For centuries, Christians have combined the celebration of Palm Sunday with the reading of the Passion Story. I did not grow up in a church that did this. We had “Hallelujah’s” on Palm Sunday as Jesus rides triumphally into Jerusalem, and then “Christ is Risen Indeed” on Easter Sunday. In between, there was nothing. But our tradition is to set together these two sets of narratives to drive home the stark reality of how easily we humans can go from ‘Hallelujah!’ to ‘Crucify him!’ within days. The reading takes about 25 minutes. It is the only time each year that we read the entire Passion Story, and so well worth listening to or watching.
Over this Lenten period, we have focused on Jesus’ repeated command to love one another, to love each other, as he has loved us. In the first week, we focused on the ‘primacy of love’ – that this command is central to Jesus’ teaching, practice and expectations of us. Love is not just something Jesus does, it is who he is. Indeed, it is who God is! It is the essential identity of God, who has existed in loving fellowship within the Trinity, since before the beginning of time and space. And thus, love is to be the defining identity of ourselves, individually and collectively, as Christ’s followers.
In the second week, we unpacked the qualities of this love, things like sincerity, goodness, brotherliness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing, forgiving, depth, sympathy, compassion, humility and hospitality. Many of these qualities suggest that we make ourselves smaller and less important, less dogmatic and opinionated, as we make space for others.
In the third week, we moved towards the dark side of love – what does the failure of love look like. We recognized that it is often when we are dogmatic, opinionated, rigid and arrogant that our behaviour and disposition towards others becomes unloving. In Jesus’ book, being ‘right’ is far less important than being good, kind, inclusive, generous and patient.
And then in the fourth week, last week, we reflected on love expressed as acceptance and unity. Acceptance implies being willing to make space for people who are different to us (in race, culture, gender, language, etc.) and with whom we have different views (on politics, theology, practises, etc.). Acceptance does not require us to agree, but to tolerate and listen to other ways of being. Unity implies that, even in the midst of difference, we work together as a unit towards common goals. In this, Christ is our head – he sets our path for us, and we, as bits of his body, cooperate towards his vision.
This week is the last week of our Lent programme, and we focus on loving encouragement. We are invited to think about how we build one another up in faith and competence and confidence, to each play our part in the body of Christ. It is about affirming each other. That affirmation often involves recognising what someone brings to our collective, appreciating it and encouraging its expression. It is also about recognising when someone is struggling with life and reach out to them with compassion, care and support.
Let’s start in Ezekiel 37 – the story of the valley of dry bones. The people of God are feeling dried up, dusty, hopeless, cut off, scorned and dead. It is then God’s breath that brings them to life. God twice says, “I will make breath enter you and you will come to life” (Ez 37: 5&6). But although the bones came together, “there was no breath in them.” And so God calls on Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath: “Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live”. And Ezekiel writes, “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; and they came to life and stoop up on their feet” (Ez 37:9-10).
The Hebrew word for ‘breath’ is ruach, and can also be translated spirit. It’s the word used in Genesis 1:2, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. So this word ‘ruach’ can be mean’s God’s breath, our breath and the Holy Spirit – indeed all of these! It is God’s breath, with which he speaks, that enters the dry bones, empowered by the Holy Spirit, bringing them to life. Ruach brings the dead to life, brings them out of their graves!
Just as Jesus brings forth Lazarus from the grave, by his word, his breath, his ruach: “Lazarus! Come out!” (John 11:43). And out he came!
When we speak loving to each other, we are using our breath, and speaking with the Spirit of God who dwells in us – it is our ruach that can bring life to those around us. A kind, gentle, affirming, encouraging word can go along way to bring new life to someone who is feeling dried out.
Our psalm for today, Psalm 130, reads like the cry of those dead people in the valley of death in Ezekiel. You can imagine them crying out with these words, “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord. Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (Psalm 130:1-2).
This Psalm speaks more to those who need encouragement, than to those who offer it. There is a call to those of us who are feeling dry and tired and dead to wait on God, to trust in God, to kindle some faith that there is forgiveness and mercy, hope and redemption. We need to call out to God: Lord, hear my voice! And in v5 we hear again the breath of God: “In his word I put my hope” – it is as God’s speak that we find our hope. When are needing encouragement, we need to allow ourselves to yearn for God, to turn to him for refreshment, to seek his life-giving spirit.
