Come to me

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Our reading today is Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

It seems strange that Jesus’ solution to our feeling burdened is to offer us a yoke, which is a heavy wooden pole used to join two oxen together so they can plough fields. This does not sound like a relief! However, in v30, Jesus equates the yoke with the burden. The truth is, we are already yoked – yoked to and burdened by the world and its worries. What Jesus offers is to replace our own heavy yoke with his yoke, which is ‘easy’ and ‘light’.

A yoke connects two animals together, so that they can work in partnership with each other, as they walk through their work in the world. This is what Jesus offers us: to be yoked to him, in partnership, walking together as we journey through life’s challenges. The idea of working together with Christ, as a team, as partners, is quite remarkable.

The idea of working together, of walking together, leads us to the next point, which is to “learn from” Jesus. Not “learn about me” but “learn from me”. He invites us to see how he moves through the world and to learn from that. We learn from what he says – particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7, which came shortly before today’s reading. And we learn from how he behaves – how he interacts with those who are powerful and oppressive and those who are meek and humble. Chapter 11 speaks a great deal about these two groups. What better way to learn from a master, than to be yoked to them.

Jesus chooses to emphasise that we should learn from his gentleness and humility: “for I am gentle and humble in heart“. It is remarkable that God, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, who co-created the universe with the Father and the Spirit, chooses to describe himself as gentle and humble (or simple). His use of ‘in heart’ suggests that these qualities are essential to his being – they describe who he is, not merely how he acts. He is, deep in his being, gentle and humble. If God the Son chooses these qualities as essential to a description of himself, how much more should we not embody these same qualities of humility and gentleness.

The result of all this is that we will find rest for our soul. For those who are weary and burdened, soul-rest is very much what we need – rest, refreshment, deep peace. God promises us this frequently, e.g.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. (Psalm 23:1-3)

The sovereign Lord says: I myself will tend my sheep. I will make them lie down. I will search for the lost. I will bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak… I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezekiel 34:15-16, with slight rephrasing)

This is the kind of rest that we get, when we put down our burden, and take on Christ’s yoke, and walk together with him.

Featured image by Yongsung Kim, from Pinterest.

Two songs that were running through my mind all the while I prepared today’s message:

In but not of the world

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In his prayer for his disciples, shortly before his arrest and execution, Jesus speaks about our relationship with the world (John 17:13-19). He says four things in rapid succession:

  1. We are not of the world (we are not rooted in the world)
  2. We are not to be taken out of the world
  3. We are not of the world (we are not rooted in the world)
  4. We are sent into the world

These four prepositions – of, out, of and into – set up Jesus’ expectations of us as his disciples.

We are not to be rooted in or ‘of’ the world. Just as Jesus is not of the world – he did not originate here and is not rooted into the world – we also are not of the world. Instead, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).

But, as much as we may wish then to be taken up out of this world, Jesus is explicit, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world.” Instead, he prays, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” And to guide us regarding our place in the world he prays that we “too may be truly sanctified.”

Our values, ideas, aspirations and truths should all be shaped by and rooted in God’s world – in heaven. But we are commissioned to work in this world, to influence it with God’s values, to shape it into some resembling the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaims, and to be somewhat set apart or separated from the world.

It is like our head is at the top of a long stick figure, in heaven, while our feet and hands and hearts are here on earth, working out God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

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Featured image from a collection of ‘walking tree’ photos by Alejandro Chaskielberg at https://www.chaskielberg.com/portfolios/the-walking-trees

Holy Spirit – Our true friend

Click here to listen to the audio of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube below, or read the summary text thereafter.

Our reading for today (John 14:16-20) prepares us to celebrate Pentecost in two weeks’ time. Jesus teaches about Holy Spirit who will come and continue his work among us. We learn several important things about Holy Spirit from this brief passage, including:

