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Author: Gordon King

A Canadian’s Perspective on America

A Canadian’s Perspective on America

We deal with personal issues in the larger context of our particular community, nation, and the world. The violence of terrorists, the crisis of hunger, the tragedies of addictions, the mass movements of people, and the uncertainties of political leadership create unease and anxiety on the big stage of the world. As a response, there is a constant temptation to focus attention on personal well-being, family, and friends. These more immediate relationships provide most of our joy and meaning. Among family and friends we can make a difference.

But our small lives are lived in corners of the bigger stages – our communities, nation, and the world. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. He did not reduce the scope to our kinship groups and close acquaintances. Jesus also told us that more is required of the ones to whom more has been given. This teaching is a constant reminder that, because of our privileged position, many of us bear a larger responsibility in addressing issues of global injustice and suffering. These gospel sayings can be used to shape the way we view the issues of our day and bear witness to God’s love and grace.

“Put America First” and “Make America Great Again” are slogans that contest the teaching of Jesus. Under Donald Trump, they point to the consolidation of power and wealth in the USA to the exclusion of those on the margins in the global community. Trump stands for the abdication of the kind of global leadership that many of us have come to expect from the best presidents of America.

The rejection of the Paris Accord on Climate Change surely caught no one by surprise. Trump fulfilled a campaign promise and thereby entered into a strange alliance with Nicaragua and Syria as non-participants in this global action to preserve creation. There was no contrition that the USA was the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Neither was there recognition that coal fired generators are particularly harmful to the environment nor that more employees work on solar energy projects that in the coal industry in the USA. Likewise, there was no concern expressed about the rapid loss of biodiversity in the USA and the world (think about songbirds and butterflies). Many of us were outraged by Trump’s rejection of helping countries in tropical and semi-tropical areas to adapt to climate change. He characterized this assistance as giving money to competitors rather than of offering assistance to poor people threatened by rising oceans, intense storms, and prolonged droughts. Few people will have confidence that Trump and Scott Pruitt (chief of the Environmental Protection Agency) will provide leadership for a higher standard of creation care. Actions to date point in a different direction.

Over the last months, Americans have watched Trump insult their traditional allies including Angela Merkel (Germany), Sadiq Khan (mayor of London), and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“the worst president of Canada”). Strangely, Vladimir Putin has escaped criticism and angry invectives. America’s strong tradition of a free and independent press is under attack by accusations of false news and the offering of “alternative truths.” Lies and half-truths seem to be acceptable. I had developed almost an addiction to news about Trump because it is so bizarre. It seems like a fictional drama.

Many Canadians are now reluctant to travel to the USA. Our neighbors to the South seem less hospitable and friendly. Some fundamental change is taking place in America that we do not understand. We also fear (not respect) Donald Trump. I expect that less Canadians will spend time in the USA.

I am perplexed that the so-called evangelical voters have not called America’s leadership to a higher standard. I think that they have retreated into the small world of families and friends. I hope that they will attend again to the teaching of the gospels. Before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah engaged in symbolic acts of protest against her monarchy, the elite, the priests, and false prophets of his time. Like many others, I pray that Christian leaders in America will find ways to protest and to demand that the mantle of leadership pass to people that are wise, just, and compassionate. Congregations will need to become places where people can learn again to openly discuss issues and embrace a faith community that allows for respectful differences in engaging with the world. Those of us outside of America should be praying for Christian leaders that offer a prophetic critique of Donald Trump and a new vision of righteousness.

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Personalizing the Psalms (Psalm 83)

Personalizing the Psalms (Psalm 83)

I shared with my spiritual director that I was finding that some of the Psalms resonated in a new way with my heart. She suggested that I go a step beyond my reading and reflection. She advised me to re-write certain Psalms in my words in order to express personal emotions of anguish, anger, joy, and gratitude. Over the past weeks I have tried to incorporate this spiritual discipline into my times of contemplation.

My approach is guided by a few principles:

  • Find a quiet time with a good pen and pieces of paper.
  • Select a Psalm that speaks to me.
  • Identify the main emotion of the Psalmist (e.g., fear, despair, confidence, happiness).
  • Underline the key verse or phrase that connects with my heart.
  • Allow myself the freedom to change the order and flow of ideas in the Psalm. I do not feel obligated to include every phrase of the text in my personalized version.
  • Express my faith and vulnerabilities as boldly as the writer of the Psalm. I try to reach into my heart.
  • Read it aloud and revise several times. Then offer it to God as a prayer and a poem.

 

Psalm 83

I wrote a personal version of this Psalm while praying for hungry people in South Sudan and preparing to speak about them at a fundraising banquet.

 

God,

We long to hear your voice.

 

People are crying out to you

Pleading for action.

How can you look down detached and distant

From the violence and hunger in South Sudan

And the broken lives on the streets of Winnipeg?

 

I can theologize with the best of them.

I can explain free will

And the nature of evil (at least on a theoretical basis).

But here on earth

Your enemies craft plans

Against innocent people.

Nothing can stop them.

 

Some of us pray from our protected cloisters.

Others are crying out

From refugee camps.

From bombed out buildings.

From hospitals that treat the wounded.

From homes without food.

 

You have no obligation to listen to our prayers

Uttered in comfort.

But would you listen to the victims?

Would you act on their behalf?

 

Powerful God,

Take these men of violence

The authors of war and destruction,

Reduce them to whirling dust

And straw before the desert wind.

With a raging wildfire

Destroy their armed villas,

Their offshore bank accounts,

And even the memories of their deeds.

Terrify them with the hurricane

Of your judgement.

Let them be put to shame

And die in disgrace.

 

Lord,

We your people need to know

That the God of justice and mercy

Rules over all the earth.

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Things that Make for Peace (Luke 19.42)

Things that Make for Peace (Luke 19.42)

The images of Syrian children struggling to breathe were horrifying. Their young lives were threatened by an attack using Sarin gas dropped from warplanes. The local hospital was ill equipped to respond to the emergency. To make matters worse, it was bombed in the same attack. The Syrian  civil war is entering its seventh year. The statistics are staggering; 465 thousand killed, over 1 million injured, and over 12 million displaced people and refugees.

Syria is not the only place of great violence and suffering. We can add to the list the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, South Sudan, Yemen, the Ukraine, and Afghanistan. In each of these locations there is no apparent peace plan apart from more violence.

Years ago, Walter Wink wrote about the myth of redemptive violence. Political and military leaders make promises based on superior forces and bombing. In some ways they are simply repeating the words of a Russian general (quoted by Niall Ferguson in The War of the World) that we will have to save the town by destroying it. The intractable conflicts of our current time should at least make us open to think about other ways of building peace.

