Study 2                       

Matthew 4:12 – 5:16

Preliminary discussion

Images and experiences of light and dark are incredibly evocative. Can you think of examples of moving from one to the other that made an impression on you (perhaps the onset of a storm, or the arrival of dawn or the end of bad weather)?

What range of realities and experiences do ‘light’ and ‘dark’ convey?

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) are amongst the most well-known parts of Scripture and the teaching of Jesus. Do you have any preferred versions?

Have you ever experienced living somewhere for a time without the availability of electricity and light (at least through the experience of a prolonged blackout)? Did it change how you viewed darkness – especially if you felt potentially threatened, vulnerable or anxious? What does the availability of artificial light, or the coming dawn, bring to a renewed appreciation of light? What might these images evoke to people in the ancient world?

Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)

For this reading, imagine Jesus moving through communities of people, observing the circumstances of their lives, and looking at their faces as he speaks.

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15         “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,

            on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

16         the people who sat in darkness

            have seen a great light,

            and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death

            light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

(New Revised Standard Version)

Initial impressions

Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?

What questions does it raise in your mind?

This passage contains much imagery – which images and terms stood out to you? How did this passage appeal to your imagination?

Some background

Part of the artistry reflected in each Gospel is the way various units are linked together, one element providing the context for the next. This is especially so in this section of Matthew’s Gospel. As Jesus steps out beyond his hometown into a more public mode, the scene for his ministry is painted with word pictures drawn from the prophet Isaiah, with the striking description of ‘the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’

Just as the original creation account referred to ‘darkness hovering over the deep’ with the spirit/breath/wind of God addressing such darkness (Genesis 1:2), so here the ministry of Jesus is cast as a ‘great light’ and the arrival of dawn. Against this backdrop Matthew then notes the characteristic summary of the teaching of Jesus (1:17).

The sequence as shaped by Matthew then follows: from darkness to light; the gathering of his ministry team; a public ministry of teaching, preaching and healing, and crowds gathering to see, hear, be touched and to follow; the crowds then located on a mountain as Jesus teaches about God’s blessings; with a highlight on those gathered around Christ being salt and light amidst the world at large.

The ministry of Jesus is extended to his disciples, and then further onto all who would follow him. All three – Jesus, the disciples, and the community of those gathered in the name of God are drawn together at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (28:16-20). This reflects a major concern for Matthew’s understanding of God’s mission as reflected in Christ, and into which his disciples and the church are called to participate.

The verses that conclude chapter 4 (23-25) are a summary of this stage of Jesus’ ministry. It is located in the northern region of Galilee, with a mixture of teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the ‘good news of the kingdom’, and giving expression to that kingdom in the form of extensive healings in a variety of forms. This reflects the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) more broadly, where about one third of the narrative is given over to accounts of healings. It is not clear whether we should expect such healings to be normative of the Christian life, or whether they are exceptional happenings (hence the crowds) drawn to the experience of the fulness of the kingdom experienced here as a foretaste of what lies ahead when the kingdom is fully realised.

These are big questions, and for now we note the way in which the kingdom is proclaimed by Jesus by word and deed, and indeed the fact that all that Jesus brings through his presence and ministry is an initial realization of the kingdom, while the fulness of the kingdom lies ahead.

Read the beatitudes in a few different translations. Note that the language of ‘blessed’ has a range of senses that need to be held together (no single English word does this). It can convey ‘happy are’ (a state of being), ‘blessed [by God] are…’; and a more interpretive sense of ‘God has a special concern for…’, ‘God especially favours…’.

The wider sense is reflected in the responding clause: ‘for they will be…’ etc. There is a movement from the present reality ‘are’, to a future assurance ‘will’. The beatitudes both profoundly reflect something of the character and heart of God, and enters into a type of covenant promise where God commits himself to the ultimate well-being of such people.

