Communion Meditation

Nov 5, 2017 by

By Bob Bond

The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Matthew presents Jesus-as-Teacher delivering five large sermons (the Sermon on the Mount is the first and most famously recognized of these), which five sermons are supposed to sound an echo in our minds and hearts, because they parallel Moses and the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), and – for Matthew – Jesus is to be understood as the new, ultimate Moses.  Today’s Gospel reading is at the opening of the fifth of Jesus’ sermons.  It takes place in Jerusalem just three days before Jesus’ death.  It begins with the framing statement, “Jesus then addressed the crowds and his disciples …”.

This setting-within-Jesus’-lifetime is one level of what’s taking place here.  There’s a second level.  Matthew is putting forth his account of the Gospel sometime after the leveling of Jerusalem (and the Temple) in the year 70 CE, which destruction was Rome’s answer to Jewish rebellion.  So, reading Matthew, we are in the later years of the first century.  Matthew is situated in a place with strong Jewish activity and influence; indeed, he writes for a Christian community with profound Jewish rootedness.  Some scholars argue for Syria as the country, and Antioch as – possibly – the city.  Which possibilities very-much help us situate Matthew’s targeted arguments, played out before us in today’s passage; arguments going in two very different directions.  First, Matthew is having to contend with the Jesus-movement’s response to Pharisaic Judaism – emanating from a thriving synagogue just down the road – and its many conventions and laws.  We hear this across the first half of today’s reading, which is framed as Jesus talking to a Jerusalem crowd.  He speaks with honour for the things which the Pharisees teach, for these words are Torah (Old Testament Law), and Jesus self-acknowledgably has come to fulfill that Law.  Matthew’s Jesus speaks with great disdain, however, for what the Pharisees practice, characterizing them as self-aggrandizing and without understanding of or mercy for the poor who are terribly burdened and wrongly excluded by the Pharisees’ laborious constructs.

Then Jesus switches voice, quite markedly, and addresses just his disciples.  In what he says now there is a new-and-different argument.  Matthew’s Jesus teaches his little band what Matthew thereby holds up and declares to the Christian community around about him: “You must not take the title of rabbi, for there is only one who is Rabbi to you – your teacher; and all of you are brothers.  And do not give the title of ‘father’ to anyone on earth, for there is only one who is Father to you – the heavenly Father.  Do not allow yourselves to be called ‘master’, for you have only one Master – the Christ.”

Matthew’s opponent here, historical record reveals to us, is another Christian leader or, at least, the seeds of that leader’s pronouncements which will be committed-to-writing in just a few more years.  I refer to Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch (the very same city!), whose writing from there “to the Trallians” certainly sounds like what Matthew is decrying as totally wrong.  Ignatius writes, “When you are in subjection to the bishop as to Jesus Christ … you are living according to Jesus Christ who died for our sake. … Therefore it is necessary that you should do nothing without the bishop, but also that you should be subject to the presbytery (the elders of the congregation). … Likewise let all respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as the bishop is also a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and as the band of apostles.”[1]

What Ray last week helped us celebrate as the early Baptist response to the authority structures of the State Church of England is – lo and behold – here seen as reminiscent of Matthew’s arguments about Ignatius!

What I suggest we do, in the context of this day’s lections, is actually to look closer in order to see a third layer of opposition, described by this passage though beyond its immediate focus.  For the behaviour of people bearing a bit of faith and a bit of power is surprisingly consistent across all history …it’s not just about Pharisees in Jesus’ day, or Pharisees in Matthew’s day.  Our Old Testament reading spoke of prophets who took advantage of their voice (their power) for their own benefit (their own comfort, built on control over others, and upon the manipulation of people whom they were meant to serve).  Church history likewise shows group after group of Christians (sects of Christians) setting up rules of right and wrong behaviours, right and wrong belief, right and wrong worship … all of the ‘right stuff’ held up high, in tightly clasped fists, as “ours” and vehemently ‘required by others’ lest they be damned.  The accumulated ‘baggage’ of man-made orthodoxy is a truly heavy load.  We don’t see it so much when we’ve been brought up within it.  But it is pretty hard not to recognize that, operationally, it is – at least in part – what has turned so many of the current generations of North Americans away and out.  When Matthew’s Jesus addresses the Pharisees of his own day, and those of Matthew’s church’s day, he also turns out to be addressing Christians right across the millennia, right down to us.

People, the way we hold our thoughts of right and wrong thinking about God, right and wrong behaviours as perceived by God, right and wrong worship of God, possibly deserves some shaking up.  I’m going to offer you two shake-ups:  one from the Ten Commandments, and one from Jesus’ ‘two commandments’.

First from ‘the Ten’:  It is actually the second that has immediate bearing here:  “You shall not make for yourself an idol” or “a graven image” or “an object of worship”.  So, when the children of Israel, recently freed from Egypt, and just at the bottom of the mountain where Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments, fashioned a bull out of gold and declared THIS was the god who brought them up out of Egypt, they were in error; for it is wrong to make something, declare it is god, and worship it in the place of God.  A week ago, at a semi-annual meeting of The Gathering of Baptists, one of my seminary classmates eloquently spoke about the need we all have to be clear and keep clear that God is totally Other, beyond us, unfathomable by us.  The only thing of God that humans have a hold of is the name God gave Moses when asked, and it can be argued (as Ray Hobbs has previously argued) that God’s answer (“I am what I will be”) was perhaps more of an evasion (a put-off) than an answer.  All the theology (which literally is “talk of God”) that centuries of study and argument, council debate and edict, have put together is not God.  It is a construct, a word picture, a word ‘image’, which we had better not confuse for God … which is to say we had better not set that up and worship it in the place of God.  Which – people – is the first round of shake-up I promised.  Because Christians have not just delivered sermons and written books, Christians have gone to war and taken places-and-whole-peoples captive, all of it in sacrifice to some-or-another theology being worshiped as God, and thereupon demanded by them (by us) of others.