Jesus paused when he entered Jerusalem. He expressed his lament with the following words: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Having entered the city, he predicted that the Roman armies would one day overcome the city and destroy the temple. He could see the outcome of popular sentiment and religious propaganda.

Those of us who follow Jesus have the mission of describing and defining those things that make for peace. I have a short list based on values from the gospel teaching:

  • Humility.
  • Mercy and compassion for others.
  • Commitment to truth and justice.
  • Willingness to forgive and seek forgiveness.
  • Service to the most vulnerable.
  • Generosity.
  • Love of enemies.
  • Concern for the common good.
  • An awareness that God will judge our actions and our motives.

I find it disappointing that so few of these virtues are part of the discourse of our times. One reason may be that we as citizens still hold to the myth of redemptive violence. May God have mercy on our world! May our churches be places where the things that make for peace are part of our teaching and witness in a broken and wounded world.

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Reflections After a Heart Attack

Reflections After a Heart Attack

I did not anticipate that the main artery of my heart was about to be blocked. I was about to go out for a walk when I felt an intense pain across my chest. This was the first sign that my life was threatened. I was both fortunate and privileged. Regine drove me to the emergency ward of a hospital. Medical professionals attended to me. I underwent surgery and was placed in intensive care.

I am now at the beginning of an uncertain period during which I must focus on recovery. I am warned about engaging in the routine activities of life and work – the things that gave meaning to my existence as a person. I stand before God and my friends as someone that is weak and unable to care for himself.

There are strong emotions after a heart attack. Some of these feelings may be intensely personal and shaped by the circumstances of an individual. However, I suspect that there are common questions and anxieties shared by many people during a medical crisis.

  • “Why me?” In my case, medical tests had not revealed a susceptibility to heart attacks. It is easy to wallow in self-pity and to think that there was something unfair about what happened to me. But I also ask: “Why was my life spared?” Our friend Louise died of a heart attack a month ago. I cannot bring myself to think of God as a divine puppet-master that pulls the strings around us. I prefer to contemplate that life is a gift and that my days have been numbered since the date of my birth. I have been given more time for a reason.

 

  • “What changes must I accept and embrace?” I thrived and found my purpose within the mission of an international organization. I enjoyed friendships, collegiality, the sharing of gifts, and the commitment to common values. I sense that I will lose something of my identity and passion if I take the logical steps into retirement. What meaning will I find when separated from the vocational community to which I belonged?

 

  • “How do I feel about death?” I admit that I was afraid in the emergency ward. But more dominant that fear was the desire to live longer and enjoy my life with Regine. There are things we want to do as a couple. I also want to spend time with children, grandchildren, and friends. It seems too early to say the final good-byes. I want to savour more deeply the rich experiences of life.

 

  • “How do I place my sufferings in the context of the injustices and violence of the world?” I feel the weight of privilege. Millions of people in the world are crying out for mercy. They lack food, are displaced by violence, and struggle each day to survive. I contrast my circumstances to theirs. Last week I had the best of medical care with the costs covered by Canada’s social medicine program. The disparity requires me to find an ethical perspective in which I continue to hold some responsibility for those on the margins.

 

I want to conclude by emphasizing the meaning of friendship and family in the days following my heart attack. We are grateful for those people that hold us up in prayer, drop off meals, mow our lawn, and simply listen to the confused expressions of my heart. In a time of weakness, they allow us to experience community and ministry in a new way.

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The Long Journey to Advent

The Long Journey to Advent

There are two major periods on the annual calendar of people that follow Jesus. The first is Advent-Christmas; the second is Lent-Easter. During Advent we prepare our hearts to celebrate the good news of the incarnation – God enters the world as a fragile and vulnerable child in a country occupied by foreign armies. Lent-Easter is dedicated to dedicated to reflections on faith in a broken and wounded world. We are summoned to walk with Jesus and to face the truth about our lives and our compromises with evil. We follow Jesus to the cross and joyfully receive the news that he is risen.

The months between Easter and Advent are a lopg journey. Each of will have special days marked on the calendar such as birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations, vacations, and the visits of family and friends. These moments bring laughter, joy, and warmth to our lives. We are unable to anticipate other events such as accidents, deaths, and calamties that have the capacity to sharke us to the core. Our faith and basic human values will be put to the test on the long journey.

Most people move forward in one way or another. Very few are stuck in one place on the road. A certain amount of realism will help us manage those times of discouragement. There will be days when it will take courage and stubborn commitments to walk forward into the rain and wind. The consolation is the presence of the Risen Lord in the storms and in the sunshine.

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Lenton Reflection 7: The Meaning of the Cross Mark 15.21-32

Lenton Reflection 7: The Meaning of the Cross Mark 15.21-32

We have travelled with Jesus to Jerusalem during the days of Lent. Today we stand before the cross. We want to understand its meaning. Why have we journeyed so far from Galilee? Was it simply for the death and defeat of our Lord?

Our reflections on the cross have a context. There are three influences with which I want to deal. The first is the trivialization of the cross. Some people wear the cross as an ornament or a good luck charm. Perhaps there is something vague about the adornment that seems religious in a comforting way. But the meaning does not go very deep or very far.

Second, there seems to be a new generation of rigid fundamentalists in every church network. They have a tendency to reduce the meaning of the cross to theologies of penal substitutionary sacrifice. The portrayal is of a divine judge that demands punishment for sin. Jesus steps forward and dies in our place. God’s anger is satisfied. I think this theology gets close to one of the meanings of the cross found in the New Testament. But it also fails because, in the words of St. Paul, God was in Christ not counting our evil against us.[1]

Third, to our shame, the cross has been a symbol associated with colonialism, exclusion, and violence. It was carried by crusaders into battles against Moslems. The Spanish colonizers came to America with the cross and the sword.  The Klux Clan burned crosses on the lawns of African Americans in the US. In Canada the cross was prominent in residential schools. Churches with crosses were places of death in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Kenya. Churches with crosses were places of killing rather than places of sanctuary.  We need to rescue the cross from its association with abuses of power.

Mark 15.21-32

The gospel passage is brutal. The Romans knew how to inflict death on a cross. Rome handled the threat of political and social agitation by public crucifixion. The two men that die with Jesus are not so much petty thieves as political bandits who probably robbed from the elite and shared with the poor. Once condemned, victims were beaten, humiliated, and then forced to carry the implement of death to the killing place. The charge against them could be placed above their heads. In the case of Jesus, it read: “The King of the Jews.” The chief priests and the teachers of the law gathered at Golgotha to mock him. They were the ones who had incited the crowd to demand his crucifixion. There is nothing pretty in this scene. It is the brutal display of the power of leaders who plotted and of the Empire that handled dissent with force.

