Last week we learned some Advent yoga – reaching back and seizing hold of the promises God made and fulfilled in Christ, which God has fulfilled, which feeds our faith; and reaching forward and grasping at the promises God has made that still will be fulfilled in Christ, which gives us hope. Today we focus forwards towards the hope of things yet to come. Central among this is Jesus’ second coming.
Our readings today (Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6) all speak about the anticipation of Christ’s coming, including his second coming. Malachi (and Jesus) speaks about the second coming as being sudden, unexpected, which gives us a fright. We don’t know when to expect him. Malachi also says, when the Lord comes, the messenger we long for, the Son of Man, who will be able to stand? It will be daunting. (Though Jesus prays in Luke 21:36 that at the end times “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.)
Malachi, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all tell us we need to prepare for the coming of Christ. We must be ready. We must repent of our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, then we are made right God, and ready to receive Christ. Malachi speaks about purification – metal purified by fire and clothing cleansed with launderer’s soap.
There will be a sifting, a separation. Malachi calls it a sifting – of flour from chaff and sand and stones. Jesus speaks about it as a separation of sheep and goats, of pruning away and discarding unproductive branches off a fruit tree.
But it is not all challenge and judgement. It is also about hope. HOPE! The hope that comes through Jesus Christ and the great work he has done for us. Zechariah, praying over his new-born son, John (the Baptist), uses words of hope like: salvation, mercy, rescue, forgiveness, peace, covenant, righteousness, tender mercy, sunshine, rising sun. And Paul, writing to the Philippians, speaks of love that may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.
Let us prepare for Christ’s return. And let us hope for what he will accomplish in and around us. Let us articulate and pray for what we hope for – our lives, our world as a better place, as redeemed and sanctified. Let us pray with hope for the world we desire God to make real for us.
Advent is a between-times season – between Christ’s first coming (with all the prophecies before that in the First Testament) and Christ’s second coming (with all the prophecies for that in both First and Second Testaments). In Advent, we look forward to celebrating Christ’s first coming and also anticipate his second coming – which could be today or in a thousand years.
One part of us looks back in time and grabs hold of all the prophesies that were given about Jesus’ first coming, knowing that these were fulfilled. These fulfilled prophesies strengthen our faith to know that God is good on God’s word – what God says will be, will indeed be. And that nourishes and vitalises our faith. So, we have to read back into the past and clasp those promises made and fulfilled by God, because they nourish and enrich our faith in God.
And another part of us looks forward in time and reaches out to the fulfilment of the prophesies concerning Jesus’ second coming, with the hope that they will be fulfilled. Our hope is not blind, nor futile. Because we have the evidence of previously fulfilled prophesies. Thus our faith flames our hopes.
During this between-times, we are encouraged by Christ to “stand up and lift up your heads” (Luke 21:28). And so, in this very short homily, I act out (in a kind of ‘Advent yoga’) this reaching back and grasping the fulfilled promises of God, and stepping forward and reaching out towards the yet-to-be-fulfilled promises of God. And I get the congregation to stand up and join me in this.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the church calendar. Next Sunday, we start a new church year, beginning with Advent, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into the world. But the Feast of Christ the King is the culmination of everything we have done over the past year, and climaxes with a celebration of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
In both the first and second testaments, there are passages that describe Jesus as King and God the Father as King: Moses can see only the back of God, not God’s face in Exodus 33, Daniel see one like the Son of Man in Daniel 7, and Isaiah sees God (but does not describe God; only the seraphim) in Isaiah 6. In all cases, God is powerful, magnificent and awesome, beyond words. They went out of their minds at their experience of the greatness of God. We get similar hints of this in the second testament with Christ: Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigure before them, and are overwhelmed by Christ in his glory (Matthew 17, Mark 9 & Luke 9). Hebrews 1 tells us Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being. And Revelation 1 describes John’s vision of Christ, including blazing eyes, feet like burning bronze and a double edged sword coming out of his mouth! John tells us that he feel at Jesus’ feet as though dead!
Our limited human minds cannot begin to comprehend or even see the full glory and magnificence of God as King.
And yet, in both testaments, God reveals God’s self most fully, not in such demonstrations of power, as much as in God’s love and concern for and solidarity with those who are vulnerable.
For example, both Psalms 146 and 147 present the magnificence of God, e.g., “He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them”; “The Lord reigns forever”; “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” and “He hurls down his hail like pebbles. Who can withstand his icy blast?”
