Peace, Division, Faith

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Today’s Gospel presents us with some of the most baffling words from Jesus:

“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” (Luke 12:49-58).

It is hard to reconcile such divisive, anti-peace language with the Jesus who repeatedly says, “Peace be with you” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. It may be helpful to differentiate between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements. A prescriptive statement is an instruction or command, such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In such statements, Jesus is telling us the desire and intention of God for us. A descriptive statement, on the other hand, merely describes what is, without necessarily defining it as good or desirable.

This passage from Luke is phrased as a descriptive statement. Jesus is not prescribing the absence of peace or the presence of division – he is rather describing how things will be. His later critique in Luke 12:56, “How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”, suggests that the entire passage is a description of how things will be and a challenge to our faith to make sense of such divisions.

Last week, Rev Marti addressed the topic of faith in some detail. Her sermon was beautiful and encouraging. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. She commented on how lovely it is to be a little lamb in God’s little flock. Today, we continue to reflect on faith, but faith that is tested; faith that is under pressure; faith that must stand in the gap.

So, let’s go back to our First Testament readings to see how these may help us make better sense of our Luke passage.

Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5 pens with a story of a beautiful and very much-loved vineyard in vv1-2. It could easily have been found in Song of Songs – it is quite sensual. But all too soon, in v7, there is deep disappointment in God, as he looks for justice, but sees only bloodshed; looks for righteousness, but hears only cries of distress. How is it possible to go from something so beautiful to something so dreadful in just a couple of verses? God laments in v4, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” God is baffled by the capacity of the people of Israel and Judah to transform something so good into something so bad. Consequently, God destroys and tramples the beloved vineyard, he makes it a wasteland, uncultivated, dry and desolate.

This passage presents us with a sobering example of the failure of faith. What God has desired – what he expects of his faithful people – is social justice and righteousness. This is the prescription or command of God. But when we fail to live up to this expectation – when we become faithless – God is grieved, and the consequence can be destruction. The destruction is described, not prescribed – it is the natural result of our turning from God.

Psalm 80

Psalm 80 could have been written by Isaiah – the narratives have so many similarities. vv8-11 describe a beautiful vineyard, tended and cared for, sheltered and protected. This is followed immediately by a lament (vv12-13). Here the lament is not from God, but rather from God’s people: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” As in Isaiah, God destroys the vineyard, but now it is the people who lament. And in contrast to the Isaiah passage, there is now a turning back to God, asking for reconciliation. In vv14 & 19 they say: “Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine. … Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”

And in their prayer for restoration, they prophecy about the coming Messiah. In v15 they say, “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.” And in v17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Who is this son, this man at God’s right hand, this raised-up son of man, if not Christ? Here we see a restoration of the faith of the people, as they give voice to the prescription of God – that we entrust ourselves to God and to his anointed son.

In this narrative, God’s destruction of the vineyard, though terrible, gives rise to new faith. It reminds me of the fires over the mountains in Cape Town. They are destructive and devastating. But out of the fire, new fynbos and protea grow. Many of you may have seen, driving over Ou Kaapse Weg for example, the new green-green shoots of life emerging out of the blackened ground. The destructive fire, as hard as it is, is tied up with the new life that emerges from the ashes.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

And then we pick up in Hebrews 11 where we left off last week – a reminder of the many ways faith has persevered through difficult times in the First Testament. Despite the many adversities they face, there are people of faith who come through these fires – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and many others. The writer of Hebrews even points out in v39 that many of them never saw the fruit of their faith – for example, Abraham was promised, but never saw, the great nation that would flow from him; and Moses never crossed into the promised land, despite all his faithful efforts in leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.

And now for us, who come after Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, how much more are we able to be people of faith. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, given this legacy of people of such faith and everything that Christ has done for us, we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus himself scorns the shame of the cross, because he has deep faith that it is through such testing and trials that God’s Will will be accomplished.

