Sunday, February 28, 2016

encountering Jesus: What about You? Who do you say that I am? Luke 9:18-29

On October 2nd 2006 Charles Carl Roberts VI walked into an Amish school house in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He bound and shot ten girls aged 6-13 and then shot and killed himself. Five of the girls would later die. In her book Forgiven, published last year,  Terri Roberts, Charles mother, speaks of the amazing demonstration of compassion and forgiveness her family received from the Amish community around her, a community she felt had every reason to hate them.

  On the day of the massacre the Robert’s Amish neighbour came over dressed in his formal black visiting clothes to console the family and let them know that it was not their fault and that the community still loved the Roberts family. He spent over an hour holding and comforting Charles’s devastated father. Terri refers to this man as her ‘black hat angel’.

The next day a group of Amish leader’s all who had lost a family member in the shooting walked into yard of the parents of Charles’ widow Marie, not to raise fists or vent their anger, but to embrace Marie’s father and family. Together they wept and prayed.

It was more than words. The Amish insisted that part of the funds donated to help the victim’s families go to Marie and her children, as they too were victims and  had lost a husband and a father. One of the fathers of a dead child visited Terri and when he learned that Terri’s son Zach would not come to the funeral because he could not forgive his brother,  offered to phone him and ask him to come. For the Amish this meant a long walk to make the call as they do not have phones in their homes. Zach came to the funeral and said the turning point had been receiving that message.

AS the Robert’s family gathered at the graveside to bury their son, they found themselves confronted by a barrage of press, flashbulbs and camera lens. Suddenly a group of about thirty Amish appeared ‘the men in their black wide brimmed hats and the women in their white bonnets’ and formed a wall between the press and the family, their backs shielding the family from view, giving them the gift and dignity of privacy. Amongst the first of these visitors  to offer their condolences to the Robert’s were Chris and Rachel Miller, whose daughters Lena and Mary Liz had died in their arms, they lent forwards and said softly ‘we are sorry for your loss’.

When the press asked the Amish why they were so quick to forgive their response was ‘ how are we going to be forgiven unless we forgive, forgiveness is a choice, we chose to forgive’.

We may struggle to relate to the Amish with their choice to live a life devoid of modern technology, there seeming otherness. But in this instance we see them living out their belief in Jesus Christ in real concrete ways; in taking up their cross and following Jesus daily… laying aside the self and being wholehearted about the purposes of God.

 ‘What about you…asks Jesus, ‘who do you say that I am?’… its the central turning point in the gospel story. On one level a very easy question to answer, but, as we see in the passage we had read out to us today, it is an answer which calls for us to totally change the focus of our lives.  It’s a pivotal and central question for all of us. Be it the start of our faith journey or even after years and years of the Christian life… ‘what about you. Who do you say that I am?’. If you would come after me take up your cross daily.

Jesus had started with a safer question… One that has been running through the whole gospel narrative… ‘who do the crowds say that I am”… The disciples had responded by telling Jesus that the crowd knew that Jesus was someone sent by God… they saw him in terms of the prophets, either old, like Elijah who the scriptures looked to return, or new like john the Baptist, you may remember last week we saw that even king Herod was wrestling with these thoughts.

We live in a world today where the answer to the question who does the crowd say Jesus is.. is equally varied as it was in Jesus day. Just a good teacher, a legend, a historical figure that we can’t know because of all the stuff that has been built around him…Jesus is both honoured and an object of derision, for many they just don’t know much about Jesus any more. We encounter a plethora of thoughts and reactions to Jesus.

But Jesus then turns to his disciples and asks them ‘But what about you? Who do you say that I am?’ and we have peter’s amazing confession. You are “God’s Messiah”… That is an answer that is drenched in the scriptures of the Old Testament, Messiah from which we get the Greek word Christ means the anointed one and it looks back to the prophets in the Old Testament looking forward to the day when God would establish his rule, put a righteous descendant of King David on the throne of Israel.  It’s an expression of the uniqueness of Jesus in terms of God’s purposes, it is not the full blown affirmation of the divinity of Jesus that the church gained after the resurrection. But Peter sees the uniqueness of Jesus.

