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.
Today’s Gospel presents us with some of the most baffling words from Jesus:
“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” (Luke 12:49-58).
It is hard to reconcile such divisive, anti-peace language with the Jesus who repeatedly says, “Peace be with you” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. It may be helpful to differentiate between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements. A prescriptive statement is an instruction or command, such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In such statements, Jesus is telling us the desire and intention of God for us. A descriptive statement, on the other hand, merely describes what is, without necessarily defining it as good or desirable.
This passage from Luke is phrased as a descriptive statement. Jesus is not prescribing the absence of peace or the presence of division – he is rather describing how things will be. His later critique in Luke 12:56, “How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”, suggests that the entire passage is a description of how things will be and a challenge to our faith to make sense of such divisions.
Last week, Rev Marti addressed the topic of faith in some detail. Her sermon was beautiful and encouraging. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. She commented on how lovely it is to be a little lamb in God’s little flock. Today, we continue to reflect on faith, but faith that is tested; faith that is under pressure; faith that must stand in the gap.
So, let’s go back to our First Testament readings to see how these may help us make better sense of our Luke passage.
Isaiah 5 pens with a story of a beautiful and very much-loved vineyard in vv1-2. It could easily have been found in Song of Songs – it is quite sensual. But all too soon, in v7, there is deep disappointment in God, as he looks for justice, but sees only bloodshed; looks for righteousness, but hears only cries of distress. How is it possible to go from something so beautiful to something so dreadful in just a couple of verses? God laments in v4, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” God is baffled by the capacity of the people of Israel and Judah to transform something so good into something so bad. Consequently, God destroys and tramples the beloved vineyard, he makes it a wasteland, uncultivated, dry and desolate.
This passage presents us with a sobering example of the failure of faith. What God has desired – what he expects of his faithful people – is social justice and righteousness. This is the prescription or command of God. But when we fail to live up to this expectation – when we become faithless – God is grieved, and the consequence can be destruction. The destruction is described, not prescribed – it is the natural result of our turning from God.
Psalm 80 could have been written by Isaiah – the narratives have so many similarities. vv8-11 describe a beautiful vineyard, tended and cared for, sheltered and protected. This is followed immediately by a lament (vv12-13). Here the lament is not from God, but rather from God’s people: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” As in Isaiah, God destroys the vineyard, but now it is the people who lament. And in contrast to the Isaiah passage, there is now a turning back to God, asking for reconciliation. In vv14 & 19 they say: “Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine. … Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
And in their prayer for restoration, they prophecy about the coming Messiah. In v15 they say, “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.” And in v17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Who is this son, this man at God’s right hand, this raised-up son of man, if not Christ? Here we see a restoration of the faith of the people, as they give voice to the prescription of God – that we entrust ourselves to God and to his anointed son.
In this narrative, God’s destruction of the vineyard, though terrible, gives rise to new faith. It reminds me of the fires over the mountains in Cape Town. They are destructive and devastating. But out of the fire, new fynbos and protea grow. Many of you may have seen, driving over Ou Kaapse Weg for example, the new green-green shoots of life emerging out of the blackened ground. The destructive fire, as hard as it is, is tied up with the new life that emerges from the ashes.
And then we pick up in Hebrews 11 where we left off last week – a reminder of the many ways faith has persevered through difficult times in the First Testament. Despite the many adversities they face, there are people of faith who come through these fires – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and many others. The writer of Hebrews even points out in v39 that many of them never saw the fruit of their faith – for example, Abraham was promised, but never saw, the great nation that would flow from him; and Moses never crossed into the promised land, despite all his faithful efforts in leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
And now for us, who come after Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, how much more are we able to be people of faith. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, given this legacy of people of such faith and everything that Christ has done for us, we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus himself scorns the shame of the cross, because he has deep faith that it is through such testing and trials that God’s Will will be accomplished.
