Truth to Power

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

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

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

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

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

Looking up, looking out

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

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

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

It is good for us to look up.

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

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

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

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

A Community of Faith Seeking Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurrection Church

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On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the upper room, where he showed them his wounded hands and feet. John describes this in John 20:19-23. This narrative is followed by the story of Jesus’ engagement with Thomas. And John ends the chapter with a reflection on his version of the Gospel – that he has selected from the numerous stories about Jesus these few, whose purpose it to facilitate our belief in Jesus, so that we may enjoy the fullness of Life.

John’s purpose in the John 20 narrative is to guide the church towards the end of the first century to be a resurrection church – a church that is centred on the risen Christ, empowered by Holy Spirit and focused on Christ’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this is hard when you are 60 or more years away from the living Christ Jesus. Because of this distance in time (most of the eye witnesses had passed on) John’s message is of particular relevance for us who live two thousand years distant.

This is quite a long sermon for me and our parish – sorry about that! But I hope it moves quite briskly and provides some food for thought about a fascinating and rich passage in the Gospel narrative. To assist with the denseness of the message, I provided my congregation with a slip of paper with the nine points (yes, nine!) written down. Here they are:

  1. This is the start of Sunday worship for Christians – resurrection Sunday.
  2. Jesus’ body is still physical, but also transformed – it does not conform to the laws of nature.
  3. Christ stands in the middle of us, and is the centre focus of Christian life and worship.
  4. Jesus’ presence bring peace (Shalom) and is his central message.
  5. Jesus’ transformed body retains the wounds in his hands and side, and are assimilated into the triune Godhead at the ascension, so that there is now woundedness within the being of God.
  6. Jesus commissions his disciples (including us) to be his presence in the world – when people see us, they should see Christ.
  7. Jesus imparts Holy Spirit to us – we have Holy Spirit in us, not as power and gifts, but as the relational presence of God within us.
  8. We are given the ministry of forgiveness, which Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.
  9. All of this culminates in a statement of faith – a creed – ‘My Lord and my God’.

Servant Leadership

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So many leaders today are in it for themselves and not to provide care and equipping to those they lead. Increasingly, people want to get into leadership positions for power, money and recognition, not to gain an opportunity to be of service to humanity.

This was true also of Jesus’ disciples. In Mark 10:35-45, the brothers James and John ask Jesus to give them whatever they ask. When Jesus asks what they want, they ask to sit at his right and left in his glory. They were jostling with the other disciples for positions of power. In this message, I trace the source of this jostling back to Mark 9, where Jesus is transfigured in front of them into the glory he possessed in eternity. James and John wanted some of that glory for themselves, and over the next two chapters we read various incidents in which they jostle for power and status. In response, Jesus repeated points them back to the purpose of leadership and authority: to serve those who are vulnerable.

This is a call to develop a service or servant mindset among those in power – politicians, church leaders, business persons and teachers. But it is also challenge for all of us, to consider carefully what we strive towards. Are we striving to move up the ladder to the top in order to acquire greater wealth and status? If so, Jesus warns us that those on top will discover that in the Kingdom of God they are at the bottom. Rather, let us strive to be of greater service to humanity, to the values of compassion, community, integrity, stewardship (sustainability), social justice and grace.

Blessings and peace

Redeeming the Church

Redeeming the Church

This is about the cleansing of the temple in John 2. The sermon is set against the backdrop of ongoing conflict within our Cathedral parish, involving the late Dean and current Bishop. Today was to mark the resumption of Eucharistic services which had been suspended for some time. So it is a very contextualised sermon, but raises a number of critical points for healthy church life. John 2:13-22. 11 March 2012.