This calling to be faithful and reflect the character and values of God in the midst of a world of darkness and anxiety is grounded in the commitment God makes to his covenant people, especially as previously expressed at Mt Sinai through Moses to the people gathered and named as God’s covenant people. The parallels between Mt Sinai and this mountain, between Moses and Christ, are intentional. Matthew sees a fulfilment of God’s covenant promises to Moses, and their greater realisation now in the person of Jesus. The people of God is at once fulfilled and re-constituted by all those who are gathered in Christ’s name.

Discussion points

Can you think of any alternative ‘beatitudes’? What sort of list might others in our wider community come up with (i.e. a secular version), completing a list starting with ‘happy are those who…, for they shall…’? - an example may be found here: http://www.joshharris.com/2012/07/the_secular_beatitudes.php

A key character in the movie ‘Wall Street’ notoriously declared ‘greed is good!’ – how does this sit with the worldview reflected in this passage? (You may know of more recent examples).

In this passage we see Jesus beginning in his community gathering work that will culminate in the establishment of church communities. Discuss the desire for community and friendship, whether as reflected in movies or TV, or otherwise in your own neighbourhoods or social networks.

Other resources

Many different video versions of the Gospels feature dramatic representations of the Sermon on the Mount. Investigate a few differing approaches, and compare the settings, mood and mode of presentation.

Much artwork reflects images of light and darkness, of grief, angst and despair; of reflected light and colour to convey life and vitality, even in the most unlikely of contexts. Bring some examples that speak to you, and compare what they evoke with themes in this passage.

Do some research on the Impressionists, or Fauvism. Compare these with the thinking behind Naïve or Folk art, especially when depicting images of community. What do they aspire to evoke in longings of the human heart and soul?

Action points

Identify various community gathering points in your own neighbourhoods or social networks. What gathers people together, and how are people included or excluded? Should the church do its own thing in shaping community, or look to be a presence where people are.

Consider creating a ‘community gathering’ activity with a view to inviting or drawing others to join in. It might be a street party, community garden, picnic in a park that includes ‘random acts of kindness or generosity’.

Ask your neighbours what your church community (small group or home group) might do to serve the neighbourhood, and decide on an area of service as a group in response.

Going deeper

Salt could fulfill a number of functions in the ancient world, from utilitarian, culinary to symbolic. Consult a bible dictionary to explore the range of uses, and consider which may be relevant for the interpretation of Matthew 5:13.

The early community of followers associated with Jesus stand in contrast to other communities at that time. Investigate approaches to creating community through synagogues, or through more disciplined communities such as the Essenes.

The ‘deep values’ of life and community reflected here are expressed in a wider context of debate and advocacy of a range of philosophies and worldviews (ancient and modern). Many of the distinctive (and common) characteristics of this passage can be explored by comparison with other philosophical or worldview approaches.

0 notes &

The God who Gathers: Gospel & Community in the Gospel of Matthew Study 1 

Exploring our roots: drawn into the family of Jesus

A printable version is available here

Lenten Study 1                       

Matthew chapter 1

Preliminary discussion

What do you recall about distinctive themes or aspects of Matthew’s Gospel?

Share something of your family tree: how far back can you trace it? Are there any notable names or stories? Have you ever met up with wider family members you had previously not known?

Some people are more into family trees than others, but at a deeper level, is it important to know something of our roots? Have you had an experience of revisiting some of your own origins – either your own, or that of your parents or grandparents?

Are you aware of anyone who has been adopted or welcomed into a family?

Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23         “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

(New Revised Standard Version)

Initial impressions

Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?

What questions does it raise in your mind?

Are there parts of this passage that would have raised eyebrows from early audiences?

Some background

Kinship is a major feature of ancient societies, including Jewish, Greek and Roman. To be identified with one of the founding families gave significant status and social identity. To be identified with a royal family even more so. Alongside this, kinship ties established through adoption or marriage provided strong bonds that carried through to the next generation. The head of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ birth was Caesar Augustus (the first ‘emperor’), who came to prominence and claimed a pre-eminence on the basis of his adoption by Julius Caesar (he was actually his nephew).

