Link to talk
Sermon for Sunday June 30th 2013 – Six after Pentecost, Ordinary 13, Year C
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
There is need of only one thing. I’d like to begin with a story which I now will be familiar to one or two of you. It was told by the Christian writer, Rob Bell, and concerns a day he spent with his family on the beach.
As small children like to do, his sons had been collecting piles of lovely shells and had quite a handful, when one spotted a Treasure. There, a few yards out on the sea, bobbed a HUGE starfish! And so his son, screaming with delight ran into the waves towards it, but before he’d gone any distance he turned and ran back. Thinking he lacked a little courage to go that far into the water, his family yelled their encouragement – Go on! You can do it! Get your starfish! So he ran back in and went a little further, but turned back once more. Again, his family encouraged him – Go On! You can get it! So he ran back to the shore. A third time he ran, even further this time, but again returned – anguish written all over his face. And his family once more said, Go get your starfish, and he cried back at them “I can’t!”, Why they asked? “Because my hands are full of shells . . .”1
I have to admit that when I last listened to that story it triggered a deep emotional response in me. I connected to that sense of dearly wanting something, but being unable to take hold of it, because my hands were full.
Of course we know the familiar story from the gospels all about those ‘shells’. The rich young ruler comes to Jesus ad asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, and Jesus tells him, put down all your shells, and follow me. The Danish Christian Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book entitled “Purity of heart, is to will the one thing” An exposition of the Beatitude, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. Singleness of eye, of purpose, of living. Put down your shells and follow me
Last week we thought about the Gospel and how the Gospel Is Jesus Christ. Last Sunday evening in a fairly off the cuff talk I explored how that is true with regard to the whole of Creation. How Jesus Christ Is the gospel for the whole created order. Thus if we are to inherit eternal life, then our life must be with him – indeed He is the Treasure.
Today in our gospel we hear of the focus of Jesus, the one who lives to and lives from doing the will of the Father. This is his life and his sustenance. The bread from heaven is to do the will of the Father. And we see this clearly.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus’ mission is coming to focus. He has always known for what he came, but now that begins to be revealed to those with eyes to see. ‘He set his face to go to Jerusalem’. There are two significant Old Testament echoes here, or rather this is clearly prefigured twice in the prophets. Firstly in Ezekiel Chapter 212, in all likelihood the key allusion, we read ‘Son of man, set your face towards Jerusalem and prophecy against her sanctuaries.’, Secondly in the Servant songs of Isaiah, in chapter 50 we read,
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
The direction of Jesus life known in his heart, now becomes visible in his life. His face is set to go to Jerusalem, like flint. He will not be distracted from the work the Lord has given to him. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When Jesus mission becomes clear, like with Peter, people do not want to have anything to do with it. Hospitality drains away – there was no room for him in the inn, and there is no room for him in the Samaritan village
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Are you paying attention? Have you seen how the doors close to me? You want to follow me? Do you? Perhaps he looks at this enthusiast as he might look at us – you say you are eager, but will you leave your comforts? Will you leave the warmth of your home? Will you leave all your little treasures? Will you put down your shells??
There is in Jesus an awe inspiring singleness of purpose that profoundly disturbs – He sets his face – the Samaritan village closes its doors – he walks on through – the disciples ask if like Elijah they should call down fire from heaven. But Jesus turns and rebukes them and on they go – on towards Jerusalem – on towards the cross.
As he goes he sees people, as he saw those fishermen on Galilee, he calls them ‘Follow me’ – join me, come with me, to Jerusalem. And they hear the command – they See the Treasure – but their hands are full of shells, beautiful and beguiling. There are other calls, calls which Jesus warns are Siren voices. Voices which keep us from Life. ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’
For the pious Jew, honouring Father and Mother was one of the greatest commandments. It would be unthinkable not to do this brief yet significant honour, But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ These traditions that you keep? One thing is necessary!
