Sunday, July 15, 2018

Journey of Faith 9 - Reading the Bible through the eyes of Jesus

Text for the Week: Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ Luke 10:25-28

Welcome to our services today and a special welcome to any who are worshipping with us for the first time. During our morning service we invite all who love the Lord Jesus Christ to share with us in the Lord’s Supper.

It’s ten months since Felicity and I gave notice that we would be retiring and moving on and now the moment has arrived. How the time flies! Today’s a day for looking back and saying thank you for the way everyone at Highbury and among the churches of Cheltenham has made us as a family so welcome: it’s been great to share!

It’s a day for looking forward as we, in a sense, hand over to the Ministry team and the Deacons here at Highbury and as we look forward to a new adventure in Bridgend.

First and foremost, we have all come together to share in our worship.

And at the heart of that worship we are once again going to look out for the way the words of Scripture connect with the world we live in and become for us God’s Word for today.

In the three months leading up to Easter I set out to explore the heart of the Christian faith: I’m going to return to that theme this evening and reflect on the way the Lord’s prayer says it all. Since Easter I have been exploring what seems to me one of the biggest issues facing the major faiths in today’s world: how we read our Sacred texts each of which has passages that are hateful in the extreme. That seems to me to be the big question explored by Jesus on the day of Resurrection and worked out by Luke in telling the story of the early church in Acts and of Jesus in the third Gospel. For me the key to it all lies in the greatest of Jesus’ parables, the Good Samaritan.

Welcome and Call to Worship

122 Let all the world in every corner sing

Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer

The Kind Stranger – Open the Book

A Hy-Spirit Song

What do you read there?

I thought this morning I would finish where I began … with the parable of the Good Samaritan. That was the theme I chose to take for my very first sermon at a youth service in the church where Felicity and I grew up, Clarendon Park Congregational Church in Leicester. It was, I think, 1970. Two years before Martin Luther King had been assassinated and my father had taken me to the memorial service at a church with a predominantly black congregation in Leicester. That same year in Britain Enoch Powell had made his rivers of blood speech in Wolverhampton. In 1969 my father had taken me to see the Springboks play the East Midlands at the Welford Road Stadium, … from outside the ground – we joined the demonstration that encircled the stadium in a successful attempt to stop the South African cricket tour of England after South Africa had forbidden the England Test side to select the mixed race Worcestershire player, Basil D’Olivera.

Fear of the other, Xenophobia, Racism – these were the pressing issues of the day. And the Parable of the Good Samaritan seemed remarkably modern – who is my neighbour? The very one you think of as ‘the other’ turns out to be the one who was neighbour to the man who fell among thieves. How vital we go and do likewise.

On the weekend of President Trump’s visit, as the detailed plans for Brexit are laid before Parliament, fear of ‘the other’, the ‘stranger in the midst’ is as rife as ever, the parable of the Good Samaritan speaks as loudly as ever. Who would you cast as the Priest, the Levite, the Samaritan today?

I will leave that to your imagination.

I want to pursue another avenue of thought that seems to me to speak to one of the major, if not the biggest issue facing faith communities in today’s world. It seems to me that the big issue for us who are people of faith to address is how we read our sacred texts. In Judaism, in Christianity, in Islam there has been a resurgence in recent years of very narrow, tightly defined, fundamentalist readings of the sacred texts of those three faiths. Those texts are then used to justify fear and loathing of ‘the other’. And in the Jewish Tanakh, the Law, the Prophets and the writings, the Christian Bible and the Muslim Quran there are texts that are hateful and can be read in the most divisive of ways.

How do you read your sacred text?

Tradition has it that two books of the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus and the story of the Early Church were written by Luke the beloved physician who was a travelling companion of Paul.

At three moments in the Gospel, Luke describes an occasion when Jesus offers a way of reading the Scriptures he and his audience who were all Jewish regarded as their Sacred Scriptures and we regard as our Old Testament. That’s where those hateful texts are to be found.

At the very beginning of his ministry in Luke chapter 4 Jesus went to the synagogue he grew up in and stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place at the beginning of Isaiah 61 where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

The immediate response was entirely positive. All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words, the words of grace, that came from his mouth.

But by the time he got to the end of his sermon, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

What did he have to say that turned them to such rage?

As far as they were concerned they wanted someone to proclaim good news to THEIR poor, release to THEIR captives, sight to THEIR blind, freedom for THEIR oppressed.

Jesus had something else in mind entirely. It was entirely in keeping with their Sacred Scriptures … but it focused on bits of those Scriptures those folk didn’t really want to hear.

He told two stories about the first two great archetypal prophets of the Old Testament, Elijah and Elisha.

There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow living far beyond the boundaries of Israel at Zarephath in non-Jewish, Gentile, Sidon.

What’s more, there were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the commander of the oft-times enemy Syrian army.