The cross of Jesus is central to our faith. Paul the apostle wrote: “we preach Christ crucified.”[2]  He went on to say this message could seem like foolishness and be a stumbling block to faith. How could people find God in the death of an alleged agitator against Rome? Centuries later we find that the cross is still central to our faith as Christians. We cannot explain our faith apart from the cross and, of course, the resurrection. Our historic Christian faith rest on the life of Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection.

I want to share six different meanings of the cross. We will draw on scriptures and we will think of our lives and our world.

First, the cross is a symbol of the evil and perverse use of power. A life is taken. Jesus and his movement was seen as a threat. The high priestly families, appointed by Rome, lived in luxurious villas above the temple.  They saw Jesus as a dangerous radical. He had caused a disruption in the temple. He told people that it stood under God’s judgement. He challenged the teachers of the law with a new way of reading the scriptures that replaced the purity code with justice, mercy, and faith. He had proclaimed the rule of God in social locations that Rome claimed to rule. The entry to Jerusalem had been provocative for those who wished to maintain social order.

The story of violence against the prophets was well known in the time of Jesus. We see it today in our world. Power is used to crush people that long for dignity and freedom. Power is used against minority groups because they are vulnerable.

I remember walking through a church in the community of Ntarama in Rwanda. The year was 1999, five year after the genocide. About 500 bodies still lay in the church where they had been killed with bullets and machetes. The army had sent buses of killers to Ntarama. One woman had survived. She had been wounded and left for dead. She guided us into the church. We followed her stepping from bench to bench over the bodies to the front of the church. The experience was horrific.

I went outside, sat on the grass, and wept. There were no words. There are still no words. These victims did not chose death. They fled to the church, huddled under the cross of Christ, hoping for safety. Their bodies in that church were yet more evidence of the perverse use of power in our world. The only consolation was that God understood the pain of survivors of organized violence. His son, Jesus, died at the hands of the empire’s soldiers. A life taken. God experienced the pain, the weakness, the insults, the hatred, because Jesus bore them on the cross.

 

Second, the cross is a symbol of a life given. Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem with the warning that the holy city would be the scene of his violent death. The cross did not catch him by surprise. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that no one will take his life. He has chosen to lay it down.[3] Later, he speaks of the love of the person who lays down his life for his friends.[4] Jesus stands with those who have deliberately, thoughtfully, and prayerfully faced death for the purposes of God’s kingdom. We know we are loved because Jesus chose to die for his people.

Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Catholic priest. He had been a missionary in China and India. When his health broke down, he returned to Poland. He suffered the Nazi invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War II. He used the monastery to hide around 2,000 Jewish people. In February 1941 the monastery was closed by the German army and Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo. In May of 1941 he was transferred to Auschwitz. There he suffered beatings, whippings and the deprivations of the Jewish victims of Nazi violence. When three prisoners escaped from Auschwitz, the commander picked ten men to die by starvation. Kolbe stepped forward to take the place of one of the men who was a father. After two weeks, deprived of food and water, only Kolbe was still alive. He was finally killed with a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He had saved a man’s life, at least temporarily, by giving up his own life.

A choice made. A life given. Jesus gave his life for his friends on the cross. Jesus gave his life for future generations of those who chose to follow him. We know we are loved by God because Jesus gave his life for us.

Third, the cross is a symbol of victory over death.

This doctrinal assertion has a strange irony. The worst that evil and sin can do is to inflict is death. Yet the cross was the place where death and evil were conquered when Jesus gave his life. As he faced the prospect of the cross Jesus had said: “Now is the time of judgment on this world. Now the prince of this world will be driven out.” From the cross he shouted, “It is finished!”[5]

Most of us will face death in a relatively peaceful and more natural manner. Yet whether by violence, accident, disease, or age, death remains a painful reality for ourselves and our loved ones. For those who follow Jesus, death will not be the final word. The cross stands for the defeat of death. The author of the book of Hebrews wrote:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil, – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.[6]

We remember the words of Jesus. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”[7] The faith of the church is that the cross and resurrection of Jesus lead to eternal life. We believe in the communion of the saints – past and present. We believe in the great crowd of witnesses. We believe in the image of the great banquet in the kingdom of God. We believe in the new creation that is rooted in the world but waits for fulfillment. The victory of God over death was present in the cross of Jesus.

Fourth, the cross is a symbol of sacrifice for sin.

The most solemn day in the Jewish calendar was the Day of Atonement. The High Priest entered the most holy part of the temple. The use of incense and the sacrifice of a goat together represented that God was reaching out to his people to forgive their sins. Forgiveness was celebrated on The Day of Atonement.

Paul the apostle wrote: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. … God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement (expiation) through the shedding of blood – to be received by faith.”[8] There is no sense in the New Testament that God was angry and needed to be appeased. God was acting on the cross to demonstrate his embrace and forgiveness in a world of evil. The New Testament states: “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”[9]

The cross is a place where we make a good confession of the evil in our hearts and actions. We confess the evil of the world in which we participate. We rise from our knees celebrating forgiveness. The death of Jesus on the cross stands for your atonement, your forgiveness. .

Fifth, the cross is a symbol of reconciliation

Reconciliation is necessary when two people or groups are alienated. There is some form of enmity. There may have been a record of past atrocities, prejudices, or apathy. There needs to be a break in the wall that separates people. In the parables of Jesus we have the story of the prodigal son. He has insulted and humiliated his father by claiming his inheritance while his father still lives. He squanders it in a far country and now returns home hoping to be treated as a laborer on his father’s farm. The father runs out to meet him on the road. He has been waiting for him. He has a ring and a robe. He calls for a party to celebrate his return. This is a story of reconciliation in which the Father takes the initiative. His love is deep and exuberant.

Paul the apostle wrote:  “ … he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him….in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”[10] The New Testament book of Colossians says “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”[11] Finally, I want to return to John’s Gospel. We have the statement of Jesus: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.”  The evangelist adds his comment: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”[12] The emphasis here is on all people.

The place where the cross enters the earth is a meeting place for reconciliation. The cross is where the broken relationship of people with God is healed. The cross is where broken human relationships are healed. Jesus draws all people to himself through his death.

We confess that there is a human tendency to live selfishly and to protect ourselves and our in-group. God confronts us with the dark side of our lives that we would prefer to hide. He points us to the cross and tells us that we are loved and forgiven. He then sends us on a mission of healing and reconciliation. The cross helps us to understand the two dimensions of our mission. We work for the vertical reconciliation of others with God and the horizontal reconciliation of people and social groups.

