Our reading for today is a passage from the book of Joshua 4:1-7. It tells the story of the Jewish people crossing the Jordan river from the desert or wilderness where they had wandered for 40 years, into the promised land. As they cross the river, which parts much like the Red Sea parted when they fled from Egypt, the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel are instructed by Joshua to each collect a large stone, and carry it on their shoulder to the other side, into the promised land, into the camp where they would rest that night.
Joshua explains that these stones are
“to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
In today’s sermon, which I encourage you to listen to or watch, since it is too rich and compact to write down here, we review God’s engagement with humanity from Abram (later to become Abraham), Joseph, the migration of Jacob’s family to Egypt, the 100 or so years of good relations Jews had with Egyptians, and then the 100 or so years of slavery under the heavy burden of the Egyptians, the rise of Moses following his encounter with God in the burning bush, the plagues and the Jewish people’s escape across the Red Sea, their long and circuitous journey through the desert for 40 years, the death of Moses, the election of Joshua, and finally (in Joshua 4) the crossing of the Jordan river into the promised land.
In this long narrative, which extends over hundreds of years, we see repeatedly God’s engagement with and grace towards God’s people. And we see humanity’s faith in God rise and fall. And we see the remarkable things that happen when people align with God.
Thus, Joshua gathers these 12 stones to create a memorial that will remind the people of everything that God has done. As he says later in this chapter (4:21-24):
“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.”
For us today, we need things (objects) that help to remind us of the good God who is well-disposed towards us and who desires us to flourish. We need things to remind of all that God has already done for us in the past, to nourish our faith that he will continue to do so in the future. These things – these stones – may be personal objects, or something in our church. For example, the eucharist we celebrate is a weekly reminder of God’s goodness – a memorial. For our parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton, South Africa, the church building is itself such a thing – these stones. It was built by hand by the members of the parish, from the digging of the foundations to the laying of the roof. We see a testimony in the very building within which we worship of what is possible when God’s people bring their time, their abilities and their finances to the work of God, and partner in faith with God for building God’s Kingdom.
In our Gospel reading for today (Luke 13:10-17) we read a less familiar story about Jesus healing a woman who has been crippled – bent over double – for 18 years. He heals of her on the Sabbath, and for that he (and all those present) are reprimanded for seeking healing on the Sabbath. Come on any of the other six days of the week for healing, the synagogue leader says, but not on the Sabbath.
Jesus then compares the situation of his healing of this woman, with helping an oxen. He says,
“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, …whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
Jesus here is calling out the synagogue leader for his deep patriarchy, even misogyny. Because he regards a donkey as more important than a woman. The church has a long history of supporting patriarchy. Even in our Bible, there are numerous patriarchal passages. And the church too often upholds patriarch – that women are less than, less than men, less than human. Even women contribute to patriarchy. Research in South Africa by a colleague of mine (Prof Shahana Rasool) shows that women (mothers and aunts) are often the first person to tell a battered woman to return to her abusive husband. So, while today’s message is in many ways particularly for men to take up, it is indeed for all of us.
In this passage in Luke, we see Jesus doing five transformational anti-patriarchal things in these few verses (vv12-13, 16):
He sees her – he picks her out among the crowds, recognises her as a human in need.
He calls her – in the synagogues then, men and women were kept separate, like in orthodox synagogues today – he calls across the synagogue and calls her to him
He speaks with her – he speaks words of healing to her: “Women you are set free from your infirmity”
He lays his hands on her – he doesn’t merely touch her politely on the shoulder. He “put his hands on her” – almost unthinkable in those days.
He affirms her – and then later he refers to her as a “woman, a daughter of Abraham”.
These five acts set for us an example of recognising the full humanity, and indeed, the divine createdness of women. There is absolutely no space here for patriarchy, and even less for misogyny. Jesus see her as a unique and individual daughter of God, a person in need, who is as deserving of the ministrations of God as any one else.
Indeed, we find narratives like this throughout the scriptures. Many women and some men have given up on the Bible, because it is so saturated in patriarchy; and unfortunately, this is true. I struggle with it myself, constantly. But, when we read the Bible closely, in the context of its own time, we find that the Bible frequently challenges deeply held cultural beliefs about the relationships between men and women, and about the the status and place of women in God’s plan. Scripture is, in many ways, countercultural when it comes to patriarchy. And these challenges seem as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.
