For centuries, Christians have combined the celebration of Palm Sunday with the reading of the Passion Story. I did not grow up in a church that did this. We had “Hallelujah’s” on Palm Sunday as Jesus rides triumphally into Jerusalem, and then “Christ is Risen Indeed” on Easter Sunday. In between, there was nothing. But our tradition is to set together these two sets of narratives to drive home the stark reality of how easily we humans can go from ‘Hallelujah!’ to ‘Crucify him!’ within days. The reading takes about 25 minutes. It is the only time each year that we read the entire Passion Story, and so well worth listening to or watching.
Over this Lenten period, we have focused on Jesus’ repeated command to love one another, to love each other, as he has loved us. In the first week, we focused on the ‘primacy of love’ – that this command is central to Jesus’ teaching, practice and expectations of us. Love is not just something Jesus does, it is who he is. Indeed, it is who God is! It is the essential identity of God, who has existed in loving fellowship within the Trinity, since before the beginning of time and space. And thus, love is to be the defining identity of ourselves, individually and collectively, as Christ’s followers.
In the second week, we unpacked the qualities of this love, things like sincerity, goodness, brotherliness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing, forgiving, depth, sympathy, compassion, humility and hospitality. Many of these qualities suggest that we make ourselves smaller and less important, less dogmatic and opinionated, as we make space for others.
In the third week, we moved towards the dark side of love – what does the failure of love look like. We recognized that it is often when we are dogmatic, opinionated, rigid and arrogant that our behaviour and disposition towards others becomes unloving. In Jesus’ book, being ‘right’ is far less important than being good, kind, inclusive, generous and patient.
And then in the fourth week, last week, we reflected on love expressed as acceptance and unity. Acceptance implies being willing to make space for people who are different to us (in race, culture, gender, language, etc.) and with whom we have different views (on politics, theology, practises, etc.). Acceptance does not require us to agree, but to tolerate and listen to other ways of being. Unity implies that, even in the midst of difference, we work together as a unit towards common goals. In this, Christ is our head – he sets our path for us, and we, as bits of his body, cooperate towards his vision.
This week is the last week of our Lent programme, and we focus on loving encouragement. We are invited to think about how we build one another up in faith and competence and confidence, to each play our part in the body of Christ. It is about affirming each other. That affirmation often involves recognising what someone brings to our collective, appreciating it and encouraging its expression. It is also about recognising when someone is struggling with life and reach out to them with compassion, care and support.
Let’s start in Ezekiel 37 – the story of the valley of dry bones. The people of God are feeling dried up, dusty, hopeless, cut off, scorned and dead. It is then God’s breath that brings them to life. God twice says, “I will make breath enter you and you will come to life” (Ez 37: 5&6). But although the bones came together, “there was no breath in them.” And so God calls on Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath: “Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live”. And Ezekiel writes, “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; and they came to life and stoop up on their feet” (Ez 37:9-10).
The Hebrew word for ‘breath’ is ruach, and can also be translated spirit. It’s the word used in Genesis 1:2, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. So this word ‘ruach’ can be mean’s God’s breath, our breath and the Holy Spirit – indeed all of these! It is God’s breath, with which he speaks, that enters the dry bones, empowered by the Holy Spirit, bringing them to life. Ruach brings the dead to life, brings them out of their graves!
Just as Jesus brings forth Lazarus from the grave, by his word, his breath, his ruach: “Lazarus! Come out!” (John 11:43). And out he came!
When we speak loving to each other, we are using our breath, and speaking with the Spirit of God who dwells in us – it is our ruach that can bring life to those around us. A kind, gentle, affirming, encouraging word can go along way to bring new life to someone who is feeling dried out.
Our psalm for today, Psalm 130, reads like the cry of those dead people in the valley of death in Ezekiel. You can imagine them crying out with these words, “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord. Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (Psalm 130:1-2).
This Psalm speaks more to those who need encouragement, than to those who offer it. There is a call to those of us who are feeling dry and tired and dead to wait on God, to trust in God, to kindle some faith that there is forgiveness and mercy, hope and redemption. We need to call out to God: Lord, hear my voice! And in v5 we hear again the breath of God: “In his word I put my hope” – it is as God’s speak that we find our hope. When are needing encouragement, we need to allow ourselves to yearn for God, to turn to him for refreshment, to seek his life-giving spirit.
So, loving encouragement has two main sides: first, we are invited to be attentive to the needs of those sitting around us here in church and to speak words of life and encouragement to them. And second, when we are feeling dried up and frail, we need to speak up and call on God and on those around us for God’s Spirit, God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s restoration. In so doing, we stand in the light, love and breath of God – we are encompassed around by his Spirit, we receive life and find our place in the Body of Christ.
So, as we close today, let me read to you the words of encouragement that Paul speaks to the church in Thessalonica when they were feeling stuck in darkness: 1 Thes 5: 4-11, 14b-24:
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. … And we urge you, brothers and sisters, …encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
During this Lent 2023, we are reflecting on Christ’s repeated command to “love one another“. (Remember that ‘one another’ and ‘each other’ refers to our brothers and sisters in Christ, that is, our local and global congregation. This is not to say that we don’t need to love people outside the church! No!! But it is true that Jesus emphasises the love we have for one another within the church, because it is by this that people will know that we are his disciples and will become curious to find out more about this Jesus.)
This week we focus in on the many passages that describe this love that we have for one another as being characterised by acceptance and unity.
In John 17:20-26 Jesus emphasises this unity. In John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples and then for all believers, including us in the future who came to believe through their message. He prays “that all of them may be one”, and again “that they may be one”, and then clarifies that he’s praying that we (Christians) may be one “as we are one” – that is, as Christ and the Father are one. That is the quality of oneness that Jesus wants us to experience with each other! The same kind of oneness that the Father, Son and Spirit experience within the Holy Trinity. And so Jesus continues to pray “that they may be brought to complete unity” – not just any old unity, not just grudging agreement or apathetic compliance, but complete unity. Jesus has very high expectations for the kind of closeness and harmony he wants us to experience among each other in the church.
And he then says, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Sjoe, that’s a big ‘THEN’! It means that our oneness, our unitedness, is a condition for our witness. In other words, if we are fractured, splintered, out of touch with each other, unloving and critical towards each other, all these things – then we cannot be Christ’s witness to the world. Remember what Jesus said just a few chapters earlier: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). It cannot be clearer than that, can it? We have to be unified, we have to be one. It is Jesus’ core command.
So, how is the church doing? I leave you to reflect on how your own local church community is doing in relation to unity and oneness. But when we look more broadly at my denomination - the global Anglican Communion - like many denominations, eish, we are doing badly. Our church is on the brink of fracturing right now, over different views of sexuality and gender, and particularly over what defines a marriage. I think there is nothing wrong with different views on things - difference can be refreshing and difference is built into the New Testament image of the church (as we'll soon see). But when different views become hostile dogmatism, toxic judgement and name calling (like 'apostacy' and 'blasphemy' and 'heresy'), then we have totally lost what Jesus has called us to - to unity and oneness. Such dogmatic stances are a recipe for disaster.
But let us continue to unpack what the Scriptures have to say about love as acceptance and unity. In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul picks up on Jesus’ words about the love that the Father has for him being in us, and that he may be in us just as the Father is in him. This is the language of interpenetration – that we are bound up together as one, as a body, where all the parts are interconnected. This image of the church as the Body of Christ is most fully developed in 1 Corinthians 12. This chapter is so well known that I’m not going to talk about it here, but it is a great chapter to read again in this context.
In Ephesians 4, though, Paul writes repeatedly about oneness. In verses 4-6 he uses ‘one’ seven times! “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Those last words are again about interpenetration, aren’t they?) This oneness of the church community is strongly emphasised in Paul’s thinking.
But he quickly goes on to speak about the diversity of the church community: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service” (Eph 4:11-12). Here we have extensive diversity – different gifts, abilities and roles – a kaleidoscope of difference.
Paul deftly hold these apparent opposites – oneness and diversity – together. In v12 he says that all these parts of the body are “held together by every supporting ligament”, that Christ “is the head” that helps us walk in the same direction” (v15), which enables the “the body of Christ [to] be build up until we all reach unity in the faith” (v12-13), that we must “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v3) and that this requires us to “be completely humble and gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love” (v2). All this language speaks of intention, commitment and effort towards unity – it won’t just fall out of the sky – we have to work at it. We have to work at love.
When it comes to the things of the church and to the witness of the church to the world, Jesus and Paul repeatedly emphasise both our diversity and our unity. But UNITY or ONENESS is always the overriding message. And LOVE is the key, essential and only strong-enough force to bridge the gap between unity and diversity. We must love one another, we must accept each other and be united, we must become one body, we must celebrate and accept differences – this is Christ’s repeated command: acceptance and unity.
During Lent, it is customary for us to fast. It is not a rule or a requirement – you should decide for yourself whether you will fast. And you should also decide for yourself what you will fast from. In this message, I offer seven basic principles of fasting.
1. Fasting is an important spiritual discipline, backed up by plenty of Biblical precedent. Jesus himself fasts in the Gospels, and of course his ministry started with a 40-day fast in the wilderness. But although Jesus does fast and does provide guidance on fasting, he does not instruct or command us to fast.
2. Fasting is between you and God. It has nothing to do with anyone else. Jesus says in Matthew 6 that we should fast in secret, hidden in a closet, even putting on makeup so that it does not look as if we are fasting. It is a private matter between you and God.
3. How you fast and what you fastfrom is between you and God. There are no clear rules in the Bible about how fasting should be done. There are diverse examples of fasting in the Bible, but no specific singular pattern that is set down. There is thus flexibility in how fasting takes place – prayerfully figure out for yourself what will be helpful.
4. There are no dire consequences to breaking your fast. I am not encouraging you to break your fast, nor to be flippant about fasting. But I am saying that if you break your fast, it is just like any other sin you might commit. Sometimes we make fasting into such a big thing, that if we slip and break our fast, it seems like the end of the world. It is not the end of the world. It is simply sin.
5. Breaking your fast is an opportunity for learning. Again, I’m not encouraging you to break your fast or to be negligent in your fasting. But it is probably true that most of us break our fast from time to time. Breaking one’s fast is, arguably, a ‘small’ sin – it’s not in the same league as adultery or murder. It thus gives us a valuable opportunity to practice repentance (saying ‘sorry’ to God) and asking for forgiveness – and then for receiving God’s forgiveness. And then getting back to your fasting. For me, the moments of breaking my fast, repenting and accepting God’s forgiveness are among the most spiritually enriching moments of fasting.
6. Fasting is primarily about the heart, not the action. When we fast from chocolate, for example, we are not giving up something sinful – chocolate is not a sin. Most things we fast from are not sin. The reason for this is that the point of fasting is less about giving up sin (since we should be doing that already all the time!) but about giving up something. It is the impact of giving up something that is at the heart of fasting. It is what happens in our heart, in our faith, in our relationships with God that makes fasting meaningful. Joel 2:12-14 stresses this with the words, “Rend your hearts and not your garments”:
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.
7. Fasting should be paired with charity. We are called to give generously while we fast. In practice, we could calculate the cash value of the things we are giving up and then give that cash to God’s work in the church or a charity or directly to people in need. This is stated particularly clearly in Isaiah 58:3-7:
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
I wish you God’s richest blessings during your Lenten fast this year.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top, in front of Peter, James and John, is well known to most Christians – in our church we celebrate this event at least once a year just before Lent starts (Matthew 17:1-9).
But this year I noticed for the first time the narratives about Jesus’ death on either side of the transfiguration story. In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus tells his disciples that he will shortly be killed. Peter challenges him for this negative comment, and Jesus in turn rebukes Peter with strong words, “Get behind me, Satan!” How devastated Peter must have felt, both hearing about Jesus’ fate and hearing Jesus’ stinging rebuke.
And shortly after the transfiguration, in Matthew 17:22-23, Jesus repeats this statement, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. And they will kill him.” The disciples were filled with grief at these words. What dark encounters to have immediately before and after the transfiguration.
In addition to hearing these words, the disciples hear other difficult-to-swallow messages. In Matthew 16:24-28, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to follow him, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and lose their life. A hard teaching – they thought they were going to journey with their saviour towards the Eternal Life that Jesus so often spoken about. But instead, they hear these hard words.
And after the transfiguration, they go out to heal people and cast out demons (Matthew 17:14-20). But there is one child they cannot save. Jesus comes and heals the body immediately. They ask Jesus why they couldn’t drive out the demon, and Jesus responds “Because you have so little faith.” Ouch! Tough, harsh words from their Lord.
It is like there are these tall walls on their left and their right, before and after the transfiguration, that block out the sun and that undermine and disrupt the disciples’ faith. Almost like they are at the bottom of a chimney tower, with walls all around that reach up into the sky, so that no light gets down.
And yet is it is in this very space – in this dark place – that the transfiguration takes place. It is here, in this darkness, that the light of Christ, his dazzling divine nature, is revealed to Peter, James and John.
Here is an important lesson: It is often in the darkest spiritual times that we we have the brightest encounters with God.
It is clear from Matthew 17 that Jesus goes immediately into the transfiguration – he wastes no time. It is as if this is exactly why he brought them up the mountain – so that in the midst of their darkness, they could encounter his light. And they hear the voice of God speaking, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
Here are hope and courage and spiritual resources to sustain the disciples, in the midst of spiritual testing.
Have a look back at Exodus 24:12, where Moses is invited to go up the mountain to meet with the Lord and to receive the Ten Commandments. God says to him, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here.” What a remarkable invitation! To be not only invited up the mountain to meet with God, but also to stay there with God. And Moses stayed there 40 days and 40 nights. All around the mountain, the Israelites saw a storm, thunder and lightning, dark clouds – it was terrifying. But Moses was safe in the light of God within the darkness of the cloud, just staying with God.
During the period of Lent, which kicks off on Wednesday this week, many of us will experience an intensification of spiritual attack. We will be working to deepen our faith, to nurture our spiritual life, to strip down the outer layers of excess, to step away from sin and get down to a more fundamental and authentic relationship with God. But in this very time, when we are trying so hard to grow spiritually, Satan attacks us the most. We experience increased difficulties, challenges, disruptions, criticisms, failures, hardships, losses. These are the dark walls of the chimney tower rising up around us.
It is in these times that we are most in need of the light of Christ. Peter, having recounted his experience on the mountain top, provides us with some helpful advice (2 Peter 1:19):
We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
‘The light shining in the dark place’ and the ‘morning star rising in our hearts’. This is the transfiguration of Christ taking place within us as we seek to follow Christ, even when the world is dark around us, even when our faith seems weakest, even when we feel besieged by evil. This is where we encounter the transfigured Christ.
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.
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.
Today we celebrated All Souls, also known as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. In fact, it should be celebrated on 2 November, but we moved it today, since it’s Sunday. It is the day on which remember all those whom we have loved and lost – parent, family, friends, and others who have died. Later in the service we came up to light candles to remember and appreciate them.
Strictly, the ‘faithful departed’ mean those who died in the faith. But what about those who died outside the faith? What happens to them? And, indeed, what happens to the faithful departed? In this message, I try to explain the main teachings in the scriptures about what happens to us after we die. The truth is that the Bible presents rather mixed and even contradictory accounts of this, which can leave us a bit confused. Perhaps because no-one who has died, has come back to explain what happens. But what we can rely on in all this, is the grace and love of God, whose heart is open to humanity.
Psalm 130: 3-4 says, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness , so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” And late, the same Psalm encourages us to “put your hope in the Lord, for with the lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption”.
So, what happens to those die in the faith?
There are some verses that say our spirit goes immediately into the presence of God. Luke 23 tells of Jesus hanging on cross and saying to the one criminal hanging next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Today means today – not sometime in the future, but this very day. 2 Corinthians 5:8 is also thought to say that we transition immediately into the presence of God.
But other passages suggest we go to sleep for a period, until the last day. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 speaks three times about believers who were asleep – all those who died before Christ’s second coming would remain asleep, until he returned and woke them up with a the trumpet call of God.
Either way, it seems that our bodies will be resurrected only on the last day, when Christ returns – the second coming. Whether you’ve been cremated, or long buried and decomposed, or recently buried, God seems able to raise up our bodies. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 speaks about this, as well as several other passages about the resurrection, e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:12-58.
And will the faithful departed then be judged? John 5:24 and 29 say ‘no’: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged, but has crossed from death to life … Those who have what is good will rise to live”. But 2 Corinthians 5:9-10 say ‘yes’: “So we make it our goal to please [God], whether we are home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
It’s all a bit confusing! Although we may not know the specifics of the mechanisms of what happens after we die, we can surely rest assured that we will experience the love, grace and forgiveness of God.
And what, then, about those who die without faith in Christ? What happens to them?
In John 3:36, Jesus is pretty blunt: “Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
And John 5:29 reinforces this: “Those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”
Again, in Luke 13:27, Jesus speaks about the narrow gate through which few will get, and the door closing and the owner saying, “I don’t know you! Away from me!”
It seems then that there is no hope for the ‘unfaithful’ departed. But, we must remember the repeated messages through the entire Bible about God’s great, extravagant and all-embracing love. This gives us hope, that maybe somehow God will find a way to win over the hearts of all or at least many people who died outside of faith.
For example, Lamentation 3:31-33 says, “For no-one is cast off by the Lord for ever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” This points us to the heart of God, which seeks good for every person.
Col 1:17-20 also speaks of God’s desire to save every person: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
And similarly in Ephesians 1:9-10 tells us that the mystery of God’s will is “to bring unity to all things iun heave and on earth under Christ”.
Since Christ died for the sins of the whole world, and not just for the sins of the faithful, universal salvation is at least a possibility. God’s love is radically inclusive, not exclusionary, and so there is the possibility that all could be saved. But God does not force himself on people – we have the right reject God. But it is perhaps hard to imagine unbelievers encountering the God of love face to face and denying his existence or rejecting his offer of a relationship. His love is almost irresitable.
And so, we try to win over those who do not believe, through our witness, our words and our prayers. And we continue to pray for those who have died outside the faith, that God will make a way for them to find salvation. We don’t have to understand how – that’s God’s business. But we can pray and hope and trust in the expansive and extravagant love of God.