But interwoven with these references to the power of God the King, we get verses like the following: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” in Psalm 146, while in Psalm 147: “The Lord gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord sustains the humble.”
The power and awesomeness of God is most fully revealed in God’s tender-heartedness, his compassion, his concern for the marginalised, his solidarity with the oppressed, and so on. And the most complete and full revelation of the heart of God is in the person of Christ, who is (as we read in Hebrews) the exact representation of God the Father. We think of Jesus, healing, touching, listening, seeing, walking, helping, weeping – all of these reveal the heart of Christ the King.
Our Gospel reading for today (John 18: 33-37) has Jesus talking with Pontius Pilate about Jesus as King. Jesus is persistently unwilling to refer to himself as a ‘king’ – twice he his pushed by Pilate: are you a king? And both times Jesus declines to answer directly. He is willing, though, to acknowledge that he has a kingdom (not of this world and from another place). I think he makes this concession, because a ‘kingdom’ emphasises the people who live in the kingdom more than the king of the kingdom. He is comfortable to speak about his people, the citizens his of kingdom, but not about his stature as ‘king’.
And in the end he says to Pilate, “You say I am a king”, in other words, you’re saying, not me. But, “in fact, the reasons I was born and came into the world [was not so much to be humanity’s king, but] to testify to the truth.” And what is truth? (as Pilate mockingly and cynically asks) The Truth is that God is, at the core and essence of God’s being, love. That is the ultimate truth of the Gospels and of God’s self revelation to humankind. That God is concerned for us and stands with us and fights for us and protects us and love us. This is Christ the King.
James and John come to Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35-45). Such an audacious question! One can just imagine Jesus counting to ten. And perhaps looking at them and reminding himself that he really loves them. His response is so calm and measured: “What do you want me to do for you?”
Jesus responds to two main flaws in these two disciples: ignorance and ambition.
First, they are ignorant. Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking” – in other words, “You are ignorant in what you ask.” The disciples want to share in drinking the cup that Jesus will drink and in his baptism, without understanding that this is the cup of suffering in Gethsemane and the baptism is his death on the cross. They really have no idea what they are asking for, yet they are so caught up in their eagerness or self-importance, that they cannot see it.
We get something similar in Job 38:1-3, which we also read today. Job has been pitching for a confrontation with God for some chapters – he believes God is deeply mistaken in treating him so badly and wants to set the record straight. In the opening verses of chapter 38, God finally speaks to Job: “Who is this that obscures my plans with ignorant words?” (or “words without knowledge). “Brace yourself like a man [like a human, rather than like a God]; I will question you , and you shall answer me.” God then spends two chapters asking Job if he can do all the many things that God has done. In chapter 40:1-7, Job recognises his ignorance and says, “How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth.” Yet, God is not done with him and goes at him for another two chapters.
The disciples, like Job, forget that they are human, not God; that their knowledge and capacity for understanding is limited, unlike God’s; and that they are therefore comparatively ignorant. Being ignorant is not a sin! We are just human, after all, and do not know everything. We cannot see across time and and space like God can. We cannot imagine multiple universes existing concurrently like God can. But there is a problem when we forget that we are just humans and fundamentally ignorant.
In addition to being ignorant, James and John are ambitious – overly ambitious. They want to sit on Jesus’ left and right when he comes into his glory, that is, when he sits on his throne in heaven. Jesus quickly puts them in their place, saying “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” If it is not Jesus to grant – Jesus, who is the Son of God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity – how much more is not for the disciples to ask. “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” [by God the Father, we should assume].
He then goes on to speak to all the disciples about positions of power and authority. These are not fundamentally wrong or bad. Power is not intrinsically bad. However, he notes that there are some who lord their power over others, who exercise authority over others. These are people who want others to know and feel that they are the ones with power, while others are powerless and helpless. This is autocratic, oppressive and abusive power. This is the corruption of power. So Jesus says to the disciples, “Not so with you! Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” And he goes further to point out that even he himself – God the Son who he is – did not come to be served, but rather to serve and to die for us.
We learn about this also in Hebrews 5:7-10, where the writer emphasises that Jesus is obedient to his Father, and through that obedience, even to death, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Jesus is the epitome of ultimate power that is sacrificed for the common good, even at his own expense. This is the inverse of ambition. Again, power is not wrong – Jesus was ultimately powerful. But power used for personal ambition is corrupt and harmful. It is not the way of Christ.
