Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to follow him. In John 1:43-51 Jesus calls Philip – “follow me”. Philip goes to call his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, becoming one of the first evangelists. As Nathanael arrives, Jesus says some things about him, showing that he knows Nathanael, before they had even met. And then Jesus reveals that he saw Nathanael sitting under a tree even before Philip had called him.
In this message, I share my own experience of being called by Jesus to follow him. It is not definitive, but provides just one experience of being called and (eventually) responding to God’s call.
Jesus remains the same today – he knows us and sees us. He knows where we are in life and in our relationship with him, and he sees where we are and what we are doing. And it with this knowledge of us, that Jesus calls us to follow him.
I thus urge you also to respond to the call of Jesus – to follow him. Put in the effort to build a relationship with Jesus – talk with him, read the Bible, come to church, talk with Christian friends, think about Jesus. He is ready and waiting for you. He is calling you to follow him. You just need to reach back.
Now and then, it is good for us to reflect on who we are in Christ – our identity – and what God wants from us – our purpose. Ephesians 2:10 gives as a wonderful opportunity to do that:
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Let’s start with the idea that we – that you – are God’s handiwork. The Greek word behind ‘handiwork’ implies creative activity – sculpting a statue, painting a painting, writing a poem. It is about intense and skilled craftsmanship. This is what you are – you are a great work of art by the greatest artist/poet who ever lived. You are not merely a product of your genes or your environment; you are not an accident; you are not a coincidence – you are one of God’s masterpieces, unique in every way, and beautifully crafted.
Paul tells us that we are created in Christ Jesus. Christ is “the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15), thus we are the second born – Christ’s brothers and sisters. Indeed, Paul writes that “we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17). Jesus Christ is our oldest brother; we are his younger sisters and brothers. He leads the way and we follow in his footsteps.
Paul says that we are created to good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Before we were born, before we were even conceived, God already had us in mind. He knew what kind of person you would become, with your unique genetic makeup and life experiences, and the hand of God shaping the course of our life. God already has in mind what he wants us to do in the world. I do not think this means our lives are scripted and preset; but it does mean that there is already a pattern of what we are each able to do in unique ways that bring a smile to God’s face.
And what are these things God has prepared for us to do? Good works. It is striking that Paul writes here about good works, because in the preceding verses he has been emphatic that are saved by faith and not through good works. But now he closes off this passage by saying that we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works. That is the purpose for our creation.
What constitutes a ‘good work’. Let’s refer to the great commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), where Jesus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. A good work, fundamentally, is anything that shows God’s love for our neighbour. We are each created uniquely to love uniquely, to do unique good works. The good that you are able to do is different from the good I can do. You were uniquely created by the great Craftsman to do unique good, loving works, that God prepared in advance for you and only you to do in a uniquely ‘you’ way.
Let us meditate on Paul’s words:
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Today we commemorate and celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan. Mark 1:10 tells us that “as Jesus was coming up out of the water” the Spirit descended “on him like a dove”. Jesus’ ministry starts with him being filled will the Spirit. Surely, if the Spirit is important for his life and ministry, the Spirit must be important for ours also.
Indeed, all of our readings for today speak about the work of the Spirit. Genesis 1:2 tells us that when God was creating the heavens and the earth, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. Holy Spirit was there, partnering with God in creation. And Psalm 29:3 echoes these words: “the voice of the Lord is over the waters … the Lord thunders over the mighty waters” – suggesting that the Spirit and the Lord are one and the same God. Holy Spirit is active in creation.
In Acts 19:1-7, Paul met up with some of John’s disciples and asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed. They say they did not – indeed, they did not even know there was a Holy Spirit. Paul lays his hands on them and “the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”. Much as we see in the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, Holy Spirit equips people for ministry.
Clearly, the Spirit is essential for creation or creativity and for ministry. Luke 4:1 tells us that after his baptism, Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and that it was the Spirit who led him into the wilderness, where he was tempted. If Jesus needed to be filled with the Spirit, how much more do we need the filling of the Spirit? Paul is emphatic in Ephesians 5:18: “Be filled with the Spirit”.
Hopefully you are convinced that we need to be filled with the Spirit. If so, the question is ‘how?’ How are we to be filled with the Spirit?
Let me start by affirming that if you believe in Jesus – if you are a Christian – then Holy Spirit is already living in you. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” You cannot become a Christian without the working of the Spirit. So if you are a Christian, you already have the Spirit in you, whether you know it or not. Being filled with the Spirit then is something additional to this. (Remember that Jesus was already the Son of God when he was filled with the Spirit.)
How can we be filled with the Spirit? There is no formula for being filled with the Spirit. I offer some suggestions based on my own experience and the experiences I’ve heard from or seen in others:
Say a prayer asking Holy Spirit to fill you.
Ask someone to lay hands on you and pray for you to be filled with the Spirit.
Say a prayer in which you tell the Spirit that you surrender to the Spirit.
Bearing in mind that the Spirit is already in you, but that the Spirit might be shackled or chained, thus prevented from working fully, say a prayer in which you you unchain, unshackle and free-up the Spirit to work in you.
Identify specific areas of your life (e.g., your finances, marriage, mental health, sexuality) that you are keeping back from God and invite the Spirit to fill these areas of your life.
Do a walking prayer, saying “Holy Spirit fill me” as you breathe in and “I surrender to you” as you breathe out.
Or anything else that works for you…
I encourage you to seek the infilling of the Spirit. Not as a once-off thing, but as a regular thing. Being filled with the Spirit is not an event, but an ongoing way of life, in which we keep in step with the Spirit, like breathing. When we are filled with the Spirit, our faith will grow and flourish, our prayer life will deepen, we’ll more easily understand the Bible, and our ministry will strengthen and expand. This is what living in the Spirit is about.
