A life of love

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video. Or read the text summary below.

Today is surely a watershed moment for the world: 20 January 2021, the end of Donald Trump’s administration. Whether or not one is an American, this change of administration will surely impact the world in one way or another.

This is not a sermon about America or American politics, however. Rather it is a sermon about what defines a Christian. When we look at the American right and left, who are so profoundly divided at this time, and yet who both comprise large numbers of Christians who believe that their politics is aligned with their Christian faith, we must ask, What does it mean to be a Christian? How can Christians, who follow the same book of teachings, be so polarised when it comes to their beliefs, practices and policies?

Perhaps one of the reasons is the weight that different groups of Christians give to different parts of the Bible. While we (are exhorted to) believe that “all Scripture [that is, the whole of the Bible] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), if we base our Christian beliefs, practices and policies on the first Testament (the Old Testament) more than on the Gospels, or even on the rest of the second Testament more than on the Gospels, then something is wrong.

The Gospels present to us the very life, ministry and teaching of God the Son. These are not subsequent interpretations of Christ’s ministry, but Christ’s ministry itself. If we want to see God, we must look at his Son; and we get his Son in the Gospels. Jesus Christ’s life, as recorded in the Gospels, must be the template for Christian belief, practice and policy. And all the rest of the Bible must be interpreted through the Gospels.

Ironically, our reading today is not from the Gospels, but from Paul’s letter, where he writes about the central message we get from the Gospels: live a life of love.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)

The life of a Christian must be rooted in love. This passage is not about love for other Christians, but love for all humanity. Paul emphasises the love that God had for us before we were saved – the love that led to God’s forgiveness of us and of Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice to God – these are about God’s love for us before we were saved, and thus the example is for how we love the whole world.

Love is the foundation of Christian life. Indeed, these verses are part of a larger passage which opens as follows:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. (Ephesians 4:17-18)

In other words, Paul sees this ‘life of love’ as constituting a fundamental difference between Christian life and non-Christian life. Our love for others is what is supposed to define us as Christians and differentiate us from everyone else. Indeed, Christ himself gives us this great command:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)

This love for other people (and indeed for the whole of creation) is fundamental to what it means to be Christian. It is only after all this, that Paul then says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3) and then goes on to talk about morality. Morality is important, but the life of love is even more important. When we place morality above love, we are out of step with Christ, who consistently placed love above everything else. If you are placing morality above love, you must go back to the Gospels and see how Jesus lived, what he said and how he related to people.

What is most important and definitive in the life of Christ is the life of love, which is a love that is radical and inclusive. It is this kind of love that is supposed to inform our beliefs (how we understand God, ourselves and the world), our practices (how we life our life moment by moment) and our policies (or politics).

We pray for the people of America and their new president. We pray for a drawing closer together of the American people, a reduction in polarisation and anger, and a greater rooting of life in the Gospel message of love for one another. And we pray also for ourselves and our nation, which has its own challenges.

Featured image from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/17240411047269719/

God’s handiwork

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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.

Featured image from: https://feeds.croatia.hr/epic-week/experience/check-fascinating-handiwork/

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

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 21-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary that follows.

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

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 19-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (sermon starts at about 20 minutes).

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/

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

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

Making church work

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary after that.

St James wrote only one letter that is included in our Bible – a letter to all the churches. James is not one for subtlety. He pulls no punches. He says things as he sees them. His goal is to build up the church, and he is quite willing to challenge us to do so.

So, today’s message is an “if the shoe fits” message. If what I say today fits you or your church, put on the shoe. If it doesn’t, treat it as merely an interesting teaching or pass the shoe on to someone at another church who might need it.

In chapter 4, James provides a series of cautions and advice to churches that are experiencing internal troubles. And out of that I wish to draw three words of advice:

  1. First, examine yourself. In the opening three verses, James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” And his answer is that it is things within ourselves – our own discontent, own own illicit desires, our own wrong motives. We have to start by critically examining ourselves, looking into a mirror that does not show us as we’d like to see ourselves, but that reveals our shadow side – our inner being. In short, deal with yourself first.
  2. Second, submit to and focus on God. In verses 7-10, James calls us to turn away from ourselves and towards God. The primary purpose of coming to church is God. Fellowship with each other is vitally important, but follows after fellowship with God. When we take our eyes off Christ, we inevitably begin to devour each other and we put our souls in peril. We are to humble ourselves before God, to submit ourselves to God – these are words that speak of our recognition of how much we need God.
  3. Third, stop breaking each other down. In verses 11-12, James says that when we slander or speak against our sisters and brothers in the church, we are breaking the second of Jesus’ Great Commandments – love your neighbour as yourself. James asks, “But you? Who are you to judge your neighbour?” There may well be individuals in a church who are harming the church – members and leaders of the church – and of course they must be challenged on this. But James cautions about judging, slandering and breaking down our sisters and brothers, turning against one another – it is not good for the church.

We need to be part of God’s solution for the church. We do NOT want to be part of the problem, working against God’s solution for the church.

If the shoe fits, put it on.

Featured image from: https://www.xpastor.org/strategy/leadership/the-hidden-sources-of-church-conflict/

Invitation to the Wedding Banquet

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the sermon on Facebook (sermon starts at 19:26) or read the text summary below.

Matthew 25:1-13 tells the story of 10 young women who were waiting to meet the bridegroom. They all brought their oil lamps with them, knowing it might be a bit of a wait, but only half of them had the sense to bring extra oil. They all fell asleep waiting, but when the groom arrived, they woke up. The five without extra oil realised that their lamps were going to go out soon and asked the ones with extra to share with them. The wise, mean girls said no – go buy yourself some. The girls with the extra oil went into the wedding banquet, but by the time the other girls got back from buying more oil, the door had closed and they were turned away.

This parable – quite strong in its wording – is narrated during the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Chapters 24 and 25 focus on the end times, and the preceding three chapters have some strongly worded messages. Chapter 22 has another story about a wedding banquet, which ends “Many are invited, but few are chosen” – meaning, few actually will attend the banquet.

Three lessons we can take out of Jesus’ parable:

  1. Come to the banquet! The banquet is the party of parties. The bridegroom is none other than Jesus himself. It is a great celebration and we want to be there! God invites us all to attend – it’s an open and free invitation. We just have to accept the invite and pitch up.
  2. Be prepared! Half the girls came without extra oil. They really didn’t think anything through. They seized the opportunity for the party, but did nothing to get ready for it. We are urged to be prepared for the party, which we can do by pitching into the preparations. We can work in God’s Kingdom. We can exercise our ministry. We can give of our time and money. We can come to church and build the fellowship. In short, we can stewards ourselves, our communion, our things and our world.
  3. Wake up! All the girls fell asleep. Not just the foolish five, but all of them. Indeed, there are several stories of Jesus’ disciples falling asleep: In Luke 9:28-36, the disciples fell asleep before Jesus’ transfiguration; and in Matthew 26:36-46, the disciples repeatedly fell asleep as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. The absence of church during Covid may have made us similarly ‘sleepy’. We are out of the practice of coming to church, participating in worship, fellowship together. We’ve become dozy. It is time to wake up and to build up these muscles again!

Jesus invites us to a fabulous celebration – the wedding banquet. Let’s be sure to be prepared and be awake, so we don’t miss out!

Featured image from http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-R3zlsxfJV1E/TqtbWlWSagI/AAAAAAAAAKg/l3_WDC3LuDs/s320/parable-of-the-banquet.jpg