So, let us then return to today’s Gospel reading. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus is not prescribing division, but describing it. Division is, strangely, a consequence of faith! Jesus did not come to make human life comfortable and easy. We are not playing nicey-nicey. No! On the contrary (as a member of our parish said so well yesterday in Morning Prayer), Jesus is a revolutionary! He came to disrupt the corruption, hypocrisy, injustice, violence and exploitation of this world. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against such evils. His vision for humanity and for the whole of creation is magnificent and prescriptive – we must live up to the ideals of God.
But when we live up to God’s ideals of love, social justice, radical inclusivity, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and righteousness, we will inevitably create conflict. Indeed, let me say that we should inevitably create conflict. This is not a prescription, but a description of the inevitable. Revolution is not nice! It causes division.
We can think of many contemporary examples of such division and the absence of peace, as a result of diverse issues in the world. For example, let’s consider the continuing question of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the church – their membership, their ministry, their marriage, their ordination. This is such a divisive topic for Christians. Many years of discussion in the Anglican church have brought little common ground.
At the Lambeth conference over the past couple of weeks – the Anglican communion’s global meeting – the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a kind of live-and-let-live compromise for everyone: each country decides what they believe is right and good. Is this a solution? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Does it bring peace and unity? No, I doubt it; it might even achieve the opposite.
My own view on this is that when we place sexual morality or our views of gender ahead of radically inclusive love, then we have strayed far off the path that Jesus walked. I am firmly convinced that the pattern of life that Jesus established leads inevitably to the inclusion of members of the LGBTQI+ community in the life, sacraments and ministry of the church, even if one believes that homosexual acts are wrong. But many of you here today may disagree with me and this may lead to a lack of peace between us, perhaps even disunity. So be it.
And of course, there may be many other issues we could fall out over: the conflict between Palestine and Israel; our stand on abortion; global warming; our affiliation to political parties in South Africa. The opportunities for conflict and discord are numerous.
I suggest, though, that what we are learning from Jesus in Luke 12 is that such tensions are inevitable and tolerable. They may be uncomfortable. And we pray that they do not tear us apart. But they are not fundamentally wrong or bad. After all, Jesus himself says, “I came to bring division”.
But towards the end of this passage, Jesus makes some important points about divisive issues in the Christian community. In Luke 12:54-56, he criticises people for being able to interpret the signs in the sky and the earth, such as predicting the weather, but being unable to interpret the signs of the “present time”. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look! Wake up! Open your eyes! Wragtig julle!” We cannot control the weather, but we can discern and shape human behaviour and its impact on the world.
For example, the eight women who were recently gang raped by dozens of men in Krugersdorp. How can we allow this continue? What is wrong with us in this country that we have the highest rate of rape in the world? What are we doing about it?
And Jesus goes on immediately in vv57-58 to urge us to think for ourselves about what is right and what is wrong. And to make reconciliation our aim, rather than to be adversarial. His prescription for Christian living, even in complex times, is clearly stated here – think about what is right and do reconciliation.
The tensions between peace and division, and the handling of complex ethical and moral questions are complex. How do we then go about discerning what is right and wrong in the world, and interpreting the signs of this age? How can we be revolutionary, as Christ was, while also working for peace and unity, as Christ did? Let me suggest two central principles that may help us navigate these challenging paths**:
The primacy of love. If there is one thing that stands out so strongly in all of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that we cannot deny it and still call ourselves Christian, it is the priority that Jesus gives to love. I refer to his love as ‘radically inclusive love’, because Jesus never turns people away on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race, religion or morality. He may criticise people’s behaviour, but he always reaches out in love and includes them in his loving presence. Love is the most important!
God’s preferential option for the poor. Quoting Wikipedia, God’s option for the poor “refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people.” We see this particularly in Jesus’ ministry and especially in Luke’s Gospel. In practice, this means that “through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor.” It implies that we do take sides, and that we take sides with the ‘poor’. (‘Poor’ is defined inclusively to refer not only to those who are economically poor, but also those who are marginalised, oppressed, discriminated against, lacking voice, and so on).