It would be easy to ask what had happened in the lives of the disciples for them to come to this great discovery. As we see during the gospel they too stand with the crowd and wonder and ponder. We had seen that on the boat in the lake when Jesus had stilled the storm they are asking ‘who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?’ The context of Peter’s confession helps here, the passage starts with Jesus and his disciples praying, it’s only as they turn to God that it’s revealed to them who Jesus is. In Matthew’s account of this event, Jesus actually affirms that it had been revealed to Peter by the Father.  I remember Jim Wallace, sharing with me how he became a Christian, he was at University studying physics and a friend of his was a Christian and challenged him to apply his scientific methodology to Christianity, by reading the bible to see if it was true. Jim said he would take up that challenge, but his friend said, that to fully understand the bible you needed to have the Holy Spirit and he should become a Christian first. Jim agreed and his friend led him in a prayer of salvation. It may seem rather a strange way of coming to faith, but in our reformed tradition we believe strongly in the sovereignty of God, that it is God who enables us to see who Jesus is and to respond. Yes there is still human free will and our choice involved, but we focus on the work of God in that process.

The figure of God’s messiah has so much attached to it from scripture, there is the hope of the Jewish people, that they would be delivered from foreign rule and be first amongst the nations. It has expectations of victory and triumph. But after peter’s confession Jesus now turns to explain his understanding of what it means for him to be God’s messiah. That he will be betrayed and rejected, by the elders, high priests and scribes, and killed and that he would rise again in three days.

The gospel narrative now starts to turn towards the cross and the empty grave. In the scriptures of the Old Testament there are passages that talk of gGod’s servant suffering and through that bringing salvation: We see the servant songs in Isaiah and in particular Isaiah 53, that Christians now readily sees pointing to Jesus, and various places in the psalms focus on this. Jesus applies those to himself. We see that Jesus death is not a mistake or an accident but central to God’s plans.

Jesus then turns and says to his disciples, and in the words ‘if anyone would come and follow me” to all who come after them and directly to us. That if we would follow Jesus we too are called to walk the way of the cross. To carry ones cross in Jesus day was a metaphor full of vivid meaning. To carry ones cross was to be condemned to death, those condemned to die would have to carry the wooden  beam of their cross through the city to their place of execution. It was a display that showed the total power of the romans over the condemned. You could say it was a dead man walking. Jesus is calling his disciples to live in a way that shows they are totally given over to the purposes of God, to the kingdom of God, even though it may mean the same rejection and suffering and death that Jesus went through. To follow Jesus is to lay down our own personal agendas and ambitions and expectations and even things we take as our rights to be totally about the purposes of God.

If we want to keep our lives, says Jesus we will lose them, but if we give up our lives for Christ we will find life. What Good does it do to gain the whole world but lose ourselves? You know I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t somehow tried to domesticate our Christian faith and played down what it means to follow Jesus, so we can kind of have it both ways. Jesus challenges us in a way we are not comfortable with when he says if we are ashamed of Jesus in this life, you have to remember that carrying the cross was a walk of shame, but in Jesus eyes it is identifying fully with him and God’s purposes. If we do that at the end Jesus will identify us. AS we share his suffering we will share his glory.

What about you?... Who do you say that I am? It’s a theological question. We have two thousand years of Christian reflection and thought that goes into how we each answer that question.  E have historical creeds and answers that have been drilled into us… But it is question we all have to address again and again.

What about you?... who do you say that I am?

It’s a daily choice of how we live, what we focus on, how we treat other people, the priorities we hold and the choices we make.. We cannot separate Christian thinking from Christ like action.  There are no half measures in the Kingdom of God.

What about you… who do you say that I am?

Some have wanted to portray faith in Christ as a ‘one step’ guaranteed ticket to heaven… but here Jesus says it is an invitation to deny the self, to walk the road of service. To Pick up the cross is to walk against the current of our current cultural values. It is to walk in the face of materialism, independence and security. Leonard Sweet says we have focused on Jesus as the answer, but rather Jesu is the question… life’s great question… the quest I(m) on…The everyday quest of following Jesus by dying to ourselves and becoming more and more wholehearted about the purposes of God.

What about you… who do you say I am?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Encountering Jesus: piecing together a mosaic of the mission of the church in Luke 9:1-17

The image that has been on the screen and on the service sheet this morning is a photo of a wonderful floor mosaic in the church of the multiplication of bread and fish at Tabgha on the nor-western shore of the Sea of Galilee in modern day Israel. The existing church is built on the ruins of two previous churches, a small fourth century chapel and a bigger fifth century church. The mosaic was part of a fifth century church, that church was destroyed and the mosaic lost for about a thousand years till archaeologists excavated it in 1933 and the new modern church was built around it. You may remember the church briefly making the news last year because it was badly damaged in an arson attack by a Jewish extremist group.

