Radical inclusion

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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.

Featured image “Adoration of the Magi” by Albrecht Dürer (1504), from https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/adoration-of-the-magi/zwFGJLYuIszRRw?hl=en-GB

The world

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1 John 2:15-17 presents us with a challenging text:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

How is it that John tells us not to love the world? Must we hate the world? Or distance ourselves from it? And from the people who live in it? These questions are made yet more challenging because John uses the Greek word agape for ‘love’, which is the kind of self-sacrificial love we use for Jesus’ love for us. How then do we make sense of this passage?

When presented with difficult passages, we should always look at the text in context. The immediate context is the letter that John is writing. And a broader context that I often find useful is the life and teaching of Christ – what we learn in the Gospels. From Jesus, we learn much of value about loving the world, for example, in John 3:16-17, Jesus says to Nicodemus:

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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Clearly, from this passage, God loves the world extravagantly, so much so, that he sent his Son, Christ, into the world. Not to condemn or judge the world, but rather to save it, to heal it, to reconcile it to God. Indeed, this teaching comes across in numerous places throughout the Second Testament. John, as the author of both the Gospel and the letter, cannot be meaning that we must hate the world or even not love it. His meaning must be more nuanced than that.

Let’s look at another passage, from Luke 10:25-37. Here Jesus is asked by an expert in the Law what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers with the Great Commandment – to love God and to love one’s neighbour. Because ‘neighbour’ could easily be interpreted to mean just those close to me, people who are like me, the expert rightly asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan – the Samaritan is the neighbour – a person who was not part of the Jewish community or faith. In effect, Jesus says, ‘Everyone is your neighbour’. Or even, ‘The world is your neighbour’. Again, John can certainly not be implying that we love only other Christians and not love ‘the world’ – this would be against Christ’s own teachings.

When we look more closely at John’s letter, we read:

For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

Here John gives a more nuanced explanation of what he means by ‘the world’. It is not actually the world itself or its people, but rather worldly values, which are often at odds with the values of Christ.

All too often, Christians assimilate the values of the world and turn them into pseudo-Christian values. As wise Christians, we need to be critical about what we hear and what we accept. We need to look at the values of our church, the values that our pastors/ministers/priests preach about, and how our church behaves, and critically evaluate whether they are aligned with the values and behaviour of Christ. This is John’s message.

Let me give three examples:

  1. Materialism. The world has become increasingly materialistic, and this passion for money and things, for wealth and possessions, has come into the church in the form of prosperity teachings – that God wants you to be rich and that being rich is a sign of God’s favour. But this worldly value “comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16). Rather, Jesus’ life was characterised by simplicity, contentment and generosity. Material things, that Christians so often chase after, will “pass away” – they are but dust.
  2. Me first. There is a growing self-centredness in the world’s values. We see this at the individual level, but also at national levels, with the rise of nationalism (e.g., my country first) and the withdrawal of countries from regional or global collectives. But this is a worldly value, not seen in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ life is characterised by other-centredness, not self-centredness and by an attitude and practice of service or servanthood. His ministry and the life of the early church was rooted in collectivism – things held in common and shared, so that everyone had enough. The self becomes one part of the Body of Christ, which is his Church, each one playing their part for the greater good.
  3. Entitlement. Emanating from the previous two is a sense of entitlement – that I am owed and deserve everything good, and that everything bad is an unfair imposition. This intolerance for difficulty in life is a worldly value, not Christian. Instead, Jesus embodies the path of suffering. While, as God the Son, he was entitled to power and authority, he poured himself out and became nothing, taking the form of a servant. He teaches that we should not expect rewards here on earth, but rather that we should build up treasures in heaven, as those are the ones that will last, that count. And he sacrifices himself for the good of the world. There is no entitlement in the life of Christ, and no place for it in the lives of Christ’s followers.

Dear friend, let us heed John’s warning to not become entangled in the values of this world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – and in particular to not allow these values to be assimilated into Christian teaching in our church. As John says, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Let us hold firm, then, to the life pattern and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Featured image from here

I would like, at the end of this year, to pay tribute to the people in (I think) the Democratic Republic of the Congo who wove the Kuba cloth that has been my backdrop for all my sermons during 2020. I purchased this cloth in Zambia several years ago and have treasured it as a work of great skill among African artists. I have been pleased to have it as my backdrop this year.

Next year, I’ll be using another beautiful African fabric called mud cloth (bogolanfini), probably handmade in Mali. Click here for the history of mud cloth.

