The Common Good
November-December 1996

Reorder the Household

by Peter B. Price | November-December 1996

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary

Following Jesus and living hopefully in communities of faith remains the biggest challenge for Christian people today. In the next four weeks, we will look at how Matthew called his increasingly affluent house churches to return to the core values of Jesus' gospel.

Matthew says some hard things. He knows how difficult it is to live radically, for the sake of God's kingdom. But he also realizes that if you tell people things too straight they don't hear. So, he seeks to confront some hard truths the churches need to face by referring to the struggle of Jesus.

Few of us who have sought to be radical in our discipleship have escaped the tensions of conflict, disillusionment, weariness, betrayal, and division. In the weeks leading to Advent, we are invited to "reorder our household," and Matthew, who speaks a great deal about the "household of God," could not be better at helping us.

November 3
Be Great...Be A Servant
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
Joshua 3:7-17
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Abuse of power is one of the greatest temptations for Christian leaders. It is at the heart of more scandals in the church than anything else.

Matthew's churches faced this problem. There were leaders, teachers, and pastors who set themselves above others. Jesus reveals the pernicious misuse of power in his ongoing conflict with the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-7). Recounting this conflict, Matthew exposed the abuse in the churches he knew (23:8-11). Then he reminded people that in the household of God authority means "you have only one Master, and you are all brothers [and sisters!]" (23:8).

Matthew's gospel begins by revealing Jesus as "God with us" (1:23-24), and ends with Jesus asserting, "I am with you always; yes, to the end of time" (28:20). This is the "Master" whose authority is present in each and in all equally, by the Spirit. When some put themselves above the rest in a community of believers, not just misuse of power results, but the loss of a unique corporate authority, achieved by mutual self-giving.

The principle is, "Anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave" (20:26-27). It's the very opposite of our conventional understanding!

Talking Points

Why do we find it so difficult to live together without some people abusing power? What is your experience of Jesus' "upside-down" approach to leadership?

Reflection and Action

How will you as a group function in the coming weeks? What models of leadership will you adopt?

November 10
Stand Firm
Psalm 78:1-7
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 24:1-13

"What sign will there be of your coming and the end of the world?" (Matthew 24:3). Many in Matthew's churches had grown prosperous and tired of waiting for Jesus to come. The radical living of "shared possessions" and "breaking bread in one another's homes" (Acts 2:42-47), which provided the early church with energy to "stay awake, because you do not know the day of your master's appearing" (Matthew 24:42), had been forgotten.

"Love in most people grew cold" (24:12). Some had been led astray and others deceived (24:4-5). There had been hatred and betrayal (24.10); some had denied the Lordship of Christ, and their actions led directly to believers being "handed over to be tortured and be put to death" (24:9).

Church communities experienced daily the oppression of the Roman Empire. This empire is the "whole world," into which the good news of the kingdom is to be proclaimed (24:14). Challenging Rome's oppressive influence for the sake of the gospel is what causes Matthew to appeal for a return to gospel living. To stand firm (24:13) and reorder their communities in the service of God's saving justice (Matthew 6:33) becomes the priority.

Talking Points

How tired of radical living have you become? Who has experienced betrayal and hatred?

Reflection and Action

How do you need to re-order your church community in the service of God's saving justice?

November 17
Do Not Be Deceived
Psalm 76
Judges 4:1-7
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 24:14-30

Anxiety and fear faced persecuted Christian communities in the Roman Empire. Matthew recalled Jesus' words, "Take care that no one deceives you....see that you are not alarmed" (Matthew 24:4, 6). Easily said, but when the Temple, the holy place (24:15), the place of God's presence, is being desecrated and destroyed-where is God now? And if refugee status is about to be conferred on you and your loved ones (24:17-22), the temptation is to go with those who appear to know not only where God is but are even able to reveal who Christ is (24:4-7, 23-28).

Matthew has a steadying and teaching job to do. First, the communities need to be reminded that Jesus' presence and activity are not limited to cataclysmic events (24:6-11) or specific locations (24:23-24, 26). Nor must they be fearful of empty places, "for he has risen" (28:6).

Second, they must return to their gospel roots. God has always been with God's people, men and women, through thick and thin-just look at the list (Matthew 1:1)! But God is to be found most among the least (Matthew 25:45), and that's where Jesus said those "whom my Father has blessed" (25:34) will be found.

Talking Points

What anxieties and fears face you in your struggle to live the gospel? To what gospel values do you need to return?

Reflection and Action

How will you look for God among the least?

