Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to follow him. In John 1:43-51 Jesus calls Philip – “follow me”. Philip goes to call his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, becoming one of the first evangelists. As Nathanael arrives, Jesus says some things about him, showing that he knows Nathanael, before they had even met. And then Jesus reveals that he saw Nathanael sitting under a tree even before Philip had called him.
In this message, I share my own experience of being called by Jesus to follow him. It is not definitive, but provides just one experience of being called and (eventually) responding to God’s call.
Jesus remains the same today – he knows us and sees us. He knows where we are in life and in our relationship with him, and he sees where we are and what we are doing. And it with this knowledge of us, that Jesus calls us to follow him.
I thus urge you also to respond to the call of Jesus – to follow him. Put in the effort to build a relationship with Jesus – talk with him, read the Bible, come to church, talk with Christian friends, think about Jesus. He is ready and waiting for you. He is calling you to follow him. You just need to reach back.
The journey of faith is seldom easy or straight-forward, even when people present it in this way. And holding onto faith when we are in the midst of the storm or facing a rolling crisis like COVID19 is not always easy. In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:18), Paul writes, “Give thanks in all situations for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul makes it sound simple – just accept that your challenging situation is God’s will for you in Christ – give thanks for it. Of course, it is not simple!
We have a great master class in how to journey in faith in the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Mary, who we revere because she is the Christ-bearer (the Christotokos, or even more remarkable, the God-bearer or Theotokos), shows us that faith is not simple or straight-forward. She shows her own journey of faith. This journey is not a template or recipe for us – it is simply one example of someone making this journey But it may help the rest of us – particularly those of us who struggle with faith – to make peace with our journey of faith.
Mary, an engaged but not yet married teenager from a small village called Nazareth, encounters an angel. He greets her warmly and kindly, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
But Mary’s first response is to be “greatly troubled at his words” and wonder “what king of greeting this might be” and to be “afraid“. The response of fear when encountering an angel seems to be almost universal in the Bible – most people who encounter an angel respond first with fear: Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:12-13 and the shepherds in Luke 2:9-10, for example. But, let us recognise that Mary does not immediately respond with faith or joy when the angel appears to her – her response is one of fear, trepidation, uncertainty, anxiety.
The angel – much as angels do in other passages – reassures her (“Do not be afraid”) and says that she has found favour with God. He explains that she will conceive a child and call him Jesus and that he will become a great king forever.
In Mary’s second response, we see that she is no longer afraid. She is now thinking, critically, about what the angel has said: “How will this be? Since I am a virgin?” Mary does not immediately accept the angel’s message. She asks what is surely an obvious question – how can I be pregnant if I’ve not had sex? Mary is realistic, pragmatic, critical. She does not just accept what the angel is saying to her. Let us imagine also (though this is not explicit in the passage) that she realises that a pregnancy at her age and without a husband will be scandalous and difficult. Let us imagine that she has some intuition about the implications of being the mother of the “Son of the Most High”. And let us imagine that she even anticipates the tragic loss that she will suffer as her son is taken from her. (These imaginings are captured so well in the song, Mary did you know)
The angel accepts Mary’s questions. He does not reprimand or challenge her. Instead, he provides further explanation and clarifies also that even her aunt, Elizabeth (in her old age), has conceived a child – John.
And now – only now – Mary accepts the angel’s message, saying “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled“. She accepts God’s will for her life, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. But at this point, her acceptance is just that – an acceptance, even a blind faith. It does not seem to be based on a full understanding. She submits, relinquishes, surrenders to the will of God – do with me as you wish.
Mary then visits her aunt Elizabeth and they stay together for some time. Luke 1:39-45 gives a clear indication that they talked about their experiences of pregnancy and of their place in God’s plans. One can easily imagine that they spent a great deal of time talking, sharing, reflecting, praying, seeking understanding.
And out of this sharing, Mary achieves faith with understanding, which is expressed powerfully in the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. Mary understands, for example, that God is a God of love and mercy – “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” And she also understands that there will be a righting of wrongs (a reversal of fortunes) – “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” She understands that through the great things God has done for her, God will bring justice for all those who are marginalised and oppressed.
