Lent 5, 29.3.20
Text: John 11.1 - 45
Rev Paul Cannon
In some scholarship there is the thought that in scripture, seven is one of the perfect numbers. Well there are seven primary identified anxiety disorders among many:11
- Panic disorder: recurring panic attacks.
- Phobia: fear of an object, situation, or activity.
- Social Anxiety Disorder: extreme fear of being judged by others in socially.
- Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) recurring irrational thoughts that lead to specific, repeated behaviours.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder: fear of being away from home or loved ones.
- Illness Anxiety Disorder: anxiety about health (originally known as hypochondria).
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): anxiety following a traumatic event or experience
- Nervousness, restlessness, tension.
- Feelings of danger, panic, or dread.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Rapid or accelerated breathing.
- Increased heavy sweating.
- Trembling - muscle twitching.
- Weakness and lethargy.
- Difficulty on moving past the thing that one is worried about.
- Digestive, gastrointestinal problems.
- Dizziness, feeling faint.
- Feeling hot or cold.
- Feeling detached from oneself - depersonalisation.
- Fear of going crazy or losing control.
- Fear of dying.
If you listened closely you would have identified with something, we are all coloured by a level of anxiety, but it has become a modern phenomena in that it is out in the open, we can name it and it is recognised.Treatments vary especially s to how severe or intense the condition is. In a basic sense, exercise, rest, diet , self-awareness, and seeking help are the critical responses we need to make. In a faith sense prayer and community are healing in themselves.
Clearly there is anxiety around the Corona Virus and its consequential result in CoVid-19. We have all witnessed the rush to the shops and what is deemed “Panic Buying” including prescription drugs along with white-goods and of course food. Perhaps it left feeling that perhaps you’d better join in lest you get left out, and so fear permeates our very being if we are not alert.
I have been equally disturbed by elements within the Christian fold, like the disgraced 80s Televangelist Jim Bakker who is touting a CoVid cure in Silver Fluid, which is just snake oil, and at $300 a bottle an unashamed abuse of the vulnerable. This is preying on the anxious.
But so to the anxious who hold pastoral positions abuse their role, pastors, mostly in the US, who suggest that this God’s punishment!, or that this is a way to cull the elderly, a way to reduce population, and more. A sickening litany of abuse. But anxiety can lead us to that place of blame.
Jesus delays four days getting to Lazarus who is seriously ill, and who dies while Jesus is still on the way. He cops flack from his close friends, Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha, and from the community.
Martha says to him: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11.21) Mary repeats a similar line in John 11.32, I hear anger and anxiety and the two are not mutually exclusive.
Jesus on arrival shows his own grief in Lazarus’ death, but then he shows the full power of God in the raising of Lazarus to life again, a resurrection.
For me the delay is the time of grieving, the anxiety of losing a loved one, watching the moment arrive and having to face it. Who hasn’t experienced directly or indirectly the suffering of someone, perhaps a cancer or a particular disease, where a delay is just a miserable suffering?
Jesus’ own grief is a testament to knowing that death will happen, and in spite of the possibility of healing, it doesn’t diminish the initial pain of loss. These are mixed feelings. Who hasn’t experienced a diagnosis in our own lives or among others, that has been miraculously contravened?
The blaming - “if only you’d been here Jesus …” is a common dilemma, we do it even today, the frustration of unanswered prayer, the death of a loved one, the sense of not having the power to control our lives and illness, our fear of death inspire of our faith, all of these are normal responses. If only Jesus would fix me, fix them, is always in the back of our mind irrespective of our logical understanding of our circumstances.
Jesus does raise Lazarus from death and there is astonishment and rejoicing, as I can imagine, this would have been an amazing moment.
And so, we realise there is something else at play here. Jesus shows the power of God to revoke the state of death, to restore life. But it happens in God’s timing not when we might expect.
This immediately speaks to our faith. Faith for me isn’t about certainty, faith is about the journey, it’s about trust, and it is about accepting I don’t control events, it is in fact a yearning for God in every moment.
In restoring Lazarus, Jesus also gives a glimpse of the ability of God to fulfil the very things he has been promising and will promise, especially in John 14 onwards. In Lazarus we get a glimpse of what might happen for Jesus, and therefore for us, in resurrection.
And the simple irony in this story is that by raising his friend Jesus invites his own death, for now the religious leaders actively plot against him.
I find hope in this passage, not just because it promises resurrection, but simply because this story is incarnational. In Jesus, we have a God who can grieve, can weep, can feel friendship, understands opposition and who understands just how people can see the truth in action and yet deny it.
That’s the God I yearn for, the one who knows me, who understands my foibles, and can also love me, even grieve for and with me, who is with me always.
