Love one another

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

I have been redeployed from the church I’ve attended for over 20 years (St Martin-in-the-Fields) to a new church, not too far away (St Stephens, Lyttelton) as part of my curacy. Today was the first time I have preached to this new parish, so it was a good opportunity to lay down what is most important to my faith and that what is most prominent in my preaching. And it is this:

God is most essentially and completely LOVE. The three persons of the Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit) have been in eternal relationship with one another since before the creation of time and space. It is the profound love between these three persons that makes the one being. God created time and space out of a fullness of love. God created humanity out of a generosity of love, to be shared. And God’s actions throughout human history embody and describe love. Love that is fierce, generous, extravagant, radically inclusive, steadfast and unshakable.

Today’s reading from John 13:34-35 sets out Jesus’ command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In this message, I provide the context in which Jesus delivered this message – a context that represents on the crisis points in his ministry, characterised by betrayal, denial and isolation.

And I set out what is ‘new’ about old command to love, viz. the source of our capacity to love and the missional impact of our love for one another.

Let the love of God be the centre of your life.

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Link to featured image

Dying to live

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I am still reeling at the destruction of Notre Dame through the fire yesterday. That cathedral was a symbol of God’s presence in France, and its burning reverberates powerfully with me. The burned church evokes images of Christ’s death on the cross. Like the cathedral, Christ is damaged and destroyed. Its devastation leaves an empty shell. We are shocked, dismayed. How is this possible?

But in John 12:20-36, Jesus talks about his own death, not as something to be avoided, and not even as something inevitable, but as something necessary, intended, perhaps even desirable. He uses the analogy of a seed, that must die in order to produce more seeds.

And he also says that we who follow him, must similarly die; that if we love this life on earth too much, we’re in trouble; that we need to hold on to it just lightly. Instead, if we follow him, through death, we will be with him in glory.

He raises the question of what we have to die to today. Of what in our lives needs to burn to the ground, so that something new can spring forth.

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Feature image: Interior of Notre Dame following the fire on 15 April 2019, CNN.

God’s Will

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One of the key themes of Easter is that God’s Will will not be thwarted. No matter what we raise against God’s Will – God’s Intentions – God will accomplish God’s Will. This comes into relief in today’s reading from John 11:45-57. It is a passage about the Jewish leaders’ sense of threat from the success of Jesus’ ministry, and their decision to eliminate him. Their concerns and actions are motivated by self-preservation, and they believe that eliminating Jesus will secure their future salvation.

Ironically, they could not be more correct, but not in the way they thought. Jesus’ death (the death of one person) did indeed make possible the salvation of the entire world – not just the Jewish nation, but indeed all people, everywhere, at all times, including both past and future.

God took their evil intent and incorporated it into God’s Will, to accomplish the great plan that God had already conceptualised at the dawn of time: to save the cosmos. God’s Will is glacial, moving inexorably towards its destination.

The Will of God will not be thwarted. We see this tenacity of God’s Will strikingly in Ezekiel 37:21-28, where God’s “will” is articulated 24 times in just 8 verses:

‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees.25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

If God is able to accomplish so much when people are working against God, imagine what God can accomplish when people work with God! Today we are reminded of the remarkable opportunity to partner with God in implementing God’s Will, and in so doing, to be part of history-making.

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Featured image of one of the glaciers in College Fjord in Alaska.

Death and devotion

Click here to listen to this 21-minute message.

We draw closer and closer to the cross on this Lenten journey. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and then it is Holy Week, leading to Good Friday when we sit at the foot of the cross and watch Jesus die, and then we wait despairingly yet expectantly through Silent Saturday, until Easter morning when our Lord rises from the dead. Morbid though this may sound, this is indeed a time of death and devotion.

Mary, the sister of Lazarus, pours very expensive perfume (Nard) on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair (John 12:1-8). A parallel story is found in Mark 14:1-9. This narrative raises multiple messages, but two have resonated strongly with me this weekend: death and devotion.

Death

This story is soaked with death. The previous chapter (John 11) told us of Lazarus’ death, how he was laid in a tomb for four days, and how Jesus then raised him from the dead. This same Lazarus now sits around the table with Jesus, eating a meal! Mary’s use of Nard to anoint Jesus’ feet suggests burial preparation, as if Jesus has already died and is being embalmed. In the next passage, Jesus makes his triumphal donkey entry into Jerusalem, signalling the start of Holy Week – Jesus’ final walk to the cross. He talks at some length about his impending death. In chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples feet, a kind of replication of Mary’s act (but with water, not perfume). Jesus shares his ‘last supper’ with the disciples. From here on, Jesus speaks almost only to his closest friends and family. There are no further public sermons. He retreats from the world, as he prepares to die, entering a quiet, reflective space.

