Stewarding our communion

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Last Sunday we started a four-part series on stewardship, which I defined as taking care of the things that God has entrusted to each of us. Last week, we started with stewarding ourselves. Today, we reflect on stewarding our communion. And over the following two Sundays we’ll talk about stewarding our things and our world.

By stewarding our communion, I am meaning stewarding our church – particularly the local church of which you are member. I’ve deliberately used the term ‘communion’ rather than ‘church’, because ‘church’ too easily makes us think of the institution of the church – the denomination, its rules and statements of belief, its structures and hierarchies, and so on. While these are important, I’d like us to focus more on our fellowship, our community, our communion. Today, we reflect on how we create, nurture and sustain a communion of believers, focused on God and on God’s work.

Acts 2:42-47 provides a potent and familiar description of the early church:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

As you read this passage, and as we reflect on its themes, consider your own church and to what extent it evidences these four characteristics:

  • Fellowship. The early church was characterised by close fellowship between the believers. We see this in the following words from the text: fellowship, were together, meet together, and ate together.
  • Regularity. The members of the church fellowshipped together; not now and then, occasionally or sporadically, but regularly. Notice these words from the Acts passage: devoted, every day, and daily.
  • Inclusivity. The early church was one that welcomed everyone – doors were flung open and all members and newcomers were included. See these phrases: everyone, all the believers, everything, and added to their number those who were being saved.
  • Worship. And the early church focused on and cherished worship or liturgy – this was no social club, but a group focused on building the Kingdom of God. We see this in these phrases: apostles’ teaching, breaking of bread, prayer, wonders and signs, broke bread, and praising God.

How is your local church – your Christian communion, your fellowship – doing on these four characteristics? Covid-19, of course, has made a huge dent in these for many churches. Some have found ways of continuing to gather online. Others have not. Reflect on Covid’s impact on your communion and what this means for the future. But also reflect on how your communion was before Covid, so that we don’t blame Covid for everything.

What does your stewardship of your communion look like?

Perhaps your church is not doing great on these points. What could you do to strengthen this thing of God – the church communion – that God has entrusted into our care – your care? Let me suggest just three key things:

  1. You choose to exercise your own stewardship of your communion. A communion is made up of individuals. You are one of them. Take responsibility for your own engagement with and stewardship of your communion. Too often we are waiting for the clergy or church leadership to do things. Let each of us take responsibility for our own stewarding of the church. If each of us did, we’d be a communion. As Joshua said in 24:15, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
  2. Talk to others in your communion: especially those on the edge, those who feel disillusioned, those who feel alienated, those who have lost hope. Build communion with them, one-on-one, and draw them back into the larger communion.
  3. Pray. Pray without ceasing for your communion, for your church, the fellowship of believers. The communion is the Lord’s. He entrusts it to us for safekeeping and growth; but it is still the Lord’s. Ask the Lord to build the church.

Steward your communion

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He wants it all!

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In Luke 11:42-44, Jesus issues a series of ‘woes’ (or warnings) against the Pharisees, who were a group of highly religious, devout Jewish people. They were also religious leaders, so these woes are issued against both those who think of themselves as highly religious and against those who are occupy leadership positions in the church (including both clergy and laypeople).

Today, we focus on just Luke 11:42:

Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

Jesus draws a contrast between tithing (specifically tithing of food, but we can apply it equally to tithing of money) and justice (which can be considered the love of neighbour) and the love of God.

Jesus draws this contrast frequently in the Gospels. It is the contrast between the inner (heart) life and the outer (public) life. He repeatedly calls for alignment between these two, and he speaks out particularly harshly against those who emphasise the outer life and neglect the inner life.

The story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4 illustrates this very nicely:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

While outwardly, the rich gave more money than the widow, they gave only a tiny percent of what they had, while the little she gave was all she had. The percentage of what is given is more important than the absolute amount that is given. The motivation for giving is more important than the absolute amount given. The external appearance of the money is not important; rather, the inner heart out of which the money is given is what is important to Jesus.