So, loving encouragement has two main sides: first, we are invited to be attentive to the needs of those sitting around us here in church and to speak words of life and encouragement to them. And second, when we are feeling dried up and frail, we need to speak up and call on God and on those around us for God’s Spirit, God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s restoration. In so doing, we stand in the light, love and breath of God – we are encompassed around by his Spirit, we receive life and find our place in the Body of Christ.
So, as we close today, let me read to you the words of encouragement that Paul speaks to the church in Thessalonica when they were feeling stuck in darkness: 1 Thes 5: 4-11, 14b-24:
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. … And we urge you, brothers and sisters, …encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
During this Lent 2023, we are reflecting on Christ’s repeated command to “love one another“. (Remember that ‘one another’ and ‘each other’ refers to our brothers and sisters in Christ, that is, our local and global congregation. This is not to say that we don’t need to love people outside the church! No!! But it is true that Jesus emphasises the love we have for one another within the church, because it is by this that people will know that we are his disciples and will become curious to find out more about this Jesus.)
This week we focus in on the many passages that describe this love that we have for one another as being characterised by acceptance and unity.
In John 17:20-26 Jesus emphasises this unity. In John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples and then for all believers, including us in the future who came to believe through their message. He prays “that all of them may be one”, and again “that they may be one”, and then clarifies that he’s praying that we (Christians) may be one “as we are one” – that is, as Christ and the Father are one. That is the quality of oneness that Jesus wants us to experience with each other! The same kind of oneness that the Father, Son and Spirit experience within the Holy Trinity. And so Jesus continues to pray “that they may be brought to complete unity” – not just any old unity, not just grudging agreement or apathetic compliance, but complete unity. Jesus has very high expectations for the kind of closeness and harmony he wants us to experience among each other in the church.
And he then says, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Sjoe, that’s a big ‘THEN’! It means that our oneness, our unitedness, is a condition for our witness. In other words, if we are fractured, splintered, out of touch with each other, unloving and critical towards each other, all these things – then we cannot be Christ’s witness to the world. Remember what Jesus said just a few chapters earlier: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). It cannot be clearer than that, can it? We have to be unified, we have to be one. It is Jesus’ core command.
So, how is the church doing? I leave you to reflect on how your own local church community is doing in relation to unity and oneness. But when we look more broadly at my denomination - the global Anglican Communion - like many denominations, eish, we are doing badly. Our church is on the brink of fracturing right now, over different views of sexuality and gender, and particularly over what defines a marriage. I think there is nothing wrong with different views on things - difference can be refreshing and difference is built into the New Testament image of the church (as we'll soon see). But when different views become hostile dogmatism, toxic judgement and name calling (like 'apostacy' and 'blasphemy' and 'heresy'), then we have totally lost what Jesus has called us to - to unity and oneness. Such dogmatic stances are a recipe for disaster.
But let us continue to unpack what the Scriptures have to say about love as acceptance and unity. In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul picks up on Jesus’ words about the love that the Father has for him being in us, and that he may be in us just as the Father is in him. This is the language of interpenetration – that we are bound up together as one, as a body, where all the parts are interconnected. This image of the church as the Body of Christ is most fully developed in 1 Corinthians 12. This chapter is so well known that I’m not going to talk about it here, but it is a great chapter to read again in this context.
In Ephesians 4, though, Paul writes repeatedly about oneness. In verses 4-6 he uses ‘one’ seven times! “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Those last words are again about interpenetration, aren’t they?) This oneness of the church community is strongly emphasised in Paul’s thinking.
But he quickly goes on to speak about the diversity of the church community: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service” (Eph 4:11-12). Here we have extensive diversity – different gifts, abilities and roles – a kaleidoscope of difference.