The mosaic depicts a basket with five loaves of bread and two fish, the little that the disciples had that Jesus was able to take give thanks for and use to feed the five thousand in the reading we had this morning from Luke’s gospel.
AS I looked at the mosaic and its history I thought it was a helpful framework as we come to the passage today.
Firstly, because the reading we had this morning probably felt a bit like a mosaic. We are used to hearing the episodes in Jesus life, the sending of the twelve and the feeding of the five thousand, which appears in all four gospels, separately and as distinct units, like tiles, and even here they may seem like that because they are separated by the paragraph in the middle about Herod’s reaction to and curiosity about Jesus. But in Luke they flow together, they are all part of the same sequence of Jesus sending the twelve on a mission tour, the section about Herod is a reflection of the impact of that mission trip, and then the feeding of the five thousand happens in the process of Jesus debriefing his disciples on their return. Flowing through the whole section is the disciples beginning to be involved in the mission of Jesus and learning to trust him to be able to take what they offer and use it to meet the needs of the people around them.
Secondly, as this passage is about the origins of the mission of the church it gives us good insights into what Jesus call on the church today looks like. But it’s not like the clear twenty first century images we are used to it’s like the tiles of a mosaic. And it’s like the mosaic in the church of the multiplication, it’s at the centre of what we as a church are about, but when we come to view it in the confines of the structure we’ve built around it.

When I talked about this passage with Kris she said that it had the feel of like what teacher training was like.  You learned about teaching by being with education lecturers, then you were sent out to put that into practise in placements in real schools, after that you’d come back debrief and reflect and then there would be a test...

Up until this point the disciples have had a rather passive part in the gospel narrative, there role had been to simply be with Jesus. They had got to know what Jesus was like, they had seen his interactions with people, they had experienced his grace and mercy, they had seen God move through Jesus, had front row seats as Jesus had taught about what it meant to be a citizen of the kingdom of God, in the sermon on the plain, they had Jesus explain the parable of the sower  and knew that the faith Jesus was looking for was people hearing Jesus word and then obeying it, putting it to action. At the centre of the call for the church today and for our mission is to be with Christ... To know Jesus and be known by him, we love because we have experienced his love, we serve because of the way Jesus was a servant,  we forgive because we have been forgiven.

Now the twelve are sent out on section, on a short term mission trip. They have seen what Jesus did and they are told to go do likewise, to participate in Jesus ministry of word and deed: to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal all those who are sick. When we look at this we often see those two things like two separate tiles. There are parts of the church, that focus on proclamation, and they are often open to, in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians if being a noisy gong, they lack the display of God’s compassion and love that gives substance to their message. The other tile is people who are committed to showing the love and compassion of God, but it is void of the important narrative of Jesus kingdom. The fact is the two are to be viewed together; The kingdom is proclaimed and demonstrated.
We could also get caught up or put off by thinking that the focus for Jesus deeds is the miraculous. But all through the gospel we have seen that Jesus miracles come out of his love and compassion for people, as we saw last week when Jesus is prepared to get his hands dirty with the problems of the world, that we see the presence and power of God displayed. It’s the same for us as we get our hand’s dirty with the problems of the world God and bring the narrative of God’s kingdom we see the possibility of God’s presence and gracious activity. I’m constantly surprised when God actually turns up when I am praying with people or in the midst of the nitty-gritty-ness of life with them.
Another important tile in the picture of the mission of the church from this passage is that before Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the kingdom in word and deed, he delegates his power and authority to them. This week I’ve been shopping for a laptop with Bethany, which means basically that I’m there to drive and to provide moral support and to learn about computers. Bethany knows what she wants her laptop to do and she knows what specs she needs for her laptop to achieve that. To have a computer that will do what she needs it to do it has to be powered by a certain CPU (central Processing Unit), it needs to have an i7 CPU...The church is powered by Jesus to do what he calls us to do. Here we see him giving them his authority and power, after the resurrection, Jesus commission’s these same disciples sort of like going out as qualified teachers, but he says that he goes with them and will be with them, in Luke Jesus promises to send power from on high, we see this happen at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s easy for us to think that being the church and doing what God has for us is dependent on us. But we are God’s spirited people; God has empowered us to do the things he has called us to. But we can also forget who the Lord is and who is the servant and think it all has to do with us. I think we are all aware of Christian leaders who have got caught up with power and prestige and the negative impact that has for the gospel.