Four quick examples – two in Genesis and two in John:
In Genesis 1:27-28, the writer describes the creation of humanity – God created man in his image, male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them. Both are fully created in God’s image. It is not that man is in God’s image, and woman is in man’s image. No! Both man and woman derive their image directly from God. And then God goes on to mandate both of them (not just the man) to rule over earth, its plants and animals – both of them! There is nothing that says Adam should rule over Eve – no! Both of them are equally commissioned with the authority of God to jointly rule over the world. This is how God created humanity! Yet, so many churches teach something different about the differential authority of women and men. It does not exist here in Genesis 1!
Two chapters later, in Genesis 3:16, we read the story of the fall of humanity. Both Adam and Even eat of the Tree of Life – both sinned. And God pronounces consequences of their sin on each of them. One of the consequences for the woman is that her husband “will rule over you”. There are Christians today who argue that this rule of husbands over wives is God’s plan for how gender relations are to be structured following the fall. Honestly, this is absolute rubbish! A consequence of the fall of humanity is patriarchy. It is not God’s desire for humanity. If it were, then all men should be out toiling in the fields to produce crops by the sweat of their their brow, because this is a consequence God gives to the man in v18. Yes, men are not doing that – they have invented machines to do it for them, or hired migrant labourers to work on their behalf for nearly nothing. Singling out this ONE facet of the fall, from all of the others, and raising it up to God’s plan for humankind post-fall, is a clear sign of patriarchy, and indeed of misogyny. It is NOT God’s desire! Indeed, Christ’s mission is to undo the effects of the Fall, including patriarchy, not to reinforce them!
Let’s move to John’s Gospel. Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well on a very hot day (John 4:1-42). Knowing who she is – Samaritan, not Jewish; a woman of ill repute – Jesus engages with her in a deep theological conversation. They don’t talk about baking or raising children. They talk about complex matters of faith. And she becomes the first female evangelist, as she returns to her community to tell them all about this man she had met. Jesus engages with her as a human being; not as a woman per se. Her gender, and the social norms around the relationship between men and women, are completely irrelevant to Jesus – he simply walks over them. Patriarchy is no barrier!
Lastly, let’s look at John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The male religious leaders bring the woman to Jesus and ask Jesus what they should do, in accordance with the Law. Note that the man is no where to be found! It’s takes at least two to commit adultery – but where is he? They say, “This woman was caught in the act of adultery”, meaning they were were caught in the act of having sex. So he was there having sex with her; where is he now? And Leviticus instructs that both the man and the woman must be stoned – not just the woman. In this highly hostile context, Jesus kneels down and doodles in the sand. I imagine that in response, all the men shift their focus from the woman to what Jesus is doing. In so doing, he redirects the ‘male gaze‘ away from her and towards himself. He spares her the shame and humiliation of this gang of men staring at her. He champions her dignity as a human being, as a child of God. And then he challenges the men, and of course they must go. And then, at the end, he holds her accountable for her sin – she really had sinned, she has the capacity and agency to make both bad and good choices – and he forgives her and sends her off to choose to sin no more. But in the process, he has dismantled the deep patriarchy and misogyny that was at work in this narrative.
There is a great deal of patriarch in the Bible – the Bible was written in patriarchal times, mostly or perhaps entirely by men. We live today in patriarchal times. Our world is full of domestic violence (physical and verbal); of women getting passed over for promotion in favour of men; of the ways men silence, dismiss and diminish women; of the brutal rape of women and girl children; and of the exclusion of women from leadership in the church. There is certainly a lot of patriarchy in the Bible and in our church.
But there is no patriarchy in Jesus. No patriarchy in God. Our Triune God celebrates the full humanity of both men and women, and all gender fluid and nonbinary people. Jesus saw her, he called her, he spoke words of healing over her, he laid his hands on her and he celebrated her as a daughter of Abraham. How much must we follow in his footsteps.
Today’s Gospel presents us with some of the most baffling words from Jesus:
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49-58).
It is hard to reconcile such divisive, anti-peace language with the Jesus who repeatedly says, “Peace be with you” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. It may be helpful to differentiate between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements. A prescriptive statement is an instruction or command, such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In such statements, Jesus is telling us the desire and intention of God for us. A descriptive statement, on the other hand, merely describes what is, without necessarily defining it as good or desirable.