In these strange days of isolation, in the face of a virus that can cause death and for some, is creating anxiety, we serve a God who calls us to life.
For me that is the point here, in the midst of death, we have life. Our journey is not to the grave, but through it
Lent 4, 22.3.20
Text: John 9.1 – 41.
Rev Paul Cannon
This is a challenging story. We see a series of steps that Jesus takes in order to restore sight to this man who was born blind from birth.
The first step is that Jesus spits on the ground. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t like people spitting on the ground, but here Jesus does just that.
Then he makes mud with the spit and soil and spreads it on the man’s eyes. Now I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid my parents warned of the dangers of sand grains damaging my eyes. Yet here Jesus does just that.
Thirdly, Jesus sends the man to the Pool of Siloam to wash. This was the pool in which every disabled and sick person placed hope for healing. The man does so and then returns to Jesus able to see for the first time in his life.
Fourthly, the man returns after his questioning by the Pharisees and only then does Jesus invite him to belief. So this healing was done without the man’s faith.
So the healing is a story of how healing is never the same, it is a different experience for each person. This also a lesson in how blindness is darkness.
And then there’s all the questioning.
The disciples start even before Jesus heals the man, no sooner have they seen the man than they have turned to judgment. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus denies that either the man or his parents were born blind, thereby making is clear that in his kingdom there is no causal link between one person’s sin or their child. It seems that the disciples were blind to what Jesus was teaching.
After the healing the neighbours and others were divided as to whether this is the man who was born blind. It sounds strange to me because his features would not have changed, how could they not recognise him? How could they not see? These people denied the good that had been done.
Of course, they were also afraid of the Pharisees who might punish them if they admitted that Jesus had healed this man. Jesus was growing in popularity and the Pharisees and Priests were concerned about their own privileged standing.
Then the Pharisees investigate the healing.
They are so bound up in their dogmas that they could not see who Jesus really was.
The Pharisees were divided. Jesus works on the Sabbath, he is a sinner. But others question how a sinner could do such things?
The people present were unable to accept that the man was originally blind, until the parents claimed this man as their son.
At the second questioning by the Pharisees the man derides them by saying “I have told you already and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
The Pharisees are now angered by his response. They respond with “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
And the man, with great sarcasm, says: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes … if this man were not from God he could do nothing.”
The Pharisees turn on him and return to their dogma of judgment. The mention of Moses reminds us that the Pharisees are stuck in the laws of Moses, whereas Jesus is teaching the law of God, the law of love.
So what is this story really about? It is about blindness.
John has these wonderful themes of light and dark, law and love, sin and transformation. Here he has seeing and blindness.
But the question is, who is blind and who can see? Or more directly, who can see Jesus?
This story shows that we can err and stray into the same pathway as the Pharisees by how we treat people, how we understand sin, how we understand faith, and how we understand Jesus.
If Jesus is the light of the world how did we end up with slavery, segregation, apartheid, racism, and the maltreatment of people with disability, and worse, child abuse within the church?
If Jesus is the light of the world, and the one who heals, how is it that we still say that when bad things happen to people that somehow they must have sinned or have been bad people. Were the people in London attack bad people, did God send the mentally ill person to kill them to remove these sinners?
The crux of the story is that there are none so blind as those who cannot see.
Blindness is not about the quality of our vision or the condition of our eyes. It is not about the darkness around us but, rather, the darkness within us. How we see others, what we see in the world, the way we see life is less about the objects of our seeing and more about ourselves. We do not see God, people, things, or circumstances as they are but as we are. Until our eyes are opened by Christ, our seeing is really just a projection of ourselves onto the world.
The question it raises for us is how are we blind, and what enables our blindness.
The disciples were blinded by folk law; the neighbours were blinded by fear, the parents too were blinded by fear. The Pharisees were blinded by their rigid legalism. Even the man healed was blind to who Jesus was, until Jesus told him, he believed Jesus was just a prophet.
This whole episode is ironic. Those who think they know are the most blind of all. The Pharisees even ask if Jesus is referring to them. They are more blind than the man born blind.
How are you blind to Jesus in your own life? What are you blind to in your life and relationships? What are you blind to in the world?
The inner darkness of our fears, attachments, and beliefs is what keeps us from
Don’t just look around. Look within. What do you see? How do you see? Where is the darkness in your life? Name that reality. Acknowledge it and then go wash. The mud of darkness always gives way to the light of Christ.
Lent 3, 15.3.20
Text: John 4.5 - 42
Rev Paul Cannon
When was the most recent time you had a life changing conversation with God?