Paul deftly hold these apparent opposites – oneness and diversity – together. In v12 he says that all these parts of the body are “held together by every supporting ligament”, that Christ “is the head” that helps us walk in the same direction” (v15), which enables the “the body of Christ [to] be build up until we all reach unity in the faith” (v12-13), that we must “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v3) and that this requires us to “be completely humble and gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love” (v2). All this language speaks of intention, commitment and effort towards unity – it won’t just fall out of the sky – we have to work at it. We have to work at love.
When it comes to the things of the church and to the witness of the church to the world, Jesus and Paul repeatedly emphasise both our diversity and our unity. But UNITY or ONENESS is always the overriding message. And LOVE is the key, essential and only strong-enough force to bridge the gap between unity and diversity. We must love one another, we must accept each other and be united, we must become one body, we must celebrate and accept differences – this is Christ’s repeated command: acceptance and unity.
This sermon is the first in a series of five on the Lent theme, “Love one another”. This theme is part of a larger theme on ‘Identity’, which our Diocese is focusing on this year – who are we as Christians, as the church? Within this broad theme of Identity, our parish is focusing on Jesus’ command to ‘Love one another’. And today, our particular focus is on the primacy of love.
Our Gospel reading for today (John 15: 1-17) has a strong emphasis on remaining in Christ as he remains in his Father and in us, and on remaining in Christ’s love, as he remains in his Father’s love. This passage ends with, “This is my command: Love each other!” (John 15:17). It echoes an earlier passage (John 13:34) where he says, “A new command I give you: love one another”. This is a repeat of his Great Commandment (Matthew 22, Mark 12 and Luke 13): to love God with all you have, and to love your neighbour as yourself.
About this Great Commandment, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets. Gal 5:14 echoes this, “The entire law Is summed up in a single command: love your neighbour as yourself.” And Romans 13:9 similarly says, All the commands and “whatever other command there may be are summed up in this one command: Love your neighbour as yourself. … Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.” You can hear that this command is repeated again and again across the New Testament.
In addition to the command to love one another, there are dozens of other passages in the New Testament that speak about ‘one another’ or ‘each other’ and they all seem to refer to our relationships with people within the church – with other Christians, in the household of faith. There is supposed to be a special bond of love among Christians. As Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this [love that you have for one another], everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”. We are what Paul later describes as the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 23.
The big question is: Are we exemplifying this kind of love for one another here in our church?
This love that Jesus talks about incessantly is more than just behaviours; it is our very identity. Deut 6:6-9 unpacks how the great command of God, to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, is to become the very fabric of life: “The commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and why you walk along the road, when lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
You can hear from this how central the Great Commandment is to God. It is a summation of the entire law, because it is the primary value of God. In Jesus, the command to love each other is the summation of God’s revelation to humanity and his central and persistent message. This love for each other reflects the very heart of God. We are called to develop a culture of love – a pattern of living that is deeply embedded in our habitual practices as a community. Our love for one another here in the church should be so engrained that we barely think about it.
There is a lot of caring in this church, but I think we are not yet living up to Jesus’ example and expectations. During this Lent we want to immerse ourselves in this central teaching of Jesus and this central value of God. Let us become deliberately conscious and mindful of how we interact with each other, and purposefully work to be more loving and more caring towards each other.
Today’s set of compelling readings from Micah 6:8, Psalm 15:1-3, Matthew 5:3-10 and 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, point us to the heart of a God who is concerned for those who are marginalised, vilified and outcast. They also emphasise that our responsibility as Christians is to be merciful, kind, humble, inclusive and generous.
In light of these readings, today’s message addresses the complex and controversial topic of sexuality in the church, particularly homosexuality. This is a topic that has been long ignored and more recent has lead to deep divisions within the the church between those who are against and those who are for (or at least tolerant of) gay relationships. Many gay Christians feel deeply rejected by the church – not just for what they do sexually, but for who they are – for their very being, their humanity, which is experienced to be under attack by Christians and the church.
In today’s message, I endeavour to the following, which I encourage you to watch, listen to or read, using the links provided at the top of today’s blog.
Some clarification of terminologies, particularly the difference between gender identity (who I see myself as being in terms of gender – traditionally male or female) and sexuality (who I have sexually or romantically attracted to – traditionally heterosexual or homosexual). Both of these terms have become increasingly diverse and nuanced in recent years.