Luke 12:49-58

So, let us then return to today’s Gospel reading. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus is not prescribing division, but describing it. Division is, strangely, a consequence of faith! Jesus did not come to make human life comfortable and easy. We are not playing nicey-nicey. No! On the contrary (as a member of our parish said so well yesterday in Morning Prayer), Jesus is a revolutionary! He came to disrupt the corruption, hypocrisy, injustice, violence and exploitation of this world. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against such evils. His vision for humanity and for the whole of creation is magnificent and prescriptive – we must live up to the ideals of God.

But when we live up to God’s ideals of love, social justice, radical inclusivity, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and righteousness, we will inevitably create conflict. Indeed, let me say that we should inevitably create conflict. This is not a prescription, but a description of the inevitable. Revolution is not nice! It causes division.

We can think of many contemporary examples of such division and the absence of peace, as a result of diverse issues in the world. For example, let’s consider the continuing question of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the church – their membership, their ministry, their marriage, their ordination. This is such a divisive topic for Christians. Many years of discussion in the Anglican church have brought little common ground.

At the Lambeth conference over the past couple of weeks – the Anglican communion’s global meeting – the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a kind of live-and-let-live compromise for everyone: each country decides what they believe is right and good. Is this a solution? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Does it bring peace and unity? No, I doubt it; it might even achieve the opposite.

Indeed, before the conference was over, conservative Anglican bishops had already gathered and reiterated their rejection of gay relationships.

My own view on this is that when we place sexual morality or our views of gender ahead of radically inclusive love, then we have strayed far off the path that Jesus walked. I am firmly convinced that the pattern of life that Jesus established leads inevitably to the inclusion of members of the LGBTQI+ community in the life, sacraments and ministry of the church, even if one believes that homosexual acts are wrong. But many of you here today may disagree with me and this may lead to a lack of peace between us, perhaps even disunity. So be it.

And of course, there may be many other issues we could fall out over: the conflict between Palestine and Israel; our stand on abortion; global warming; our affiliation to political parties in South Africa. The opportunities for conflict and discord are numerous.

I suggest, though, that what we are learning from Jesus in Luke 12 is that such tensions are inevitable and tolerable. They may be uncomfortable. And we pray that they do not tear us apart. But they are not fundamentally wrong or bad. After all, Jesus himself says, “I came to bring division”.

But towards the end of this passage, Jesus makes some important points about divisive issues in the Christian community. In Luke 12:54-56, he criticises people for being able to interpret the signs in the sky and the earth, such as predicting the weather, but being unable to interpret the signs of the “present time”. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look! Wake up! Open your eyes! Wragtig julle!” We cannot control the weather, but we can discern and shape human behaviour and its impact on the world.

For example, the eight women who were recently gang raped by dozens of men in Krugersdorp. How can we allow this continue? What is wrong with us in this country that we have the highest rate of rape in the world? What are we doing about it?

And Jesus goes on immediately in vv57-58 to urge us to think for ourselves about what is right and what is wrong. And to make reconciliation our aim, rather than to be adversarial. His prescription for Christian living, even in complex times, is clearly stated here – think about what is right and do reconciliation.

The tensions between peace and division, and the handling of complex ethical and moral questions are complex. How do we then go about discerning what is right and wrong in the world, and interpreting the signs of this age? How can we be revolutionary, as Christ was, while also working for peace and unity, as Christ did? Let me suggest two central principles that may help us navigate these challenging paths**:

  1. The primacy of love. If there is one thing that stands out so strongly in all of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that we cannot deny it and still call ourselves Christian, it is the priority that Jesus gives to love. I refer to his love as ‘radically inclusive love’, because Jesus never turns people away on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race, religion or morality. He may criticise people’s behaviour, but he always reaches out in love and includes them in his loving presence. Love is the most important!
  2. God’s preferential option for the poor. Quoting Wikipedia, God’s option for the poor “refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people.” We see this particularly in Jesus’ ministry and especially in Luke’s Gospel. In practice, this means that “through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor.” It implies that we do take sides, and that we take sides with the ‘poor’. (‘Poor’ is defined inclusively to refer not only to those who are economically poor, but also those who are marginalised, oppressed, discriminated against, lacking voice, and so on).

