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Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice

Three different Reflections are offered this week

1. For the Fourth Sunday before Advent - as in the Common Worship Lectionary

2. For All Saints Day - as in the Common Worship Lectionary

3. For Proper 26 - as in the Episcopal Church Lectionary

Fourth Sunday before Advent

Matthew 24 v 1-14
:

Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Sharing together

At this moment in history, when global warming threatens, a Presidential Election is immanent in the USA, the world banking system is in disarray and the world economy appears to be moving into recession …

  • How do you feel?
  • What effect are your feelings having on your day-to-day life?
Reflection on the text

Jesus leaves the Temple behind for the last time. His verbal battle with the Temple authorities and the religious elite is over. He is the victor, for the moment, but his next encounter with them will be as their prisoner.

The disciples haven’t really ‘left’ the Temple. They stop to marvel at the magnificence of the building after a 30 year rebuilding programme stared by Herod the Great at huge expense. Building work was still in progress when Mary & Joseph brought their newborn son to be blessed. The rebuilding cost a fortune and impoverished many, not least poor widows.

Later the disciples question Jesus as they pause on the Mount of Olives and look across the valley towards the edifice of the Great Temple all gilded with fine gold. In effect they ask him when his ‘empire’, his kingly rule, will come into being. When will the oppressive Roman occupation in collusion with local political and religious groups come to an end? Jesus responds by saying that the Temple will soon be completely destroyed, ‘not one stone will be left on another’.

We know the outcome. After a long and bloody war which ended with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD, soldiers dug through the rubble to find lumps of molten gold from the decorations.

Naturally, the disciples want to know when these predictions will happen. Jesus then conflates the imminent disaster with a far distant moment in history marking the end of the Age. The signs of the end will be earthquakes, wars and famines – regular, cyclical events of nature that have happened throughout the course of history. They are not signs of the coming of the Reign of God and, in the course of them, many false prophets have and will rise up and mislead the people.

The communities of Jesus’ followers are to stand fast through the turmoil. They will be
persecuted and the persecution will tempt some to betray and hate each other. However,
through the preaching of the Kingdom of God by the faithful who ‘stand firm’, a time will
come when God’s rule will prevail.
Application: some questions for group discussion:
  1. Who in your neighbourhood is being most affected or disturbed by the current global economic crisis? Who is likely to be affected given present trends?

  2. What are you already doing, or what particular thing might you do as a community in response to these uncertain times, things which would reveal more clearly the presence of the Kingdom of God in your neighbourhood?

  3. In what ways might those actions challenge other authorities and bring ridicule or persecution on your community of faith?

  4. How might you prepare and protect yourselves for these things?

Praying Together

Light candles for those individuals and groups who have been named in response to the first question. Pray for them and for the actions which you have planned.

Light other candles and name those who are threatened by the actions of your Christian community.

Then hold hands in a circle and ask God’s blessing on the ministry of your small community and for protection.

Conclude by saying the Grace together.
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All Saints Day

Matthew 5. 1-12: "Saints Alive!

Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Sharing together

Share together some of your personal experiences of joy when you have been alone or in community together with others. What was the source of the joy?

Reflection on the text

There’s a very clear connection being made here in this passage, by the author of Matthew, between Jesus and Moses. Moses climbed up the Mountain into God’s presence and God conversed with him. There, Moses received Ten Commandments (words) from God, which provided the basic framework of the distinctive way in which God’s people were to live. It was a gracious act of God and a powerful sign of God’s deliverance from captivity in Egypt. Now, Jesus draws his community of disciples into God’s presence on another mountain and speaks fresh words from God to them. (v 1-2) again, it is an sign of God’s deliverance from another form of captivity, this time to the power of sin and death in human life.

The teaching given is not a set of unattainable ideals as some have understood them. It is a description of kingdom life lived joyfully in God’s presence. It is about participating now in a whole new world order of justice, love and peace, in the coming reign of God. The teaching is as relevant to us now as it was to Matthew’s household communities some two millennia ago. It’s all about what it means to be part of what God is doing in the world here and now. It is radically counter-cultural; a way of life that runs against the stream of life in society. It’s about how to live faithfully in a broken world.

Each beatitude begins with the Greek word makarioi meaning joyful or blessed. What follows is a paraphrase of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s exposition of the Beatitudes as outlined in his book The Cost of Discipleship.

As a community of faith, you will be fully alive and filled with the joy of the Lord when…

  1. …you are poor in spirit accepting the loss of all things, most importantly the loss of self, so that you may follow Christ.
  2. …you mourn, and turn away from the peace and prosperity this world values, refusing to rejoice in what the world rejoices in, but instead find happiness and fulfilment in the person and service of Christ.
  3. …you are meek and subordinate your rights to the will of Christ first, and in consequence to the service of others.
  4. …you hunger and thirst for justice renouncing the expectation that people can eventually make the world into paradise. Your hope is in the justice that only the reign of Christ can bring.
  5. …you are merciful giving up your own dignity and become devoted to others, helping the needy, the sick, and outcasts.
  6. …you are pure in heart are no longer troubled by the pull of this world having resigned yourself to the call of Christ and his desires for your lives.
  7. …you are peacemakers who abhor violent solutions to the world’s problems. Peacemakers maintain fellowship where others would find a reason to break off a relationship, and always seek out alternatives to violence.
  8. …you are persecuted for the sake of justice and willing to suffer for the cause of Christ. Any and every just cause becomes your cause because it is part of the overall work of Christ. Suffering becomes the pathway into deep communion with God.
Application: some questions for group discussion:
  1. In 1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “the restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.” (Extract from a letter written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his brother Karl-Friedrick on the 14th of January, 1935)

    Bonhoeffer also said: “The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness. It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.” (The Cost of Discipleship, p.46)

    Arthur Boers’ said, “More important than examples of solitary ‘heroes and saints’ would be accounts of communities living out the Beatitudes” (Sermon on the Mount, 86). If we understand monasticism as a vision for living differently, prophetically and against the grain of our individualistic society as a community of faith, share together your thoughts on the above statements. To what extent are they relevant in today’s society? How might you respond to such challenges as a community?