New Year’s resolve

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Today we read about Jesus’ bris or circumcision, eight days after he was born, in Luke 2:21-40. We meet two incredible people of great faith in the temple: Simeon and Anna. Both immediately recognise Jesus (remember he’s just eight days old) as the Messiah, the long-awaited one.

Given that New Year is almost upon us, I thought it might be useful to see what we can take from this passage to inform our New Year’s resolutions for 2021. Or rather, to inform our resolve for 2021. (‘Resolve’ has far greater strength of determination and commitment that a mere ‘New Year’s resolution’, which most of us probably break on 2 January!)

  1. Let us be resolute in our to devotion to Christ. Simeon is described as a righteous and devout man, filled with the Spirit of God, while Anna is described as an 84-year-old prophet, who virtually lived in the temple, worshipping, praying and fasting. Both of them embody a deep commitment to devotion to God. We can be determined to walk in their footsteps, through our devotion to Christ.
  2. Let us resolve to live out salvation for all of humankind. Simeon says, in vv 30-32, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Initially, the salvation that would come through Jesus was thought of as being only or primarily for the Jewish people – indeed Jesus’ ministry was mostly to Jews. But there is a growing awareness (with deep roots in the First Testament) that the salvation that comes through Christ is for the whole world. We can live this out in the way we live, work and speak. And at this time, in how we handle the challenges of Covid.
  3. Let us resolve work always for peace. In vv 34-35, Simeon recognises that Jesus’ life and ministry will not result only in peace and joy; there will be those who oppose him, there will be conflict, and eventually there will be death. But Jesus’ ministry is one of peace-building, love, forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us live out such a deep commitment in our daily lives. And let us also resolve to pray for the world, which is marred by so much discord, conflict and violence.

May 2021, which will continue to have its major Covid-related and other challenges, be a year in which we are more intentional in our resolve to be devoted to God, to live out his inclusive salvation and to work for peace.

Featured image “Simeon’s Moment” by Ron DiCianni, from https://www.tapestryproductions.com/product/simeons-moment-artwork-by-ron-dicianni/

Journey of faith

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The journey of faith is seldom easy or straight-forward, even when people present it in this way. And holding onto faith when we are in the midst of the storm or facing a rolling crisis like COVID19 is not always easy. In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:18), Paul writes, “Give thanks in all situations for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul makes it sound simple – just accept that your challenging situation is God’s will for you in Christ – give thanks for it. Of course, it is not simple!

We have a great master class in how to journey in faith in the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Mary, who we revere because she is the Christ-bearer (the Christotokos, or even more remarkable, the God-bearer or Theotokos), shows us that faith is not simple or straight-forward. She shows her own journey of faith. This journey is not a template or recipe for us – it is simply one example of someone making this journey But it may help the rest of us – particularly those of us who struggle with faith – to make peace with our journey of faith.

The well-known story is told in Luke 1:26-38.

Mary, an engaged but not yet married teenager from a small village called Nazareth, encounters an angel. He greets her warmly and kindly, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

But Mary’s first response is to be “greatly troubled at his words” and wonder “what king of greeting this might be” and to be “afraid“. The response of fear when encountering an angel seems to be almost universal in the Bible – most people who encounter an angel respond first with fear: Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:12-13 and the shepherds in Luke 2:9-10, for example. But, let us recognise that Mary does not immediately respond with faith or joy when the angel appears to her – her response is one of fear, trepidation, uncertainty, anxiety.

The angel – much as angels do in other passages – reassures her (“Do not be afraid”) and says that she has found favour with God. He explains that she will conceive a child and call him Jesus and that he will become a great king forever.

In Mary’s second response, we see that she is no longer afraid. She is now thinking, critically, about what the angel has said: “How will this be? Since I am a virgin?” Mary does not immediately accept the angel’s message. She asks what is surely an obvious question – how can I be pregnant if I’ve not had sex? Mary is realistic, pragmatic, critical. She does not just accept what the angel is saying to her. Let us imagine also (though this is not explicit in the passage) that she realises that a pregnancy at her age and without a husband will be scandalous and difficult. Let us imagine that she has some intuition about the implications of being the mother of the “Son of the Most High”. And let us imagine that she even anticipates the tragic loss that she will suffer as her son is taken from her. (These imaginings are captured so well in the song, Mary did you know)

The angel accepts Mary’s questions. He does not reprimand or challenge her. Instead, he provides further explanation and clarifies also that even her aunt, Elizabeth (in her old age), has conceived a child – John.

