Monday, October 31, 2011

Surfing the Jesus Way- A close Encounter with Jesus Walking On The Water (Mark 6:45-56... Close Encounters of The Jesus Kind Part 9)

As I was preparing this message I found the above picture with the caption new age surfing. It gives the illusion that this man is surfing the Jesus way; he’s going board less. Now you and I can look at this picture and say yes it does look that way but hey isn’t it just that his board and his feet are on the back of the wave and we can’t see them. Yeah that’s it all right. And as I read the passage from Mark’s gospel that we had read out to us today I’d really like to be able to find some sort of easy scientific way of explaining Jesus walking on the water. Maybe Jesus was surfing the swells on the lake, or the first ever board sailor or they were in the shallows, but I can’t do it.

Maybe it was like the joke about the Rabbi, the catholic Priest and the Presbyterian minister who go fishing on a lake on their day off. The Jewish rabbi wants a coffee so he jumps out of the boat and walks on the water back to shore. Gets a coffee from the near by cafĂ©. Then comes back out to the boat, gets in sits down and keeps on fishing.  No one bats an eyelid. A little later the catholic priest says he too wants a coffee so he too gets up jumps out of the boat and walks to shore gets a coffee and comes back out to the boat, gets in and sits down as if he hasn’t done anything out of the ordinary and carries on fishing. Now the Presbyterian minister had watched that and just like the disciples in our reading this morning he is totally amazed and freaked out. But also he thinks to himself my faith is just as strong as theirs so why can’t I do that. So he decides he wants a coffee and he’ll try walking on the water. So he steps to the side of the boat and jumps over, only to plunge straight into the water and be sucked down by the weight of this clothes and the catholic priest and Jewish rabbi turn to each other and say. Do you think we should have told him about the stepping-stones.

The name of this series on Mark’s gospel is close encounters of the Jesus kind and we are wanting to encounter and meet Jesus in a real way that he may speak into our lives and we may be transformed to be more and more like Christ. That means we need to encounter Jesus walking on the water not simply try and explain it away.

Quite possibly for us in New Zealand the image of Jesus walking on the water is the one that is most a part of our culture. It is an image that has appeared on our stamps and that is often in brochures that tourist read about this land of ours. At the Anglican Church at Onehinemutu there is the amazing  piece of art where as you look out from the church you see etched in the glass Jesus with moko on his face and a feather cloak draped round his shoulders walking towards you on the steaming waters of Lake Rotorua.  One of James K Baxter most well known poems picks this image up

I saw the Maori Jesus

Walking on the waters of Wellington harbour

He wore blue dungarees

His beard and hair were long

His breath smelt of mussels and paraoa

When he smiled it looked like the dawn

Then the poem goes onto talk about this Jesus walking into the lives of disillusioned railway workers, street walkers, worn out  housewives and even alcoholic priests and bringing new creation and life. So  how will we respond to the Jesus we meet walking on the water?

The starting point for looking at this passage is not trying to comprehend what we have read through our twenty first century scientific mindsets but rather what is the author wanting to tell us about Jesus. Really this passage is rather mind blowing.

Morna Hooker in her commentary on Mark’ says the two miracles of feeding the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water show the Jews that here is one in their midst that is even greater than their ancestor Moses. Through Moses God provided manna in the wilderness, through Moses God lead the people of through the red sea on dry land, through Moses even though they had sinned against God as Moses raised up a snake and people looked to it they were healed. Here in these miracles were signs for the Jews that the God who had saved them from slavery in Egypt was amongst them in the person of Jesus Christ: Able to feed his people, walking on the water, healing all who looked to him.

Secondly it shows us the creator has sovereignty over his creation. In a few weeks we will look at the transfiguration where three of Jesus disciples will encounter the glorified Jesus Christ on a mountaintop but here for a brief moment we glimpse something of God’s glory something more of Jesus divinity. Just as in the calming of the storm were we  saw that the forces of nature obey the son of God, just as the unclean spirits obey Jesus command and the sick are made well here we see that even the laws of the physical universe bow to the will and sovereignty of the creator. 

Thirdly we are like the disciples left to wonder at this mystery. One of the terms that has been rediscovered as we move away from modernity with its emphasis on science is the word mystery. Not mystery as a puzzle that needs to be unravelled and solved but as a genuinely beyond our ability to comprehend. Recently in the word of quantum physics scientists have begun to talk about dark matter and dark energy, that is matter and energy that exists in the universe that is beyond the scope of our technology to observe and quantify. Some scholars believe this equates up to 90% of the fabric of the universe. It is a really humbling thing for scientists to acknowledge that the vast bulk of the universe is just beyond their ability to measure or even observe, that it is a dark mystery. Here in this passage we see the mystery of the divine in human form. That God is beyond our ability to comprehend and quantify. Jesus doesn’t fit into a box. In fact the only response is utter amazement and worship.

When we read of Jesus walking on the water part of response needs to be to remember the words of  Isaiah 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts neither are my ways your ways declares the Lord. As the heavens are above the earth so my ways are so much higher than your ways and my thoughts that your thoughts.” It is ultimately a mystery that the creator of the universe should become one of us and dwell with us.

How then do we encounter Jesus walking on the water today?

It comforts us to know that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the Love of God.  Alan Cole sees this passage primarily as a rescue mission for the disciples like when Jesus had calmed the wind and the waves after being woken from his sleep in the back of the boat in Mark 4:35-41. Once again we see Jesus able to reach out and help his disciples in the storms of life. This time he wasn’t even in the boat this time he was separated by the vastness of the lake but he came to his disciples struggling against the wind and waves and the sea and says don’t be afraid take courage, lets face it he’s just totally freaked them out, and he gets in the boat with them and the wind and waves are calmed. The disciples who even though they were hard of heart and didn’t get who Jesus really was were once again rescued from the storm. Not even the limitations of the physical rules of the universe were able to stop that.

You may feel you are distant from Jesus and struggling against the wind and waves you might even think well Jesus can’t possible get to me here but our God is not restrained or limited. In Romans 8:38 says there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God. Paul’s list of the things that would attempt to separate us is rather long. Death, the sword, nakedness and hunger, demonic forces principalities and powers height and depths trouble and hardship but none of these is able to do it. They certainly try, right, but ultimately these created things cannot separate us from Jesus who walks on the water and gets in the boat with us. They are created things and our saviour is the creator.

Secondly, Jesus is at work in the world outside the boat.  I don’t know about you but I found it rather disturbing to think that Jesus was about to pass the disciples by and it seems that it was only their fear that caused him to turn and get in the boat with them. Jesus was walking across the lake to the other side where he knew there were many sick and suffering people who needed to hear and experience the Good news of Jesus Christ. He then turned and came into the boat and the disciples went with him to the other side.  Recently people have begun talking about the missio dei or the ‘Mission of God’ and seeing that Jesus by the Holy Spirit is at work in the world beyond our boat beyond the walls of the church and the call on God’s people is to recognise what it is that God is already doing in the world and go and join him.