In conclusion, we persevere in our faith in God in a complex world by engaging thoughtfully and critically with the world around us. We protect and build the vineyard that God has entrusted into our care. We work for social justice and righteousness. We disagree and might even divide. We trust in God, that even out of these fallouts, new life and new faith will emerge. And we work to engage collectively in reading the signs of the times according to the key principles and values Jesus sets out for us.

Featured image from https://www.needpix.com/photo/1311815/jesus-christ-christian-radical-revolutionary-holy-spirit-god-bible

Transfiguration

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Today we celebrate and remember Jesus’ transfiguration, where he revealed his divine glory to Peter, James and John on the mountain top (Luke 9:28-36). We must remember that this moment was a transfiguration, not a transformation. A transformation implies that Jesus changes form, e.g., from ordinary human to divine being. But this not how we understand what happened on that mountain – there is no change of ‘form’ as if there are two Jesuses – one human and one divine. Instead, what changes is the ordering or configuration of Jesus – his divinity has been inside him since his conception. It was just set behind his humanity – what changed is the order what we see: his divinity comes to the fore for that short time. Hence, it is a transfiguration.

We have heard many sermons about what happens on the mountain and response of the disciples. I don’t want to repeat that today. Instead, I’d invite us to reflect on what it means for us, for our daily lives as Christians.

2 Corinthians 3:3-18 speaks of this event and contrasts it with the similar glory that Moses displayed after he had met with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35). Surely, the glory that Moses radiated was impressive. But Paul’s emphasizes that Moses’ glory was based in the old Covenant of the Law, which was written on tablets of stone, which was transient and which had now passed away. Instead, the glory in Paul’s time was based in the new Covenant of Christ and the Spirit of God, which are enduring and which are so much more glorious.

Paul goes on to emphasize that while Moses covered his face, because God’s glory that radiated off him made people afraid, we go around with our faces uncovered. He encourages us to be bold and let God’s glory be seen for what it is. And this glory is transformational (now this is the right word to use), in that it changes us from the inside out, into the image of Christ.

So, let’s cycle back to the question asked: What does the transfiguration mean for us, for our daily lives as Christians? Most importantly, we are urged to accept that the glory of God – through Christ and through Holy Spirit – resides within us. We might not feel it and we may not adequately reflect it in life; but it is a true reality. Put your hand on your chest and press it a bit – here is where the glory of God resides – within us, in our heart, as Paul writes, “written with the Spirit of the living God on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3). And, so where we are, the glory of God is.

And this truth, even if we don’t embody it very well, can inspire us to be bold, to be holy and to be compassionate.

Featured image from https://sites.google.com/site/syrianorthodox/feasts-of-our-lord/transfiguration

St Stephen

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I am fortunate to belong to a church named after a great figure in the early church – St Stephen. He was one of the first second-generation leaders in the church (meaning people who came after Jesus’ ascension). Stephen fills up two chapters of Acts (chapters 6 & 7). The first person to become a leader after the first disciples was Matthias, who replaced Judas as the 12th disciple (Acts 1:23-26) – Matthias is not mentioned anywhere else in our Bible. Next, were seven deacons, who were appointed in Acts 6:5-6. Stephen is one of these seven, and the only to be discussed in any detail. Saul (who later becomes Paul) is introduced right at the end of the story about Stephen, as being present at Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58).

Stephen is described in some detail in the first verses of Acts 6, as being full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, full of God’s grace, full of wisdom and full of power. He is also described as having “the face of an angel” (which might refer to a look of power and authority, more than pale cherub-like skin).