And now – only now – Mary accepts the angel’s message, saying “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled“. She accepts God’s will for her life, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. But at this point, her acceptance is just that – an acceptance, even a blind faith. It does not seem to be based on a full understanding. She submits, relinquishes, surrenders to the will of God – do with me as you wish.

Mary then visits her aunt Elizabeth and they stay together for some time. Luke 1:39-45 gives a clear indication that they talked about their experiences of pregnancy and of their place in God’s plans. One can easily imagine that they spent a great deal of time talking, sharing, reflecting, praying, seeking understanding.

And out of this sharing, Mary achieves faith with understanding, which is expressed powerfully in the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. Mary understands, for example, that God is a God of love and mercy – “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” And she also understands that there will be a righting of wrongs (a reversal of fortunes) – “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” She understands that through the great things God has done for her, God will bring justice for all those who are marginalised and oppressed.

Although we esteem Mary greatly, her journey of faith is not instant. She grapples and wrestles with what God wants from her, with the storm that she finds herself in. Her own journey is one of fear, questioning, acceptance and then understanding. Her faith journey is a process over time, not a turning point in time. Indeed, even in narratives where it appears that faith emerges at a point in time (such as Paul’s Damascus road experience in Acts 9), a closer read around the experience will show that there is a journey and that the turning point is a culmination of a longer process that came before and that works its way out after.

Mary’s faith experience is not a template for us. It an example of a journey of faith, of one whom we can revere as most highly favoured and blessed of all humans. If her faith journey is not not simple or straight-forward, why should yours be? If you are doubting your faith because it seems complicated, fragile, questioning, confused, and so on, be reassured that Mary’s faith was all these things also. And yet, she bore the Son of God. Faith is a journey. Just keep on with the journey and know that God is faithful.

 ‘The Annunciation’ (1437-46) by Fra Angelico from https://medium.com/thinksheet/symbols-in-art-the-annunciation-7347bddb89d

Reconciliation

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Today (16 December) in South Africa we celebrate Reconciliation Day, a day on which we remind ourselves of the great need for us to reconcile with each other, after generations and generations of racial oppression and exclusion. We still have a long way to go with this!

In 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, Paul writes at length about reconciliation. He explains that God has reconciled us to Godself; that God has been working all along to reconcile the whole of humanity – indeed, the whole of creation – to Godself; and that God has now entrusted this ministry of reconciliation to us:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Given that God has done so much to reconcile us to God’s self and given that we are given this great commission to carry out in Christ’s footsteps, how sad it is that there is still so much division among Christians! I do not refer only to divisions between denominations, but also divisions within a local parish, between members of the same local church. Such divisions are completely out of step with everything that God has been doing with humanity since the Fall. We are called to work for relational reconciliation among ourselves in the church.

Paul then goes on in Galatians 3:26-29 to emphasise that the work of Christ has been not only to towards relational reconciliation, but also towards structural or systemic reconciliation:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

These categories that Paul writes about – Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female – are the classic sociological topics of race, class and gender. These are the systemic and structural lines according to which most societies are still divided. Employment, poverty, inequality, social exclusion, crime, agency, violence, salaries and so on all run along the lines of race, class and gender – those very things that Paul says should have disappeared in Christ. Yet in the so-called ‘Christian world’, these lines run deep into the earth.

As followers of Christ, we are called to work to undermine and subvert and dismantle these lines. To stand up against racism, classism and sexism or patriarchy. Not to perpetuate them!

And Paul then goes still further in Ephesians 5:21 to emphasise that this reconciliation should be not only in church and the world, but also in our intimate relationships. Within our households, we need to work towards domestic reconciliation and harmony:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Such a simple verse! Christians tend to emphasise the next line (wives submit to your husbands), but Paul’s headline for this passage is that we all must submit to each other: husbands to their wives, wives to their husbands, children to their parents and parents to their children. When we are all submitting to each other, out of reverence for Christ, who has reconciled us to God, we will be united and harmonious. Mutual submission to one another builds reconciliation, dismantles inequality and fosters unity.

Let us reflect deeply on the reconciliation that God has already worked for us between us and God, and in grateful response to that, work for relational, structural and domestic reconciliation.

Featured image from: https://www.thesouthafrican.com/news/day-of-reconciliation-24-years-democracy-south-africa-reconciled/

Click here to listen to a previous sermon, from 2016, on this same theme, but from a different angle.