This interaction begins with the command to follow – it is as if Jesus is testing this individual – did you hear my command or not? If you heard my command you would know that it is life giving, in starkest contrast to a burial. If you heard my word, you would know that you shall call no-one father, for you have but one father, in heaven.
As we explored in our Lent course on the nature of the church, Jesus totally redefines ‘Family’, as he comes to create one new humanity, where all know their true identity as children not born of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. Did you hear My command? Did you hear My voice. The Voice that calls us from death to Life.
And having heard, do we like Jesus relentlessly pursue the course? Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
I have a friend who does agricultural contracting work in Western Australia. He works on a vast ‘farm’ where he is part of a team sowing seed, in shifts, 24/7. This requires him to drive the tractor and sow seeds in the middle of the night! And to do this her requires a GPS system which guides the tractor. A few weeks ago, he got into all sorts of trouble – the GPS failed. He couldn’t sown in straight lines. He lost sight of the direction.
‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ We don’t as it were make this Christian life up – no! Christian Life is to follow Christ – keeping our eyes on him. This would be follower wants to turn back for a while – but Jesus is going on. What will he do? The Treasure that is Life in Christ is moving on.
Put another way, our hands are full of shells, the starfish is drifting further out to sea what will we do?
I remember many years ago having a conversation with a friend who was stuck on the shore watching the Starfish bobbing away. She said to me, ‘I’ve come to realise that this Christian life will cost me everything I have – I have to choose’ . . . I don’t know that she ever has done.
One thing . . . Follow me . . .
I wonder how this feels to you? I spoke at the outset of my own deep response to hearing that tale once more. It is Huge, no? 🙂
Well it would not be helpful pastorally for me to depart back to the UK, without offering some words of encouragement and hope. The gospel Is Jesus Christ. His Life is everything and his call demands everything. We have to put down our shells. He is the treasure of great price for which we sell everything
The gospel Is Jesus Christ . . . and We are his body . . . the difficulty with so much of what we might call challenging preaching is that it offers little more than a call to us individually to pull up our socks, so to speak. But, as I frequently mention, there is no such thing as an individual. All our lives are tightly bound together. The call of Jesus, demanding as it is, is heard here. In his church, in the assembly of the faithful. We are called together, to respond. We are not called to what seem to be to the individual heroic acts – rather we are to help one another so that we might follow Christ together.
In a world which values ‘Independence’, standing on our own two feet, we as the church renounce that and proclaim our interdependence, that our life is with our brothers and sisters3 – that we can only follow Christ in obedience in the context of that shared life.
So each week, we come together. Each week we hear these life giving yet totally demanding words of Jesus – Each week we need to strengthen and encourage one another in the walk. Calling back those who have turned away, finding fellowship with one another when the world does not receive Jesus, discovering the wealth of the new family that Jesus has established in his body.
The journey that lies ahead of us is to grow in that unity of life and purpose, that Christ becomes visible. When Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, as it were Who he is becomes Visible. He is ‘the one who comes in the name of the LORD’. As we grow in fellowship with one another in His Body, so too His Light shines before others, as our Life together becomes visible, as we together set our faces towards God’s coming Kingdom
Let us let go of our shells. Together let us take up our cross and joyfully follow Jesus in the narrow way that leads to the fulness of Life in his precious name.
Pr 10-11; Mat 13:36-end; Psalm 78:1-31
Many in our age even in the church are at best uncertain about deeds of power in the church today. We treat reports of the dead being raised with great scepticism – for we have not seen such things
In a sense we discern why in our reading from Matthew’s gospel today. Jesus is unable to do a deed of power because of the unbelief of the people of Nazareth. Perhaps here is a word for the contemporary church? ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’
We have been thinking recently about repentance and obedience. These are the acts on our part which open the door to the Life of Jesus. Could it be that we do not live repentant lives, and thus his life and these deeds of power are rare amongst us? This repentance as I have said is concrete acts of love towards the neighbour. Yesterday we thought briefly about Cornelius and how Repentance wasn’t necessary for him – in his generous giving of arms, his heart was open to his neighbour. So when The Neighbour, in the guise of Christ comes to Him – His Life is immediately released.