Sixth, the cross is a symbol that we are called to a new way of living.

Before departing from Galilee for Jerusalem, Jesus told his followers: “Those who would be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily, and follow me.”[13]  The cross becomes a symbol of a dissident way of living in the world. The symbol of the cross reminds us that faith is a daily decision to live by gospel values.

What does it mean to carry a cross? We can make some observations. The cross is a voluntary decision we make in the midst of the circumstances of our lives. Second, some form of self-denial is required to carry the cross. Third, Jesus asks us to follow him.

I think there are two main ways through which we follow Jesus carrying a cross;

  • First, we nurture an inner life of reflection and contemplation. We pattern our prayers on the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples. We open our hearts to the teaching of the gospels.
  • Second, we live under the double love command. We understand that love of God and love of neighbor go together. We take on the difficult task of building community. We welcome little children. We care for the broken. We believe in the forgiveness of sin. We seek the path of loving our enemies. We orient our lives toward the values of justice, mercy, and faith. We work with God for the healing of the world.

 

Conclusion:

We have six ways of approaching the cross. We can find meaning in the symbol of:

  1. A life taken by violence.
  2. A life laid down by choice.
  3. The victory over death.
  4. The sacrifice that takes away sin.
  5. The place of reconciliation.
  6. The dissident lifestyle of prayer and action.

What is the Spirit whispering into your heart?  Perhaps one of these dimensions of the cross speaks to something very personal. I advise you to dwell with this meaning over the next days. Pray with this symbol in your mind and heart.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
  2. Which meaning of the cross captures your attention today? What might God be saying to you through this way of approaching the cross of Jesus?
  3. What grace do you seek from God over the period of Easter 2017?

[1] 2 Cor. 5.19.

[2] 1 Cor. 1.23.

[3] John 10.18.

[4] John 15.13.

[5] John 12.31; 16.33; 19.30.

[6] Hebrew 2.14-15

[7] John 12.24.

[8] Romans 3.23,25.

[9] 1 John 4.10

[10] 2 Cor 5.18-19

[11] Col 1.21-22

[12] John 12.32-33.

[13] Luke 9.23.

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Lent #6: The Freedom to be a Dissident: Luke 19.11-27

Lent #6: The Freedom to be a Dissident: Luke 19.11-27

Introduction

 

We are traveling with Jesus during this period of Lent. Today we arrive at the outskirts of Jerusalem. Many people believe that we are on the edge of a moment of great triumph. However, Jesus has warned that Jerusalem represents death at the hand of powerful people.

Let me start by taking you back to an earlier point in the gospel of Luke. Jesus sent out 70 disciples on a mission. He told them that the harvest was great. This creates the image of people working hard in a field knowing that only when their labour is over there will there be a harvest celebration. He also warned that his missioners would be like sheep among wolves. This is an image of vulnerability, weakness, and danger. Somehow the two images go together. Whenever we think of the mission of the church and our participation in it, we can reflect on the dedication of workers at harvest time and also of our vulnerability in the context of violence and power.

The 70 return after a period of time. They give an account of their experiences. Jesus responds with a stunning statement: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening.” The words are striking. At face value the saying means that the power of evil is overcome in social locations where women and men enter as sheep among wolves and as peasants at harvest time. The forces of evil suffer defeat in diverse places where ordinary people are sent by Jesus to serve with dedication, steadfast endurance, and with the awareness of their relative weakness before the powers of the world.

I have been particularly troubled by the power of evil in the past weeks. I was given an assignment to write a piece for CBM’s publication mosaic. The topic was the famine in South Sudan. The level of human evil defies rational explanation except to say that there is an immense and perverse power behind government actions in South Sudan. The United Nations Human Rights report on South Sudan is a testimony of organized and disorganized evil. Let me give you a few examples. Ethnic cleansing approaching genocide has been committed by the national army. The army, police, and government sponsored militias are responsible for the majority of human rights abuses. Villages have been burned and crops destroyed. Women and girls have been raped and abducted for the purposes of sexual slavery. Civilian populations have been bombed by the air force. There are 2 million displaced people and 1.5 million refugees from South Sudan. The government has allowed inflation to hit 900% with a devastating impact on food costs. 5.5 million people are severely food insecure. Aid workers have been killed and food supplies looted by the army. A new policy requires foreign aid workers to purchase visas at the cost of $10 thousand dollars. Political leaders are accused of hate speech and incitement to violence. Hunger in South Sudan is not an accident or a result of unforeseen circumstances. Human actors are responsible for the misery and repression of people. It is dangerous for dissidents who seek to stand against that government. It is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists.

Events in South Sudan bring back memories of the evil use of power in Rwanda, the DRC, Cambodia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. Armenians recall the horrors of the genocide unleashed by Turkey between 1915 and 1917. Jewish people never will forget the holocaust or Shoah. Ukrainians remember the Holodomor when Joseph Stalin created a famine that took the lives of up to 10 million people. People of El Salvador recall that 70 thousand people were killed or disappeared during the civil conflict. The power of state leaders can unleash the hidden hatred and brutality of ordinary people. The big guys give orders. It is the little guys that obey them and somehow, find a strange pleasure in cruelty. The big guys do not torture, abduct, kill with machetes, and make people disappear. But they are the authors of the killings and destruction. In the context of government sponsored violence it is dangerous to be a dissident.

 

Scripture: Luke 19.11.27

 Jesus tells a story in Jericho about a dissident slave. The parable holds his final words before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The narrative describes the way the world works as a warning. It is a frightening alarm about how repressive regimes handle dissent. The narrative builds on a historical account. When Herod the Great died, his son Archelaus travelled to Rome to entreat the emperor to grant him the kingdom of his late father. During an extended time in Rome, a group of Jewish leaders travelled to petition the emperor to not appoint Archelaus because of his cruelty and violence. Perhaps the emperor listened. Archelaus was given only half of his father’s kingdom. When he returned to Jerusalem he gained revenge on those that had publicly opposed him.

The story of the minas has often interpreted moralistically. I think that way of reading the story is wrong. I cannot imagine comparing God or Jesus to the actions of the king in the parable. Here is the reading I prefer.

A rich noble traveled to a distant country to be granted a kingship and its territory. He calls ten of his slaves who work for him in the area of his finances. Slaves were useful because they were not hired employees. They worked for emancipation or out of motivations of fear. Each of the ten slaves is given an equivalent sum of money. The value of the mina was about 100 days of work for a laboring man. The slaves are told to go make money during the master’s extended absence.

