Truth to Power

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The Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, verses 14-29, presents us with the grisly narrative of the beheading of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod Antipas, on request of his step-daughter Salome, who was acting on instruction from her mother Herodias. It is a passage that is inserted abruptly in an unrelated narrative about Jesus’ disciples performing miracles and preaching the Gospel. What is the purpose of such a narrative?

In this message, I suggest it serves as a tale about power and corruption. And about our role in the face of such power and corruption. I make three points:

  1. We need to avoid the entanglement of sin and guilt.
  2. We need to recognise and speak truth to the power of the powerful.
  3. We need to accept the cost of discipleship.

Christianity is not just about fellowship and singing choruses. It is not just about the love of God. It is also about challenging power and corruption in the world, about speaking truth to power. It is about championing Kingdom values, such as compassion, integrity, the intrinsic value of every person, equity, justice, the sacredness of the earth. It is about standing against oppression, exclusion, domination, exploitation, injustice and abuse. It is about accepting, even embracing, that speaking truth to power may have negative consequences for us. Christianity is serious business!

(Richard Strauss composed a chilling opera about this narrative called Salome. Not for the faint-hearted! Here is a link to a recent production.)

Looking up, looking out

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We live in a world that seems to be doing not very well. Globally and nationally we face many challenges. And many of us face personal challenges as well. These can wear us down, challenging our faith, leading us to wish we could escape all of it.

In such times, most of us look up. We look up toward heaven, towards God, and wish that God would fix things up. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” says the Psalmist (121:1). Paul writes at length about this in 2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:5. He reminds us that the world and the body we live in are transient – they last but a short time and then are done. So, he longs for a more permanent world – heaven – where we can dwell for eternity with God, and where we will be doing considerably better than we are now.

So, we look up for a better future. We look up for life after death. We look up for an eternal reward. We look up for justice. We look up for comfort and solace. We look up for hope and courage.

It is good for us to look up.

But God also calls us to look out. God is not in the business of escapism. God is not inviting us to run away from or ignore or avoid the difficulties that we are facing in this world. Rather, God wants us, calls us, to be a co-worker with God in bringing into being the Kingdom of God in our midst. This was the ministry of Jesus – “the Kingdom of God is near”. Looking out means to look around us, to look at the world as it is, to really see what’s going on. Jesus always had his eyes wide open and was looking out. In English, to ‘look out’ for someone also means to care for someone.

We hear this sentiment in the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), when Mary begins to understand what God was doing through her, and the way she was participating in birthing the Son of God, who would order the world, turning tables, balancing books, righting wrongs. These were present things that Jesus would do, and Mary recognised that she was a participant in making this ministry possible. Mary was looking out at the world and seeing the role she and her son would play in confronting evil.

We hear this also in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), where Jesus prays not that we may escape to heaven, but rather that heaven will come to earth: “Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. The rest of the prayer is about present realities: daily food, forgiveness, reconciliation, holy living, protection. His is a looking out prayer, not a looking up prayer. This prayer is about looking out at the world as it is.

Looking up and looking out are important Biblical principles for Christian living. In South Africa, during the years of struggle against apartheid, the Anglican church (which I’m part of) applied this principles. Our church services – sacramental, liturgical – are designed to help us look up to a God who is majestic, powerful, compassionate, gracious. We come to church, into a beautiful service, to escape the ugliness of the world outside; we come to church to look up. But, the Anglican church was also instrumental in undermining and eventually toppling the apartheid government and its laws; our church was looking out. THIS is what church is meant to be: Looking up and looking out.

God works with young people too

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Today is the first Sunday in Youth Month (June), and our church decided that ‘the youth’ (i.e. teenagers) would attend grown-up church for the month, rather than the usual youth church. Youth will be participating more actively in the services this month – welcoming new comers, serving as sides persons, reading the scriptures and leading prayers. And on June 17th, a teenager will preach.

So this sermon is intended to kick off Youth Month by addressing the question of the place of young people in God’s work in the world, in the Kingdom of God. All too often,  grown-ups tend to think of teenagers as being ‘adults-in-waiting’ (something scholars call ‘waithood‘). We have high expectations of who they must become, but low expectations of what they can offer now, and create little opportunity for them to act now. But, I argue, this is not what we see in the way God relates to young people in the Bible.

Drawing on the story of God calling Samuel when he was a boy (probably about 12 years old) in 1 Samuel 3:1-11, I show how God intentionally sidelined a grown-up priest (Eli) to rather engage with Samuel. God calls Samuel FOUR times in the night! During a time when the voice of God was rarely heard. AND God appears to Samuel in physical form (a ‘theophany’), which is also rare in the Old Testament narrative.  And then God gives a momentous message to Samuel, about God’s judgement on Eli, who is Samuel’s master.

In this story, we see God engaging fully with a young person, and making that young person central to God’s mission in the world. It is no accident. God selected a youngster to do this pivotal work. Samuel was about the same age as Jesus was when he left his parents to sit in the temple and engage the Jewish leaders (Luke 2:41-52).

Another narrative is found in Mark 2:23-3:6, a passage ostensibly about Jesus’ teachings on Sabbath law. I suggest that in this narrative, we Jesus acting in a typically adolescent way! (Remember that Jesus, being around 30 years old, was himself a youth, according to the South Africa definition of youth as ages 14-35.) In the first part of this narrative, Jesus and his disciples are walking, harvesting and carrying – all against the Sabbath law. Jesus’ response when challenged is a first century “Whatever” that is typical of modern teens. And then he heals a man, not because the man is in danger (his hand had probably been shriveled for many years, and was not in any immanent danger that warranted an ’emerging healing’ on the Sabbath), but to make a point. He wants to show his disregard for the Sabbath laws that had become a millstone around people’s necks.