Genealogies don’t always make the most exciting reading, but they do tell a story in their own way. Biblical genealogies have a strong ‘theological’ thread running through them – God is at work in and through family-lines from one generation to the next. As God (as an act of grace, not merit) chose and pledged himself to Abraham and his descendants from one generation to the next, a storyline was established that runs to the end of scripture… and beyond.

The choosing of Abraham and his descendants was for a purpose – that all nations would be blessed through them (Genesis 12:1-3). God never intended Abraham’s family to be an elite and exclusive one, but ever widening and drawing in others to share in the blessing of knowing God as ultimately ‘head of the family’. This kinship relationship with Yahweh is renewed at various points in the Old Testament, especially through David, with the added promise that the royal line would come from the house of David.

Many of the familiar stories from this Old Testament narrative are drawn up into the narrative in Matthew 1 in a way that locates Jesus as part of this much older and wider storyline. All that God had promised to do through the kin of Abraham and David will be fulfilled in the person of Jesus. As Paul noted in Galatians (3:16), Jesus both fulfills the promise made to Abraham’s ‘seed’, and redefines the identity of the ‘seed’ going into the future. The stage is set to identify all who are ‘in Christ’ to be ‘Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3:29).

The Gospel of Matthew is heading in the same direction. The birth of Jesus is the culmination of God’s purposes from Abraham, through David, to ‘the Christ’.

Matthew also highlights the number ‘fourteen’ in verse 17. Numbers are especially significant in Hebrew culture, and they loved the cryptic use of numbers as symbolic truths (we see a more elaborate symbolic use of numbers in the book of Revelation, but compare also Daniel 9:20-27). Here Matthew identifies three cycles of fourteen. To a Jewish audience the ‘code’ would be clear: three fourteens is to broken down to six ‘sevens’ (the holy and complete number). Six sevens is incomplete, awaiting the ‘seventh’ seven, the time of completion and fulfilment now commenced in Christ.

For those familiar with the ‘rules’ of ancient family trees, Matthew’s genealogy contains a number of striking surprises. For a start, Matthew includes a number of women, which in itself would have raised eyebrows. However, if Matthew’s point was primarily to underscore the place of women in this narrative, he could have chosen more respectable women: why not the matriarchs of Israel: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel?

The names Matthew does select for inclusion would otherwise be considered scandalous and best kept hidden in the cupboard. They are women with Gentile family roots, and most have stories associated with questionable sexual conduct: Tamar the Canaanite, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite, and the ex-wife of Uriah the Hittite (Bathsheba).

Questions of honour and shame are also associated with the circumstances of the conception of Jesus, and Matthew also notes the social dilemma facing Joseph (1:19). Engagement to be married was a much stronger commitment in Jewish culture than we practice in our culture. To be ‘engaged’ was to be pledged to someone (1:18), and to be subsequently found pregnant before the marriage was consummated would be shameful upon both families. In human terms this may explain the relocation to Bethlehem, but for Matthew a greater significance is found in the special circumstances of the conception, and in fulfillment of prophetic expectations (1:22-23).

Discussion points

Read the background narratives associated with Tamar (Genesis 38:6-26), Rahab (Joshua 2), Ruth (Ruth 3) and the ‘wife of Uriah’ (2 Samuel 11:2-9). These are striking inclusions – what do they say about the world with which God engages and works in and through?

As the genealogies reflect God’s grace, redemption and transformation, not only of individuals, but also families and communities from one generation to the next, what do these genealogies suggest that will feature in the life of Jesus as recorded in the narratives later in Matthew (e.g. 2:1; 3:9; 4:15; 8:11; 28:19)? (Think in terms of Jesus’ ‘mixed’ lineage, now drawn together across factors that would otherwise divide).