You know I think we can get caught up and think that Jesus is in this boat with us, God’s in the church with us and  we find him and his will as we come together. But just like Jesus walking on the water we find that Jesus just might be moving and working in unexpected ways. Ways that go beyond our trying to keep this boat afloat and he will pass us by if we don’t watch ourselves. The bible tells us that right from the beginning of creation the spirit of God has been hovering over the waters stirring them up. We see the Old Testament affirms that it is the sovereign god who causes nations to rise and fall who works within human history in his church and outside to bring about his purposes. In the parable of the sheep and the goats we see that God is present in this world in the least and the lost and calls us to worship and serve him by caring for them. God is active in the world and invites us to find where he is walking and working and to go with him.

Movements like the call to cancel the debt of the poorest of the poor and to be a generation that isn’t simply known for the Internet but for solving the problem of world poverty are moves of God. This is so profoundly the agenda of the Kingdom of God. But it may be also be a  simple matter of finding Christ in the lost and least who live right next door to us.

Finally, In the U2 song grace on the CD ‘All you can’t leave behind’ Bono sings about grace as if it were a girls name but so much more and one of the lines is ‘grace she moves outside of karma’. It’s a great way of declaring that the kingdom of God and his love and desire for the world to know that love are not restricted or limited or fixed by anything in the created world. As we encounter Jesus walking on the water we are aware that while me might face powers and systems in our world like capitalism, consumerism, secularism, scepticism and fear that try and stop us joining God in what he is doing in the world that we have a sovereign God who is not bound by those powers. That the laws of the world and its ideologies and the principalities and powers even the laws of physics are under the sovereignty of God and that as we seek  God’s kingdom we will see that sovereignty. And while we may not walk on the water we can surf the Jesus way and be willing to face the powers of this world and not let them limit or impede us in sharing God’s grace or seeing his kingdom come.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A confession: I have veneer-ial dis-ease, I think I caught it at Church

I have a confession to make I have a Veneer-ial dis-ease.

No this does not have anything to do with the sexual mores of the Western Church at the moment. Well in actual fact it does really. AS I have continued to read about the monastic and new monastic movement and other books like Elaine Heath's 'The Mystic Way of Evangelism : A contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach.' I am aware that my christian life is very much like a veneer, it may look good to those who like the type of veneer I've tacked over who I am... But is there depth? Does it reach to the very depth of my being? I'm not sure... OK I confess I need to be converted more and more day by day in every way.

Sadly, I think I caught this veneer-ial dis-ease, this malaise of the soul, from Church, or at least we share the shame. I fear that it had reached in and infected us... People talk of the Christian faith in Africa as being like veneer "a mile wide by an inch thick". But I fear it is the case in the west as well. And this veneer-ial disease is affecting our ability to reproduce, it's causing infertility and effects our ability to find the intimacy in our communion with God and one another that we desperately seek. I hope it is not fatal.

Sadly I think I, and we the church, have sort for answers that reflect our context at the end of the modernist project. We've fallen into the lie of hyper-modernity and looked for an instant fix, a programme, a drug that can clear things up. In New Zealand just recently we've had several disasters that have shown how we as a society have become addicted to, every day miracles. The "Rena' ran into reef off Tauranga harbour and spilled oil in to the sea and there was an expectation that salvages would be able to sort it out over night like. However its taken time and we've come to appreciate the skills and dedication the engineers have as they have had to wrestle pumps and hoses down into the darkness and broken twisted metal of the ships hull. Likewise the Maui Gas line has a leak and businesses are suffering from lack of Natural Gas and were saying, 'why couldn't it get fixed like yesterday' in the end again engineers work round the clock to get it fixed. I don't have to mention Christchurch and the earthquakes there and the long wait to evaluate what can and cannot be saved.

Maybe for me and the church its part of the veneer-ial dis-ease. We want a patch a quick fix a download that will do the trick.

In a matrix like moment I feel like that just maybe the social theory of Jean Baudrillard may be right we've bought into a simulacra. A model, veneer where the reality behind it no longer exists. No not in a modernistic 'godless faith' kind of way. But that its only once we are embrace the invitation of 'welcome to the desert of the real we can go searching and seeking again the transforming presence of God and allow our beings to be transforrned and healed of Venner-ial disease.

I see hope in the echo of  a deep faith, a deep contemplation that allows one not only to encounter God at the core of our being, but also die to self and serve the hurting broken world around me/us. A concept of deep church I have only started to hear (A CS Lewis term).

This is not a jump to an answer it is a confession.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanisation and the Christian Faith ( a refelction on a bit of a diversion)

I spent the day at the Laidlaw library in West Auckland.  They have several of the books I am wanting to read for study leave. I had read a blurb on the book "Sidewalks In The Kingdom: New Urbanisation and The Christian Faith' By Eric Jacobsen (2003, Brazos Press) and though that it might have something to say about the topic I am looking at and in a round about way it did. But at the end of the book and the end of the day I have to admit it was really rather a distraction.

Jacobsen is writing as both a theologian and pastor and an advocate of the New Urbanisation movement. He has a lot to say about how our theology affects how we view, engage with and look at future planning for how we live in an urban environment. As such it is a good read. However I didn't find it answered many of my question on New Monasticism.

The book starts by exploring the post world war two trend in North American and yes even NZ cities to sprawl in to suburbia and the effect that this has on those living in suburbia and on cities themselves. Jacobsen does seem to come at the idea of suburban sprawl from a negative perspective and possibly there is some merit in what he has to say. He quotes James Howard Kunstler

" If anything, there appears to be an inverse relationship between our growing obsession with the home as a totem object and the disintegration of families that has become the chief social phenomenon of our time. We worship this idealized container for family life, and yet it turns out that family cannot be sustained without the larger containers of community life"

He then talks of three false idols that are pervasive and anything but liberating for the modern city dweller. Individualism, Independence and freedom (rather than liberty). Jacobsen points to the way in which USA and most of western society have embraced car culture and how city living (much to its detriment ) has been shaped round everyone owning a car.

He also points at how government in the US and on reflection I'd say here in New Zealand have legislated in a way to promote suburban sprawl, through subsidising roading rather than public transport, failing to provide adequate public and high density housing, and in NZ the building trade is a major contributor to the economy, and zoning, that while starting out to solve problems of incompatible use of land has caused a separation of housing from jobs and commerce, resulting in a fragmented cityscape and lifestyle. He maintains that suburban sprawl is not desirable or sustainable. again quoting James Kunstler.

"the Idea of a modest dwelling all our own. Isolated from the problems of other people, has been our reigning metaphor for the good life for a long time. It must now be seen for what it really is an antisocial view of existence. I don't believe that we can afford to keep pertending that life is a never ending episode of 'litle house on the prairie'. We are going to have to develop a different notion of the good life and create a physical form that accommodates it"  

Again this echoes Tom Sine's affirmation that there is a need for society and for the church to look at new sustainable ways of living.