I wonder if we know the Treasure of the Kingdom? I wonder whether we have gone to seek it out – giving up all we have for it?
It is instructive to note how so often in the Scriptures, our actions PRECEDE the outpouring of God’s Grace. ‘Give . . . and it will be given to you’ – ‘Forgive . . . and you will be forgiven’. The preparation of our hearts through simple obedience to the Great Commandment – Devotion to God and neighbour – opens our hearts to the Treasure – the very Life of Jesus Christ . . . and the world to his deeds of power.
Pr 7-9; Mat 13:1-35; Psalm 77
The parable of the Sower is to be found in all three of the synoptic gospels. It’s message is pretty unambiguous, yet it constantly needs to be heard afresh – as the Gospel always does.
It reveals four ways in which we respond to God’s word of Life, the seed. For some, it is in one ear and out of the other – for another it is as it were a mos wonderful thing and we are for a season excited about it. But, it has fallen on rocky ground. The heart is not prepared to receive it. Soon enough another thing will capture our attention and we will be receiving that ‘with joy’. Surely as we consider the many many who ‘responded to the gospel’ at mass crusades, given the fall away rate (about 95%), we find many who are in this category.
But what of us? We who call ourselves Christians – who worship regularly etc.etc.? It seems to me that we fall into the latter two categories. The fruit bearers, and those for whom ‘all the demands of life’ get in the way of Life. This following Jesus takes determination. Many are the distractions, many the avenues in which life overloads us, squeezing the joy of the gospel from us. Chief amongst those is of course money, which so demands our attention – and how much more so in our age than in first century Palestine. Then there is family, which Jesus often warns us turns us from following him – why the call of the kingdom must even be allowed to keep us from the funeral of our parents . . . and so on
As many have noted, the difference in the reception of the word depends on the soil.
Good soil is that heart which has repented towards God – somewhat like that of Cornelius in Acts 10. To our way of thinking, he sounds as if he is already converted He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. But in reality to use the language of the New testament, he lived Repentantly. He feared God, he was generous with all he had for the good of those who went without, and he prayed. Thus his soil was ready. Note that there is no ‘Repentance’ in the account of Cornelius – he is already living towards God – he is thus ready for the seed of the life of God to be sown. And when it does – his life bears much fruit – Although we only know about Cornelius incipient faith – his life is the gateway to life for all who live with him.
Above all, we should give thanks to God – for his word Always bears fruit somewhere, and the fruit it bears vastly outdoes the ‘lost grains’
Glory to God!
Pr 5-6; Mat 12; Psalm 76
There are many places we might stop and pause in the 12th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The intriguing mention of the Sabbath and the Temple. Is Jesus here pointing to the disciples as the new priestly caste – within the new creation announced by the Lord of the Sabbath?
Certainly he takes legalistic notions of Sabbath and demolishes them – this ‘Sabbath breaking’ is consistently portrayed as a key episode in the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. Clearly there is far more to the Sabbath than perhaps we comprehend.
Again Jesus’ words contradict what we might call ‘easy believeism’. The Life of Christ is expected to be evidenced n the life of the believer. Jesus reminds his hearers that ‘every careless word you utter’ will have to be accounted for. This saying following on from the issue of blasphemy against the Spirit, locates those careless words in the realm of speaking of God.
And once more we are reminded of the new people of God, the new ‘family’ – those who do the will of my Father in heaven.
Jesus’ words here as so often are unambiguous. uncomfortably so. How is it that we have so often designed a faith that fits us and requires nothing of us in terms of doing the will of God?
