Go behind, go deep

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text after that.

Matthew 9:1-8 tells the story of a paralysed man, brought by his friends to Jesus. In verse 2, Jesus says to him, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” In most cases, Jesus heals people when they are brought to him. It seems to be almost an instinctive response – to reach out, touch and heal.

Why then does Jesus here not heal the man, but rather forgive him his sins?

Perhaps, for this man, the crux of his difficulty in life was not his paralysis, so much as his grappling with some aspect of sin or unforgiveness. It seems that Jesus puts his finger on the heart of this man’s concern. Truly, we don’t know, because we are told so little about the man’s backstory.

The root causes of our issues are not always on the surface. It is not always the obvious or what you can see that is ‘the issue’ that we need to deal with. Often, we need to go behind the issue to see what may be hidden, and to go deep into the root of the issue. A surface healing may do nothing more than to perpetuate the hiding what of what is behind or beneath, of that which is most in need of God’s love. Part of the Christian journey is to face the darkness of sin and suffering – the dark night of the soul. It is often in this dark place that God is able to work for our good.

In the Matthew 9 story, while it may appear that Jesus is ignoring the man’s suffering, he is, in fact, going straight to the heart of it. He actually says, ‘Take heart“. Or in other translations, ‘Be of courage’ (the word courage coming from the old French and Latin for heart – cor). Jesus goes to the man’s heart, rather than to the external. He goes behind the paralysis, and goes deep into his heart. And in response to this insight, Jesus proclaims his sins forgiven.

The man did not come for forgiveness, did not ask for forgiveness, did not confess his sins, did not show remorse for anything. It is not clear that he had any faith at all of his own. Thus, the forgiveness that Jesus proclaims is entirely the work of God – not the work of faith. God in Christ chooses to forgive this man’s sins and in so doing brings about an inner healing. He is made right with God, he is set free from guilt, he is made whole within himself.

By the time we get to verse 6, where Jesus says to the man, “Get up, take your mat and go home”, he has already been healed. Jesus does not say, “You are healed of your paralysis”. He simply says, “get up”, and the man gets up. He has already been healed! His paralysis seems to have been cured back in verse 2, as an outworking of the inner healing that Jesus had worked in his heart.

If there is a general principle that we can draw from this encounter, it is that God invites us, when we are suffering and struggling with life, to go behind the suffering and to go deep into the suffering, into the heart. There is healing in this. God meets us there in the darkness. We become receptive to God’s healing work, God’s forgiveness, God’s peace-giving.

Featured image from here.

Welcome & Reward

Click here to listen to the audio version of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

Matthew 10 presents the narrative of Jesus sending out the 12 disciples to do his work in the world. The chapter is filled with all kinds of dire messages about how difficult this work will be: the disciples will be rejected, beaten, persecuted, threatened by Satan, etc. They are like sheep among wolves. Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, and prophecies deep discord between family members. And finally he says that anyone who loves their family more than him is not worthy of him.

These are tough words! Being a disciple is not fun and games! It is hard, threatening, demanding work. 

By the time we get to verse 40, the disciples were probably feeling rather shattered by what was expected of them and daunted by Jesus’ expectations. But finally, in the last three verses there is a little respite:

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)

There are two messages here: one for the disciples (and all Christian workers) and one for all Christians:

  1. For the disciples (and all Christian workers), there is the encouragement that we will be welcomed by members of the church. The word ‘welcome’ appears six times in two verses. Welcoming suggests at least the following:
    • That Christian workers are embraced warmly by church members, valued, appreciated, encouraged, thanked, etc. This welcome is relational, personal, support.
    • That Christian workers’ subsistence needs are met. This appears particularly in the last verse which refers to “a cup of cold water”. I’m not advocating that Christian workers received sports cars and mansions! Definitely not!! But I am saying that Jesus promises that workers’ needs will be met by the church.
  2. For the Christian who does the welcoming, there is a promise of a reward – when we welcome a Christian worker, we welcome Christ; and when we welcome Christ, we welcome God the Father (and no doubt Holy Spirit also). The reward is not a pat on the back, community recognition or a medal. The reward is the very presence of God!

Finally, we note that Jesus seems to present some kind of hierarchy of Christian workers: the 12 disciples, prophets, righteous persons and little ones who are his disciples. The implication is that all Christians are Christian workers, whether you are an illustrious disciple or prophet, or ‘just’ a humble follower of Christ doing what you can – a ‘little fish’, so to speak. If this is the case – that all followers of Christ, all Christians, are Christian workers – then the welcoming that we do for each other is mutual – we welcome each other.

That means Jesus is describing the whole church as a working and welcoming community.

 

Featured image from https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/jesus-asked-the-right-questions/

Go before the Lord

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary of the message after that.

Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, the story which is recounted in Luke 1. John is perhaps the most important character in the Gospel, after Jesus. He is the last of the prophets, and the one who prepares the way for the coming of Christ Jesus. Almost the entire chapter is devoted to the origins of John, before we learn about the birth of Jesus in chapter 2.

As we read this chapter, we see a large cast of characters: Zechariah, the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, Mary, the foetus John, the foetus Jesus, Elizabeth’s neighbours and relatives, and, in the 80th verse, John himself growing to adulthood, filled with the Spirit, and preparing in the wilderness for ministry.

This narrative speaks about the working together in faith of several individuals, each in their own way, all with the common purpose of preparing the way for the Lord. Each person has to play their role for the story to work out and to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. John is officially the prophet who will prepare Jesus’ way, but all these other people were involved in preparing the way for John. Even Jesus, yet unborn, helped to prepare John for his ministry of preparing for Jesus.

We are still each called to help prepare the way for the Lord, or to prepare the way for someone else who will prepare the way for the Lord. To make this world the kind of place that Jesus would want to live in. To give expression to the Songs of Mary and Zechariah. To transform the world into the Kingdom of God.

We are, each in our own way, prophets of the most high, who will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.

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Featured image: 15th century Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia, from https://www.orthodoxmonasteryicons.com/products/nativity-of-john-the-baptist-icon

Our Father in Heaven

Click here to listen to the audio of this 11-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

As we celebrate Father’s Day today, we have to acknowledge that there are many bad fathers and indeed bad men out there – fathers who are absent or disengaged, fathers who beat their partners, fathers who rape or murder other women, fathers who beat or sexually abuse their children. Far too many people have had negative experiences of fathering.

I too have my own experiences of this, including being sexually exploited by a man who, recognising my vulnerabilities, set himself up as a father figure and took advantage of me when I was young.

For those of us who have had negative experiences of fathering, building a relationship with God, who is our heavenly Father, can be a corrective emotional experience. It can begin to undo the negative impacts of inadequate human fathering.

Let me tell you about our Father God:

  • Father God is always listening and always ready to respond. He hears our cry and he responds to us.
  • Father God loves us utterly, unconditionally, extravagantly. To the moon and back. There is nothing he would not do for us.
  • Father God has super-high expectations of us. But he never rejects us when we don’t live up to them. And he always forgives us when we fail.
  • Father God, when we leave him, stands in the road, waiting for us, looking for us. And when he finally sees he throws out his arms and runs down the road to welcome us.
  • Father God feeds us. He sets a lavish table for us and invites our best friends to join in the meal. He pours out drink that overflows with generosity.
  • Father God promises to be with us always, every moment, and to the very end of time.

If you have had a negligent, or absent, or emotionally unavailable, or overly strict, or violent, or sexually abusive father, know that you have a Father in heaven who loves you utterly and in a completely non-exploitative way.

Today is a day when we can say, “Happy Father God  Day”!

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Featured image from https://wicbreastfeeding.fns.usda.gov/some-ways-dads-can-bond-baby

He heard my cry

I encourage you to listen to this message. I have the strongest sense that this may be a Word from God for you. It is from Psalm 31:21-22

Praise be to the Lord,
for he showed me the wonders of his love
when I was in a city under siege.
In my alarm I said,
“I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.

Click here to listen to the 16-minute audio. Or watch the YouTube video below.

 

Featured image from here.

Called – Authorised – Sent

Click here to listen to the audio of this 18-minute message. Or watch the YouTube message below, or read the summary text thereafter.

Matthew 9:35-10:8 sets us on a path of discipleship in which we have the opportunity to participate in God’s work in building the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ message is “the good news of the kingdom”, which includes personal salvation as well as a transformation of the world in which we live. It shows God’s interest in the whole of human life, from the individual through to the societal.

But while the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few. Jesus calls the disciples to pray for workers who can participate with God in building the kingdom of Heaven. You are that worker! As am I! We pray regularly, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. And we are the answer to that prayer.

And then in Matthew 10:1 & 5, we read that Jesus:

  • Called his twelve disciples to him” – the calling is individual and collective. He calls you and he calls me, and he calls all of his followers, the church.
  • “Gave them authority” – Jesus authorises them to do God’s work in building the kingdom
  • Sent out” the disciples – he sends them out to do his work.

We are called, authorised and sent!

Jesus instructs them to proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near”. The kingdom is near because Christ is near; and Christ is near, because he dwells in the hearts of his followers.

What does this look like in practice? Matthew lists four things that the disciples do. These are the same things Jesus has been doing. And Jesus does them not to show off his power, but to demonstrate the heart of God – God’s loving heart for humankind. These are:

  1. The ill are healed. This is about making people whole, and relieving pain and distress.
  2. The dead are raised. This points us forward to the resurrection of Christ, who becomes the first of the the many who will be raised to new life in Christ.
  3. Those with leprosy are cleansed. Leprosy was not just an illness, but also a social condition that lead to profound social exclusion and rejection. Cleansing or purification from the disease would lead to re-entry into the community, thus social restoration and integration.
  4. Demons are driven out. Demons oppress people, holding them in bondage. When they are driven out, people are liberated from oppression. This links to Jesus’ manifesto (Luke 4:18), where he proclaims freedom for prisoners and sets the oppressed free. In this way, oppressive power in human relationships is overcome.

The proclamation of the Kingdom being near, and the evidence of this in these four acts of service, show that God is interested in wholeness, life, social integration and liberation from oppression. These are all facets of salvation and all manifestations of God’s presence.

It is to this that we are called in this present time, a time when there is much fracturing of social relationships, much oppression, much brokenness.

We do this work out of a fullness of gratitude for what God has already done for us. “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8b).

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Featured image from: https://thereeldeal.blog/2017/07/13/on-mission-for-jesus-mark-67-13/

Why Jesus would say ‘Black Lives Matter’

Click here to listen to the audio of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the very brief textual summary that follows.

I appreciate that this topic will be controversial for many. I really encourage you to watch this message please and not just read it, particularly if you find the title problematic. At least, just listen to what I have to say, even if you decide you don’t agree with it.

But, very briefly, the main points are:

  1. Jesus died for ALL of humanity – for the whole world – and would thus say, without equivocation, ‘All lives matter‘.
  2. But Jesus would also confront us, saying that we do not live our lives as if all lives mattered.
  3. Jesus’ ministry consistently and deliberately positions himself with those who are vulnerable, oppressed, poor, or marginalised: women, Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, menstruating women, the dead.
  4. Throughout his ministry – throughout the Gospels – Jesus enacts the message that Black lives matter, Women’s lives matter, Immigrants’ lives matter, Children’s lives matter, etc.
  5. Jesus is not saying the lives of the poor matter more than other people’s lives; but that their lives do not matter less than other people’s lives.
  6. Jesus is sensitive to power differentials and deliberately chooses to stand with those who are disempowered and often against those who are powerful. The story of the woman caught in adultery is a good example.
  7. Jesus sometimes engages with the powerful, but does so in a way that helps them to recognise and challenge their privilege. The story of Zacchaeus is a good example example.
  8. Jesus’ ministry is consistently one of bringing down the powerful and raising up the powerless – a reversal of fortunes. Mary’s Magnificat is a good sermon on this.
  9. In the new heaven and the new earth, all lives will actually matter in people’s lives experience. But in today’s society, this is not true. Today, all lives are not equal and not equally valued. And in this times, Jesus would be saying: Women’s lives matter, Children’s lives matter, Immigrant lives matter, LGBTQI lives matter, Black lives matter.

The Triune God

Click here to listen to the audio of this 28-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below.

The first Sunday after Eastertide focuses on God as three-in-one (triune). This is a hard concept for us – the maths doesn’t work well. Yet, the relational God (or social trinity) is a vital theology for understanding God, our personal relationship with God and the implications of a relational God for the world. In this rather long message I try to explain and apply the social model of the trinity.

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Featured image from https://www.stainedglassinc.com/window/12754/

True North

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follows.

John 15:18-19 reads,

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

Jesus acknowledges that sometimes the world will hate us for our faith and teaches two things about this:

  1. He comforts us by sharing that the world hated him first, so we’re in good company, we’re not alone, we’re not the first.
  2. He explains that the world hates us because we don’t belong to the world, we don’t conform. The word ‘belong’ is what he uses in John 17:16, where he says “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” The Greek for ‘belong’ or ‘of’ is ‘up out of’, like a plant or a tree grows up and out of the ground. Jesus is saying that we do not come up out of the world, and that this can lead to tension with the world – that the world hates us when we speak the Truth of God.

Our capacity to speak the Truth of God requires us to have a kind of spiritual and moral compass that shows us the Truth of God. A compass that helps us discern the mind of God.

The verse just before our passage (John 15:17) reads:

This is my command: Love one another.