Although we esteem Mary greatly, her journey of faith is not instant. She grapples and wrestles with what God wants from her, with the storm that she finds herself in. Her own journey is one of fear, questioning, acceptance and then understanding. Her faith journey is a process over time, not a turning point in time. Indeed, even in narratives where it appears that faith emerges at a point in time (such as Paul’s Damascus road experience in Acts 9), a closer read around the experience will show that there is a journey and that the turning point is a culmination of a longer process that came before and that works its way out after.
Mary’s faith experience is not a template for us. It an example of a journey of faith, of one whom we can revere as most highly favoured and blessed of all humans. If her faith journey is not not simple or straight-forward, why should yours be? If you are doubting your faith because it seems complicated, fragile, questioning, confused, and so on, be reassured that Mary’s faith was all these things also. And yet, she bore the Son of God. Faith is a journey. Just keep on with the journey and know that God is faithful.
Between Easter and Pentecost we focus on people’s encounters with the risen Christ. Last week we reflected on Thomas’ encounter with Jesus some days after the resurrection. Today, in Luke 24: 13-35, we reflect on the two disciples who met Jesus while they were travelling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They don’t realise that it was Jesus until the very end. Their journey has three phases:
They initially fellowship with Jesus, sharing their story of Jesus with this stranger and commiserating about his untimely death.
Then Jesus teaches them about the Christ, drawing on the whole of the First Testament, explaining who the Messiah was prophesied to be and how these prophecies were fulfilled in the Christ. But still, they did not recognise Jesus.
Finally, they shared a meal with Jesus – they broke bread together. And as Jesus, took, blessed (or gave thanks), broke and gave the break to them, their eyes were opened and they finally recognised him.
In hindsight, they realised that they had encountered Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
Ultimately, it is in the taking, thanking, breaking and giving that they recognise Jesus. This is what Jesus did in Luke 9:16, when he fed the five thousand. And also just a few days before at the Last Supper in Luke 22:19. This celebration of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Communion, Mass, Divine Liturgy) was the clincher, following fellowship and teaching, that reveals Christ to them.
This narrative follows the same pattern of the early church in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Now, our passage in Luke 24 doesn’t mention prayer, but prayer is (essentially) talking with and listening to Jesus. Prayer is just conversation with God. And this is what the two disciples were doing, even though they did not realise it, during the long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, as they journeyed with Jesus: they were talking with God.
The story of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Jesus in John 20:24-29 is one of my favourites and Thomas is the disciple with whom I identity the most. Thomas is unfairly labelled a doubter. He did not doubt Jesus. He doubted his friends – the other disciples. He wanted to see and experience Jesus first hand. He was unwilling to take on a second-hand faith. He wanted to know Jesus for himself. And so Jesus appears to him and invites him to see and touch his hands and the hole in his side.
It seems Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus, but immediately experiences a surge of faith and cries out, “My Lord and my God!” In effect, he falls on his face and covers his eyes because he knows that he is in the presence of God the Son.
This reminds me of the story of Job, who was a man blessed by God, a man who had everything. For whatever reason, he then loses everything. He goes into a kind of ‘lockdown’, where he loses his possessions, his family, his health, his well-being, his freedom. Two of his friends join him in his despair and provide comfort for a few days and then engage in a lengthy debate with him to persuade him that his faith must be insufficient. God would not punish a righteous man – he must have done something wrong. But Job persists that he is righteous and wants to meet with God to present his case.
And then in Job 38, God appears and over the course of four chapters presents his credentials to Job, much as Jesus presented his credentials (the holes in his hands and side) to Thomas. God meets Job in his unhappiness and questioning.
In Job 42:1-6, Job’s response to encountering God is to throw himself down and cover his eyes – “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes”. But before that he proclaims his faith: “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you!” Job had had a second-hand faith – what he had heard from others or from the scriptures. But now, God had appeared to him in person, and his eyes had not see him. And recognises that he is in the presence of God the Father.
God eagerly desires to engage you in your faith, as he does me in mine. And God also eagerly desires to engage you in your doubt, as he does me in mine. God is not turned away by uncertainty, by questions, by doubt or by the need for ‘evidence’. Instead, God turns towards us and engages us. Let us continue to seek Jesus, for this is exactly what he wants from us: Seek him and you shall find him.
During difficult times, such as we experiencing now with the Coronavirus, many of us find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” And even, “How can God allow such suffering in the world?”