Jesus (like his Father) is always willing to engage us with whatever questions, frustrations, angers, accusations we have for God. In none of the passages we read today, do we we Jesus or God spurning anyone. However, we are also well advised to recognise our ignorance and lack of understanding, in comparison with God’s infinite understanding; and to see to serve rather than to have power. In so doing, we get closer to God, more aligned to God, more immersed into the way of Christ. This is the path to salvation. This is the path to Christ.
There are times in our life when things are desperate. These two years of Covid, and the losses, restrictions and challenges it has brought us, have given us additional reasons to feel desperate. There are times when life is exceptionally hard and we feel that the world is pitted against us – that even God is pitted against us.
Psalm 22 knows something about this:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Jesus uses this Psalm to express his desperation and despair as he hangs dying on the cross. He feels God-forsaken, utterly desolate. Where is God in all of this? Why am I abandoned?
The Psalmist shows a flicker of faith – just a flicker, though:
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. 10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
And he cries out with a desperate, but muted plea:
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Job knows something about desperate times, having lost everything, despite being a righteous man of deep faith. He loses everything – everything – and grapples to make sense of what feels like God’s abandonment of him. Instead of imploding in despair like the Psalmist above, Job explodes outwards in anger and wants to confront God (Job 23):
2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. 3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! 4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.
Job pushes towards God, seeking confrontation, to put his case to God, to demand to know why God would let him struggle like this. Job is desperate, and his desperation evokes anger and outrage at God.
Yet God makes himself unfindable:
8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. 9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
How frustrating it is when the person we want to confront is unavailable, inaccessible. God disappears and Job is left both desperate and angry, with nowhere to vent his anger. And yet, Job is also afraid of God – God is dangerous, and a confrontation with God could be a disaster for Job:
13 “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. 14 He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. 15 That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. 16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.
In the end, Job does not offer up a muted plea like the Psalmist. Instead, he shakes his fist at God:
17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.
23 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 24 … Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples also experience similar desperate times with Jesus. While we think and teach about Jesus as always available, receptive and loving, sometimes he is not. We know the story in Mark 10 of a young man who rushes up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus seems, from the get-go, to treat him harshly, eventually telling him to give away everything he has, and the young man is crestfallen and “went away sad”. Jesus then turns to the disciples and says:
The disciples are amazed and shocked – presumably at both Jesus’ response to the earnest young man and Jesus’ words about how impossible it is to saved. Peter cries out in desperation:
26 Who then can be saved? [and] 28 But we have left everything to follow you!
You can hear Peter’s despair. He has left everything – family, work, home, community, his place in society, everything – to follow Jesus, and now Jesus says that it is impossible for man to be saved and how hard it will be for anyone to be saved. It seems to Peter and the disciples that everything they have sacrificed is for nothing.
This is a low point for Peter. He hits rock bottom as it seems to him that he has lost everything. His sense of purpose is fracturing.
Sometimes, we find ourselves in similar places to the Psalmist, to Job and to Peter. Our world seems to be falling apart, the challenges of life pile up and seem unduly heavy, God seems to have abandoned us, where is he to be found?, we feel alone and desperate. It as this lowest point that transformation can come.
Peter missed something that Mark noticed. In Mark 10:21a, Mark writes, “Jesus looked at him [the rich young man] and love him.” Jesus looked at him and he loved him. Jesus looked at her and he loved her. Jesus looked at me and he loved me. Jesus looks at you and he loves you.
The writer of Hebrews helps us understand that a fundamental change occurs in the life of God, through Christ’s experience here on earth. Before the incarnation, God could see what human life was like, but could not feel what it was like. But with Jesus’ coming into this world in human form, God now knew first hard what human desperation feels like. Hebrews 4
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
And because Jesus understands fully what it is like to be human, and because he truly understands what it is like to be desperate, and because he loves us utterly and to the very end, the writer to the Hebrews invites us to come to God:
16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
We can come to the throne of God, not with a muted plea, not with anger, not in desperation, but in confidence, knowing that at that throne we will find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. We can be confident to wrestle with God, to plead with God, to challenge God, to lean into God. Because he love us and because he knows first hand how hard this life can be. Jesus (in Mark 10:29-31) does not promise an easy life – he promises both reward and persecution.
