Through Persecutions

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Lent 5 – 3rd April 2022

Lenten Series, Walking with Christ

One of the many privileges of being a Parish Minister is sharing peoples struggles. There was a young woman who once came to me to discuss whether or not she should separate from her husband. Asking questions, I learned that she was being physically assaulted on a regular basis. The incident that prompted her visitation to me that day was her husband beating her so severely with the broom handle she had to drag herself across the floor to reach the phone.

As a young minister, it was a shocking revelation. Her husband often attended worship services with the family. The children participated in our youth ministries. They appeared to be a functioning family with no outward flaws. But there was an internal nightmare that eventually manifested itself.

When living through unrelenting challenges, it seems impossible to focus forward. You become trapped in surviving current realities. And then when those challenges are conquered, it is hard to live life free from that survival mentality.

That reminds me of a white South African pastor talking about his congregation’s struggles as one of the few Afrikaner churches that opposed apartheid. They worked hard against that evil system and prayed regularly that God would “make a way in the wilderness (Isa 43:19) through that system’s oppression and brutality. And like every South African opposed to apartheid, there was much joy and celebration at its demise.

But the pastor’s story did not end there. Post-apartheid, the church struggled to envision a way forward. All of those years fighting and working toward ending apartheid never included what work was required beyond apartheid.

“Suddenly they were on the cusp of ‘a new thing,’ a new way of being in the world, and they were stuck, unsure of what they should do and how they should act. Being against apartheid could no longer be their primary way of being in the world, and what they should work for was not yet clear.”

Paul Wilson

St Johns Whanau, we have been battling for more than 2 years with Covid’s effect on our worship and fellowship. We have been struggling with issues associated with past losses: a long-serving minister and an inspirational youth leader. Those struggles are real, raw, and rough to process. However, if we do not focus forward, we will be trapped in a survival mentality, paralysed by fear of the unknown future.

Our Lenten readings have finally brought us face-to-face with what this Season is all about: preparing for Good Friday and Easter. The Israelites were challenged by Isaiah to look to the future. They were living through fear of losing their country. Like Ukraine, they saw parts of their former nation being captured by foreign powers. Yet they were being summoned by Isaiah to focus on God’s future restoration.

Paul’s message to the Philippian church was similar to Isaiah’s. He encouraged that local church to forget about what happened in the past. He provoked them to press forward in spite of current circumstances. He demanded they strive toward an “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14).

Today’s Gospel contrasts two different approaches to Walking with Christ through Persecutions.

Mary’s Vision

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. John 12:1-4, ESV

Do you understand what Mary saw? She understood the message of Jesus. She knew why Jesus was lodging there in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. She knew he was now at a stone’s throw to his the Jewish leaders intent on arresting him. She believed Jesus’ words that he was going to die. The disciples fought those words. Mary embraced them.

Being able to claim God’s promises for the future takes an incredible amount of trust. It is important that you understand both Isaiah and Paul base their talk of future blessing on God’s track record. God’s past promises being fulfilled give assurance that the future God promises will be fulfilled.

The act of anointing Jesus was possible because of Mary’s vision. She saw the death of Jesus and anointed him accordingly for his burial. She did it while he was alive, testifying of her faith in his resurrection. What a great woman of faith! In contrast, we have:

Judas’ Failing

“Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” John 12:5-8, ESV

Judas represents all of us who justify status quo. We are able to promote self-righteous proof of keeping things grounded in the present. Judas was able to calculate quickly that the perfume used for Jesus’ symbolic burial had a cost equivalent to one years wage for the average working person. Imagine that: the average wage in New Zealand as of June 2021 was $58,836. Would you agree with Judas that was a waste?

Judas failed to grasp that worshipping God is superior to human works of righteousness. Judas failed to grasp the reality of Jesus’ ability to empower the poor beyond their poverty through his death, burial, and resurrection. Judas failed to see the future through God’s eyes and could only understand the present through past experiences.

In our current devotional series received every morning through Lent, we read this challenge last Tuesday.

