Friday, June 24, 2011

Gospel notes for Sunday 3rd July 2011

Yesterday I delivered some material to one of our archdeaconries on the gospel reading (RCL) for Sunday 3rd July. It may be of interest to you, especially if you are preparing a sermon for that day. The context here is Christchurch city, battered and bruised as it is.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 (Gospel for Sunday 3rd July, 2011)

11:16 “To what should I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to one another,

11:17 ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep.’

11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’

11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

[Deuteronomy 21:20, ‘They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard”.’ Matthew’s Greek for ‘glutton and drunk’ is not same as Septuagint for ‘glutton and drunkard.]

11:25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children.

11:26 Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will (lit. ‘for so it pleased you well’).

11:27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him.

11:28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

11:29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

11:30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.”

(NET: )

This passage is very difficult (e.g. around meaning of ‘wisdom’, how wisdom is acquired, Johannine character of 11:25-27, play on rabbinical and Christian discipleship in 11:28-30, meaning of ‘rest’ (is it our ‘peace and tranquillity while snoozing in the sun on a sunny January holiday’?). Suggest looking up a good commentary. Theology House has a few.

One difficulty is presented by the lectionary itself: why has 11:20-24 been omitted? Looks like a case of “difficult passage, better leave it out.” This kind of thing is ‘rough justice’ on the theological ability of the biblical writer. In this case Matthew connects 11:16-19 with 20-24 via the theme of works: God’s sending of Jesus into the world is ‘wisdom’ which is justified by its deeds or works (ergon); these works include mighty or powerful works (dynameis) of Jesus, so powerful that people should be repenting. What are our congregations missing by not hearing the whole passage?

Matthew the theologian works some authentic Jesus material differently to Luke (compare with Luke 7:31-35; 10:12-15; 10:21-22; and no comparable passage for Matthew 11:28-30), his skill and thematic interests as a theologian being betrayed by his sequencing of material and words which constitute the glue joining sections together.

Another theme worked through by Matthew is sonship. In the first passage Jesus the Son of Man speaks of himself being derided by ‘this generation’. But the language is reminiscent of Deuteronomy 21:20, in a passage about how parents are to deal with a wayward son. Ironically, whether ‘the Son of Man’ or ‘the Son of God’, Jesus is not recognised as such. In fact the opposite: he is derided with the language used of a bad son. Bad sons are recognised by their bad deeds. The generation of Jesus do not see the deeds of Jesus for what they are: deeds proving God’s wisdom is true. Rightly, Jesus the good Son addresses God as Father (11:25, 26, 27).

Wisdom is another theme Matthew is concerned with (11:19, 25, 29). Is wisdom – true, divine wisdom – received through revelation or through rabbinical learning? Revelation seems paramount, not only setting aside learning through study with rabbis (the ‘wise and intelligent’) but also judging the inanities of the crowds making their populist judgments of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Yet at the end of the passage, Jesus’ yoke is a rabbinical image: his disciples will learn from him, like other rabbis’ disciples. However Jesus continues to set himself apart: he is gentle and humble, his yoke is light and his load is easy to bear. But that means that ...

‘rest’ here is not refreshment and recreation, rather it is the result of effective learning from the true Wisdom: their souls will not be heavy burdened and weary from the demands of the Law but enjoying the peace of a mind which knows God’s will. Note the contrast between the light yoke of Jesus and the heavy demands of the Pharisees in the next chapter, Matthew 12.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message captures this understanding of ‘rest’ well in this translation:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Which brings us back to sonship. When Jesus bids his disciples to take his yoke which is to walk closely beside him and learn from him what relationship is immediately behind this relationship? The Father – Son relationship described in 11:27. As the Son has been yoked to the Father, yielding complete knowledge, so disciples will know the Son and thus the Father (all of which is much expanded on in John’s Gospel).

All very interesting (with much more untouched here) but what is our message going to be when we preach on this reading?

What single theme might our words on July 3rd cohere around in a tight, focused message? There are several themes here.

From this passage what application(s) could we make to our communities around us, battered and bruised as we are?

My suggested answers to these questions

(1) Is Christchurch a city under judgement? Whether we take a view on the earthquakes themselves being acts of judgement, we are a city being tested for what makes us tick, what our allegiances are, and where our deepest values lie. There are some signs of more people coming to church. Are people turning to Christ in repentance and faith? Is there a vague upturn of religiosity and sentiment?

(2) Jesus is the centre. Every part of this passage (including the omitted passage in 11:20-24) turns on Jesus. Jesus is always looking for those who belong to him, who understand him, who come to him because he is the way, the truth and the life.

(3) The pressure of the earthquakes is immense. The challenges for many are overwhelming. We have lost our familiar treasures. Yet Jesus offers the incomparable treasure of knowing the Father through the Son (in the power of the Spirit). It is all that matters.