In conclusion, we persevere in our faith in God in a complex world by engaging thoughtfully and critically with the world around us. We protect and build the vineyard that God has entrusted into our care. We work for social justice and righteousness. We disagree and might even divide. We trust in God, that even out of these fallouts, new life and new faith will emerge. And we work to engage collectively in reading the signs of the times according to the key principles and values Jesus sets out for us.
I am fortunate to belong to a church named after a great figure in the early church – St Stephen. He was one of the first second-generation leaders in the church (meaning people who came after Jesus’ ascension). Stephen fills up two chapters of Acts (chapters 6 & 7). The first person to become a leader after the first disciples was Matthias, who replaced Judas as the 12th disciple (Acts 1:23-26) – Matthias is not mentioned anywhere else in our Bible. Next, were seven deacons, who were appointed in Acts 6:5-6. Stephen is one of these seven, and the only to be discussed in any detail. Saul (who later becomes Paul) is introduced right at the end of the story about Stephen, as being present at Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58).
Stephen is described in some detail in the first verses of Acts 6, as being full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, full of God’s grace, full of wisdom and full of power. He is also described as having “the face of an angel” (which might refer to a look of power and authority, more than pale cherub-like skin).
Stephen’s primary role as deacon was to take care of the widows in the early church. But he is described also as performing great signs and wonders and teaching authoritatively (as we see in his 50-verse sermon in Acts 7). Stephen was the first follower of Christ to die for his faith – the first Christian martyr. And he demonstrated his profound faith while being stoned to death and, like Jesus, forgave his murderers as he died. In many ways, Stephen exemplifies what Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 10:17-22: “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
While we are primarily followers of Christ, we are also all followers of St Stephen, particularly in the following ways:
We should strive to be filled with the Spirit – filled with God – in the same way that Stephen was. He was saturated with power, grace and faith through the Spirit. Perhaps, before we even climb out of bed, we should ask God to fill us anew every morning.
We should care for others, both within and without the church. Stephen’s primary role was to take care of those who were struggling. His calling was to serve the poor and vulnerable, hence we call him a ‘deacon’ (a servant). We similarly should be always alert to the opportunities to serve and care.
We should be public about our faith. This does not mean forcing our beliefs or values on others, nor necessarily about preaching on street corners. But it does mean that people should know that we are followers of Christ – Christians – and that they should know this not only by what we say but also by what we do. Our lived lives should exemplify the values that Jesus showed during his earthly ministry.
We should be steadfast in our faith, even under pressure. There is a saying, “The true flavour of a teabag only comes out in hot water.” Similarly, our faith is really revealed and proven when we go through hard times. In Stephen’s most pressured moment, he forgave, like Jesus forgave. He turned his eyes towards God and entrusted himself into God’s care.
What a great privilege it is to be a follower not only of Christ, but also of Stephen. His life reflects many of the qualities of Jesus that we appreciate and that we should emulate.
Our Gospel reading (John 13:31-38) teaches a well-known phrase: “Love one another”. This is a consistent and repeated message from Christ – to love each other. We should remember that Jesus’ is most often speaking to his disciples – he is saying that the disciples must love each other, and that that will be a witness to Christ. In today’s terms, Jesus is saying that Christians in the local church must love each other.
But in today’s reading, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: love one another.” But this is an often-repeated command from Jesus. So what is new about it? Previously, Jesus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But here he says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” There is an important shift here of the source of love – our love is to be like Christ’s love. Today’s readings give us three insights into Christ’s love that we are called to emulate.
First, Jesus is tolerant and accepting of his disciples. Today’s Gospel reading is book-ended with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30) and Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 13:38). These are crucial betrayals of Jesus, and yet Jesus continues to engage with, tolerate, accept and love Judas and Peter. Indeed, he says to Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly”. Jesus is under no illusions about his disciples, and yet he loves them utterly.