There was one main way to make money in a pre-industrial agrarian economy. It was through land acquisition and production. Rich people could expand their wealth by making calculated loans to peasants. When the loan could not be repaid, the land was seized. Taking advantage of peasants through loans or violence resulted in profit. We need to remember that there was no stock market in the first century.

So here we have the main narrative about the ten slaves sent out to squeeze the peasants. But there is a second story. A group of influential people in the homeland send representatives to the distant country. They advocate against the nobleman. “We do not want this man to rule over us.”

The scene changes when the nobleman returns as king. The ten slaves are summoned to give account. The first has used the one mina to make ten. He is commended as a good slave. He is given authority over ten cities to administer for the newly appointed king. He is in charge of taxation and revenues. The second slave reports that he has generated five minas of wealth. The king does not call him good. But he does put him in charge of revenues from five cities. We presume that the following seven slaves report various results and receive new responsibilities according to the profit generated.

The tenth slave is different. He reports that he wrapped the mina in a sweat band and hid it. He refused to participate in loan sharking the peasants to gain more land for the king. He publicly confronts the king with a description of his character. “I fear you. You are a harsh and cruel man. You demand an outrageous return on any investments. You forcefully take crops from peasants that you did not sow.” His words unmask the king in his own court.

The dissident slave has done two things. (1) He has refused to participate in a repressive economic system that victimizes the poor. (2) He has confronted the king with a critique of his use of power and ambitions.

We need to notice that the king does not refute the accusations. He calls the slave evil rather than lazy. He asks why he did not invest the mina at a money lenders table where someone else could have done the dirty work. The king then orders that the mina be given to the slave that generated ten minas. This slave knows how to make money for the royal court.

We then listen to Jesus summary statement: “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” This is how a repressive regime works. Look at the lifestyles of rulers and their associates. The high priestly families were more rich than pious in the time of Jesus. Herod Antipas lived in luxury. And today, according to human rights reports, President Salva Kiir of South Sudan has amassed enormous wealth inside and outside his country. His family and his associates “… own multimillion-dollar properties, drive luxury cars and stay at expensive hotels, all while much of their country’s population suffers from the consequences of a brutal civil war and, in many places, experiences near-famine conditions.”[1] The same accusations are made of opposition leader Riek Machar.

The parable ends with the gruesome revenge of the king on the dissident delegation that traveled to the far country to oppose his appointment. “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here to the royal court and slaughter them in my presence.”

It is brutal. The cross is brutal. Carrying the cross can be brutal in context of oppression. The dissident slave is a model of courageous discipleship in a repressive regime. He acts like a prophet. He is committed to live for God’s rule rather than an earthly empire built on unrighteousness and violence.

 

Conclusion

I want to draw a few conclusions for our Lenten walk with Jesus. We can ask ourselves what meaning do we find in the figure of the dissident slave? We can connect him with the seventy that were sent out like sheep among wolves to gather a harvest. We can serve prayerfully and stubbornly with the hope that Satan, the personification of evil, will fall from the sky like lightening

Those of us who live in liberal democracies are challenged to renew our solidarity with Christian sisters and brothers who live with fear of governments and armies. In Bolivia, I served with a gifted theologian named Emigdio Veizaga. He and his family had been forced into exile because of death threats from agents of the government. There are dangers of working for and witnessing to God’s kingdom in places where there is the condoned violence of religious fundamentalists, para military bands, and ethnic killers. It takes courage to raise one’s voice in the name of God inviting people to faith and the journey of discipleship.

Canada and the United States are liberal democracies. However, there are growing threats to our values and freedoms. Democracy is breaking down. The reasoned exchange of opinions has degenerated into the shouting of slogans and the refusal to enter into respectful dialogue. We have become afraid of strangers that have been exiled from their own countries.

Christians, as followers of Jesus, hold to deeper values than those of a liberal democracy. We believe that every child is born with the image of God. The organization for which I work, Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM), has launched an advocacy and fundraising program named She Matters. It is a way of joining with our international partners to raise awareness of the importance of girl’s education, economic opportunities for women, and gender based human rights. CBM partners with the Christian environmental organization A Rocha. We are making a statement that we are concerned about conservation, water, soil, crops, and biodiversity. Our work for the poor communicates a condemnation, in the name of God, of the growing economic disparity in the world. and here at home. We are committed to peace building and reconciliation even when it means entering into the midst of animosity and accusations that we are taking sides. We are struggling to find ways to walk the pathways of reconciliation with indigenous people in Canada.

We have been criticized for watering down the gospel. I do not see it that way. I think we are taking the values of the gospel and trying to make them the heartbeat of our organization. We understand that Jesus calls us to live as dissidents. We pray that the power of evil is defeated in places where we work as vulnerable disciples of Jesus.

As I have thought about this passage, I have been examining my own life. I am concerned that I fit too comfortably into a consumeristic and individualistic society devoid of deep meaning. I need to reflect more deeply on the courage of the dissident slave in Luke 19.

Group Discussion:

  1. Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
  2. What strikes you about the tenth slave in this way of reading the parable?
  3. Is there someone who is a model of dissident discipleship for you? What stands out in this person’s life?
  4. Is there one issue to which you would like to develop a dissident approach as a follower of Jesus? How might this be done?
  5. What grace do you seek from God in this week?

[1] New York Times, 12 September, 2016.

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Lent 5: Freedom from Fear: Luke 8.22-39

Lent 5: Freedom from Fear: Luke 8.22-39

Today’s Lenten reflection is on the theme of freedom from fear. We journey with Jesus on a small boat in Lake Galilee. A sudden storm assaults us with howling winds and large waves. Later, we land in the country of the Gerasenes. There we come face to face with a violent man named Legion. The storm and Legion both provoke emotions of fear for our safety and well-being.

 

I suggest we begin by thinking about fear. Fear can be healthy. Our lives depend on having a realistic fear of certain conditions that threaten our well-being. We should fear sidewalks that are covered in ice. We walk carefully to avoid a fall. We should fear children standing too close to a busy street. We should fear running out of gas late at night on a long journey. We should fear the over use of anti-biotics so that they become ineffective in combatting common diseases. We should fear the long-term impact of climate change and environmental damage. In these cases fear means a thoughtful concern that may move us to forms of preventative action.

 

The problem is when fear paralyzes us. This may happen in different ways.