While Matthew has identified the importance of kinship through family trees, he has already foreshadowed that the community later gathered around Christ and identified with him, will break many social and racial norms, rules and expectations. To what extent are these gospel themes relevant to our own community and neighbourhoods? Do they guide and challenge us as church communities as we identify social, racial and cultural divides between our churches and wider communities? In what ways have (or should) churches lead the way in bridging such divides?

Other resources

Consider a movie such as the 1960’s classic ‘Guess who’s coming to Dinner?’ – perhaps view a trailer [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1VYyj2lzwI] – what divides our capacity or willingness to create community with those who are very different to ourselves? Can you think of similar themes in other movies, plays or novels?

Action points

Who remembers the popular Sunday School song ‘Father Abraham’? Game to give it a try???

Hospitality is (increasingly) a significant gesture of community at many levels in our culture. How might you (personally, and as a church community) both offer and accept invitations of hospitality with those who are socially, racially or culturally quite different to yourself?

Going deeper

Consider themes of family ties as reflected in movies such as Philomena (2013) – to what extent do family roots shape a sense of identity?

Many non-western cultures place a strong emphasis on kinship relationships – do a google search for notions of ‘whānau’ and ‘ Whākapapa’ for the Maori as examples (you may know of other cultures). To what extent does minimising family ties, including extended family, impoverish western culture?

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The God who Gathers: Gospel & Community in the Gospel of Matthew - Introduction

Lenten Study Resources 2014

A printable version is available here

Introduction

The Gospel of Matthew is a big gospel, in more ways than one. It is the longest (which is why it is placed first in our New Testaments). It builds on the foundations laid by others (it contains almost 97% of the Gospel of Mark), and in figurative terms, Matthew paints on a bigger canvas. Matthew is narrating a story set within a much wider work. In contrast to Mark’s stark announcement at the start of the ‘good news’, Matthew opens up with a selective family history, introducing this as a ‘book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah…’ (1:1), a form of words that recall Gen. 2:4 and 5:1. It’s as if for Matthew the start of his story of Jesus takes us back to creation itself, and the essential narrative between then and the introduction of Jesus is conveyed through the three blocks of fourteen generations detailed in the opening paragraphs (more on this in study one).

As Matthew narrates this sweeping story that has taken a critical and decisive turn with the story of Jesus, he provides commentary along the way. Especially distinctive is his use of Scripture (over sixty references), and the explanatory ‘this was to fulfill what was written…’ Matthew is also the most orderly of the Gospel writers, organising the presentation of the teaching of Jesus into five blocks, each ending with ‘when Jesus had finished these sayings’. The use of five blocks is likely to present Jesus as the new (and greater) ‘Moses’, and his five books known as the ‘Pentateuch’. Alongside this we note the significance of mountains as a place of gathering, commissioning and shaping of the community of God’s covenant people.

This parallel with Moses is significant to our theme, ‘the God who gathers’. Rather than attempting to survey every aspect of the Gospel, we will focus on the distinctive material and themes in Matthew. It is well known that Matthew is the only Gospel to mention the word ‘church’, but this does not come out of the blue. The gathering of a people around Jesus has been in view from the opening lines, and feature throughout. The ending of Matthew also relates to this theme, as the God who gathers and then sends the church out to continue this gathering work, now inviting people from all nations throughout the world and right across time, to the end of the age.

Imagine yourself watching some street theatre from a distance, safe at the back of a crowd. Suddenly the action changes direction, and you discover you have been drawn into the action. You are no longer a spectator, but an actor! You have a part to play, not in the sense that you have a tight script to follow, but a director who encourages you to grow into the role and follow his lead.

This has something of the character of reading or hearing the Gospel of Matthew. The God who gathers draws us to himself, through the person of Jesus. Having been drawn to Christ we realise we are not alone, but in good company. And we have a mission, to cultivate a community that is never designed to be exclusive, but always looking to welcome and seek out anyone and everyone.