Developing an understanding of how the Scriptures were authored within particular historical and cultural contexts that differ vastly from contemporary society.
I address five broad points of discussion in this message:
The belief of many Christians that heterosexuality is God’s only legitimate sexual orientation. I’ll show that this is not true.
The belief of many Christians that the Bible does not anywhere say that gay relationships are okay. I’ll show that this is not entirely true.
The belief of many Christians that the Bible condemns homosexual relationships as an abomination. I’ll show that this is not true.
The point that among the numerous laws in the Bible, some Christians draw on preconceived cultural beliefs to justify their condemnation of homosexual relationships.
And the primary of love that is presented in Jesus Christ’s teachings and his example of radical inclusivity.
Based on the above discussion points, I draw 4 key conclusions:
In human relationships, God is most interested in the quality of our love.
God is not interested in the sex or gender of the person we love.
Marriage is sacred, a divine joining together, and must be protected.
Marriage (defined as a sacred joining together or union) is not restricted to a man and a woman.
And in light of this I hope that my parish and your church community would aspire to:
emulate Jesus’ example of radical inclusivity, diversity and love
create a church space where people of various sexual orientations feel welcome, accepted and loved
focus on and champion the quality of love in human relationships.
I do appreciate that the views of Christians on the subject of homosexuality vary widely, and that there are many that will view my understandings and interpretations of the Scriptures as false and heretical. Our views on this subject can be deeply divisive. Nevertheless, I take Jesus’ lived life (how he behaved with people he encountered) and Jesus’ spoken teachings about what is most important to God as the central guides to make sense of the rest of Scripture. He is God incarnate – he is the perfect reflection of who God is. He himself says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). I follow him.
One of the foci of the Bible is on the past. Lots of references to ‘remember’ – remember when I brought you out of Egypt, remember when I led you into the promised land, remember Abraham and Jacob, remember where you came from, etc. Our region focused on ‘remembrance’ last year (2022). In our parish, and perhaps in your church also, there are good things to remember and also bad things to remember. Churches are seldom always happy all the time – we go through ups and downs, storms and rainbows. This is certainly true in my church.
Our readings today speak of such troubled times. 1 Cor 1:10-18 speaks about divisions and quarrels in the Corinthian church, with members aligning with different leaders and sowing descension between between them. And Isaiah 9:1-7 similarly speaks of darkness, oppression, a bar across one’s shoulders, distress, gloom and defeat. And later Isaiah 58 speaks of the yoke of oppression. There are many hard times in most churches. Some of this might be hidden from many members of a church, but when you look closely, there it is.
We want something better! For 2023, we want a better experience of church. And so, our region this year is focusing on ‘identity’ in 2023. The question to answer is, “Who are we?” What are we about? What’s important to us? What characterises us? Sometimes we say nice things about our identity, but don’t actually live the out. We need to walk our talk. At the start of last year, our parish did some strategic planning about identity and came up with values like being Christ-centred, generous, united, a family/community, a sense of belonging, caring and so on.
Back to Isaiah 9:1-7 where we read about some of these ideas: light, overcoming oppression, the shattering of the yoke, peace, justice and righteousness. And Psalm 27 – what a magnificent and uplifting Psalm!! – speaks about light, salvation, dwelling in God’s home, sheltered by God, seeking God’s grace and (my favourite line), “to gaze on the beauty of the Lord”.
Actually, at this point in the sermon, I went to sit with the congregation and joined them in looking forward into the sanctuary. I invited them to imagine God standing up there in the front and us just gazing on him. We spend some minutes doing just what. What a wonderful experience it was to sit quietly in God’s gracious presence and to just be and to feel his love.
And then we come to Matthew 4:18-23, about Jesus’ calling of the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, and the other brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee. They were all fishermen, out on the Sea of Galilee catching fish. Jesus stands on the water’s edge and calls them, “Hey you! Follow me! With me you’ll catch people instead of fish! Come!” No hesitation from any of them! None!! Peter and Andrew: “At once they left their nets and followed him.” James and John: “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”
It’s incredible really. Jesus was not well known at that point. He had no followers, no reputation, no means, nothing. But something in his call must have been so compelling that without a second thought they all left their livelihood, their families, their community and followed Jesus, and remained faithful disciples until they died.