Jacobsen then gives a good overview of the place of cities in biblical thinking. From been seen as places of sin in he genesis story through the establishment of Jerusalem as both the place for YHWH worship to the new Jerusalem as John's vision of the future kingdom of God.

 He then suggests that there have been two streams or tribes within Christianity that have not been helpful in Christians viewing and understanding urban life. What he calls Private Christianity, which he equates primarily with evangelicalism, that focuses on personal evangelism and private holiness and sees the city as something to rescue people from. Social issues are primarily dealt with on an individual level. He sees that many have simply picked up the individualism of the culture and imported it directly into the church and their theology.

The other group he calls Public Christians. Those who have seen the Kingdom of God as something that is to be bought to earth on a systemic level. They have looked at establishing institutions in the city to meet the need of the poor but have in many cases been seen to loose their christian distinctive. He maintains that many of them are involved in mainline denominations and have at a national level lost the confidence of their grassroots private Christian congregations. He sums up these groups unhelpful approach to the city as  either "populating Jerusalem or forcing the Kingdom'.

In my humble opinion Jacobsen does not go far enough at looking at a possible third way that will be helpful for Christians both in their urban and suburban settings (lets face it the suburbs are where most of us live and we need to find a way to live out our christian faith in that environment as well as influence possible future urban renewal). New Monasticsm from my reading so far seems to be able to hold the desire for personal salvation and holiness and social action together well.

There is an interessting section in the book on postmodernity. That period at the end of modernity where we are not sure what is coming next. Jacobsen suggests that we live with both hypermodernity, simply going faster to try and maintain the modernity project and what Albert Borgmann calls Postmodern realism. Borgmann suggest that this is a response to life that calls for three movements. Focal realism: learning a new skill and relating to a real object (daily exercise, the culture of the table, music etc.) Patient Vigor:  developing a moral virtue as a habitual skill, acquired gradually and maintained through exercise. Thirdly, Communal celebration: communities gathering to celebrate some aspect of their shared identity. It is interesting but as I read this I could see something of how New Monasticism was rediscovering ancient skills of the faith and making them a part of their daily lives and building community round them.

Lastly Jacobsen expounds the vision and need for new Urbanisation round a discussion of his six mark of a city: public space, Mixed-use zoning, local economy, beauty and quality in the built environment, critical mass and the presence of strangers. He looks as each of these as important for the thrival of cities and the building of community.

I found his chapter on architecture rather challenging and poignant. He sees that shopping precincts are hardly buildings in the historic sense rather (again quoting Kunstler, who has a wonderful turn of phrase) "they are merchandise distribution machines that come in boxes that resemble buildings".

He points to the three reasons why corporations are not investing in beautiful buildings. Public ownership, Consumer values (efficiency above all other virtues) and change in venue for advertising (building no longer are part of the advertising plan. Why spend millions of great buildings when you can spend it on 30 second slots in the Superbowl).

Jaconbsen challenges the move to globalisation and suggests strongly that investment in the local economy rather than national and international chain stores actually pays off with relationships back to the community.

All in all Jacobsen's book is food for thought about how we live and how our cities are structured. I feel he does layout the shortcomings of suburbia and our car culture and while having some good material to contribute on where to for here he leaves me still with my questions on how to do Christian living in the urban/suburban environment unanswered. Christian communities and churches I hope are just that places of hope of a different way of living in our Urban and suburban settings... for that to happen there is great need for reform and renewal.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Thomas Merton: Twentieth Century Wisdom For Twenty First Century Living by Paul R Dekar ( A study leave reflettion)

I have spent an interrupted week reading  Paul R Dekar's great book on Thomas Merton. It is part of my reading on New Monasticism and what it has to say to the church as a whole and me as an individual. It seems ironic that it was an interrupted week because, according to Dekar, Merton was always concerned about the way in which even the monastic lifestyle would block out time for silence and contemplation.

Dekar, who teaches paper on Merton,  gives a brief Biography of Merton. In typical Kiwi fashion any reference to New Zealand, with Merton's dad Owen being born here, pricks ones attention. Then, in a very helpful way for me, Dekar places Merton within the history of monasticism, charting the place that Trappists have in the whole development of Monastic orders and the the constant renewal of monasticism that has gone on in the past.Dekar places Merton in that line of renews and reformers.

Then there are chapters where Merton's meditations, reflections and writings are shown to give (as the books title maintains) Merton's twentieth century wisdom for twenty first century living.   Merton spent over twenty seven years as a contemplative but in that time his reflections and insights seem very pertinent for the world in which we live. He did not see the monastic life as an escape from the world but rather a different way of engaging with the world through prayer silence reading and in his case writing. Dekar takes the reader through:

 Merton on simplicity, of great value for the monastic and for people in a very materialist world. Where Merton see possessions and business as a distraction from contemplation, a source of false narratives that give us a false sense of self, as well as being a major contributor to violence and ecological issues in the world.

Merton on technology, including two appendices of lectures Merton gave on the subject. Merton acknowledged that technology has totally transformed the way in which we live, we are a technological society, seeing, even in the 1960's, how technology was impacting monastic life, with monasteries adopting industrial models of production. Merton saw technology as only good when it benefited humanity, lots of it he saw did not do this. Again he say technology as a means of  telling us false narratives about who we are, separating us from the natural world, adding to the great split between the haves and have nots, and being once again a distraction from engagement. I only have to look at how (ironically) my own use of technology distracts me from things to see this wisdom. It was interesting to read in a later chapter the values of an experimental community start with 'turn off your TV and get to know your neighbour'. Although it was also good to see the use that Merton's made of the printing press... it would be interesting to see the use he would of made of a blogsite... perhaps.

Merton on earth care. Merton and indeed Dekar seem to have been early adaptors to addressing the ecological crises we face. Merton desired that both the wilderness be preserved, taking an alternative stance to the purveying Christian view point of his day. Merton's wisdom has reflects the call for sustainable living that echoes and resounds through the new monastic movement.

Merton on war. Writing in the cold war era, the spectre of the atomic bomb and the Vietnam war  Merton calls people to live as peacemakers. that non violence, coming from studies of King and Gandhi, was not simply a strategy for the powerless, but rather a lifestyle to be lead. Merton has a lot to say about the roots of war.

Merton on communities and in particular communities of love. Dekar's two chapters on this topic explore Merton's commitment to living out the gospel with people committed to the same gospel vision that he had." Dekar explores Merton's reflection both on his own tradition and also the growing new monastic movements amongst other traditions.

I am still in the process of processing what I have and am reading however my reflection on this book is... once again the real challenge of depth that Merton and monasticism has for the person and the church. The need for both Prayer and action... the way in which contemplation and prayer is seen as the root of being able to respond and live a different life style to the world around us. One of the key issues for the church and Christians in the west is assimilation and captivity to the values of our western consumer lifestyle. Merton's wisdom and the contemplative and simple lifestyle provides a way out of that captivity. Like wise Merton challenges Christians to look at living sustainably and peacemakingly (if such a word exists) and communally.