Was it in the dark of night or the light of day, and who began the conversation was it you, or was it God?
And I wonder how different the world looks since that conversation?
Life completely changed for the woman at the well after her conversation with Jesus.
Here was a woman who felt deep shame, she came at noon every day for water so that she could avoid others who would look down on her for her sinful living. She clearly felt judged, and perhaps people had made comment, as people do.
We learn that this woman is a Samaritan, those people who were considered half Jewish and who had their own temple and a religious system that varied from the Jewish one.
Jesus often interacts with Samaritans because he passes through their towns and villages. One village, as Luke tells it (Luke 9) rejects Jesus completely and so he moves on. He tells the story of the good Samaritan to break down racial stereotypes, and to show that all are welcome in the kingdom. In the story of the cleansing of the ten lepers, one is noted as being a Samaritan, so he carried a double burden, he was the only one of the ten who came back to thank Jesus.
So Jesus makes the point that faith is not owned by particular groups, nor do we have the right to create little closed groups that have a language and a formula that says we’re the in-crowd, thereby defining all others as unworthy.
In the story of Jesus in the temple in John 8, the religious leaders taunt Jesus saying “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” We still do that horrible stuff, we still say things that aren’t true about other people, even after centuries of teaching that it is evil.
Jesus behaves differently and models for us how we should interact with others.
So on this particular day there is a man at the well. Not unusual, but not normally at noon. Fetching water was women’s work, but the men sometimes came with sheep, or other animals to water. But this man is no farmer, he is alone, and she notes that he is a Jew.
The other unusual thing about this encounter is that it was just a man and a woman alone at the well, normally women would go together, but this woman cannot do that, I wonder how many people are in our streets who feel isolated because of race or religion, sexual orientation, disability and so on? How many people in our community don’t have friends?
There are some interesting statistics about friendship. A couple of years ago it was established that over 6% of Americans had no close friends. I England it was I in ten people had no close friends. In Australia the statistic is focussed on men, 1.1 million men between 30 and 65 have no close friends. This effects mental and social health, and functioning.
This Samaritan woman is isolated because of how others treat her and expect her to behave, and so here she is alone with Jesus.
We know this is an issue because the when the disciples return from the town they comment on the fact that Jesus is alone with a woman. This was a taboo, a religious rule and Jesus breaks it.
Jesus accepts her as she is, simply a woman at the well, he offers no racial slur, he offers no condemnation that she is living with a man, astounding, but he sets an example for us to follow.
Always remember that sin is not the sole reason for Jesus if you remember his mission statement from Isaiah - to heal the sick, set the captives free, release the oppressed and to bring the good news of God’s forgiveness. And always remember that the way you see sin is not the way God sees it, based on Jesus’ behaviour we have a clear example of not judging and accepting.
Jesus wants a drink, and this is where it gets interesting.
Jesus plays along for a few moments, and she doesn’t realise they’re talking about two different types of water.
She is speaking about actual water, Jesus is speaking about the Spirit of God, his Spirit, which brings refreshing life as spiritual water.
When she finally clicks on to what he mens she asks him “Rabbi I see that you are a prophet …”
Then Jesus can really speak.
He is able to show her who he really is. And she responds to him with excitement. And she runs off to tell everyone, which includes those who avoid her, that Messiah has come. It’s almost like she cartwheels down the road. When were you that excited about God?
Jesus also shows that neither Jew nor Samaritan has an advantage in position, heritage or lineage because “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth …” This is important because Jesus makes it clear that denomination or inclination, or self-righteous view will gain anything, simply spirit and truth.
The truth he speaks of is to do the will of the one who sent him. So it all comes back to God. The spirit is of course his Spirit, the one that guides and motivates, the one that whispers and calls, equips and moves.
Community according to Jesus is one where we do not spend our days excluding, defining, or judging. It is one where we put aside our judgements, definitions and prejudices and engage each other for who we really are, warts and all. That requires trust. As I see it, church is often fearful because too many are looking to judge, but we need to set our agendas aside for the living of love. How else will we make Messiah obvious to the world?
If only we could accept this wonderful example of Jesus and live it.
The questions that remain are: who is your Samaritan? Who do you avoid or exclude?
The challenge is: How are you going to trust the call of Jesus to be his community?
Lent 2, 8.3.20
Text: John 3.1 – 17
Rev Paul Cannon
This gospel passage is sadly dominated by one verse. Verse 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I say sadly because this verse has become the bumper sticker verse, a form of Christian popularisation, cheapened by over use.
It comes across as a pat answer, the sort of answer you give when you don’t want to really give a proper answer.