The message was clear the way Jesus brought the Scriptures to fulfilment was to bring good news for the poor WHOEVER they are, release to the captives WHOEVER they are, sight to the blind WHOEVER they are, freedom for the oppressed, WHOEVER they are.

It was when they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.

At the end of the Gospel, on the day of resurrection Jesus joins two of his followers walking sadly on the Road to Emmaus but they don’t recognize who he is. The way they read those Sacred Scriptures we call the Old Testament, they had been convinced Jesus would be the Messiah to free the people from Roman oppression – and his death had shattered all their dreams.

He’d shared with them his way of reading the Scriptures of the Old Testament but they had missed the point, they simply hadn’t got it. So in that two hour walk he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

It was in the breaking of bread that they recognized him and saw he was risen from the dead  … rushing back to tell the others they said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’

Back in the Upper Room Jesus appeared to all his followers and said, Peace be with you. Then he took them back to their sacred Scriptures:  ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,

Jesus’ priority on Resurrection day was to open the minds of his followers so that they could understand the scriptures of what we call the Old Testament and see them through his eyes.

As Luke goes on to tell the story of the early church in Acts time and again he explores the way those first followers of Jesus, Peter, Stephen, Philip, James and then later Paul read the scriptures of what we think of as the Old Testament through the eyes of Jesus and see in Jesus the one who brings to fulfilment the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

So the big question is, how did Jesus read the scriptures we think of as the Old testament?

This is as crucial a question for us now as it ever has been. For it is in the Old Testament that texts can be found to justify slavery and racism, xenophobia, islamophobia, homophobia and the hatefulness that is in our world today all too often rearing its ugly head. Some extreme Christian readings of those texts can even be used to justify anti-semitism.

We are used to a way of writing that leads up to a punchline which contains the key message.

In Middle Eastern writing the key message often comes in the middle and the beginning and the end match each other.

That’s how Luke’s exploration of the way Jesus reads the Old Testament works. At the beginning in Nazareth and at the end on the day of resurrection Jesus opens up the Scriptures. It is in the middle that we find the answer to the most crucial question of all.

The middle part of Luke’s gospel is a journey to Jerusalem that begins at chapter 9 verse 51 and ends in chapter 19.

At the start of the journey a Samaritan village refuses to allow Jesus to enter. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them and said, You do not know what spirit you are of for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings, but to save them.

It’s shortly after that that a lawyer, an expert in the Law put a question to Jesus. It’s important to follow through the conversation. It’s easy to imagine the lawyer was trying to catch Jesus out. He stood up to ‘test’ Jesus – maybe that means he was testing out this new teaching of Jesus.

Just then a lawyer – that’s to say, an expert in the  stood up to test Jesus.

‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

The question is not ‘what must I do to get to heaven?’ It’s not even what must I do to live for ever.

What must I do to inherit from those who have gone before us in the faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all the great people of faith, What must I do to inherit that life that can be lived to the full here and now, that life that is not boundaried by death, eternal life.

What Jesus does is to respond to the question with another question – because that’s the Jewish way of learning. You always ask questions. It has been said that the Protestant tendency in reading the Scripture is always to look for the one definitive meaning – the Bible means this. The Jewish way of reading the Scriptures always is ready to ask more questions.

Notice the two questions Jesus asks. He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’

What is written in the Law, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers Deuteronomy is every single word from Genesis 1:1 to Deuteronomy 34:12

What do you read there? Is a question that invites you to go to the nub of the matter. For Jesus this is the all important question.

It is the Expert in the law who gives a classic Jewish response – this is not Jesus’ idea in this conversation. It is the expert in the law. This is one way of reading the Scripture. It might have been possible to come up with another that focused on purity of race, keeping apart from others lest they taint you … but he comes up with this statement that for him goes to the heart of what the Torah, the Law is all about.

He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’

Jesus says, You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

Notice that. Not do this and you will get to heaven. It is do this and you live, here and now, you will have life to the full, life in all its abundance – and that life will not end at death.

 But wanting to justify himself, the expert in the law asked Jesus yet another question.

‘And who is my neighbour?’

Jesus replied in another classic Jewish way. One Jewish way of reading the Scrpture is to find a story that illustrates the meaning of a passage, a Midrash. In a sense the story that follows is Jesus’ story that shows how you are to read the Torah through his eyes.

 ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

There’s still a road that goes down from Jersualem to Jericho and it is currently in the news. It runs entirely through the Palestinian Territories, the West Bank. It’s a major road two lanes going each way and it’s controlled by the Israeli Government. You have to have Israeli number plates to drive on the road. Part way along is a tiny village of Bedouin people who have a make shift encampment under corrugated iron roofs – they wandered the Negev desert until 70 years ago when they were removed from their lands and set up this tiny little village. The village is to be demolished to make way for another settlement on the Palestinian land. Christians who support the settlements, those who support the government of Israel in what they are doing would do well to reflect on the way Jesus invites us to deal with ‘the other’.