  • We may not develop gifts or abilities because of fear of failure. Our anxiety about the opinions of other people means that talents and passions are never developed.
  • We may develop anxiety disorders. The literature indicates that up to one-third of us will face serious periods of anxiety at different points in our lifetime. These anxieties or fears will affect our sleep patterns, our digestive system, our emotional well-being, and our relationships with others. Anxieties are not a sign of weakness. The causes are related to genetics, fatigue, circumstances, social settings, and the nature of our emotions.
  • We may close the door to opportunities for growth and meaning because we fear the unknown. Some of us fear getting on a plane. Some of us fear speaking in public. Some of us fear sharing our emotions. Some of us fear dancing or learning a new language.

 

We live in a tension between fear that warns us of danger and fear that holds us hostage in some manner. How do we find the Spirit’s help in facing our fears and finding the freedom to live joyfully and meaningfully?

 

Scripture: Luke 8.22-30

 

The passage has two narratives – the storm on the lake and the man named Legion. These are related to two themes that provoke fear in our time. We fear the increased intensity of storms due, in part, to the way we have pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the oceans. Legion represents people who are possessed by evil in ways that we do not understand. They are unpredictable and violent.

 

I invite you to feel your way into the two stories. Begin by placing yourself in the boat. The Lake of Galilee is known for sudden, intense storms. Your family were farmers not fishers. You swallowed hard when you got into the boat with the others. The sea was calm. The wind was gentle. Jesus went to a quiet spot on fell asleep. You thought you would be alright.

 

The storm came unexpectedly out of nowhere. The wind roars and waves swamp over the boat. You are beginning to panic. You are surprised that Jesus seems unaware of the danger. You awake him with the words: “Master. Master. We are perishing.”

 

Each of us surely can connect with these intense feelings and desperation. In our lives, in different circumstances, at different times, we have felt alone. Dangers have threatened us and God seemed unaware and distant.

 

We know how the story ends. Jesus calms the storm. The terror passes. He turns to us in the boat and asks about our faith. We feel that he is asking a difficult question: Do we only trust him on the land, in the sunshine? Do we trust him in the storm when we are afraid?

 

It is striking that Luke only mentions the fear of the disciples at this point in the story. They are afraid and amazed at the authority of Jesus over creation. They do not understand this power.

 

There are many ways to read this story. Death and the forces of death are all around us. We walk with people through the journey of cancer. We see loved ones threatened by addictions. We fear changes in relationships. We are anxious about finances and debts that need to be paid. Some of us may fear violence even in the relative security of Canada. There are times when we feel that we are perishing.

 

Please allow me to offer one of my readings. I have a personal perspective on this story that comes from my environmental commitments. I understand that our social and economic system is responsible for:

  • Dead zones in the ocean.
  • Increasing damage to rivers and lakes.
  • The loss of biodiversity and the extinction of species of plants and animals.
  • The pumping of hydrocarbons into the air resulting in climate change.
  • Threats to future generations.

 

The gospel narrative reminds me that creation belongs to God. I need to listen deeply to this message. I also need to listen to the scriptures teaching that God gave humans the role as stewards and caretakers of God’s garden. I need to recall that being a caretaker requires prayerful action around issues of consumption, transportation, land use, and sustainable practices. These are matters of faith. This passage calls me to a deeper faith in God as the creator and sustainer of creation. I can only play the role of a servant. The lives of my grandchildren, for whom I fear, is in his hands. .

 

The boat lands. We move into the country of the Gerasenes. We are in a foreign land across the lake from Galilee. We feel relief when we put our feet on solid land once again. However, we are immediately confronted by Legion. He is frightening in a different manner than the storm. The evil power of Legion is beyond explanation.

 

People tell us that he once lived in the city. He was a son, a brother, a friend, and a neighbor. Somehow the evil of the times overpowered him. They chained him in an area near the burial ground. People felt secure for a time. But Legion broke through the chains and leather bonds. He would shout and cry uncontrollably. The very name, Legion, reminds us of the cruel power of the Roman army.

 

You wonder if Legion was a victim of Roman violence. Was he traumatized by the cruelty of Roman soldiers? You also wonder if he once served as a foreign mercenary in Rome’s Legions. Did he commit horrible actions against civilians in the border areas of the empire? Has the trauma driven him deeper into evil?

 

The demons inside Legion begin to speak. They realize that Jesus is a threat to their existence. They beg him not to send them back to the abyss. The ask Jesus to send them into the pigs. At this point we see the destructive power of evil turning on itself. The pigs run into the lake and drown. But the story is not over. We are witnesses of Legion’s transformation.  He is seated at Jesus feet as a learner, a disciple. He is clothed and in his right mind. Legion has been saved or redeemed or restored. He has become the person that he was created to be.

 

When people come out from the city and the rural areas, they are afraid of Jesus. He has a power that they can neither understand nor manage. They ask him to leave their region.

 

Let me ask you a question. Is there something here that reminds you of the power of evil in our own time? Immoral displays of power can be terrifying and beyond explanation. These stories come from places like El Salvador, the Great Lakes region of Africa, the Ukraine, and the Middle East. The power of evil is also present in our country Canada. How else do we explain the residential schools, the pass system, and missing and murdered aboriginal women? Evils of the dominant society have deeply wounded indigenous people. At certain times, with certain people, evil can overcome individuals and make them intensely and unpredictably destructive to themselves and to others around them.

 

When we are confronted by evil, we are inclined to run or to become protective. We may lose our faith that God can transform people like Legion. We may be tempted to hold up a sword rather than the cross.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Let us try to draw some lessons for our walk with Jesus through Lent.

 

Lesson 1: We are never in control as much as we might want or desire. The chains do not hold Legion. A storm comes out of nowhere. Fear is natural because we are all frail and vulnerable. It helps to accept that reality.

 

Lesson 2: “Master. Master. We are perishing,” called out the people in the boat. God invites us to express quietly or with loud voices our fears and anxieties. He knows us. He knows our apprehensions and concerns. Prayer is about opening our hearts to God, even the dark places. We are his beloved children. Never forget, you are his beloved.

 

Lesson 3: Change is Possible. Jesus calmed the storm Legion is transformed. God works in our lives and in our world. Anxieties and fears can hold us back from living passionately, creatively, and fully. God works with us and in us. It might help us to remember that the most repeated command of the scriptures is: Do not fear. This command only makes sense in contexts that provoke fear. Sometimes we simply need to repeat this scripture to ourselves as a mantra. Do not fear. Do not fear. The Risen Lord is with us. Do not fear.

