Love one another

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

I have been redeployed from the church I’ve attended for over 20 years (St Martin-in-the-Fields) to a new church, not too far away (St Stephens, Lyttelton) as part of my curacy. Today was the first time I have preached to this new parish, so it was a good opportunity to lay down what is most important to my faith and that what is most prominent in my preaching. And it is this:

God is most essentially and completely LOVE. The three persons of the Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit) have been in eternal relationship with one another since before the creation of time and space. It is the profound love between these three persons that makes the one being. God created time and space out of a fullness of love. God created humanity out of a generosity of love, to be shared. And God’s actions throughout human history embody and describe love. Love that is fierce, generous, extravagant, radically inclusive, steadfast and unshakable.

Today’s reading from John 13:34-35 sets out Jesus’ command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In this message, I provide the context in which Jesus delivered this message – a context that represents on the crisis points in his ministry, characterised by betrayal, denial and isolation.

And I set out what is ‘new’ about old command to love, viz. the source of our capacity to love and the missional impact of our love for one another.

Let the love of God be the centre of your life.

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Death and devotion

Click here to listen to this 21-minute message.

We draw closer and closer to the cross on this Lenten journey. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and then it is Holy Week, leading to Good Friday when we sit at the foot of the cross and watch Jesus die, and then we wait despairingly yet expectantly through Silent Saturday, until Easter morning when our Lord rises from the dead. Morbid though this may sound, this is indeed a time of death and devotion.

Mary, the sister of Lazarus, pours very expensive perfume (Nard) on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair (John 12:1-8). A parallel story is found in Mark 14:1-9. This narrative raises multiple messages, but two have resonated strongly with me this weekend: death and devotion.

Death

This story is soaked with death. The previous chapter (John 11) told us of Lazarus’ death, how he was laid in a tomb for four days, and how Jesus then raised him from the dead. This same Lazarus now sits around the table with Jesus, eating a meal! Mary’s use of Nard to anoint Jesus’ feet suggests burial preparation, as if Jesus has already died and is being embalmed. In the next passage, Jesus makes his triumphal donkey entry into Jerusalem, signalling the start of Holy Week – Jesus’ final walk to the cross. He talks at some length about his impending death. In chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples feet, a kind of replication of Mary’s act (but with water, not perfume). Jesus shares his ‘last supper’ with the disciples. From here on, Jesus speaks almost only to his closest friends and family. There are no further public sermons. He retreats from the world, as he prepares to die, entering a quiet, reflective space.

We, as part of his closest friends and family, are invited in these last days of Lent to be present with Christ as he walks towards death. 

Devotion

Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. She does not wash them with water to cleanse them, as was typically done for guests, by servants. Nor does she rub oil into his feet to protect them from the dry, dusty roads, as would be done with an important guest, also by servants. Instead, Mary – one of Jesus’ hosts – pours expensive perfume over them. Nard came from the high mountains in India, particularly the Himalayas. It had a sweet and earthy fragrance, that lasted a long time. It was very expensive, and stored in alabaster jars to preserve the fragrance. Mary’s pouring out of this perfume is extravagant. Some suggest that this jar of Nard was her entire dowry. It is an excess of perfume, much like the wine that Jesus created at another banquet (in Cana) was excessive and extravagant.

She washes his feet with her hair. Jewish women treated their hair with modesty, typically covering it for all except their husbands. To let it loose would be seen by some as immoral. It certainly was profoundly intimate; she could have used a cloth, but instead used her hair.

We must imagine Jesus reclining – there were no chairs. So Mary must be on her knees, bowed low over Jesus’ feet, her face almost on his feet, so that her hair can wrap around them to dry them. It is intimate and devoted, a pouring out of her innermost being on Jesus’ feet.

We, like Mary, are invited in these last days of Lent to devote ourselves utterly to Christ as he walks towards the cross.

Death and devotion

Jesus’ response to those who reprimand Mary for being so wasteful poignantly ties together death and devotion. He makes two main points:

  1. He is soon going to die.
    “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).
    “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me… She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial” (Mark 14:6 & 8).
  2. Before he dies, we may devote ourselves to him.
    “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8).
    The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).

We, like they, are invited in these last days of Lent to set aside our day to day responsibilities and to make ourselves available to be with Christ.

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Featured image from https://www.gloriadei.ca/blog/worship-june-12

The older brother

Click here to listen to this 21-minute message.

We all have, consciously or unconsciously, a hierarchy of people’s goodness to badness, of people’s worthiness of God’s loving attention or of salvation. Even if we believe in salvation through the work of Christ alone, we probably still can imagine people we think undeserving of eternal life.

This was the problem of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They were so focused on keeping God’s Law (see my related message on Jesus’ Law) that they could have nothing to do with people who were not righteous, people who were lower down on the hierarchy.

So when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with so called ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, they are horrified and mutter, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). They regarded such behaviour as being absolutely at odds with being a Godly person.