What kind of people are we?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 18-minute message (best sound quality). Or watch the video on Facebook (the sermon starts at 25 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Today, the central question I am asking is, What kind of people are we?

Or phrased differently, What kind of people ought we to be?

John the Baptist was the last in the line of First Testament prophets. He, like those who came before him, pointed the way to Messiah, the Christ, who appeared as Jesus of Nazareth. Mark 1:1-8 introduces John to us, telling that he came as a messenger in advance of the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, to prepare the way for the Lord.

John did this preparation by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was his clear message. And instead of pointing to himself or puffing himself up, he continually pointed to the one who was still to come, saying:

After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:7-8)

When John was a new-born, his father Zechariah said much the same about him in Luke 1:67-79. After eight verses about the coming Messiah, Zechariah finally gets to his own son, and in just four verses proclaims his mission:

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

And all of this was prophesied hundreds of years before by Isaiah in chapter 40:1-5. where he says:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

All of these passages have this in common:

John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort

John came, Jesus followed and John died. And then Jesus died, rose again and ascended to heaven.

We are now waiting for him to return. And while we wait:

We are to prepare the way for the second coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort

So, as we prepare for Jesus’ return, we need to consider who we are pointing to and what message we are proclaiming through our actions and words. In 2 Peter 3:11, Peter asks this penetrating question, “What kind of people ought you to be?” He asks this in the context of second coming of Christ Jesus. Given that he is coming back soon,

What kind of people ought we to be?

We at my parish, St Stephens in Lyttelton, South Africa, are currently conducting a survey among our parishioners about what kind of church we are and what kind of church we aspire to be. One of the questions we asked was, “What qualities, values or characteristics you would like St Stephen’s to embody?” We’re still busy with the survey, but here is what we’ve learned so far:

  • God focus:
    • Focus on God, honour God’s commandments, serve God
    • Prayer, spirituality, faith, hope, wisdom
  • Relational focus:
    • Love, care, kindness, compassion, tolerance
    • Friendliness, companionship, good relationships
    • Sense of community, collaboration
    • Honesty, authenticity
    • Equality for all
    • Family values

These qualities, values or characteristics align well with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

A church that embodied these kinds of values and qualities would surely be a church people would want to attend, and would surely help to prepare the way for the Lord’s return, and would surely be pleasing to God.

Let us be this kind of church!

Featured image: St. John the Baptist Preaching, c. 1665, by Mattia Preti

Kindness

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 9-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video. Or read the text summary afterwards.

We live in a world that seems to be increasingly self-centred, selfish, self-serving, self-obsessed. A world that seems often harsh, intolerant, judgmental, hostile and exclusionary. We are seeing a growth in nationalism – people putting their country’s needs first and subordinating or even rejecting the needs of the global community. Perhaps the world has always been this way. But it seems to me to be a growing trend over the past several years.

What do we as Christians do in such context?

When we want to know how to be behave in the world, the best place to go is to the Gospel narratives, to see how Jesus behaved. And to hear how Jesus spoke – not just his teachings, but what he said to people informally and how he spoke to and engaged with people.

In Matthew 15 we find the story of Jesus feeding the four thousand with a few fish and loaves of bread. The story starts with Jesus healing people of a wide array of afflictions, leaving the crowds amazed. But in the middle of this story is a profound verse that ties the entire story together:

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” 

What we see here in Jesus is kindness. He is kind. We could say ‘compassionate’ and that would be correct. But ‘kind’ is a much simpler, shorter word. It is the word a child is likely to use.

If we scan through the pages of the Gospels, we will see more and more examples of Jesus being kind. He is thoughtful, considerate, sensitive, responsive, engaged, attentive, slow, open, willing, touchy, generous. in a word: kind.

Psalm 23 is also a set reading for today: The Lord is my shepherd. The shepherd also is kind. Indeed, there are numerous passages in the first and second testaments about shepherds who care for and protect their sheep, who seek lost sheep, who bind up and heal injured sheep, who fight off wild animals. These images of shepherding are images of kindness.

Jesus was kind – let us be kind.

Painting by Lester Kern,
from https://www.amazon.com/He-Walks-Me-Religious-Unframed/dp/B011O9Q2MA

Rend the heavens and come down

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 17-minute message. Or watch the Facebook video (the sermon starts at about 24:30). Or read the text summary that follows below.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, a season in which we look forward to the coming of Christ into the world – historically 2,000 years ago (which we celebrate at Christmas), in this very moment (Christ is continually coming into the world) and one day in the near or distant future (when Christ comes again). Today we reflect on the last of these – Jesus’ second coming.

Our reading is Isaiah 64:1-9, which opens with these powerful words, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” While this sounds like a joyful call for Christ to return, the passage is filled with caution and a call for critical self-reflection.

Let me summarise the flow of thought. Initially, there is a call for Christ to come down, to make the mountains tremble, to set fire to the world, to cause the nations to quake and to make his name known to his enemies. This passage seems to work from the assumption that there are clear enemies of God, and implicitly that we are in the right:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. (Isaiah 64:1-3)

Second, there is a similarly smug and self-satisfied view that God is inevitably on our side – that we are right, and everyone else is wrong, because we wait for Christ, we gladly do right, and we remember his ways. There is a complacency that we are right and thus God is for us – a complacency that easy slides into arrogance – an arrogance that easily slides into hatred and judgement of everyone else:

Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. (Isaiah 64:4-5a)

But third, it seems that Isaiah pauses and reflects. He becomes self-critical, as he writes, “But…” That ‘but’ initiates a series of recognitions that there is little difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. He faces up to our continued sin, our uncleanness, that even the best we do is like filthy rags, that we are shrivelled like a leaf, that the wind of our sins will sweep us away, and that we neglect to call on God’s name or to strive towards him. Isaiah recognises that, as a result, God hides his face from us and gives us over to our sin. And so he says, “How then can we be saved?”:

But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. (Isaiah 64:5b-7)

And then, out of this stepping down, stepping back, looking within, critically self-reflecting, challenging himself and his religious community, Isaiah comes to some important realisations. He starts the next passage with, “Yet”, signalling that he has recognised something new. He discovers afresh that God is our father and we all are his children. That God is the potter and we are but clay in his hands. That God is merciful and does not store up anger against his children. That God sees us as we pray. And that we all are God’s people, all the work of his hand.

This last line is perhaps the most the important of all – having started by dividing the world into right and wrong, good and bad, saved and lost; and then realising that we also are wrong, bad and lost – he realises that God is for everyone. God desires to save everyone. God longs to reconcile with all of us. And that we can be reconciled only through the work of Christ, not by us being ‘more right’ than anyone else:

Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins for ever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:8-9)

As much as we long for Christ to return – for the rending of the heavens and the coming down of Christ – let us recognise that we are little different from anyone else. We are as dependent on Christ for our salvation as anyone else, because we are as sinful as anyone else. That when we become smug about our salvation or about how spiritual or righteous we think we are, we are actually moving away from God, not towards him.

And so let us be cautious, humble, critically self-reflective and watchful. As Jesus says at the end of Mark 13:24-37,

“What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!'”

Featured image from https://wp-media.patheos.com/blogs/sites/333/2019/12/aurora-borealis-69221_640.jpg

Attitude of gratitude

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 8-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video. Or read the text summary below.

There are many valid reasons for us to feel depressed and discouraged this year. Covid has had many negative impacts on our lives – on our freedom, our health, our ability to move around. We may have lost people to Covid. Our own health may have suffered. We may have lost our jobs or income Research has shown significant increases in mental ill health this year.

But the scriptures repeatedly exhort us to express thanksgiving, gratitude and joy. We could say that the Bible encourages an attitude of gratitude. Actually, neuroscience is showing that expressing gratitude or thankfulness really does have direct impacts on our brain chemistry, facilitating well-being and happiness. And these effects can be sustained over months – it is not just a quick fix. Read this article from the Greater Good Magazine about how gratitude changes your brain.

Paul certainly grasps the importance of gratitude. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, he writes:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

The last phrase about God’s will refers not to our circumstances, but rather to our continual rejoicing and prayer. It is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus that we should always rejoice and continually pray. That we should adopt an attitude of gratitude!

And listen again to Philippians 4:4 & 8:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! … Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Paul continues to emphasise the importance of joy and giving thanks. And then goes further to encourage us to think more about the things of God. We might even say that Paul was a proponent of positive psychology or rational emotive behaviour therapy!

Gratitude is an expression of faith, because even though we might not perceive a reason to be grateful, we nevertheless express gratitude. We are grateful, even when it seems there is nothing to be grateful for. Neuroscience now helps us understand how thinking and behaving with gratitude actually changes our brain and generates feelings of well-being and happiness. And our faith helps us recognise that as we express gratitude to God, we begin to recognise God at work in us and in the world. Our perspective on life begins to shift. We begin to perceive the world from God’s perspective.