The second shake-up emanates from Jesus’ “two commandments” … those who were here last week heard Matthew’s account of Jesus putting-them-forward … “love God”; “love neighbour”; “from these come all the law and the prophets”.  These debunk the efforts of any Pharisee, or any Old Testament prophet, or any Christian in any era, to distort thinking (even if it be a ‘picture’ of God) or to distort human power dynamics so as to take advantage of anyone else.  Indeed, in the practice of love it is impossible to put oneself higher than anybody around.  Certainly no “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on the shoulders of others,” totally “unwilling to lift a finger to move them”.  Instead, as Jesus says at the end of today’s reading, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Now, I’d like to point out, people, that the Pharisees get overly bad press in this chapter of Matthew.  If a Pharisee walked into this church, we’d positively salivate over getting them to join us, because of their attention to honouring God, to ‘living right’, to keeping promises, not to mention their practice of tithing(!).  There were only a few bad apples among them, just like in any other crowd.  The complaints about them get made so strong in Jesus’ day, and still in Matthew’s day a half century later, because they actually were the next closest thing there was to Christianity … and siblings always have the loudest, fiercest fights(!).  Which observation functions, again (and at the same time), to point out just how close we are to them(!).

For them and for us, what the “Jesus revelation” does as it so actively takes down the excess baggage of man-made God-thought and God-practice is point to movements where the ‘stuff of God’ is actually clear:  when-and-where the poor are lifted up, the burdened are relieved, the oppressed are freed, the ill-and-sick are healed, the outcast are embraced, the mourner is comforted, … on and on we might go with this list!  The crux of the matter is that this God – and remember that if we think we’ve got any aspect of God nailed-down, we’re out to lunch – [this God] we are to love, and our neighbour we are to love.  That is all we’ve actually got-for-sure.

Having said this, our best theological thinking and practices are not immediately and summarily to be thrown out as “idolatrous”; they are just to be seen for the human ‘constructs’ that they are.  We need them, because the better they are, the more simple/transparent they are, and we hope by them to be reaching “out” (or “in”, or “around”) in right directions “toward” (and “with”, and “from”) God.

Today’s Psalm offers a meditative image to take away with us … this week I have found it profoundly attending to all of this.  The image is this:  consider a woman making pilgrimage to Jerusalem, en route for a high festival.  She is carrying her recently weaned child, content in her arms, her object of love.  The religious drama, in all its headiness and fervour, is just ahead.  And we read,

1   O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

too great and too marvelous for me.

2   But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother;

my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

3   O Israel, hope in the Lord

from this time on and forevermore.

Amen.

 

Pastoral Prayer

Creator, Provider, Saviour God, remind us that even as we call out with words that try to speak about You, we are completely beyond our ability to fathom.  Which – we must confess – makes prayer difficult for us, and religion difficult for us, and worship difficult for us.  Particularly when our broader culture has a very different ‘take’ on You, God, [a take] that has been learned from linear, concretized versions of “faith” wherein You are the Puppeteer and we humans can simply ask, or manipulate or shame You to pull the strings our way.

O, how hard it is for us to not have a picture, an image, an idol of You – a hold on You – in order to figure out how to relate to You, God.  We close our eyes to pray or meditate and there is a blank screen.  Whether we shout out, or whisper out, or stay silent to listen, we hear nothing.  And then we remember, from prophetic leaders across recorded time, that You are in the silence, You are the holder of the void, You are “Other” and “beyond”.  There is no box, no picture, no theology that holds You.

God, the only things we’ve got in response are fashioned out of awe and wonder.

We thank you that, by Your grace, and also guided by the discernment of all the generations of people of faith, we are able to ‘feel after’ and indeed ‘know about’ what You do in our universe, God.  Indeed, the sciences make it ever clearer how “ongoing creation” is a continuing driver across everything we encounter; how “provision” is ‘built in’ with meticulous care; how accidents and imbalances get graciously healed up; how increasing diversity and complexity marvellously turn up everywhere.  And the wisdom of those attuned closest to You-beyond-us-all, God, is that You are Love.  What’s more, Your love for each thing, each creature, each situation in the universe is (if there is to be integrity on our part!) [Your love is] intended to be paralleled by our stewardship, not undermined by our greed.  Jesus – who for us is the way to You, the truth of You, and the model of life in You – would have us love:  God, though we cannot know You, we pray to love You; we pray to love our neighbour as we love ourselves; we pray to love and constructively tend the whole created order.

So we would make our prayers for the people and the world around us.  We watch governments, and corporations, and factions of humanity demanding that they be ‘master’ and ‘teacher’ and (indeed) ‘god’, doing violence as they go.  God, help us find prophetic message and prophetic voice and prophetic action for our time and place; make us prophetic people in the Way of Jesus.

We watch people around us, indeed some very close to us, who are sick, or wounded, or marginalized.  God, enliven all the systems that are at work to ‘lift up’ and heal.  And form us, guide us, each one, to be instruments of healing and love in our families, our communities, our broader world, in the Way of Jesus.

We would pray together the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallow’ed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  Lead us not into temptation But deliver us from evil.  For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever.  Amen.

Commission & Benediction

Go into the world, in the love of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, and seek to fulfil your high calling as followers of Jesus Christ.

The blessing of the Lord be upon you.

[1] Francis Beare’s The Gospel According To Matthew, pp 450 f

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