We, as part of his closest friends and family, are invited in these last days of Lent to be present with Christ as he walks towards death. 

Devotion

Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. She does not wash them with water to cleanse them, as was typically done for guests, by servants. Nor does she rub oil into his feet to protect them from the dry, dusty roads, as would be done with an important guest, also by servants. Instead, Mary – one of Jesus’ hosts – pours expensive perfume over them. Nard came from the high mountains in India, particularly the Himalayas. It had a sweet and earthy fragrance, that lasted a long time. It was very expensive, and stored in alabaster jars to preserve the fragrance. Mary’s pouring out of this perfume is extravagant. Some suggest that this jar of Nard was her entire dowry. It is an excess of perfume, much like the wine that Jesus created at another banquet (in Cana) was excessive and extravagant.

She washes his feet with her hair. Jewish women treated their hair with modesty, typically covering it for all except their husbands. To let it loose would be seen by some as immoral. It certainly was profoundly intimate; she could have used a cloth, but instead used her hair.

We must imagine Jesus reclining – there were no chairs. So Mary must be on her knees, bowed low over Jesus’ feet, her face almost on his feet, so that her hair can wrap around them to dry them. It is intimate and devoted, a pouring out of her innermost being on Jesus’ feet.

We, like Mary, are invited in these last days of Lent to devote ourselves utterly to Christ as he walks towards the cross.

Death and devotion

Jesus’ response to those who reprimand Mary for being so wasteful poignantly ties together death and devotion. He makes two main points:

  1. He is soon going to die.
    “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).
    “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me… She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial” (Mark 14:6 & 8).
  2. Before he dies, we may devote ourselves to him.
    “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8).
    The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).

We, like they, are invited in these last days of Lent to set aside our day to day responsibilities and to make ourselves available to be with Christ.

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Featured image from https://www.gloriadei.ca/blog/worship-june-12

The older brother

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We all have, consciously or unconsciously, a hierarchy of people’s goodness to badness, of people’s worthiness of God’s loving attention or of salvation. Even if we believe in salvation through the work of Christ alone, we probably still can imagine people we think undeserving of eternal life.

This was the problem of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They were so focused on keeping God’s Law (see my related message on Jesus’ Law) that they could have nothing to do with people who were not righteous, people who were lower down on the hierarchy.

So when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with so called ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, they are horrified and mutter, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). They regarded such behaviour as being absolutely at odds with being a Godly person.

This prompts Jesus to tell three parables, intended to reveal God’s soft heart for “sinners and tax collectors”, for the lost, and to challenge the Pharisees’ misalignment with the God they sincerely followed:

  1. The lost sheep. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4-7) Here, Jesus speaks of the lost one in a hundred.
  2. The lost coin. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8-10) Here, Jesus speaks of the one in ten.
  3. The lost son. “[Suppose] there was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11-32). One of them gets lost. Here, Jesus speaks of the one in two. (Though in truth, both sons get lost.)

In this parable (commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son, ‘prodigal’ meaning financially wasteful) we meet a father and his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance up front, and then squanders it on wild living. Eventually he comes to his senses and, realising that his fathers servants live better than he is now living, returns to his father, acknowledges his sinfulness and asks to be hired as a servant. The father is overjoyed at the son’s return, hugs him, clothes him and throws a lavish party for him.

In most preaching about this parable, this is what we focus on. Rightly so, because it reveals the extravagantly loving heart of God, God’s willingness to reconcile with anyone who turns to God, God’s unconditional love. It exemplifies Jesus’ ministry, which is to find those who are disconnected from God, and welcome them back into fellowship with God. For example,

  1. In Jesus’ manifesto – his mission statement – he says (Luke 4:18-19):
       “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
           because he has anointed me
           to proclaim good news to the poor.
       He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
           and recovery of sight for the blind,
       to set the oppressed free,
           to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
  2. And in his reflection on his encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus (the one who climbs a tree to see Jesus), Jesus concludes (Luke 19:10)
       “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

But actually, the narrative focus of the story is on the older son, whose attitude towards his wayward brother is the same as that of the Pharisees. Jesus wants the Pharisees (perhaps us also) to recognise themselves in the older son, whose attitude is so at odds with his father (who represents God, who in turn is represented by Jesus):

  1. The older son is angry, while his father is filled with compassion.
  2. He refuses to join in the feast the father is hosting, thereby distancing himself from his family.
  3. His father has to humiliate himself by leaving his guests to come out an plead with the older son.
  4. In his response to his father, the older son speaks with disrespect, saying “Look!” instead of “Father”.
  5. The son constructs his role in the family as one of slave, rather than son.
  6. He distances himself from his younger brother, referring to him as “this son of yours”.