Jesus loves and forgives the woman forever condemned by others, accepting her confession and welcoming her faith. After this encounter, will this woman’s community accept her and welcome her back? Or is this grace offered only from Jesus? As we make this road through Lent, we undoubtedly walk with sinners shunned by society as irredeemable. Some are seen as “wrong” by those of us whose lives fit neatly into our culture’s mold. Who do you know who could benefit from a word of welcome or a new chance? Who is begging for grace from God because they cannot find it among us?

Welcoming God, forgive our lack of forgiveness and grace. Help us welcome and love the sinners at Jesus’ feet.

Making the Road, Terri McDowell Ott

Often it is the marginalised of society and even churches that comprehend God’s promises and act upon them with a faith greater than our own.

I want to close this message today with a comment about:

Handling Persecution

The message today is titled Walking with Christ through Persecutions. It is based on our Gospel passage. The text does not report any persecution of Christ but does of Mary. Christ’s suffering was to come. Mary was willing to walk with Christ through the upcoming persecution and the Gospel records confirm she did just that – and that the disciples did not. Mary did not lash out at Judas or defend herself in front of the disciples. She simply worshipped Jesus and found his promises enough to sustain her.

When was the last time you “lost it” on someone? Like many of you, I have been hearing all the hot takes on the latest controversy coming out of the Oscar ceremony [last] Sunday evening, in which Will Smith got on stage and physically assaulted Chris Rock after Rock made a joke about Smith’s Wife, then sat down and yelled a profanity. 

It has been interesting to see on a cultural level how people react to an impromptu act of violence, especially by one of America’s most beloved celebrities. There have been a few different narratives coming out of the event, but one of them I have noticed is the opinion that this was so “uncharacteristic” of Will Smith. And clearly, that is true. 

I can’t recall Smith yelling profanities and striking anyone else on national television. But what I’ve noticed, at least in America, is that sometimes when people make bad decisions, especially those in the public eye, we tend to shrug them off as one-off events, rather than recognize that these are examples of the reality of sin and our need to hold ourselves and others accountable, and in doing so, to be full of grace and truth. 

The problem with this is it doesn’t allow for a greater conversation on the nature of anger, of violence, of how self-control can ultimately lead to a better life. I think part of this is a reluctance to look at our own lives and see the sin within us. And that of course is part of the Lenten journey. The willingness to look inward and to see our own brokenness.

The Pastor’s WOrkshop

If we are going to move forward in our lives, in our families, in our church, let us realise that once “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” (Richard Rohr). “Anger begins with folly, and ends with repentance.” (H.G. John) Let us bring repentant hearts before God today and avoid the sorrow associated with being angry at God, at the minister, at your spouse, at your parents, at your children, at your boss, at your co-workers. Don’t be a Judas; be a Mary.

One of the challenges we have in the wider Church is an inability to deal with our wounds in a healthy way. Little thought has been given to the connection between our emotional and spiritual lives. That is how good pious Christians can wreak havoc in their local church. They can possess a great spiritual knowledge in their head but lack the heart to have healthy relationships. The Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser describes this budding awareness of our unhealed past:

Once the sheer impulse of life begins to be tempered by the weight of our commitments and the grind of the years, more of our sensitivities begin to break through, and we sense more and more how we have been wounded and how life has not been fair to us. New demons then emerge: bitterness, anger, jealousy, and a sense of how we have been cheated. Disappointment cools the fiery energies of our youth, and our enthusiasm begins to be tempered by bitterness and anger . . . where once we struggled to properly control our energies, we now struggle to access them.

Ronald Rolheiser

Why do spouses remain in abusive relationships? Why do persons stay in jobs that offer little satisfaction? Why is it so difficult to trade in a difficult present for the possibility of a better future? The answer is because the future is unknown and as such frightening. Present troubles, although ugly and burdensome, are a known quantity. We may not be flourishing but at least we are surviving. People are more comfortable with what they know then they are with what we do not know.

St John’s Whanau, let us focus forward on God’s promised provision. Let us trust God based upon God’s past blessings. Let us let go of anxiety and fear of the unknown. Let us begin to focus toward a shared vision of what God wants us to do. Let us move from the survival mentality of living from Sunday to Sunday. Let us grasp there is a vision for us that will unite us all and move us forward.

Published by St Johns Papatoetoe

Presbyterian Church, Hunters Corner, Papatoetoe, Auckland, New Zealand belonging to Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ).

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