But he does promise that we can always have direct access to the throne of grace and mercy. Such is the love the Father has for us. God is always accessible, always nearby, always connected, always empathic, always in the midst of adversity with us.
If you want to skip the sermon and just watch the unscripted enacted “parable of giving back to God” with 13-year-old Zachary, watch the video below. Zachary blew us all away with his 50/50 deal!
This is the fourth in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. In week two, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Last week, we considered the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church. And today, we consider what it means to be a generous church, or a generously giving church.
Can we accept the following core principle? Everything that exists was made by God, comes from God and belongs to God. Everything: the cosmos, the earth, the plants and animals, water and air, life itself, and we ourselves. You and me. Even the things we have made as humans originate with God – we made them from materials that come from God’s creation, using the intellect and the capacity for learning that God gave us, made by people, whom God created. Everything comes from God and belongs to God.
Including our money.
We may feel that we’ve earned our money, worked hard for it, deserve it and that it belongs to us. These are not untrue. But again, our capacity work, to learn to do our work and do it well, and the things we work with, and the self that is you who is doing the work – all of these were created by God, come from God and belong to God. Therefore, our money also is God’s. All of it.
It is a common misperception among Christians that our money belong to us, since we worked for it, earned it. This is neither true nor correct. We have to challenge this misperception many of us hold. This is vital to our being able to properly think about the money that we earn.
If we think of all the money we have as coming from God, then the small percentage of this money that we give to the work of God in and through the church, is really a blessing, because the large percentage of the money that we get to keep for our own use is a gift from God. A grace.
God invites us each to give proportionate to what we have. Traditionally, this would be ten percent of what you earn (gross or net – you decide). You could choose to give more than 10% or less than 10%, as you feel led. But having 10% in mind is a good point of departure to reflect critically on your attitude to and practice of giving.
The bottom line is that we – and you – have to give to God’s work.
It really is not optional. Everything you have is from God, and God expects you to give at least some small portion of that back to him. But God really doesn’t want you to do it grudgingly or sulkily, like a chore or unpleasant task. No! God loves a cheerful giver. God loves us to give out of gratitude for all we have already received from God, out of thankfulness, out of joy and out of the privilege to participate in God’s work in the world.
At our church, St Stephen’s Lyttelton, we’ll be doing our dedicated giving pledge next Sunday (3 October). During the coming week, give serious thought to how much of the money God has entrusted to you you will give back into God’s kingdom.
This is the third in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Last week, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Today, we consider the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church.
Last week I emphasised that the people are the church, not the clergy, and that even without clergy, a church is still a church; while a minister without a congregation is really not a church. I wish to reiterate one of the things I said last week: there is no mediator between God and people: You have direct access to God. Priests, ministers, clergy to not mediate between you and God. As Paul write, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Clergy, therefore, are just one part of the body of Christ, performing their roles as equals with everyone else. Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians, regarding a congregation that had split over those who preferred Paul and those who preferred Apollos. Paul makes it clear that neither of them are really very important: “7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything (referring to himself – Paul, and Apollos), but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. … 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9 & 16).
But, lest we think we can get rid of all our clergy, the Second Testament is full of references to clergy, under various names, such as apostles, oversees, deacons and elders. These are all people who are called, set apart and placed in positions of leadership, for example: Paul writes, “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). An overseer, which is what Timothy was, is a kind of clergy person. Elsewhere Paul writes, “This, then, is how you ought to regard us [apostles]: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Here again, Paul refers to clergy (apostles). But notice it is as servants of Christ, not leaders. Yes, also as those entrusted with the mysteries of God. Clearly, clergy are part of the Christian Church.
The expectations of these clergy is high. Dauntingly high! See some of the expectations that Paul and Peter have of those in Christian leadership:
1 Corinthians 4:2 “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
1 Timothy 3:2-13 An overseer is to be above reproach, faithful, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, sober, gentle, peace-loving, not money-loving, a stable family, a mature Christian, good reputation among non-Christians, hold to the truths of the faith, a clear conscience, etc.
1 Peter 5:1-3 Elders (could be clergy and/or lay leaders) are to be shepherds of God’s flock, watching over them, doing so willingly (not because they are obliged to), not pursuing dishonest gain (integrity in the workplace), eager to serve (no mention of leading), not dominating the people, being a worthy example for others.
(Peter’s focus on shepherding, which Jesus picks up when he describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’, causes me to like the term ‘pastor’ and the ‘pastoral’ role. I try to think of my role in the church as shepherding.)