Jesus also emphasises social justice in this passage, as well as love of God. In Luke 10:27, Jesus answers the question about what we must do to inherit eternal life with the Great Commandment:

“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

This vertical and horizontal love is absolutely foundational to what it means to be an authentic Christian or follower of Christ. Jesus issues these woes against the Pharisees because they had neglected these fundamental expressions of authentic faith – they had neglected to love God and they had neglected social justice.

We would, however, be wrong to conclude that Jesus is saying the outward expression of faith is unimportant, and only the heart is important. NO! In fact, Jesus stresses that BOTH are important! He wraps up this verse:

You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

Tithing – giving of our material resources – remains important! He wants:

  • Social justice
  • Love of God
  • Our money

In short, Jesus wants it all!

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Stewarding ourselves

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Today we begin a four-part series on stewardship. The notion of stewardship, albeit not named as such, comes from the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2. After God has invested tremendously in creating the heavens and earth, God entrusts God’s creation to humanity. In Genesis 1:28, we read,

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

And in Genesis 2:15, after a detailed account of God’s creation of the Garden of Eden, we read:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

In both, narratives, the first thing God does after the creation of humanity, is to place humans in a position of responsibility to take care of what God has made. Later in this series we’ll talk more about taking care of the world itself, but these narratives are speaking not only about the earth, but about everything that God has created. And since everything that exists was created by God, stewardship is about everything!

During this series, we’ll look at four things God calls us to steward:

  1. Ourselves
  2. Our communion
  3. Our things
  4. Our world

Today we start with stewarding ourselves.

It might seem strange to think about stewarding ourselves, because we normally think about stewarding other things. But since we are God’s creation, we need to steward ourselves. A lovely passage that speaks about this is Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

The ’offering’ or ‘sacrificing’ of ourselves that Paul speaks about here is comparable to what we are calling ‘stewarding’. In a sense, we give ourselves to God. In this brief passage, Paul speaks about offering our bodies, offering our spirits and offering our minds. This aligns with the classic way of understanding the components of a person: body, mind and spirit. Paul is really saying that we need to steward the whole of ourselves.

Let me briefly suggest three ways that we can do this:

First, we can focus our mind, our emotions, our will or intention or purpose on God. All too often, we carry out the business of living our life as if God does not exist. We just live life, like any person who is not a follower of Christ. But stewarding ourselves means that we focus ourselves on God; in other words, we recognise that we exist because of God and that we exist to please God. God becomes central in our thinking and in our intentions. This is the sense of surrendering ourselves to God in a way that is ‘holy and pleasing to God’ that Paul speaks about in Romans 12.

Second, how can we put that first point into action, to take it from an idea to something tangible and practicable? Perhaps we can ask ourselves every morning as we wake up, “How will I serve God today?” Stewarding ourselves doesn’t just fall out of the sky; it’s not going to ‘just happen’. We have to choose to make it happen. Imagine if, before we did something, we asked ourselves, “Will this please God?” And imagine what our lives would be like if, having realised it would not please God, we chose to not do it or to change the way we do it – into a way that is pleasing to God. Or imagine if we asked ourselves, “Does what I’m doing now reveal the heart of God?” If our words and actions are not revealing who God is and what is most important to God, then we are not stewarding ourselves for God – we’re just doing what we feel like doing. But when we shape the way we behave so that it is pleasing to God and reveals the character of God, then we are stewarding ourselves.

Third, we can put the gifts that we have into God’s service. We all have gifts. Some people are friendly and find talking to strangers easy. (This is something I’m not good at.) Some people can cook or sing or fix things or manage money. These are (perhaps) what we could call natural gifts. And there are also what Paul calls spiritual gifts (e.g., 1 Cor 12) which are given to us by Holy Spirit when we make a personal commitment to Christ. These include some supernatural gifts like prophecy, tongues, healing and so on. But whatever gifts you have – whatever you are good at – are gifts that we can steward, by putting them to work in building God’s kingdom. Of course, as a church, we’d love you put these gifts to work in the church; but you can also put them to work anywhere and everywhere – at home, at work, in your community, in your family.