Jesus not only asked and empowered the disciples to do what he had done, but also to have the same kind of faith and trust he has as well. He asks them to go out with nothing, rather to Trust God to provide. The mention of a bag in the list of things not to bring refers to the begging bag that itinerant religious preachers in Jesus day would carry, the disciples were not to make people pay for the ministry that they were offering in his name. Can I say, we often see people who talk of having a faith ministry actually being people who have bought the bag along with them. They were not to go house to house in the villages they were in, trying to get a better place to stay, rather to see a welcome as God’s provision. This travelling light was to teach them to trust in God’s provision. Now later in the gospel Jesus will change this strategy and encourage his followers to take resources with them. In Acts the Church in Jerusalem showed equal faith in holding what they had in common, and being prepared to sell what they had to meet a need.  How we resource our mission and ministry has always been an issue, here Jesus shows that resources will follow mission. AS we set about the ministry of word and deed that Jesus did, we will see God’s provision. It’s interesting I’ve moved quit a few times in my life and each time there just seems to be more and more stuff that comes along. When I went to Bible College everything I owned fitted in my car. When I left Bible College that wasn’t the case... for one thing I got married to Kris and so couldn’t pile as much stuff on the front seat. And as we’ve moved around it’s gone from a hired van to half a truck to a full truck and a bigger truck as our family grew. And I feel as the church has done the same thing. It’s like the big church that has been built round the mosaic that we are using as our central image today. We've picked up more and more baggage that we want to take with us...We expend energy and seek resources to keep all of that going, and just maybe we need to hear Jesus words here about travelling lightly.

The other thing that Jesus tells his disciples is that need to be prepared for rejection as well, there will be places that do not receive the good news that will not welcome them. We don’t know what percentage of villages refused them. We do know that this mission trip, these six pairs of disciples had an effect because word of Jesus got to Herod and he was both curious and concerned about Jesus. In this passage Herod asks the central question that Luke wants us to ask as we’ve encountered Jesus... who is I hear such things about?... But we know that in the stunning way we are introduced to the fact that Herod has beheaded John the Baptist, that there will be very negative reactions to Jesus as well.

I want to finish as Luke does with the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, because it’s like the disciples test after there going on section and it is central for us to build a picture and understanding of the mission of the church.

The crowds come looking for Jesus and this maybe an indication of how well the disciples had done in their mission, here are people wanting to meet and hear Jesus. They follow Jesus and the disciples out into the wilderness, there is no town, no fast food outlets nearby, and Jesus ministers to them. The disciples actually show some concern and compassion for the crowd because they are aware that the crowd is hungry the time is late and well there is nowhere near by for them. They make a reasonable decision of what needs to be done. Dismiss these people Jesus and they can go get what they need. But Jesus says to them,  “You give them something to eat”. The disciples scratch their heads, they do some calculations of what this could cost them, and are aware they only have five loafs of bread and two fish. But Jesus takes that looks to heaven for God’s help and is able to feed the crowd. By the way five thousand men does not mean that women and children were not there or any less important, a friend of mine travelling in the middle east talked of talking to a large outdoor crowd and the men sat separately from the women and while the men sat in orderly rows that you could count the area where the women sat with the children was a uncountable moving mass. Here Jesus takes the little the disciples had to offer feds the crowd and there is plenty left over.

Here is the centre of Mission, the picture at the heart of this mosaic of mission we have been piecing together, its trusting in Jesus to be able to meet the needs of the people around us. Trusting him enough that when we hear him ask us to feed the hungry, the spiritually hungry and the physically hungry that when we offer the meagre resources, and I know that the most valuable and meagre resource we have these days is time,  we have  he is able to take that and use it, multiply it to meet that need and there is plenty leftover It’s a call to trust Jesus, to put our faith into action and RISK to reach out. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Prayer from a memorial service thanking God for all the ways he shows us his great love...

This is a prayer of thanks for God's great love from a memorial service.  I've removed the name of the person it was for but hope people may find it helpful. feel free to sue any or all of it. 

Faithful God,
You are full of love and grace,
We gather today to give you praise.

We acknowledge your love shown in creation,
The wonderful and amazing world in which we live,
We give thanks for flora and fora
For ocean and for land
For making us who we are in your image
For the great gift of our individuality
The ability to give and to know care and love.

We give you thanks for your provision
We acknowledge every good gift comes from you
You provide food and drink
Gifts and talents to labour and to work
We thank you for the love of family
For the companionship and care of friends
For brothers and sisters in Christ to walk the way with us

We thank you for your love shown in Jesus Christ
That in Jesus you became one of us:
Bringing Good New to the poor, healing and wholeness and inviting us back to relationship with you.
In Christ’s death you enabled us to be forgiven
AS we believe in Jesus we are welcomed into your family
In Jesus resurrection we know new and eternal life
In the sending of the Holy Spirit we know Christ’s presence today

We come especially to give you thanks for a long and full life
We come full of memories of, and love for, (name of person)
We pray that as we remember and share stories and tributes
That we may know your presence and your comfort with us
Know the truth of Jesus words blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted
Know your continued presence, forgiveness and leading in our lives

We thank you for all the way you have shown your great love to us.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Encountering Jesus: two faith stories in Luke 8:39-56

“The storm is fierce and the boat is about to be swamped”
“ I want to be free from these things that have destroying my life. That hold me captive, this oppressive legion”
“Our only child is dying”
“She had been suffering for twelve years... and she’d been to every doctor she could find and no one could help her.”
Over the last few weeks as we’ve been looking at a series of four miracle stories in Luke’s gospel, we’ve encountered a large array of human suffering and sorrow.  The disciples in the midst of the storm on the lake, a man tormented by spiritual beings, and in today’s reading a father gravely concerned for his daughters life, a women who has been haemorrhaging for twelve years. I know this morning that many if not all of us come with our own stories of sorrow and suffering that could be added to that list. In the midst of the gospel stories Luke invites us to see the grace and the authority of Jesus: the authority of Jesus over nature, over the supernatural, over disease and yes even over death itself. 

The passage we had read out this morning is unique in the gospels, because it intertwines two miracle narratives. In these two we are not only shown Jesus authority but presented with examples of saving faith. Jarius and the women with the bleeding are presented to us as examples of what faith in Jesus looks like, and it takes both their stories to give us that picture.

The passage starts with Jesus coming back from the other side of the lake, and the situation that is totally. Over there the crowd had wanted him to go away, but here they are waiting for him they welcome him and are expectant. It’s easy for us to get caught up in numbers and crowds but Jesus is not fooled by numbers. I’ve mentioned before when we see crowds in Luke’s gospel will start talking about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus and in this case that faith is displayed in Jarius and the hemorrhaging women. If you follow the crowd through this narrative, they start with expectancy, then they almost get in the way of the women receiving healing, and finally when Jesus tells them that Jarius’ daughter is not dead but asleep we see them laugh at Jesus and doubt his authority and word.  Jarius and the women on the other hand show us what faith and trust in Jesus is about.

Jarius shows us a key element in faith is humility. He comes not demanding anything of Jesus but falling at his feet and humbly asking Jesus for help. The women when Jesus asks who touched him she comes trembling and falling at Jesus feet, aware that she has already been healed. Faith in Jesus, comes knowing that in the person of Jesus we can find help, healing and salvation. It is hard for us; we live in a society where self sufficiency and self reliance is valued. We want to be in control, we live in a world where we increasingly find ourselves reliant on human wisdom and science. Which I believe is a gift from God. The women at least had exhausted her medical options, and you get the feeling Jarius had as well. However it’s easy in the face of that to consign God to the gaps and If God is the God of the gaps and the gaps are getting smaller and smaller, we see faith and trust in God as being smaller and smaller in our lives.  Whenever we start to feel self sufficient we start to cease asking God, and when we cease asking God we cease receiving.  

In this narrative as in life faith isn’t an easy path. Faith takes courage> the founder of the Vinyard church movement, summed it well when he said faith is spelt R*I*S*K. The women finds herself in the crowd, for her the dilemma is that she is putting herself at great personal danger. As a woman who was bleeding she was ritually unclean and her touch would make those around her also in Jewish terms ritually unclean. That is part of what is behind her reluctance to come forward when Jesus asks who touched me. Likewise it was a risk to touch Jesus as it would have made him unclean as well. Maybe she had heard the stories of Jesus touching lepers and touching the widows dead son at Nain, or Jesus feet being cleaned by the women at Simons house and in all those instances it was Jesus touch that made people clean and healed them and made them whole. So she is willing to reach out and to touch. Faith calls us to risk to reach out and to touch. When it comes to Jarius’ daughter we see that Jesus is prepared to reach out and touch the girls dead body as well, again in Jewish thinking something that was a source of ritual uncleanliness, and in a world without disinfectant and the health measures these religious laws were also health regulations. But Jesus touch brings new life. Faith in Christ also calls us to reach out into the sorrow and the suffering in life with the hope that as Jesus is with us that our touch will bring his touch.But it takes courage and compassion it is a RISK.