The Psalm set for today is Psalm 98. It speaks beautifully of the power of God to take care of his people, and calls us to gratitude. This translation is from the Jerusalem Bible:

Sing Yahweh a new song for he has performed marvels; his own right hand, his holy arm, gives him the power to save.

Yahweh has displayed his power; has revealed his righteousness to the nations, mindful of his love and faithfulness to the House of Israel. The most distant parts of the earth have seen the saving power of our God.

Acclaim Yahweh, all the earth, burst into shouts of joy!

Sing to Yahweh, sing to the music of harps, and to the sound of many instruments; to the sound of trumpet and horn acclaim Yahweh the King!

Let the sea thunder and all that it holds, and the world, with all who live in it; let all the rivers clap their hands and the mountains shout for joy, at the presence of Yahweh, for he comes to judge the earth, to judge the world with righteousness and the nations with strict justice.

Featured image from https://www.sttimothylutheran.org/trees-clapping-their-hands/

Turn to Christ’s right

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 21-minute message. Or click here to watch the video on Facebook (start play at about 18:10 to watch just the sermon).

Today is the Festival of Christ the King – the last Sunday of the church’s annual calendar and the day on which we celebrate Christ as the King of the Universe.

There are numerous passages in the Bible that present Christ as not just a great teacher, healer and prophet, but also as the King of the Kingdom of God, as the King of Universe, as the Cosmic Christ, For example, Matthew 25:31, Ephesians 1:20-22, Philippians 2:9-11 and Colossians 1:15-19.

Our primary readings for today are Matthew 25:31-46 and Ezekiel 34:1-24. Both readings focus on Christ as King – Ezekiel in the form of a prophecy and Matthew in Jesus’ own words about the return of the Son of Man. And both passages tell us the same thing about what Christ will do when he returns:

Christ will separate humanity

Christ will divide us in two groups: those on his right who will inherit eternal life and those on his left who will go away to eternal punishment. This splitting of the world into two distinct groups is hard for us to grasp and accept, but this is what the passages say.

Matthew divides the world into the sheep on Christ’s right and goats on Christ’s left. Ezekiel prophesies two further divisions. First, the sheep on the right and neglectful shepherds on the left. And second, a dividing of the sheep into the lean sheep on the right and the fat sheep on the left.

This separation that the Son of God will create leaves:

  • Sheep (lean/thin sheep) on the right
  • Goats, neglectful shepherds and fat sheep on the left

Surely, we want to be on Christ’s right!

Our passages give us clear, detailed reasons for this separation, which show that we have a great deal of control over which group we may be assigned to in future.

Matthew 25 makes it clear that the division is not based on our belief in Jesus as the Son of God, of our adherence to Christian doctrine, our participation in Church, our tithing, etc. No! Instead, the separation is based on kindness to those who are vulnerable. That’s it. Such a simple thing, it might seem. Just kindness. Compassion. Caring. The sheep who go to the right hand of Christ as those who care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mat 25:40).

Ezekiel 34’s first separation is the shepherds from the sheep. The shepherds here are the leaders of Israel. In our time, the shepherds are the pastors of the church – ministers, priests, clergy – as well as lay leaders – wardens, councillors, elders, ministry leaders. God’s charge against the shepherds was that they did not take care of their flock. They were neglectful, so that the flocks became vulnerable to wild animals. Even worse, the shepherds were eating the sheep entrusted into their care! Thus the Lord says, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ez 34:10). Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for the flock, specifically by those into whose care the flock has been placed, i.e. church leaders.

And Ezekiel 34’s second separation is a separation within the flock of sheep – the fat from the lean. This is not a commentary on body size! Instead, the fat sheep are those members of a church who inflate themselves at the expense of others. The Lord says, “You [the fat sheep] shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak [lean] sheep with your horns until you have driven them away” (Ez 34:21). The separation is based on bullying, criticising and breaking down each other in a church. Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for each other within the flock.

How then do we turn to Christ’s right?

We as individuals – and we as a church community (for my congregation, it is the parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton) – can and should live our lives in such a way that we keep turning to Christ’s right, turning to the right, turning to Christ’s right. And we can do that on a day-to-day basis by showing kindness and compassion to those who are going through hard times, by caring for the God’s people if we hold positions of leadership in the church, and by treating each other kindly within the church community.

It’s kind of simple really!

Keep turning to Christ’s right

Early 20th Century reproduction of a 6th century mosaic, from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/466573