We in the church often make mistakes. We say hurtful things. We spread stories about others. We make poor decisions. We neglect to do things. This is true of all Christians in the church. And the mistakes of those in leadership are even more visible. We need to be tolerance and accepting of each other, even when we make mistakes or do wrong things. Our love for each other should persist through those challenges, as did Christ’s.
Second, Jesus is protective and caring of his disciples. Twice, Jesus says to them, “Where I am going, you cannot come“. Jesus is on his way to the cross, on his way to bearing the sins of the whole world, on his way to dying for humankind. He wants to protect his disciples from that. This is a trial that he will carry on our behalf. He does, eventually, say to Peter, “you will follow later”, but which is refers to Peter’s martyrdom. Yet, we see Jesus trying to protect Peter from this, or at least from knowing it.
While being protective of each other in the church may be patronising, we have a duty and calling to take care of each other and protect each other from harm. We do this by ensuring the safely of children, keeping checks on how finances are managed, being mindful of ethics and sound interpersonal relationships. We should recognise when others are going through hard times, and offer support or assistance. We aim to protect and to care for each other, so that we can all grow and flourish together.
Third, Jesus is inclusive, which leads to diversity. We don’t get this from our Gospel reading, but we do get it from other Gospel passages and from our other readings for today. We see Jesus repeatedly reaching out to people across boundaries – women, Samaritans, tax collectors, menstruating women, dead people, demon possessed people, Romans. He seems to deliberately cut across these boundaries.
Similarly, we as Christians in church are called to be inclusive of everyone and to celebrate a diverse congregation: black, brown, white or something else; male, female or something else; gay, straight or something else; richer or poorer; more or less educated; South African or from another country – you are welcome here! Everyone is welcome here. Diversity is desirable.
We want a church that is characterised by this kind of love of Jesus, the same love that Jesus has shown to us, he wants us to show to others. We want a church that accepting, protective and inclusive, that makes space for everyone, that cares for everyone, that accepts everyone. We must intentionally and purposefully cultivate this kind of church community. This kind of love does not come naturally or easily. We must be deliberate in emulating Jesus and emulating his love. This is the primary witness of the church: how we love one another.
From the dawn of time, God has had his arms outstretched to receive and embrace us. God has always been open and receptive to us. He always has been like this, he is like this today, and he will remain like his into the future. This is permanent posture of God. Arms open and looking towards you.
When we feel disconnected from God, can’t perceive or feel him, feel abandoned – it is not God who has turned away. It is we who have turned away. Sin is one of the main causes of us feeling cut off from God – sin is us turning away from God. But God has not moved – he is still there.
Luke 13:1-9 tells of people coming to Jesus saying that some people who had died horribly must have sinned terribly to suffer such a death. But Jesus challenges this, and says they were no worse than anyone else. And then he cautions those who said this: “Repent, else you too will perish!” He then tells the parable of a fruit tree that was unproductive. The owner wanted to cut it down, but the gardener interceded for is, saying he’s car for it for three years and see if it produced fruit: if so, good; if not, then cut it down. The parable is not particularly confident about the tree becoming fruitful and being saved. Sin is serious – it can lead to our deaths.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 also speaks of sin. The people of Israel wandering through the desert for 40 years saw the most remarkable miracles – the plagues against the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea, water gushing from a rock, manna from heaven every morning, the pillars of fire and smoke and so on. Yet, they repeatedly turned from God and engaged in all kinds of sin. And many died as a result. Paul says these are warnings for us, of how NOT to live our lives. And he offers a bit of hope: that God will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear and that there will always be an escape route.
These two readings focus on the real risks of sin causing us to be estranged from God. But I say again: God has not moved! He is still there! His arms are still open to us!
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.”
Hear these repeated words from God: Come, come, come. Listen, listen, give ear. Eat and drink. Free, without cost. Good, delight, richest, everlasting, faithful, love, promise. These are words of God who is always facing us, with his arms always outstretched. This is the invitation to come to him, to quench our thirst, to eat and rest.
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.
Again, hear David’s response to the God of love, the God with open arms, the God who is always present and always available.
I encourage you, if you are feeling burdened and challenged by life, or if you are feeling that God is remote, to come to our Lord, who is the fountain of life, who offers food and drink to refresh your soul, at no cost, with no conditions.
Last week we learned some Advent yoga – reaching back and seizing hold of the promises God made and fulfilled in Christ, which God has fulfilled, which feeds our faith; and reaching forward and grasping at the promises God has made that still will be fulfilled in Christ, which gives us hope. Today we focus forwards towards the hope of things yet to come. Central among this is Jesus’ second coming.
Our readings today (Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6) all speak about the anticipation of Christ’s coming, including his second coming. Malachi (and Jesus) speaks about the second coming as being sudden, unexpected, which gives us a fright. We don’t know when to expect him. Malachi also says, when the Lord comes, the messenger we long for, the Son of Man, who will be able to stand? It will be daunting. (Though Jesus prays in Luke 21:36 that at the end times “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.)
Malachi, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all tell us we need to prepare for the coming of Christ. We must be ready. We must repent of our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, then we are made right God, and ready to receive Christ. Malachi speaks about purification – metal purified by fire and clothing cleansed with launderer’s soap.
There will be a sifting, a separation. Malachi calls it a sifting – of flour from chaff and sand and stones. Jesus speaks about it as a separation of sheep and goats, of pruning away and discarding unproductive branches off a fruit tree.
But it is not all challenge and judgement. It is also about hope. HOPE! The hope that comes through Jesus Christ and the great work he has done for us. Zechariah, praying over his new-born son, John (the Baptist), uses words of hope like: salvation, mercy, rescue, forgiveness, peace, covenant, righteousness, tender mercy, sunshine, rising sun. And Paul, writing to the Philippians, speaks of love that may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.
Let us prepare for Christ’s return. And let us hope for what he will accomplish in and around us. Let us articulate and pray for what we hope for – our lives, our world as a better place, as redeemed and sanctified. Let us pray with hope for the world we desire God to make real for us.
This is the third in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Last week, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Today, we consider the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church.
Last week I emphasised that the people are the church, not the clergy, and that even without clergy, a church is still a church; while a minister without a congregation is really not a church. I wish to reiterate one of the things I said last week: there is no mediator between God and people: You have direct access to God. Priests, ministers, clergy to not mediate between you and God. As Paul write, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Clergy, therefore, are just one part of the body of Christ, performing their roles as equals with everyone else. Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians, regarding a congregation that had split over those who preferred Paul and those who preferred Apollos. Paul makes it clear that neither of them are really very important: “7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything (referring to himself – Paul, and Apollos), but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. … 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9 & 16).
But, lest we think we can get rid of all our clergy, the Second Testament is full of references to clergy, under various names, such as apostles, oversees, deacons and elders. These are all people who are called, set apart and placed in positions of leadership, for example: Paul writes, “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). An overseer, which is what Timothy was, is a kind of clergy person. Elsewhere Paul writes, “This, then, is how you ought to regard us [apostles]: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Here again, Paul refers to clergy (apostles). But notice it is as servants of Christ, not leaders. Yes, also as those entrusted with the mysteries of God. Clearly, clergy are part of the Christian Church.
The expectations of these clergy is high. Dauntingly high! See some of the expectations that Paul and Peter have of those in Christian leadership:
1 Corinthians 4:2 “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
1 Timothy 3:2-13 An overseer is to be above reproach, faithful, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, sober, gentle, peace-loving, not money-loving, a stable family, a mature Christian, good reputation among non-Christians, hold to the truths of the faith, a clear conscience, etc.
