Jesus at the centre

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

John 14:6-11 is located immediately after the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet, as well as Jesus’ prediction of Judas’ and Peter’s betrayals. John 14 starts a four-chapter long sermon – Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his death.

In the opening of this section, Jesus presents himself as at the centre of our faith. He says to Peter, “You [already] believe in God [the Father]; [I now invite you to] believe also in me” (John 14:1). To believe in the Father is to believe in the Son. He goes on famously to say, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus places himself at the centre of our relationship with God the Father. It is through him that we encounter God. Jesus is the centre.

But lest we think that Jesus is setting himself up as the mediator between us and God, he goes even further, audaciously, to say that he and the Father are one. “If you really know me, you will not know my Father as well … Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is is in me? … I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:7-11). And just a few chapters earlier, Jesus had said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

Jesus is not merely a path to God. He is God. He is God the Son. He is locked into the Father and the Father is locked into him. In the very following passage (John 14:15-27), Jesus speaks about Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who will come to continue the work of the Father and the Son, once the Son has returned to the Father. When we relate to Jesus, we are relating to God, because Jesus is God.

Ultimately, sensing that Philip and the other disciples are grappling to grasp these complex and elusive concepts, Jesus says, “At least believe on the evidence of the works themselves” (John 14:11): You have heard me teaching. You have seen me heal people, raise the dead, feed thousands. You have witnessed me reaching out to women, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, menstruating women, disabled people, Samaritans and Gentiles. You have heard me speak truth to power and challenge rigid interpretations of the law. You have heard me proclaim a new Law that supersedes the Law of Moses.

What you are seeing is God at work among you!

Jesus must be at the centre of our personal and collective faith. The things of the church are helpful and perhaps even important. Jesus does not do away with them. But they must not be at the centre.

Jesus – the person Jesus – is the only one worthy of being at the centre.

He is our friend, our brother, our teacher, our healer, our saviour, our Lord, our very God.

2020.05.10_6059765012_d7fafb9504_b

Featured image is the ‘glory window’ of the Thanksgiving Chapel in Dallas, Texas.

Being Church – Being Loved

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

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20, we read about Paul’s deep love for the church at Thessalonica, which he had planted, but which he was unable to visit. Much as we are as a result of COVID, Paul was physically separated from his church, and he was really missing them. Paul expresses intense emotions about his parish – he felt ‘orphaned’, he felt ‘separated’, he felt ‘intense longing’ to see them and he ‘made every effort’ to visit.

Paul says that Satan was blocking his way from visiting. Today we should consider that Satan is blocking our ability to meet together, through the agency of the Coronavirus. This virus – a tiny thing – is blocking our ability to meet together.

But, says, Paul, he is separated ‘in person, not in thought’, that is, physically, but not psychologically, socially, emotionally or spiritually. We can and do remain connected to each other, through our relational bonds and through our common fellowship with Christ.

Throughout this passage, Paul shows the heart of a pastor, who loves his parish and longs to be present with them. And so, while we are physically separated from each other, let us remember that we have a pastor called Jesus Christ, who loves us and is in fact present among us through Holy Spirit, and that we are in fact connected with each other through the love of God.

Featured photo from St Stephens Anglican Church, Lyttleton, South Africa

Jesus’ voice

Click here to listen to the audio of this 9-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the written summary below.

In John 10:1-16, Jesus uses metaphors from shepherding to describe his relationship with his followers, and more broadly, God’s relationship with God’s followers. He mixes his metaphors, describing himself as both the gate of the sheepfold and as the good shepherd. One of the key things he says in this passage is that the sheep know his voice.

…the sheep listen to his voice.

his sheep follow him because they know his voice.

they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen … They too will listen to my voice.

Most of us do not hear the Voice of God directly, but rather through the messages from preachers, Fathers, reverends, pastors, apostles, prophets, bishops, etc. How then are we to discern if the word they are speaking is the voice of Jesus?

We will best learn to recognise the voice of our Shepherd by reading his words, which we find recorded in the Gospels. And I suggest that there are three main recorded things that Jesus said during his earthly ministry among us:

  1. Love. Jesus’ message constantly and repeatedly refers to love. He preaches a radical, inclusive, forgiving and parental love.
  2. Perspective. Jesus offers a new perspective on life, helping us to recognise God in a fresh way. We see this most explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), where Jesus says, “You have heard it said … but I say to you”. And perhaps the most radical new perspective that Jesus gives us is that God is not (just) the high, mighty and aloof creator of the universe, but also Abba, Dad, Pappa – the parent who fiercely loves his children.
  3. Challenge. Jesus challenges people. He challenges all of us to exceptionally high ethical and moral standard – again in the Sermon on the Mount. But his harshest challenges are not to ‘sinners’ (e.g., tax collectors and prostitutes in the Gospels), but to religious and civil leaders – those with power and wealth. These are the ones he calls “white-washed tombs” and a “brood of vipers“.

Let us continually read the words of Jesus in the Gospels, so that we tune our ear to recognise his voice. And let us test the words that preachers – including me! – say, asking “Can I imagine these words coming from the mouth of Jesus?” If a preacher is saying things that we could not imagine Jesus saying, she or he is probably not preaching the Word of God and we should not follow her or his voice.

[The shepherd] goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice. (John 10:4-5)

Featured image from Tumblr.

To work

Click here to listen to this 15-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

One of the impacts of COVID-19 has been to dramatically increase unemployment rates. We see this in both the developed world (e.g., the USA) and the developing world (e.g., South Africa). By ‘work’ I don’t necessarily mean employment (in the sense of being employed and paid by someone else) or even to have a job (in the sense of doing something that generates an income). ‘Work’ includes productive activities, such as volunteering or raising a family. So, I am using ‘work’ in an inclusive and flexible way.

Our current challenging context should prompt us to think about work from a Christian perspective. I suggest three key points about work.

  1. We were created to work. The creation story in Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 emphasises work. God created humankind to work. Specifically, to work as labourers, gardeners, farm workers. Work is thus bound up in the DNA of humanity, and when we cannot work, this can create difficulties for us. This is part of the threat of the COVID lockdowns – it is not good for people not to work.
  2. Work is about caring for (stewarding) the things of God. Genesis 2:15 emphasises that Adam was placed into the garden (probably the Garden of Eden, which can be thought of as the jewel of God’s natural creation) to tend and work it. We often refer to this as ‘stewardship’ – that the things of God are entrusted to us to (on loan) to care for. And to make productive. The garden is intended to be a well-cared for, creative and productive space.
  3. We work for God, not people. In Ephesians 6:7, Paul says to workers, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” To be a Christian at work is not so much to publicise your faith, to hold prayer meetings or to evangelise, as much as it is to do your job with the exceptional devotion and energy that comes form working for God.

I encourage us to think about work at this present time and to:

  1. Consider how we help people who are out of work to have work.
  2. Do our own work – if we are blessed to be able to work – as if for God.

There is so much more I want to say about Christian perspectives on work! One day I will write a book!

Featured image from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/23/world-ploughing-championships-no-till-farming

Journey with Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 12-minute message. Click watch the video below, or read the text thereafter.

Between Easter and Pentecost we focus on people’s encounters with the risen Christ. Last week we reflected on Thomas’ encounter with Jesus some days after the resurrection. Today, in Luke 24: 13-35, we reflect on the two disciples who met Jesus while they were travelling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They don’t realise that it was Jesus until the very end. Their journey has three phases:

  1. They initially fellowship with Jesus, sharing their story of Jesus with this stranger and commiserating about his untimely death.
  2. Then Jesus teaches them about the Christ, drawing on the whole of the First Testament, explaining who the Messiah was prophesied to be and how these prophecies were fulfilled in the Christ. But still, they did not recognise Jesus.
  3. Finally, they shared a meal with Jesus – they broke bread together. And as Jesus, took, blessed (or gave thanks), broke and gave the break to them, their eyes were opened and they finally recognised him.

In hindsight, they realised that they had encountered Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Ultimately, it is in the taking, thanking, breaking and giving that they recognise Jesus. This is what Jesus did in Luke 9:16, when he fed the five thousand. And also just a few days before at the Last Supper in Luke 22:19. This celebration of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Communion, Mass, Divine Liturgy) was the clincher, following fellowship and teaching, that reveals Christ to them.

This narrative follows the same pattern of the early church in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Now, our passage in Luke 24 doesn’t mention prayer, but prayer is (essentially) talking with and listening to Jesus. Prayer is just conversation with God. And this is what the two disciples were doing, even though they did not realise it, during the long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, as they journeyed with Jesus: they were talking with God.