As we journey through this coming week, I encourage you to put a note up in a place where you’ll see it every day – perhaps on your mirror in the bedroom or bathroom, or next to your kettle. Write on a slip of paper, “How will I serve God today?” Make an effort to remember this little question and to keep looking for ways to serve God. It does not necessarily mean doing something extra; it usually means changing the way we do what would have done anyway.

When you do that, you’ll be stewarding yourself for God.

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Our Father

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Luke 11:1-4 presents us the brief, well-known passage about Jesus teaching his disciples to pray using an earlier form of the Lord’s Prayer. He says,

When you pray, say,
‘Father…’

I’m stopping at this first word, because it represents a profound revelation and revolution in our understanding of God. In the First Testament of the Hebrew people, God was regarded as all powerful, fearsome, remote, almost terrifying. God was seldom referred to as ‘Father’, except when he was spoken of as being, for example, the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the Father of Israel. And God refers to himself as a father in a handful of passages. But people never prayed to or spoke to him directly as ‘Father’.

Jesus, by contrasts, shows himself engaging with God as his personal father, in an intimate, authentic, comfortable, loving way. In his prayers, he calls God ‘Father’. He reveals God in a new light – as approachable, caring, accessible. And he shows that God is interested in our daily lives, in the little things we experience and also in the big challenges we face.

And so, when he teaches his disciples how to pray, his first word is ‘Father’. We could almost stop just there with the Lord’s Prayer because that on its own is a radical transformation of our relationship with God. A one-word prayer – “Father” – is a great prayer!

Not everyone has good associations with ‘father’, however. Some of us have been abused by our fathers, abandoned by them, treated harshly by them. Some don’t know our fathers. Some would never share anything personal with our fathers. So, thinking of God as our ‘father’ might not be meaningful or helpful to everyone; indeed, it might raise a host of painful memories and feelings.

But let us remember that God is not a man and not an actual biological father. Rather, Jesus refers to God as father to reflect a relationship that for him was meaningful. We could think of God as parent (which is often how I refer to God in public prayer) or as mother or caregiver. And let us also consider that there could be healing for our woundedness when we experience a heavenly parent who is consistent, fair, engaged, loving, kind, protective, empowering and sincere, particularly if we have not experienced this with our human parents.

I encourage you today to enter into a more intimate and honest engagement with God in your prayers – both in your formal prayers when you sit down for the purpose of praying or saying a daily office, and in your informal prayers, muttered to God as you drive or worry about something or are grateful for something. God desires to have a parental relationship with us, in which we can rest in his arms and tell him everything that is on our heart, without fear or hesitation.

And so we pray:

Our father in heaven
hallowed be your name
your kingdom come
your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and glory are yours
now and for ever. Amen

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Relying on Christ

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In Philippians 3:4b-15a, Paul shares his own experience of faith and in so doing holds up a mirror for us to reflect thoughtfully on our experience of faith. So often our faith gets caught up with our human activity – all the things we do to express our faith – prayer, giving, righteousness, attending church and so on.

But Paul says these things are comparatively worthless (garbage!) compared to faith that is reliant on Christ. Paul is not saying that we should abandon such things, but that by comparison with a faith that relies entirely on Christ, these things should not be central.

This passage is one of a few where Paul really opens his heart to us and shares his own faith journey, and so rather than preaching for long on the passage, I encourage you primarily to read, hear and digest the inspired words of the Apostle Paul.

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Church discipline

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 22-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below or read the text summary that follows.

Matthew 18:15-20 speaks about church discipline. Jesus provides us with both principles for church discipline and some practical steps that can be followed.