Stephen’s primary role as deacon was to take care of the widows in the early church. But he is described also as performing great signs and wonders and teaching authoritatively (as we see in his 50-verse sermon in Acts 7). Stephen was the first follower of Christ to die for his faith – the first Christian martyr. And he demonstrated his profound faith while being stoned to death and, like Jesus, forgave his murderers as he died. In many ways, Stephen exemplifies what Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 10:17-22: “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

While we are primarily followers of Christ, we are also all followers of St Stephen, particularly in the following ways:

  1. We should strive to be filled with the Spirit – filled with God – in the same way that Stephen was. He was saturated with power, grace and faith through the Spirit. Perhaps, before we even climb out of bed, we should ask God to fill us anew every morning.
  2. We should care for others, both within and without the church. Stephen’s primary role was to take care of those who were struggling. His calling was to serve the poor and vulnerable, hence we call him a ‘deacon’ (a servant). We similarly should be always alert to the opportunities to serve and care.
  3. We should be public about our faith. This does not mean forcing our beliefs or values on others, nor necessarily about preaching on street corners. But it does mean that people should know that we are followers of Christ – Christians – and that they should know this not only by what we say but also by what we do. Our lived lives should exemplify the values that Jesus showed during his earthly ministry.
  4. We should be steadfast in our faith, even under pressure. There is a saying, “The true flavour of a teabag only comes out in hot water.” Similarly, our faith is really revealed and proven when we go through hard times. In Stephen’s most pressured moment, he forgave, like Jesus forgave. He turned his eyes towards God and entrusted himself into God’s care.

What a great privilege it is to be a follower not only of Christ, but also of Stephen. His life reflects many of the qualities of Jesus that we appreciate and that we should emulate.

Featured image of St Stephen from https://www.learnreligions.com/saint-stephen-542519

Our Father

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Today we read Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to pray (Luke 11:1-13). It is a rich and invaluable teaching. Prayer is not easy for many of us, and Jesus’ template for prayer is worth using. Today, we focus on two words from the Lord’s prayer: “Father” and “daily”.

Father

Jesus starts his prayer with “Father”. Not “Our Father”. It is an indicating of his intimacy with God the Father, and the invitation to us to be similarly intimate and close with God. It also speaks of an informality that we can have in our communication with God. We’ve not all have good experiences of fathering – referring to God as our ‘Father’ might not be comforting for everyone. But in this passage, Jesus emphasises the goodness of Father God.

In Luke 11:11-13, Jesus describes God as a good parent, who gives his children good things. He reminds us that even if we did not have good fathering and even if we (who are fathers) are not good fathers, we all have a mental picture of a ‘good and loving father’. We many not have experienced it ourselves, but what we do know what it is. Jesus emphasises in this passage that God lives us to our ideal of good fathering.

Colossians 2:13-14, another of today’s readings, also emphasises the good God, who takes away our sin, who wipes us clean, who accepts us in love.

And even in Genesis 18:23-25, also one of today’s readings, we see Abraham reminding God of who God is – righteous, loving, forgiving, patient, tolerant.

God is a good parent and we are invited to be intimate and informal with God in our prayer.

Daily

In Luke 11:3, Jesus prays, “Give us each day our daily bread”. We are encouraged to bring our every day needs to God – our need for bread, a staple of life. God is not interested only in big challenges and global issues; God is also interested in the daily struggles of life. We are invited to bring everything to God.

We’re also invited to come to God every day in prayer. This verse uses ‘day’ or ‘daily’ twice. The bread we ask for is daily bread. We do not buy it in bulk for the month – we buy it fresh each day – it is daily bread. And we come every day (‘give us this day’ or ‘give us each day’) to God to receive it. God invites to come daily to God to pray for today’s needs.

Later in this passage (Luke 11:9-10), Jesus invites to ask, to seek and to knock. He reassures us that we we do so, we will receive and find and the door will be opened. Although we have all had experiences of prayers not answered, Jesus encourages us to continue asking, seeking and knocking. We don’t need to be shy in coming to God with our needs.

Luke 11:5-8 also tells the story of a man who comes to his neighbour in the middle of the night asking to borrow some bread, as he has unexpected visitors. His neighbour is not interested in getting up so late at night to give him bread. But Jesus tells us that the persistence of the man will eventually get his neighbour out of bed. He encourages us to persist in prayer. My NIV uses the phrase “shameless audacity” to describe this persistence – just keep on knocking and knocking, keep engaging with God.