Study 1:          Matthew chapter 1

                       Exploring our roots: drawn into the family of Jesus

Study 2:          Matthew 4:12 – 5:16

                       Light within darkness

Study 3           Matthew 5:43 – 6:15

                       Another way: Christian counter-culture

Study 4           Matthew 11:25 - 12:21

                       A community leader unlike any other

Study 5           Matthew 20:17-34

                       Community, kingdom and the cup of Christ

0 notes &

I Believe: drilling down to the bedrock of faith

Personal Easter Reflections

 

I believe Jesus is who he said he was.

I believe the robust Jesus of the Gospels, not the pale, ephemeral Jesus of (some) scholars’ imaginations. 

I believe in the human excellence and divine wonder of Jesus – the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

I believe in the mission of Christ, his place at the epicentre of God’s purposes, his great ‘yes’ to all the promises and plans of God.

I believe—while not comprehending—that in the cross we see a depth of love and sacrifice bringing the shalom of God, surpassing all human understanding: at once personal and cosmic.

I believe despite questions—deep questions—despite experience of much that life brings; of thoughts in ignorance and lack of imagination; of distractions, idols and my fallen-ness. 

I believe despite my unbelief.

I believe in the promises of Christ, his call to trust and commit, to follow, obey and serve.

I believe in the mutual indwelling of God, the sharing of one mind, love, trust and purpose that binds Abba Father, Son and Spirit as one.

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus—that he died (terribly), and came alive—raised triumphant, glorious, whole, pulsating with life.

I believe this event—this real-time event—changed the axis of history: my whole future, my being, the future of humanity, of God’s people, of the Kingdom-reign of God, of all creation—changed profoundly, resolutely, wonderfully in this awesome event. 

In God’s grace my ‘I’ becomes ‘we’ –

‘we’ with my sisters and brothers in Christ

‘we’ with the saints throughout the ages

‘we’ with the angels in heaven in our praise and adoration

‘we’ with those who in God’s grace are woven into the fabric of my life

‘we’ with my Lord who is my brother and advocate

I believe—WE believe—in the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son of God.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

 

TJH – 30/3/13

0 notes &

Jesus at the Table - Holy Week Reflections

Readings for reflection

 

Print version for downloading is available here

Last Supper… and a new beginning

Luke 22:14-30 

14 When the time came, Jesus and the apostles sat down together at the table.*15 Jesus said, “I have been very eager to eat this Passover meal with you before my suffering begins.16 For I tell you now that I won’t eat this meal again until its meaning is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.”

  17 Then he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. Then he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves.18 For I will not drink wine again until the Kingdom of God has come.”

  19 He took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.”

  20 After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.

  21 “But here at this table, sitting among us as a friend, is the man who will betray me.22 For it has been determined that the Son of Man* must die. But what sorrow awaits the one who betrays him.”23 The disciples began to ask each other which of them would ever do such a thing.

  24 Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them.25 Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’26 But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.27 Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves.

  28 “You have stayed with me in my time of trial.29 And just as my Father has granted me a Kingdom, I now grant you the right30 to eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom. And you will sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Footnotes:

22:14 Or reclined together.

22:22 “Son of Man” is a title Jesus used for himself.

Reflections

Each of the Gospels highlights differing features of the Last Supper. Luke underscores a striking table-fellowship dimension, where the table is seen as no less than the fulness of the kingdom as promised by the prophets (for example Isaiah 25:6-9). What started as a Passover meal took on new and deeper significance with reference to Jesus’ coming crucifixion and glorification.

While the Last Supper was a ‘one-off’ event, all that it signified is picked up in the Lord’s Supper gospel traditions (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), especially as a symbol of the new covenant.

Reflect on all the accounts of Jesus dining with a great variety of people in the Gospel of Luke, culminating to this one meal in which Jesus himself is the host.

