Today’s set of compelling readings from Micah 6:8, Psalm 15:1-3, Matthew 5:3-10 and 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, point us to the heart of a God who is concerned for those who are marginalised, vilified and outcast. They also emphasise that our responsibility as Christians is to be merciful, kind, humble, inclusive and generous.
In light of these readings, today’s message addresses the complex and controversial topic of sexuality in the church, particularly homosexuality. This is a topic that has been long ignored and more recent has lead to deep divisions within the the church between those who are against and those who are for (or at least tolerant of) gay relationships. Many gay Christians feel deeply rejected by the church – not just for what they do sexually, but for who they are – for their very being, their humanity, which is experienced to be under attack by Christians and the church.
In today’s message, I endeavour to the following, which I encourage you to watch, listen to or read, using the links provided at the top of today’s blog.
Some clarification of terminologies, particularly the difference between gender identity (who I see myself as being in terms of gender – traditionally male or female) and sexuality (who I have sexually or romantically attracted to – traditionally heterosexual or homosexual). Both of these terms have become increasingly diverse and nuanced in recent years.
Developing an understanding of how the Scriptures were authored within particular historical and cultural contexts that differ vastly from contemporary society.
I address five broad points of discussion in this message:
The belief of many Christians that heterosexuality is God’s only legitimate sexual orientation. I’ll show that this is not true.
The belief of many Christians that the Bible does not anywhere say that gay relationships are okay. I’ll show that this is not entirely true.
The belief of many Christians that the Bible condemns homosexual relationships as an abomination. I’ll show that this is not true.
The point that among the numerous laws in the Bible, some Christians draw on preconceived cultural beliefs to justify their condemnation of homosexual relationships.
And the primary of love that is presented in Jesus Christ’s teachings and his example of radical inclusivity.
Based on the above discussion points, I draw 4 key conclusions:
In human relationships, God is most interested in the quality of our love.
God is not interested in the sex or gender of the person we love.
Marriage is sacred, a divine joining together, and must be protected.
Marriage (defined as a sacred joining together or union) is not restricted to a man and a woman.
And in light of this I hope that my parish and your church community would aspire to:
emulate Jesus’ example of radical inclusivity, diversity and love
create a church space where people of various sexual orientations feel welcome, accepted and loved
focus on and champion the quality of love in human relationships.
I do appreciate that the views of Christians on the subject of homosexuality vary widely, and that there are many that will view my understandings and interpretations of the Scriptures as false and heretical. Our views on this subject can be deeply divisive. Nevertheless, I take Jesus’ lived life (how he behaved with people he encountered) and Jesus’ spoken teachings about what is most important to God as the central guides to make sense of the rest of Scripture. He is God incarnate – he is the perfect reflection of who God is. He himself says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). I follow him.
One of the foci of the Bible is on the past. Lots of references to ‘remember’ – remember when I brought you out of Egypt, remember when I led you into the promised land, remember Abraham and Jacob, remember where you came from, etc. Our region focused on ‘remembrance’ last year (2022). In our parish, and perhaps in your church also, there are good things to remember and also bad things to remember. Churches are seldom always happy all the time – we go through ups and downs, storms and rainbows. This is certainly true in my church.
Our readings today speak of such troubled times. 1 Cor 1:10-18 speaks about divisions and quarrels in the Corinthian church, with members aligning with different leaders and sowing descension between between them. And Isaiah 9:1-7 similarly speaks of darkness, oppression, a bar across one’s shoulders, distress, gloom and defeat. And later Isaiah 58 speaks of the yoke of oppression. There are many hard times in most churches. Some of this might be hidden from many members of a church, but when you look closely, there it is.
We want something better! For 2023, we want a better experience of church. And so, our region this year is focusing on ‘identity’ in 2023. The question to answer is, “Who are we?” What are we about? What’s important to us? What characterises us? Sometimes we say nice things about our identity, but don’t actually live the out. We need to walk our talk. At the start of last year, our parish did some strategic planning about identity and came up with values like being Christ-centred, generous, united, a family/community, a sense of belonging, caring and so on.