At this point in the sermon, I went around the church touching people on their shoulder and calling them, “Jesus is calling you to follow him… He wants you to partner with him… He wants you to work alongside him.”
This invitation is incredible. God’s modus operandi, from Genesis 1, has always been to work in partnership with people. He could do everything and anything himself without us. But he chooses and desires to work in partnership with us. What a mind-blowing opportunity – to work alongside God, to be a co-worker with and partner of God.
This is what we want to do more of in our parish this year. This is who our identity is. We want to be a church that partners with God in accomplishing God’s goals and living out God’s values. As a start, we want to become an increasingly caring and compassionate church. We want to see each other, know each other, reach out to and support each other, take care of and care for each other. Jesus says that when people see how we love each other within the church, then they will know that we are his disciples and will be drawn to him. So, that’s our main churches main programme for the first half of 2023 – to strengthen our capacity to care. We will do this through two main initiatives. First, during Lent, which start in a couple of weeks, we will focus our teaching on caring for and loving one another, and after Easter, we will run a series of short training sessions on how to be a better, more attentive, more caring friend – not a counsellor or therapist, but a good friend.
In this way, we will be responding to Jesus’ invitation to follow him and build our identity as people after Jesus’ heart.
Many who are reading this post may have experienced ‘toxic leadership’ – where people in leadership positions exploit, undermine or harm the people they lead. They poison the people they lead. We may have experienced this in the workplace, from our boss or manager – someone who was more interested in targets that people, who used you to climb up the corporate ladder, who did not recognise you as a real person. We may have experienced toxic leadership from our parents, who did not nurture and nourish us, but neglected us, put their own interests first, or even abused us. We may have experienced toxic husbanding or toxic wifing, where the marriage relationship breaks down instead of building up, discredits, maligns, abuses.
We may also have experienced toxic leadership in the church – from clergy, lay leaders, and influential people – who use their positions of leadership and authority in the church to advance their own agendas and to hurt and harm others, often in the name of God. Those with spiritual or church power may seek to oppress other members of a church community, through judging, excluding, humiliating and excommunicating. We see this most grotesquely in the sexual and other abuse of children and women and young men. This happens in many denominations, such as the Catholic church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Hillsong and the Anglican Church (to name some recent examples). Few churches are exempt from this, even our own parish.
The truth is that you yourself may be that toxic leader! Here we must critically self-reflect. Am I a toxic leader? Do I use others to get ahead? Do I put myself first? Do I harm or neglect those I am entrusted to care for? Let us not only point the finger at others; let us also critically examine ourselves.
In the Bible, some of the harshest words are reserved for spiritual and other leaders who are toxic.
Jeremiah 23 is a good example. God, through Jeremiah, confronts the leaders of Israel and says they are rubbish, corrupt leaders. That he will remove them. That he will take over their leadership. ‘Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord. They exploited and harmed the very people God placed in their care; instead of protecting and shepherding them, they exploited and harmed them.
In the previous book in the Bible, Ezekiel 34: 1-6, 9-10, we get a similar message:
This is what the Sovereign Lord says: woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed those who are ill or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no-one searched or looked for them. … therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 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. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
Strong words from God through Ezekiel! The shepherds or leaders of Israel had not only failed as leaders, they had exploited and even eaten the flock that God had entrusted to them. And God therefore utters these damning words, “I am against you!” In gangsta language, “I will take you out”. And God says that he himself will take over as the shepherd of the people (Ezekiel 34:11-16):
I myself will search for my sheep and look after them … I will look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered … I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel … I will tend them in a good pasture … I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down… I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak… I will shepherd the flock with justice.
Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. In John 10, Jesus says that the hired hand (the part-time shepherd) doesn’t care about the sheep – he cares only for making a living. So when danger comes, he flees and abandons the herd. But, by stark contrast, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, who will lay down his life for his sheep, and who will leave the 99 to seek out and find the one who has got lost. This is what good shepherding is about – taking care, putting them first, putting yourself in danger, going out of your way to look after the one.