Principles

This specific passage is located within the larger narrative of Matthew chapter 18:

  1. Jesus starts by advocating for humility; a warning particularly to those who think they are important people in the church, including church leaders (Matthew 18:1-5).
  2. Jesus says we should be considerate of our sisters and brothers, not causing people to stumble while we stand on our rights (Matthew 18:6-13).
  3. Jesus tells the parable about the lost sheep – the shepherd leaves (and even risks) the 99, while he goes in search of the one (Matthew 18:10-14).
  4. Then we have today’s passage on church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
  5. Immediately after that, we have Peter asking how many times he should forgive a sister or brother who sins against him. Seven times? (which to Peter probably felt very generous!) But Jesus, says, no! 70 times 7. And goes on to the parable of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven much (as we all are forgiven very much by God) but was unwilling to forgive another person a little (Matthew 18:21-35).

In combination, this chapter strongly emphasizes relationships of love. Love that is humble and little, love that is considerate, love that see the individual as of inestimable value, love that forgives and forgives, love that recognized how we have been blessed and seeks to pass it on.

This is the context within which Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’ words about church discipline.

While we are instructed to challenge or confront sin – Jesus says, “Go! And point out their fault” – nevertheless, the way in which we do it, our purpose, our understanding of ourselves in this challenging role and our understanding the person being confronted, are all to be shaped by the deep love, consideration, valuing and forgiving that Jesus has presented to us in this chapter.

Practice

Perhaps the first thing to recognize in practice is that we are all sinners, so this is a case of one sinner confronting another sinner. This is not a situation of the righteous confronting the sinner. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The steps are really quite sensible:

  1. Go directly to the person whose sin you have become aware of and point it out to them. Have a conversation with them, according to the principles set out above. And hopefully they will be able to hear you and the prompting of Holy Spirit and repent. (In the sermon, I share an example where I was the one being confronted regarding my own sin against another person in the church.
  2. But if they don’t listen, go again with another one or two people, and try again. These other people are witnesses and may see that actually you are in the wrong in your assessment of the situation. They provide a third perspective.
  3. But if the person still does not listen, then bring it to ‘the church’, by which Matthew probably mean the whole church, though perhaps today it would be better to bring it to the church leaders or elders. This is now a more formal and confrontational situation
  4. But if the person still does not listen, then “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”.

This final step appears to suggest excommunication or ‘shunning’, though Jesus does not make explicit what he means. There certainly are other passages in the Second Testament that make provision for casting someone out of the church community. However, when we look at how Jesus treats pagans and tax collectors, we see that he reaches out to them, engages them, works to reconcile them and save them:

  • The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 was a pagan. Jesus engaged with her when she approached him, proclaimed her faith to be incredible, and healed her daughter from demon possession.
  • Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 was a tax collector. Jesus initiated dialogue with him, invited himself to his house to share a meal with him, and concludes by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Regarding both pagans and tax collectors, we Jesus working to reconcile, restore, include, forgive, save. Combining these examples of Jesus’ actual behaviour with pagans and tax collectors, and in light of the words just before this passage – “your Father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should perish” (Mat 18:14) – and the words just after it – “[forgive] not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mat 18:22) – we should conclude that the fourth step in Jesus’ practice guidelines is not about excommunication, but rather about persistent attempts to challenge and restore.

Paul summarises this very neatly in Galatians 6:1:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit [meaning we need check our own faith and conduct before we step in to confront someone else] should restore that person [not dump on them, not humiliate or belittle them, not shame them, not cast them out] gently [with kindness, consideration, sensitivity and above all, authentic love]. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted [be humble, watch out for pride, arrogance of complacency, because you might easily be the one caught in a sin next week].

Live light

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

Matthew 16:21-28 is sandwiched between two remarkable narratives of Jesus’ revelation. Just before (Matthew 16:13-20), Peter recognises Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and is praised by Jesus for his insight and promised a great future in the Kingdom of God. Just after (Matthew 17:1-13), Peter sees the transfiguration, where Jesus shucks off his human form and reveals himself as God the Son. In between these two remarkable stories, Jesus rebukes Peter strongly, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (v23). It is quite a fascinating narrative sequence!

We learn something about Jesus’ view of life and death from this passage. Just before Jesus rebuke of Peter, he was explaining that he would soon die and then be raised to life again (v21). Peter could not accept such crazy talk about death, particularly after everything that had just happened. After the rebuke, Jesus continues by explaining that if we cling to the life we have in this world, we risk losing our life in the world to come: “What good will it be,” he asks, “for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (v26).

While Jesus clearly makes the most of this life and enjoys it – we see him living life to the full and remember how much he achieved in just 33 or so years of life and probably just three year of ministry – he reminds us that this is not all there is. There is a far greater, longer and more fulfilling life awaiting those who belief – life eternal.

We are encouraged not to cling too tightly to this life, but to hold this life lightly, much as we might hold a baby bird who has fallen out of its nest. Don’t squeeze it!

Our faith tells us about an eternal life that we will enjoy with God and those who died in faith. But too often Christians live as if they have no faith – we are afraid of dying and we cling to this life as if it is all there is.

Let us rather enjoy this life – live it to the full – while also not being afraid of death and looking forward to the eternal life that is still to come.

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Who do you say I am?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asks his disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” This is arguably the most central question of our faith as Christians. We are, after all, Christians. We are followers of Christ. Who Christ is – this person we follow, this person whose name defines our faith -is thus of central importance.

Jesus first asked, in Matthew 16:13, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and the disciples run off a list of names: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” These are all great prophets, and in some ways Jesus is the preeminent prophet. A prophet reveals God’s mind to us, opens up the truth of God to us. And certainly Jesus does do that. But they stop short. Jesus is so much more than ‘just’ a prophet.

So, if your answer to Jesus’ question is things like (for me) – my friend, my brother, my healer, my whole-maker, my teacher, my example, my comforter, my safe space, and so on – these are right (they are certainly not wrong!), but they don’t go far enough.

This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus engages in discussion about himself. He is doing identity work here – discussing who he is with his disciples. This takes place in chapter 16 of a 28-chapter book. So, it appears in the second half of the Gospel. Jesus is half-way through his journey with his disciples, and only now does he ask who they say he is. This is meaningful.

As Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, we tend to have an expectation that people must make a statement of faith in Christ as a prerequisite for conversion. But here, Jesus has allowed his disciples to walk alongside him and witness his life and his engagement with the world for a long time. And only now, much later, does he ask for a statement of faith.

The understanding of who Jesus is is not the prerequisite for faith, but the result of the journey of faith.

I converted to Christianity at age 16. At that moment, on the evening of 21 October 1984, I really didn’t know who Christ was. All I knew was that God was calling me and I had to respond to his call. It was only over years of journeying with him, through all the ups and downs of faith, that my understanding of who he is and of who he is for me has become clearer. And I anticipate in the following decades of my life, this understanding will continue to mature and deepen.

Peter’s answer, after having walked with Christ, is strong and certain: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In the Greek, the phrasing is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, of the Living One”. There were, in Peter’s time, as in our time, many Gods. He feels the need to qualify who he is referring to when he says ‘God’. He is not referring to just any God, but to the God who is alive, the Living God.

It is important for us to incorporate into our experience of who Christ is for us the insight that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, God the Son, the Logos, a member of the triune Godhead, the one who has been present since before time and will continue to present after time itself has ended. This is who Jesus is!

But what about you?
Who do you say I am?

Wrestling Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 31-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. I’m sorry this message is so long, but today’s reading is a seriously difficult passage and requires careful work. I do encourage you to watch the video and learn some profound lessons about Jesus and about faith.