It is significant that the man is stripped – because naked he has none of the markers that differentiate Jew and Roman and Samaritan and anyone else.

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

It’s great to update the story – but it is significant that it is a Priest and a Levite – for the Priest and the Levite are the custodians of the Temple which for the Jewish people was where God’s presence was most keenly felt – they are effectively the custodians of the law – but somehow they have not got it.

But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

Again, great to update the Samaritan. But to do so is to miss the point. When Israel divided into two kingdoms the northern kingdom was known as Samaria. They were exiled when the Assyrian empire became a world power and overran their territory. That left just Judah the territory around Jerusalem – the southern kingdom. They were destroyed when the Babylonian empire became a world power. It was when the Persian empire arose that people were allowed to return – those exiled from the North were the Samaritans and they set up a holy temple on Mount Gerizim. While they did not regard the Prophets and  Writings as their holy book, they did keep to the Law – which they had in their own version. There is still a tiny Samaritan community in Nablus on the West Bank.

The key thing here is that the Samaritan was also one who had regard for the Law – he, however, was reading it differently.

 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Jesus finishes with yet another question:

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’

The expert in the law replies with very significant words. He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’

That’s a word that is a characteristic word of the Prophets and also in the writings – and key to understanding the law.

Then it was that Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Read this parable as Jesus’ response to the big question of our day, How do you read your Sacred text’ and notice that Jesus places great store on what is at the heart of the text.

It’s not what is written in every word that counts. It’s what you read there. For Jesus it’s all about love: love for God, love for neighbour.

He lives it out – there are words written in the law that keep a woman in her menstrual period away from engaging with others – Jesus is not perturbed when the woman who is bleeding touches him. There are words written in the law that stop you from touching someone suffering from leprosy – Jesus reaches out and touches the leper. So many words written in the Law can become hateful, divisive … Jesus invites us to ask what do you read there? What is the nub of matter.

When ever someone builds a whole way of looking at the world, a whole way of dealing with people that is based on what is written in certain particular texts of the Bible – pause a moment, don’t just ask what’s written there? Remember the way Jesus moved on to the second question, What do you read there?

And then remember the nub of the matter is love – for God and for neighbour, whoever that neighbour might be.  Our task is to show mercy, to go and do likewise, and to read the Scriptures the way Jesus opens them up for us, not least here in this wonderful parable.

Hymn: Christ has called us to each other

Christ has called us to each other
Linked in one humanity.
Colour, culture, class or gender
Break the chains to set us free.
Hold the hand of fiend and stranger,
Hold the dreams of age and youth,
Hold the cynic and the searcher,
As we journey to the truth.

Christ has challenged every motive
And disturbed all stale belief,
Re-imagining the future,
Scatt’ring vision, healing grief.
Open doors will welcome homeless,
Open eyes will see the need,
Open hands will work in friendship,
Sharing love instead of greed.

Christ will use all that we offer,
Build the Kingdom in this space,
Living stones of strength and weakness,
Each unique and in its place.
Art and science, thought and action
Human struggle near and far:
Jesus Christ transforms the questions
In our search of who we are.

Christ has called us to this moment,
Times of change and new ideas,
Re-imagining the future,
Bringing hope despite our fears.
Open minds explore potential,
Open arms embrace each child,
Open hearts live out his purpose:
All creation reconciled.

C.Beverley Hughes 2017 (Tune: Hyfrydol)

Looking Back and Looking Forward

It’s great to say thank you to everyone for all we have shared over the last 27 years here at Highbury … but good also to look forward – and a real sense of handing over to the team we have put together – we have built up a team ministry. That will take us forward – and I hope through the process the deacons have already started when the church discerns whoever it is God is calling to take up the ministry here at Highbury, there can continue to be a real sense of a shared team ministry to go from strength to strength.
Our Ministry Team

Pastoral Care: Lorraine, Louise, Rachel
Worship Maureen Williams with Karen Waldock
Discipleship Judi Marsh with Karen Waldock
Children – Andrea
Youth – Mary
Mission and Outreach Jean

Deacons: Darryl, Janet, Kate, Sue, Mary

Church Secretary: Ian
Church Treasurer - Roger

Administrator – Julie Lane

May God richly bless you in all you share together in the leadership of the Church here in Highbury. Let me share a reading … and then Felicity is going to share a prayer.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory,
he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being
with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Prayer led by Felicity

Hy-Spirit Song

Prayers of Concern – led by Karen Waldock

Hy-Spirit Song – My lighthouse

The Lord’s Supper

167 Guide me O thou great Jehovah

Words of Blessing

Now to him who by the power at work within us
is able to accomplish abundantly far more
than all we can ask or imagine,
to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations,
for ever and ever. Amen.

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
The Love of God and
The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit
Be with us all evermore. Amen.

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