Brief Encounter(s)

I want to talk about brief encounters. Not ‘Brief Encounter’ the 1945 classic British film scripted by Noel Coward and starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. But the brief encounters we experience and that Jesus experienced in the gospels. Brief and potentially life changing. They may not be romantic, like the classic film, but they certainly can touch deep feelings. Brief, rollercoaster encounters, just like the roller coaster music by Rachmaninov, the theme music for ‘Brief Encounter’ at Noel Coward’s request.

We begin with an extraordinary encounter that Jesus had with a woman who was very distressed, weighed down with a burden that many of us may relate to. Her little child was sick. In the gospel (Mark 7:24-36) the little girl is described as being possessed of a demon, and no further explanation is given. Whether it was a spiritual distress that she was manifesting with some kind of physical and psychological side effects, we do not know. The point is not the affliction itself but the burden of the mother, and where she should turn? She had numerous obstacles to face apart from the affliction of her daughter. What are the obstacles we are told in the story?

1. GEOGRAPHY

Tyre and Sidon were Roman seaports, places full of ‘foreigners’. And this woman is of mixed ethnic origin from that area. You only have to look at the British press about Brexit to see that issues of border and race are still hot topics for human beings today.

2. HISTORY

To this day the Herodian mountain fortress of Masada represents the Jewish struggle for autonomy culminating in its siege by the Romans in 73CE. But even at the time of Jesus and predating him there were zealous movements for independence such as the Maccabean Revolt. Then the Jews fought against the Seleucids. Tyre and Sidon were on the wrong side of that revolt, fighting not with the Jews, but against them. People can have long memories, and the Jews had long memories about Tyre and Sidon.

3. RELIGION

Not only that, but this Syro-Phoenecian woman was a Gentile, not even a Jew.  At this time Jews referred to Gentiles as ‘dogs’. And there is also a fourth obstacle, she’s a…

4. WOMAN

Not only Judiasm can be found wanting when it comes to world religions modelling questionable attitudes. In this instance every Jewish male in the first century prayed a prayer on a daily basis that gave thanks to God that they were not created as a woman. Now perhaps we can just begin to imagine how difficult it was for this woman to come to Jesus? We can imagine some of the feelings, understand some of the obstacles, that are behind this brief encounter, when Jesus says, “It is not right to cast the children’s bread and give it to dogs.”

I cringe when I read this.

I know I am not the only one who gets uncomfortable because there is a great amount of debate amongst biblical scholars about what exactly Jesus meant. Some will say he was trying to test her. Others will say we aren’t translating this quite right, Jesus really called her a little dog, more like a puppy. But everywhere else in the culture of the time being referred to as a dog was a great insult. So what are we to make of this? What we may have here is a story that anyone who knows the Old Testament would understand. This is the story of God who changes his mind through the heartfelt petitions of one person.

There are several stories like this in the Old Testament: Abraham pleads to God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. Moses pleads to God for the Israelites in Exodus 32. And following in that vein in the gospels we have this Syro-Phoenecian woman pleading to Jesus, the Son of God, for her daughter. Heartfelt petitions that eventually move Jesus and result in the girl’s healing. Maybe many feel God doesn’t really listen, let alone change his mind. But the Bible very much has that understanding. God’s relationship with people changes and progresses – just as Jesus’ attitude to this woman changes and progresses as a result of this brief encounter.

passion-3111303_1920We have no problem at Christmas in Jesus being born and obviously learning to walk and talk as any child would. We learn through our lives and maybe it’s at this point that Jesus learns no longer to call Gentiles dogs as he had clearly been brought up to by his kinsfolk? We must consider why Jesus would lead this mother through a humbling and difficult process before granting her request. While his response does seem harsh, the lesson of persistent faith displayed through a time of testing is a common theme in the Bible. We also know that Jesus’ mission does go to the Gentiles. For Jesus, could that mission have become clear in his mind from the moment of this brief encounter?

We will never know.