Consider how we might highlight this ‘table fellowship’ with our Lord Jesus himself as we participate in the Lord’s Supper—at his table that lies at the heart of the kingdom of God.

 

Luke 24:13-35 

13 That same day two of Jesus’ followers were walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles* from Jerusalem.14 As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened.15 As they talked and discussed these things, Jesus himself suddenly came and began walking with them.16 But God kept them from recognizing him.

  17 He asked them, “What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?”

  They stopped short, sadness written across their faces.18 Then one of them, Cleopas, replied, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days.”

  19 “What things?” Jesus asked.

  “The things that happened to Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” they said. “He was a prophet who did powerful miracles, and he was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people.20 But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him.21 We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel. This all happened three days ago.

  22 “Then some women from our group of his followers were at his tomb early this morning, and they came back with an amazing report.23 They said his body was missing, and they had seen angels who told them Jesus is alive!24 Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough, his body was gone, just as the women had said.”

  25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures.26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?”27 Then Jesus took them through the writings

  28 By this time they were nearing Emmaus and the end of their journey. Jesus acted as if he were going on,29 but they begged him, “Stay the night with us, since it is getting late.” So he went home with them.30 As they sat down to eat,* he took the bread and blessed it. Then he broke it and gave it to them.31 Suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared!

  32 They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”33 And within the hour they were on their way back to Jerusalem. There they found the eleven disciples and the others who had gathered with them,34 who said, “The Lord has really risen! He appeared to Peter.*”

35 Then the two from Emmaus told their story of how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road, and how they had recognized him as he was breaking the bread.

Footnotes:

24:13 Greek 60 stadia [11.1 kilometers].

24:30 Or As they reclined.

24:34 Greek Simon.

Given the special emphasis Luke has highlighted in describing time and again how Jesus encountered people around the meal table, it is not surprising that meals features twice in the concluding chapter. The final appearance to the disciples in Luke’s Gospel involved him eating with them—a piece of broiled fish to demonstrate his very real flesh and blood form. Dining with the risen Lord now includes the proclamation of his resurrection, God’s ongoing presence though the Spirit and promise for Christ to return.

However, especially distinctive in Luke is the story of two followers on the road to Emmaus, joined by Jesus as they walked, but unrecognised at this point. The decisive moment when they discovered the identity of their travelling companion was (of course!), ‘when he was at table with them…’, and more specifically when Jesus ‘took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them’ (verse 30).

Again, while such events were unique, it can also be said that the invitation to share bread at the Lord’s table, and to dine in his company is ongoing and draws together all those who follow Christ, past, present and future, from every corner of this world. We dine only at Christ’s invitation, regardless of our own accomplishments and entirely through the mercies of God and at his expense (the body and blood broken and given for us).

‘Jesus at the table’ in the gospel narratives becomes to us ‘Jesus at The Table’, with all that it conveys about bridging the ‘here and now’ with confidence and hope in all that is yet to be.

We have a place at the table. We are known by name, and assured that in Christ we have every right to be there. When we join Jesus at the table, we are joined by ‘angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’. We are joined by the tax collectors and sinners (for in our own ways this also truly describes us). We are joined by the woman who wept and anointed the feet of Jesus, and by the extra party guests summoned to the banquet, and Zacchaeus… We are in good company indeed.

0 notes &

Jesus at the Table - Study 5

Jesus chooses his own company 

 A print version for download is available here.

Lenten Study 5 

Luke 19:1-10                         

Prayer

Preliminary discussion

The story of Zacchaeus is one of the most popular, abeit slightly comic, episodes in the Gospels – do you recall any memorable performances or presentations dealing with Zacchaeus? (An online retelling is available here)

Tax or toll collecting was one of the most despised businesses in Roman occupied Palestine, seen as both collaboration with foreign occupiers, and very often corrupt and exploitative – discuss some possible equivalent occupations in today’s world.

Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Luke, preferably with prior preparation)

Luke 19

1 Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town.2 There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich.3 He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd.4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way.
  5 When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”
  6 Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy.7 But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled.
  8 Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!”
  9 Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham.10 For the Son of Man* came to seek and save those who are lost.”


Footnotes:

19:10 “Son of Man” is a title Jesus used for himself.

 

Initial impressions

Did anything in this passage strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?

Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?

What questions does it raise in your mind?

Are there any characters you find it hard to relate to or understand where they are coming from? (If you were asked to act out their role, what would you need to think through or explore to ‘get inside their skin’?)

Some background

[Guest contributor Sarah Harris has provided the background material in this section. Sarah has significant expertise in Lukan studies, and this passage in particular. She lectures in New Testament at Carey Baptist College in Auckland, NZ.]

To really understand the story of Zacchaeus it is important to understand the social-cultural dynamic between toll collectors and the Jewish people. Taxes were collected in two forms: direct taxes such as a land and a head tax and indirect taxes such as tolls, customs and duties. The direct taxes were collected by the Jewish councils, while the indirect taxes were collected by local entrepreneurs such as Zacchaeus. These contractors collected a set amount for the state and then they added their own charge onto this amount. As we might imagine, this system was open to abuse. Although the senate tried to minimise abuse, the average poor person despised toll collectors who inevitably made themselves rich as they collected their ‘cut’. It is the old story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer; the ancient world seems to have many similarities with today’s world!

Our Gospels show how the Jewish people despised toll collectors, and none more so than Zacchaeus who was a chief of the toll collectors. For the Jewish people he must have epitomized all that they hated about foreign rule which they viewed as ungodly and corrupt. In the story of Zacchaeus we see how the people form a barrier so the short rich man Zacchaeus cannot see Jesus when he enters Jericho (19:3), and they show their disapproval of Jesus staying at his house (19:7). ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!’ they cry out loud.

It is intriguing (while maybe not surprising) that Jesus sought out and saved such a man who was ostracized and undoubtedly lonely in his community. While he was economically ‘rich’ (19:2) and not ‘poor’ (4:18) as most others Jesus had encountered and saved, Zacchaeus was equally cut off from God and his fellow Jews and his spiritual and social poverty was very real. In true Lukan fashion, he encountered Jesus over hospitality in his home.

Reflections

In a number of crowd passages in the Gospels, we see a movement of those on the outer fringes (representing their social position) and otherwise ignored by the crowd, being drawn to the centre and experiencing a very personal encounter with Jesus. Jesus sees those that the crowd and especially religious leaders overlooked. Especially striking is the extent in which the most unlikely people (in social and religious terms) become some of the most ardent disciples.

The crowd was a barrier preventing Zacchaeus from viewing Jesus, and his short stature was obviously frequently commented upon and the object of mirth. Not only was he an unlikely subject for a spiritual transformation, he was a particularly unpopular one as well. In the eyes of the community, he simply didn’t deserve any grace or favour. Jesus’ call raises a number of questions about matters we are not told: how did Jesus know his name? etc. However, the terms we are in fact provided with are significant: ‘today’ reflects a moment of decision and a life-changing ‘here and now’ encounter. The way Jesus invited himself signals purpose: ‘It is necessary…’ for him to stay with Zacchaeus. As the narrative progresses, the welcome of Jesus by Zacchaeus makes a clear statement over his social acceptance by Christ—something that gives rise for further grumbling over the company Jesus keeps.

While there is no reference to Zacchaeus’ faith, his admission to cheating people (verse 8b) indicates that his encounter with Jesus was one of salvation (verse 10) and transformation. The accusation of his being a ‘notorious sinner’ (in the eyes of the community) is countered by the salvation provided by Jesus.