This question is formally called ‘theodicy’ – the doctrine of how a good God can allow evil in the world. Theologians have grappled with this question for centuries. Augustine generated a solution that is widely accepted by the church, illustrated in the graphic below (from https://www.slideshare.net/SharanpreetKaur/augustines-theodicy).
But such answers provide little comfort when we are in the midst of suffering. These are intellectual and theological answers, not pastoral answers. Over the years, as I have grappled with this question in my own sufferings and particularly in responding to the suffering of others, I have reached two main conclusions:
First, God is always immanently present in our suffering. When God the Son incarnated into the human named Jesus of Nazareth, God fully entered into the human experience, with all its ups and downs. Ultimately, God experienced even death, on the cross, an experience God had not had until this moment. We read in John 11 of Jesus’ grief at the grave of Lazarus – he was genuinely distressed and saddened by the death of his friend and by his witnessing of the grief of Lazarus’ family.
Jesus was then, and always is, present in the midst of suffering. Where is God? He is right here, sharing our grief and pain, standing with us in the darkest of times. He is by no means far off and emotionally disengaged.
Second, while this is usually of little comfort in the midst of suffering, God repeatedly shows the capacity for bringing good out of bad. This does not make the bad good. No! The bad remains bad. But god has the capacity to give birth to good through bad. Paul assures of this in Romans 8:28, when he writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We this most dramatically on the cross. Humanity murdered, executed God the Son. This was a fundamentally bad and depraved thing we did. And yet through this, God gave birth to salvation for humankind, reconciliation and forgiveness for all who would seize it.
God is always working to bring good out of bad, giving us the capacity to transform darkness into light. This is not about persuading ourselves that a bad thing is actually good, but rather about being open to something good emerging out of the bad.
As we continue to journey through the crisis of COVID-19, which looks set to get worse before it gets better, I encourage you to keep turning towards God. I encourage you to ask the “Where is God?” question, because God wants to engage us honestly and sincerely with this tough question.
May God journey closely with you during this difficult time.
Our text for today is Matthew 11:2-11. It is a story about doubt, questioning and uncertainty and about faith. It is about doubt seeking faith.
2 When John [the Baptist], who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
There are three main points in this message:
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is highly regarded by Jesus, who sees him as the greatest human to have ever lived. He is the only prophet in the Bible who was himself prophesied about (Malachi 3:1). He was the one who came before Christ, to prepare his way.
Yet this John – this greatest of all humans – expresses doubt, uncertainty, questioning. Despite having witnessed the heavens opening and the Spirit descending and the Father speaking at Jesus’ baptism – performed by John’s own hand – he asks, “Are you the one who is to come? Or should we expect someone else?” John is not the only one in the Bible who has doubts – so too did Peter, Thomas, all the disciples and even Jesus. Doubt is part of the faith journey – it is not the antithesis of faith – it is an integral part of faith. It is doubt seeking faith and faith seeking understanding.
Jesus does not rebuff John, but rather answers him. He draws on patterns of First Testament prophecy to shape his response to John, particularly Isaiah 35:1-6 and Isaiah 31:1-3. Being steeped in the First Testament, John would have heard these echoes and known that Jesus was the God who has come, as promised. Jesus’ answer speaks to what Jesus was currently doing in his ministry and also reminds John of the long passage of God’s working throughout history.
When we are journeying through doubt towards faith, I take two main points to heart:
I should listen for what God has done in my own life – what I have witnessed first hand, and also what those who are close to me say about what God is presently doing in their lives. It is in hearing the present activity of God in the lives of his beloved that we kindle our faith.
I should look for the long history of God’s working in the history of cosmos, which we find primarily in the words of the scriptures. It is in hearing the historical activity of God in the lives of his people through the millennia that we root our faith.
While there are people who have oodles of faith, many of us have a frail, faltering, fractured faith. I’m one of these people. As a young Christian, I berated myself for being faithless, and envied those who seemed to have waterfalls of faith. As I got older, I clung to Matthew 17: 20, where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” While large faith is wonderful – God bless those of you who have lots of faith – a little faith is fine.
It is not the quantity of our faith that is so important, as much as the one in whom we place our faith.
Our faith does not accomplish much, but the one in whom we place our faith can accomplish a great deal.