This passage from Luke is phrased as a descriptive statement. Jesus is not prescribing the absence of peace or the presence of division – he is rather describing how things will be. His later critique in Luke 12:56, “How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”, suggests that the entire passage is a description of how things will be and a challenge to our faith to make sense of such divisions.
Last week, Rev Marti addressed the topic of faith in some detail. Her sermon was beautiful and encouraging. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. She commented on how lovely it is to be a little lamb in God’s little flock. Today, we continue to reflect on faith, but faith that is tested; faith that is under pressure; faith that must stand in the gap.
So, let’s go back to our First Testament readings to see how these may help us make better sense of our Luke passage.
Isaiah 5 pens with a story of a beautiful and very much-loved vineyard in vv1-2. It could easily have been found in Song of Songs – it is quite sensual. But all too soon, in v7, there is deep disappointment in God, as he looks for justice, but sees only bloodshed; looks for righteousness, but hears only cries of distress. How is it possible to go from something so beautiful to something so dreadful in just a couple of verses? God laments in v4, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” God is baffled by the capacity of the people of Israel and Judah to transform something so good into something so bad. Consequently, God destroys and tramples the beloved vineyard, he makes it a wasteland, uncultivated, dry and desolate.
This passage presents us with a sobering example of the failure of faith. What God has desired – what he expects of his faithful people – is social justice and righteousness. This is the prescription or command of God. But when we fail to live up to this expectation – when we become faithless – God is grieved, and the consequence can be destruction. The destruction is described, not prescribed – it is the natural result of our turning from God.
Psalm 80 could have been written by Isaiah – the narratives have so many similarities. vv8-11 describe a beautiful vineyard, tended and cared for, sheltered and protected. This is followed immediately by a lament (vv12-13). Here the lament is not from God, but rather from God’s people: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” As in Isaiah, God destroys the vineyard, but now it is the people who lament. And in contrast to the Isaiah passage, there is now a turning back to God, asking for reconciliation. In vv14 & 19 they say: “Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine. … Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
And in their prayer for restoration, they prophecy about the coming Messiah. In v15 they say, “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.” And in v17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Who is this son, this man at God’s right hand, this raised-up son of man, if not Christ? Here we see a restoration of the faith of the people, as they give voice to the prescription of God – that we entrust ourselves to God and to his anointed son.
In this narrative, God’s destruction of the vineyard, though terrible, gives rise to new faith. It reminds me of the fires over the mountains in Cape Town. They are destructive and devastating. But out of the fire, new fynbos and protea grow. Many of you may have seen, driving over Ou Kaapse Weg for example, the new green-green shoots of life emerging out of the blackened ground. The destructive fire, as hard as it is, is tied up with the new life that emerges from the ashes.
And then we pick up in Hebrews 11 where we left off last week – a reminder of the many ways faith has persevered through difficult times in the First Testament. Despite the many adversities they face, there are people of faith who come through these fires – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and many others. The writer of Hebrews even points out in v39 that many of them never saw the fruit of their faith – for example, Abraham was promised, but never saw, the great nation that would flow from him; and Moses never crossed into the promised land, despite all his faithful efforts in leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
And now for us, who come after Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, how much more are we able to be people of faith. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, given this legacy of people of such faith and everything that Christ has done for us, we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus himself scorns the shame of the cross, because he has deep faith that it is through such testing and trials that God’s Will will be accomplished.
So, let us then return to today’s Gospel reading. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus is not prescribing division, but describing it. Division is, strangely, a consequence of faith! Jesus did not come to make human life comfortable and easy. We are not playing nicey-nicey. No! On the contrary (as a member of our parish said so well yesterday in Morning Prayer), Jesus is a revolutionary! He came to disrupt the corruption, hypocrisy, injustice, violence and exploitation of this world. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against such evils. His vision for humanity and for the whole of creation is magnificent and prescriptive – we must live up to the ideals of God.
But when we live up to God’s ideals of love, social justice, radical inclusivity, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and righteousness, we will inevitably create conflict. Indeed, let me say that we should inevitably create conflict. This is not a prescription, but a description of the inevitable. Revolution is not nice! It causes division.