Jesus is aware that power has gone out from him and so he turns and asks who touched know with the women who was healed instantly faith calls her to step forward and to tell of what the Lord has done for her. Her faith is shown in her willingness to respond to Jesus. She obeys, even when it is hard and difficult, she has to admit to when she is and how she has gone against the conventions of her day. But she shows her faith by doing that, and in taking that step forward she receives so much more. She receives an affirmation of her faith, that indeed it has healed her, Jesus healing is always holistic and know she is declared healed she is reconciled with her people, and also affirmed in their midst.

One of the things that sticks out in this narrative is timing, Jesus is on the way to pray for a girl who is close to deaths door and yet he stops to heal the women. As he has been delayed someone comes and tells Jarius that his daughter has died. Jesus response is to invite Jarius not to fear but trust and she will be healed.’ It’s a tough one, but Jesus is asking Jarius to trust him, even when it seems that the situation has ended in death. This is the kind of faith and trust that Jesus has in the father as he faces the cross that even when it ends in death, that God is able to do what he has said, in Jesus case it was the resurrection, in our case we are asked to Trust and have faith in God throughout life and to know he has promised to all who receive him and believe that we will know eternal life, beyond the grave. Jarius shows his faith by continuing with Jesus, by following him home and being willing to go against the professional mourners  who had already gathered, who knew death, to trust Jesus when he says “she is not dead she is asleep’ and to trust despite the laughter of the crowd. When we talk about faith here it is not just a person’s ability to believe it is putting their trust in Jesus In the long term.

Jesus goes in and speaks to the girl and it tells us that her spirit returns and in typical Jesus style, he is concerned for her holistically. He says to get her something to eat; after the resurrection Jesus eats with his disciples as a way of showing them he is alive and not just some sort of ghost, but also as she has been sick for a long time this is part of her recovery process. You know how it is when after an illness you regain your appetite. Unlike with the demonised man we looked at last week or with the women Jesus had just healed, he tells the girl’s parents not to tell others about what has happened, and here people have wondered why and it is seen as being  that Jesus doesn’t simply want people to flock to him as a miracle worker, but to come so they can hear his teaching. 

AS I looked at this passage I wondered if there were some things here that spoke to us about our own faith. It points to some obstacles to trusting Jesus ...I wonder how many of us find ourselves caught in the crowd, even expectant of seeing Jesus bringing his transformation into people’s lives but thinking you know Jesus has so many things to do why would he care for me? This narrative speaks to that and says Jesus has time for us and simply that Jesus cares. We know Jarius’ name because he was important in his society, we never learn the women’s name, because she was not. But here Jesus cares equally. In fact in this intertwined narrative Luke shows us how Jesus cares and ministers to men women and children.

I wonder if we find ourselves listening to the voice that says “O don’t bother the teacher”. A voice within us, like we just talked about, the voice of our society that actually actively devalues faith.

I had someone talk to me about the retirement village going over the road, and he jokingly said “o there will be losts more clients for you,” I didn’t know them that well and I hoped he was speaking about the possibility for church growth, but I couldn’t help but think he had this picture of a ministers main work being death and funerals.  As a minister in this narrative I found myself standing amidst the professional mourners. It is an element of what people look for in a pastor to help in the face of death and grief. There is a time for that.  But I wondered if having faith in Jesus doesn’t call us to be people of hope willing to hear and follow Jesus in situations that we may feel are beyond hope.

They are not because this is the hope we have.... That we can trust in the love and the authority of Jesus over all things. And that faith invites us to risk reaching out to Jesus, and to reach out with the promise that Christ goes with us into the issues and sorrows of the world around us. Faith that is willing to trust God if we see the results immediately but also to go on trusting God even through the darkest of times. A faith based on knowing who Jesus is and trusting him. Not as a magical cure all but as commentator NT Wright sums up the message that Luke would have for us today...
“In whatever problem or suffering we face. The presence of Jesus, getting his hands dirty, with the problems of the world, is what we need, and what in the gospel we are promised.”