Today’s message draws on John 6:5-13, the narrative of Jesus feeding the 5000. I focus on four points to make the argument that a little bit of faith can go a long way:
Philip‘s problem was that he was so focused on the thousands of hungry people that he lost sight of Jesus, who was standing right beside him. We also, often, get so absorbed in the problem, that we forget to look to Jesus, who is standing right next to us.
Andrew had a little faith: he found a boy who had 5 little loaves of bread and 2 little fish. ‘Here is something, something small’, he thought. But then he too lost sight of Jesus and became overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. We also may find that we have a little faith, a little gift, a little ability, but quickly feel daunted by the enormity of the task ahead and falter.
Jesus, however, is more than able to feed thousands and already had a plan long before he asked Philip’s input. Jesus’ capacity to do the Work of God is not dependent on us, on our faith. However, he wants our partnership. So, he instructs Philip and Andrew to prepare the crowd for the miracle, by getting them to sit down. Regardless of our faith – large, little or nothing – Jesus invites us to move ahead, as if we had faith. We are invited to act. You don’t actually have to have faith to act; through action comes faith.
The crowd receive the bread and the fish, and they eat their full. Today, we’d probably question the bread and the fish, and be hesitant to partake. But the crowd then also exercised a little faith – they participated, they ate. When Jesus offers us a gift – a gift of faith – do we accept it? Or do we critique and doubt it?
Ultimately, Jesus shows that he is more than able to take care of an impossible need, with or without the faith of the disciples. This shows us, that it is not about our faith, but about Jesus, the one in whom we entrust our faith. And that whether our faith is large or little or absent, Jesus can and does work out God’s purposes among us.
Let us, then, cultivate just a little faith by looking to Jesus, by taking small steps, by doing something and by opening ourselves to his capacity for love and work.
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:
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.
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.
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.
When I look back over my life, I identify many moments that I regret. These are moments where I had the opportunity to do or say something, but didn’t. These are moments where I hesitated, was afraid or ambivalent, unsure of myself, or just plain lazy. Now, looking back, I wish I had seized those opportunities, despite the risk, and done or said what I could and should have.
In the readings set for today (Mark 1:14-20; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Psalm 62:5-12; Jonah 3:1-5,10), we see repeated instances of people NOT hesitating – Jesus’ calling his disciples, the disciples’ response to Jesus’ call, Paul’s attitude towards life while anticipating Christ’s return, and the people of Nineva responding in repentance to Jonah’s message from God. In all cases, people met an opportunity, and in all cases, they responded without hesitation. They stepped out in faith, taking up the opportunity that God presented to them.
In this sermon, I unpack these four readings, to see what they have to say to us about stepping out in faith. Each has a central life lesson, viz.
Be quick to respond to God’s prompting (Mark 1:14-20)
Time is too short to dither (1 Cor 7:29-31)
God is dependable (Psalm 62:5-12)
God will reward our faith (Jonah 3:1-5,10)
Let us be less hesitant, and step out in faith more readily.
Sometimes our faith flags – God seems absent, silent, unresponsive; our hearts feel dry and dusty; we are thirsty, but barely know we’re thirsty. Sometimes the world around us presses in and squashes our faith – the demands are so great, so burdensome, that it is hard to remain connected to God. Sometimes people say things or we witness or experience things that shake our confidence in God – how could a good God allow these things to happen, how can a rational person believe in God?
All of us experience ups and downs in our faith journeys. We are, though, encouraged to persevere in our faith through the dry times, in the hope that better days will come. Today, here in Pretoria, South Africa, we are experiencing our first real rain after the long dry winter. What a blessing when the rains finally come! The ground sucks it up and brings new life. What a blessing it is when God’s Spirit falls afresh on us after a period of drought!
This sermon speaks about persevering in faith – about hanging on to God, about clinging to the Word of God, about staying in touch with other Christians. It is about continuing to walk in faith, even if not in feelings or experience, praying that God will rekindle our faith, restore our hope, bring the fresh rains.
It draws on four readings:
Luke 18:1-8 – “Always pray and never give up”
2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5 – “Continue in what you have learned”
Jeremiah 31:27-34 – “God’s Law is written on our hearts”
Psalm 119:97-105 – “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet”