Who am I?

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Today we ask the question, Who am I? Or more specifically, What is my identity as a Christian? This is the first of five themes in a series on stewardship, where we reflect on our role in taking care of God’s business in the world.

In this audio message, I make the following points:

  1. In John 15:1-10, the passage where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches, 11 times Jesus uses the term ‘remain’ (or ‘abide’ in the old Authorised Version): “Remain in me … and you will bear much fruit“. Here Jesus calls us to be rooted into him, to remain grafted into him. We recognise that without him, we can do nothing. So we depend on him.
  2. In the same passage, Jesus also speaks of remaining in us: “Remain in me as I remain in you“. This suggests an interdependence between God and us, in which God binds himself to humanity. We this most strongly evident in four moments in cosmic history: creation, covenant, incarnation and Pentecost. In each of these, God in some way limits himself or enters into agreement with humanity, binding himself and his work to us.
  3. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is both the source of our life (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”) and its destination (“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”). In John 14:6, Jesus similarly emphasises that he is the way and the truth and the life. In other words, he is everything – there is nothing in our lives that falls outside of our connection to Christ.
  4. Our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God. Sometimes the church gives us rules or procedures or recipes we’re supposed to follow in our relationship with God. But this relationship is like any other relationship in our life. It is unique, personal and authentic. It is different for each of us, because, though God is the same person, each of us different, so his relationship to each of us different. God meets us right where we are. Whatever you find works for you in your relationship with God, do more of that.
  5. As much as our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God, it is also rooted in our relationships with each other. God did not create a single person (Adam or Eve); God created a couple (two people in loving relationship with each other), and immediately mandated them to procreate and become a family. 1 Peter 2:9-10 similarly emphasises that we are a community of people in relationship with other people: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession … the people of God”. So, we have to invest not only in ourselves and our relationship with God, but also in our relationships in the church (however you want to define that) and the work of the church.
  6. Finally, our readings today call for decisiveness. Moses, speaking just before the nation of Israel crosses into the promised land, calls them to a decision (Deuteronomy 30:19-20): “This day I … set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose! Choose life! … For the Lord is your life”.

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This banner, hanging at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Lyttleton, created by Eleanor Jappie.

Featured image from here.

Not peace, but division

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Jesus says, in Luke 12:49-53:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

This is a challenging passage because it seems so contrary to what Jesus appears to stand for: love, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness. How do we make sense of this?

We start by testing out whether Jesus really did not come to bring peace on earth. We locate this specific passage within the broader narrative of his life and ministry. When we do that, we find that Jesus definitely did come to bring peace on earth. Here it is from Luke’s version of the Gospel:

Prophesies about his ministry

End of Song of Zechariah:  “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Lk 1:79)

Angels proclaiming the birth of Christ:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth  peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Lk 2:14)

Jesus’ actual ministry

To the sinful woman who anointed his feet:  ‘Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”.’ (Lk 7:50)

To the bleeding woman:  ‘Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace”.’ (Lk 8:48)

To the disciples after his resurrection:  ‘While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”.’ (Lk 24:36)

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples

To the 72 followers:  “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you.” (Lk 10:5-6)

It is hard to read all of this from Luke’s Gospel and conclude that Jesus did not come to bring peace on earth. Then what does he mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

I suggest that Luke 12:49-50 informs us that to accomplish his mission (to bring peace on earth), Jesus must first go through a great confrontation and that this informs us that peace-building brings him into conflict with the forces of darkness, with Satan and his minions. And the Luke 12:51-53 informs us that peace-building can bring conflict even within the family home; and thus also in churches, communities, workplaces and nations.

I provide three examples of this, from my experiences in church, the ‘secular’ workplace and the nation. In each case, standing up for the values of Christ’s kingdom values – love, dignity, respect, compassion, human development, social justice, peace, etc. – has the potential to bring about conflict and division. The values of the Kingdom of God are contrary to all the values of the kingdom of darkness and to the path of sin. Small wonder, then, that championing these values brings about conflict and division. 

What I take from this passage is that there is need for us to stand up for Kingdom values. This is part of peacebuilding. But standing up for peace may well lead us towards conflict and division. Let us not be too scared by this.

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Featured image from https://images.app.goo.gl/WcNWwMLn4eci585V7

Poverty

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Poverty is one of the great challenges facing South Africa today, with unemployment rates above 25% for the population as a whole and around 55% for young adults, and with poverty still running along racial and gender lines (StatsSA). It is a challenge for the country and for the church. It is a challenge we try to deal with in our mission to the world, and it is a challenge we try to deal with among ourselves. Many of us are ourselves struggling with poverty.

What is it that God expects of us regarding poverty?
And how do we do something about poverty, when we ourselves are poor? 

Luke 12 presents to us Jesus’ perspective on poverty, which is essentially that we should not worry. “Don’t be afraid, little flock”, he says. “Do not worry”. “Do not be afraid”. He regales us with analogies of ravens, sparrows, flowers and hairs on our head. Analogies that speak of God’s provision, God’s providence, God’s care. “You are worth far more than many sparrows”.

How does Jesus expect us to ‘not worry’ about things that are so worrisome? Are we simply to sing the “Don’t worry, be happy” song? or Hakuna Matata?

Jesus reveals in Luke 12 that not worrying about poverty (or any other life challenge) is not about switching off to poverty or denying reality. Rather, it about seeing a more powerful reality that lies beyond the present; a world that lies beyond this present world. He invites us to recognise that there is a world to come that is more important than this one and more enduring. It is not that this world, this life, is unimportant! Clearly, from Jesus’ behaviour and teaching, we know that this life and its challenges are important. But there is an even more important world to come. And it our investment into that world that really matters, that counts in the short and long run.

Our capacity see that world rests in faith. It is “by faith” that we see that world. Faith is the central topic of Hebrews 11. The writer reminds us that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Paul similarly writes, “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). In this chapter from Hebrews, the writer uses the phrase “by faith” 21 times to emphasise that the legacy we inherit from our biblical ancestors is one of faith. While we typically want an instant return on our faith investment, our ancestors were willing to wait generations for the return:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth (Heb 11:13).

Abraham was able to see the future through God’s eyes. He heard and believed God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations (Genesis 12:2, 15:5 and 22:17), even though he did not see this for himself in his lifetime. He could see it because he could see through God’s eyes. Through the eyes of faith. It is these eyes that we need to be able to see the world beyond this one, to see God’s provision in the midst of hardship, to see God’s promises fulfilled even if not yet. These are the eyes of faith. These are the eyes of God.

And so Jesus says,

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:33-34).

This is a message not just for those with money (though we, especially, should heed it), but also for those without (think of the story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4). This what God calls his people to:

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

It starts at home, within the church community:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. …And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-35).

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Faith journey

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How is your faith life? How are you doing in your relationship with God?

We are all on a journey of faith. Luke presents it to us like this in Luke 9:51-62 and Paul does so in Galatians 5:13-25. Journeys are typically not straight forward lines. They go up and down and round about. Journeys are messy. And our journey of faith is no different. My own journey looks more like a bowl of spaghetti than a box of spaghetti!

In this message, I unpack three facets of this journey from our two readings for today:

  1. Jesus is quite chilled about our journey. He adopts a ‘take it or leave it’ stance. He desires us to journey with him, but he will not force or coerce us.
  2. Jesus is quite demanding about our journey. He wants a total commitment from us. He has high expectations of us.
  3. Holy Spirit journeys with us, enabling us, strengthening and filling us. We are not on this journey alone. We live with, are led by and keep in step with the Spirit.

On this day, and during this coming week, I’d love you to reflect more deeply and deliberately on our faith journey with God.

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Featured image from here.

Discomfort zone

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Most of us like to remain within our comfort zones. They are, by definition, comfortable. So, we tend to stay within our comfort zone.

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul explains that while we were formerly imprisoned by Law, we are now set free from such bondage. We’re set free by Christ, who brought a new kind of faith. We are now clothed with Christ. The result of this, is the breakdown of divisions among us: race (Jew and Gentile), class (slave and free) and gender (male and female). Elsewhere, Paul describes this as the destruction of a barrier, a “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16). We are made into one people. A diverse people.

As Christians, we are thus freed up to cross the boundaries that divide us. Choosing to cross boundaries is not easy for most of us. We tend to stay without our comfort zone. And that zone is typically populated by people who are similar to us. Engaging authentically with people who are of a different race, class or gender pushes us into a discomfort zone. Christ has freed us to step into these discomfort zones.

Indeed, we are mandated to step into our discomfort zones, because this is exactly what Jesus did. Again and again! Luke’s Gospel is particularly attentive to the ways Jesus deliberately and consciously – sometimes even flagrantly! – stepped over the boundaries that divide, placing himself and others in their discomfort zones.

A great example of this is Luke 8:26-39. Here Jesus crosses into gentile territory and engages a profoundly demon-possessed man, who is naked, uncontrollable and living wild among the tombs. In numerous ways, this man takes Jesus into his discomfort zone; Jesus breaks several Jewish taboos to be with this man. It is in this this context of discomfort that Jesus heals him, saves him, transforms him. When the community sees the man again, he is clothed, sitting at Jesus’ feet and in his right mind. Jesus does this reconciling work in his discomfort zone.

And this pushes the people of that region into their discomfort zone. They are afraid; overcome with fear. They beg Jesus to leave. They want their discomfort removed, and that means getting rid of Jesus. So Jesus leaves. He leaves them in their comfort zone. Separated from the loving presence of Christ.

But the man himself begs to follow Jesus. However, Jesus sends him back into his discomfort zone, back into the community from which he has long been feared and excluded. Jesus commissions him to be a missionary – perhaps the first gentile missionary to the gentiles! And it is into this zone of discomfort that the man goes, telling everyone what Jesus had done for him.

God wants us to step out of our comfort zones and into discomfort zones. God knows this is not easy. But God also knows that it is in these places that healing, transformation and reconciliation take place. So, what are your discomfort zones? And what can you do to cross into them deliberately?

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Featured image called “Hands Across the Divide” in Derry, Northern Ireland. From http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2013/11/snapshot-18-photos-of-u-k-statues

Humility

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God calls us to humility – in our relationship with God, and in our relationship with other people.

Luke 18:9-14 gives us the parable of the pharisee and tax collector, both at prayer.

  1. The pharisee – a person who was devout, religious, righteous, obedient to God’s laws – stands and prays loudly about how wonderful he is and thanks God for not making him like those ‘other’ people (explicitly mentioning the tax collector). Jesus says that this person will not be justified before God, and that people like that, who exalt themselves, will be humbled.
  2. The tax collector – a person who was regarded as dishonest, extortionist and reprehensible, and who Jesus often refers to when talking about sinful people – hides away in a corner, cannot look up towards heaven and can pray only, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Jesus says that this person will go home justified before God, and that a humble person like this will be exalted.

Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.

Of course, this ‘humility’ is not about self-denigration or having a poor self-esteem or negative self-image. Paul says clearly in Romans 12:3 that humility is about assessing our strengths and weaknesses honestly and accurately: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

In our other reading for today – Hosea 5:13-6:6 – there is a dialogue between God and Israel:

  1. God observes that when Israel was in need, instead of turning to God, they turned for help to people who did not know God. Therefore, God sent suffering to them, to help them admit their guilt (i.e. to humble them) and until they sincerely sought God’s face.
  2. Israel then reflects that the suffering they have experienced is justified, and that despite God’s anger towards them, God will nevertheless heal them and bind up their wounds. They long to be revived and restored and to live in God’s presence. Twice they say, “Let us acknowledge God” – that word ‘acknowledge’ in Hebrew means ‘to know’ (as in knowing  a fact), but also as in knowing or discerning something not obvious (such as the truth of someone’s intentions), and is used as a euphemism for sex (as in, Adam knew Eve and she fell pregnant). Israel desires to be humble before God and to truly and intimately know God.
  3. God, the exasperated parent, responds positively. God reminds them that God’s desire is for mercy (hesed, meaning steadfast love and compassion) and acknowledgement (that ‘knowing’ word again), far more than empty religion (sacrifices and burned offerings).

Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.

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Feature image ‘Kneeling in Prayer‘ by Nadine Rippelmeyer (2006)

Jesus’ Law

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In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus presents (albeit very briefly) his most comprehensive teaching on his view of Law of Moses. He says that he has not come to abolish the law, that the dot on every i and the cross on every t is vital, that the Law has not passed away, and that we need to practice and teach it. Many commentators (naturally) read this to mean that the First Testament Law is as binding on Christians today as it was on the people of Israel in years between Moses and Christ.

However, when we look at Jesus’ teaching and behaviour, even just within Matthew’s Gospel, we see him repeatedly massaging the Law, challenging the Law, even brazenly disobeying the Law – certainly as the Law was understood by the Pharisees of his day. For example:

  1. Matthew 5:21-48. Through the rest of chapter 5, Jesus uses the formula: “You have heard that it was said… But I tell you…” In this formula he, by his own authority, reinterprets the Law and in cases appears to overturn it. At its heart, he shifts the focus from the external letter of the Law, towards the heart attitude underlying the Law. And is so doing, makes keeping the Law much harder.
  2. Matthew 9:14-17. Here Jesus breaks the fasting laws. He is challenged on this, and explains that since the he is there, they should celebrate.
  3. Matthew 12:1-14. Here Jesus breaks the Sabbath laws – very important laws! He walks, he harvests and he eats, all on the Sabbath, and with his disciples. When challenged by the Pharisees, he even uses the Law to justify his breaking of the Law! And then he goes on to heal a man. In the parallel story in Mark’s Gospel (2:27), Jesus justifies his breaking of the Sabbath Laws by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”
  4. Matthew 15:1-20. Here Jesus breaks the dietary (Kosher) laws (specifically not washing their hands before they eat). His answer is quite wide-ranging. He says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (v11). And then he later explains in more detail: “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them

How do we reconcile Matthew 5’s apparently strict teaching with the rest of Jesus’ teaching and his daily behaviour? They do appear to be at odds with each other!

I suggest the following:

  • Under the First Testament Law, people believed that keeping the Law lead to Righteousness (i.e. to a right relationship with God). Because of this, they invested in keeping the Law down to the smallest letter (the jot and the tittle in the King James version). And the Pharisees, in particular, were highly devout in unpacking what each Law meant, and how it had to be lived out in the daily life.
  • Under the Second Testament, Jesus teaches that Righteousness (i.e. having a right relationship with God) leads to the keeping of the Law. We are made right with God through Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. He is the one who, through his grace, makes us right with God, and we receive this righteousness through faith. Because of this, and in the power of the Spirit, we are enabled to keep God’s Law. But even this Law is not a legalistic ‘jot and tittle’ law, but a living, heart-based, relationship-centred Law. It is the Law of Love.

I end with a paraphrase of Matthew 5:17-20 by RT France (2007, pp. 190-191) in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

“Do not suppose that I came to undermine the authority of the OT scriptures, and in particular the law of Moses. I did not come to set them aside but to bring into reality that to which they pointed forward. I tell you truly: the law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that is points forward to will in fact become a reality (and is now doing so in my ministry). So anyone who treats even the most insignificant of the commandments of the law as of no value and teaches other people to belittle them is an unworthy representative of the new regime, while anyone who takes them seriously in word and deed will be a true member of God’s kingdom.

“But do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring salvation. For I tell you truly: it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old policy of literal rulekeeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people in this era of fulfillment.”