Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Of Bread and Fish...

OUR READING for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. In the reading, we have previously known that Jesus had just been told about the beheading of John the Baptist. The resultant effect was that Jesus tried to take his disciples away for rest. However, the needs of the people came upon him…

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
 Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.”
 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21)

To A Lonely Place…
Our gospel writer parallels what had been written decades earlier in the Gospel According to Saint Mark. Thus we possess this wonderful story passed to Matthew about the meaning of discipleship. We also know that Matthew had previously related to his readers that John the Baptist had been executed. Now our author here described our Lord’s response to that event. Jesus gathered his disciples together. He wanted to take them away for a restful time, possibly a time of reflection and mourning over the loss. Sailing in a boat, being transported in a nave as it were… it seemed that a sabbatical was fitting for both rest and his teaching purposes. He and the disciples so went to a “lonely place” ( in Greek - eremon).
 For listeners hearing this message in Matthew’s day, knowing that the prophetic words of John had been long silenced, they listened and heard that Jesus took both his own disciples… and those sent by John… to a quiet place. Jesus seems to have desired to turn his attention to their needs, ministering to those who mourned the loss of right and righteousness, rather than seeing to the needs of the whole of society around him. But the gospels revealed, that it was not to be so.
 For example, the Gospel According to Saint Luke reports that having found where Jesus was, people went to the area of Bethsaida. They went to tell Jesus of their need. When they arrived, Jesus saw them. He immediately had compassion (in Greek – esplanchnisthe) upon them.
 Suffering over those who were ill and disabled because of human sin, he worked to heal them. The gathering and healing continued until the end of that day. Eventually darkness came… and a great moment unfolded. What came afterward for the disciples was a prophetic event that pointed beyond itself… to future events which occurred later in Matthew’s telling. This instance we see as an example of a feast yet to come… the Last Supper held with Jesus’ disciples.
 We note that Jesus commanded his disciples to gather from their own resources… which was seemingly a too meager amount of food. Taking this giving from them, he blessed the providence and then commanded his followers to distribute the resulting fare to the people. The miracle that occurred was then so profound that the record of it exists today written across all four gospel witnesses. We find that our reading here related that at least 5,000 men were fed… and more! Counting women and children, many biblical scholars calculate that the number related by Matthew could easily have been greater than 10,000 persons.
 While some have said that the great numbers reported at the time was merely Matthew’s way of inflating the incident, and he was boasting that a “zillion people were fed”, against that charge we see with certain perspective that Matthew emphasized that exactly… twelve baskets of food remained. We therefore rightly stress for this teaching… that there was at least one full basket for each disciple… an “exact number. Cannot we then assume that the three thousand was exact as well? Was Matthew, therefore, telling his church and our own… that given our abundant receiving, we are to continue to feed both community and the world around us? Indeed so, but I believe the fare is to be more than bread.