These expectations honestly daunt me. In truth, these are expectations of all Christians. But there is far less wriggle-room for clergy. We are expected to deeply embody these values and to set an example of Christ to those we minister to.
To be sure, the Bible contains numerous examples of bad leadership from clergy, and we see and hear God’s judgment against them. I regularly read Ezekiel 34, to remind myself that God is not playing around when it comes to God’s expectations of church leaders. Here is just an extract from this chapter:
God says, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves [on their flock]. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-10)
Let us admit that most of us have had experience of church leaders who failed us in their pastoral responsibilities; who have not lived up to these expectations. And let us admit also how their actions may have harmed the church and us as individuals. This is the sad reality of the church – pastors do fail us.
To be sure, God will judge the shepherds, elders, overseers, apostles, deacons and priests when they (when we, when I) fail to live up to God’s expectations. We go into the ministry knowing this, with fear and trembling.
But we ourselves should recognise the humanity of clergy, avoid judging and strive to forgive when we’re let down. We can’t hold on to resentment. We need to learn to forgive, to let go, to move on. Else we get stuck in a vicious cycle of anger and hurt, that keeps us trapped and unable to experience God’s love and healing.
As I take up today the role of Rector of St Stephens, Lyttelton, I wish to articulate my commitment to you as your pastor. I will certainly fail at times and let you down, but this is what I will strive for during my time among you. And I invite you to (kindly) pull me aside and point out those times where I fail. I will do my best to hear, learn, repent and do better:
I will strive always to be kind, compassionate, inclusive and loving.
I will listen, be open-minded, hold to a people-driven church, be responsive and flexible to your needs.
I will endeavour to be fair, impartial and consistent, and also honest and direct.
I will ask God to help me be consistently Christ-centred, Word-based and Spirit-led.
I will use the gifts God the Spirit has given me – leadership, teaching and pastoring – to guide, equip and support you. We are a clergy-supported church.
And I will try hard not to get in God’s way. God forbid that I become a stumbling block to the work God wants to do among us!
And so I invite you all us to work together in partnership to build God’s kingdom in and through St Stephens.
This is the second in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. Last week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Today, we reflect on being a people-driven church.
What is a church?
Imagine a congregation that is without a minister. Will they still be ‘a church’? Yes, for sure! A community of the faithful, even if they are just a few, is a ‘church’.
Now imagine a minister without a congregation. Perhaps even a minister with a church building. Will she or he still be ‘a church’? No, they won’t. A single person, even a minister, does not constitute a church. They will be simply a Christian person in fellowship with God.
Fundamentally, ‘the church’ is defined by its people. It is the people who constitute a ‘church’, not the minister or priest. All too often, however, ministers think that they are the church. And all too often, parishioners thing the minister is the church. We here this particularly when parishioners use phrases like, “We’re here to support our priest” or “Our pastor will decide what we should do”.
Priesthood of all believers
1 Peter 2:4-10 provides us with solid teaching on what it means to be church, particular versus 4-5 and 9-10. Here Peter describes the church with the following images:
you are like living stones
you are being built into a spiritual house (or a temple of the Spirit)
you are a holy priesthood
you offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ
you are a chosen people
you are a royal priesthood
you are a holy nation
you are God’s special possession
you are to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light
you are the people of God (though previously you were not a people of God)
you have received mercy (though once you had not received mercy)
Martin Luther summarised this as “the priesthood of all believers”, drawing on the phrases ‘holy priesthood’ and ‘royal priesthood’ above. In the first Testament, priests were appointed to mediate between the Jewish people and God. They offered prayers and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. Only priests could engage God, not the people.
But with the coming of Jesus, who became our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16), we have direct access to God through Christ. Jesus opened a direct pathway for all Christians to God. The writer of Hebrews says therefore, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence.” Jesus is the only one mediate between Christians and God – no priest can or should try to do this.
Moreover, we, collectively – all the people of God – the whole church – are called to mediate God to the rest of humanity, but witnessing to Jesus Christ. This is mission, and it is the mission of every believer.
One body of Christ
And so, we the church are called to be one people, one body, the body of Christ. Diverse for sure. But united in our shared relationship with God. There is thus no male nor female, no black nor white, no rich nor poor, no South African nor foreigner, no educated nor uneducated, no young nor old, no priest nor parishioner. We are all part of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) – every single one of us – and every part is vitally important – and every part must do its part.