We see this shameless audacity in Abraham in Genesis 18:26-33, as he haggles with God for mercy on the people of Sodom. He starts with 50 righteous or innocent people, and negotiates God down to just 10. Actually, Abraham shows a great deal of trepidation and caution, as he recognises he’s bargaining with the Creator. But he persists and is indeed audacious in the way he negotiates with God for mercy.

Engaging the Father daily

In many ways, this is the crux of our readings for today. God wants us to engage with him, persistently, shamelessly, audaciously. He is our Father – it gives him joy when we engage him. And he invites and encourages us to come daily into his presence. There is nothing too big or too small, too shameful and terrible to bring to God. He is the good parent who loves to engage with us.

Father, give us each day our daily bread.

Featured image from https://www.catholicherald.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/mans-hands-in-prayer_WEB.jpg

You choose – one way or the other

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The theme of our readings for today – particularly our Gospel reading – is “You choose – one way or another”. The readings are quite challenging and unsympathetic. Jesus is quite matter of fact about saying that it up to us to decide what we do.

Luke 9:51-62 presents four stories in rapid succession. In the first story, Jesus and the disciples are on their way to a Samaritan village. But the villages are not interested in meeting Jesus. The disciples are outraged and want to call down fire from heaven to wipe out the village. They’re really emotionally invested in the villagers being receptive to Jesus’ message and so feel anger that they are not receptive. But Jesus rebukes his disciples, not the villagers, and says they should go off to another village. It is like Jesus shrugs his shoulders or says ‘meh’ or ‘whatever’. His attitude seems to be that they are free to choose whether they want to engage him – free to choose one way or the other.

This gets reinforced with the three very short stories at the end of the chapter about three men, two of whom say they will follow Jesus and one whom Jesus calls. But each has some or other excuse about not following him right away. The reasons are reasonable and valid – a desire for some comfort, the need to bury one’s father or wanting to say goodbye to his family. These are hardly terrible crimes. But Jesus is quite unsympathetic – follow me or don’t follow me – you choose. To the last man, Jesus says, quite harshly, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God”.

We get a similar attitude, albeit in a different context, in 2 Kings 2:10, where Elisha is preparing to take over Elijah’s ministry. He asks Elijah for a double portion of his spirit. Rather presumptuous and ambitious, remembering that Elijah is arguably the second most important person in the First Testament (after Moses). Elijah’s response has a similar shrug to Jesus. He says, “It will be yours – otherwise, it will not.” This time is less about Elisha’s choice and more about God’s choice, and of course God does choose for Elisha. But there is still this shrug.

When we get to our third reading in Galatians 5, we get a softer response from Paul about these choices we’re called to make. Paul is more invested in trying to persuade us of the importance of following Christ. He exhorts us: “do not let yourself be enslaved” (v1); “So I say, live by the Spirit” (v16) and “Let us keep in step with the Spirit” (v25). And he provides some warnings about the consequences of not following Christ: “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (v15) and “I warn you, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v21). And then he goes still further by listing for us the “acts of the flesh” (vv19-21) (sins that distance us from God), which he says are “obvious”, and the “fruit of the Spirit” (vv22-23) (behaviours and values that align us with God).

God is not begging us to follow him. He does not pressure us. He does not force us. Rather, God presents himself to us – here I am, I am God, I am the Son – and invites us to choose – one way or the other. We get to choose. And we mostly know what God wants for us. We mostly know God’s values, ethics and love. And we mostly know what God does not desire. We just have to choose whether we follow in God’s way or we don’t. It’s up to us to choose.

It is thus striking the extent to which we persist in doing the things God tells us not to do and to not do the things God wants us to do. This often plays out most strongly in our relationships with our loved ones.

The worst thing that can happen to us with God is not God’s wrath – at least then God is engaged with us. The worst thing is when God just moves on. That Samaritan village had such a remarkable opportunity to meet God in the flesh – and they said “no thanks”. And Jesus said, “cool” and moved on to the next village. How terrible it would be for us to have all these opportunities to know about God and to know God, and to throw it away because we repeatedly choose not to follow his path, but rather our own. We really owe it to ourselves to look critically and carefully at our behaviour and values, and interrogate to what extent they are aligned with God’s. Let us choose God, choose life.