We are told instead of another healing in the seaport of Sidon where Jesus heals a deaf and mute man. The healing echoes Isaiah 35:5, Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” Mark probably includes this encounter to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophets. The first brief encounter Jesus had in Tyre with the Syro-Phoenecian woman, shows that he is not the Messiah that Israel may have expected. His mission is wider, and maybe Jesus sees this for himself in her response and the obstacles that she was prepared to overcome. Jesus appears to change his attitude, just as God in the Old Testament appears sometimes, to change His.

And healing begins.

With the deaf, mute man, it begins with the Aramaic word Jesus said and preserved for all time by his followers – ‘Ephphatha’ – ‘Be Opened’. Which represents not just the healing of the man but a command  – Be Opened. But opened from what? I wonder if you have ever experienced a time when an attitude either changed or did not change – and healing either happened or did not happen? Perhaps Mark includes these stories for this purpose, to challenge us? We may never have called a person a ‘dog’ but what have we done? What attitudes have we, either formed or inherited, or passed on? What do we need to be opened to?

human-rights-3805188_1920These questions are all the more pertinent in our present age of brief encounters through social media. The brief encounters we have with people, real and virtual, can be either destructive or creative. The choice is ours as to what they may bring, just as it was for Jesus. From the gospels we know what Jesus chose, and at great cost to himself. Whether we consider ourselves to be religious or not, his choices not only defined himself but the history of the world. But what will we choose in our brief encounters?

That is the question only we can answer, and our answers will not only define us but the world that is yet to be.

 

Cylons with Soul

In the wake of the success of ‘Star Wars’ in the late 1970’s another science fiction franchise that made an impression on me as a young boy was ‘Battlestar Galactica’.

Drawing upon theories of lost civilisations and humans on Earth being descendants of space travellers, the original story of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ was essentially a reinterpretation of ‘Frankenstein’. The mechanised creations of humanity known as Cylons, turn upon their makers whose surviving remnants then seek a new home known only in myth – Earth.

In the late 1970’s life was quite simple for me as a child and this was reflected in ‘Battlestar Galactica’ – the humans were the goodies and the Cylons were the baddies.

But we all grow up.

Life becomes more complex and so did ‘Battlestar Galactica’ when it was relaunched in 2004. The Cylons now looked like humans, they believed in God, they varied in their opinion as to whether humanity should be wiped out or not – they had soul!

The Cylons became much more of a reflection of humanity with differing shades of virtue, belief, and morality. It became harder to tell who were the goodies or the baddies and civil war in space never felt so real.

I grew up going to a church with bullet holes in the walls.

long divisionWhat I should explain is I grew up going to a church with bullet holes in the walls that originate from the English Civil War (1642-1651), the time of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. It is well known to local historians and Civil War re-enactors alike as being of strategic importance during that period of British history. All I can say is that it was something of a surreal experience as a child to sing hymns of peace and love while surrounded by these historic reminders of divided humanity!

Would you be a Cavalier or a Roundhead, I wonder?

Although we can toy with that idea in our imaginations now, it was a real, stark question for the generations before us in England. Families divided over loyalties, brother against brother, daughter against mother – each having to make a choice in their religious and political allegiances. Some of these divisions have reverberated well into the 21st century, for example in Ireland where Oliver Cromwell’s suppressive policies enacted by his New Model Army inflicted lasting social divisions.

I think of that when I come to the gospel passage Luke 12:49-53, when Jesus says:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!  Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.  From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.  They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

I think it is one of the most disturbing passages for any Christian to deal with. One reason being that it may not fit well with our ideas of Church or God at all.

But there it is.

So apart from ignoring it – how can we respond to Jesus’ words today? Perhaps we need to begin by reminding ourselves of some important things in the language that Jesus was using.