This prompts Jesus to tell three parables, intended to reveal God’s soft heart for “sinners and tax collectors”, for the lost, and to challenge the Pharisees’ misalignment with the God they sincerely followed:

  1. The lost sheep. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4-7) Here, Jesus speaks of the lost one in a hundred.
  2. The lost coin. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8-10) Here, Jesus speaks of the one in ten.
  3. The lost son. “[Suppose] there was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11-32). One of them gets lost. Here, Jesus speaks of the one in two. (Though in truth, both sons get lost.)

In this parable (commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son, ‘prodigal’ meaning financially wasteful) we meet a father and his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance up front, and then squanders it on wild living. Eventually he comes to his senses and, realising that his fathers servants live better than he is now living, returns to his father, acknowledges his sinfulness and asks to be hired as a servant. The father is overjoyed at the son’s return, hugs him, clothes him and throws a lavish party for him.

In most preaching about this parable, this is what we focus on. Rightly so, because it reveals the extravagantly loving heart of God, God’s willingness to reconcile with anyone who turns to God, God’s unconditional love. It exemplifies Jesus’ ministry, which is to find those who are disconnected from God, and welcome them back into fellowship with God. For example,

  1. In Jesus’ manifesto – his mission statement – he says (Luke 4:18-19):
       “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
           because he has anointed me
           to proclaim good news to the poor.
       He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
           and recovery of sight for the blind,
       to set the oppressed free,
           to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
  2. And in his reflection on his encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus (the one who climbs a tree to see Jesus), Jesus concludes (Luke 19:10)
       “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

But actually, the narrative focus of the story is on the older son, whose attitude towards his wayward brother is the same as that of the Pharisees. Jesus wants the Pharisees (perhaps us also) to recognise themselves in the older son, whose attitude is so at odds with his father (who represents God, who in turn is represented by Jesus):

  1. The older son is angry, while his father is filled with compassion.
  2. He refuses to join in the feast the father is hosting, thereby distancing himself from his family.
  3. His father has to humiliate himself by leaving his guests to come out an plead with the older son.
  4. In his response to his father, the older son speaks with disrespect, saying “Look!” instead of “Father”.
  5. The son constructs his role in the family as one of slave, rather than son.
  6. He distances himself from his younger brother, referring to him as “this son of yours”.

This is exactly what the Pharisees did to Jesus (as the father in the story) in his engagement with sinners and tax collectors (as the younger son in the story). They said to Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”, just as the father in the story welcomed his younger son and threw a feast for him.

The father, however, recognises that this older son is also, in his own way, lost. He has lost his sense of fellowship with his father. He does not share his father’s values and outlook on the world. He has dissociated himself from his father’s family. But the father says:

  1. “My son”, even though the older son did not say, “My father”. He speaks with respect to his disrespectful son.
  2. He affirms that the older son is always with him (in relationship with him) and that everything that is the father’s is the son’s also, affirming his sonship.
  3. He refers to the younger son as “this brother of yours”, affirming the boys’ brotherhood.
  4. He reinforces the need to celebrate the return of the lost younger son, perhaps hinting that there would be a further celebration to celebrate the return of the lost older son.
  5. He concludes the narrative with the words: “He was lost and is found.”

As children of God, we (like the Pharisees) are urged to adopt the heart of God, as evidenced in the behaviour of the father in this parable, and to welcome and eat with so called ‘sinners’.

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This painting by Rembrandt van Rijn is called ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ c.1662. The original hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The older son is depicted on the right, in a red cloak, looking rather disapproving, and distanced from the father and younger son on the left.

Notice also the father’s hands – the one on the left is smaller and thinner than the one on the right. Most people think Rembrandt was endeavouring to depict both the fatherhood and motherhood of God.

Henri Nouwen has written a book about this narrative and painting called, ‘The return of the prodigal son’. You can read some of it here on Amazon. Read particularly pages 71 and following, about the older son. Or click here for a brief reflection on this painting.

Humility

Click here to listen to this 11-minute message.

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)

Turning towards God

Click here to listen to this 11-minute message.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is the period of 40 days of fasting and prayer that leads up to Easter. It is a time of preparation for Calvary.

We have three key readings today:

  1. Matthew 6:1-16,16-21. Jesus emphasises that when we do things like giving to the needy, praying and fasting in a way that draws people’s attention to ourselves, our reward for doing it is people’s attention. God is no much impressed. But when we do these things quietly, secretly, then God (who sees what is done in secret) will reward us with treasures that last for eternity.
  2. Psalm 51. In this Psalm, David acknowledges his brokenness and comes before God with empty hands. He does not pretend that he is something when he’s not. And he is honest about his sinfulness. He concludes that God will not despite or reject a broken spirit or a broken and contrite heart.
  3. Isaiah 58:1-12This passage (titled ‘true fasting’ in the NIV translation) emphasises that our fasting my (1) be wholehearted, not merely a performance or duty, and (2) must be matched with how we live out our faith in deeds of justice, compassion and rightness. When we just go through the motions, God will not answer. But when we are sincere and ‘walk the talk’, and call on God, he will say, “Here am I”.

In light of this, I make four key recommendations for prayer and fasting during Lent:

  1. Turn to God – quietly and privately.
  2. Repent of your sins – sincerely.
  3. Align yourself with God – wholeheartedly.
  4. Act on this alignment – purposefully.

Finally, I recommend a prayerful reading of Psalm 51 (NRSV).

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast [fling] me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Or listen to Bach’s Cantata based on Psalm 51 (music adapted from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater)

 

Featured image from https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/ash-wednesday-beginning-lent-5548

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Truth

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What do you believe? What do you hold to be true? How certain are you that these truths are in fact true? Are you open to the possibility that what you think is true might actually be incorrect? Are you open to possibility that other truths, that are different from your own, might be true? Or are you certain that you are right and they are wrong? In the pantheon of all that you believe is true, is there a central truth – a core truth – that you hold with the greatest certainty? That you’d be prepared to die for?

Truth is a big deal in contemporary society. We live in a post-modern era, where we regard truth as socially constructed, and where one person’s truth is acceptably another person’s fiction or even falsehood. It is a time of relative belief, of ‘live and let live’, of ‘each to their own’.

Yet, for many Christians, truth is absolute and unquestionable. What the Bible says – at least, what those passages that we choose to read – is absolutely true and must be imposed on others as being undoubtedly truly for all people everywhere.

The Apostle Paul presents what appears to be a core truth for himself in 1 Corinthians 15. It centres on the resurrection of Christ. He argues that Christ’s resurrection is so central, that if you don’t believe it, then everything else that you think you believe is flawed and futile.

What is your core truth?

I believe a lot of things about my faith strongly. For example, I believe that God created everything, that God is three distinct persons in one being, that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God into the world, and that Jesus has uniquely facilitated the restoration of our relationship with God. But I’m not entirely certain how God created everything, whether God is just three persons or if there may yet be additional persons in the Godhead whom we’ve not yet met, or when and how the incarnation took place, and whether there is any limit on the reach of Christ’s reconciliation of people to God. I have thoughts on all of these, and I believe them quite strongly, but I’m open to the possibility – even the likelihood – that I may be wrong.

Yet, for me, I have an unshakable core belief that the heart of God is filled to overflowing with generous, extravagant, fierce love. This one core belief is the centre of my faith. I’m willing to lay down my life for that belief. And everything else that I believe emanates from that central truth. It is why I wrote the book Being God’s Beloved.

What is your core truth?

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God cares for you

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

The story of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) is well-known to most people. It is, in John’s version of the Gospel story, the first act by which Jesus reveals his glory to people. It is an epiphany – an appearance or manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, showing Christ to be God incarnate, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity.

But before all of that, the changing of water into wine is an act of kindness that reveals to us the interest and care that God has for us. God is interested in and cares about all the daily events in our lives – our concerns and worries, the stumbling blocks and hurdles that we encounter, and our hopes and aspirations. God is not so preoccupied with the great events of the universe that God has no time to attend to the small details of our personal life. Jesus’ assistance with the wedding in Cana, where the wine for the celebrations had run out, is evidence of this.

That the first miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel is at a wedding is itself no coincidence. It points to God’s interest in human relationships, in love, in the connections between couples and between families. This reveals the heart of God, which is filled with love for us.

The miracle itself is also performed quietly and unobtrusively, unlike many of the miracles churches sell to people today, which are spectacles. Without any fanfare, Jesus asks some servants to ‘fill’, ‘draw’ and ‘take’, and only they and his mother knew that a miracle had been performed. It was almost done in secret.

As a result of this, his disciples entrusted themselves to Jesus; they put their faith in him, they believed into him. Because they saw that he had both power and compassion.

This miracle, however, also has layers of meaning that deepen our appreciation for this story. First, there are many pointers towards this being a story of Christ’s work to bring salvation to humanity, which we commemorate in the Eucharist (also known as the Holy Community or Lord’s Supper). Second, the wedding banquet is an image used throughout the Bible to point towards God’s great plan to reconcile the world to God’s self, culminating in a great eschatological wedding between us and God and a generous banquet.

At this grand level of the whole of cosmic history,

and at the level of Christ’s work for the salvation of humankind,

and at the level of a wedding in a small village where the families ran out of wine

– at all these levels – this story speaks of God’s care for us. Yes, God loves us. But, in addition, God cares. God cares about and responds to the little and the big things in our lives and God willing and able to respond to them.

 

Featured image from https://i.pinimg.com/originals/b4/fe/af/b4feaf55ff1f500f40c530ff0edf21cb.jpg