 

 

Personal Reflection

  • Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
  • Make a fear inventory. What are the three greatest fears in your life? Offer them to God. In the silence listen for what is the Spirit whispering to your heart?
  • Remember a time when you were afraid? Walk through that experience imagining God’s presence. Where was God? What did God want to tell you during that time?
  • What grace from God do you seek in the coming days?
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Lent 4: Freedom to Risk. Luke 9.18-27

Lent 4: Freedom to Risk. Luke 9.18-27

We are all familiar with the tension between risk and safety. When we choose our investment plan for retirement we are specifically asked about our risk tolerance. High risk investments can have wonderful financial results when the market is good. They can also have heartbreaking losses. A conservative portfolio offers security but not the possibility of remarkable growth. We navigate the risk-safety tension in different ways depending on age and other factors.

Let me ask you a question: How would you measure your personal risk tolerance on the journey of lent? What factors would you use to evaluate your tolerance of risk in following Jesus?

“He saved his life by never risking it.” This cryptic phrase was written in the journal of Dag Hammarskjold. Hammarskjold was the second secretary general of the United Nations. He served in a tumultuous period of the cold war and national independence movements. He died in a mysterious plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1961. His journal, discovered after his death, revealed the depth of his faith and commitment to God. “He saved his life by never risking it” was his critique of people that chose to play it safe with their lives.

Friday, 24 March, marks the 37th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. Romero had been elected by colleagues who thought he was a safe choice. He was sixty years old. His track record as a priest and theological educator showed him to be a conservative. He served as Archbishop for only three years. His perspective on faith and the gospel were shaped by stories he heard from the poor. He once said that the poor inform us of the nature of the world and the service required of the church.

In his last sermon, Romero called on soldiers of the national army to convert to the gospel and to disobey orders that conflicted with the law of God. He demanded in the name of God that the government stop the repression. Colleagues advised him to go into hiding for his safety. But he refused. The next day he was shot while celebrating mass in the chapel of the hospital of Divine Providence. It is a holy place for those of us that have visited that site.

Romero received regular death threats. In 1979, near the beginning of his role as archbishop, he asked for prayers that he would not abandon his people and that he would run all the risks that his ministry demanded. There is a portion of his journal in the chapel where he was killed. It expresses his thoughts a few weeks before his death. I want to quote from it:

It is not easy to accept a violent death, which is very possible in these circumstances… my attitude should be to hand my life over to God regardless of the end to which that life might come; that unknown circumstances can be faced with God’s grace; that God assisted the martyrs, and that if it comes to this I shall feel God very close as I draw my last breath; but that more valiant than surrender in death is the surrender of one’s whole life – a life lived for God.

We have the contrast. We make choices. We live somewhere between risk and safety in our daily decisions. There is a voice that says we save our lives by protecting them with money, possessions, and security. There is another voice about living for God. We are familiar with these two voices because they are always with us. I invite you to recognize them and then to listen to the words of Jesus in Caesarea Philippi.

Scripture: Luke 9.18-27

The reading begins with a description of Jesus at prayer. He breaks from speaking with God and now speaks to his disciples. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” What are they saying about me? What are the opinions of people in Galilee? Jesus is a controversial figure. The answers given by the disciples look to someone from Israel’s past in order to understand Jesus.

The second question is much more personal. It is a question that keeps coming back to each one of us?

“But what about you? Who do you say I am?” The text asks us our own time and circumstances: What do you believe about Jesus? What words would you choose? Saviour. Lord. Teacher. Friend. God. Healer. Leader. Merciful One.

Peter answers: God’s Messiah. You are the one we have been promised. You are the one we have been waiting for you.

The friends gathered around Jesus are not given time to think about titles. The theme changes. The conversation becomes dark. Jesus surprises his followers. No one expected God’s Messiah – the hope of Israel – to talk in this way. The Son of Man must suffer many things. He will be rejected by the leaders of his own people. He will be killed. Then he will be raised to life by God.

Put yourself in the position of the friends gathered around Jesus. This is not the future you expected. You longed for success not for pain and humiliation. You are in shock. But the message does not stop at this point. We need to pay close attention to the following words because they are spoken to us. It is here that we need to listen to God’s Spirit whispering to us.

Those who would be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their crosses daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for me will save it.

Here we have it. The two options. The first is based on the primary motivation to save one’s life. Jesus goes on to speak about the desire to gain the whole world at the cost of one’s soul, one’s inner life and integrity. On the other side, there is the call to lose one’s life for Jesus. Did this mean violent death? Is Jesus speaking about an insane desire for martyrdom?

The answer is clearly “no.” Jesus is speaking about the freedom of self-denial and allowing the Spirit to lead us into the world. He is helping us to put the natural instincts for security, pleasure, and safety in their proper place. These concerns should never be the primary motivations of our lives.

Let us go back to Oscar Romero. He understood that the big question was not the date or circumstances of his death. The real issue was about living each day for God. Through his words, Jesus is encouraging us to live each day for God. He leads us on life giving path of conscious resistance to the forces and propaganda around us. The gospel tradition helps us to understand the freedom of self-denial and carrying the cross. The double love command moves us toward the freedom to embrace diverse people as neighbors. We have the freedom to sit at a common table where food is shared with the rich and the poor, the marginalized and secure. We feel the Spirit leading us toward the freedom of simplicity in order to live joyfully with generosity. We find our identity and our life by following Jesus and attending to his teaching.

The call is both demanding and gracious. The cross is a symbol of death. Self-denial in our culture of excess is viewed suspiciously. The world has always judged success using material measures rather than in measurements of the Spirit. We discover unexpected grace in this call of Jesus. When evening comes, we may feel that we have stumbled and dropped the cross. Each new day is a gift with fresh opportunities. We leave the past behind. We raise the cross. We follow Jesus into the world.

Conclusion

I want to conclude this Lenten reflection by emphasizing the importance of this theme. We are challenged to live creatively and obediently in the tension between security and risk, between acquiescence and dissent, between self-care and acts of compassion and justice for others. It takes honesty, thoughtfulness, prayer, and a certain tolerance of risk to have the freedom to follow Jesus in our time.

Small Group Reflection

  • Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
  • Do you remember a time when you wrestled between playing it safe and taking a risk? What were the options? How do you feel looking back on that experience?
  • What does it mean to you to take up the cross daily and follow Jesus? How would you explain this saying to a friend?
  • Self-denial is a virtue of God’s rule. What practices of positive self-denial or resistance do you wish to develop in order to live with greater freedom, faithfulness, and love?
  • What grace from God do you seek in the coming days?
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Lent #3: Freedom from the Past John 21.1-19

Lent #3: Freedom from the Past John 21.1-19

This Lenten reflection is devoted to the theme of freedom from the past through forgiveness received and forgiveness offered to those who have wounded us.