We can think of many contemporary examples of such division and the absence of peace, as a result of diverse issues in the world. For example, let’s consider the continuing question of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the church – their membership, their ministry, their marriage, their ordination. This is such a divisive topic for Christians. Many years of discussion in the Anglican church have brought little common ground.
At the Lambeth conference over the past couple of weeks – the Anglican communion’s global meeting – the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a kind of live-and-let-live compromise for everyone: each country decides what they believe is right and good. Is this a solution? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Does it bring peace and unity? No, I doubt it; it might even achieve the opposite.
My own view on this is that when we place sexual morality or our views of gender ahead of radically inclusive love, then we have strayed far off the path that Jesus walked. I am firmly convinced that the pattern of life that Jesus established leads inevitably to the inclusion of members of the LGBTQI+ community in the life, sacraments and ministry of the church, even if one believes that homosexual acts are wrong. But many of you here today may disagree with me and this may lead to a lack of peace between us, perhaps even disunity. So be it.
And of course, there may be many other issues we could fall out over: the conflict between Palestine and Israel; our stand on abortion; global warming; our affiliation to political parties in South Africa. The opportunities for conflict and discord are numerous.
I suggest, though, that what we are learning from Jesus in Luke 12 is that such tensions are inevitable and tolerable. They may be uncomfortable. And we pray that they do not tear us apart. But they are not fundamentally wrong or bad. After all, Jesus himself says, “I came to bring division”.
But towards the end of this passage, Jesus makes some important points about divisive issues in the Christian community. In Luke 12:54-56, he criticises people for being able to interpret the signs in the sky and the earth, such as predicting the weather, but being unable to interpret the signs of the “present time”. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look! Wake up! Open your eyes! Wragtig julle!” We cannot control the weather, but we can discern and shape human behaviour and its impact on the world.
For example, the eight women who were recently gang raped by dozens of men in Krugersdorp. How can we allow this continue? What is wrong with us in this country that we have the highest rate of rape in the world? What are we doing about it?
And Jesus goes on immediately in vv57-58 to urge us to think for ourselves about what is right and what is wrong. And to make reconciliation our aim, rather than to be adversarial. His prescription for Christian living, even in complex times, is clearly stated here – think about what is right and do reconciliation.
The tensions between peace and division, and the handling of complex ethical and moral questions are complex. How do we then go about discerning what is right and wrong in the world, and interpreting the signs of this age? How can we be revolutionary, as Christ was, while also working for peace and unity, as Christ did? Let me suggest two central principles that may help us navigate these challenging paths**:
The primacy of love. If there is one thing that stands out so strongly in all of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that we cannot deny it and still call ourselves Christian, it is the priority that Jesus gives to love. I refer to his love as ‘radically inclusive love’, because Jesus never turns people away on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race, religion or morality. He may criticise people’s behaviour, but he always reaches out in love and includes them in his loving presence. Love is the most important!
God’s preferential option for the poor. Quoting Wikipedia, God’s option for the poor “refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people.” We see this particularly in Jesus’ ministry and especially in Luke’s Gospel. In practice, this means that “through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor.” It implies that we do take sides, and that we take sides with the ‘poor’. (‘Poor’ is defined inclusively to refer not only to those who are economically poor, but also those who are marginalised, oppressed, discriminated against, lacking voice, and so on).
In conclusion, we persevere in our faith in God in a complex world by engaging thoughtfully and critically with the world around us. We protect and build the vineyard that God has entrusted into our care. We work for social justice and righteousness. We disagree and might even divide. We trust in God, that even out of these fallouts, new life and new faith will emerge. And we work to engage collectively in reading the signs of the times according to the key principles and values Jesus sets out for us.
Jesus’ last prayer before his arrest, according to John’s Gospel, is for all Christian believers (John 17:20-26). In this passage, Jesus prays for unity and oneness among believers. He prays:
That all of them may be one (v21)
That they may be brought to complete unity (23)
This oneness and unity is important to Jesus, because it is needed “so the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v23). Unity and oneness are part of the mission of the church, part of our witness to the world. Sadly, the church has not shown much unity over the millennia.
What does Jesus mean by unity and oneness? Does he mean that we should all believe the same things and agree on the same things – things about theology, doctrine, ethics, morality, church and so on? Actually, there is nothing in this passage about being of one mind or of having consensus on such matters.
