Losing life, finding life

Losing life, finding life
Third Sunday after Pentecost (A)
Byron Bay & Broken Head
25 June 2017


This week’s lectionary texts invite us to reflect on the stark reality that life can be challenging, and that even being a person of faith is not a ticket to a trouble-free life.

So much for the ‘prosperity gospel’ much promoted by certain groups of Christians.

The simple fact is that when we choose to live as people of faith we still find that our lives are often challenging, and even really hard at times.

Faith is not a ‘get out of jail’ card for the Monopoly game of life.

Faith is our response to the call of God on our lives.

We are disciples of Jesus because we can do nothing else.

We are not entering a private arrangement with God to acquire privileged access to the good life.


Dysfunctional families among the faithful

Our first reading today is part of an extended series of readings from Genesis. These ancient narratives describe the origins of the Israelite people, as they focus on the legendary characters from whom all later Israelites (and all modern Jews) trace their descent.

The tribal ancestors are presented as a series of generations from Abraham to Joseph, and their lives are recounted with varying amounts of detail. These are mostly tales about men, but women figure in the stories from time to time—as we see in this week’s passage.

These traditions about the ancestors of the tribes who eventually formed the people of Israel around 1,200 BCE were gathered together at a much later stage. They form a kind of prologue to the great story of redemption in the book of Exodus, when YHWH rescued the Hebrew slaves from their desperate situation in Egypt.

(We shall come to that story around the end of September.)

We might expect the storytellers of ancient Zion to depict their ancestors as examples of faith and paragons of virtue. But that is not the case. As we see in this week’s episode, Abraham is not portrayed as someone whose example we should emulate. Similarly in last week’s reading, his wife Sarah is not presented as a model for faithful living.

In this week’s episode we have Abraham expelling his elder son, Ishmael, into the desert along with his mother—all at the behest of Sarah, Abraham’s senior wife. It is a nasty and shameful episode in the story of Abraham, and not one of his better moments.

As it happens, when read in our context, it is a story that challenges us to recognise and name the abuse of vulnerable women and children even within families of faith. Such abuse happens not just in our institutions, but also in our homes.

Wherever such abuse occurs, we need to name the abuse, protect the victims, and deal with the perpetrator.

Within this story, that is exactly what God does. God protects Hagar and Ishmael, and ensures they survive despite their shameful treatment by Sarah and Abraham. Ishmael will eventually become the ancestor of the Arabs, and a major figure in Islam.


Faithfulness in troubled times

There is much more that could be said about Abraham and Hagar, and their son Ishmael. But let’s now turn our attention to the rather disjointed collection of bad news we were served in today’s Gospel (‘goods news’) reading.

It may be helpful to have a sense of when Matthew’s Gospel was written, and why someone took the trouble to gather these particular traditions together in the form we find them in Matthew.

Sit tight for a rapid-fire BIBLE101 introduction to the Gospels, with a focus on Matthew.

All of the gospels are anonymous.

None of them are dated.

Scholars date them by trying to establish the relationships between them, and especially between Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Most scholars (almost everyone, in fact) agrees that Mark was written first.

This means that—each in their own way—both Matthew and Luke are revisions of Mark, that expand and correct the earlier document.

Matthew, in particular, is really a second edition of Mark, revised and expanded to provide extra information about the teachings of Jesus, and also to address more directly the challenges faced by some of Jesus’ followers in northern Syria around 100 CE.

Most likely Matthew was published within a 15 year window either side of that date. Most scholars still prefer 85 CE, but more recent studies are suggesting around 110 CE.

When we compare Matthew with both Mark and Luke, it is clear that Matthew is writing for a Christian community with a very strong Jewish element. This is very different from the mostly Gentile (Greek) audience for Paul’s letters some 75 years earlier.

In particular, followers of Jesus were increasingly being harassed by their Jewish neighbours and relatives as the divisions between Jews and Christians became deeper around the end of the first century.

The early Christian leader who prepared the Gospel according to Matthew was seeking to reassure his readers that they were not betraying their Jewish heritage by following Jesus, and also to remind them that Jesus himself had suffered abuse and hostility from his Jewish neighbours and even from his own family members.

Now back to this morning’s reading!

Matthew has gathered together material from various oral and written sources to provide a reminder that following Jesus may mean that his readers can expect to experience criticism, hatred, hostility, and rejection. Even martyrdom is a possible outcome for those who choose to live faithfully in a context that opposes all they hold sacred.

For the original audience these were words that described their own lived experience.

For subsequent generations of readers, these words have been a reminder that Jesus calls us to faithfulness rather than success, to courage rather than celebration, to sacrifice rather than prosperity.


Beyond consumer religion

The so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ promoted by some Christian communities is a deep betrayal of Jesus, and of his earliest followers.

We do not promise answers to life’s questions, but spiritual wisdom to live with the questions.

We do not promote healing from illness and disease, but the assurance of God’s presence with us in every situation.

We do not promise wealth and prosperity, but a community of pilgrims who share what we have so that everyone has sufficient for today.

Neither Jesus nor Matthew were promoting a religion that offers benefits to a privileged few.

As today’s NT reading makes very clear, at our Baptism we are united with Christ  in his death and in his resurrection. That death was a cruel and painful experience. There was no First Class option for Jesus, and there are no exemptions from real life for any of us.

Those Christian communities who promote faith as a ticket to health and wealth, to happy families and successful marriages, are distorting the heart of our faith.

They may be attracting big crowds, but are they forming healthy communities of people committed to walk the way of Christ, no matter what it costs?

Perhaps if such communities paid more attention to the Lord’s Prayer (which they hardly ever say) and less attention to multimedia gimmicks, Christ would be better served, lives would be truly transformed, and the world would be a better place.

In the end, that is the challenge for us as well.

We are disciples of Jesus not to gain some personal benefit, but because that is how we best respond to our experience of God at work among us, and especially at work in the person of Jesus.

We need to be communities of faith that not only recite the Lord’s Prayer, but also put it into practice.

Let me finish with some words I used a few weeks ago:

Our Father in heaven …
we are all children of the universe, brothers and sisters of Jesus

Hallowed be your name …
May everything we do, and how we do it, reflect your character and purpose

Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven …
Our priority is serving the mission of God in the world

Give us today our daily bread …
May we find bread for the journey, and the grace to share it with others on the way

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us …
Make our generosity to others the measure of your treatment of us

Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil …
Break the power of evil and let us know your Shalom



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