2020.04.26_EmausDecepcionAAlegria

Featured image Emmaus Road, by Chinese artist He Qi. https://alfayomega.es/106963/emaus-de-la-decepcion-a-la-alegria

For God so loved

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

John 3:16 may be the most recognisable and widely-known verse in the Christian Bible:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)

Let’s break this verse down into its parts:

  • For God – It all starts with God, like in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God…”
  • so loved – This is the first use of ‘love’ in John’s Gospel, and it becomes a central word in his writing. This points to the extent of God’s love – God loved so much – extravagant, risky, inclusive, radical, transformative, saturating!
  • the world (kosmos) – God’s love is radically inclusive. God loves the whole world. In Greek, the kosmos. There is no-one and no-thing that is beyond the extravagant love of God.
  • that he gave – Out of this infinite love, God gives. He gives his Son. But this is not a giving, like one might give someone a cracker – the cracker is passive and is merely given. Here, God gives his Son, who is active – the Son participates in the giving, chooses to be given, gives himself.
  • his one and only Son, – God the Father gives God the Son, enabled by God the Spirit. The Son is God’s one and only, God’s beloved, God’s own heart. This is the profound self-giving of God’s self to the world.
  • that whoever – Jesus has already said God loves “the world”, which is radically inclusive of the entire collective of creation. Now Jesus brings this inclusivity down to the individual – whoever or whosoever. The Son gives himself to every individual– to you Martha, to you Stephen, to you Bongani, to you…
  • believes in him – The Greek for ‘believe’ can equally be translated ‘trust’. Believe too easily becomes ‘cognitive assent’, too easily becomes affirming a list of propositional statements about the Son. But Jesus wants more than just this – he wants us to trust him, to put our trust in him, to entrust ourselves to him. The ‘in’ in Greek is actually ‘into’, so we can confidently say, “whoever entrusts themselves into him”.
  • should not perish – Although we will all die, sooner or later, we shall not all perish or be destroyed. We have little choice about dying, but we do have a choice about perishing.
  • but have everlasting life. – And that choice is Life, with a capital L. The everlastingness of Life is not just about it continuing for a long time (eternal), but also to the quality of the Life, which can be enjoyed at this very moment. Jesus offers us Life: Life everlasting, Life abundant, Life to the fullest, Life eternal, Life in relationship with God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

2020.04.22_John316Featured background image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWxBTHVhc3I

Seeking Jesus

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

The story of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Jesus in John 20:24-29 is one of my favourites and Thomas is the disciple with whom I identity the most. Thomas is unfairly labelled a doubter. He did not doubt Jesus. He doubted his friends – the other disciples. He wanted to see and experience Jesus first hand. He was unwilling to take on a second-hand faith. He wanted to know Jesus for himself. And so Jesus appears to him and invites him to see and touch his hands and the hole in his side.

It seems Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus, but immediately experiences a surge of faith and cries out, “My Lord and my God!” In effect, he falls on his face and covers his eyes because he knows that he is in the presence of God the Son.

This reminds me of the story of Job, who was a man blessed by God, a man who had everything. For whatever reason, he then loses everything. He goes into a kind of ‘lockdown’, where he loses his possessions, his family, his health, his well-being, his freedom. Two of his friends join him in his despair and provide comfort for a few days and then engage in a lengthy debate with him to persuade him that his faith must be insufficient. God would not punish a righteous man – he must have done something wrong. But Job persists that he is righteous and wants to meet with God to present his case.

And then in Job 38, God appears and over the course of four chapters presents his credentials to Job, much as Jesus presented his credentials (the holes in his hands and side) to Thomas. God meets Job in his unhappiness and questioning.

In Job 42:1-6, Job’s response to encountering God is to throw himself down and cover his eyes – “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes”. But before that he proclaims his faith: “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you!” Job had had a second-hand faith – what he had heard from others or from the scriptures. But now, God had appeared to him in person, and his eyes had not see him. And recognises that he is in the presence of God the Father.

God eagerly desires to engage you in your faith, as he does me in mine. And God also eagerly desires to engage you in your doubt, as he does me in mine. God is not turned away by uncertainty, by questions, by doubt or by the need for ‘evidence’. Instead, God turns towards us and engages us. Let us continue to seek Jesus, for this is exactly what he wants from us: Seek him and you shall find him.

2020.04.19_thomas-sees-jesus-wounds-gloria-ssali

Featured image: ‘Thomas Sees Jesus Wounds’ by Gloria Ssali, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/thomas-sees-jesus-wounds-gloria-ssali.html