Back to Isaiah 9:1-7 where we read about some of these ideas: light, overcoming oppression, the shattering of the yoke, peace, justice and righteousness. And Psalm 27 – what a magnificent and uplifting Psalm!! – speaks about light, salvation, dwelling in God’s home, sheltered by God, seeking God’s grace and (my favourite line), “to gaze on the beauty of the Lord”.
Actually, at this point in the sermon, I went to sit with the congregation and joined them in looking forward into the sanctuary. I invited them to imagine God standing up there in the front and us just gazing on him. We spend some minutes doing just what. What a wonderful experience it was to sit quietly in God’s gracious presence and to just be and to feel his love.
And then we come to Matthew 4:18-23, about Jesus’ calling of the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, and the other brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee. They were all fishermen, out on the Sea of Galilee catching fish. Jesus stands on the water’s edge and calls them, “Hey you! Follow me! With me you’ll catch people instead of fish! Come!” No hesitation from any of them! None!! Peter and Andrew: “At once they left their nets and followed him.” James and John: “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”
It’s incredible really. Jesus was not well known at that point. He had no followers, no reputation, no means, nothing. But something in his call must have been so compelling that without a second thought they all left their livelihood, their families, their community and followed Jesus, and remained faithful disciples until they died.
At this point in the sermon, I went around the church touching people on their shoulder and calling them, “Jesus is calling you to follow him… He wants you to partner with him… He wants you to work alongside him.”
This invitation is incredible. God’s modus operandi, from Genesis 1, has always been to work in partnership with people. He could do everything and anything himself without us. But he chooses and desires to work in partnership with us. What a mind-blowing opportunity – to work alongside God, to be a co-worker with and partner of God.
This is what we want to do more of in our parish this year. This is who our identity is. We want to be a church that partners with God in accomplishing God’s goals and living out God’s values. As a start, we want to become an increasingly caring and compassionate church. We want to see each other, know each other, reach out to and support each other, take care of and care for each other. Jesus says that when people see how we love each other within the church, then they will know that we are his disciples and will be drawn to him. So, that’s our main churches main programme for the first half of 2023 – to strengthen our capacity to care. We will do this through two main initiatives. First, during Lent, which start in a couple of weeks, we will focus our teaching on caring for and loving one another, and after Easter, we will run a series of short training sessions on how to be a better, more attentive, more caring friend – not a counsellor or therapist, but a good friend.
In this way, we will be responding to Jesus’ invitation to follow him and build our identity as people after Jesus’ heart.
Many who are reading this post may have experienced ‘toxic leadership’ – where people in leadership positions exploit, undermine or harm the people they lead. They poison the people they lead. We may have experienced this in the workplace, from our boss or manager – someone who was more interested in targets that people, who used you to climb up the corporate ladder, who did not recognise you as a real person. We may have experienced toxic leadership from our parents, who did not nurture and nourish us, but neglected us, put their own interests first, or even abused us. We may have experienced toxic husbanding or toxic wifing, where the marriage relationship breaks down instead of building up, discredits, maligns, abuses.
We may also have experienced toxic leadership in the church – from clergy, lay leaders, and influential people – who use their positions of leadership and authority in the church to advance their own agendas and to hurt and harm others, often in the name of God. Those with spiritual or church power may seek to oppress other members of a church community, through judging, excluding, humiliating and excommunicating. We see this most grotesquely in the sexual and other abuse of children and women and young men. This happens in many denominations, such as the Catholic church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Hillsong and the Anglican Church (to name some recent examples). Few churches are exempt from this, even our own parish.
The truth is that you yourself may be that toxic leader! Here we must critically self-reflect. Am I a toxic leader? Do I use others to get ahead? Do I put myself first? Do I harm or neglect those I am entrusted to care for? Let us not only point the finger at others; let us also critically examine ourselves.