Our reading today is from Matthew 15:21-28. The following translation is by Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew. I’m using this because he keeps closely to the sentence structure in the Greek, which I will show is important for making sense of this passage:

21. And Jesus left there and withdrew into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.
22. And look! a Canaanite woman from that region approached and was crying out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is horribly possessed by a demon!”
23. But he did not respond to her with a single word.
And his disciples came up to him and repeatedly asked him, “Get rid of her, will you; she keeps screaming at us!”
24. But he responded and said, “I was not sent to anyone except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25. But she came up, bowed down worshipfully before him, and said, “Lord, help me!”
26. But he responded and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
27. But she said, “Oh yes, Lord! Yet even the house dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.”
28. Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific; let it be done for you exactly as you want.” And her daughter was healed that very moment.

This is such a difficult passage, because Jesus expresses what appears to be deeply disrespectful, pejorative, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist views towards the Canaanite woman. In our contemporary society, which is so riddled with racism and hostility to all who are other (including immigrants, LGBTQI+, women, etc.). It reads like (what we would today call) hate speech.

So, I have titled this message Wrestling Jesus because there are three layers of wrestling taking place here.

First, I and we have to wrestle with Jesus. His words are very hard to understand and swallow. We have to engage honestly, thoughtfully, carefully with Jesus words. We have to avoid sanitising his words, while also making sense of his words.

Second, I suggest what we are reading is Jesus wrestling with himself. I suggest what we reading is like a Shakespearean soliloquy, in which Jesus speaks out loud his internal grappling or wrestling. I’ve done some colour coding to emphasise the structure:

  1. All of the sentences (except the last) start with ‘and’ or ‘but’. I suggest that what this does is to suspend time, to create a pocket of timelessness in which something can emerge. This continues until the last verse which finally has a ‘then’ – and then the story moves forward. We have a similar event in John 8:1-11, where Jesus kneels down and doodles in the same, while the men accuse the woman of adultery.
  2. Jesus’ name is not mentioned except in the first and last verse. In the middle verses it is just ‘he’. This depersonalisation contributes to the timelessness of the narrative.
  3. In two of the three ‘responded and said’, we are not told who he responded to. It is not clear who he is speaking to. It seems he may be just speaking, to himself; saying out loud what he is thinking in his mind.
  4. v24 suggests that Jesus’ wrestling is between his mission to the people of Israel (and they would subsequently have the mission of bringing the Gospel to the nations) and the needs of this individual woman in front of him who is not an Israelite.
  5. v26 has the terrible words that seems to say that Canaanites are dogs. In my view and that of some commentators, this is a well-known racist expression that was commonly used in those days, much as we have racist expressions for groups of people today. That Jesus would say these words in the presence of this woman is hard to swallow – it is painful and anti-pastoral. But perhaps Jesus is saying out loud what people say about women like her. And perhaps this is his wrestling.
  6. What he seems to come to through all this is that PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN MISSION (or law or religion or sexual orientation or politics or nationality, etc, etc, etc.). PEOPLE MATTER! Jesus seems to learn this from her.
  7. And then, in the final verse, we get a Then! Now time starts again and the story moves forward. “Then Jesus responded and said to her.” This is the first time he speaks to her directly. Everything before this, I suggest, is soliloquy. He is wrestling with his role and he learns from her what is most important, that people matter.

We see Jesus grow and learn. We see him rediscovering the truth that people matter. More than anything – including our theology, doctrine, denomination, politics, nationality, race, sexual orientation – people matter!

Third, the Canaanite woman wrestles with Jesus. She has a great need – her daughter is horribly possessed by a demon – and she is desperate for Jesus’ help. Even though she is not Jewish, she recognises who he is: Lord (the Messiahs, the Christ), Son of David (the culmination of Jewish prophecy about the line of David). Her faith, perhaps fuelled by her desperation, helps her to hear between the lines.