Therefore, I say, a church is all about its people and must be driven by its people. We must be a people-driven church. It is all about YOU, not about the minister (we’ll talk about the role of the minister next week). Church is not like watching a movie, where you recline in a comfy chair with popcorn and cooldrink, while watching other professionals act things out on a screen. No! You are the actors and you must play your part in life and work of the church. It is all about you! You are the church. You drive the church.
We focus on stewardship for one month of each year – the month of September. It is the time when we reflect on everything that God has given us – which is everything, every single thing – and how we use this in God’s service. Stewardship has its roots in the creation story in Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
After God had created humanity – male and female – in God’s image in Genesis 1, God immediately said to them, “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen 1:28). And in the narrative in Genesis 2, God placed the man God had created in “the Garden of Eden, to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15).
In both narratives, the first thing God does after creating humanity is to entrust God’s creation to humankind, to rule over it in God’s stead (which is what a steward does) and to tend and care for it (which implies care and love). For us today, stewardship involves taking care of everything God has entrusted to us – our bodies, our relationships, our family, our finances, our possessions, our gifts (or talents or abilities), our time, our earth, our future – and using these to build God’s Kingdom.
Stewardship is not only an individual thing, but also a collective thing. We are called, as the Body of Christ, as a collective, to steward our church and to each participate in building the life of the local church as a place in which people can grow, receive support and healing, learn about God, contribute to those who are in need and fellowship together. Stewardship is thus as much about your church as it is about you.
The book of Nehemiah
The book of Nehemiah, which is largely written as a first-hand account by Nehemiah himself, provides us with a good foundation to stewardship.
Jerusalem had fallen and the people of Israel had been taken off into exile in the East, to Persia. The walls of the city had been destroyed, leaving the city vulnerable to anyone who wanted to take stuff. Nehemiah, whose name appropriately means “God comforts”, arranges with King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. He does three main things:
First, Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem. He ropes in everyone – the priests (or clergy) and all the people, working as families and neighbourhood (suburbs), to build up the walls. The walls serve to protect the city from foreign invaders, to create a safe sanctuary for those who dwell therein. People put their heart into the work, even putting their lives at risk, holding a spear or sword in one hand and a shovel in the other. Nehemiah writes in 4:6, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half it height, for the people worked with all their heart.” It reminds me of how the people of St Stephens, Lyttelton literally built the building themselves, as we recentlysaw in a video on St Stephens’ Day.
This kind of working to build the church is what stewardship involves for us, particularly if we are members of a church that has been broken down in some way. Churches are not perfect, and things can break. When they do, all the members of the church – clergy and laity – need to stand shoulder to shoulder, with a sword or a shovel, and work together to build up the church. After all, we are the church.
Second, Nehemiah takes care of the poor. In chapter 5, Nehemiah learns that some people (wealthy, elitist people) are taking advantage of the crisis by requiring poor community members buy back the land they used to own or charging them interest. Nehemiah writes, “When I hear their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials” (5:6-7). He called them together and instructed them to cancel the interest on loans and to return people’s property to them. They said, “We will give it back and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say”. Here we see those with more giving to those with less. We see people cultivating concern for those in need. We see a faith community forming, based on sharing and care.
This kind of working to build a church that takes care of its own is what stewardship involves for us. This is particularly so, if we have an economically diverse church, or if some are struggling with life’s challenges more than others. Caring for each other within the church is something Jesus emphasises over and over again – it is this love for one another that reveals to the world that we are Jesus’ disciples. It is at the heart of stewardship.
Third, Nehemiah gets the prophet Ezra to read the Law to the people (chapters 8-9). The people gather every day and the listened to the Law being read. In response to hearing the word, they repented of their sin. Their song, in chapter 9, verses 5-37, repeatedly starts with “You” – You alone are the Lord, You give life, You are the Lord God, You made a covenant, You have kept your promise, You saw the suffering, You send signs, You divided the sea, You led them, You came down, You made known, and on and on and on. They turn as a group, as a body of believers, towards God. They focus on God.
And at the end of that chapter, they made a collective commitment: “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing…” (9:38). Among other things, they commit to stewardship: “We will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and olive oil. … We will not neglect the house of our God” (10:37+39c).
This kind of engagement with the Word of God, and the response of penitence and commitment to dedicated giving, is what stewardship involves for us. We are asked to commit seriously to God, to make a solemn pledge to give of our time, our abilities and our finances to to the building up of God’s church and the work of God through the church.