And this verse is the tail end of a longer passage about the vine and branches, in which Jesus calls us to ‘remain’ rooted in him and in his love (John 15:1-17). So our understanding of the world hating us is the context of loving others and remaining in the love of Christ and thus of God. This love – the command to love – is the frame around our experience of being hated by the world.

On the basis of that, I suggest two learnings about our relationship with the world and its possible hatred of us:

First, Jesus calls us to be thoughtful about HOW we speak to the world. Our words need to be saturated in the love of God. In truth, the Church has often been – and continues today often to be – hateful in the way it speaks to the world. Even if what Christians and the church says is True, it is often said in a hateful, unloving, judgemental, diminishing way. This is the not the way of Christ. Jesus was challenging and direct, but he was never hateful in the way he spoke. We need to model our way of engaging the world on Jesus.

Second, WHAT we speak out on is also important. It is not only about how we speak, but also about what we speak. Let’s return to the metaphor of the compass. A compass points to the magnetic north, but this is not the True north. In fact, they are about 500km apart – similar, but not the same. We need to ensure that our words point to the True north, not the some off-centre north.

How do we know what to speak up for and what to speak out against? How do we know what is True? Again, we must look to Jesus. In Jesus’ ministry, he almost always spoke up for sinners and marginalised people, and out against those in power. We seldom hear Jesus speaking out against sinners and marginalised peoples. And the people Jesus usually speaks out against are the powerful – the powerful of the world and of politics and the powerful of the church.

Christians today have tended to invert this, speaking up for the rich and powerful, and against those who sin and those who are marginalised. They have lost their True North. They are not following in the way of Christ. They are not remaining in Christ and not adhering to his command to love one another.

We must go back to the Gospels and model our lives on Christ, in the ways he spoke truth to power, on the issues that he spoke up for and on the issues he spoke out against.

Jesus is our True North.

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Featured image from https://www.euro-academy.com/euroacademy-blog/2018/2/18/pujof0xh909ihjovyuusrkvzsym4pl

Barrier-breaking Spirit

Click here to listen to the audio of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below or read the text summary after that.

Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter and 10 days after Jesus’ ascension. Acts 2:1-12 tells us that the disciples were meeting together in one place. “Suddenly”, writes Luke, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”

This remarkable story give us two of the three key images we have of Holy Spirit: Wind, Fire and the Dove (from Jesus’ baptism).

Filled with the Spirit, the disciples begin to speak in different languages. Now Jerusalem, as the spiritual hub for Jewish people, was full of Jewish people from all over the place, speaking many different languages. They were initially drawn by the commotion – presumably the sound of the violent wind, like a tornado in a room.

But then they were “bewildered” and “amazed” and “perplexed” because “each one heard their own language being spoken”. Of all the things that Holy Spirit could have done to inaugurate her ministry among humankind, she chose to enable the disciples to speak the Gospel message in languages that the disciples did not know, so that a racially and culturally diverse group of people could hear the Gospel in words that they could understand. This tells us that:

Central to the ministry of Holy Spirit is to break down barriers

Indeed, Holy Spirit is just continuing the ministry of Jesus. Jesus himself was constantly breaking down the barriers that divide people:

  • His incarnation, when the boundary between divine and human was traversed
  • His speaking with the Samaritan woman – breaking boundaries of ethnicity, religion and gender
  • His healing of woman who bleeding – breaking purity and gender boundaries
  • His healing of the Centurion’s daughter – breaking racial, class and power boundaries
  • His touching of the dead boy and raising him to life – breaking purity laws
  • His salvation of the whole world – breaking the power of sin and death

Paul’s letters are filled with similar references to the barrier-breaking work of Christ and thus also of his followers:

  • Galatians 3:28 tells us, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” These are the classical sociological categories of race, class and gender. Jesus breaks them all.
  • Ephesians 2:14 tells us, “For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups [Jew and Gentile] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”.
  • Ephesians 1:10 tells us that God’s ultimate will is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ”.
  • And Colossians 1:20 tells us that God was pleased “through him [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross”.

Just as Jesus’ ministry involved boundary-breaking, so too, Holy Spirit’s ministry is about boundary-breaking. And she continues this work as her first Act at Pentecost. And the rest of the Acts of the Apostles is a working out of what boundary-breaking ministry is all about.

If you are a follower of Christ – even if your faith feels thin and weak, even if you don’t feel gifted or confident – Holy Spirit lives in you. She has taken up residence in you. And she wants to continue to do this barrier-breaking ministry through you, so that all people and the whole of creation can be reconciled under Christ.

ARTWORK WITH BIBLE BY KELLY

Pentecost image found in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, from http://thedialog.org/catechetical-corner/living-our-faith-pentecost-filled-with-the-spirit/