This is exactly what the Pharisees did to Jesus (as the father in the story) in his engagement with sinners and tax collectors (as the younger son in the story). They said to Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”, just as the father in the story welcomed his younger son and threw a feast for him.

The father, however, recognises that this older son is also, in his own way, lost. He has lost his sense of fellowship with his father. He does not share his father’s values and outlook on the world. He has dissociated himself from his father’s family. But the father says:

  1. “My son”, even though the older son did not say, “My father”. He speaks with respect to his disrespectful son.
  2. He affirms that the older son is always with him (in relationship with him) and that everything that is the father’s is the son’s also, affirming his sonship.
  3. He refers to the younger son as “this brother of yours”, affirming the boys’ brotherhood.
  4. He reinforces the need to celebrate the return of the lost younger son, perhaps hinting that there would be a further celebration to celebrate the return of the lost older son.
  5. He concludes the narrative with the words: “He was lost and is found.”

As children of God, we (like the Pharisees) are urged to adopt the heart of God, as evidenced in the behaviour of the father in this parable, and to welcome and eat with so called ‘sinners’.

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This painting by Rembrandt van Rijn is called ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ c.1662. The original hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The older son is depicted on the right, in a red cloak, looking rather disapproving, and distanced from the father and younger son on the left.

Notice also the father’s hands – the one on the left is smaller and thinner than the one on the right. Most people think Rembrandt was endeavouring to depict both the fatherhood and motherhood of God.

Henri Nouwen has written a book about this narrative and painting called, ‘The return of the prodigal son’. You can read some of it here on Amazon. Read particularly pages 71 and following, about the older son. Or click here for a brief reflection on this painting.

Humility

Click here to listen to this 11-minute message.

God calls us to humility – in our relationship with God, and in our relationship with other people.

Luke 18:9-14 gives us the parable of the pharisee and tax collector, both at prayer.

  1. The pharisee – a person who was devout, religious, righteous, obedient to God’s laws – stands and prays loudly about how wonderful he is and thanks God for not making him like those ‘other’ people (explicitly mentioning the tax collector). Jesus says that this person will not be justified before God, and that people like that, who exalt themselves, will be humbled.
  2. The tax collector – a person who was regarded as dishonest, extortionist and reprehensible, and who Jesus often refers to when talking about sinful people – hides away in a corner, cannot look up towards heaven and can pray only, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Jesus says that this person will go home justified before God, and that a humble person like this will be exalted.

Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.

Of course, this ‘humility’ is not about self-denigration or having a poor self-esteem or negative self-image. Paul says clearly in Romans 12:3 that humility is about assessing our strengths and weaknesses honestly and accurately: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

In our other reading for today – Hosea 5:13-6:6 – there is a dialogue between God and Israel:

  1. God observes that when Israel was in need, instead of turning to God, they turned for help to people who did not know God. Therefore, God sent suffering to them, to help them admit their guilt (i.e. to humble them) and until they sincerely sought God’s face.
  2. Israel then reflects that the suffering they have experienced is justified, and that despite God’s anger towards them, God will nevertheless heal them and bind up their wounds. They long to be revived and restored and to live in God’s presence. Twice they say, “Let us acknowledge God” – that word ‘acknowledge’ in Hebrew means ‘to know’ (as in knowing  a fact), but also as in knowing or discerning something not obvious (such as the truth of someone’s intentions), and is used as a euphemism for sex (as in, Adam knew Eve and she fell pregnant). Israel desires to be humble before God and to truly and intimately know God.
  3. God, the exasperated parent, responds positively. God reminds them that God’s desire is for mercy (hesed, meaning steadfast love and compassion) and acknowledgement (that ‘knowing’ word again), far more than empty religion (sacrifices and burned offerings).

Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.

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Feature image ‘Kneeling in Prayer‘ by Nadine Rippelmeyer (2006)