Advanced Basket Weaving!
With the guidance from the Holy Spirit, it seems that Matthew related to his church… and we ourselves… that disciples are to participate in the miraculous event. We may do so if we dare in faith.
 Please note the progression here! First, the disciples retired to a place set apart. As a Christian, I ask whether this resembles any house church or stained-glass adorned worship space the Spirit shall choose? I do believe so.
 Secondly, do those who are hurting… made ill by the power of either personal or corporate sin… also gather even now to obtain healing? Again… I believe so. Surely there in an appointed sacred and set apart place… healing forgiveness is possible… where such as bread, fish and wine emerge as meager offerings. The resulting scene is that miracles of God’s grace spring forth. From the meager filling, a fullness of community and love spills forth. What’s more… there remains an abundance of grace left over to be taken out into the world.
 Please be keenly aware of the scriptural correlation between the bread and the Body of Christ, but we sometimes struggle with the ancient imagery of the fish. To recall church history and explain that for the early Christian church… the fish took on a very special meaning.
 Recall that the Greek word for fish is “icthus”. This word eventually became an anachronym scratched on amulets and bracelets worn by disciples. The symbol identified a person as a Christian. To Christians, the word became known as an anachronym which spelled out: (I) “Isuous” for Jesus, (CH) Christos, for Christ, (TH) “Theos” meaning God, (U) “Ueos” meaning Son, and finally … (S) “Soter” or Savior. The sign of the fish inscribed on an amulet thus became a late first century insignia that was often hidden from the hostile world… and was made more important by persecutions to come. We need remember this lesson of hidden strength today.
 Let us more so remember that Jesus commanded his disciples to gather whatever their meager means… and without selectivity… and begin to care for the world around them. Therefore, it seems prudent for us to do just as the Holy Spirit empowered the early church of Matthew. We recall that they worked at a time of great persecutions, yet the Word of God empowered the hidden church witness, work and feasting.
 We also are called to work in this hurting world..., a world not always receptive to our Christian message. Given this fact, we are invited by our Lord’s resultant bounty of forgiveness and faith. We are to go out in ministry from the confines of the church as our “lonely place”. To be sure, we are not to be driven inward by our own desires in congregational navel-gazing for church growth or sanctuary preservation, but are sent by our Lord go out and proclaim the risen Christ! We are to care prayerfully and watch miracles occur. We are to gather the sinful, including ourselves… together… and “give them to eat”. We are to work the sure and certain numerology of Matthew, who said “five thousand men” and more.
 This is a daunting task to be sure, but we of the Church who are fed miraculously from the bounteous basket of our Lord, are prompted by the Spirit toward confession. Then we are provided the eternal gift of His real body and blood for the forgiveness of sin. We are strengthened to finally receive an admonition to go from our Lord’s feast… and freely share the good news of his kingdom. Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Using Both Old and New....

THE EIGHTH Sunday after Pentecost brings us along a path made from a constructed collection of our Lord’s parables. Judiciously arranging the order of conversation given in biblical script, the Holy Spirit thus provided us with rapid, lively character. Our Lord had progressively illustrated the dramatic growth and value that belongs to the kingdom of heaven...

Another parable he (Jesus) put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.
 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.
 “Have you understood all this?”

 They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
                                                                          (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)

Anticipated Sorting!
In literary flow, I believe modern worship planners have designed a wonderful two-step dance in moving us from last week’s Matthean text... toward today's text. Combining last week’s lesson and this, we receive interwoven parables from the Matthean scribe. These progressively tell those gathered a wonderful teaching about the unfolding revelation of our Lord. I note with pastoral chagrin, however, that anyone missing attendance at either worship experience loses a great deal in the continuity of the text.
 The parables we study here begin by relating to us the lesson of the “The Mustard Seed”. This text has a distinct historical source for us when compared with that which immediately follows. It is found chronologically in all three of the synoptic gospels of Mark (c. 65-70 AD), and Luke (c. 80-85 AD) and Matthew (c. 80-85 AD). Being found in the earliest Markan gospel, therefore, we see the first teaching likely had root in a tradition that came from an earlier time. From the prophet Daniel we read…

"The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth; and its height was great. The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. Its leaves were fair and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the air dwelt in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it." (Daniel 4:10-12)