(4) +Kelvin Wright ( ): empty church buildings in Otago and Southland as testimony to a former way of doing things. Our ‘core business’ is personal transformation. Those buildings were once important to that ‘business’. Now they are not. But the ‘core business’ remains the same. What do we need to do to ‘grow the business’ in today’s environment?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Our faith on Trinity Sunday

Lost from NZPB is this treasure of the BCP, itself a treasure of the church of the ages, the Athanasian Creed. Let's dust it off on this most suitable of days for its recitation.

Quicunque vult

WHOSOEVER will be saved : before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith.

Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled : without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the Persons : nor dividing the Substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son : and another of the Holy Ghost.

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one : the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son : and such is the Holy Ghost.

The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate : and the Holy Ghost uncreate.

The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible : and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.

The Father eternal, the Son eternal : and the Holy Ghost eternal.

And yet they are not three eternals : but one eternal.

As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated : but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.

So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty : and the Holy Ghost Almighty.

And yet they are not three Almighties : but one Almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God : and the Holy Ghost is God.

And yet they are not three Gods : but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord : and the Holy Ghost Lord.

And yet not three Lords : but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be both God and Lord;

So are we forbidden by the Catholick Religion : to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none : neither created, nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone : not made, nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son : neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons : one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other : none is greater, or less than another;

But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together : and co-equal.

So that in all things, as is aforesaid : the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved : must think thus of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation : that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess : that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;

God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds : and Man of the substance of his Mother, born in the world;

Perfect God and perfect Man : of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.

Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead : and inferior to the Father, as touching his manhood;

Who, although he be God and Man : yet he is not two, but one Christ;

One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh : but by taking of the Manhood into God;

One altogether; not by confusion of Substance : but by unity of Person.

For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man : so God and Man is one Christ;

Who suffered for our salvation : descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead.

He ascended into heaven, he sitteth at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty : from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead.

At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies : and shall give account for their own works.

And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting : and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.

This is the Catholick Faith : which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and every shall be: world without end. Amen.

Did anyone recite it in church today?

Monday, June 13, 2011

How Long Should a Service Be?

This simple question has a complex answer. I am prompted to think about it a little by my preaching in a church yesterday with three services, each of differing time lengths. While I think my third delivery of the sermon was a little longer than than the first two, overall my sermon was pretty average in delivery time, and on these three occasions didn't contribute to any undue lengthening of the services (all of which, as far as I could tell, actually kept to their planned, and customary length).

(1) There is an unstated lower limit to length! Let's face it, most people going to a mid-morning Sunday service would be puzzled if not grizzly if they were out of the church within half-an-hour. While we mostly (in my experience) talk about services being too long, it is possible for a service to be too short.

(2) When people plan services there is often an associated plan re the time (whether stated or not). If the service then takes too short or too long a time, review of the service, in the light of the plan, can lead to improved planning.

(3) Context is a significant constraint on time. If, say, there are three services on a Sunday morning, 8 am, 9 am, and 10.30 am, and some time gap between services is sought, then the first two services are likely to be constrained to 45 minutes and 60 minutes respectively. Sunday lunch is still a desirable meal, especially for hungry children and teenagers, so the constraint on the 10.30 am service will be different. What is a reasonable time for a family to get away from church in time for lunch? The above sentences presume a single centre parish. There would be other constraints in a parish where each of three services is in a different location.

(4) Personal comfort is a constraint. For what time span for a service can we reasonably expect people to engage? Expectation will vary with age and stage. Mid-week services, for example, often with 95%+ participation by people aged over 75 years, are rightly among the shortest services we hold. Young students, enjoying lots of music and a mentally-demanding Bible exposition may be very happy to come to an evening service that lasts one and a half to two hours. I suggest we do well to think about what would be comfortable for a newcomer, as well as the comfort level for regular worshippers. In some circumstances I have noticed congregational numbers dropping when service length has not been constrained.

(5) Consistency is a factor. Again, speaking from experience, and taking a hypothetical "8 am, 9 am and 10.30 am" set of services, consistency helps in several ways. Consistently tightly held deadlines for the first two services is a great help to those setting up and assisting in leading the following service. A third service in the morning is not under quite the same constraint: it could vary a little in length from week to week, but normally people appreciate knowing that they will be able to choose to leave the building between (say) 11.40 and 11.45 am.

But all this involves another set of questions: how long should the individual parts of each service take ...!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Fine tuning preaching

Unfortunately I have lent the book onwards but a biography of John Stott has a very useful section on reviewing sermons. In my faulty memory these were the useful questions asked What was the message? (What message did I think I preached, What message did you hear?) and How did the message come across? (Did it patronise? Was it too simple, too clever? Was your attention held?).

A "PS" question I would add, just to check, is, Was there one and only one message? It is interesting listening to a sermon and to notice (as the hearer) that something has changed or shifted in the sermon. What has happened (I say to myself)? Ah, yes, a new message has begun (i.e. a new subject, topic or theme is being attended to). Let's say that great preachers do not do this, but good preachers notice when they do this and rescue the sermon but quickly leaving the new message, returning to the actual message for the day, and concluding promptly!