Featured image of ‘the shrug emoji’ from https://influencermarketinghub.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/shutterstock_428654239-1024×768.jpg

Trinity in practice

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The concept of the Trinity can be hard to get one’s head around. But when we get down to the basics, it is the understanding that the one God comprises three persons – Farther, Son and Spirit. The theology to explain how this works is hard to grasp. Eventually, we are invited to gaze upon and appreciate the mystery of God who is three-in-one.

In today’s message, I suggest there three key practical implications of worshipping a triune God:

  1. Since God has, for eternity, been three-in-one, a united collective rather than a singular entity, there is little room among Christians for othering, excluding, judging and discriminating. The three-in-one collective God created humanity to be in harmony with one another, much as God is harmony with God’s self. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, aging, homophobia and so on have no place the hearts of Christians. We need to be vigilant in examining our assumptions and judgements about others, and to repent of any form of othering.
  2. Father, Son and Holy Spirit were jointly involved in creation, according to Genesis 1, Proverbs 8 and John 1 (among many other passages). Creation was a collaborative, joint effort by God, with humanity coming along only right near the end. The natural world is the outpouring of God’s generous love and we should treat it as such. Each of us can do even just small things to protect the earth – switching off the tap when we brush our teeth, switching off the light when we leave a room, planting an indigenous tree or a few spekboom plants. None of these is particularly difficult, time consuming or expensive, but collectively can make a difference to the future of God’s planet.
  3. God’s entire mission for the salvation of humankind has been a collaborative and coordinated effort between Father, Son and Spirit. Each person of the Trinity had their own role and their time to lead, but everything they have done and continue to do has been of one accord, of one mission. In a similar way, the church can do its mission only through a collaborative effort, with the inputs of every member. The priest or wardens or lay ministers cannot do it – we all, every one of us, have to do it. Each person playing their part, whether big or small, is necessary for the church to do what it was put here to do.

Even if we cannot theologise the triune God, the Trinity, we can understand that God works in a collaborative and purposeful way to build healthy human relationships, to protect and nourish the earth and to accomplish God’s mission. We as the church are called to work in the same way.

Featured image of Ethiopian painting of the Trinity from https://twitter.com/DerilloEyob/status/1315268039668043783/photo/1

Jesus on unity

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Jesus’ last prayer before his arrest, according to John’s Gospel, is for all Christian believers (John 17:20-26). In this passage, Jesus prays for unity and oneness among believers. He prays:

  • That all of them may be one (v21)
  • That they may be brought to complete unity (23)

This oneness and unity is important to Jesus, because it is needed “so the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v23). Unity and oneness are part of the mission of the church, part of our witness to the world. Sadly, the church has not shown much unity over the millennia.

What does Jesus mean by unity and oneness? Does he mean that we should all believe the same things and agree on the same things – things about theology, doctrine, ethics, morality, church and so on? Actually, there is nothing in this passage about being of one mind or of having consensus on such matters.

When Jesus speaks about unity and oneness, he says things like:

  • Just as you are in me and I am in you (v21)
  • I in them and you in me (v23)
  • That the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them (v26)

Jesus’ explanation or description of oneness and unity is always relational – note the repeated use of the word ‘in‘. Unity is not about agreement, but about fellowship, communion, relationships. It is quite possible not to agree and still be in fellowship. Today we commemorate the Anglican Communion – a collection of Anglican churches around the world, in communion or fellowship with one another, but certainly not in agreement about everything. The Anglican church includes churches that are evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, Anglo-Catholic and liberal. There are lots of points of divergence, but still (albeit fragile) a communion, a fellowship.

A key biting point for the Anglican Communion is the LGBTQI+ issue. There is a wide range of divergence on this matter. The Anglican archbishop of the province of Uganda was in support of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced in 2013, which initially had a death penalty for homosexual acts; later amended to life in prison. When the Bill was thrown out on a technicality in 2014, the archbishop was unhappy, because he saw homosexuality as a fundamental threat to family life in Uganda. By contrast, the Episcopal Church of North America is fully welcoming of all LGBTQI+ people and recognises gay relationships as being as legitimate as straight relationships. The Anglican Communion has been severely strained by these divergent beliefs about sexuality and gender.