  1. The Greek word ‘paraclete’ is directly translated as ‘the one called alongside’ or ‘the one called to come alongside’
  2. ‘Paraclete’ is translated in various ways: comforter, counsellor, advocate, encourager, etc.
  3. Frederick Dale Bruner (in his commentary on John) and Eugene Peterson (in his Bible translation, ‘The Message‘) translate paraclete as ‘friend’ or ‘true friend‘. A friend is one who draws alongside us, who comforts and encourages us, who challenges us, and who stands up (or advocates) for us when people trash-talk us.
  4. Jesus describes this true friend as a gift from God to us.
  5. Jesus describes Holy Spirit as another friend. By implication, Jesus is the disciples current friend; Holy Spirit will come as another friend. There is continuity between Jesus and Holy Spirit.
  6. Holy Spirit is a person, not a force or a thing. I try to give practical expression to this in my spiritual life in three main ways:
    • I drop the definite article ‘the’ from ‘the Holy Spirit’. Instead, I speak and think about ‘Holy Spirit’ as a name, like Jesus is a name. We don’t refer to Jesus as ‘the Jesus’ because Jesus is his name; we say ‘the Messiah’ because Messiah is a title of description. I use ‘Holy Spirit’ as a name, since we have no other name for him.
    • I use personal pronouns and avoid ever referring to Holy Spirit as ‘it’ or using ‘which’. These are impersonal, depersonalised words. I try to use the same words I use when speaking about Jesus or God the Father.
    • I refer to Holy Spirit as ‘she’. Not because I think of her as a woman, as female or as feminine. But because God is no more male than God is female. God transcends or incorporates all genders. Since we can’t refer (easily) to the Father or the Son with female pronouns, I choose to use female pronouns for Holy Spirit. If we could evolve the English language to be less gendered, we’d use gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language for God. (I appreciate that many will not appreciate or agree with me. That’s fine. We will learn a lot more about Holy Spirit on That Day.)
  7. We, unlike those who do not believe, can both see and know Holy Spirit. For everyone else, Spirit is invisible and unknowable. But for us who believe, she can be both seen and known. She dwells within each of us as individuals. And she takes up residence among us collectively, as communities of faith. We are united by Spirit, even when we are physically apart.

As we journey closer to Pentecost on 31 May 2020, let become increasingly mindful or receptive to the presence of Holy Spirit in our personal and collective lives and celebrate this precious gift that God has given us.

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Featured image: ‘Holy Spirit’ by Danny Hahlbohm, http://www.inspired-art.com/gallery_9_10/Holy_Spirit.html

 

Jesus at the centre

Click here to listen the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video of the message below, or read the text summary after that.

John 14:6-11 is located immediately after the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet, as well as Jesus’ prediction of Judas’ and Peter’s betrayals. John 14 starts a four-chapter long sermon – Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his death.

In the opening of this section, Jesus presents himself as at the centre of our faith. He says to Peter, “You [already] believe in God [the Father]; [I now invite you to] believe also in me” (John 14:1). To believe in the Father is to believe in the Son. He goes on famously to say, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus places himself at the centre of our relationship with God the Father. It is through him that we encounter God. Jesus is the centre.

But lest we think that Jesus is setting himself up as the mediator between us and God, he goes even further, audaciously, to say that he and the Father are one. “If you really know me, you will not know my Father as well … Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is is in me? … I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:7-11). And just a few chapters earlier, Jesus had said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

Jesus is not merely a path to God. He is God. He is God the Son. He is locked into the Father and the Father is locked into him. In the very following passage (John 14:15-27), Jesus speaks about Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who will come to continue the work of the Father and the Son, once the Son has returned to the Father. When we relate to Jesus, we are relating to God, because Jesus is God.

Ultimately, sensing that Philip and the other disciples are grappling to grasp these complex and elusive concepts, Jesus says, “At least believe on the evidence of the works themselves” (John 14:11): You have heard me teaching. You have seen me heal people, raise the dead, feed thousands. You have witnessed me reaching out to women, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, menstruating women, disabled people, Samaritans and Gentiles. You have heard me speak truth to power and challenge rigid interpretations of the law. You have heard me proclaim a new Law that supersedes the Law of Moses.

What you are seeing is God at work among you!

Jesus must be at the centre of our personal and collective faith. The things of the church are helpful and perhaps even important. Jesus does not do away with them. But they must not be at the centre.

Jesus – the person Jesus – is the only one worthy of being at the centre.

He is our friend, our brother, our teacher, our healer, our saviour, our Lord, our very God.

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Featured image is the ‘glory window’ of the Thanksgiving Chapel in Dallas, Texas.

To work

Click here to listen to this 15-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

One of the impacts of COVID-19 has been to dramatically increase unemployment rates. We see this in both the developed world (e.g., the USA) and the developing world (e.g., South Africa). By ‘work’ I don’t necessarily mean employment (in the sense of being employed and paid by someone else) or even to have a job (in the sense of doing something that generates an income). ‘Work’ includes productive activities, such as volunteering or raising a family. So, I am using ‘work’ in an inclusive and flexible way.

Our current challenging context should prompt us to think about work from a Christian perspective. I suggest three key points about work.

  1. We were created to work. The creation story in Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 emphasises work. God created humankind to work. Specifically, to work as labourers, gardeners, farm workers. Work is thus bound up in the DNA of humanity, and when we cannot work, this can create difficulties for us. This is part of the threat of the COVID lockdowns – it is not good for people not to work.
  2. Work is about caring for (stewarding) the things of God. Genesis 2:15 emphasises that Adam was placed into the garden (probably the Garden of Eden, which can be thought of as the jewel of God’s natural creation) to tend and work it. We often refer to this as ‘stewardship’ – that the things of God are entrusted to us to (on loan) to care for. And to make productive. The garden is intended to be a well-cared for, creative and productive space.
  3. We work for God, not people. In Ephesians 6:7, Paul says to workers, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” To be a Christian at work is not so much to publicise your faith, to hold prayer meetings or to evangelise, as much as it is to do your job with the exceptional devotion and energy that comes form working for God.