  • After her first appeal to him in v22, Jesus does not respond. He is silent. What she hears is not a disinterest, but “He’s not chased me away. He’s still here. I still have a chance.” And so she persists.
  • The disciples want Jesus to send her away, but Jesus says that he was sent to the house of Israel. What she hears is not that she is not part of the house of Israel, but that he has not said ‘no’ to her. There is still a chance. And so he persists. She grovels in front of him and cries out, “Lord, help me!”
  • Then Jesus quotes this racist expression. What she hears is not that she is trash, but that she can be a pet dog at his table, who is eligible to eat the scraps that fall from it. There is still a chance. And so she persists. She takes ownership of the label ‘dog’.
  • Now she is brilliant! She takes the expression that Jesus spoke out loud and turns it to her advantage. She turns his words against him. She wrestles him to the ground. She makes it impossible for him to say ‘No’.
  • Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific!” He sees her, speaks to her, recognises her, acknowledges her, yields to her. He uses the word ‘you‘ or ‘your‘ three times in v28. He recognises her as a person who matters, and he gives her what she has asked for with such faith and tenacity.

This woman teaches us to never, never, never give up prayer. Pray without ceasing. Do not lose hope. Wrestle God to the ground until he gives you what you are asking for.

Featured image: The Canaanite Woman, from the Très Riches Heurers du Duc de Berry. The Conde Museum, Chantilly. Downloaded from https://www.friendsjournal.org/woman-refused-take-no-answer/

Forgiveness

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

Today we are reading from Matthew 18, which has a series of parables and teachings about the life of the church, culminating in a teaching on forgiveness. The central verse is, perhaps, v22, where, in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (or 70 time 7 times).

The whole chapter speaks about relationships between us and our brothers and sisters in the church:

  • First Jesus  reminds us that greatness is relative, and that if we want to be great, we need to be like little children. (Mat 18:1-5)
  • He then cautions us to avoid doing anything that might cause others (“little ones”) to stumble. Indeed, he goes as far to say that we should mutilate ourselves, rather than cause someone to stumble. (Mat 18:6-9)
  • Then we get the parable of the wandering sheep. A shepherd as 100 sheep and one goes missing. He leaves the 99 to seek out the one. Jesus emphasises the great joy in heaven resulting from the rescue of the one, and refers to them again as ‘little ones’. This passage speaks about love seeking – God is always seeking us out, even just the one, even just a ‘little one’. God is seeking – we need to be seeking. (Mat 18:10-14)
  • Then we have a teaching about how to handle sin in the church – when our sister or brother sins. Jesus presents a nuanced series of challenges – first you go on your own, then you take one or two people with you (again quietly and personally), then you inform the church (presumably the leadership) and they go (again quietly and personally) to challenge the person, and finally, says Jesus, we “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”. We might think Jesus means to cast them out, to excommunicate them. But Jesus’ encounters with pagan Romans (Luke 7:1-10) and tax collectors (Luke 19:1-10) are to engage with them, not to cast them out. Love challenges and confronts, but in a way that embraces rather than rejects. (Mat 18:15-20)
  • Finally, we have the parable of the unmerciful servant, where a servant owes his king a lot of money, but cannot pay it back. He begs for mercy and the kind cancels his debt. The servant meets someone who owes him a few bucks, demands payment and when he cannot pay, he casts him into jail. The king is outraged at his lack of mercy, given that he had cancelled the far larger debt of the servant, and has him cast into jail. Love forgives, and is willing to forgive greatly and repeatedly. (Mat 18:21-35)
  • The passage ends with a warning, “Thus also my heavenly Father will do to every single one of you who does not forgive your brother or sister, and forgive from the bottom of your heart” (v35). Through these very strong and threatening words, Jesus is conveying the central importance of forgiveness. We have been forgiven much; should we not also forgive others?

Jesus teaching in this chapter presents a picture of a health church and of healthy human relationships – we do not look down on anyone; we are considerate of others and avoid causing them harm; we value the group but we also value the individual, even seemingly unimportant individuals; we challenge wrongdoing, but in a way that embraces and restores; and we forgive those who do wrong against us, again and again, in the same way that God forgives us, again and again. If we could do all this – in the power of Holy Spirit – what a church we would have!

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Featured image from https://www.practicalrecovery.com/prblog/how-to-forgive/