  1. The ‘fire’ that Jesus came to cast is best understood as a purifying and refining fire.  The prophet Malachi spoke of the Lord being “like a refiner’s fire and like a fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2) that separates the good from the bad.  This fire is cast upon the earth to refine and purify everyone and everything – it is God’s act and not the act of a group of human beings to be the ‘refiner’s fire’. What I mean by this is that caution should always intervene when the words ‘God is on our side’ are used as history can teach us.
  2. The baptism spoken of here must not to be confused with the water baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:16).  The baptism Jesus speaks of in Luke 12 is a baptism that had not yet occurred.  This baptism is his death, burial, and resurrection.  The result of this baptism is the kindling of the refiner’s fire that is cast upon the whole earth.

These two factors pose us with a choice.

In verses 52-53, Jesus shows that this division will affect family loyalties. This is perhaps the hardest verse to listen to, but we know it is true and that it happens. For the listeners of Luke’s Gospel the choice was stark because Christians were a persecuted minority. Choosing to be a Christian was a costly decision. Sadly, that is still true in some parts of the world to this day.

But having said that and apart from the English Civil War, families in this country until relatively recently, have suffered as a result of divisions over religious affiliation. Granted most of the people I talk to on this subject are in their 80’s or 90’s but occasionally I still hear a story like:

“Uncle Bert married Aunt Bertha and because she was a Catholic nobody in the family had anything to do with them ever again.”

I do not think those are the divisions Jesus was referring to. Instead some of us probably know that we have to be prepared as Christians to make choices when it comes to our love of God and love of family – because sadly in some cases – the two may not go together.

We may never have to make the dramatic choices made by those Christians who first listened to Luke’s Gospel and lived under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire. We may never have to make the choices of allegiance made by our predecessors in the English Civil War or by Christians persecuted around the world to this day. But even now we will have to make choices and some of those choices may be uncomfortably close to home.

My simple rule in such situations is always to be open to another point of view, even within my own family, but that does not necessarily mean it is my track. And sometimes that can be hard – that cannot be denied and Jesus even tells us that to follow him is not always the easy path.

The second half of this gospel reading portrays Jesus chastising the crowds for not recognising the signs he bares. Like dark clouds or a stormy wind, the teaching and acts of mercy he performs indicate what will come. Jesus is born for one thing: to herald the coming kingdom of God, and to establish this kingdom he will raise neither banner nor sword but instead hang on the cross, the vulnerable insignia of God’s new reign.

Those who recognise the signs and choose to follow him will not only need to forsake the trappings of power that adorn the lords of the present kingdom, but can also expect resistance, even opposition. But if Jesus’ call to a new way of relating to each other — via forgiveness, courage, and humility — stirred up division during his time and that of the early church, what does it bring today?

Christians in the western world are asked to give up very little for the sake of faith in the 21st century. How, then, do we hear Jesus? To answer this question, we must engage in our own weather forecasting by discerning the signs of the times:

  • What elements of our lives hinder our service to God?
  • The God of the lowly and powerless?
  • The marginalised and the forgotten?
  • The God who challenges the status quo?

Hard questions.

But if we fear undergoing Jesus’ baptism by fire, we might take comfort in the simple yet stark fact that Christ who comes to baptise us with fire and the Holy Spirit first embraced his own baptism — experiencing harm that we might know healing, undergoing judgment that we might know pardon, suffering death that we might know life.

Thus, looking backward to Jesus we may find the courage to look forward to discern the signs and challenges of our own times. To run the right way – but also understanding this may not be the same way all the time as others. In the letter to the Hebrews 12:1-2 we are encouraged to choose to live by faith because:

“…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

040820-F-5019K-010Photo via Good Free Photos

And when I still question myself I am reminded of one simple fact from the church where I grew up – the bullet holes in the walls are man made.

God’s fire is a refining fire that comes in love – not anger, or hatred, or fear, or greed – or any of the other factors that make up the division and war of human history, religious or otherwise.

  • How do we choose to run toward that love rather than away from it?
  • How do we express that love to those that might oppose it?

Therein lies not only our history but our story – yet to be finished. Like athletes I am sure the answer to our story lies in our daily training. Hopefully NOT lead bullet holes but gold medals will be the inheritance we pass on.

But time will tell if Cylons with soul will be our final legacy…