I encourage us to think about work at this present time and to:

  1. Consider how we help people who are out of work to have work.
  2. Do our own work – if we are blessed to be able to work – as if for God.

There is so much more I want to say about Christian perspectives on work! One day I will write a book!

Featured image from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/23/world-ploughing-championships-no-till-farming

Journey with Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 12-minute message. Click watch the video below, or read the text thereafter.

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:

  1. They initially fellowship with Jesus, sharing their story of Jesus with this stranger and commiserating about his untimely death.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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Featured image Emmaus Road, by Chinese artist He Qi. https://alfayomega.es/106963/emaus-de-la-decepcion-a-la-alegria

For God so loved

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text thereafter.

John 3:16 may be the most recognisable and widely-known verse in the Christian Bible:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)

Let’s break this verse down into its parts:

  • For God – It all starts with God, like in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God…”
  • so loved – This is the first use of ‘love’ in John’s Gospel, and it becomes a central word in his writing. This points to the extent of God’s love – God loved so much – extravagant, risky, inclusive, radical, transformative, saturating!
  • the world (kosmos) – God’s love is radically inclusive. God loves the whole world. In Greek, the kosmos. There is no-one and no-thing that is beyond the extravagant love of God.
  • that he gave – Out of this infinite love, God gives. He gives his Son. But this is not a giving, like one might give someone a cracker – the cracker is passive and is merely given. Here, God gives his Son, who is active – the Son participates in the giving, chooses to be given, gives himself.
  • his one and only Son, – God the Father gives God the Son, enabled by God the Spirit. The Son is God’s one and only, God’s beloved, God’s own heart. This is the profound self-giving of God’s self to the world.
  • that whoever – Jesus has already said God loves “the world”, which is radically inclusive of the entire collective of creation. Now Jesus brings this inclusivity down to the individual – whoever or whosoever. The Son gives himself to every individual– to you Martha, to you Stephen, to you Bongani, to you…
  • believes in him – The Greek for ‘believe’ can equally be translated ‘trust’. Believe too easily becomes ‘cognitive assent’, too easily becomes affirming a list of propositional statements about the Son. But Jesus wants more than just this – he wants us to trust him, to put our trust in him, to entrust ourselves to him. The ‘in’ in Greek is actually ‘into’, so we can confidently say, “whoever entrusts themselves into him”.
  • should not perish – Although we will all die, sooner or later, we shall not all perish or be destroyed. We have little choice about dying, but we do have a choice about perishing.
  • but have everlasting life. – And that choice is Life, with a capital L. The everlastingness of Life is not just about it continuing for a long time (eternal), but also to the quality of the Life, which can be enjoyed at this very moment. Jesus offers us Life: Life everlasting, Life abundant, Life to the fullest, Life eternal, Life in relationship with God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

2020.04.22_John316Featured background image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWxBTHVhc3I

Seeking Jesus

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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.

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Featured image: ‘Thomas Sees Jesus Wounds’ by Gloria Ssali, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/thomas-sees-jesus-wounds-gloria-ssali.html

Waiting for God

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The Saturday in Easter Weekend is one of the most peculiar days in the Bible and in the Christian Calendar. There has been a huge and distressing build-up to Good Friday. And then tomorrow, Easter Sunday, is a huge celebration of life over death. But the day in between seems to be a non-day. A day on which time is suspended and the universe holds its breath. Even the Gospel stories are almost entirely silent on this day:

  • John entirely skips the Saturday Sabbath, making no reference to it at all.
  • Luke tells us that the women “went home and … rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”
  • Mark simply says, “When the Sabbath was over”.
  • Matthew is the only one to say something substantial about what happened on Holy Saturday. Matthew recounts that Chief Priests and Pharisees went to Pilate on Saturday, asking him to seal the tomb to prevent the disciples from hatching a hoax that Jesus had risen on the third day. Bizarrely, in doing so, they broke the Sabbath Law that was so important to them.

It seems the Gospel writers felt as we do that Saturday is a between-times in which time seems suspended. We wait with bated breath to see what God will do in response to our murder and execution of the Son of God. We wait to see if Jesus will rise on the third day as he promised. We wait to see if there is life after the death of the Messiah.

We wait: silent, hoping, praying, anticipating…

For this reason, I have taken to referring to this day as
Silent Saturday.

A prayer for today:

Lord Jesus, I wait in solidarity with you
and pray for your triumph over death. Amen

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Seeing Jesus

John 12:21 tells us about a group of Greek seekers who come to Philip saying, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus”. And so begins a story of one person introducing another person to Jesus, in a chain of people seeking to see Jesus.

Click here to listen to the audio of this 5-minute message. Or watch the video below.