When Jesus speaks about unity and oneness, he says things like:
Just as you are in me and I am in you (v21)
I in them and you in me (v23)
That the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them (v26)
Jesus’ explanation or description of oneness and unity is always relational – note the repeated use of the word ‘in‘. Unity is not about agreement, but about fellowship, communion, relationships. It is quite possible not to agree and still be in fellowship. Today we commemorate the Anglican Communion – a collection of Anglican churches around the world, in communion or fellowship with one another, but certainly not in agreement about everything. The Anglican church includes churches that are evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, Anglo-Catholic and liberal. There are lots of points of divergence, but still (albeit fragile) a communion, a fellowship.
Jesus says nothing substantive about sexuality or gender. But he does say a great deal about love. The love he preached and lived out was inclusive – radically inclusive – and tolerant and accepting. He did not exclude people who society saw as ‘sinners’. And the bulk of his critical comments were directed towards religious leaders, typically pointing out their hypocrisy or rigidity. These things conflicted fundamentally with his teaching on deep and radical love for others. When we weigh up Jesus’ teaching, and the overall teaching of scripture, there is far more weight for loving our neighbour (including the neighbour we disagree with) than about set beliefs about sexuality and gender.
The unity that Jesus prays for is not about set beliefs or doctrine, as important and useful as both of these may be, but rather about open, inclusive and tolerant fellowship with one another. Our parish, St Stephen’s Anglican Church, in Lyttelton, has not spoken much about LGBTQI+ issues, until now. But in solidarity with our siblings in this community, we have opened our church to host the Be True 2 Me support group for transgender people. We are in fellowship with each other, regardless of the different views individuals might hold.
Today (Thursday 26 May 2022) is Ascension Day. It is 40 days after Easter and 10 days before Pentecost. On this day in history, Jesus met with his disciples and ascended to heaven, completing the cycle of his earthly ministry, started some 30 years before. Here is the account of this event in Acts 1:
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’
Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
Below is a short (5-minute) message reflecting on the meaning Christ’s ascension.
We live in a world that is fraught with challenges and unpredictabilities. We think of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the continued challenges of the people of Palestine and the various conflicts in Africa. We think in South Africa of increasing unemployment, rising inflation, the upcoming petrol price hike. We think of loadshedding and the ongoing challenges of Covid. We think of the water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the devastation of the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The world is unpredictable. Our lives are often unpredictable. Sometimes, we may feel disoriented and anxious because of the many challenges that we face at personal, national and global levels.
In these times, it is reassuring to recognise that while life may be unpredictable, God is consistent. God persists. God has always, continues to and will always engage with us. When life feels chaotic, we have a God we can rely on.
Today’s reading from John 14:23-27 is particularly strong in reassuring us of God’s continuity. Jesus starts in v23 with himself: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And then he immediately continues, “My Father will love them.” Here is the first affirmation of consistency – between God the Son and God the Father. Jesus draws the immediate and strong link between himself, his Father and us – rooted in love – our love for Christ and the Father’s love for us. And he continues with these amazing words, “and we will come to them and make our home with them”. I love this use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ – here Jesus is referring to himself and his Father as operating together, as a partnership, and of coming dwell with us as a partnership. What a great reassurance of the continuity between the Father and the Son. And Jesus continues further, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” – yet further reassurance of continuity and consistency between God the Father and God the Son.
Jesus then continues, introducing the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”. In this short phrase we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit, collaborating together – the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the Son’s name. And the role of the Holy Spirit will be to “teach you all things and [to] remind you of everything I have said to you”. Here again, we have continuity and consistency – Holy Spirit does not start a new work in us, but rather continues the work of the Son, by reinforcing his teachings in us.
The result of all of this continuity from the Father of the Old Testament, the Son of the Gospels and the Spirit of the New Testament church is peace. Peace! Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We can breathe out, we can rest in God, we can trust that God has been consistently and persistently at work throughout history, from the creation until now and into the future. Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Be at peace.
And these reassurances of God’s continuity extend into the future. Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5 paint a compelling image of the heaven. John is taken by the Spirit – the same Spirit Jesus has spoken about in John’s Gospel – and sees the new Jerusalem, the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God. It is a glorious sight! There is no temple there, because God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son) are its temple. God’s light shines out brilliantly. The gates of the city are always open. There is a river running through the city, with the water of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. We can see God’s face.