In contrast to the rich ruler in the preceding chapter (18:23), Zacchaeus’ response is generous and demonstrates a genuine change of heart (there are a number points of contrast between Zacchaeus and the rich ruler). Giving to the poor reflects a concern for those less fortunate and vulnerable, while the fourfold financial return of any loss incurred through his cheating or exploitation, highlights the importance of making restitution.  

For the purposes of our study series, the main feature of significance is that the arrival of salvation for Zacchaeus and his house (verse 9) came through the instrument of hospitality – Jesus choosing to remain as a guest in Zacchaeus’ home. Both literally and metaphorically, Zacchaeus opened his door to salvation in the person of Christ. We may be reminded of the words of Jesus recorded in Revelation 3:20 – ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me’ (TNIV).

Finally, we may note that these events occurred as Jesus drew ever closer to Jerusalem, and all the events that were to await him as he entered as king. Jesus went into conflict with various city authorities, culminating in the world-changing events of the first Easter.

Salvation came at a cost. As the lives of those who encountered Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, such as Zacchaeus, were so profoundly changed, so too the burden of his work upon the cross grew all the more weighty. It was a cost measured in Jesus’ own blood (as we shall see in our reflections on the Last Supper).

Discussion points

The crowd was a barrier keeping Zacchaeus at a distance from Jesus – are there ways in which the church may be a barrier (culturally, institutionally, relationally) that comes between those who are seeking and Christ?

Zacchaeus was prominent for his leading role in a despised occupation – how might the church (in all its dimensions) bridge the gap and engage with those named in response to the preliminary discussion question above?

The Gospel of Luke highlights the home and table as at the very heart of mission and evangelism, and such relationships are marked by a coming alongside people and entering into their world and networks of family and friends. How might this be given expression in your own context(s)?

Zacchaeus had a profound experience of salvation available only through Jesus. Such salvation had personal, occupational and communal dimensions – what does this tell us about the gospel and salvation as reflected in this narrative, and similar episodes throughout Luke’s Gospel?

Salvation is personal, but never individual (in the sense that it inevitably and necessarily involves relationships to others). Do we over-emphasise the personal aspect and neglect communal dimensions to salvation?

Other resources

A fun YouTube sketch-graphic retelling of this episode is available here. A robust and incisive contemporary sermon based on this passage by Mark Driscoll is available here through the Mars Hill website.

Action points

Jesus had eyes to see those everyone else either overlooked or ridiculed – a very powerful action point is to open our eyes to those in our own community very often overlooked or held at a distance socially.

Most communities operate with a clear notion of group boundaries, including the church (including buildings and the need to walk through entrance points). Consider ways to soften the boundaries (physically, relationally, socially and culturally) that may be keeping people at a distance. This may include providing some anonymous ‘safe space’ at the edges, before judging the moment to invite people to draw closer.

Going deeper

This passage provides a number of contrasts with other episodes in Luke’s Gospel – such as the rich ruler (18:18-30), and also the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14). Zacchaeus stands as an example of someone with wealth who did respond as urged by Jesus and thus entered the kingdom of heaven, including responding to the poor (compare 18:26-27). The muttering of the crowd (19:7) sounds much like the complaints concerning the company Jesus was keeping in Luke 15:1-2, echoed in the attitude of the older brother in the parable of the two sons (15: 28-30).

The classic text that details the list of despised occupations, including tax or toll collectors, remains J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (ET SCM, 1969), pages 303-311.

The complaint made of Jesus should be understood in terms of accepting hospitality from someone whose wealth as been attained through corrupt or criminal means. Social ostracism was shaped in large measure for its deterrent qualities against criminal activities.

Verse 10 (which is similar to 5:32), recalls the language of Ezekiel 34, and the promise of a Davidic shepherd who would seek out and save the lost sheep of Israel—a motif that occurs elsewhere in Luke as well. Jesus’ designation of Zacchaeus as a ‘son of Abraham’ recognizes and affirms his place amongst the covenantal people of Israel.