On death

Click here to listen to this 17-minute message.

(This sermon was preached on 25 August. I was away at the time, so unable to load it until now.)

The week leading up to this sermon was quite a challenge. A dear colleague of ours, Prof Tessa Hochfeld, was killed in a freak biking accident the previous weekend. During the week leading up to this sermon, I attended her funeral and lead a memorial service for her at our university. Tessa was one of those rare human beings – brilliant, compassionate, humble and rooted in social justice. Her death shook us all and was uppermost in mind during the week. So, it was inevitable that the question of death should become the topic of this sermon.

As it turned out, in the week after the sermon, another colleague of ours, Dr Memory Mathe, was brutally murdered, along with her domestic helper, Ms Pretty Moyo, by men who wanted her car. We buried Memory yesterday.

In addition, a spate of femicides in South Africa have led to a rising tide of anger, particularly among women, leading to demonstrations around the country. Uyinene Mrwetyana, a university student, was lured into a post office where she was raped and murdered. She also was buried yesterday. Death in all its forms has been prominent in our thoughts.

Death is not a comfortable topic for most people. We tend to shy away from it. We regard talking or thinking about death as morbid. We often shield children entirely from death. When an older person talks about dying, we often tell them to ‘buck up’. And when they are on their deathbed, we sometimes do more than we should to prolong their life, no matter how poor its quality, no matter their own wishes. Most of us appear to suffer from thanatophobia – the fear of death.

Christians are by no means exempted from this fear!

I have long thought that if Christians cannot talk openly about death, who can? We, of all people, should be able to look death in the eye and, while not welcoming it, not be afraid it.

In this message, I grapple with Biblical views on death. In simplistic terms, the scriptures present two views of death: death as bad and death as good. I walk us through these views and suggest a way forward for us as Christians to engage with death holistically.

I dedicate the message to Tessa Hochfeld and to Memory Mathe, Pretty Moyo, Uyinene Mrwetyana and other women who have died at the hands of men.

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Courage!

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There are times in life where we are called upon to stand up for truth or justice, or simply to challenge someone in our family or workplace. Sometimes, we back off from these situations because it seems too intimidating. It is at times like this that we need courage – courage that comes from God.

Jeremiah 1:4-10 tells the story of such a time:

  1. God commissions Jeremiah, with an amazing promise: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew [or chose] you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
  2. Jeremiah responds with consternation (fear, anxiety, trepidation): “Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”
  3. God responds with words of encouragement, to give Jeremiah courage: “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ … Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you. I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

This three-fold pattern – commission, consternation, courage – is often true in our lives.

We see it also in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 3:21-22, Jesus is commissioned at his baptism, when God the Holy Spirit fills him and God the Father speaks words of affirmation. In Luke 4:1-13, Jesus experiences (arguably) consternation, when he is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. And in Luke 4:17-27, Jesus displays courage by proclaiming his ministry manifesto and speaking truth to the people in the synagogue. Specifically, Jesus challenges their assumption that Jesus had come just for them, and argues that God had come for the whole world.

But let us not be obnoxious! Sometimes Christians can be self-righteous, harsh, uncaring and rude in the way we stand up for truth. Let us, rather, be the embodiment of love. 1 Corinthians 13 makes it perfectly clear that anything that we do that is not infused with love is worthless.

When the time comes for us to stand up to power, to challenge someone, to confront injustice in the world, let us remember that we (like Jeremiah) are commissioned to be Christ’s ambassadors and to work for the values of the Kingdom (e.g., love, justice, human dignity, compassion, community). And despite feeling consternated or fearful, let us take courage from knowing that God is with us and we are empowered by Holy Spirit, and let us speak up.

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Standing against patriarchy

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The church has fallen far short of its expected role in championing the dignity and worth of women. Instead, the church has been complicit in advancing patriarchy: women and children have been abused and exploited by clergy and church leaders; the role and authority of women has been dampened in the church; women have been encouraged to return and submit to their abusive husbands; and a theology of male supremacy has been advocated. The church has and continues to advance patriarchy.

This is at odds with the teaching of Scripture. While the Bible was written men in a patriarchal world and reflects patriarchal patterns of life, this does not mean that God is a patriarch, nor that the church should be patriarchal. We need to revise our theology in light of a reading of scripture that is not dictated by cultural norms about gender relations.

For example, the creation narrative in Genesis is often used to support male superiority – woman was derived from man, man was created to rule, etc. But a close reading of Genesis 1:27-8 and 2:18-23 presents a picture of God creating woman-and-man as a partnership.

  • Both were commissioned to rule over the world – man was not mandated to rule over woman. They were co-workers, partners, sharing in an egalitarian way the responsibilities for taking care of the world.
  • Woman was created out of man, from Adam’s side, showing that they are the same (or similar). They are equals, partners, lovers.
  • Woman was created as a ‘helper‘, but that word does not imply servitude or subordination. It is used 21 times in the First Testament, 16 of which refer to God helping the people of Israel, e.g. Psalm 121:1-2. God is hardly the servant of or subordinate to Israel! If anything, being a ‘helper’ connotes a position of strength and capability.
  • The creation narrative speaks not of male supremacy and female subordination, but of gender equality and mutuality, of partnership and sameness.

Another example, Paul’s writings in the New Testament are riddled with patriarchy: wives submit to your husbands, husbands are the head of the wife, husbands are the head and wives are the neck, women must remain silent in church, etc. Unquestionably, Paul was a patriarch in a patriarchal world. But, we too seldom hear another thread in Paul’s writings: a thread that is at odds with the patriarchal narrative.

  • In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes about the unity of humanity in Christ. He starts with divisions that he fully understands and lives out: “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor Free”. These shifts towards equity in race and class were radical at that time; indeed they are radical today. But Paul was struggling with “neither male nor female”. One has a sense that Paul understands and partly believes that there is gender equality in Christ, but that his upbringing and investment in a patriarchal world-view hold him captive.
  • In 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, Paul presents a view of marriage – of sex in marriage – that is contrasts starkly with the views he presents in Ephesians 5:22-33. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul presents sexual relations in marriage as entirely egalitarian and mutual. There is no sense here of a hierarchy of status or even of a differentiation of roles. Instead, there is simply a loving, mutual self-giving of one to the other. Egalitarian marriage.

I’m not arguing here that the Bible narrative advances gender equity. Far from it – the Bible was written by patriarchs in a patriarchal world, and is full of patriarchy. But I am arguing that the Bible equally presents God’s view of humanity as endorsing gender equity. At very least, we must admit that the Bible is not unequivocally in support of patriarchy.

And when we combine this fracture in the patriarchal edifice, even if only a tiny fault line, with the person of Jesus, and his ministry among the women and men of his day, the church must stand up to and against patriarchy. Patriarchy is a social evil that harms the life of the majority of humanity: all women, all children and (arguably) all men. We are all held captive to patriarchy, with some of us (mostly us men) benefiting at the expense of women. This cannot be. This is not the image of the Kingdom of God presented by Jesus Christ.

I call on all of us, but especially men, to do four things:

  1. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). We have to start with our own minds, which have been taught patriarchal ways of viewing the world and ourselves since infancy. Let us be transformed, so that we can perceive God’s will more clearly. Let us challenge the deeply engrained patriarchal patterns of thinking.
  2. We need to speak out against patriarchal talk and behaviour. Let us not be silent. Let us not turn our eyes away. Let us speak up for truth and love, for gender equality and for the full dignity and worth of both women and men.
  3. We need to challenge the misuse of Scripture, which draws on handfuls of texts that bolster the culture norms of our society, but are not aligned with the Kingdom values that Christ presents in his teachings and ministry. Scripture has problematic passages, to be sure, but the overriding thread that runs throughout Scripture, and that is our key to making sense of the Bible, is God’s extravagant love for humanity, revealed through creation and the life of Christ.
  4. We need to stand, unequivocally and unflinchingly, with the victims of gender-based violence. For too long, the church has stood with the perpetrators. We see this particularly in the Roman Catholic church, for example, in Pope Francis’ protection of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile, and his later apology to the victims of Bishop Karadima. But let those of us who are not Catholic, not be complacent and point fingers. Child sexual abuse and sexual harassment of women manifests in all churches, including, for example, the Church of England and Willow Creek. The church – you and me – must stand with those who are violated and abused. That is what Christ did, repeatedly. We can do no less.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, the Church should and must stand up to and against patriarchy, and for the voice of those who have been disempowered and silenced. This was the role that Christ Jesus took up during his brief time on earth. It is the role that his mother gave voice to in her great Magnificat. And it is the role that the church, and all its individual members, must continue today.

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.

I am Judas

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The story of Christ’s crucifixion confronts us with the dark-side of humanity. Having coming back from a visit to Rwanda last week, where I visited the genocide memorial in Kigali, where close to 300,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried, this potential for darkness and evil is especially prominent in my mind. We each need to own up to the role that we played in the murder of Jesus Christ – a man who had nothing but immense love for the world.

Judas Iscariot is arguably the most tragic character in the Bible (John 13:21-32). He walked with Jesus for three years, but ended up betraying him into the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities for just a few coins. Too late, he recognised the horror of what he had done and attempted to repent and undo his evil deed. In despair he took his life.

We cannot blame Judas for Christ’s death, because we too betray Jesus and we too contribute to his death. And so, I suggest that we need to say “I am Judas” in recognition of our partnership in the execution of the Son of God. (I have adapted the ‘Je suis Charlie’ icon that was created after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015 – ‘Je suis Judas’.)

But , where Judas approached the religious leaders for forgiveness, we should rather approach Jesus, whose capacity for forgiveness is eternal. And where Judas was unable to forgive himself, we need to accept Jesus’ forgiveness and allow ourselves to be set free from sin and guilt. Thus, we can also say, “I am not Judas” (‘Je ne suis pas Judas’).

What the Gospel Says about Decoloniality

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Decolonisation and decoloniality are huge topics in contemporary South Africa, demanding that we engage with the legacy of centuries of oppression of African people by Dutch and British colonial powers and the Apartheid government. The question I explore in this message is what the Gospel has to say for Christians about decoloniality, that is, about living in a post-colonial society.

Matthew 22:15-22 is a well-known passage where Jesus says that we must “give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s”. It has often be used to say we must support the government of the day. It is one of the most political narratives in the Gospel texts, and forces us to engage with political issues.

This narrative took place against the first century backdrop of the Jewish people being under the oppressive colonial rule of Rome. A key part of Rome’s rule was a tax, called Census, that every Jewish person had to pay simply for having the audacity to be born Jewish. It was a deeply humiliating, subjugating and repugnant tax for Jewish people.

The tax was paid with a silver coin that had Tiberius Ceasar’s portrait engraved on it. Such an engraving was idolatrous to many Jewish people at that time, because it conflicted with the second commandment. And the inscription on the coin effectively said that Tiberius was the ‘son of God’ and ‘high priest’. Paying a ‘sin tax’ for being Jewish with such a coin was outrageous.

In this message I break open some important points that Jesus makes to determine what he really thought about how Jews at that time should live under colonial rule. These thoughts are useful for Christians today who live under a colonial government or under the rule of an oppressive or corrupt state, as well as those, like us in South African, who live in a post-colonial society, coming to grips with the present legacy of colonisation and coloniality.

This is a chewy message, requiring a close reading of the Gospel text, and careful application in its original and present day contexts. I hope that you may take the time to listen to this podcast and to engage with these thoughts.