John’s vision is a deep reassurance of God’s continuity – what have seen in the Father throughout the first Testament, what we have seen confirmed in the life of the Son in the Gospels, and what we have been promised and experienced in the coming of Holy Spirit in the early Church and continuing until today, will continue into the future, until the day Christ returns.
We can rest deeply into the continuity of God, into God’s steadfast faithfulness and persistence. We can hold onto a God who is faithful, even when our own faith is frail or when life’s burdens overwhelm or depress us. We can hold fast to God’s continuity.
Our Gospel reading (John 13:31-38) teaches a well-known phrase: “Love one another”. This is a consistent and repeated message from Christ – to love each other. We should remember that Jesus’ is most often speaking to his disciples – he is saying that the disciples must love each other, and that that will be a witness to Christ. In today’s terms, Jesus is saying that Christians in the local church must love each other.
But in today’s reading, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: love one another.” But this is an often-repeated command from Jesus. So what is new about it? Previously, Jesus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But here he says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” There is an important shift here of the source of love – our love is to be like Christ’s love. Today’s readings give us three insights into Christ’s love that we are called to emulate.
First, Jesus is tolerant and accepting of his disciples. Today’s Gospel reading is book-ended with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30) and Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 13:38). These are crucial betrayals of Jesus, and yet Jesus continues to engage with, tolerate, accept and love Judas and Peter. Indeed, he says to Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly”. Jesus is under no illusions about his disciples, and yet he loves them utterly.
We in the church often make mistakes. We say hurtful things. We spread stories about others. We make poor decisions. We neglect to do things. This is true of all Christians in the church. And the mistakes of those in leadership are even more visible. We need to be tolerance and accepting of each other, even when we make mistakes or do wrong things. Our love for each other should persist through those challenges, as did Christ’s.
Second, Jesus is protective and caring of his disciples. Twice, Jesus says to them, “Where I am going, you cannot come“. Jesus is on his way to the cross, on his way to bearing the sins of the whole world, on his way to dying for humankind. He wants to protect his disciples from that. This is a trial that he will carry on our behalf. He does, eventually, say to Peter, “you will follow later”, but which is refers to Peter’s martyrdom. Yet, we see Jesus trying to protect Peter from this, or at least from knowing it.
While being protective of each other in the church may be patronising, we have a duty and calling to take care of each other and protect each other from harm. We do this by ensuring the safely of children, keeping checks on how finances are managed, being mindful of ethics and sound interpersonal relationships. We should recognise when others are going through hard times, and offer support or assistance. We aim to protect and to care for each other, so that we can all grow and flourish together.
Third, Jesus is inclusive, which leads to diversity. We don’t get this from our Gospel reading, but we do get it from other Gospel passages and from our other readings for today. We see Jesus repeatedly reaching out to people across boundaries – women, Samaritans, tax collectors, menstruating women, dead people, demon possessed people, Romans. He seems to deliberately cut across these boundaries.
Similarly, we as Christians in church are called to be inclusive of everyone and to celebrate a diverse congregation: black, brown, white or something else; male, female or something else; gay, straight or something else; richer or poorer; more or less educated; South African or from another country – you are welcome here! Everyone is welcome here. Diversity is desirable.
We want a church that is characterised by this kind of love of Jesus, the same love that Jesus has shown to us, he wants us to show to others. We want a church that accepting, protective and inclusive, that makes space for everyone, that cares for everyone, that accepts everyone. We must intentionally and purposefully cultivate this kind of church community. This kind of love does not come naturally or easily. We must be deliberate in emulating Jesus and emulating his love. This is the primary witness of the church: how we love one another.
Luke 4:18-19 presents to us Jesus’ first teaching according to St Luke, drawn from the prophet Isaiah. It has become known as Jesus’ manifesto, expressing his mission in the world:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Jesus concludes this passage saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”.
See Jesus’ focus on those who are marginalised, silenced, unaccepted, downtrodden, forgotten. And he declares that he will proclaim to them good news, set them free, recover their sign, set them free (again) and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. And then he declares that all of this is fulfilled today – by implication, fulfilled in him and through him. This is what he his busy doing right now – it is his manifesto, his activity, his mission.
If we call ourselves Christians, we surely must make this our manifesto also. We surely must participate with him in this work.
It may seem daunting to do this work. It may seem impossible. Indeed, it is impossible! We can do it only when we draw on the resources that God makes available to us, resources that are free and readily available to us. Three key resources emerge from today’s readings from Luke 4 and 1 Corinthians 12.
Holy Spirit is the first resource that we can draw on. She is always right by us, right beside us, right inside us. We don’t have to go anywhere to find her – she has already found us!
In Luke, we see Holy Spirit active in Jesus life leading up to his manifesto. At Jesus’ baptism, we read, “The Holy Spirit descended on him [Jesus] in bodily form” (Luke 3:22). Then Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan [where he had just been baptised] and was led by the [same] Spirit into the wilderness.” And forty days later, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). And Jesus goes into the synagogue and reads the passage handed to him, which starts, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he [Holy Spirit] has anointed me to proclaim good news”. Do you see how prominent Holy Spirit is in this series of events? She is directing and enabling Jesus every step of the way.
In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul explains that “We [like Jesus] were all baptised by one Spirit … and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” Holy Spirit is active here again. Spirit is not just a dispenser of gifts. Spiritual gifts are not merely gifts that are ‘spiritual’. No! Rather, they are gifts given to us by Holy Spirit. They are Holy Spirit gifts, thus Spiritual gifts.
Holy Spirit is a person, just like God the Father and Jesus the Son are people. We can and should have a relationship with Holy Spirit. She partners with us, dwells in us, leads us.
Holy Spirit brings to us and gives to us gifts of the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and 28 give us lists of the gifts of the Spirit. The lists are not the same – there are different things in the lists. This is because the lists are not exhaustive and absolute. They are illustrative – they provide just some few examples of the kinds of gifts Holy Spirit gives to us.
These gifts are given to us to equip us to join with Jesus in living out and bringing to fruition is his manifesto.
People might not recognise their own gifts. Often we can see their gifts more clearly that they can. If so, we should let them know that they are gifted in some way.
And we have each other! We are not in this alone. We are in this together. It is the community of believers, who we call ‘the church’, who are invited collectively to support each other in living out Jesus’ manifesto. Initially Paul writes, “We were all baptised by ONE Spirit so as to form ONE body” (1 Cor 12:13). This unifying of the diverse group of people in our community is accomplished by the one Spirit, who binds us together. Paul emphasises in 1 Corinthians 12 the diversity of the gifts, and how some may seem more or less important than others. But he repeatedly emphasises that every gift is important, and that it is the collective of gifts that makes us one body – every part is vital.
And later Paul goes further, by saying, “Now you ARE the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27). We are Christ’s body, diverse and unified by a common mission – Jesus’ manifesto – to live out Christ’s mission, Christ’s manifesto.
We are in the season of Epiphany – epiphany meaning, God’s revelation of God’s self to the world.
John 2:1-11tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle according to John: turning water into wine in Cana. I unpack this under three headings:
Gifting. In this story, Jesus seems, perhaps, uncertain about his gifts. But his mother, Mary, is much more certain. She prompts Jesus to do something about the wedding banquet running out of wine. And even though Jesus is reluctant to get involved, she tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you”. She has confidence in Jesus, she recognised his gifting, and she prompts him to exercise his gifts.
Common good. You’d think Jesus’ first miracle would be spectacular. A extraordinary miracle would help establish his brand as the Messiah. But instead, his first miracle, while exceptional (he made around 600l of choice wine), was rather everyday and ordinary – common. He addressed the rather domestic needs of a couple who had just got married. I really love Jesus for this miracle for the common good – it reminds us that he is interested in and willing to intervene in our daily lives.
God’s revelation. John concludes this passage in v11 by saying, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” God’s glory is revealed through this miracle – the epiphany! And as a result of that, his disciples believed in him.
As Jesus exercised his gifting, for the common good, God was revealed and people believed.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11tells us about the gifts of the Spirit, and is part of a larger chapter about the church – the body of Christ – being made up of many parts, each of which is vitally important to the whole. I unpack this under the same three headings:
Gifting. Paul tells us that Holy Spirit gives a gift or gifts to every believer. Every Christian receives one or more gifts, Gifts of the Spirit, according to the good judgement of Holy Spirit. Whether we recognise our gifts or not, whether we recognise them as gifts of the Spirit or just natural talents, we have gifts from Holy Spirit. People often don’t recognise their gifts – often others recognise them first, like Mary did with Jesus. In those cases, we may need to prompt someone else to recognise their gift.
Common good. Paul tells us that the gifts are given not for personal use and benefit, but for building up the common good. Here ‘common’ refers not to the ordinary, but to the ‘collective’. The gifts are for the benefit of the community of believers, and indeed for the world. They are not intended to benefit us, but rather to help us benefit others. The only way we can contribute to the common or collective good is to exercise the gifts we have.
God’s revelation. As we exercise the Gifts of the Spirit, God is revealed and people can come to believe in God. Our exercising of our gifts reveals the character and values of God, and shows people who God is and what interests and concerns God, and that reveals God and can draw people to God. We, as the collective – the church – need to reveal God, and we do this best when we exercise the gifts God the Spirit has given us.
And so, when we recognise, accept and exercise our gifts, we contribute to the good of the collective, and God is revealed to the world and people may come to believe.
Jeremiah the prophet wrote and spoke during a time that included the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, which started around 597 BC and lasted about 60 years. During that time, Jewish people were not badly treated in Babylon, but keenly felt how dislocated they were from the world they knew, from the city of Jerusalem and from the temple there. Babylon may have been relatively safe, but it was not home and left them feeling alienated, fragmented and cut off from their faith and fellowship. On the other hand, a return to Jerusalem was a fearsome thought. It was a long way away, many enemies were there who wished them harm, and because of the destruction of temple and the city walls, they felt ambivalent about what might await them.
Does any of this seem familiar for us living under Covid? Many feel exiled to their homes, which are safe (though truly only relatively safe) and familiar. The world out there seems dangerous and threatening. Church, on the other hand, may feel like another dangerous place, fraught with risk, even though, at our church, church is probably safer than home, shops and workplaces.
The result of the avoidance of church and becoming reclusive at home is that we feel dislocated from our faith community and (in many cases) from God. For Christians, like for people of other faith groups, gathering together with the people of faith in worship of God is vital to our well-being and health. We are made for fellowship. We are made for corporate worship. Church is not a luxury, but a necessity.
Jeremiah 30 and 31are part a sequence that focuses on the restoration of Israel.
Chapter 30 opens with God’s promise that God will bring God’s people back and restore their home:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,” says the Lord. (30:3)
Although they confront incurable illnesses, God will restore their health:
This is what the Lord says: ”Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you. … But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,” declares the Lord. (30:12 & 17)
God will restore and cultivate a community of faith:
“I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents and have compassion on his dwellings; the city will be rebuilt on her ruins ,and the palace will stand in its proper place. From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing. I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased; I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained.” (30:18-19)
God will make them a people of God:
“So you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (30:22)
God affirms that God’s love for God’s people is eternal and steadfast. Even in the midst of adversity, even in exile or death, God’s love is certain:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” (31:3)
God will gather the people of God, including those who are vulnerable, and restore them:
“See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labour; a great throng will return. They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.” (31:8-9)
God will be the good shepherd, just as Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd:
“He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.” (31:10)
There will be a bounty – an abundance, an excess of good things. And sorrow will be a thing of the past:
“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.” (31:12)
And there will be a reversal of fortune, in which challenge and suffering will transform into abundance and joy:
“Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the Lord. (31:13-14)
Many of us have been living in exile – an exile imposed by Covid and the necessary lockdowns. For a time, this was necessary, to protect and preserve human life. But it has come at a cost. And that cost includes the loss of belonging to a community of faith. And with that loss easily comes a loss of faith itself – God seems remote.
But this way of living, while necessary at a time and still necessary in some cases now, is not the Way of Life. There is a time to be restored to our Jerusalem, to our temple, to our community, to our home. It is time – now at the start of January 2022 – to resume our gathering with the people of faith – in person where possible, and online where not. Far too many people have drifted away from church entirely and given up meeting. We need to gather again. We need to become again a people of God, and experience God’s healing, God’s shepherding, God’s love, God’s bounty, God’s presence.
Let us commit in this year 2022 to gather in Christ’s name and in fellowship with one another.