Amazingly my reading list has just grown in length and many of the books on it now have the name Thomas Merton as author.

Friday, October 21, 2011

City of War: The John Rabe Story (2009) A Recomendation

I Had the chance the other evening to watch a DVD of the German film 'The City Of War: The John Rabe Story" It was made in 2009 and I guess not being a mainline Hollywood movie had taken sometime to get to my local video store here in Auckland New Zealand.

The movie is set amidst what is known as 'The Rape Of Nanking' the conquest and destruction and yes attempted genocide of the city of Nanking by the invading Japanese army in 1937-38. It is a hard movie to watch and does not pull any punches in describing the death of over 300,000 people by the Japanese army. It tells the amazing and courageous story of a group of ex pats lead by John Rabe, a German engineer and member of the Nazi party who establish a safe zone within the city and in the process are able to save over 200,000 civilians. Ulrich Tukur plays Rabe an almost reluctant hero who turns his love for the Chinese people he has worked with in Siemens Nanking plant for twenty seven years into a willingness to protect them.

It seems unimaginable to me to see Chinese civilians cowering for protection under a Nazi flag, but as Germany and Japan are allies it is transformed into a plea for humanity in the midst of the worst of mans inhumanity to man.

The city of War is a hard movie to watch and in many ways can leave one brutalised and sickened but also it celebrates the depth of human courage and the power that a commitment to the sanctity of human life can give people to stand up to injustice, violence and evil.

Sadly Rabe's life was never fully celebrated while he was alive. While the final scene in the film depicts the people of Nanking thanking him as he is forced to leave having had the safety zone formalised by the imperial Japanese forces, who hours before had wanted to clear it in a move that echoed the Nazis and the Warsaw ghetto. The film ends (note this could be conceived to be a spoiler) with title plates showing that on his return to Germany Rabe is arrested as a possible Chinese Sympathiser and after the war is refused de-Nazification and so dies alone and impoverished in 1950.

This movie goes someway to inviting us to see a man of great moral integrity and compassion for the great hero he is.

It is well worth a watch and reflection. It  is I believe a great story of hope

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I'm Not Alone or Abandoned in My Makeshift Suburban Retreat: A poem (of sorts)

I am on study leave at the moment and am spending a lot of my time sitting on my porch reading books on kindle for PC. My kids are home and its great to have some time with them losing at monopoly and watching movies. I try and concentrate on reading about people who have taken up contemplation as a vocation but am often distracted. Here is a poem I have penned (well typed) as I have been surprised in my study of contemplation by God's presence in the little bits of nature that are here in my makeshift suburban retreat. (the photo is one I took using my cell phone)

As I sit on my porch I try to concentrate and study

With a small suburban green oasis of lawn before me

I can be distracted by the incessant hurry of traffic

An urgent reminder of places to be and things to do

I am alone here with this struggle to be still and ponder

but there is companionship to call me to be still again

 the windblown hedge chirps contentedly at me

The thrush rejoicing in its shelter and provision

The beauty of the tree blossom submitting as if in worship

 Surrendering itself as it floats to the ground in the breeze.

The glorious display of an infinite palate of green in trees close and far

Sunlight and shade mottled and maze like through branches warms me

Grass blade fingers quiver in the wind waving at me

We are here today and withered tomorrow yet we are splendidly arrayed

The rustle and bluster of wind drowning out all noises beyond

Reminding me of the Spirits wind blowing and guiding

The black cat happy just to be asleep in the heat of the midday

Only stirring to roll to the shade as the day becomes too warm

Simply happy to be still and alone with me

Above it all a canvas of blue white cloud splattered

Looking up we can glimpse eternity

But also know its presence so close

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Initial reading on New Monasticism: Or Sitting On My Front Porch Listening To Traffic And Reading About Twenty-first Century Friars and Monks (No really)

I am on what us Presbyterian Ministers in New Zealand call study leave. We accrue it at the rate of one day per month of service and as I come to the end of my time in my current church planting project I am taking three years worth and spending my time reading about, and hopefully encountering in the deserts of the real ( A matrix moment) new monasticism.

I have in the past found myself drawn to this rediscovery of an old way to do Christian faith in community. I read 'Punk/Monk' by Andy Freeman and Peter Greig, chronicling the move of the 24/7 prayer movement into rediscovering the rhythm of prayer, community, hospitality, creativity and mission, amongst the new tribes of Europe.  I also read'Irresitable Revolution' by Shane Claiborne, chronicling his own journey of discovery of a call to simple communal living, where his faith in Christ is work out in prayer and action in the modern urban deserts or rather as Claiborne puts it the places deserted by empire. I found myself moved and challenged by the depth of these peoples faith and the ways that they have been prepared to live it out seeking a vision for life shaped more by the gospel than the bankrupt dream of consumerism, standard of living, suburbia and comfort that our western society and the global mall try and sell us.

So far, in my fist week, I've read three books that I think offer a useful introduction to new monasticism.

The first is  'New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church' ( Graham Cray, Ian Mobsby and Aaron Kennedy ed.: Canterbury Press, Norwick, 2010). This is the second in an on going series of reflections called 'Ancient Faith, Future Mission' coming out of the Fresh Expressions Initiative within the Anglican and Methodist Church in England. The book provides a great introductory collection of essays on new monasticism by practitioners and academics. It provides a good understanding of the roots of monasticism and new monasticism. It explores the breadth of different expressions of the movement, from groups committing themselves to meeting for worship and service on a regular basis, through residential communities, and missional orders. Claiborne's essay on the markers of the new monastic movement is very enlightening and a good overview of how the movement sees itself. Tom Sines is very insightful into the social circumstances that have contributed to the rise of this movement and how it fits in with both the new economic and ecological realities that the west is facing. Other articles and essays give a good insights into various communities and orders and how they structure their lives and lifestyles.

The second  ' New Monasticism: What it has to say to today's church' by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove  (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2008) takes the marks of New Monasticism and explores how they Speak to the church of today. Wilson-Hartgrove maintains that monasticism has never seen itself as parachurch but always prochurch and has in its history been places where church renewal has been possible, siting such historic people as Benedict,Francis of Assisi, and reminding us that Martin Luther was a  monk. WIlson-Hartgrove, asserts that the church like the monastic needs to relocate itself to the margins to regain the desert vision of what it means to be the people of God, similar to the way in which the people of Israel and Judah had to be relocated into exile to rediscover God's dream for them as God's people. It is hard to see how much we have been assimilated into our culture until we step away from it. He also looks at how the rediscovery of a shared economy in the monastic movement and a move to simple life style speaks volumes to the church, he sees it as a call to become a 'generousity- driven church'. Also from his post 9?11 war on terror American context he calls the church to be place that will practice a new sense of peace making in the world. He also calls for the church to be a community of truth and grace where people across all the boundaries of our society, race, gender and the socio-economic groupings of have and have not can find community together. He at the end of this book reiterates that monasticism is not parachurch or stepping away from church but is radically engaged with the church. Wilson-Hartgroves insights and reflections are very challenging and provocative and I believe cut to the heart of a church that finds itself wrestling with what discipleship means in the sticky mire of western affluence.

The third book is 'Simple Spirituality' by Christopher L Heuertz. Heuertz writes from his journey with missional community Word Made Flesh, which strives to live out Christs love in the darkest and poorest places on earth. It is a reflection on how this has shaped and continues to shape his spirituality. Picking up what he calls the five stones of   hope and promise as he has sought to see Jesus more clearly in the broken world around us. These stones he names as Humility, Community,Simplicity, Submission, and brokenness. Stones he says that , using the story of David and Goliath, he is slowly using to slay the giants that stand between him and genuinely seeing Jesus. Sitting on my deck sipping coffee, while my kids, home on holiday spend time amusing themselves on screens, make this a hard book to read. It challenges a comfortable lifestyle to the core. Heuertz suggests like other New Monastics that it is only when we need to sit with the poor to allow them to teach us about Christ. He uses his five stones to stripe away the baggage the church has managed to accumulate on its journey.

I started this exploration thinking that it would be easy to pick up a few tips that would help alleviate the pain of isolation in modern life and ministry. There are things I could easily take from what I've read and say here are some gems. Like Bishop Graham Cray's assertion that new monasticism gives the support needed for the long term process of church planting in a non churched environment. Yup as my study leave proposal used a funny story about a Irish bricklayer to articulate my desire to look at monasticism/community because I was sick of working alone. Similarly I could have taken, and may still take, Ian Adam's story of ministry huddles where ministers in a variety of parishes huddle together to pray with and for each other and share common spiritual practises and together encourage each other to develop and grow.  But as I started to open up and read even on the surface I see that New Monasticism with its call to seriously consider discipleship in the context of community and its context of living in the deserted places of  the urban landscape and world, while radically engaging with he world and gospel, run so much  deeper. Again in a Matrix like moment it would be easy to take the blue pill and wake up tomorrow and continuing to believe what ever I want or to take the red pill and just see how deep the rabbit hole goes.  One thing is for sure my reading list keeps getting longer... and I continue on the journey.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Are We Too Familiar With Jesus? Mark 5:21-6:5 Close Encounters of the Jesus Kind part 8

You know when you are preaching through a book of the bible one of the hardest things to do is work out what is a section to preach on and what isn’t. Things like paragraph headings and the way that later scholars have used chapters and verses to navigate through scripture can help but sometimes they hinder. Originally the gospel was to be read as a whole and not dissected and expounded in bite size pieces like we do. We can miss something of what the author is trying to tell us about Jesus in the flow of the whole narrative when we don’t note the connections and ways things can be placed in the gospels and all of scripture really in juxtaposition. Placed side by side. In the passage we are looking at we get two very different encounters with Jesus placed side by side. Two very different reactions to Jesus together. In looking at these two passages together I sense we will have a close encounter of the Jesus Kind.

Note in the first section we have two people who hardly know Jesus coming to him for help and experiencing the amazing saving power of God as they encounter Jesus. Jarius is the head of a synagogue he is part of the religious hierarchy of his day, the same group we have already meet in the Gospel who are suspicious of Jesus. In chapters 2 we find that they are in conflict with Jesus over religious observances and in chapter three that an official delegation from Jerusalem are quick to write Jesus off as chief amongst demons. But Jarius comes to Jesus when his daughter is gravely ill. Beyond any human means of help and he begs Jesus to come and to heal her.

Then in the crowd that pushes in on Jesus is another person who you’d think would have little to do with Jesus a women who had been suffering from bleeding for twelve years, A condition that would have made her ceremonial unclean in her community: not only to physical suffering but being ostracised as well. She is beyond medical and human help so in desperation and great faith she reaches out to touch Jesus. Even just his clothes, like he was some sort of magic that could be tapped.

In the second half of the passage Jesus encounters a group of people who thought they knew Jesus the best, the people of his hometown. They may have invited Jesus specially to preach at their synagogue after hearing the stories that were spreading about him. When I lived in Napier and read about great sporting achievements in the local newspaper, the focus of the story whenever possible was "hey these people are Hawkes Bay folk". But when they meet Jesus they have a problem believing anything about him except that he was the local carpenter and Mary’s son, note in Jewish society to link someone’s lineage only with their mother was an insult, it questioned his parentage. I mean didn’t Jesus brothers and sisters still live in the village.  Perhaps you can relate to this group of people because they’d seen Jesus grow up and work amongst them and here he was doing and saying things that were rather hard to believe. Beyond their picture of Jesus.  So Jesus isn’t able to many miracles in that place except heal a few people.

In the narratives both sets of people get what they expect from Jesus. The first two receive healing and an answer to their cries for help: The women who had suffered with bleeding for twelve years receives instantaneous healing when she touches Jesus clothes. More than that as Jesus is aware of the fact healing power has gone out from him, he deals with the social stigma attached to her illness as well acknowledging that she is now healed and she is a part of God’s people again. Jarius despite the news he receives that his daughter has died receivers her back again from the dead. The people of Jesus hometown didn’t really expect anything from Jesus and they received maybe more than they were bargained for when he healed a few people in their town. Maybe it was as simple and mundane as the fact that they didn’t have faith enough even to ask. We know this Jesus and well there is nothing special; nothing to get our hopes up about.

There are in scripture and in particular the gospels a correlation between faith and God’s ability to move. Some people have tried to tie those in so closely that when they have prayed for people to be healed or God’s help in a certain situation and it hasn’t gone their way they have been quick to blame the people they are praying for for their lack of faith. I remember listen a women with Cerebal Palsy talking about being in a church where she was made to feel it was her fault that she wasn’t healed when they prayed for her because she didn’t have enough faith. Yet listening to her for an hour struggling to make her self understood sharing her testimony of God’s goodness in her life I was aware that this women had more faith than I did.

Both narratives end with people being amazed. Like in the other miracle narratives in the gospel so far the first section of this reading leaves us with people being amazed at what Jesus has done. In the narrative of Jesus rejection by his hometown it is Jesus who is left amazed, he is amazed at their lack of faith. 

Like all narratives in Mark’s gospel both passages reveal something to us about Jesus. In the first encounter we see that Jesus has authority over both illness and death itself. The women with the bleeding had tried all the cures known to human beings. She’d probably gone to specialists and herbalists and those intriguing alternative medicines in the back streets of  Capernaum. But nothing had helped. But she turns to Jesus and Jesus heals her. The Son of God has authority over the consequences of the fall. The mourners had gathered at Jarius’ house and laments filled the streets, these people were acquainted with death and Jesus arrives in the first throws of the whole synagogue community beginning to grieve and we see that he heals the little Girl. Just like with Lazarus that Mark does not record in his gospel we see Jesus having authority over even death.

We also learn a lot more about Jesus. We see his desire to seek not only physical healing for people but  also seeking their complete peace of shalom which means wholeness. He invites the woman with bleeding to publicly claim her healing and be accepted back into the community. He makes sure that Jarius’ daughter is given something to eat after she is raised by him. We see Jesus willingness to touch and be touched by the unclean. Both touching the women and the dead child’s body would have made him ritually unclean but Jesus isn’t afraid of this rather his touch makes that which is unclean clean and whole.

In the second encounter we learn that Jesus is willing to identify himself as a prophet by using the proverb that a prophet is without honour in their hometowns. Some have seen this as evidence that Jesus didn’t see himself as the divine Son of God simply a prophet but in actual fact it was applying a well known saying t his own circumstances. But it does show us that Jesus stood in direct line of the Old Testament prophets who spoke God’s word and even of Elijah and Elisha who God used to miraculous signs. It also I think shows us a very human side of Jesus you could imagine that he had longed to go home and proclaim the kingdom of God to his own people. The ones he’d know when he was growing up and had lived and worked amongst, but they rejected him. I remember having conversations with my mentor Jim Wallace after visiting speakers had come to St John’s and people had responded to what they had said and raved about the sermons they had given and trying to figure out how they were better than us. But in the end I think we understood a little of what Jesus was saying here.

  Well what for us from these two encounters with Jesus this morning? How are we called to have a close encounter of the Jesus kind.

AS I thought about that I couldn’t help but wonder are we too familiar with Jesus? I mentioned before that perhaps we find it easy to relate to the people of Jesus hometown.  Many of us have grown up with Jesus. We are like Phillip Yancy in his book ‘The Jesus I never knew” and we equate Jesus with Sunday school, weak cordial and gold stars for attendance.  We’ve had Jesus walk through our lives with us we’ve had Jesus presented as a radical, a social commentator a healer saviour, we’ve had Christology from above and below we’ve been on the search for the historical Jesus we’ve rubbed shoulders with people who present Jesus as some sort of super star, the key figure in some sort of conspiracy theory code. We’ve seen Jesus movies and well we feel we know him.

Maybe like the people in Jesus hometown we are used to seeing his brothers and sisters round the place as well and they don’t seem that different and the Jesus we reflect in our church community isn’t the sort of Jesus who would heal the desperate and raise the dead. That Jesus has become a lot like us instead of the challenge for us to become a lot like Jesus.

 Have we domesticated Jesus. We've made him the buddy Jesus of the film 'Dogma'. Dorothy Sayers suggest we have efficiently pared the claws of the lion of Judah and certified him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies?’ We have become too familiar with Jesus and maybe we don’t know him well enough.

We may be familiar with the Jesus of the church but not know the Jesus who is with us and for us the rest of week: The Jesus who is compassionate and caring about the problems and concerns of people round us and able to bring healing and wholeness if we are willing to trust him. 

Maybe we are familiar with the Jesus saviour of our soul, but we do not know the Jesus who speaks with the prophets voice to the injustices and social ills in this world and calls us to confront them in his name.

Maybe we are familiar with a middle class white Jesus who thinks like us and we don’t know the Jesus who reaches out to the outcasts and the poor across those very real barriers in our society.

Maybe it’s the other way around and we know the social justice Jesus and we’ve lost sight of the Jesus who invites us into a saving relationship with God as our father.

Maybe we are familiar with the Jesus who is in the book and we don’t know the Jesus risen from the grave who is with us today and will do the same things in our lives and world by his spirit that he did in the book. 

We need to encounter Jesus again as we read the scriptures as we pray and as we go into our world everyday. Brian McLaren in his book generous orthodoxy talks of the seven Jesus he has meet in his life.  Not like my sisters ex-partner who says he has meet Jesus five times and Elvis a few as well in his work on the Psychiatric emergency team in West Auckland. But as he has exposed himself to different Christian traditions and their understanding of Jesus, it’s as if he is able to build up a fuller picture of Jesus.

But also we need to encourage each other to have faith in Jesus as well to see him move in our midst and through us, to become familair with Jesus beyond our imperfect imaginings of who Jesus is.  As Adrian Plass finishes his reflections on Jesus visit home with

“Miracles happen in a bed of faith. Let us encourage each other and build each other’s faith up, so that Jesus will be able to do deeds of power among us.”

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Question on Fasting and How To Deal With The Old and The New (Mark 2:18-22) Close Encounters of the Jesus Kind (Part 7)

The new is here what do we do with the old?

 Of course with an Op Shop around if your talking about clothes we can help you there.  We can tell you exactly what to do. But Jesus wasn’t talking about clothes. Well it might seem like he was because he did talk about the fact that you can’t patch old cloth with new cloth. That would just result in a bigger mess. But he wasn’t giving sewing tips to people round him.

The new is here what do we do with the old?

When they harvest grapes in the Hawkes Bay they don’t use wineskins anymore. However I haven’t seen people frantically hauling out and washing old used wine bottles and plastic bladders to fill with the coming vintage have you? No. They are buying in new glass  But again Jesus wasn’t talking about things like screw tops verses corks it was a parable a story from every day life that had a deeper spiritual reality. There is something more here.  

The new is here what do we do with the old?

Adrian Plass comments that for the disciples to fast would have been like travelling an entire circuit of the world in order to visit the person in the house next door. A waste of time and energy. But the master does say here, there would be plenty of time and opportunity for that after his death. The bridegroom celebrated with his friends but knew full well that before very long his bride would be widowed for a season.

Jesus took an observation about the difference between the behaviour of his disciples and the other religious people of his day the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees to tell people that with his coming things were going to be totally different. The good news of Jesus the messiah as Mark calls it would mean new structures and new ways would be needed for the kingdom of God.

The initial question was about fasting. Going with out food for religious reasons. Fasting is not unique to the Jewish and Christian faiths. Nearly all religions round the world have fasting as a religious practise.

In the Old Testament the people of Israel were instructed to have a national day of fasting once a year on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. This was a day when they remembered their sins and asked God for forgiveness. I the book of Zechariah it seems that the returning exiles from Babylon had at least four national fasting days all associated with disasters for the Jewish people.

There were also occasional fasts for a variety of different reasons: To show penitence, or an expression of grief. Many of you know that when you grieve the last thing you want to do is eat. They also fasted to seek God’s help, like in the book of Esther when all the Jews in Babylon fast before Esther goes before the king to plead for her people, or to seek God’s guidance, Daniel fasts and prays as he seeks the Lord for understanding of the visions he has seen. We see these continue in the New Testament, in Acts for example the Church leaders in Antioch fast before they commission Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. Jesus himself fasts during his time in the wilderness this is another use of fasting in scriptures as a preparation for ministry.

Fasting however became part of a whole structure of religious observance that the Pharisees had developed to keep right with God. By Jesus days the Pharisees and other devoted Jews fasted two times a week as part of their religious observances. They fasted on the second and fourth days of the week. In Matthew chapter 6 where in the Sermon on the Mount we have Jesus other teaching on Fasting it seems that they would make a very public display of the fact they were fasting, it became a public display of their piety and commitment. Jesus said in response that if you fast it’s a private thing between you and God it’s not about earning brownie points.

In passages like Isaiah 58 the dangers of fasting are pointed out. This is what concerns Jesus. It’s not a magic formula, a guaranteed way of getting Gods attention and answers to our prayer. It isn’t a substitute for right living; Isaiah says true fasting is caring for the poor, and seeking to live God’s justice out in the world.

Then Jesus answers the question on a whole different level. He says that the new thing that God is doing isn’t going to fit comfortably with the old ways of doing things. That the kingdom of God will bring in a new way of relating to God that will need new structures and new ways of expressing that new relationship.

The first hearers of Mark’s gospel were gentiles struggling with the issue of just how Jewish did they need to become in order to be Christians. So Jesus parables connected with the religious observance of fasting would have been liberating. It would have freed them to seek new ways to express being followers of Jesus. But historically that liberty has sometimes been used to try and fit the new wine back into old wineskins.  To impose on ourselves new religious observances to earn God’s favour rather than trust in the new relationship we have with god through Jesus Christ. Some Christians adopted the Pharisees two fast days for the week, but to differentiate themselves from the Jews they chose the third and fifth day of the weeks. A hang over of that is the tradition of not eating meat on Fridays. Which is a godsend for fish and chips shops. Lent developed in the west of Europe in the tenth century as the church set up mandatory fast days to prepare for Easter. We traded Jewish prayer shawls and the right number of tassels on garments for our own religious garb and vestments. Note in themselves these things are not bad but religious form can take the place of relationship with God.

Down through the history of the church there have been times when we have rediscovered the Good news of Jesus the messiah and it has meant that we have sort to mould new wineskins to hold that new wine. The protestant reformation made new wineskin moves to strip away a lot of what of it saw as hollow religious observances in light of their rediscovery of the centrality of salvation by grace. They wanted to strip away all the things that had become seen as ways to earn God’s approval in Medieval Catholicism. A move that the catholic church itself continues to do.

Like wise the charismatic movement in the 1970-80's did the same we see that in the way that many new denominations have appeared and adopted their own forms. Dressing down for worship has replaced dressing up. Worship bands have replaced choirs and organs. In this case the sense of new wine helped the church to meet the cultural changes that have come with electroic media.

Leonard sweet sums up where we are now by talking not of wine but that other life giving substance coffee Some like to drink it in a lattĂ© bowl, or a standard mug or in family heirloom china, or out of a paper cup on the run.  We can chose which one we like however we can get caught up with whichever container we like better and forget that really its all about the contents rather than the container.

What about for us today, what does this passage have for us. How are we to have a close encounter of the Jesus kind in these parables?

 Firstly I think we need to realise that as we encounter the good news of Jesus the messiah more and more and in new ways it will mean that we are constantly going to be looking at new wineskins to put the vintage in and to pour it out for the thirsty. The old ways may need to change. They may not hold this new wine. We can’t simply patch them. However I also wonder if ‘new wineskins for new wine’ hasn’t also been a catchword for Christians to simply embrace the cult of the new. Our consumer society is based on people always wanting, buying and consuming the new. The latest and the greatest, this seasons fashions so we won’t end up being so last year. The word new is the most powerful in advertising. I have to confess that I’m a product of my generation and this society and things hold real appeal for me because they are new. The Op Shop speaks prophetically to this situation by saying well maybe the old clothes don’t just need to be thrown out to make way for the new and there is plenty of ware still in these older garments. We don’t just throw them out because the new has come. Its interesting people are rediscovering a lot of the ancient spiritual disciplines of the Christina faith for today. In the end I think that our form of religious observation will be something like the way the farmers catalogue we got in the mail this week describes its new winter range. It says of it new range, "Be on the cutting edge while evoking eras long past." 

That led on well to the second thing for us today. We not only can evoke eras long gone we can also evoke errors of long gone times and we need to realise that we can fall into the same traps as the Pharisees did with fasting and other religious disciplines. We can see our forms and observances as ways we can control God. That by doing the things we get our prayers answered, simply because we do them. It’s interesting to see that in Pentecostal circles fasting has become in Vogue again. There are many books written about the power of prayer and fasting. While I believe fasting is a good spiritual discipline for Christians, there is a danger in this new emphasis that peoples hope for change can focus on the technique of prayer and fasting not the God who hears the prayers and sees our fating.

The other danger we can fall into is to see our religious observances as what makes us righteous. They are the things that are the out working of our new relationship with God in Jesus and we can forget that the words of the prophet Isaiah are as true for us today as they were for his first hearers. That the true fasting the true way of showing that we have entered into a new relationship with God is not worship style or the disciplines we use but rather the way we relate and care for God world and his people. That the kingdom of God we have come to believe in is good news for the poor, is a motivation to seek for justice and mercy.

In the end the new wineskins we adopt are not simply to store the new wine but to transport it and give it to the thirsty so they can quench their thirst as the new wine has quenched ours. The new cloth is not to patch old garments but is to cloth the naked and to shelter the homeless as it has clothed us and become our home. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Jesus...The Life of the Party: Mark 2:13-17 Close Encounters of the Jesus Kind Part 6

You just can’t sleep. They are having a party again down the road in that house with the big metal fence. You not only hear the bass you can feel it pounding though the wall. You’d rung the noise control officers but even they seemed rather reluctant to deal with this lot, this gang. You could toss and turn all night or you could do something about it.  Well you’ve had enough; you were going to do something about it. So you get up, get dressed and head down the road. 

It had been such a great day it seems a shame that it’s ruined now You’d been down at the city centre with a big crowd. They had come to listen to him, he was back and everyone was excited. Yup! they had come to hear Jesus. After he’d finished he’d done a bit of a walk round and as you’d gone back to where you’d parked you’d seen him heading up town and he’d bumped into a rather rough looking guy, dressed all in black with a gang patch on his back. He’d had his picture in the paper and they’d said he was involved in drugs and prostitution.  Jesus had said something to him, the guy had smiled and they’d gone off together. I guess that did leave you a bit worried. I mean why didn’t he come back to the church for a cup of tea?

Anyway that was then now you have to deal with that noise. You get to the gate of the house and the gates open. Some of your other good neighbours are there obviously feed up but not quite having enough courage to barge in You look in and try to get up the courage to go in and confront them and your shocked by what you see, there is Jesus in the midst of all that’s going on there. I mean the guys all have a bottle of beer in their hands and the women seem to be dressed in not that much really they’re all dancing to the music, If you can call that music and if you can call that dancing. And there is Jesus in there with them. He seems right at home, but as you watch you notice that he treats them with great dignity and somehow they seem so different in his presence to what you’d thought they were like. But this can’t be right.