What does this mean for us?
Even in the midst of Covid, with all the restrictions on our meeting, stewardship calls us to build our church. That means to come back to church, whether in-house or on-line. Too many have drifted away from church and from fellowshipping with others, even though church is available online. We must come back and practice again being church – whether inhouse or online. We must relate to each other, which we can do between services, by phone, WhatsApp and Facebook. And we must participate in praying for each other.
We must take care of those who are poor and vulnerable. A key way to do this is to give some of our financial resources to the church. A good church will use these resources to build out God’s work through the church, not to line the pockets of clergy. A good church will account for every cent that comes into the church, and demonstrate how the finances it receives are used to build the Kingdom of God.
We must immerse ourselves in the Word of God, through reading scripture, through listening to sermons and teachings, through prayer, through joining a mid-week group. In so doing, we root ourselves in Jesus, and begin to be transformed into his likeness.
I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to reflect carefully on stewardship over this coming month, and on our place within the church of Christ.
Our Gospel and New Testament readings today are nicely synchronised.
Mark 7:1-23 has Jesus telling us that we are not defiled by disregard of human customs nor by what we put into our bodies (though he is talking here about religious purity (see verses 1-8 for context), not about drugs, alcohol, sugar, etc.), but rather by what comes out of our hearts and mouths (sexual immorality, theft, envy, arrogance and so on). He emphasises that it is what comes out of our mouths that is important, not what we put into our mouths.
Jesus criticises the religious leaders of his time for for emphasising human norms of behaviour and forsaking the command of God. And what is the command of God? Simple. To love God and to love our neighbour. These are the most important things in life – more important than any other command. Human rules about how to behave, what to eat, how to eat and so on, are irrelevant when it comes to our standing before God. What is important is what is in our hearts and how this comes out in our attitudes, words and actions. What should be in our hearts and what should manifest in our lived lives is LOVE – love for God and love for others.
James seems to have remembered this teaching from Jesus and picks it up in his letter, James 1:19-27, where James says that we should be quick to listen to others and to the Word of God (these are the things we should quickly allow in) but that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger (speaking and anger are things we should be slow to put out).
Being quick to listen means to be open and receptive to people around us, to make time for them, to be interested in and concerned for them. Our default response to people should always be to slow down and listen, listen with care, listen carefully, and listen with love. And we should also be quick to listen to the word of God – to the scriptures – which he says is “planted in us” (v21) like a tree, that can take root and grow and produce fruit. And the fruit of this Word/tree is our attitudes, words and actions – these should emerge out of the Word that we have allowed to grow in us, out of the love of God in our hearts.
On the other hand, James cautions us that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. He is clearly speaking about our relationships with other people – in v27 he says that the religion that God wants (accepts as pure and faultless) is for us to to look after widows and orphans in distress (that is, to take care of those who are vulnerable) and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (that is, not to conform to human customs and worldly norms of behaviour).
James speaks particularly about the tongue, which he says we must “keep a tight reign on”, like a wild horse that is ready to bolt. He actually speaks at length about the dangers of the tongue in chapter 3, where he says, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” We have to watch (and yes, even censor) our words, because they are more powerful than we think – whether they are words of healing and restoration or words of criticism and judgement.
Rather, says James, we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. This reminds me of how God is often described in the scriptures, as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (e.g., Psalm 86:15). We should be like God – quick to love and slow to anger.
There has been a shift in the world since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He and his followers shifted social norms about how we use words. Speaking out whatever we think about people, and saying it bluntly and without regard for kindness or niceness has become a new norm. The attitude of not self-censoring and saying whatever one wants has been valorised – made into a virtue. We think we have a right to say whatever we want and that any kind of consideration of how our words might impact someone else is just a form of bleeding-heart leftism, political correctness or a sinister censorship of our right to free thought.
But no! This is completely out of alignment with the example and teaching of Christ and of his disciples! For Jesus, love and consideration for others is THE highest command (along with loving God) and checking what comes out of heart and mouths is clear in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7. James takes up Jesus’ teaching and unpacks it even more, with strong warnings about reining in (i.e. censoring) our tongues. Just read James 3 and see for yourself.
The path of the Christ-follower involves being full of love, quick to listen, slow to speak, abounding in love and desiring to build up others. Our words matter. This is the way of Christ.