Pr 3-4; Mat 11; Psalm 75
Perhaps the struggle we all face in following Christ is that he just doesn’t fit the bill as a Saviour – so weened are we on violence – on coercion, even be it ‘the will of the people’
Yet ‘wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’
However against the grain of our lives the commands of Jesus seem – God will vindicate his Christ. Now is the day of Salvation Now is the day to follow him, laying down our own picture of what a Saviour should be – following him in humble obedience
Pr 1-2; Mat 10; Psalm 74
Often we hear from certain parts of the church a clarion call about ‘family values’ – meaning the Huge significance we are meant to place upon the health of the (implicitly nuclear) family. Failing marriages – prodigal children – lack of harmony in ‘the home’, are all seen as contrary to God’s plan in the sense that ‘God’s plan is for healthy families.
Someone doesn’t seem to have told Jesus . . .
We have already seen how the Gospel breaking into the world is breaking down what to the Jew was the most sacred of boundaries – betwixt Jew and Gentile – yet Jesus goes far far further even than this. He is forming a new people – expressed in the 12 apostles – where blood and race in effect, count for nothing. Now ‘family’ means those who are following Jesus. The ‘family’ that we are so fond of or long for is understood as a barrier to the Kingdom.
We see this worked out in all but the rarest of church settings. Endless courses given on marriage and family life – single people finding themselves on the fringe – pastors with families sought after, for they set before us an image we dearly want to cling to – but we cannot. We have to let go of this. Jesus demands our total allegiance.
Jesus then establishes something far more life giving, the community of faith where every act of hospitality is an act of hospitality to him.
Such talk seems extreme to us, but our perceptions of the significance of ‘family life’ and marriage owe far far more to Christendom, to the world in which we live in which such structures are understood to be at the root of strong community – ironically this very strength immunises us against the gospel. It also locks out the other.
This is the life we have to lose to discover a far richer and fuller life in Him.
‘Create a new spirit within our hearts, a spirit of conversion to Christ. [Let us put to death the deeds of the flesh, and seek the things that are above, where Christ’s Holy Spirit leads us] Come Holy Spirit, make us children of God, heirs with Christ. [Let us . . . ‘
1 Ki 9-11; Mat 9 Psalm 73
‘I desire mercy . . .’
It would be good to reflect on this saying. We are told it is the merciful who will receive mercy [ just as those who give will receive in all aspects of the life of the Kingdom – ‘forgive us as we forgive’, God opens the door to us in Christ – we have to step through to receive the blessings of the Kingdom.]
And so we might ask ‘Am I merciful as my Father in heaven is merciful?’ bearing in mind that we reveal the nature of our parents in this more than in anything else. Plainly much of contemporary church life is far from merciful. Yes we say we are, but THIS!! or THAT!!! cannot be the subject of mercy. We still set our own bounds
1 Ki 8; Mat 8; Psalm 72
Immediately following the Sermon on the Mount, the theme of obedience of lack of it is highlighted in the healing of the centurion’s servant.
The gospel of Matthew is the one most clearly directed towards an audience which has a Jewish background. Law is a key theme and the gospel is shaped in a five-fold pattern, echoing the five books of Torah. This background is important in understanding Jesus response to the gentile centurion, for there is a key element of the gospel summed up in Chapter 10:5 where Jesus commands ‘Go nowhere amongst the gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, bit go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and proclaim the good news “The kingdom of heaven has come near” ‘.
In the incident with the Centurion, Jesus is amazed for the key element of his conflict is with the disobedience of God’s people. We might well see the focus of the faith of the centurion as key – but there is another important element here. Those under the authority of the Centurion do what they are commanded – as we have already seen, the same cannot be said of the people of God, and yet who has the higher claim to authority? The Son of the most high God, or a mere military functionary?
Put like that we may well spend a moment considering: firstly how our inherently self centered culture in the West responds poorly to any authority except that of the Self; secondly how do we respond to the question when it is put in terms of a miltary leader who commands in the last resort, by penalty of death, compared with Jesus’ authority as a teacher of truth; and thirdly how well our own response to Jesus, freely given compares with that of the servants etc. to the command of the centurion – let alone the response of the disease to the presence of Christ?