November 24
Return To Gospel Priorities
Psalm 100
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

This is a parable on two levels. One is the panorama of the assembly of "all nations" (Matthew 25:32), where Christ judges how the nations have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and treated those in prison (25:44). The other level is the daily activity of the churches living out the reign of God and practicing justice. This parable, that people are judged not on what they believe, but whether they care for those regarded as the least (25:45) among humanity, is for some a hard truth.

The Christian communities are to be marked by self-forgetting activity on behalf of the most vulnerable, for "it is never the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost" (18:14). The message to the prosperous churches of Antioch is to return to gospel priorities. First, because the nations will be judged; and second, to "take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you" (25:34), the household of faith must live without the abuse of power, as brothers and sisters under "one Master" (23:8), always recognizing that greatness is expressed in service.

Talking Points

How is your nation caring for those who are hungry, sick, strangers, or in prison? In what ways is your faith community practicing justice in its daily life?

Reflection and Action

As you prepare for Advent, identify some task on behalf of "the least" and do it.

Look For The Signs

Advent is a time for reading the signs of hope. It is a time for looking, for rekindling our love, and for re-evaluating our priorities. It is a time to see God coming in the budding of a tree, the clarity of the prophet's voice, the hope of a poet's words, the womb of a young mother, and the witness of an old man and woman.

In other words look for God in the ordinary, and you will find him. Obey her in the simplicity of life, and you bring to birth a reign of justice. Look for the signs!

December 1
Reading The Signs
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Isaiah 64:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Two pictures containing secrets are painted by Jesus (Mark 13:24-37). The first is very dramatic, with the "sun darkened," the moon losing its brightness, and the stars falling out of the sky! The symbols spoke to Jesus' hearers: the stars represent tyranny, the sun and moon represent rulers and empires. Each represents powers that seek to control human affairs.

Another picture, another symbol: The fig tree on a summer's day signified peace, security, and prosperity; a sign of God's blessing. A good fig symbolized a good person, or God's people acting justly. "Take the fig tree as parable," says Jesus, that the new order is coming, despite all evidence to the contrary.

"Be on your guard, stay awake," says Jesus, "because you never know when the time [of liberation] will come" (Mark 13:33). Mark's community faced the powers of tyranny. Rome is exerting its political, military, and economic might in order to retain control of its empire. Everything looks hopeless.

Jesus calls for faith, not in some day or hour that nobody knows, but in God who judges now by bringing an end to empires, beginning his reign now in this world, in our history. Jesus invites us to the practice of liberation, "each with his own work to do" (13:34). Such practice means resisting despair in the face of the powers, calls for faith ("summer is near"), for wisdom ("stay awake"), and for intelligence ("before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place," 13:30).

Talking Points

What examples of the two pictures can you see in today's world? Who is acting justly today, so that "before this generation has passed these things will have taken place"? How are you as God's people practicing liberation?

Reflection and Action

Identify one area where you can practice resistance. What will you do? Who will help you?

December 8
Signs of Belonging
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Exile is a place or state of not belonging. It is a refusal to accept or conform to the prevailing culture. The people of God are in exile in Babylon. Babylon symbolizes everything that destroys faith and community-idolatry, wealth, power, luxury, oppression.

People in exile experience anger, guilt, and powerlessness; they are trapped in despair (Isaiah 40). Such people need a voice. The poet's voice must nurture, inspire, and empower change. By speaking words of comfort (40:1) and forgiveness (40:2), hope is generated (40:9-11).

For God's people a new story is in the making. "All humanity will see it together" (40:3-5). The apparent powerlessness of God during the exile will be transformed; "Here is your God!" is the recognition of reclaimed sovereignty (40:9-10). People once afraid now speak fearlessly. It is a time for action. Exiles must embrace faith in God, discern their true political situation, and choose to act. "Prepare....Make a straight way for God" (40:3). The power of God's Word must have its say in history (40:6-8; 55:10-11).

This is gospel, or good news (Mark 1:1). In the Roman Empire, gospel was political propaganda, telling news of military victories. Jesus announces "good news from God" and speaks of a "kingdom." Preparing a way for the Lord to come is an activity, and a declaration, which gives notice to the culture of empire that "what we are waiting for, relying on God's promises, is the new heavens and new earth, where uprightness will be at home" (2 Peter 3:13).

Talking Points

Who do you know that does not "belong"? Who is nurturing, inspiring, and empowering them? Are you? What would be "good news" for them?

Reflection and Action

How is your practice of resistance developing in the light of today's study?

December 15
Hopeful Signs
Psalm 126
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

The prophet offers hope for the present time. Isaiah says God "loves fair judgment" and "hates robbery and wrongdoing" (Isaiah 61:8). Isaiah looks for God's "saving justice and praise to spring up in the sight of the nations" (61:11). The prophet's task is to "prepare the way in the desert" (Isaiah 40:3). Real change in human affairs is often planned in the wilderness, exile, or prison. God prepares for the future through his people practicing justice now.