1 Peter 5:1-3 Elders (could be clergy and/or lay leaders) are to be shepherds of God’s flock, watching over them, doing so willingly (not because they are obliged to), not pursuing dishonest gain (integrity in the workplace), eager to serve (no mention of leading), not dominating the people, being a worthy example for others.
(Peter’s focus on shepherding, which Jesus picks up when he describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’, causes me to like the term ‘pastor’ and the ‘pastoral’ role. I try to think of my role in the church as shepherding.)
These expectations honestly daunt me. In truth, these are expectations of all Christians. But there is far less wriggle-room for clergy. We are expected to deeply embody these values and to set an example of Christ to those we minister to.
To be sure, the Bible contains numerous examples of bad leadership from clergy, and we see and hear God’s judgment against them. I regularly read Ezekiel 34, to remind myself that God is not playing around when it comes to God’s expectations of church leaders. Here is just an extract from this chapter:
God says, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves [on their flock]. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-10)
Let us admit that most of us have had experience of church leaders who failed us in their pastoral responsibilities; who have not lived up to these expectations. And let us admit also how their actions may have harmed the church and us as individuals. This is the sad reality of the church – pastors do fail us.
To be sure, God will judge the shepherds, elders, overseers, apostles, deacons and priests when they (when we, when I) fail to live up to God’s expectations. We go into the ministry knowing this, with fear and trembling.
But we ourselves should recognise the humanity of clergy, avoid judging and strive to forgive when we’re let down. We can’t hold on to resentment. We need to learn to forgive, to let go, to move on. Else we get stuck in a vicious cycle of anger and hurt, that keeps us trapped and unable to experience God’s love and healing.
As I take up today the role of Rector of St Stephens, Lyttelton, I wish to articulate my commitment to you as your pastor. I will certainly fail at times and let you down, but this is what I will strive for during my time among you. And I invite you to (kindly) pull me aside and point out those times where I fail. I will do my best to hear, learn, repent and do better:
I will strive always to be kind, compassionate, inclusive and loving.
I will listen, be open-minded, hold to a people-driven church, be responsive and flexible to your needs.
I will endeavour to be fair, impartial and consistent, and also honest and direct.
I will ask God to help me be consistently Christ-centred, Word-based and Spirit-led.
I will use the gifts God the Spirit has given me – leadership, teaching and pastoring – to guide, equip and support you. We are a clergy-supported church.
And I will try hard not to get in God’s way. God forbid that I become a stumbling block to the work God wants to do among us!
And so I invite you all us to work together in partnership to build God’s kingdom in and through St Stephens.
Today we celebrate Ascension Day – the day on which the risen Christ ascended from earth back to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. We get the narrative for this from Luke 24:46-53 and Acts 1:1-11.
It is helpful to think of history as divided into three main phases:
Era of God the Father, which we get in the First Testament – humanity’s encounter with Yahweh.
Era of the Son, which comprises the 30 years of life or 3 years of ministry of God the Son
Era of the Spirit, which is the era we are living in now, where our most immanent contact with God is in the person of the God the Spirit
What bookends the Era of Son? It is inaugurated by the conception – when Mary conceives a child who is both human and divine. This is the incarnation, when God the Son leaves his glory and becomes smaller and smaller, emptying himself out, until he is no more than a single cell, an embryo. This is called the ‘kenosis’ – the emptying out of God, which you can read more about in a past sermon on the incarnation or another one on the mother of God.
After the incarnation at the conception, we have a continuing emptying out that leads ultimately to Jesus’ death on the cross. After that he rises from the dead, back to human life, and then he continues to rise in the ascension back to the right hand of God. I call this the Kenotic U, which you can read more about in a past message called The Kenotic U. Illustrate this way of thinking about history below.
So, Jesus’ ascension back into heaven completes his human life’s work on earth, which began with the incarnation (or conception) and concludes with his ascension. Now that he his back at the right hand of the Father, he intensifies his work of distributing forgiveness and reconciliation of humanity with God. This has always been and always will be his life’s work. And he sends Holy Spirit on Pentecost to continue his work in our immediate vicinity – right alongside and within us.
This Ascension Day, let us reflect on God’s continuous work on behalf of humanity and the great love that Christ has demonstrated for his children and the glory that he now enjoys again in heaven.
1 John 1:1 – 2:2 provides a remarkable account of sin in the life of the Christian. John’s point of departure is that God is light, which comes up also in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel. In 1 John 1:5, John affirms that because God is light, no darkness can exist in or around him at all. The consequence of this is that if we are walking a path of darkness – in other words, a path of sin – then we cannot be in God’s light, because darkness cannot exist in the light. (In the message I provide an explanation of how darkness disappears in light, and apply this to John’s account in 1:6.
However, the reality for Christians is that we do sin, as John says in v 8 (If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves) and v 10 (If we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar). Clearly, in John’s mind and experience, sin is inevitably part of the life of the Christian. And merely claiming that we are without sin is to sin! We deceive not only ourselves, but also God. So the question is not whether you or I sin, but rather what sin(s) we are committing. What is important is to at least acknowledge that we sin, to own it, to be honest about it.
But even though John sees sin as inevitable for Christians, he does also say that we should not sin: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin” (2:1). There is an expectation that we ought to be sinning, since (as we saw before) sin cannot exist within God’s light. How then to we resolve this conundrum?
Jesus Christ is solution to this challenge. His incarnation, life, ministry, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension together create a solution for our inevitable sin. His blood purifies us from sin (1:7). If we confess our sin, God will (because God is faithful and justice) forgive us and purify us (1:9). And Jesus will serve as our advocate, speaking on our behalf with God the Father, atoning for our sins, and indeed the sin of all humanity (2:1-2). Everything we have focused on over the past weeks, since Ash Wednesday, has been laying the foundation for this understanding: the great salvation work of Christ on behalf of all of humankind.
In summary, John gives three steps for a Christian response to sin:
Try hard not to sin! Avoid stepping out of the light into the darkness.
When to you do (inevitably) sin, be honest about it. Don’t pretend like you’re not sinning. But also don’t beat yourself up about it. We are all sinners!
When you sin, stepping into the shadow and the path of darkness, turn as quickly as you can back towards Christ, the Light and Life of the world. Say you’re sorry. Ask for his forgiveness and accept it. Go back to step 1 and repeat (many times).
We can liken our relationship with God to a marriage. There are many passages in scripture that do this. God’s covenant with us is much the same as a marriage covenant or contract. When we reflect on this similarity, we can imagine the very best of what a marriage can be as reflecting a good relationship with God.
However, as in marriage, people sometimes commit adultery against God. We go off to other gods to have our needs met. We seek fulfilment outside of the marriage. Indeed, we can think of all of our sin (not only sexual sin) as adultery in our marriage to God. We read about this in Jeremiah 3:6-10:
During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.
Here, both Israel and Judah sought fulfilment from other Gods, which the Lord describes as adultery. And although Judah did return God, it was not whole-hearted, but only in pretence – a charade. God knows the inner working of our hearts. A sham marriage is no marriage at all.
The result of this adultery and half-hearted fakery is that God divorces her. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than to be divorced by God!
But God’s capacity forgive and reach out is infinite. God says in Jeremiah 3:11-14a:
The LORD said to me, “… Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the LORD. “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you…”
We read a similar story in Hosea, in which God instructs Hosea to marry an adulterous and promiscuous wife. Hosea obeys and, of course, it goes badly. But then God instructs Hosea to reconcile with his wife:
The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:1-3)
As we continue our journey through Lent, nurturing on our relationship with God and repenting of our sin, let us renew our marriage vows with God and to live as a faithful, monogamous and whole-hearted spouse.