 Subsequently, we see that this first parable began as Jesus taught the disciples using earlier scriptural tradition as his resource. However, the parables that followed this first illustration in the reading are a bit different. These include those which Jesus also told, but they were supplied to us today only by the church of Matthew. Therefore, we as a church now rightly receive these readings just as our ancient Matthean forebears. The method sets the particular tone for us. This selective editing tactic is one that we often use in our lectionary today! To provide weekly lessons, we sometimes skip over less relevant verses from a gospel author...  to concentrate and, possibly combine certain interwoven texts. We see that certainly, our Matthean predecessor historically did this for us... as Jesus’ teachings here come from various sources collectively compiled to emphasize certain aspects of our Lord’s voicing.
 The Matthean theme was mainly of inherent growth for the kingdom, as first illustrated from Mark. This is firmly reinforced by the second illustration found to be from the “Q” source. The second parable of the woman's leaven, as given by Jesus... was used in this gospel to doubly emphasize the first theme. The latter illustration, coming out from the independent "Q" source that has now been reconstructed by modern scholarship, clearly shows us that the second parable added, reinforced the former. Our Lord... and Matthew.... through the the guidance of the Holy Spirit, clearly followed a "Tell them once, tell 'em twice... and tell 'em again" teaching style!
 Further, we note that a progressive difference exists in the level of revelation. In Matthew, that which was heretofore hidden in Mark was revealed by a “supernatural” power, such as the woman's leavening... a working marvel beyond knowing. This progression is seen presented more firmly in Matthew as the next parable highlighted the surprise and value caused when the person in the parable apprehended true gems of the kingdom.
 The growth theme found initially in the first parable's Markan field, therefore... was progressively followed by the miraculous leavening and the pearl of “great price”. The emphasis of the more highly valued illustrated the unexpected, undeserved grace and mysterious value of God’s supernatural kingdom.
 Here we must remind that these important latter verses are without parallel in the other gospels. Consequently we find that in Matthew, through the Holy Spirit... God led both the early church in Antioch and we ourselves toward a final message.

Conclusion and Testing!
The final point is revealed in the sorting of the netted fish. In placing this parable as such, our Matthean scribe clearly told his readers that even though hidden like fish in murky water... eventually all shall be gathered. The lesson given last week, reminds us that even unto this present day, we as forgiven sinners shall co-exist with unbelievers into the latter age. We read in this climactic illustration then, that Jesus related to the disciples once again about the final, apocalyptic workings of the kingdom.

Do You Understand?
Notice that the last verses as told by Matthew, used symbols from the fishing lifestyle. The images, mirror those of the agricultural scene previously revealed... about the wheat and the weeds. Indeed we find that Matthew, by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, provided a rapid succession of teachings which had been earlier given... keeping with the teach'em and teach'em again method! Therefore we see that the later first century disciples in Matthew's community were given these lessons progressively, the first being agricultural and the second seafaring, so the gospel reading built up their knowledge.
 The teaching ended appropriately with showing our Teacher testing his immediate followers, and the church which followed him at the time...  was asked a very important question… “Have you understood all this?”
  We also need to answer that question! The text related that the disciples answered very quickly in the affirmative… possibly too quickly.
 We might wonder at this! First, consider that we know the chasm between the Infinite and our finite human cannot be crossed by human thought or effort. Therefore, the meanings for Jesus' first listeners were shrouded by human sin, and thus the meanings could only be truly revealed to them by the power of the Holy Spirit. At the time of first telling then, many followers who originally listened to Jesus' parables, like Peter who very likely passed these parables on to the Matthean church, would not completely understand them until after the Teacher would die for them and be Resurrected.

Old and New!
 In the last sentence of our reading for today, we see that Jesus taught them using sound parabolic method. This method as shown by Matthew’s writing, was that our Lord instructed his disciples to take what is found as reliable and true from the old established tradition, and mix it rightly with the good news.
 Today, using these wondrous guidelines, we of the Church may thus preach both biblical Law and the Gospel to both sinners and saints. Unlike those first, finite disciples who were described as prior to the crucifixion and Resurrection... who lacked somewhat the full guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are privileged in like manner to Matthew's church. We are sinners who are also made saints. We now have access to scripture, rightly interpreted. Because of that powerful, spiritual presence in the early church of Matthew... and that which is also present in the church today… we can bring forth an abundance of previously scriptural hiddenness to the world around us. We are able in prayer to draw correct, yet numerous applied meanings from these wondrous parables.
 What is more... we can prayerfully attempt before God to not add any human agenda! We are indeed blessed. We are like a man who when finding a treasure in a field, leaves that field rejoicing. May we leave worship clinging to the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we live in the sin-filled world... and move toward the “close of the age.”