Isaiah envisaged a prophetic people. The prophet received anointing-"God has anointed me" (Isaiah 61:1), but no one person could implement this manifesto of justice-as well as news to the afflicted, soothing to the brokenhearted, liberty to captives, release to those in prison; offering comfort to all who mourn, rebuilding the ancient ruins, and restoring the ruined cities (61:4). Many are needed to practice the justice demanded by the Jubilee, "the year of the Lord's favor" (Isaiah 40:1-3; Leviticus 25).

Such a vision can only be fulfilled through the anointing of God, who clothes in "garments of salvation" and wraps in "a cloak of saving justice" (Isaiah 61:10). Words like salvation and justice (as well as kingdom and authority) have political implications. God's activity in history is public, communal, and visible. God intends his people in every age to be recognized as "a race whom God has blessed" (61:9).

God holds out the vision of a new light in the world, like John the Baptist ("he was not the light"). Prophetic people are to bear witness to the light (John 1.8). Practically, that means being a community at peace among yourselves, who support the weak, aiming at what is best for everyone (1 Thessalonians 5:13-15).

Talking Points

Where are the signs of hope in the present time? How are you being a prophetic people?

Reflection and Action

Read 1 Thessalonians 5:14-22 and ask, Are we God's people, acting justly?

December 22
Signs of a Saviour
Luke 1:47-55
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

The impossible is possible! An infertile woman becomes pregnant (Luke 1:13, 24, 36). A virgin conceives (1:35). Gabriel, the mythical war angel, instructs Mary to name the child after a freedom fighter, "You must name him Jesus" (or Joshua). The name means "savior"-a title, like Son of the Most High (1:32), often given to Greek and Roman military leaders.

Mary is told that "the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule forever" (1:32-33). This rule will be marked by "saving justice and fair judgments, faithful love and constancy" (Psalm 89:14). This strong political message will fulfill the hopes and dreams of generations who have longed for liberation.

Overwhelmed, Mary asks, "How can this be, since I have no husband?" (1:34). Suddenly, it's all very human. God chooses to achieve his purpose in the ordinary-someone's will; a woman's womb, a displaced birth (Luke 2:4-5), life among the outcast and poor (Matthew 8:20; Luke 7:34). And in the child of the barren one, the moment of quickening is the sign of God's spirit entering another human being (1:41).

When people like Elizabeth and Mary find the courage to cooperate with God, the impossible becomes possible.

Talking Points

Have you ever experienced the impossible becoming possible? What happened? Have you ever seen love come to birth as a result of someone's courage and vulnerability? Where are the signs of "saving justice and fair judgments, faith and constancy," that mark God's reign?

Reflection and Action

In what ways have you brought about some change during the past few weeks?

December 29
A Sign That Is Opposed
Psalm 148
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

Two old people greet the child Jesus in the temple. The first is the radical Simeon who, prompted by the Spirit, came to the temple (Luke 2:27). Like a sentry on guard, he has "looked forward to the restoration of Israel" (2:25). But he is under no illusions about how difficult the task will be, for as he holds the babe he says to Mary, "He is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed (2:34).

The second oldie in the temple is Anna, who "came up just at that moment and spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Israel" (2:38). Both of these oldies demonstrate true radicalism.

First, they expect God to act; second, they are open to a vision of God acting in history-they anticipated the restoration of Israel and the deliverance of Jerusalem. Third, they looked for the signs, however simple and ordinary-like a baby being dedicated, parents giving thanks. Fourth, they recognized the nature of the opposition, and the devastating impact of prophetic living upon loved ones-"a sword will pierce your soul too" (2:35).

The season of Advent began in hope, and with Christmas comes the promise of deliverance. But now the cost is revealed and the "secret thoughts of many laid bare" (2:35), including our own.

Talking Points

Which old radicals do you know? What do you admire about them? What can they teach you? How are you imitating the radicalism of Simeon and Anna?

Reflection and Action

What secret thoughts are exposed in you as you plan to follow Jesus into 1997? Who will help you face the future?

PETER B. PRICE is general secretary of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, an Anglican world mission agency based in London, and canon emeritus of Southwark Cathedral. He is the author, most recently, of Seeds of the Word: Biblical Reflection for Small Church Communities (Darton, Longman, and Todd; 1996). Due to a transcription error, the reflections for November 10 and 17 are written in reference to Matthew 24 gospel readings. The revised common lectionary readings for these days are Matthew 25:1-13 and 25:14-30.

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