In the Bible, some of the harshest words are reserved for spiritual and other leaders who are toxic.
Jeremiah 23 is a good example. God, through Jeremiah, confronts the leaders of Israel and says they are rubbish, corrupt leaders. That he will remove them. That he will take over their leadership. ‘Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord. They exploited and harmed the very people God placed in their care; instead of protecting and shepherding them, they exploited and harmed them.
In the previous book in the Bible, Ezekiel 34: 1-6, 9-10, we get a similar message:
This is what the Sovereign Lord says: woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed those who are ill or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no-one searched or looked for them. … therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
Strong words from God through Ezekiel! The shepherds or leaders of Israel had not only failed as leaders, they had exploited and even eaten the flock that God had entrusted to them. And God therefore utters these damning words, “I am against you!” In gangsta language, “I will take you out”. And God says that he himself will take over as the shepherd of the people (Ezekiel 34:11-16):
I myself will search for my sheep and look after them … I will look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered … I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel … I will tend them in a good pasture … I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down… I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak… I will shepherd the flock with justice.
Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. In John 10, Jesus says that the hired hand (the part-time shepherd) doesn’t care about the sheep – he cares only for making a living. So when danger comes, he flees and abandons the herd. But, by stark contrast, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, who will lay down his life for his sheep, and who will leave the 99 to seek out and find the one who has got lost. This is what good shepherding is about – taking care, putting them first, putting yourself in danger, going out of your way to look after the one.
The key word that emerges through all these readings from Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34 and John 10, is gather: “I will gather my flock.” The abusive, toxic shepherds scatter their flock. This is what toxic leadership does – it deeply undermines and breaks cohesion, collaboration, togetherness, trust, safety and belonging – qualities that are essential for healthy teams. And so God’s first word is to gather together the flock, to reconstitute the community, to reconcile and unite. The image of the flock speaks to us about a healthy community under the protective and caring leadership of a shepherd. The First Testament refers to the Shepherd King – a king who is pastoral, caring and protective, and who invests in the holding together a flock. This image says that being a good King means to be a good shepherd – quite a contrast in status! Shepherding is a key role of Kings and leaders.
This shepherding is central to Jesus’ ministry – both when he walked this earth, and still today. He is quintessentially our ‘shepherd’. He gathers, reconciles and unites, he binds up and restores those who are wounded and broken, he stands up for us in the face of danger, he heals and saves, he welcomes and pardons, he brings peace and safety. This is what leadership is about, in both the church and the rest of the world.
Almost every person who reads or listens to this is a leader – as a parent, manager, church leader, older sibling – you are a leader. And leadership comes with great demands. And many of us here have experienced bad leadership from clergy, who have been bad shepherds who harm their flock.
Rev’d Marti and I have no desire to be bad shepherds. We are both deeply committed to walking in Christ’s path and being good shepherds. But we are human. We make mistakes, we run out of time, we forget. And sometimes we get irritable, frustrated or angry. Power may go to our head. We might become heavy handed, thinking an issue is more important than the people.
And when we do this, we invite you to challenge us. To remind us of our role. To bring us back to the path of Christ. If you can’t talk directly to us, complain about us to the Wardens, who are the Bishop’s eyes and ears in the parish. Speak up. Send us a WhatsApp. It might not be pleasant for any of us. But this is what we need.
And hold yourself accountable, as Christ himself did. Even in this moment as you read or listen to this, consider what kind of leader are you? Are you a good shepherd? And if not, challenge yourself and allow God to work a change within you, to take up a leadership role that reflects the values and principles of Christ our Shepherd King.
John the Baptist is the one who prepares the world for the first coming of Christ, some 2,000 years ago. We, today, follow in his footsteps in continuing to prepare the world to receive Christ when he comes again. The world we live in now continues to grapple with many challenges.