In this second story, we see Jesus valuing a typically adolescent attitude: a healthy disregard for tradition and authority. Teenagers want to know why we do things the way we do them. What’s the point? Why is different not acceptable? Who says? We know that God appears to value such a questioning stance, because Jesus himself acts it out.

Teenagers are not grown-ups in waiting. They are already people. They’re just young people. God loves them enormously, extravagantly, intensely. God wants to engage with them, be in communication with them, listen to and talk to them. God wants them to partner in God’s work in the world, in God’s Kingdom. God sees them as full people, who have much to contribute. We, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, need to create some space for God to work with these young people.

Good Morning, Holy Spirit!

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Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early church, 50 days after Easter. Holy Spirit is a person we talk about far too infrequently, so today I seize the opportunity to talk about him (or her) in greater detail. In this message, I answer two question: Who is Holy Spirit? and What does Holy Spirit do in our lives? I draw on three great readings about the Spirit, viz. John 15:26-16:15; Romans 8:9-11, 22-27; and Acts 2:1-21.

Regarding the first question, my answer is in three parts:

  1. Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity (or the triune God) – as much God as Jesus and the Father are God.
  2. Holy Spirit is a person (not a force, or presence, or love) – as much a person as Jesus and the Father are persons.
  3. Holy Spirit is active in numerous ways in our present lives and in the lived-experience of our faith, thus very much to be incorporated into our faith life.

Regarding the second question, I give two answers, briefly:

  1. Holy Spirit dwells within us, and is thus present in the body and heart of every believer, working to align our spirit with the risen Christ, and helping us in living out our faith.
  2. Holy Spirit empowers and equips Christians for living and speaking out our faith in the world, through equipping us with gifts and strengths, and growing our confidence.

I hope that you will find this an accessible explanation of Holy Spirit. It was preached at our family service – half of those present were children and youth.

May you experience a rising of the Holy Spirit in your heart this Pentecost.

Blessings
Adrian

A Community of Faith Seeking Christ

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Today, being the first Sunday after Easter, we have the classic reading from John 20 about Thomas, the one who wanted first-hand evidence that Jesus had, in fact, risen from the dead. Thomas is my favourite New Testament character – I identify fully with his pattern of doubt seeking faith.

But John 20:30-31 lets us know that John’s Gospel is written, primarily, to introduce unbelievers to the Gospel message: “these have been written that you might believe”. So, Thomas is less an example of doubtful-faith for Christians, as he is an example of a faith-seeking non-Christian.

In light of this I help my congregation to re-read this passage from that perspective, and particularly to consider what this passage tells us about being a community of faith that creates a receptive space for those who are not Christians. I make three points:

  1. Not everyone who comes to our church is a Christian, let alone an Anglican Christian. This means we need to to make our services more seeker-friendly.
  2. People living in our area today are modern, questioning, skeptical, not impressed with authority and open to a plurality of truths. This means we need to be accommodating, open to various views, comfortable with difficult questions, comfortable with not having answers to those questions and comfortable with multiple answers to those questions.
  3. People are, nevertheless, looking for answers. This means we need to have thought carefully and deeply about some of the important questions of our time.

I remind my congregation that we are an Anglican church. Part of what that means is that we have a generous orthodoxy. We are like a large tree with expansive branches that provide shade for many people. Within the Anglican communion are charismatics, evangelicals, fundamentalists, social gospelists, liberals and sacramentalists (Anglo-Catholics). It is not that we Anglicans don’t know what we believe; it is rather that we are humble in our belief, acknowledging that we might be wrong, and thus open to others believing differently.

I suggest that this Anglican stance may be because, while we believe that truth (doctrine) is important, we believe that relationship is a bit more important. Thomas’ statement of faith (My Lord and my God) was not prompted by the evidence he got from Jesus, but by his encounter with the person of the risen Christ. It was his relationship with Jesus that stimulated his faith. And so it should be for us.

So, we we’re aiming to be a church that learns from Thomas. We aim to be a community of faith that creates safe relational space for others to seek and find Christ.

I am Judas

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The story of Christ’s crucifixion confronts us with the dark-side of humanity. Having coming back from a visit to Rwanda last week, where I visited the genocide memorial in Kigali, where close to 300,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried, this potential for darkness and evil is especially prominent in my mind. We each need to own up to the role that we played in the murder of Jesus Christ – a man who had nothing but immense love for the world.

Judas Iscariot is arguably the most tragic character in the Bible (John 13:21-32). He walked with Jesus for three years, but ended up betraying him into the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities for just a few coins. Too late, he recognised the horror of what he had done and attempted to repent and undo his evil deed. In despair he took his life.

We cannot blame Judas for Christ’s death, because we too betray Jesus and we too contribute to his death. And so, I suggest that we need to say “I am Judas” in recognition of our partnership in the execution of the Son of God. (I have adapted the ‘Je suis Charlie’ icon that was created after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015 – ‘Je suis Judas’.)

But , where Judas approached the religious leaders for forgiveness, we should rather approach Jesus, whose capacity for forgiveness is eternal. And where Judas was unable to forgive himself, we need to accept Jesus’ forgiveness and allow ourselves to be set free from sin and guilt. Thus, we can also say, “I am not Judas” (‘Je ne suis pas Judas’).

Suffering and Glory

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Jesus provides us an example of faithful journeying along the path that God had set him, a path which lead into and through suffering. He follows this path, trusting that God is present and enabling, and believing that it is a path that leads to glory.

Jesus encourages us also to follow such paths, to understand the meaning and value of hardship, and to trust that through these experiences we will reap a reward of honour and glory.

Such insights are particularly meaningful as we journey through Lent and approach Easter, when Jesus pays the ultimate price for our sin.

This message is based on John 12:20-33.