The key word that emerges through all these readings from Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34 and John 10, is gather: “I will gather my flock.” The abusive, toxic shepherds scatter their flock. This is what toxic leadership does – it deeply undermines and breaks cohesion, collaboration, togetherness, trust, safety and belonging – qualities that are essential for healthy teams. And so God’s first word is to gather together the flock, to reconstitute the community, to reconcile and unite. The image of the flock speaks to us about a healthy community under the protective and caring leadership of a shepherd. The First Testament refers to the Shepherd King – a king who is pastoral, caring and protective, and who invests in the holding together a flock. This image says that being a good King means to be a good shepherd – quite a contrast in status! Shepherding is a key role of Kings and leaders.
This shepherding is central to Jesus’ ministry – both when he walked this earth, and still today. He is quintessentially our ‘shepherd’. He gathers, reconciles and unites, he binds up and restores those who are wounded and broken, he stands up for us in the face of danger, he heals and saves, he welcomes and pardons, he brings peace and safety. This is what leadership is about, in both the church and the rest of the world.
Almost every person who reads or listens to this is a leader – as a parent, manager, church leader, older sibling – you are a leader. And leadership comes with great demands. And many of us here have experienced bad leadership from clergy, who have been bad shepherds who harm their flock.
Rev’d Marti and I have no desire to be bad shepherds. We are both deeply committed to walking in Christ’s path and being good shepherds. But we are human. We make mistakes, we run out of time, we forget. And sometimes we get irritable, frustrated or angry. Power may go to our head. We might become heavy handed, thinking an issue is more important than the people.
And when we do this, we invite you to challenge us. To remind us of our role. To bring us back to the path of Christ. If you can’t talk directly to us, complain about us to the Wardens, who are the Bishop’s eyes and ears in the parish. Speak up. Send us a WhatsApp. It might not be pleasant for any of us. But this is what we need.
And hold yourself accountable, as Christ himself did. Even in this moment as you read or listen to this, consider what kind of leader are you? Are you a good shepherd? And if not, challenge yourself and allow God to work a change within you, to take up a leadership role that reflects the values and principles of Christ our Shepherd King.
John the Baptist is the one who prepares the world for the first coming of Christ, some 2,000 years ago. We, today, follow in his footsteps in continuing to prepare the world to receive Christ when he comes again. The world we live in now continues to grapple with many challenges.
Currently, we think of those many who have died of Covid-10: in South Africa, since the start of the pandemic, some 102 000 people have died, amounting to an average of about 102 per day since March 2020.
We continue to grapple with HIV and AIDS: 14% of South Africans are living with HIV or Aids, an average of about one in seven people.
We continue to see high Aids-related death rates: 86 000 this year alone, an average of 235 deaths per day – and the death rates have been rising over the past five years.
And gender-based violence remains a scourge of our society, with an average 115 women raped every day this year – a total of 45 000 so far this year.
It is into this broken and wounded world that we prepare for the coming of Christ. How do we do this? What are the guidelines we’re given in the scriptures set for today?
Matthew 3:1-12 presents John’s call to repentance, confession and baptism. He strongly confronts the religious leaders of his day: “You brood of vipers!” His words are confrontational and damning. He calls them to produce the fruit of repentance – it is one thing to repent, and another to demonstrate that repentance in your behaviour – the fruit. And he warns, all very challengingly, that if they fail to do so, they will be chopped down like an unproductive tree, or burned up in the fire, like the chaff from winnowing.
The story of John’s ministry in Mark’s gospel is a little softer: there he speaks of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew doesn’t make any mention of forgiveness. And Luke’s version incorporates both what Matthew and what Mark say. (And John provides a quite different version altogether.)
John, then, sets a pattern for us that is both encouraging and challenging. But what else can we learn from today’s readings about preparing the world for Christ?