Covid-19 has been spreading at an alarming rate in recent weeks. We have more new cases and more deaths than we had at the height of the first wave back in July and August 2020. And we hear of whole families infected with Covid and even dying of Covid. We ought to be greatly concerned about Covid. Let us think of Covid as the enemy of humanity and an agent of the devil. Covid does everything that is the antithesis of God and works against God’s vision for humanity.
The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
Let us think of the Amalekites as Covid – our common enemy. Everyone is working to fight off this enemy:
Joshua and his soldiers are like those who are fighting Covid directly – frontline health workers, those developing vaccines and the President and his team.
Moses, together with Aaron and Hur, are up on the hilltop praying for Joshua and his team as they battle the enemy. Let us imagine that we are Moses, Aaron and Hur.
We can and ought to be praying against Covid. Prayer is not just a psychological thing that we do. It is real engagement with God and has a real impact on the real world. Prayer is hard – Moses struggles to keep his hands above his head holding the staff of God. We have to persist, to persevere in prayer.
And as Moses struggles, Aaron and Hur come alongside him. They help him to sit and then each help him hold up his arms, so that Moses can continue his work of prayer. Aaron and Hur work together to support Moses, who prays on behalf of Joshua.
In a similar way, we need each to do our part in supporting our collective efforts against Covid. These are quite simple: wear a mask, maintain physical distancing and avoid large gatherings. When we each do our part, we make a collective difference and contribute to the common good of all humanity.
And finally, let us take heart that God is present also in this collaborative effort: Aaron and Hur work to support Moses as he prays to God to enable Joshua and his team to fight off the enemy. There is no ‘let go and let God’ in this narrative. Each member of Israel had a role to play – each did their part. Together, working collaboratively, working in partnership with God, they were able to win the battle.
Dear friends, let us pray for God’s salvation and let us each do our part to support and protect each other, so that we win the battle against Covid.
Today we celebrate Epiphany – the revelation or revealing of Jesus Christ to the non-Jewish world, specifically, to the Magi. Traditionally, these were the three wise men or the three kings. The readings set for today (for Epiphany) tell the narrative of a great opening up (or revealing or understanding) of God’s salvation for all humankind.
We start in Isaiah with several prophecies of the nations (Gentiles, non-Jews) coming recognise the special call of Israel to be a light to the world. For example, Isaiah 59:19 says, “From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord, and from the rising of the sun [that is, from the east], they will revere his glory”. In Isaiah 60:3, we read, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn”. And Isaiah 60:6 seems to prophesy the coming of the Magi (the traditional ‘three kings’ or ‘wise men’), “All from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
In the times of the First Testament, God had chosen to work with the Jewish people. They were his chosen people – the people of the covenant. But throughout that Testament, we see references, like those in Isaiah, to Israel leading everyone towards God. They were to be a priestly nation who would mediate God to the world.
Then, in Matthew 2:1, we read, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem … Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’.” When they found Jesus, “they bowed down and worshipped him” and “presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11), in fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 60:6.
The importance of the Magi is twofold. First, they recognise Jesus as a king – not merely as a child. He was a person of great significance. And secondly, because they came from the east (probably somewhere in Persia or even further east) and were not Jewish, they represent the gentile nations. Their visit to Jesus and their recognition of him as King is the fulfilment of the First Testament prophecy, that the Messiah of the Jewish people would be a Messiah for all people. This is the epiphany – the revelation of Jesus to those outside of the Jewish faith.
Jesus’ ministry, as recorded in the Gospels, was primarily to the Jewish people. Jesus says as much (e.g., Matthew 10:5-6). However, there are numerous examples of Jesus reaching beyond the Jewish people to Gentiles. Still, the Good News that Jesus preached was primarily good news for Jews.
The outworking of the fulfilled prophecy comes with Paul and is explained very clearly in his letter to the Ephesians. Speaking to the Gentiles, Paul says “you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Paul is reiterating the First Testament position, that only the Jewish people were God’s chosen.
But Paul then shares his “insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit of God’s holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:4-5). And what is this mystery? It is that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6).
Paul proclaims the great opening up of the Gospel message to all people, as was prophesied in the First Testament and according to the sign of the magi from the East. God’s chosen people are no longer only the Jewish nation, but anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. “In him and through faith in him, we may approach God, with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12). “The barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) has been destroyed. The doors to the Kingdom of God have been flung wide open and all are welcome to enter!
What does this mean for us today? It means that our church doors must also be flung wide open so that all feel welcome to enter. There should be no barriers to people coming to Christ and coming to church. Every person, no matter who or what they are, should feel that they are welcome, loved and included when they meet us. We should be generous and inclusive.
If we are honest, we will admit that Christians can be some of the most judgemental, critical and exclusionary people on earth. And often also hypocrites – saying one thing but doing another. Christians frequently do not put into practice the open and inclusive Gospel that Jesus proclaimed, which was prophesied in the First Testament, and which we see unfolding throughout the Second Testament.
Jesus’ ministry was one of radical inclusion. He seems to go out of his way to embrace those who the world would regard as sinners and marginalised – prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman oppressors, lepers, demon possessed people, women, Samaritans, the dead and dying, and so on. Jesus repeatedly positions himself with those who one might think could not be the ‘chosen people’. He does this show, unequivocally, that the Gospel is a generous and inclusive message and that doors to the Kingdom of God are wide open.
And thanks be to God for that! Because this is what enables most of us – who are Gentile – to be included among God’s chosen people. Let us then walk in the footsteps of Jesus and of Paul, in the way we as individuals engage with people around us – always welcoming, always generous, warm, kind, tolerant, inclusive. And let us as a church – the parish of St Stephen – similarly be a church with wide open doors that welcomes anyone and everyone into the presence of God.