We are never fully comfortable with the past. We carry broken bits and pieces in our memories and our emotions. There are times that we may unexpectedly meet people from the past. Our happiness in seeing them again is coloured by difficult memories of painful events that we can never quite forget.

We bring the past with us into each new day. Victims and witnesses of violence understand this reality. A woman that has been abused may never feel safe. A man wakes up at night sweating in terror because of a flashback. My friend Shadrack Mutabazi, a refugee from the DRC, could not watch a video about Oscar Romero because the violence resonated so deeply with his own experience of killers in his country. Those that have committed deeds of violence live with their own harsh memories of acts of cruelty that they can scarcely believe. They seek explanations of madness or possession by evil spirits.

The struggle with the past is less intense for most of us. But it is there. The flashbacks are different in nature. Words said in anger. Unfair accusations leveled against us. Feeling abandoned and without defence. A conflict that you could have handled better. A confidence betrayed. Someone you loved that seemed incapable of receiving that gift. A time when you remained silent rather than defended the vulnerable. A career decision taken or not taken. An accident caused by lack of attention. We all have these memories that are painful reminders of past wounds that never fully healed.

For me, travel to Vancouver forces me to face my brokenness and pain in an intense way. When I am with my children and grandchildren, I can never free myself from remembering the night we told them that I was leaving the home. I would be their father but I would not live with them. I was betraying my marriage vows and my relationship as a father. I am grateful that words of forgiveness and actions of love have been graciously extended from each person around that table. But the healing is never complete. The emotions of that night never go away. I suspect we all have times, places, and people that are painful to recall. We carry them with us.

Forgiveness is such an easy concept. But in practice, forgiveness can be hard to extend and hard to receive.

My wife Regine has a haunting story from Rwanda.  A man in a village murdered his Tutsi neighbor in the madness of the 1994 genocide. A few weeks later he became part of the mass migration of Hutus to refugee camps in the Congo under the protection of French soldiers in Operation Turquoise. He repatriated to Rwanda in 1996 deeply troubled by his participation in the violence. In his village, he dug up the body of his victim from the place where it had been buried. He took the skull, wrapped it, and turned himself in to the authorities. He was sent to prison immediately. He put on prison clothes but refused to give up the skull. He clung to it. He took the skull to work duties. He placed the skull beside him when he ate food. He took to skull to bed when he slept. This man was eventually killed by other prisoners. He made them uncomfortable and afraid. He died, a wounded soul in a wounded country in need of healing. He died unforgiven.

Scripture: John 21.1-19

I know it is strange to use a story of the Risen Lord in a Lenten reflection. I can only say that the breakfast on the beach is the response of Jesus to things that happened earlier in Caesarea Philippi and Jerusalem. The apostle Peter had very painful memories of exuberant promises and cowardly betrayal.  It is a credit to the early Christian tradition that these difficult stories were retained and not covered up.

Peter had been the first disciple to confess that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. When Jesus began to explain the mystery of the cross, Peter had taken him aside and rebuked him. Jesus had said the harshest words in the gospels: “Get behind me Satan.” Later in Jerusalem, at the last supper, Peter had promised that he would not abandon Jesus. “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

A moment of crisis comes in the courtyard outside the staged trial of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Three times he saves his skin by denying Jesus. “I do not know this man that you are talking about.”

A relationship is betrayed. Promises are broken. Try to imagine the pain of Peter. How does he deal with his cowardice and expediency? How does he handle the embarrassment? How does he come to terms with his disloyalty? How does he imagine the pain inflicted on Jesus who is left alone before a violent mob? How does he face the past and find freedom to live his role as the rock on whom Jesus would build the church?

We know these questions in different places and different circumstances? How do we free ourselves from the past? How do we forgive and find freedom from a pain that was inflicted on us? How do experience forgiveness and find the freedom to live into the calling of God for our lives?

The story in John 21 is about the Risen Lord who comes to us. He shows us the way forward in finding freedom though forgiveness received and extended.  The narrative is for you when you long to be forgiven and healed. You can keep coming back to it. The story in John 21 is for you when you feel the Spirit leading you to forgive someone else and are praying for God to walk with you.

Peter decides to go back to fishing. Resurrection appearances do not take away his deep sense of shame and failure. He goes back to his old life in Galilee. Some of the others join him. They fish all night without result. A voice from the shore encourages them to put down the net on the right side of the boat. The catch is amazing – 153 fish. One of the men realizes that the person shouting from the shore is Jesus. Peter cannot wait for the boat to land. He jumps into the water and swims to shore.

Jesus has made a fire on the beach. He invites the group of fishers to share breakfast with him. They offer their fish for the meal. Jesus has bread. When they have finished the meal, Jesus turns to Peter. The three questions must have been so painful to hear:

  • Do you love me more than these?
  • Do you love me?
  • Do you love me?

Each time Jesus extends again the call to mission to Peter. Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep. And then there is the warning that the call will be difficult. He has failed in the past. Now he will have another chance. People will forcefully take him to places he does not want to go. And then the final words: Follow me! These are the same words with which Peter began his friendship and discipleship with Jesus.

He is not thrown on the rubbish heap of failure. The Risen Lord extends to him the freedom to come to terms with the past and then to leave the past. The three questions respond to the three denials. Each question lifts the burden and shame. Peter is re-commissioned to a life of meaningful service to God and to others. He can celebrate the freedom of forgiveness.

We can readily identify with Peter because we have all been there. His story is our story. The challenge is to also identify with Jesus. Are there times when we are called to make a fire on the beach and share a meal with someone who has betrayed us? The technical vocabulary of forgiveness is not as important as actions of restoration. An embrace. A hug. A smile. A  task that is shared.

Conclusion

So where does this Lenten mediation leave us. The Methodist theologian Gregory Jones says that forgiveness is a way of living and a craft to be learned. It does not come naturally. It is more natural to hold on to resentments or to bury ourselves in feelings of self-recrimination. We may need help and guidance in both receiving forgiveness and in humbly offering forgiveness to those that have offended us. Forgiveness offered and forgiveness received express a determination to live in the new creation that God is fashioning even in the evil and brokenness of our world. Forgiveness is a key part of finding freedom from our past.

Individual Reflection

  • Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
  • Recall a time when you experienced forgiveness from someone you had offended? Were there internal barriers to forgiveness that you faced? Dwell for a time on the feelings of a relationship restored.
  •  Recall a time when you extended forgiveness to someone that had offended you? How did you handle the pain of betrayal? How did the other person respond? Dwell for a time on this experience?
  • What do you long to leave behind? What is the Spirit whispering to you about forgiveness either received or extended?
  • What grace from God do you seek during Lent?
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