Isaiah 11 presents a prophecy of the branch that will come from Jesse – King David’s father and, many generations later, forefather of Jesus. This passage opens with a repeated emphasis on the Spirit: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). Clearly, we cannot do anything without the enabling of the Spirit of God.
And in the following verses, Isaiah emphasises God’s concern for those who are vulnerable: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). Righteousness and justice are the keywords here.
And this is followed by the imagery of wolves, leopards and lions living in harmony with lambs, goats and yearlings, under the leadership of children (Isaiah 11:6). This is the kind of egalitarian and harmonious society that we are called to bring into being as we prepare for Christ’s return.
Psalm 72 continues some of these themes from Isaiah, notably God’s defence of the poor, vulnerable, needy, marginalised, silenced and outcast: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). Here we see God taking sides – he aligns with the poor and against the oppressor. God is not neutral – he sides with those who are vulnerable. The Psalmist goes on, “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12-14). In those days, life was in the blood, so when the Psalmist says, “precious is their blood in his sight”, s/he is in effect saying that God sees their lives as precious and worthy of protection. Theologians call this “God’s option for the poor” or “God’s preference for the poor”.
When we wonder where we should stand on things, the Biblical answer is unequivocal – stand with those who are vulnerable. That is always where we will find God. And that is where we should be found.
Romans 15 invites us to take on the attitude of Christ: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:5-7). The result of thinking like Christ, is that we will accept one another – here again is a call to inclusivity and now also being non-judgmental. Indeed, in the previous chapter, Paul explicitly tells us to stop judging others: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). This was in the context of conflicts of various dietary laws of the diverse group of Jewish and Gentile Christians. But regardless of the topic of conflict, the principles remain: accept and do not judge. Be tolerant and inclusive. Celebrate diversity.
As we strive to be Christians who, like John the Baptist, are preparing the way for Christ’s return, we need to take up the examples we are given in the Scriptures: honest words, an invitation to repent and receive forgiveness, the presence of the Spirit, values of righteousness and justice, an option for the ‘poor’, and acceptance and tolerance. These constitute the mind of Christ. And as we embody and live out Christ’s mind, we will be preparing the world for his return.
Today we 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.
Our reading for today is a passage from the book of Joshua 4:1-7. It tells the story of the Jewish people crossing the Jordan river from the desert or wilderness where they had wandered for 40 years, into the promised land. As they cross the river, which parts much like the Red Sea parted when they fled from Egypt, the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel are instructed by Joshua to each collect a large stone, and carry it on their shoulder to the other side, into the promised land, into the camp where they would rest that night.
Joshua explains that these stones are
“to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
In today’s sermon, which I encourage you to listen to or watch, since it is too rich and compact to write down here, we review God’s engagement with humanity from Abram (later to become Abraham), Joseph, the migration of Jacob’s family to Egypt, the 100 or so years of good relations Jews had with Egyptians, and then the 100 or so years of slavery under the heavy burden of the Egyptians, the rise of Moses following his encounter with God in the burning bush, the plagues and the Jewish people’s escape across the Red Sea, their long and circuitous journey through the desert for 40 years, the death of Moses, the election of Joshua, and finally (in Joshua 4) the crossing of the Jordan river into the promised land.
In this long narrative, which extends over hundreds of years, we see repeatedly God’s engagement with and grace towards God’s people. And we see humanity’s faith in God rise and fall. And we see the remarkable things that happen when people align with God.
Thus, Joshua gathers these 12 stones to create a memorial that will remind the people of everything that God has done. As he says later in this chapter (4:21-24):
“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.”
For us today, we need things (objects) that help to remind us of the good God who is well-disposed towards us and who desires us to flourish. We need things to remind of all that God has already done for us in the past, to nourish our faith that he will continue to do so in the future. These things – these stones – may be personal objects, or something in our church. For example, the eucharist we celebrate is a weekly reminder of God’s goodness – a memorial. For our parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton, South Africa, the church building is itself such a thing – these stones. It was built by hand by the members of the parish, from the digging of the foundations to the laying of the roof. We see a testimony in the very building within which we worship of what is possible when God’s people bring their time, their abilities and their finances to the work of God, and partner in faith with God for building God’s Kingdom.