John records this story later in life, and as we now know, the Apostles recorded what was important for the communities of faith they were leading at the time. John’s community was a minority community, pushed to the outer of Jewish society, and they were alienated from the religion they had been born into. They had been cast out of the synagogues, and they were struggling with their faith.
John writes very clearly throughout his gospel account, giving categories of light and darkness, above and below, day and night, accepting or rejecting Jesus. By doing this John writes to encourage his community to find their place, to be able to face their circumstances, to feel secure. John’s community needed to feel as if they were in, inside with Christ, and by writing this way, John enables them to do just that.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night. He is afraid of his fellow Jews, what they might say and do if they discover he is seeking Jesus out. It is significant that Nicodemus comes at night, because it is an image play on Nicodemus coming from his own darkness into the light of Jesus, who is the light of the world. Aren’t we the very same sometimes?
And so Nicodemus takes a risk and comes to Jesus.
Nicodemus seems to know something, he has an inkling about Jesus because he calls Jesus “… a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (v. 3)
Nicodemus has a sense of Jesus as coming from God, yet he doesn’t really know who Jesus is. Nicodemus is an ambiguous character, he believes, believes something, yet lacks belief. In fact Nicodemus is clearly confused: “How can this be…?” he asks Jesus.
The story of Nicodemus makes room for all who struggle and stumble in their faith. And perhaps like Nicodemus, we too have an inkling, we have a sense of Jesus, and yet we too also lack a full understanding.
But Jesus doesn’t go easy on Nicodemus, he leads Nicodemus through a complex discussion on what it is to see the kingdom of God.
And I want to especially note that the language that Jesus uses refers to the kingdom beginning before we die, not after. (v.16)
The most complex part of the conversation centers on verses 5 – 8, where Jesus introduces being born from above. In some ways, we only ever understand the meaning of this once we turn to follow Jesus. As followers we have an inside understanding. In the original Greek text, it is not an exact phrase and can be interpreted in numerous ways so we need to be careful not to make a bumper sticker from this verse.
Besides, Jesus is being metaphorical, he is using images and word play to try and explain what he means by rebirth. And not only that, we don’t know the tone of this conversation, so it is hard to make judgments about it.
There’s always the possibility that Nicodemus doesn’t want to understand Jesus. And there is always the possibility that Nicodemus is stuck in his beliefs and patterns and cannot understand.
We know so little, but we do know that Nicodemus shows a movement towards Jesus. Nicodemus shows up twice more in the life of Jesus. In John 7 Nicodemus defends the right of Jesus to be heard rather than arrested and tried. In John 19 Nicodemus comes to Jesus’ tomb with a disciple – Joseph of Arimathea, bringing a gift of embalming materials and to formally bury Jesus. Which is far more than the inner circle of apostles do for Jesus.
Verses 16 and 17 tell us by the verb structure, that believing is ongoing, it is a life-long journey. It’s not a flick your fingers moment – it’s a lifetime of journey.
Note that the verb is loved, and so in verse 16 refers to what is already done, whereas the phrase, “so that everyone who believes in him …” is different, it points to an ongoing development in our belief.
That being the case, it is possible to say that Nicodemus moves towards Jesus, because he comes to Jesus, he is questioning, he is struggling to understand, and he later plays a part in Jesus’ life.
Isn’t that a little like our journey of faith? Don’t we take time to journey towards, Jesus? Doesn’t it take time for us to let go of our childhood understanding of God? Don’t we grow and mature as we journey?
As verse 16 reminds us, belief is a process. We never fully arrive, we are on a journey, a journey of faith, and a journey where we struggle and stumble, and doubt.
Nicodemus may have a lot in common with Peter. Peter the one who is in the inner circle of circles, who is Jesus’ chosen leader, the one who boldly and publicly declares who Jesus really is, the same Peter who tries to protect Jesus from his death, who denies Jesus three times, who hides in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. The same Peter who struggled to fully understand.
Don’t we struggle too?
It is Peter who gets a second chance. On the shore of Lake Galilee Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection and restores Peter as the leader of the twelve, saying three times feed my sheep, which heals the corresponding three denials.
Nicodemus has the same chances and so do we, we all have another chance or chances in Jesus.
I love the prayer of the father of the demon possessed boy in Mark 9.24 “I believe, help my unbelief.”
We are invited to trust, to wrestle with what it is to be born from above, and to grow into faith.
Our part is to keep posing our questions to God, to keep seeking what it means to follow Jesus, to learn as we go, to grow and develop as we live, and to learn by doing, taking risks. This is how we truly grow.
Above all, this story of Nicodemus is an invitation to put aside the cheap bumper sticker theology and to live a real faith, trusting God, and god’s grace grace.