  2. Jean Vanier said, “In years to come, we are going to need many small communities which will welcome lost and lonely people, offering them a new form of family and a sense of belonging.” Who are the lost and lonely in your neighbourhood?
Praying Together

Form a circle.

Invite each member in turn to read aloud one of the beatitudes.

Light a candle for each beatitude and form a circle of eight lights.

In silence or aloud pray for specific situations or people that each beatitude brings to mind.

Conclude the time of prayer for each beatitude with the words ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.’
References
  1. See Todd Kappleman’s reflections on the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bonhoeffer.html#text8.

  2. See also Bonhoeffer "Sermon on the Mount" Man by Rose Pacatte, FSP at http://www.daughtersofstpaul.com/mediastudies/reviews/filmsermononthemount.html

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Fourth Sunday before Advent

Matthew 23 v 1-12
: "Always a learner - never showing off"

Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Sharing together

How do you feel about ministers in church wearing distinctive ‘uniform’ – sometimes in the form of exotic robes? Do you find such outward appearances helpful in your relationship with God or with the development of church as a community of equals?

Reflection on the text

Today’s reading explores several themes: the necessity or otherwise of outward appearances, how we approach the passing on of faith and people’s and attitudes towards people’s status in the community of faith.

Mathew’s Jesus focuses his criticism on the religious leaders. It is most probable that there was a very powerful Jewish group in his small Christian communities who were wanting to return members to the ways of the scribes and Pharisees (v 2). They seem more interested in their own position and standing in the community, and the perks that go with it (v 5) than on their primary teaching role and interpretation of the faith. Leadership at that time was focused particularly in the household head whose rule over the household was unquestioned. Matthew’s Jesus turns everything upside down by encouraging his leaders to think in terms of humility, serving household members by enabling them to grow in their relationship with God.

The religious leaders come across as very knowledgeable about the letter of the Law but seem unable to discern the spirit within it. Jesus is suggesting here that spiritual insight which draws us closer to God is more important than correct religious observance.

At the same time these religious leaders seem convinced that they know the whole truth. Yet human knowledge is never complete and as Christians we are constantly being required to consider our understanding of God and how it applies to new situations we encounter.

Jesus also criticises the use of outward appearance to draw attention to oneself rather than as a sign of belonging to the people of God. His followers on the other hand, as we find later (v 11-12), must put the service of others before everything else. Such an open-ness to God and a serious attempt to live a Christ-like life in changing and demanding situations is both demanding and rewarding.

Matthew illustrates how far the outward appearance of religion can get in the way of the central message of love for God and the outworking of that love in the service offered to our neighbour.

There’s a well-known saying – ‘do as I say but not what I do’ (see v 3). Jesus demands the bringing and holding together of both word and action in the power of the Spirit. Not easy but essential if the church is to be a true reflection of God’s power to transform humanity.

Application: some questions for group discussion:

1. In some social settings, being invited to the right parties, sitting at the top table and being seen with people ‘that matter’ is highly sought after. Such outlook and priorities seem far removed from Jesus’ emphasis on humility and service and on those who are ‘least’.

Over the centuries the Christian faith has developed a very elaborate system of outward signs and symbols to express the faith.

    • Name some of them prominent in churches today and discuss together which you consider helpful and which a hindrance?

Church leaders often have a recognisable ‘uniform’ that is worn in public as well as in the leading of church services. It helps identify them as ‘representatives’ of the church.

    • Do you think this outward dress necessary? What are the benefits and dangers? Is it important that leaders and representatives of the church are easily recognisable? Do such outward appearances help people in their relationship with God? For example, have there been times when you have thought that the standing of a church leader seemed more important than their personal life of faith and commitment to the way of Jesus?

2. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day saw themselves as custodians of truth that does not change.

    • How easy do we find it to recognise that our understanding of God does and should change and that God’s ways transcend our limited knowledge? To what extent is this acknowledged and accepted in your church community?

3. Jesus said: ‘The greatest among you will be your servant.’ (v 11) Someone who visited the Anglican Diocese of Northern Michigan in the United States expressed great surprise when she found that she was unable to identify where the power lay within the church communities that she visited. She discovered that the reason why the communities showed no sign of hierarchy or status was because they had taken seriously the teaching of Christ to ensure their relationships were free of the usual inferior-superior characteristics.

    • What steps might your community take to better express that sense of radical equality that Jesus espoused?

Praying Together

Pray, by name, for those with particular leadership responsibilities in your faith community.

Pray for those who heap burdens on others, be they burdens of guilt, obligations to conform in certain ways or restrictions on the way people think or express themselves. Pray that any such Pharisaic spirit might be banished from the life of your community.

Pray for individual concerns and needs.

You might like to conclude your time of prayer by singing or reciting together the Prayer of St Francis – ‘Make me a Channel of your Peace.’

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