Currently, we think of those many who have died of Covid-10: in South Africa, since the start of the pandemic, some 102 000 people have died, amounting to an average of about 102 per day since March 2020.
We continue to grapple with HIV and AIDS: 14% of South Africans are living with HIV or Aids, an average of about one in seven people.
We continue to see high Aids-related death rates: 86 000 this year alone, an average of 235 deaths per day – and the death rates have been rising over the past five years.
And gender-based violence remains a scourge of our society, with an average 115 women raped every day this year – a total of 45 000 so far this year.
It is into this broken and wounded world that we prepare for the coming of Christ. How do we do this? What are the guidelines we’re given in the scriptures set for today?
Matthew 3:1-12 presents John’s call to repentance, confession and baptism. He strongly confronts the religious leaders of his day: “You brood of vipers!” His words are confrontational and damning. He calls them to produce the fruit of repentance – it is one thing to repent, and another to demonstrate that repentance in your behaviour – the fruit. And he warns, all very challengingly, that if they fail to do so, they will be chopped down like an unproductive tree, or burned up in the fire, like the chaff from winnowing.
The story of John’s ministry in Mark’s gospel is a little softer: there he speaks of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew doesn’t make any mention of forgiveness. And Luke’s version incorporates both what Matthew and what Mark say. (And John provides a quite different version altogether.)
John, then, sets a pattern for us that is both encouraging and challenging. But what else can we learn from today’s readings about preparing the world for Christ?
Isaiah 11 presents a prophecy of the branch that will come from Jesse – King David’s father and, many generations later, forefather of Jesus. This passage opens with a repeated emphasis on the Spirit: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). Clearly, we cannot do anything without the enabling of the Spirit of God.
And in the following verses, Isaiah emphasises God’s concern for those who are vulnerable: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). Righteousness and justice are the keywords here.
And this is followed by the imagery of wolves, leopards and lions living in harmony with lambs, goats and yearlings, under the leadership of children (Isaiah 11:6). This is the kind of egalitarian and harmonious society that we are called to bring into being as we prepare for Christ’s return.
Psalm 72 continues some of these themes from Isaiah, notably God’s defence of the poor, vulnerable, needy, marginalised, silenced and outcast: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). Here we see God taking sides – he aligns with the poor and against the oppressor. God is not neutral – he sides with those who are vulnerable. The Psalmist goes on, “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12-14). In those days, life was in the blood, so when the Psalmist says, “precious is their blood in his sight”, s/he is in effect saying that God sees their lives as precious and worthy of protection. Theologians call this “God’s option for the poor” or “God’s preference for the poor”.
When we wonder where we should stand on things, the Biblical answer is unequivocal – stand with those who are vulnerable. That is always where we will find God. And that is where we should be found.
Romans 15 invites us to take on the attitude of Christ: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:5-7). The result of thinking like Christ, is that we will accept one another – here again is a call to inclusivity and now also being non-judgmental. Indeed, in the previous chapter, Paul explicitly tells us to stop judging others: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). This was in the context of conflicts of various dietary laws of the diverse group of Jewish and Gentile Christians. But regardless of the topic of conflict, the principles remain: accept and do not judge. Be tolerant and inclusive. Celebrate diversity.
As we strive to be Christians who, like John the Baptist, are preparing the way for Christ’s return, we need to take up the examples we are given in the Scriptures: honest words, an invitation to repent and receive forgiveness, the presence of the Spirit, values of righteousness and justice, an option for the ‘poor’, and acceptance and tolerance. These constitute the mind of Christ. And as we embody and live out Christ’s mind, we will be preparing the world for his return.
Today we did an Instructed Eucharist. This is a normal Anglican Eucharist service, the same as we do every Sunday, but with a commentary on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We learn about the meaning of the colours, the liturgy, our prayers, the readings, our gestures, the things on the altar, and why we do what we do.
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.