Jesus says nothing substantive about sexuality or gender. But he does say a great deal about love. The love he preached and lived out was inclusive – radically inclusive – and tolerant and accepting. He did not exclude people who society saw as ‘sinners’. And the bulk of his critical comments were directed towards religious leaders, typically pointing out their hypocrisy or rigidity. These things conflicted fundamentally with his teaching on deep and radical love for others. When we weigh up Jesus’ teaching, and the overall teaching of scripture, there is far more weight for loving our neighbour (including the neighbour we disagree with) than about set beliefs about sexuality and gender.

The unity that Jesus prays for is not about set beliefs or doctrine, as important and useful as both of these may be, but rather about open, inclusive and tolerant fellowship with one another. Our parish, St Stephen’s Anglican Church, in Lyttelton, has not spoken much about LGBTQI+ issues, until now. But in solidarity with our siblings in this community, we have opened our church to host the Be True 2 Me support group for transgender people. We are in fellowship with each other, regardless of the different views individuals might hold.

Feature image from https://qspirit.net/rainbow-christ-prayer-lgbt-flag-reveals-queer-christ/

He ascended into heaven

Today (Thursday 26 May 2022) is Ascension Day. It is 40 days after Easter and 10 days before Pentecost. On this day in history, Jesus met with his disciples and ascended to heaven, completing the cycle of his earthly ministry, started some 30 years before. Here is the account of this event in Acts 1:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’

Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’

Below is a short (5-minute) message reflecting on the meaning Christ’s ascension.

Extract from “The Ascension of Christ” by Rembrandt, 1636

Continuous God

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 22 minutes into the video).

We live in a world that is fraught with challenges and unpredictabilities. We think of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the continued challenges of the people of Palestine and the various conflicts in Africa. We think in South Africa of increasing unemployment, rising inflation, the upcoming petrol price hike. We think of loadshedding and the ongoing challenges of Covid. We think of the water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the devastation of the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The world is unpredictable. Our lives are often unpredictable. Sometimes, we may feel disoriented and anxious because of the many challenges that we face at personal, national and global levels.

In these times, it is reassuring to recognise that while life may be unpredictable, God is consistent. God persists. God has always, continues to and will always engage with us. When life feels chaotic, we have a God we can rely on.

Today’s reading from John 14:23-27 is particularly strong in reassuring us of God’s continuity. Jesus starts in v23 with himself: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And then he immediately continues, “My Father will love them.” Here is the first affirmation of consistency – between God the Son and God the Father. Jesus draws the immediate and strong link between himself, his Father and us – rooted in love – our love for Christ and the Father’s love for us. And he continues with these amazing words, “and we will come to them and make our home with them”. I love this use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ – here Jesus is referring to himself and his Father as operating together, as a partnership, and of coming dwell with us as a partnership. What a great reassurance of the continuity between the Father and the Son. And Jesus continues further, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” – yet further reassurance of continuity and consistency between God the Father and God the Son.

Jesus then continues, introducing the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”. In this short phrase we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit, collaborating together – the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the Son’s name. And the role of the Holy Spirit will be to “teach you all things and [to] remind you of everything I have said to you”. Here again, we have continuity and consistency – Holy Spirit does not start a new work in us, but rather continues the work of the Son, by reinforcing his teachings in us.

The result of all of this continuity from the Father of the Old Testament, the Son of the Gospels and the Spirit of the New Testament church is peace. Peace! Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We can breathe out, we can rest in God, we can trust that God has been consistently and persistently at work throughout history, from the creation until now and into the future. Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Be at peace.

And these reassurances of God’s continuity extend into the future. Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5 paint a compelling image of the heaven. John is taken by the Spirit – the same Spirit Jesus has spoken about in John’s Gospel – and sees the new Jerusalem, the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God. It is a glorious sight! There is no temple there, because God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son) are its temple. God’s light shines out brilliantly. The gates of the city are always open. There is a river running through the city, with the water of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. We can see God’s face.