Monday, February 8, 2016

Encountering Jesus: Set free, Restored, welcomed in and Commissioned (Luke 8:26-39)

The passage we had read to us this morning is quite a challenging one for our twenty first century western minds with its focus on Jesus dealing with a man possessed by a large number of demons. It challenges our scientific materialistic worldview... You could say in rather an insensitive way... it’s a pig of a passage (dad humor).  But diving in the deep end (sorry dad humor again) I think it helps us to understand unclean spirits and the demonic, it clearly shows us Jesus authority in the face of such powers and it gives us a wonderful and clear picture of what being set free and healed and yes what salvation through encountering Christ looks like and insight into how to share the good news of Jesus Christ in an environment hostile to that message.

The fact that this passage takes us out of our comfort zones is a result of the fact that the whole passage is Jesus stepping out of the ordinary into new territory. Jesus and the disciples have crossed the lake, as we saw last week with Jesus calming the storm it was a challenging journey, now he reaches the other side of the Lake, a region called Gerasenes, and it is totally different than Galilee. It’s predominantly a gentile area; the fact that there are pigs farmed there is a sign of that, for the Jews the swine were an unclean animal   you would not see this in a predominantly Jewish area. The man who meets them is full of unclean spirits he lives in an unclean place, amongst the tombs, for Jesus disciples that uncleanness is how they would view this place. We are not told but the man himself may also have been a gentile maybe that was part of the reason Jesus didn’t take him with his disciples. The people’s reactions to Jesus is one of fear, in most other regions the Jewish people would be aware that what Jesus did was of divine origin and even though they might not have accepted Jesus they would have given thanks to God for the deliverance of the demonised man.
When Jesus arrives on this strange and unfamiliar shore, he encounters a demonised man. When I read the gospel narrative you could almost get the picture of the spirit leading Jesus across the lake for this one encounter. It is a show of how the grace of God is able to reach out into peoples’ lives. In fact one commentator says that the way that the unclean spirits are sent into the pigs shows how much Jesus is willing to do, to see this man set free and restored; to see people saved.

AS I said before in the west we are not that aware of the demonic around us, when we do reflect on it people tend to go to one of two extremes. The first is to go over the top and to see a demon behind every bush, responsible for every problem and issue. The other is to simply say that we do not believe in the devil or unclean spirits or demons, except in film and fantasy. This passage is helpful in addressing those two extremes. Firstly its part of four miracle stories, ones that you might say is at the edge of what the gospel has presented so far. Last week we saw Jesus calm the storm on the Lake, this week it is an encounter with unclean spirits, then we see Jesus encounter with the women who is healed by simply touching Jesus, and Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter to life again. They show us Jesus authority over nature, over the supernatural, over disease and over death. Each of those things listens to Jesus and obeys him. We are presented with Jesus divine authority. But also   we see that there are a whole lot of different causes of human suffering and trouble. Natural causes, spiritual causes, physical disease and as the scriptures call it our final enemy death. You could throw into those other factors as well the harm inflicted by human beings, systemic and environmental causes. One that people wrestle with the most divine will. In John 9 Jesus encounters the man born blind and when asked if it was a result of sin that he was blind Jesus responds that it happened so that God’s glory maybe displayed in him. Scripture does not advocate that there is a demon behind everything that happens but it does assert Jesus ability to be able to intervene and rescue save cure and make whole in the face of all those things.