You spot one of his disciples coming out and you say hey ‘What is Jesus doing hanging round eating with these guys?’ You’d had to shout to be heard over the sound system and of course right at the moment you’d said it the music had died down and it had rung out across the front lawn and into the house, they’d all heard you. They all turn to look. Then Jesus moves towards you and says  “ It’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick, I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” Then he invites you to join the party what do you do?
Well maybe it’s not that fair to put you in this sort of situation. Maybe it’s not fair to stereotype people in this way. But I hope it allows us to enter in to the scripture in a way that helps us to relate to what was going on. To catch something of the encounter of Jesus with the tax collector Levi and his friends and a group of religious people from called the Pharisees. The hope is that as we engage with mark’s gospel ‘the Good news of Jesus the messiah’ we will have a close encounter of the Jesus kind. We will allow Jesus to speak into our lives and hearts in a way that will bring transformation and new life for us and our community.
Once again I want to invite you to focus on the people in this narrative.

Firstly the gospel is about Jesus and the central question when we look at the incidences that Mark tells us is what do they tell us about Jesus?

In Mark’s introduction we are told this is the good news of Jesus the messiah and scholars have often talked about Mark’s gospel being like a mystery story as we discover what Jesus being the messiah means, and why that’s good news.  We catch a glimpse of the heavenly perspective of who Jesus is in his baptism and marks account of his temptation.  John the Baptist tells us that while he baptises with water one will come who will baptise people with God’s spirit. A voice from heaven says This is my son in whom I am well pleased, and then in his temptation we see that Jesus coming bring him into conflict with Satan and evil and that Jesus defeats them.

In the narratives of his ministry we see him calling people to follow, we see that Jesus has authority to heal the sick and to cast out unclean spirits, that Jesus being the messiah restores people to health and wholeness. We see Jesus proclaiming the word, and then in his encounter with the paralysed man we see Jesus claim authority to forgive sins. As the teachers of the law say only God can do that.

Now we see what Jesus messiah ship means for people labelled sinners and outcasts. Jesus being the messiah means they are called back into a relationship with God. He invites Levi a tax collector to come and follow him. Which he does, he leaves his job and his post and follows Jesus. We see that Jesus hosts a party at Levi’s house where all Levi’s friends themselves tax-collectors and other social outcasts are welcomed to sit down and share table fellowship with Jesus. When he is questioned by religious teachers Jesus says that he has come not for the righteous by for the sinner and the outcast. Jesus messiahship means that God invites all people no matter who they are or what they have done to come and follow him. AS Phillip Yancy says Jesus good news was a revolution of grace. The metaphor Jesus uses is that of a doctor. A doctor is not there for people who think they are healthy but rather for those who know they are sick and in need of healing. I couldn’t help but think of the statistics you hear in New Zealand about where doctors open practises, there is a good ratio of people to doctors in the more affluent areas of the country, but in places like south Auckland the ratio of doctors to patients is a lot higher and the health issue are greater. Maybe it gives us a good understanding of the illustration Jesus uses.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus starts his sermon on the mount with the beatitudes attitudes that are essential for those who would follow Jesus and the first one is this blessed are the poor of spirit, not the people who think they are spiritually OK or even prosperous and righteous but those who know that they have a need for God’s forgiveness and reconciliation,  for there’s is the kingdom of God says Jesus.

There are two groups of people that encounter Jesus in this narrative; one is Levi and his fellow tax collectors. Tax collectors were social out casts because they were often corrupt and also they worked for foreign powers, they we seen as collaborators and traitors. Levi and his friends hear Jesus call to follow him and as it says in verse 15 there were many of them who came to follow Jesus. Levi responses to Jesus call to follow him by leaving behind his job and being willing to be one of Jesus disciples. In Luke’s gospel we have this same incident recorded where Levi is called Matthew, perhaps a name change, like Saul became Paul.  Matthew is one of the twelve and historically is attributed with writing the gospel that bears his name. We don’t know how much of what Jesus had been teaching that Levi had heard, but when Jesus invites Levi to follow he does. In Luke’s gospel the short tax collector Zacchaeus is shown to us as being the ultimate example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That’s in contrast to some one we only know as the Rich young ruler who was came to Jesus looking for Jesus praise he had keep all the commands and was a good person but when Jesus tells him that all that remains for him to do is sell all you own give the money to the poor and come follow me walked away from Jesus. Zacchaeus on the other hand in r4esponse to Jesus friendship willingly with out being asked offers to give half his money to the poor and use the rest to pay back four times what he had stolen from anyone.

These people labelled outcasts know their need for God and experience his love in Jesus and they respond to his offer of grace and forgiveness with costly discipleship.

The other group that encounter Jesus are the teachers of the law, in this case people who belong to the Pharisees a group who were very determined to keep the law, both the Torah the first five books of the bible but also a whole set of other laws that had been developed as a hedge round the law. They were pious people, good people. They gave money to the poor; they prayed regularly, they went to the temple or the synagogue regularly. They were probably people we’d really appreciate as next-door neighbours. But in order to stay ritually clean before god they chose not to associate themselves with people they though of as unclean. They wouldn’t eat with them just in case they were served something that was not kosher.

They wanted to live righteous and godly lives but to do that they cut themselves off from so many people in the community labelling them as sinners. Maybe they had really loved Jesus teaching and his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, but it shocked them to see Jesus openly identify with tax collectors and other undesirables. Jesus was risking becoming ritually unclean. Jesus behaviour turned there understanding of righteousness and God love on its head. They were worried about being contaminated, but Jesus was the lifethe party where ever he went it wasn’t fun central he wasn’t the life and soul of the party rather people felt accepted and loved and invited back to know God not labelled and written off.

Well, how do you need to encounter Jesus this morning? Are you like Levi and you hear Jesus saying to you come and follow me. You might not even know that much about Jesus but here he is and he’s calling you to follow him. Are you willing to get up and leave what you now and follow him? 

Are their people Jesus is asking you to throw a party for to introduce them to your friend Jesus? Are there people that God is calling you to invite into your home and lives so they might experience this revolution of grace. It’s interesting that at the church I grew up in Auckland we used to have what we called Levi parties where people would invite their friends not to church but to a feast a dinner party where their was a speaker who would just share their story or talk on a subject related to knowing Jesus. Alpha I guess picks this up with its emphasise on sitting down to a meal together and sharing fellowship with one another.

In the little reflection I started the message with I did invite you to find yourselves in the position of the teachers of the law and I have to admit I often find myself much to my shame feeling as if I’m standing amidst these people. A friend of mine sent me an essay he was working on where he talks of a generation of people who have written the church off as ‘Judgemental, hypocritical and irrelevant’ maybe that’s how the church and Christian people are perceived in the community. Maybe it’s a justifiable critique. As we encounter Jesus today he’s inviting us to step past our preconceived ideas of people and the stereotypes with which we can write them off and show Jesus like hospitality?

Yeah you know that’s risky, there are good reasons we want to keep some people at arms length. In Rotorua when I was working with young people we found a number of teenagers who for one reason or another were out of home and sleeping in the city parks. People told us we needed to be very careful before we had them in our home just short term. They had a lot of good reasons why we shouldn’t do it. But in the end you know Jesus love and grace shown to us compelled us to do it. Who is Jesus inviting you to show his love and acceptance to?