John’s vision is a deep reassurance of God’s continuity – what have seen in the Father throughout the first Testament, what we have seen confirmed in the life of the Son in the Gospels, and what we have been promised and experienced in the coming of Holy Spirit in the early Church and continuing until today, will continue into the future, until the day Christ returns.

We can rest deeply into the continuity of God, into God’s steadfast faithfulness and persistence. We can hold onto a God who is faithful, even when our own faith is frail or when life’s burdens overwhelm or depress us. We can hold fast to God’s continuity.

Featured image: John of Patmos watches the descent of New Jerusalem from God in a 14th-century tapestry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jerusalem)

Love like Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 16-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 22 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Our Gospel reading (John 13:31-38) teaches a well-known phrase: “Love one another”. This is a consistent and repeated message from Christ – to love each other. We should remember that Jesus’ is most often speaking to his disciples – he is saying that the disciples must love each other, and that that will be a witness to Christ. In today’s terms, Jesus is saying that Christians in the local church must love each other.

But in today’s reading, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: love one another.” But this is an often-repeated command from Jesus. So what is new about it? Previously, Jesus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But here he says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” There is an important shift here of the source of love – our love is to be like Christ’s love. Today’s readings give us three insights into Christ’s love that we are called to emulate.

First, Jesus is tolerant and accepting of his disciples. Today’s Gospel reading is book-ended with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30) and Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 13:38). These are crucial betrayals of Jesus, and yet Jesus continues to engage with, tolerate, accept and love Judas and Peter. Indeed, he says to Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly”. Jesus is under no illusions about his disciples, and yet he loves them utterly.

We in the church often make mistakes. We say hurtful things. We spread stories about others. We make poor decisions. We neglect to do things. This is true of all Christians in the church. And the mistakes of those in leadership are even more visible. We need to be tolerance and accepting of each other, even when we make mistakes or do wrong things. Our love for each other should persist through those challenges, as did Christ’s.

Second, Jesus is protective and caring of his disciples. Twice, Jesus says to them, “Where I am going, you cannot come“. Jesus is on his way to the cross, on his way to bearing the sins of the whole world, on his way to dying for humankind. He wants to protect his disciples from that. This is a trial that he will carry on our behalf. He does, eventually, say to Peter, “you will follow later”, but which is refers to Peter’s martyrdom. Yet, we see Jesus trying to protect Peter from this, or at least from knowing it.

While being protective of each other in the church may be patronising, we have a duty and calling to take care of each other and protect each other from harm. We do this by ensuring the safely of children, keeping checks on how finances are managed, being mindful of ethics and sound interpersonal relationships. We should recognise when others are going through hard times, and offer support or assistance. We aim to protect and to care for each other, so that we can all grow and flourish together.

Third, Jesus is inclusive, which leads to diversity. We don’t get this from our Gospel reading, but we do get it from other Gospel passages and from our other readings for today. We see Jesus repeatedly reaching out to people across boundaries – women, Samaritans, tax collectors, menstruating women, dead people, demon possessed people, Romans. He seems to deliberately cut across these boundaries.

Similarly, we as Christians in church are called to be inclusive of everyone and to celebrate a diverse congregation: black, brown, white or something else; male, female or something else; gay, straight or something else; richer or poorer; more or less educated; South African or from another country – you are welcome here! Everyone is welcome here. Diversity is desirable.

We want a church that is characterised by this kind of love of Jesus, the same love that Jesus has shown to us, he wants us to show to others. We want a church that accepting, protective and inclusive, that makes space for everyone, that cares for everyone, that accepts everyone. We must intentionally and purposefully cultivate this kind of church community. This kind of love does not come naturally or easily. We must be deliberate in emulating Jesus and emulating his love. This is the primary witness of the church: how we love one another.

Featured image from https://thesisterhoodhub.files.wordpress.com/2020/12/love-like-jesus_orig.jpg