For those who might say they do not believe in the demonic some have suggested that the man was suffering from mental illness and this was the way that people in Jesus day actually understood that. But we see from the narrative that the demonic in him recognised Jesus and Jesus response was to cast them out and when that happened it had a physical manifestation in the herd of pigs.  But this passage gives us an understanding of what the demonic may look like in a person’s life or in its sphere of influence. It is destructive, we see the man striped of his dignity: He is naked and living among the tomb stones, with the dead.  He is driven by compulsion, not in control, outbursts of violence and rage, he is isolated from his society and family, and relationships are destroyed. The problem at hand is not able to be dealt with simply by human measures. When he is bought under control he breaks the chains and gets loose again. You could say that the influence of the demonic on a personal and systemic level is this destructive behaviour.  There is a spiritual element to addiction, abuse, sexual and physical, out of control lusts and convulsions, racism and hatred, extreme poverty and violence. That dehumanises that is destructive of people and families and communities, which is evil. We don’t know much about the man’s background and how he got into that condition of being possessed by a legion ‘many’ demons, maybe we’d see a whole raft of physical, emotional and medical and spiritual reasons but this possession was the end result. The spiritual influence so much that it was in control.
Jesus deals with the spiritual element, he casts out the unclean spirits from the man, but that’s not the whole picture and maybe for us it’s hard for us to look past the rather dramatic way that happens. But this passage gives us the most holistic picture of what being cured or saved by Jesus actually means. In his wonderful narrative Luke gives us a wonderful parallel of how Jesus transforms the man’s life from how it was before. He had many demons but now we are told that the demons have left him, and it has been demonstrated in a very vivid way. He was naked stripped of human dignity but when the people from the town come they find him clothed, that dignity restored. He was alone and in solitary places, but now he is welcomed back and accepted, he sits at Jesus feet, which is a way of saying that he has become a disciple a learner. He was violent and thrown down on the ground but now he sits quietly and calmly. He was driven and out of control and know we’re told that he is rational and in his right mind. It’s an often overused scripture passage but in this case we see the truth of 2 timothy 1:7...’God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self control or a sound mind’.   He was cut off and of no use to his community, as Jesus leaves he is sent home to his community with a vocation and a mission to tell the good things that God has done for him: To be good news instead of bad news. He has been healed and made whole, in a way that can only be called transformation and salvation. Some of it by spiritual means but also by very practical means as well, being clothed and fed and welcomed, embraced, taught, conversed with. Not just instantaneously but over a period of time. They went back to the town and decided what to do and then came back. This is the work and grace of Jesus in people’s lives.  This is being set free, restored and saved. There is a spiritual element, there is a social element and a compassion element and a giving new purpose element. We often deal with issues without addressing the spiritual element and in the past the church has also focused on addressing the spiritual element without addressing the other elements as well. But salvation and wholeness is Christ dealing with all those areas. It may involve confronting the demonic or as Christ comes in and starts to bring transformation they are dealt simply dealt with.  In this case the legion had to go before the rest could happen.

Sadly in the past things like mental illness and depression caused by physical factors have been mistaken by people for the person needing deliverance, that’s wrong, it does not line up with what happened here. It’s interesting but the very few times that I have been involved in a deliverance situation is usually along the path of transformation not the start of it. And often it’s when people face situations they just don’t seem to be able to deal by other means, and then it is usually with people alongside me who I trust to have the spiritual gift of discernment mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12: A God given ability to know what is going on in the spiritual realm...both the presence and the absence of the demonic.

The deliverance however is not the highlight of this passage. In all Luke’s miracle narratives the focus is on people’s reaction. In this case the people of this region are afraid of Jesus healing the demonised man, they don’t want anything to do with Jesus, and it’s as if Jesus ministry in that place seems to be a failure. They tell him to go and he and his disciples get in the boat and they leave. The healed man wants to come with Jesus to be part of his group, as I said before this may have been difficult because he was a gentile, but in this case Jesus does not say come and follow me, but rather Go home and tell them how much God has done for you.’ Jesus has left a witness in that place, we are told the man listens to Jesus and obeys him and goes and tells the people how much Jesus has done for him. There is a parallel in those two sentences in Luke that identifies God’s divine activity with Jesus activity; the two are equated with each other. One commentator said ‘that for two thousand years the best Christian brains have been trying to eloquently and sufficiently explain the relationship between God and Jesus, but the best way to talk of what God is doing is to talk of what Jesus is doing. What Jesus has done for us. 

We may never be called to go to the other shore, to a strange and foreign place to share the good news; some are called to mission and ministry elsewhere. But the reality is that as we experience the transforming, freeing life giving activity of Christ in our lives we are all called to listen and obey and to go home and to tell of how much Jesus has done for us. You know it may not be the amazing story of the demonised man, but I know that as Jesus has bough change and wholeness in to my lie what I have to share with people, is simply what Jesus has done for me. You know we often think of evangelism and faith sharing as big things that demand that we have all the answers, or some amazing story but often what speaks to ordinary people around us, what God can use even in hostile situations is as we tell and show the ways in which Jesus has changed us, us ordinary people loved and made whole and freed and saved by an extraordinary God.